I can certainly see that before engines and modern systems of snow-removal, people might have considered a blizzard to be punishment sent by God for some misdeed. There is a common mindset in our world that whenever something bad happens it must be a punishment sent from whatever gods we believe exist. Indeed, it may be that the idea that there were gods emerged to explain why nature does what it does. The beneficent
Earth Mother when it goes along as we expect with cycles of growth and dormancy and new growth. Indeed, when we humans were living in the tropics there were hardly any seasons at all, so dormancy was not perhaps even a part of the Mother’s generous constancy. We transferred our infantile love and trust of our birth mother to a Great Mother, the Earth itself.
But then there came along the Sky Father. If Earth was the Mother, then there was a certain logic in the sky being father because it was rain that fertilized the earth. Oh, yes, in the river flood-plain civilizations, there were variations because in such places the river seemed to be the Great Goddess. The Egyptians even had the sky as a goddess and the earth as a god. I imagine that one’s view depended a good deal on whether the “cowgirl” sexual posture was in vogue. Then it is easy to see the male force on the bottom, and the phallus as the shoot arising from the earth. The Mother’s breasts hanging down from above become the source of nourishing rain. You can do it both ways. But in the desert religions, from which our current set of three big religions arose, the Earth was barren unless fertilized by the rains, and the terrible nature of windstorms, lightning, and its unpredictable destructive power gave the Middle-Eastern Sky Father his bad-boy personality.
The punishment idea can go both ways too. The goddess Earth may be a giver of life, but she can also withhold it. That idea that if we incur mama’s displeasure, she might refuse to feed us, is perhaps the very first anxiety following birth. It isn’t groundless, for after all, she did just reject us in a big way when we were pushed out of the womb so painfully. (I’ve never heard anyone talk about this, but flexible head not withstanding, the infant must experience not only pain but fear in the process — one wonders.)
So, this idea that someone larger than us, upon whom we depend for our sustenance might punish us by withholding her love, that fairly clearly goes back to infantile fears of rejection. Weaning, is of course, another rejection and trauma all of mammals pass through, but at least mum feeds us something else. The young deer learns to graze, the young lion to eat meat. (Humans are like pelicans; they regurgitate adult food from their food processor to feed their young. Probably feeding babies was why the spoon was invented.)
Now you may be saying, “Enough psychobabble already!” But this foundation in the human imagination, the human soul, is important to understand if we are to look at why it is that humans should jump to the conclusion that a god or goddess is punishing them when a natural “disaster” happens. (Did you know that our word “disaster” comes from Latin and means literally “negative stars”? Aster = star; dis- = negation. You are using Latin when you say “He was dissing me.” Dismiss, disrespect, disregard, disaster.)
The Romans said that the Celts worshiped “Dis Pater” which one supposes might have been slang for Pluto, Jupiter’s brother. I suspect that the whole thing might be Roman propaganda to whip up support for the Gallic Wars. Julius Caesar knew how to push the buttons of his Roman popolo. Still, it well might have been a reference to Arawn, as he is called in the Welsh myths. Arawn was King of Annwn, and that realm was a bit like the Roman idea of the Underworld of the dead ruled by Pluto. Anyway, Pluto or Dis Pater, did not have any monopoly on mistreating humans. The Sky Father’s thunderbolt really appealed to people, for some reason. I mean, it was probably because occasionally someone did drop dead from a thunderbolt. And whoever it was, the survivors tried to figure out why that person (or her family) was being punished.
So, Jewish ideas met Greek and Roman ideas in Christianity and seemed to corroborate each other. It was such a powerful explanation for all those inexplicable attacks by the natural world. Disease, accident, disasters, and even death itself might be viewed as a punishment. Thus the doctrine of original sin. Adam and Eve disobeyed in the Garden of Eden, and so humans became mortal and subject to disease. Venereal disease was proof that God didn’t want us to have sex for fun. Plagues were punishments on whole nations or cities for their collective sins. The idea is very thoroughly worked out in the Jewish scriptures that Christianity built upon. With all that punishment going on, it was decided that indeed everyone was a sinner. I’m not sure if Jesus decided that or Martin Luther. But clearly we were up shit creek, as they say.
