Monday, August 7, 2017

The Horrors of the Soviet GULAG prison-camps and the humanity that survived

A World Apart – Gustav Herling (1951)

            Horror can come in so many ways.  It could be the sudden arrival of an incomprehensible terror.  It could also be the slowly dawning realization that hope is a feeling best left dead.  In many ways, the horrors experienced by Mr. Gustav Herling while serving in a Soviet GULAG hard-labor prison run the full gamut.  For several years, the author, a Polish native who had left for the Soviet Union after Poland had been annexed by the Third Reich, experienced horrors both physical and mental, and in sharing his story he helps us understand the true evil that totalitarian government inflicts upon the entire population.
            Reading Mr. Herling’s account of his time as a prisoner brought back memories of my youth reading Animal Farm and 1984, and of wondering in indignant rage why people tolerated the obviously absurd and illogical pronouncements of the ruling parties.  As a young teen, those books filled me with a deep hate for mindless subservience and for blind allegiance to any political system, especially those of a totalitarian state.  Mr. Herling’s life in this forced-labor camp shared so much of the idiocy and stupidity that the animals on Animal Farm or the citizens in 1984 had to accept or else be destroyed by the state.
            Mr. Herling meets prisoners from all walks of life.  One is a former diva of Soviet theater who was sentenced to ten years hard labor.  Her stated crime was being a traitor to the Soviet State.  What was her actual crime?  She danced for too long with the Japanese ambassador at a gala event in Moscow.  That was it.  Several of the inmates were there merely because they were not Russian.  These were Poles who got stuck in Russia avoiding the Nazi takeover of Poland.  There were people whose jobs pre-revolution were in education and intelligentsia, and of course a totalitarian state cannot abide having anyone else be an authority on anything.  The state must the ultimate authority on anything!  How fucking horrible.  With the Soviet Union officially banning all organized religious activities, priests and nuns were also laced in these ruthless work-to-death camps.  All kinds, even those that believed themselves deeply committed to the Communist Party, found out they were worthless pieces of a machine in which they had no control.
            The life in the camp is terrible, with surreal and illogical precision running everything.  The prisoners were fed according to their crimes, and according to how much they worked daily.  Those that worked heavy labor were lucky to receive a few grams of bread and a thin barley “soup” at the end of the day.  Those that were unfit for heavy labor received solely a thin warm liquid with no meat and no vegetables.  If you were sill or injured you spent some time in an unheated “infirmary” where you received the bare minimum food portion, and minimal medical care.  If you were unable to get better enough to work, they would send you to the Mortuary, where the dying waited to die in relative peace.  Mr. Herling spent time in the Mortuary and describes the twisted sense of calm and rest combined with the foreknowledge of your impending death.  There is no comfort anywhere. The paranoia, the pain, the SMELL of countless rotting, sickly, and dying men and women, awash in their own feces, ever-seeping sores, malnutrition, night-blindness from lack of vitamins, and eventually the complete loss of their conscious ability to think all wash over the narrator, as he slides into this horror himself.  Throughout all this, Mr. Herling manages to share any and all wisdom he gained, most of it bleak, and brutally honest about what a man has to deal with when hope is gone yet life continues interminably.  It is a brutal story, and the fact that we know he managed to survive and publish this a few years later does nothing to diminish the trauma of his and all of the other prisoner’s experiences.
            Prison for actual criminals is bad enough.  When the state sets up prisons for those who do no crime other than political opposition?  Evil.  When the state punishes people pre-emptively, trying to weed out supposed traitors before they even have a chance to act?  Evil.  When the state’s own reasoning is so twisted and flawed and fucking pointless that they have to retroactively invent methods to protect their own lies?  Evil.  Under Stalin, Soviet/Russian history was turned into a pathetic joke, with whole secret government entities erasing people’s entire lives from the historical record, solely to appease the whims of the mustachioed madman controlling everything. Whole families disappeared.  Whole generations of educated people were sent to Siberia to die in labor camps.  This same shit happens in all totalitarian states, and is happening right now in Saudi Arabia (religious rule by an autocratic family of assholes), North Korea (totalitarian rule by a fat man-boy with a tiny pecker and total control of his starving population), etc.  It could happen anywhere.  It could happen in the USA.  The only thing that prevents dictators is the willingness of brave people to stand up to them, to the death.  Never expect a despot to “make sense.”
            During WWII the Germans, the Russians, and the Americans all had forced-relocation camps.  The Germans used theirs to attempt a mass genocide of European Jews, as well as anyone deemed undesirable by the Reich.  This included the homosexuals, religious leaders, Romany, mentally and physically handicapped people, and anyone else deemed as “the Other.”  Russian forced labor camps were barely any better.  Their goal was not to solely exterminate enemies.  It was to suck out as much forced labor as possible with the bare minimum of food and support, thereby killing the state’s enemies while also benefiting the state’s GDP.  In the USA, our forced-relocation camps consisted of thousands and thousands of Japanese-Americans, many of them full citizens of the nation, including children and the elderly.  They were treated as if just because they were of Japanese ancestry, they were a treasonous threat to the nation.  While they were not treated as inhumanely as those in German or Russian camps, the very existence of such places in the supposed “Land of the Free” should be enough to strike terror in the hearts of free-thinking humans anywhere.  Who knows how bad it could have gotten for the Japanese-American prisoners if the war had raged on, or if the Japanese had managed a full on attack of the USA mainland?  Totalitarianism is a slippery slope indeed.  We must be ever-vigilant against it, even if it is an unpopular stance to take.

