Ugh. I’ve desperately tried to write this essay without referring–for the second essay in a row–to my Sunday living habits. They’re really not that interesting, and I understand that. But I’m sorry. Just like the last essay, the origins of this one occur during those existential lulls that seem to characterize a lot of people’s Christian Sabbath.
You see, in my household–after my morning workout– Sunday mornings are reserved for one of two rituals. One, because my wife is a practicing Catholic, we go to mass. Or, two–if we’re too lazy on that particular morning–we lay around in our sweats and my wife watches “Super Soul Sundays” on the Oprah Winfrey Network. Of the two, even though I am a blasphemer, heretic and just an outright nonbeliever, I greatly prefer going to mass, even though it means making the effort to look presentable in public on a Sunday morning and listening to some dweeb in a blouse tell me about how I need to make some more time for gahd/Jesus in my life. Even though, in theory, as the Christian gahd is omnipresent/prescient/powerful, I shouldn’t be able to get away from it in the first place–and, in fact, am gahd, but whatever. For those of you lucky enough to not know what Super Soul Sundays are about, it’s simply a series of hour-long (or two-hour long) interviews Oprah does with a litany of new age gurus, new-age groupies and new-ageself-promoters. In short, as hard as it is to believe, there is simply less bullshit being spewed in a typical Catholic mass than there is on even the best episode of Super Soul Sundays.
Some people may think the choice is akin to choosing between a cobra bite and a shot of hemlock. And I’d be tempted to go with the cobra bite simply for the adventure of it all, but ultimately by going with the hemlock I’d forego adventure for simplicity and ease of use. Therefore, I prefer mass. Even though I have to get dressed and cleaned up and get the children dressed and cleaned up and wait for my wife to get dressed and cleaned up and even though we’re always there 10-15 minutes late and we walk in and the usher guides us to the only seats available which are always in the front row. We then have to squeeze the entire family through the aisles while the rest of the people in said aisles are shifting this way and that attempting to get us enough room to articulate. Everyone in the church is looking at us, while I grunt and say “sorry” as I try not to drop my daughter on the floor or on somebody’s lap. And the priest is looking at us like gahd-less heathens who should’ve just stayed home. This is still simpler and much less work than watching, I don’t know, some dingbat like Shawn Achor talk the “connection” between happiness and “productivity.”
And just what is so bad about listening to some dingbat talk about happy thoughts? Well, to be honest, I had a difficult time answering this question for quite awhile. A long while. Years, really. I just knew that every time I had to sit and watch this shit that I had difficulty keeping my shirts clean as at least a liter of foam bubbled forth from my jowls and I had to actively concentrate on preventing the Life Force from simply wilting away from my body. I chalked it up to some vague idea like “inauthenticity” (in contrast to Lin-Chi’s admonitions to just “shit, piss and just be human” if one is indeed on an authentic spiritual journey) or I simply dismissed most of her guests by stating something along the lines of, “Well, of course it’s easy to act all spiritual and enlightened when you’ve made a million dollars and can have all the material possessions you could want.” In terms of the latter, I’m one of the so-called “liars” who doesn’t believe money brings happiness. The karma of wealth tends to be that the more you have to lose, the more you worry about losing it. But wealth does bring comfort and easiness and a certain kind of peace of mind, in that survival isn’t much of an issue anymore, and in that, for most people who reach such wealth, they’ve achieved some kind of life goal, which is always a nice feeling.
In short, though, I have a difficult time taking seriously any spiritual or philosophical teacher who hasn’t found that comfort, easiness and peace of mind in the compost of life that the rest of us have to deal with. It’s easy to have some kind of perspective on life when, if you’re having a bad day, you can go cheer yourself up (at least momentarily) by buying another BMW or some shit.
Who I’m interested in hearing from is some other poor sap who has to wake up every morning, drive to some shitty job in some shitty car, deal with some shitty boss, pay some shitty bills and deal with all the challenges (and pleasures) that come with family life, and yet who is still very happy and excited about living. Or someone even worse off who, nonetheless, doesn’t fret too much about her/his situation. A spirituality/philosophy that is useless in the midst of a warzone is not much of a spirituality/philosophy, as far as I’m concerned. A useful spirituality/philosophy must hold weight even in the least grounding of situations, or it is not useful at all. Traditionally, those great spiritual/philosophical thinkers were those who didn’t have very much money, weren’t very popular, and lived difficult lives. Think Socrates, Buddha, Jesus, Ikkyu, Eckhart, Nietzsche, Joan of Arc, Lingshao, even Mohammad. Hell, it would be easier to come up with a list of great persons who were wealthy. But even that list would come with a bunch of caveats. Marcus Aurelius, for example, was the emperor of Rome, but his life was fucking rough. Same for Seneca. Same for Wittgenstein. One thing after another, after another. No rest. No comfort. No repose. Most of them were hated. Many were murdered for their ideas. They sure as hell didn’t write best-selling books and probably weren’t celebrated by their time and place’s version of Oprah Winfrey.
Maybe such persons no longer exist. Maybe they never did. We can’t really be sure. But it was just a couple of weeks ago that I think I finally nailed down what it was about these modern day self-help gurus that I found so repugnant: they made it all sound so easy. Spiritual/philosophic growth is easy. Just follow these 5 steps. Just do these 7 things. Just think positively and you’ll attract positivity–even in a sweltering hut. Just let Iyanla follow you around for several days and yell at you, beloved. Then you’re there. Then you’ve got it. Then you’ll be Enlightened.