So, we all need salvation. Not just a political rescue of the old Jewish monarchy in a Messiah, but something much more urgent — rescue from death and punishment. The Greeks, Egyptians, and I suppose a lot of and other cultures got the idea that death was your time limit. If you hadn’t received God’s forgiveness for all your many mistakes and faults, off you went to the Underworld rubbish heap, instead of to the much nicer Celestial Paradise. The poet Dante wrote the definitive description of that idea of different worlds for people based on their behavior in life, but he got it from a long tradition going back at least to the Egyptians. I mean it’s even there in Gilgamesh. You can hardly blame people for taking the idea for granted and never questioning where it came from.
It is one of the biggest gifts of the Age of Science in which we live, that we are no longer taught in school that natural disasters are punishment for our sins; neither is disease, nor death itself. But religious education based on the Bible (and I’m guessing on the Koran too) promote this idea that sin and death are linked. So, whatever one believes today, one is still faced with this pernicious notion. And I say it is pernicious (that is: destructive) because I think it does more harm than good. The notion, for the priestly leaders of societies, was useful because they believed that fear of divine punishment and death would motivate sinners to do better, to obey the Ten Commandments or the Koran or whatever. (Jesus didn’t really give commandments; he gave ironic remarks.)
The world we live in is based on this idea of Commandments from on high and punishments if you disobey. Once that Law and Order party was created, they could justify any sort of torture or punishment by simply saying they were carrying out the Will of God, the Supreme Lawmaker and King of the Cosmos. If you force your kids to accept the Bible or some other Holy Book as the Word of God, then they are going to grow up ruled by fear of divine punishment, and everything bad that happens to them in life will only confirm this fear and make them doubt themselves. Priests can offer penance, absolution, or the promise of Grace through Faith — whatever. The fear is created and then the sins are forgiven or absolved establishing a tight cycle of control. The Messianic and “kingly” language of the Bible was great for kings too, and until the dawn of the Scientific Age, kings were pretty well-considered like priests to get their authority from God, the King of Kings.
Now, among ancient pagans, kings didn’t fare so well. In Persia and Asia and Egypt, yes. But after the Athenians democracy rejected the idea of kingship and the Roman Republic followed in that assertion, the genie was out of the bottle. Even though Rome’s republic fell apart and the rule of emperors was the custom for centuries afterward, those republican virtues and desires lay dormant in Western civilization until the Age of Reason came up with a good rationale against believing everything your parents tell you.
But all this is very recent stuff and the idea of God as King of Kings persists even though the worldly office of absolute monarch has been largely rejected. There is still the idea that we are ruled by a Big Daddy with inescapable powers to punish us. What about Mother? Well, along the way, male priesthoods employed violence and the male monopoly on military might to wipe out her worship and even belief in such a Goddess. They replaced all the pagan goddesses with the Virgin Mary — the idealized mother who never had sex and gave unconditional love. Hmmmm.
The Freemasons Great Architect of the Universe is notably different, and this may be why so many priesthoods and monarchies have despised Freemasons. The Grand Architect is a figure in charge of a hierarchy of skill and mastery. In the legends of King Solomon’s Temple, which is so central to Freemasonry, it is not Solomon who is the exemplar, nor is he the model for God. In fact King Solomon is shown to be helpless when his Grand Architect Hiram is killed before the completion of the temple. This story is pure Freemasonry. That isn’t how the story goes in the Torah. So, as a Mason, I am considering the meaning of the myth. If it is the Grand Architect or “Grandmaster” who is to be our model and ideal, the person to whom we own everything and who we must obey to the letter, obedience becomes something very different from what it is in Christian thought. Disobedience of the architect isn’t about breaking rules, it is about not doing our work properly. Building a temple requires everyone to cooperate and do their part. There may be rewards for some of the workers, in the form of promotions within the Craft. The stonecutters and setters may eventually become masters, but the principal reason for following the Grandmaster’s instructions are to build the temple well.
Nobody on the job site wants to be responsible for the temple collapsing because of negligence or stupidity. The stones have to be square and plumb and the mortar must be mixed and spread exactly right. That story makes us, as human beings, not “miserable sinners” but trained craftsmen. We have been given the tools to do good and continuously improve our behavior. We aren’t servile subjects of a Sky King, nor at the mercy of an Earth Mother. Instead, we are humans with imagination and the ability to learn and together improve our lot. The building of the Temple of Solomon may have been to worship the Jewish God, but Freemasons look at it differently: that using our skills and building something beautiful for the benefit of all is itself the worship of God.