(This book is available for download as a PDF here: )

Friday, July 14, 2017

If I Could Have the Nervous System of an Octopus, Without Its Many Arms...

Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness – Peter Godfrey-Smith (2006)

            Much of my reading, and many of the books reviewed here at the Intellectual Journey, deal in some way with the idea of consciousness.  Some books explore the relationship between the outside world and the “inner mind.”  Others seek to understand the raw organic material that our bodies are composed of and why it creates the entity we call Mind.  Still others describe the progress of our collective knowledge and myth-building, especially as they relate to human social constructs like religion and government.  It appears that the human capacity for consciousness and thought inspires many writers, scientists, and philosophers.  One of the great things about this book is that it takes a step back away from our human field of experience, to explore one of the few other animals on Earth that also has a highly complex neurological system, this being the octopus, and their cousins, the squid and the cuttlefish.

            Peter Godfrey-Smith began his journey to writing this book because he witnessed something that many other people who work with or near these amazing animals have noted.  They appear to be observing you, just as much as you are observing them!  They interact with humans, both in the wild and in captivity, like creatures that have some sort of self-consciousness, or sentience.  In the wild, an octopus will often reach out a single tentacle arm towards a human diver, to touch them and taste them (octopuses can sense chemicals with their skin, essentially being able to “smell” and “taste” anything they encounter).  A cuttlefish will often produce the most dramatic displays of color and light through its amazing skin, in a seeming effort to interact.   In captivity, there are countless stories of octopuses that can recognize individual humans in a group, even when they are all dressed exactly the same.  Other octopuses have learned to squirt water with their siphons at people standing outside their tanks.  A few have even learned that a squirt of water is handy in turning off the aquarium lights above their tanks.  They are masters of camouflage, mimicry, and contortion.  Because the largest “solid” part of an octopus is its eyes, it can squeeze through any hole that their eye will fit through, allowing a sixty pound octopus to escape captivity through a two inch hole.  Amazing!

            One of the coolest parts of this book details how the development of an amazing nervous system occurred separately in cephalopods than in primates.  The earliest common ancestor between cephalopods and humans lived very likely over 200 million years ago, back when all animal life was in the oceans.  From this animal a branching occurred, in one direction leading to the bilateral animals, including the ones with spines and bilateral symmetry and in the other branch, a path leading to the mollusks and eventually to the cephalopods studied in this book.  For us humans, much of our nervous system is encased in a hard shell (the skull) and this is the apparent seat of our conscious and unconscious thought.  Nervous signals are received from throughout the body and processed in the brain.  Cephalopods do not work in this manner.

            An octopus has nearly as many neurons as a human, but they are not localized in one certain area.  The octopus’ neural network is spread throughout their entire body, allowing them to have massive control over their shape, color, and skin texture.  Each arm of an octopus has its own functional node of neurons, essentially controlling the arm separately from the main “brain.”  These animals appear to have consciousness of a high order, but they do not have the same equipment as us humans.  In fact, in cuttlefish for instance, each individual neuron reaches from the skin to the brain node, without any other intervening connections.  Humans and most other animals do not work in this way.  We have sequences of neurons, each connected in linear form, to allow signals to travel from our finger to our brain and back.  This, while seemingly super-fast, actually slows down the signals considerably, as not only do electrical signals travel through the neuron, but chemical signals must be released and received in the connections between the neurons.  The octopus does not have this problem, and it’s sensory world must operate on a level that to a human would be unspeakably fast.  

