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Tuesday, September 05, 2017

On North Korea, cults, Trump, and the "Twin Peaks" finale

There is so much to say, so many articles to read and to recommend. For example: This Intercept piece on North Korea, which discusses the role of the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology in propagating a cult around Kim Jong-Un's family.
North Korea functions, she believes, as a true cult, with all of the country’s pre-cult existence now passed out of human memory.

Most ominously, her students, all young men in their late teens or early twenties, were firmly embedded in the cult. With the Kim family autocracy now on its third generation, you’d expect the people who actually run North Korea to have abandoned whatever ideology they started with, and have degenerated into standard human corruption. But PUST’s enrollees, their children, did not go skiing in Gstaad on school breaks; they didn’t even appear to be able to travel anywhere in North Korea. Instead they studied the North Korea ideology of “Juche,” or worked on collective farms.

Unsurprisingly, then, Kim’s students were shockingly ignorant of the outside world. They didn’t recognize pictures of the Taj Mahal or Egyptian pyramids. One had heard that everyone on earth spoke Korean because it was recognized as the world’s most superior language. Another believed that the Korean dish naengmyeon was seen as the best food on earth. And all Kim’s pupils were soaked in a culture of lying, telling her preposterous falsehoods so often that she writes, “I could not help but think that they – my beloved students – were insane.”
I haven't linked to the Intercept in a long time, but this is good stuff.

Reading this article, I began to formulate a theory: Perhaps the world to come -- if there is one -- will be ruled by competing cults. Ayn Randism has become a cult. (If she were here, she might even use that word. In her best moments, she could be honest about such things.) The Alt Right, or Duginism, is a cult sometimes aligned with -- and sometimes opposed to -- the Ayn cult. The phrase "Identity politics" refers to the various cults which form around unimportant accidents of genetics. Trumpism is a cult. So is Bernie-ism. So is the "Gospel of Prosperity." So is Fundamentalism in all its forms (Islamic, anti-Islamic, Christian, Hindu, etc.). So is skepticism. So is atheism -- at least, the kind of militant atheism espoused by ill-read youngsters who insist with absolute jackass certainty that Jesus never existed. The various mainstream religions are probably just cults that gained respectability in old age, the same way streetwalkers and comic book characters and bad architecture become respectable if they stick around long enough.

Perhaps the modern world is so intimidating that we all have no choice but to retreat into our various cult corners. The cult mentality helps us cope. Thus, we can no longer use the familiar calculations of greed and self-interest to predict events -- which means that would-be prophets need other methods of calculation.

I still can't believe he's president. A reader asked me why I've been away. Was I working on something big?

I told him that there is no "something big." More accurately: Despite having ideas for various "big" pieces, I needed a few days of vacay.

From Trump. From reading about him. From thinking about him.

Each day, even now, the shock feels new. I still feel genuine surprise at the realization: "Donald fucking Trump is president. That guy we've been making fun of since the 1980s sits in the goddamned White House."

Many right-wingers believe that anti-Trumpers are motivated solely by considerations of party or policy or ideology. That would be the case if Pence or Cruz or some similar personification of reactionary ghastliness were president. But Trump? No. Our loathing for Trump goes way beyond politics.

Even when he was a Democrat, everyone on the left or in the middle thought that this man was the epitome of vulgarity and trashiness. Even when he supported Clinton, Hollywood modeled various villains on Trump. Examples: Batman Returns, The Devil's Advocate and even Back to the Future. Trump was always an idiot -- and when he devolved into a right-wing conspiracy theorist, he became an even bigger idiot.

It's one thing to have the country in the hands of someone I consider detestable for ideological reasons. I'm used to that. I'm also used to having the country run by a president whose personality rubs me the wrong way. (Obama, for example. Both Bushes.)

But Trump is different. The man is not just repellent, not just wedded to a vile ideology: He's an oaf. A hyper-oaf. The god of oafs. The transcendental personification of Oafishness.