The Grand Architect of the Universe isn’t interested in punishing his workers unless they are simply not doing their work. There is no talk of punishment in the legend, except in the case of workers who engage in conspiracy and murder. And even then, the conspirators who beg forgiveness and make up for their mistake are granted forgiveness. Only violence against another human being is punishable by death. So, within the context of Freemasonry no man is taught to fear death, for death is no punishment if he conducts himself as a conscientious craftsman and builds good things in his life.
The word in the Bible that gets translated as “sin” means “error.” One pastor once told me it meant “to miss th mark” as in archery. If you think of it in that way, it doesn’t seem nearly as horrible as it is usually portrayed. When the zealot speaks of “sin” it usually involves sex and entertaining wrong religious doctrines. Murder and theft and so forth are there in the Ten Commandments, but for some strange turn of history, sin got connected most intimately with sexual relationships outside of religiously sanctioned marriage. It is that sanctioning that makes marriage such a big issue for the opponents of same-sex marriage. Homosexual relations were, until the past few decades, the worst of all sins. I don’t understand why, unless it was just that male homosexuality was seen to undermine the whole system of religious regulation that had been erected around sexuality.
It is also true that until the past century, women were considered by many religious leaders to be much more prone to sin than men, and much more prone to lead men into illicit sexual relationships. Every woman was the Temptress Eve. This notion — that women’s sexuality has to be tightly controlled — seems disingenuous because clearly through this whole time, men were still having illicit sex. In other words, blaming women for sin was just a feeble attempt at scapegoating. Enforced by male violence it wasn’t really so feeble.
The association of extramarital sex with sin and the whole divine punishment notion, has really screwed up Western Man (and women too). Freud was onto this, and his influence on our culture opened up the possibility to see this whole business as a tissue of lies. Or, if not lies, as complete fiction. I blame St. Augustine. He was terribly screwed up. In fact, it is interesting to consider how much of our religious thought was thought up by men who really needed psychotherapy.
One thing you can say for Western religions and their doctrine of sin and punishment is that it has helped to create the vast and lucrative business of psychotherapy and psychological counseling. But don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating extramarital sex. There is no question that sex in or out of marriage often results in emotional trauma, anger, jealousy, and abuse. It just would be interesting to see if this was any different in a society that did not preach that sex was sin outside of marriage. One thinks of old Polynesia. Or France.
A druidic society, one imagines would take a much more “natural” view of the matter. It is the sort of attitude we get from psychologists today. Yes, we have problems with sex and fidelity to a partner, but those are just two among a myriad of problems we can have. And the object is not to feel miserable and repentant about disobeying some ideal of behavior. The object is to solve the problem and so build the Temple. Freemasons see this symbolic Temple as the temple of our very being. Indeed, you could sum up life’s purpose and goal within both Freemasonry and psychology as “be content, be healthy, and take pride in your good work.”
For the modern druid there are no prophets or saviors, and no priests in the Christian sense. There are wise men and women. We’ve had a lot of wise men and women raising their voices in the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st. Those are the voices the modern druid listens to: psychologists, ecologists, biologists, poets. The Greek word “psyche” means ‘butterfly” but refers to the human soul. Psychologists, when they know their business are our “spiritual leaders” today. Unfortunately quite a few of them think they are mechanics.
Trees are so much easier.
I have expended most of my energy today digging out from the blizzard we had for the past two days. Up to my knees. The drifts on the roof of the DeVille were like glaciers. The two basement windows, including the one to my study are now buried in piles of snow shoveled from the driveway.
So, it should come as no surprise that I am thinking about God.
As a Freemason I think about God a good deal; as a Druid I think of the many facets of the Supreme Being. As a Lutheran growing up, I was taught at first to think of God as a supreme Father. He was not only the father of Jesus our Savior, but was also my divine father. Now that I am a father, that whole idea has a different meaning for me than it had as a boy. It’s not really the best metaphor for the Grand Architect of the Universe. After all, in the past, fathers were given almost unlimited powers of life and death over their wives and children. That fits the idea of a Creator God certainly, but it is a power that has been so often abused by mere mortal men that it becomes awkward. Especially if you are talking about Yehovah in the Torah, the Lord God. He has some real anger management problems, and more than once resorts to terrible punishments when his children are disobedient. That’s like mortal fathers too, but it isn’t the best role model.