            There is much discussion about the history of the study of sentience and consciousness, which is awesome, and provides a great background into the current state of thought on “thought” itself.  It helps the reader to understand the real differences between human consciousness and cephalopod consciousness, which is critical.  Humans have the ability to process in semantic layers, with some thoughts being submerged, others being lifted, and yet others trying to understand the thoughts being thought!  This creates a massively rich internal life in humans, and in other smart animals that have been studied, such as birds, dogs, dolphins, etc.  The octopus however lacks this inner life it seems.  What it does have is a nearly infinite ability to sense the world around it, to respond to it, and to explore it.  Our brains suit us, as we have a relatively long lifespan and a lot of information to learn as humans.  The octopus and most cephalopods live very short, brutal lives, sometimes not making it past a second year of life.  It did and does not need to store long term memory, to develop individual consciousness like humans.  It instead needs as much input from the world around it as it can get, in order to stay alive and procreate.

            I have always loved octopuses and cuttlefish.  I am so glad I found this cool book.  Peter Godfrey-Smith has given me quite a lot to think about as I continue on my Intellectual Journey.  I will for certain be reading more about the latest research on cephalopod intelligence.  As the writer states, meeting an octopus in its habitat is the closest we may get to meet a truly “alien” intelligence.

Friday, June 30, 2017

The modern Ideas about consciousness began in ancient Egypt

The Spiritual Technology of Ancient Egypt: Sacred Science and the Mystery of Consciousness – Edward F. Malkowski (2007)

            The human race has a deep fascination with the relatively ancient Egyptian culture, especially the amazing technological and architectural wonders left behind by the Old and New Kingdoms of several thousand years ago.  To some researchers however, the blind obsession with the physical leftovers of the Egyptian culture blinds people into ignoring the other aspects of that culture that allowed it to survive and thrive for thousands of years.  The philosophical, theological, and cosmological ideas of the Egyptians, and their effect on the history of human thought, science, and religious belief, are what are explored by Mr. Malkowski in this cool book.
            It seems odd that, for all the praise lavished on the Egyptians amazing technological achievements in architecture, writing, and fine arts, not too many people explore the deep roots that our modern religious thought has in the ideas of Egypt.  People forget that Moses was raised in the Pharaoh’s house, taught as any noble Egyptian would be, to read and write, and do mathematics, and analyze theology and philosophy.  The wisdom he learned there was what he later applied while leading the Hebrews to their “promised land.”  The ideas he shared with them, from Mosaic law to the Ten Commandments, all have precedent in the Egyptian philosophy and theology.  These ideas are what scholars refer to as the “Mysteries.” 
            These Egyptian “mysteries” were in fact esoteric knowledge about the biggest questions humans have.  Why are we here?  What created existence? How do we know we are real? What is time?  What is our purpose?  These and many other questions are explored by Mr. Malkowski from the vantage point of the Egyptians.   These ideas are big, shocking to those ruled by religious dogma, and because of this they have been kept “hidden,” taught only to those who actively seek out the information.  For example, there is no moment of creation, after which the world just existed.  We are all a part of creation at every point in our lives, for once creation begins, it does not end.  The entire Universe is in a constant state of self-creation, and consciousness is an integral part of the Universe understanding itself.  Because of this, we are all divine, due to our local consciousness being just a small sliver of the overall Universal consciousness, which many label as god. 
            The idea of “sin” is taken very literally by close-minded believers.  They want a set of rules.  This is good, and this is bad. Do only the good, and ask for forgiveness for the bad.  That is not the truth of sin.  That is how organized groups use the concept of sin to control the population.  The Egyptians, the Greeks after them, the early Christians and Gnostics, and many other groups since have understood sin to be a different thing.  Since humans are a combination of the material (physical body and brain) and the divine (non-local consciousness), a true life is led by those who see and accept both aspects of themselves.  This duality is a critical thing.  SIN, as it was viewed by the Egyptians and the mystics that followed, is the state where a human has become solely obsessed and focused on his physical self, whether that is as a denial of their own consciousness, or in partaking of what people call the Seven Deadly Sins, all of which deal with the obsession of the material self to the exclusion of the divine self.  This is what Jesus talked about when he said that everyone is with god if they so choose, and that being away from the divine is the true sin.  
            Some groups of people, (the Zoroastrian faith for one) took this Egyptian mystery influence to the extreme and saw the material world as purely base and un-divine.  Instead of striking a balance between the physical and the divine, they sought to purge anything physical and focus solely on the divine.  Other religions, (organized Christianity for example) decided to do away with the “mysteries” and instead focus on dogma as societal control.  They ignored the teachings and words of Jesus, reading them literally (exoterically) instead of as allegory (esoterically).  Because of this, for the last thousand years, much of the Egyptian wisdom has been ignored, and their philosophy and theology treated as just an odd curiosity, a mish-mash of beliefs and gods and conflicting ideas.  This is a real delusion, causing us to think of the greatest civilization of humanity’s past as amazing in technology but ridiculous and laughable in their theology.  What an error we make.  When deep ideas are expressed, they must be expressed in story or allegory in order to make an actual impact on a human.  People do not like being told flat out what they should or should not do or believe.  It is better to share such information in a form that will allow for the receiver to explore the ideas.  This is why, when discussing the biggest issues, Jesus in the Bible spoke in pure allegory.  The problem with allegory is that, once the culture moves on, those symbols no longer mean what they used to.  We modern humans have no basis to understand an Egyptian allegory, much like an ancient Egyptian would not be able to comprehend an allegory containing modern symbols, such as the “mushroom cloud,” “Superman,” “Coca Cola,” etc.
            There is so much more in this book to explore, like the idea that the three great pyramids at Giza are far older than the Egyptian civilization, or that the language of the Egyptians is a hold-over from that previous civilization.  The world is an ever changing place and only our ego keeps us from accepting that the people of the past were not grunting savages, but instead exactly the same as you or I, seeking answers to the difficult questions, and working to help sustain their civilization. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