Worse, he's supported by a hard core contingent of oafish conspiracy buffs. Many commentators think that his supporters are motivated by racism, but in my view, conspiracism is the key "ism" in play here. Since some people have referred to me as a conspiracy theorist, I often wonder if I'm one of the many Frankensteins who contributed to the creation of this monster.

Of course, I am an example of an endangered species known as the left-wing conspiracy theorist. Sightings of such creatures were once fairly common, back in the days when books about the JFK assassination sold well. Now we are rare -- endangered. People often mistake the left-wing conspiracy theorist (well-known example: Mark Lane) with the right-wing conspiracy theorist (well-known example: Alex Jones). But we're talking about two different species. Hell: Two different genera. Two different genera who have long been at war with each other.

And my side lost. We're almost extinct.

In response to an earlier draft of the previous ten paragraphs, my anonymous correspondent sent the following words (which I trust he won't mind seeing here):
What hurt me most is the fact that citizens are willing to demean their country and government to this level without any interfaces from conscience or patriotism. What hurt me also the left,my tribe. They betrayed the working class, the fabric of their existence to put that in office. They did it out, let me just put it as crass as possible, bc of job security. Their job security. They don't really believe anything they say but it's a job. Clinton is the one who's most likely to accomplish as much as possible those ideal than any other politician, with or without their help once she is in office.That's why they hated her so much. Also the idea that a hostile government interfering in our election treated like entertainment by most people in the country. Is it something in the water? What's the he'll is going on? Well I am certainly looking my mind, but at least my conscience is not lost.
Herrrrre's Judy: A few words about Twin Peaks. Most of you won't be interested in what follows. I am writing only for those who watched, and felt puzzled by, the final two episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return.

I'm a little surprised to have lived long enough to see David Lynch fulfill Laura Palmer's promise of a revisit to Twin Peaks after 25 years. The third (and no doubt final) season contained much entertaining and thought-provoking material -- along with many, many annoyances.

Yes, numerous plot threads remained unresolved at the end. That's not what annoyed me. The many needlessly-extended shots did annoy me. If you're going to make a TV show extolling the virtues of coffee, you should expect your viewers to have a fair amount of caffeine in their systems. You can't ask them to sit through minute-long shots of Nothing Happening. Tarkovsky seems downright frenetic compared to latter-day Lynch.

Though the pace was exasperating, I enjoyed the sheer strangeness of the thing. Of course, I'm the kind of guy who, back in the 1970s, didn't mind traveling forty miles by bus to see Blood of a Poet. I also traveled far and wide to take in the works of Luis Bunuel, including movies you've never heard of, like La mort en ce jardin and Las Hurdes -- the cruelest documentary ever made, with laughs that make you want to vomit. Incredible film.

Naturally, I've been a Lynch fan from the start.

As some longtime readers may recall, Greystone Mansion was my second home when he was making Eraserhead there, although I don't recall meeting him. I caught the film when it opened at the Nuart in Santa Monica, and spoke afterward with the projectionist who ran it during its ill-attended Filmex premiere screening. (The projectionist said that the film was incomplete at that time and had to be run interlock, which means that the soundtrack was on a separate magnetic track. All projectionists hated that system, although the wider dynamic range was reportedly amazing.)

Lynch was the new kid, then. Now Lynch is in his 70s and may (or may not) have retired from film-making. Damn. I feel old.

I have no toleration for those who smugly presume that Lynch created the final episode of Twin Peaks: The Return as an extended middle finger directed against the audience or the Powers-That-Be or whomever. Lynch always says exactly what he wants to say -- which may or may not be what you'd like him to say.

Good art is made by artists who tell the audience what the audience wants to hear. Great art occurs when the artist says what he wants to say, without regard for the desires or expectations of the audience. The result is not necessarily great; the result can, in fact, be ghastly. Greatness is rare.

I'm not yet sure whether I consider Twin Peaks: The Return great or ghastly. I reserve the right to decide against it. Right now, I know this much: Lynch's work should not be seen through the prism (prison) of post-modernist irony.