Even in Christianity which aims to focus on God as a Loving father, he tries to fix the disobedience of his other children by making his firstborn son a sacrafice. That’s if we follow the theological doctrine that Jesus was the firstborn, even though his human birth came much later than that of Adam. Anyway, Adam had no mother in the myth of Eden, except the clay of the Earth herself. And the priestly writers of the Bible don’t acknowledge Mother Earth as a distinct entity, much less a goddess. Anyway, the whole sacrifice thing seems creepy. It was creepy enough with Isaac. A Father who asks people to use their sons as a blood sacrifice and then changes his mind and says it was all just an obedience test would qualify for a padded cell in our human world. But myths are like that.
The problem is that the believers in the Bible take it as a more or less reliable historical account. There may be a bit of truth in some of the Jewish history. I mean they do refer to Assyrians and Egyptians and Romans who we know independently to have been real. Even some of the individuals mentioned seem to have been real — not just the kings but chaps like poor Pontius Pilate. However, scholars differ widely in how much credence they give to those accounts. They are certainly an attempt to make up a legendary history, but whether they are based on any actual historical records seems doubtful. It would seem that they are about as historically accurate as the Arthurian legends. Plenty of bad male role models in the Arthurian legends too.
So, I was wondering, while shoveling snow from the heavens, where one starts with God. If you don’t just have an unquestioning faith that the Bible is some sort of history, rather than myths and legends, where do you begin?
It seems to me that one must begin as did Descartes, with oneself. I think, therefore I am. But there’s much more to it. I not only think, but I feel, I aspire, I desire and crave. Certainly, I have little trouble accepting “I exist” as an a priori starting point, but to get at God, one has to go a step further and accept the proposition “I am, therefore I am created.” You could say “was” created, but I tend to think that is getting off on the wrong foot. After all, we can’t actually know anything directly about our past. We have no trouble accepting the biology of conception and birth these days. Mom and pop felt sexual desire for each other, mated as animals do and produced offspring. All observable phenomena in the natural world. We don’t exactly understand how the mechanics of cell division ends up propigating “life” but we still mostly believe that the word “life” does refer to something.
But are we just the results of the seemingly random quirks of sexuality? Yes, we are. But one has to wonder if there isn’t just a little bit more to it. If one grows up into a thinking and feeling person with an ounce or two of curiosity, those existentially questions are going to start nagging at your frontal cortex. One say, “Who am I?” and “What am I for?” Human parents encourage and prompt those questions by talking about family genealogy and careers and “making yourself useful.” Now, it may be that “making myself useful to others” is all that some of us need for a purpose in life, but I suspect for most of us that is not satisfying. We want to know if we have a special purpose, beyond just conforming to society and fitting into a niche in the economy of our nation, or the class system. The question arises, when surrounded by the Middle-Eastern religions that came to dominate Europe, the Americas, and so much of the world, the question arises I say: Do I have a purpose?
Maybe it is modern bourgeois sentimentality that teaches us that we are each individuals with the potential “to be whatever we want to be.” I don’t know. For my part, I think I would have done better with my life if someone had just said, “Here you go James, here is the work you are going to do with your talents and here is the girl you are going to marry, and here’s the keys to your car.” Yes, it is a bit like Huxley’s “Brave New World” perhaps, but really, it is pretty much like the Old World too. Children were taught to have the expectation to enter a career chosen by their father, and appropriate to their family’s class. But as populations grew and needs changed within the economy, those continuities broke down. We didn’t need an exponential number of tailors, cobblers, or soldiers. It was more complicated than that. New jobs were created by new technologies and old ones fell by the wayside. So, then it became a good deal harder to say: What is my Purpose in Life.
Now, if all this bit about purpose seems like a digression, let me bring the matter back to God. If we accept the axiom that one who exists was (or is) created by a Creator, then we have a difficult time avoiding the idea that the Creator had some purpose for us. But that is just it. Clearly, in the West, or at any rate in the U. S., we have created a culture that insists upon the idea that each person has a purpose and that our happiness depends in some measure on discovering what that purpose is. Our psyche is culturally constructed to believe we have a purpose, and perhaps it is more than cultural. I cannot make cross-cultural comparisons, but I wonder if indeed humans have developed their imaginations to such an extent that they (we) have this hope and longing imbedded in the very fabric of our being.