*RXTT Flashback Review* The Story of a Sonic Youth Fanatic and her Adventures in Skronk

NO SETLIST: Pieces of a Sonic Life - Jenn Benningfield (2009)

(Today on RXTT's Intellectual Journey, we go back to a book review from several years ago, that I published on a different blog, -FUPPETS- , which is now-defunct.  The review has been edited slightly. - RXTT)

Long-time Sonic Youth fanatic and all around bad-ass, Jenn Benningfield, has documented her obsession with live Sonic Youth concerts, as well as the life that develops around such an obsession, in her book NO SET LIST: Pieces Of A Sonic Life.  I have absorbed the book, and what a book it is. While the omnipresent Sonic Youth are integral to the book, it is Sonic Youth's peripheral universe that is the real star here. 

The lines of uber-fans showing up hours early, the crowds of people that frequent the shows, the travel required to attend 40+ shows and the inevitable highs and lows of that travel, the camaraderie between people who are total strangers except for the fact that they love skronk rock, and most of all, the joy of the fleeting moments shared with one's musical idols, these are the main pillars of NO SET LIST. 

The bits that truly hook the reader though, are the relationships that Jenn builds with her fellow fanatics, whether at shows or through meeting those people she has corresponded with on Sonic Youth's infamous Fan Gossip Forum, including one who would become her partner-in-crime for much of NO SET LIST's duration. Her travels begin close to home but soon take her throughout the Midwest, California, Oregon, and as far as Britain in search of that sonic eargasm that only Sonic Youth can provide. Planes, trains, and automobiles are all endured, travails are overcome, and health issues are faced, all with humor and biting wit, and with the help of Snoopy's all-consuming love. What could easily become rote, (the endless bus/train stations, the countless opening acts, the obsession with Sonic Youth), never does and this is a testament to the quality of the writing within, not to mention the quality of the mind making the observations which we are absorbing. 

Sonic Youth is not an "easy" band to like. They go out of their way to test and expand their audience's ears. They are a group that seeks to make art, and that seek to push the envelope as to what can constitute great musical art. Jenn captures all of this, as well as the blinding white skronk joy that Sonic Youth give to those that are patient and keep their ears open. NO SET LIST opens this world and exposes it to the light. What we find inside is comforting, exhausting, exhilarating, and downright beautiful. I wish Jenn was put on retainer by Sonic Youth so as to document their every appearance! That way, I would have a mainline to the world's greatest band, and there is nothing better. I would like to thank Jenn Benningfield for writing NO SET LIST, and for having the balls to put herself and her writing out into the world.