(God, I've come to hate the word "irony" as applied to art.)

Anyone who thinks that Lynch operates in "irony" mode misunderstands one simple fact: Lynch is a surrealist. One of the few rules of surrealism is that you have to mean it.

Surrealism springs from the unconscious, from Dreamworld. When we dream, we are never allowed the escape of ironic distance. No escape is possible. Your dream-self is your inner self, your truest self. Irony cannot exist in that place; you can't smirk your way out of this encounter.

Thus, postmodernism and surrealism are two approaches to art which can never be reconciled. Every academic who has written postmodernist essays about the original run of Twin Peaks deserves to be horsewhipped.

Dreams are psychological riddles which are never completely solved, yet which may yield important information if analyzed and interpreted. So too with films which try to capture the feeling and logic and dreams.

I both loved and hated Inland Empire on first viewing. Repeated views have brought the narrative -- yes, a narrative does exist -- into focus, although I'll never understand everything. (One key: The Actress is a false persona, and the role she plays resembles the "real" person.)

I both loved and hated the finale of Twin Peaks: The Return. The exasperating subversion of all viewer expectation was to be expected. Lynch obviously wanted to have Dale Cooper interact (in the "real" world, not in the world-to-come) with Laura Palmer, and the only way to accomplish that goal was to reset reality itself. Hence the use of a time travel plot device similar to "Flashpoint," as seen in several episodes of the Flash TV series. Lynch may also have been inspired by the "Mandela effect," a popular pseudoscientific meme about alternative realities intersecting with our own.

(Personally, I think that the so-called "Mandela effect" is a silly myth. Yet I don't mind it when an artist uses a silly myth as the foundation for his work.)

When Cooper enters the alternate timeline, he suddenly finds himself in Texas pursuing Laura Palmer. Why? We don't know. Her father told him to find her, although Leland Palmer said nothing about taking her to her childhood home.

(Sheryl Lee is magnificent, as always. I've always considered her the most underestimated actress in the history of film.)

Somehow, Cooper knows that she lives in Odessa, Texas, and that she works at a certain restaurant. This is dream logic. As we saw in Inception, dreams always begin in medias res; a dream never has an opening shot or an Act One. In a dream, you may find yourself pursuing a goal and armed with background knowledge, even though you can't say where that knowledge came from or how the goal was formulated.

My biggest problem the final episode comes down to this: Shortly before he decided to explore this alternate Earth, Cooper traveled back in time to save the life of Laura Palmer. Time travel is a science fiction trope. Whenever the topic of time travel comes up, our minds immediately flash back to any number of books and films commonly categorized as science fiction. Surrealism is strange and science fiction can also be strange, but science fiction is not surrealism. In my opinion, science fiction doesn't work unless it follows the rules of waking logic; the genre doesn't play well with dream logic.

Given the science fiction-y underpinnings of this plot device, we can't help but ask a zillion practical questions -- such as: Why on earth would Laura/Carrie invite an FBI agent into her house after she has shot someone? Why isn't she concerned about letting him see the corpse? Why doesn't she offer a word or two of explanation? 

We have a mating of incompatible genres. Does that matter? I'll decide later. For now, let me offer two observations which no-one else seems to have made. 

First: Cooper and Diane enter an alternate reality in which their names are now Richard and Linda, and Laura Palmer is now Carrie Page. But the switchover does not occur when they cross the unseen barrier at Mile 430. That's the "electrified" location where they perform a magical ritual -- an act of sex magic. This act is what brings about the switchover.

Most viewers probably missed the significance of the sex scene. It was pretty obvious to me.

Although I don't believe in sex magic -- or in any other form of magic -- I once dated a woman who had a serious interest in such things. (Have you ever heard the phrase l'amour fou? That relationship was as fou as it gets.) She made it clear that sex magic -- or "magick" as she sometimes spelled it -- was based on keeping a non-sexual goal in mind during orgasm. As in: Please please I really really REALLY want a new surfboard! There's more to the rite than that, of course, but for present purposes, you need to know only the most essential bit.