There is a kind of soul-longing that some religious persons call the longing for the beloved. It is certain that we have within us a longing to find a lover – to be loved and to love someone else. The desire may be warped because of abuse or bad parents, but it is innate — or so I suspect. And that longing to be loved comes at the deepest level of our minds — it is there in our infant bodies as a instinct. As infants, humans are so completely dependent on the love of another that the desire for that eternal “mother” providing unconditional love and nourishment, that very source of our life — that desire and longing are at the core of the human soul. And I would suggest it is the longing for the loving embrace and breast of a mother that drives so much of our desire to believe we have some purpose. Our creator is, in the first instance, our mother. To the infant mind, mother is everything and without any conscious understanding that we have just emerged from her body, there is some sort of awareness, I am sure.
Freud talked about the devastating psychic effect of birth trauma, but whether it be traumatic or not, our most dramatic experience of birth may be the most startling thing that ever happens to us. The core knowledge of having being born from our mothers, to come from the dark, warm “inside” into a cold, brightly illuminated, outside world — that shapes everything that is built upon it. And, I would speculate, that feeling is the root of our desire for God. Our belief that we must have been created rises from that core experience. Our belief that we are loved by something unaccountably vast which gave birth leads us to think that we must have purpose. We were deliberately created by another agency, other than our own and everything we understand about creation, when we ourselves become creators, suggests that creations always have some purpose.
Now, this way of extrapolating from the infant mind and experience, and from the child’s creative powers also leads one to the conclusion that our purpose in life may be merely amusement. We, after all, do create things for our own amusement. But we sometimes create a thing that turns around and strikes us much more deeply so that we ourselves our transformed. For example, it might be said that somewhere along the line humans created domestic animals. Domestic cats, for example. And look where that took us. Suddenly we have a living creature with a will of its own putting demands upon us and giving us affection.
Take this further. We create relationships with each other. At one time in the tribal past of our ancestors (or even today) we were just handed relationships in our community and family. We didn’t need to create them because they were already created by others. Some relationships are like that. But we still can choose whether we will create from that basic relationship or connection a loving relationship, or one of enmity, or jealousy, or envy, etc. Human imagination creates these moral categories, these fictions based on emotions, and those stories, as we might say, are among our most complicated creations. Certainly, our relationships to other humans, to places, to animals, turn around and shape us, change us — indeed create us. We might start a love affair just for the sexual amusement, but it hardly ever stays like that. Humans are, generally speaking, too complicated to sustain a relationship only for amusement. If the relationship continues, it evolves. Emotions accrue to it. Shared history becomes part of it. Interdependence grows. We may fight that interdependence. We may fight to impose it more strongly on the other person. We may cut them out of our life or out of our conversation.
All these evolutions are creative. We humans created marriage — it is entirely a human idea. Oh, yes, I know, some people attribute the institutions of religion to God, or to several divine beings. In the druid tradition, having no book handed down from God, and having only deities who are often rather naughty and short-tempered, nobody, I think, believes that gods created marriage. Indeed, in the Celtic myths they seemed to suffer from a distinct lack of any standards regarding such a bond. So, as a druid, I am content to see marriage as a human invention. If the gods invented it, that amounts to the same thing because the Celtic deities, the Shining Ones are rather like us. Quite different from the God of the Jews who presented his chosen people with Ten Commandments and then dictated the whole Bible through divine inspiration. Druids quite understand inspiration. It may be the central concept underlying druidry because Imbas (or Awen) is the power of the poet, the bard.
However, that understanding of the creative process of the poet, gives us druids a rather more flexible view of inspiration. It isn’t “law” nor does it necessarily come to the bard from the One Supreme Being. It is a mystery, the mystery at the center of Druidry. And that inspiration is the very thing that gives us, as we become adults, the feeling that we have been “called” to some purpose. For Freemasons, the designation “Grand Architect of the Universe” alludes to that centrality of the creative process, the genius of the creator. That creator is not a distant “father” of a completely other species and order of being. The Creator is each of us, every one of us individually, and all of us cooperating together. That is the source of our feeling of purpose, destiny, or mission: the Creator, as we might say, within.