What a stupid fucking word, enlightened. Nobody even fucking knows what it means, but everybody sure is chasing it. I sure as hell don’t know what it means. But I do know this: spiritual/philosophic growth is hard. It’s hard as fuck. It’s the hardest thing I’ve done and continue to attempt to do with my life. And it never ends. There are moments when you learn something new and wondrous and life-changing about life, and then… your monthly fucking student loan bill comes in the mail again. WHAT THE SHIT?! Why hasn’t this new, wondrous, life-changing thing I just figured out made my life any easier? I figured out something esoteric and mystical and powerful about Life, The Universe and Everything… but it doesn’t stop my the water-pump in my SUV from taking a dump in the middle of a blizzard on La Veta pass, when I’m just trying to get out of my shitty town to do some Christmas shopping.
This path is hard. It sucks. You see things that others can’t or don’t or refuse to see, and therefore you can’t talk to anybody about any of this shit. Sometimes–with enough desperation– you try, and that just leads to quizzical looks and awkward conversations. Nietzsche was a morbid little creep who needed to pick up a hobby or something, but he was right when he labeled the true philosophical/spiritual seeker as “the loneliest.” The vast majority of people–at least in our culture–have resigned themselves to lives of material procuration, reputational striving and media-stalking the Kardashian sisters. Then when they begin to realize that there’s this dirty, wet, pussing, ever-growing spiritual sore festering somewhere at their very core, they want Oprah to give them 12 ways to get rid of it. It’s not that easy.
None of this is being written simply to bitch and mope and complain…at least not purposely. It’s just to make the point that, just like anything else worth achieving, it takes a lot of work. I recognize that I’m a proponent of living a lazy and apathetic lifestyle, but… it took a lot of hard work, and way too much caring for Stupid Shit™ to realize just how virtuous such a lifestyle can be. And if anyone tells us any different–if anybody tells us that true-blue happiness and contentment and peace of mind is easy to attain, and that it’s the same 7 or 12 or 3,471 steps for each individual person–we should approach that person with the heavy barbell of skepticism and force them to lift it off our backs.
So, now, if things weren’t hard enough, I’ve just given out one of the most deflating pieces of advice ever: don’t trust Oprah or any of her minions. Jesus. If you can’t trust Oprah, who can you trust?
Well, I don’t know. I know who’s helped me on my own journey. Many are named throughout this essay as well as in my other essays. But for many people, reading books suck. And reading boring (for most), or challenging philosophical tomes from Seneca, or Nietzsche or Bankei or whomever takes a lot of work. And nobody wants that. Least of all, me. So maybe we should look at more modern mediums. The written word is old, archaic really. It doesn’t get things across quite as entertainingly as things like drawings and pictures and… moving pictures. Despite what some people will tell you, there’s nothing wrong with something being entertaining. The best things in life are both intellectually/spiritually stimulating and entertaining. Challenging and enjoyable. Nutritious and flavorful. To have one without the other is to miss out on half of what life has to offer. So we’ll start our journey with moving pictures.
But where? The 7th Seal? The Last Temptation of Christ? 2001: A Space Odyssey? La Dolce Vita? A Man for All Seasons? Star Wars?
All good options. But I suggest we look a little bit deeper, a little more counterintuitively. All of those movies would have a fair chance of being invited to do an interview with Oprah (but, in their defense, they’d have more to teach than most of her actual guests). We want to find a movie (or movies) that is (are) so raw, so ugly, so dirty, and, yet, so true that Oprah would sooner invite a real hero like Brad Warner or Danielle Bolleli or RA Wilson than than to even acknowledge the existence of such a film (or films).
With all that in mind, I propose we watch Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy.
The Evil Dead trilogy is generally thought of as a “cult” series, and therefore not deserving of serious consideration. However, such an assumption betrays of the critic a lack of insight and, yes, creativity (just like any other endeavor, quality criticism should display creativity and innovation, which, unfortunately most critics don’t seem to understand). When it comes to traditional elements of storytelling–plot, character, setting, theme–there is plenty to mine from the films, especially when taking the series in as a whole.
When it comes to Raimi’s signature series, criticism has focused primarily on the horror, the comedy, the special effects, the budget and the director’s innovative camerawork. These are fair subjects for criticism, but I argue that there is more going on in the films thematically than most have been able to identify. The aforementioned elements of horror, comedy, special effects, budget and camerawork are utilized in favor of, and in service to, a specific, focused and developed literary theme.
The protagonist of the series is the character of Ashley “Ash” Williams. Played by Bruce Campbell, Williams is a college student and employee in the “Hardwares” section at his local “S-Mart.” At the beginning of the series Ash is an unremarkable character. He’s a “nice guy.” He seems amiable. He’s a bit timid and comes across as somewhat “soft.” Beyond that, however, there’s not much that distinguishes his character beyond the fact that he’ heading to the cabin with his girlfriend and the two, we observe, seem to be in a love.
By the end of the series, however, Ash is almost the exact opposite. He’s an arrogant, violent smart aleck. He becomes an assertive, smooth talking ladies man. He’s still ostensibly a “good” guy, but he has a newfound sense of confidence and self-assuredness.
And the crux of the series is this character’s transformation from the former to the latter.
What I’m about to argue, though, is that the character arc represents more than just the superficial character traits. Ash’s transformation is not just one of personality, but one of spirituality. Specifically, the movie can be understood as a metaphor for the transformation from ignorant, existentially tortured student or novice, to enlightened and confident Zen master.
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