Once I understood this principle, I decided against making the experiment. In my opinion, if you're thinking about something other than sex during sex, you're doing it wrong. Does anyone need a new surfboard that badly?

(By the way, there's a difference between Tantric sex and western sex magic. I note this because some of you may be tempted to educate me about tantra, about which I have already written.)

A sex magic rite is not necessarily romantic -- in fact, some say that it is best conducted with a partner you find unattractive or even repulsive. This is what grotty old sex magicians often say to nubile young New Agers. (See issue 10 of Alan Moore's Promethea: "I'm an ugly old bald guy but my body still has magical significance." In real life, this line does not work. Believe me.)

That's why, in the Twin Peaks finale, Cooper treated the affair as a rather grim business. He had sex with Diane to attain a greater end. The next morning, he awakes in a different motel, owns a different car, and even has a new name and a new personality -- while Diane/Linda suddenly has very different feelings toward him, just as she feared might happen. Magic requires sacrifice.

Second: We finally know the identity of Judy, although everyone else has misunderstood the answer given by Gordon Cole/David Lynch in the penultimate episode. He reveals that "Judy" is the modern corruption of the term JAO DEI, the name of a malevolent entity known in ancient times.

I must confess that I did not comprehend the meaning of this revelation until I saw (on various websites) the correct spelling of the name: JAO DEI. That's when I understood: Lynch's character spoke with an un-Lynchian straightforwardness.

"Dei" is, of course, the Latin word for god.

JAO may be familiar to some of you as IAO. (The letter J, invented in the early 1600s, is a fairly recent arrival to our language.) IAO is the Greek version of YHVH, the name of the god of ancient Israel -- the god of Genesis. The Gnostics gave this deity a somewhat different name: Ialdabaoth, which is probably a corruption of the Hebrew for "Lord of hosts."

Unlike the Jews of ancient times, the Gnostics viewed material creation as inherently evil. Thus, they believed the creator to be a lesser deity -- perhaps a kind of demon, and certainly not the true God.

If you fire up Google, you'll see that all references to JAO DEI or DEI JAO or DEI IAO go to this god (expect, of course, for websites talking about the final episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return).

Thus: Judy is God. A god gone mad.

And with that, I must stop. Any further thoughts along these lines will drive me mad.
"The various mainstream religions are probably just cults that gained respectability in old age, the same way streetwalkers and comic book characters and bad architecture become respectable if they stick around long enough." No tip o' the old Hatlo hat to Mr. Towne? That's one way to look at it. P.D. Ouspensky, paraphrasing Gurdjieff, calls modern (post ancient times) religions 'pseudo-religions' that are corrupted and decadent remnants of original secret and arcane cults.

Marcy presented a southpaw's theory about conspiracies that use leaks, tweets, and other public venues, whereby one of the co-conspirators communicates to other co-conspirators in a hold-harmless fashion, or their lawyers do so, or unnamed officials or persons close to the horse's mouth. Didn't Clinton use to communicate to Monica by wearing a certain kind of necktie for the TV cameras?
Hillary Clinton lost millions of blue collar supporters because she could not feel their pain, because to feel their pain would be to rebuke Barack Obama's presidency. Obama had given his support to Hillary Clinton, and even though it helped her gain votes in one arena, it lost her votes among her own 2008 supporters. It's one of the most obvious aspects of the 2016 election that nobody talks about.
In regards to the Intercept piece, I found the idea of having a bestie friend that was closer than a brother, who then after a year or two, is suddenly replaced, and that bestie is never seen again, to be quite provocative.
So it wasn't the lack of treadmill that did her in?
I'm going to be writing about cultism becoming increasingly mainstream. Some examples of what's happening don't even have a religious, spiritual, or political flavour.

Meanwhile on North Korea, everyone should watch the press conference given by the well-travelled young man Otto Warmbier when he was in captivity in that country last year.
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