OK, here’s the thing. A few weeks ago, a lady pulled out in front of me and caused me to crash my car into a tree, so we’ve been car shopping for weeks now. My lady wife selected a Subaru Outback, which is a very nice car. Practical, but also a good-looking vehicle. It shifts so much better than our old Mazda, and it has nice luxury features like heated seats. There was a time that I pooh-poohed heated seats, but I must have just been cranky at the time because they are very good for Minnesota winters.
As is usually the case with me and my daughter, color was the primary consideration. Well, she, for some reason, wanted to have a wagon again. She always did like our old teal Escort wagon. My cunning plan when we started looking at cars was to buy two $7,000 cars instead of one &14,000 car. The first one we looked at was a Nissan Altima. Very nice, but $14,000. So, I had this brainstorm. It is so much more entertaining to find a cheaper old car that is in good condition.
However, my dear sposa overspent a bit (with my consent) on the Outback, so I was (technically) only left with about $3000 for my runabout. That’s a tough order. Especially when I got it into my head that the Cadillac DeVille was a cool car. I found a few around and one in particular I liked because it was dark blue (indigo really) and had a dark blue leather interior. I took it on a test drive (less that fun in Winter conditions) and liked it. The DeVille lives up to its reputation for comfort and it certainly has a plethora of electronic features. This one has a cassette player, which is quite a rare luxury these days. I was looking forward to listening to all my old cassettes.
However, this car is $4993, almost $2000 over the original budget I planned on. So, that’s a problem. However, I had wife and daughter try it out and they objected to the smell of tobacco smoke. It’s amazing how women notice different things than men do. Now, granted, I did have a raging headcold at the time, but I did notice the smell. Yet, it didn’t turn me off the car because it reminded me of how all our family cars smelled when I was a kid — like Dad’s pipe. Tobacco and leather are not so repellent to a man. The smell and a weighty indifference to the car became the main stumbling blocks, yet I thought that a thorough detailed cleaning of the interior might alleviate the smell. Everyone wants their car to smell like “new car.”
The adventured continued, as I worked out the logistics so that I could take mama to work and have the Outback for the day. I made an appointment with a Cadillac dealership to have them inspect the DeVille. Now, this was a mistake on a few levels — or shall I say, a learning experience. For one thing, the Cadillac dealership is catering to Cadillac Owners, a particular class of homo sapiens the mind of which is fully open to spending thousands of dollars on genuine GM parts and mechanics who make as much per hour as lawyers. I waited almost two hours before they could finish the inspection and write it up for me in detail. I wanted them to tell me what some of the repairs would cost. They did not do one of the things I requested, which was to give me a list of things they could tell had already been replaced on the car. At 103K miles, the car ought to have had a few things done to it already.
The long and short of it was that when I took it back to the dealer from whom I was buying it, I was in a rush to go pick up the ladies and didn’t have time to have the long talk with the salesman that was needed. Next day he was off, and the following day, when he said he would call me, we had five inches of snow. I suspect the crew were busy scraping off cars. It must be miserable to own a used car lot in the Winter…
So, now I am in that limbo of negotiation. I sent the salesman an email listing five of the things the other mechanic said were wrong. The leaks did not surprise me, but the broken rear coil spring and the broken wheel stud on one wheel, struck me as things the dealer selling the car might have been expected to fix, or at least disclose. That discovery made me lose a good deal of trust in the salesman and the dealership. Was it intentional deception? Was it an egregious oversight on the part of the mechanic? Or do dealerships normally only give a car the superficial once-over before they put it on the lot? Perhaps the previous owner did not disclose those problems.
Well, I can quite see that one could miss them because it doesn’t effect the way the car drives, so far as I can tell. I should think the rear coil spring would make a difference, but with my inexperience in things automotive, it escaped my notice. My attention was mainly focussed on figuring out what all the buttons on the dashboard did and how the cruise control worked and so forth. On the way to Morries Cadillac for the inspection, the cruise cut out a couple of times. The mechanic at Morries said this might be due to a malfunction in the EGR valve. Oddly, the service chap there did not explain what the EGR valve was very well. In fact, it seemed that they had it wrong, but Igoogled it and found that EGR stands for Exhaust Gas Recirculation. This valve is part of the emissions control system, invented to meet EPA guidelines for auto exhaust. It recirculates some of the exhaust back through the engine, thereby removing a substantial percentage of the nitrous pollutants. Clever. But Blue DeVille’s wasn’t working right and whenever it did so, that sent a “check engine” signal to the car’s capacious electronic brain, and that, in turn, shut off the cruise control, as it is programmed to do. There must be a vast array of punch-card sorters and readers somewhere under the dash, so intricate is the car’s brain. It is, to be sure, a very focused brain, interested only in its own autonomic systems and organs, but it is very communicative.