(This book is currently out of print)

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Grant Morrison ran out of steam before finishing the Invisibles

The Invisibles Omnibus – Grant Morrison (1994-2000)

            The Invisibles Omnibus collects all the issues released of the Invisibles series which ran from 1994 to 2000.  Compiling comic books like this can be an issue as many are created to be open-ended, allowing the story to continue with new writers and artists indefinitely.  In the early 90’s a wave of comic book writers started to break away from the corporate comic book structure, in which anything created is the sole property and responsibility of the parent company.  They wanted to control, to “own” the content they were creating, without having to resort to the comparatively limited publishing and distribution capabilities of small presses and underground publishers.  This allowed some of the industry’s top people to set up deals with the big publishers, where they would hold the rights to the material and essentially have free rein as to what stories they wished to craft, and where the stories would lead to and ultimately end.  Neil Gaiman took this and ran with it in the Sandman series.  Alan Moore did so as well with a sequence of amazing titles.  One of their contemporaries was Grant Morrison, the British writer that penned the entire run of the Invisibles for the Vertigo imprint.
            Both Moore and Morrison are fringe thinkers, interested in the esoteric, occult, and mysterious in the world we exist in.  Both draw from the mass of occult literature and their own personal studies into the weird to write their stories.  Whereas Alan Moore’s work has a serious, intellectual feel to it, as if you are being told a preposterous story by the world’s wisest man, Grant Morrison’s work is like spending a month with a LSD-addled speed-freak who wants to share everything they have heard/seen/read/experienced regarding the Occult and esoteric, and whose narrative cannot be fully trusted due to the disjointed, haphazard nature of his mind.  It is an odd difference, and one which has divided the two writers.
            The Invisibles is an exciting book, for the most part.  It is an interesting tale, for the most part.  It is clever and witty, for the most part.  Perhaps it would have benefitted me to read just one issue’s worth of it every month like comic book fans have to do.  Since I do not have that luxury of time, I had to read it over the course of a month.  The story, like so many others, builds and builds as we meet new characters, explore their lives, both past, present, and future, and discover countless conspiracies, secrets and horrors, until it comes at you like an onrushing tsunami, unstoppable and violent.  It really does “fry your brain” at times with the vast amount of freaky conspiracy and magic, all with double and triple meanings and outcomes. This tempo and intensity are not sustainable in a work of literature of this length.  The book drags heavily around the ¾ mark, and the ending is nowhere near as inspired as the earlier parts of the book.  Perhaps, having aged many years since he began the work, Grant Morrison’s anarchic sensibility was tempered by time and wisdom.  Who knows?  All I can say is that for all the wild information contained within, I do not see how anyone who was not already deeply familiar with the weirdness presented in this book would enjoy the story, which is the standard “secret society exists to fight another secret society, both of which are mortal enemies of each other, or ARE THEY?”  Boring.
            The Invisibles is one of those works where the creator decided to throw everything including the kitchen sink at the page and see what sticks.  While I was entertained mostly, and informed very slightly (I already knew about nearly every aspect of weird that Morrison details in this book), I was left with an empty feeling.  There is no real substance behind this book.  I do not think it will hold up well as the years go by.  It in fact becomes a tedious read toward the latter parts.  Part of this is due to the inability of Morrison to craft an ending as satisfactory and weird as his beginning and middle, and part of it is due to the lack of cohesive focus in the way the story is presented.
            The very best work is crafted by either an individual or by equal partners who see things through from beginning to end.  The Invisibles did not use the same artist for the run of the comic.  In fact, many issues have 4-6 different illustrators drawing the story, which to me distracts from the tale being told.  Art and the decisions made in the process of making Art require purpose, actual purpose.  Neil Gaiman’s Sandman epic did not use the same artist for every tale, but it did use the same artist for all the cover art, and the same artist for each complete “chapter” of the stories.  This adds a cohesion that is absent in the Invisibles.  The book suffers from this greatly.  Comic books are the ultimate combination of Art and Words.  The very best of the genre is created by dedicated teams.  The Dark Knight Returns was a masterpiece, and it was only helped by the fact that the same writer (Frank Miller), artists (Frank Miller, Klaus Jansen), and colorist (Lynn Varley) handled every panel of every page of every issue.  Alan Moore’s The Watchmen also benefitted greatly from the partnership of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.  Having the artist and the writer share in the design, layout, and creation of any comic greatly improves it.  
            While there are many cool things in this comic, it never captured me, and I never felt any affinity to any of the characters involved.   Much of it seemed overly complex, and disjointed, for no discernible reason.  Every two pages the story flips from one sub-plot to another, creating a very shitty reading rhythm. It’s like Grant Morrison tried to create magic through a comic book and did so purely by regurgitating every single occult and conspiratorial idea he had ever run into, but without the humor and intelligence of The Illuminatus Trilogy for example, or the deep exploration of history found in Alan Moore’s From Hell, a far more disturbing and beautiful book.  Oh well.  Live and learn.  On to the next book.

(This book can be purchased here: )