At the bottom of the instrument panel, as you look from the driver’s seat, there is a small version of those displays used for advertising, one which a stream of words seem to flow from right to left across the display so that you can read the message. Rather like a tickertape machine. This feature is called the DIC, which stands for Driver Information Center. This is how the electronic brain communicates. Remember “Colossus the Forbin Project”? That’s how Colossus talked before he made the technicians build him a mechanical voicebox. Anyway, the DeVille’s DIC says things like “Traction Engaged” or “Cruise Engaged” or “Fuel is Low” and so on. It apparently can give you scores of diagnostic messages to tell you if some organ is feeling a bit off. Wish my body came with self-diagnostics like that.
Well, that’s a feature I like. A man wants his car to have a DIC. Gives a fellow a feeling of really knowing what’s going on. Comforting to have your car talk to you. A bit like “My Mother the Car.” Only its like “My Dad the Car” because it’s like having another guy with you, one that knows a lot about cars.
The whole issue of masculinity and cars has been running through my own internal DIC. With lag time between bouts of primal male deal negotiation — the delicate dance of expression and voice, and pressure — I had time to think about what really was motivating me to want a Cadillac. After all, it is not a practical car. In a family with only one real income (my earnings as a writer and wandmaker put me well below the poverty line), why buy a car that gets low gas mileage, uses premium gas, and is expensive to repair? I knew at the outset that my interest in DeVilles was not practical. It was a quest for male ego-reinforcement.
Most men have their own car. I have a few friends who are in the situation I was in (am stil in): sharing the family car. Some of my friends not only have their own car but a motorcycle on top of that. In America it is very hard for a man to feel like a man if he doesn’t have a car. Even if it is old and broken down, it is still an extension of his male ego. I’m not sure when all this business started, but it must go back to the forties, when car ownership became common. I suspect it was in the fifties and sixties of the last century that advertising created — or enhanced — the perception that masculinity and cars were linked somehow. My generation certainly was raised with the idea that a man’s car was his castle. This might have become more important when a man’s house ceased to be his castle during the last wave of the women’s movement.
Before that, in the sixties when I was growing up, and certainly in the fifties, women were the mistresses of the kitchen and the children; the home was kept clean and orderly for the comfort of the man of the house who came home from a hard day of wrestling with other men using his muscles and his brain to earn his wages, and desired nothing better than a quiet refuge, a pipe, and easy chair, and his newspaper. Then there was his shop, often part of the basement or in the garage. That was a particular male space, his domain. Some men had a study too — it was often called “the den” in those days. However, the garage and the car were the man’s most important domain (after the Office). Women worked as secretaries in the office, and women worked as wives and mothers at home, but women drivers were mocked and looked upon as an abberation in the natural order, and women who could fix a car, change the oil, or even knew how an engine worked were rare indeed.
But now, decades later, women are among the main market audience for cars. Commercials for mini-vans and SUV’s are aimed at them especially. True, young, good-looking women are still used in car ads the way they used to be: to suggest the sexual rewards a man would get from owning and driving a particularly sporty vehicle, or one with lots of power. But now it is all very different. Some women know more about fixing cars than men (like me, for example), and women can buy a car independently of a man, thereby expressing their own sense of power, style, and personality. Well, that’s all fine with me.
Here is the thing, though. In my life I have never had my own car when I have lived with women. We always shared one car. And that situation gives the car a whole new dimension of sexual and symbolic tension. A shared car does not express a man’s personality or power. As likely as not, it is the women who insists on getting her way when it comes to the choice of model and color. Even if she seems to defer to her man, we all know that is seldom really what is going on. And even if the man makes the decision, the car is still not simply his car. Because couples operate on a more equal footing today, a shared car becomes no longer an expression of male power and prestige. It is no longer a masculine object, no longer a part of the male’s display plumage.
Back in the fifties and sixties, cars had fins and bits sticking out all over, just like peacock feathers. Those are the cars I personally like. The Cadillac dealership where I was cooling my heels had a gorgeous cream-colored 1953 Eldorado “Biarritz” convertible. OMG! What a beautiful car! You can just picture Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin in the driver’s seat with a voluptuous and adoring girl by his side, turning up the Beachboys on the Wunderbar radio. Nowadays, Cadillacs look just like every other car — bigger maybe, but the same streamlined dull design sense. Automobile aesthetics has made all cars look alike.
I was just reading a blurb about how Subaru’s designers were developing a “new language” of design that would make Subarus all recognizable as Subarus. Hmmmm. I suppose back in the fifties people might have thought all cars looked the same too, but the streamlining and the smooth lines, the parameters of size and so forth all have made today’s cars mostly unappealing. The new beetle and the new Thunderbird are exceptions, but for the most part I like the looks of older cars. The 1997 DeVille isn’t exactly a classic, but I’m not in the market for a true collector’s car. At least it looks better than the 2010 models. The 1970’s vintage models even look better to me. I was researcing Lincoln Continentals and was horrified to see how few there were available used and how much they too looked just like every Japanese car on the market. I remember in the 70’s that rounded back end where the spare tire was housed and the sleek, long black lines of the Lincoln Continentals, the Mark IV’s and the Cadillac Fleetwoods. Mmmmm. They were vast “boats” to be sure and nowadays people want smaller more fuel-efficient cars, less boxy. Who really needs a trunk that could fit a small marching band?
Well, I wouldn’t know where to park a 1970 Cadillac Fleetwood, anyway. But the ’97 DeVille Concours. It makes me wish we had a garage to put it in. It would take some vigillance to keep it from deteriorating in the Minnesota Winters without a garage. But just researching the car has opened up a new vista of fascinating machinery and the potential for a thing upon which I can lavish my attention and love and which will return my care with a boost to my ego. Now, only people who don’t know me would ever take the car to signify my social and economic status, but I am good at pretending. My self-esteem has suffered in the past 20 years because of lack of income and not working as an English professor. It is hard to sustain self-confidence working as a novelist without anything published. I’ve probably said that before….
But this seeking for ego-reinforcement through a car seems foolish. I have always thought it part of the foolishness of the social construction of masculinity. What I’ve found, however, is that I cannot break away from the way my masculinity was socially constructed. I was never macho, and for some reason my Dad never managed to engage my interest in cars, even though I wanted to be an engineer as a teen. Now that I’ve become a writer and interested in Steampunk, engines and mechanics has a new fascination for me — one that may be more practical and not merely imaginary. Better late than never, I suppose.
Will I manage to buy the car and have the money to insure and maintain it? Will I get an ego boost? Will it bolster me that I can write better, enjoy life more with some freedom of mobility? Will it give me a new hobby of mechanics, fixing and building actual machines, as well as imagining fictional ones? Or is it a hollow aspiration? One must, of course, learn to love oneself, not depend on the outward trappings of worldy status or the possession of riches. The wise man casts aside riches in order to love himself better and to turn his love to others less fortunate. “It is always better to give than to receive.” Especially in this time of Christmas giving, it seems especially misguided to be trying to buy something for myself.
On the other hand, spending money on yoga classes and dedicating time on my own physical self-improvement is intended to make me a better man, more healthy and so more productive, and able to help others. Could a car help that? Perhaps it could. For example, having my own car would allow me to volunteer at a foodshelf, a homeless shelter, or the library. Being able to more easily travel around during the day would make it easier to get out of the house and work at a cafe. nothing is really stopping me from doing that now, but transport being difficult gives me an excuse. Still, perhaps that’s just rationalization and I won’t follow-through on that sort of plan, unless I make a solemn resolution to do so.
Transport during the day would also make it easier to find a job outside the house. But will I manage to do so? Transport is not the only thing standing in the way of that plan. Yet, maybe it would be good to find a job for at least a few years to catch up and then maybe return to writing full time again? Money, cars, ego-strength. My instinct tells me that ego-strength should not depend on outward success or its material rewards. That it must instead come from within, or be given as a grace from the Divine One.
I really do over-analyze everything.