The Official Blog Of Edward Cline

Our Cicada Culture

After
mosquitoes, chiggers, ticks, fleas, flies and other tiny disease-carrying
insects that seem to exist solely to cause human misery and pain and which are
otherwise expendable, the cicada is the next most useless creature in the animal
kingdom. Ants and worms aerate the soil. Bees distribute pollen.

The
cicada, however, does nothing. It doesn’t even transmit a disease. It’s also so
ugly it resembles an
alien life form
. I’m surprised that no independent film producer has shot
and released “The Attack of the Flesh-Eating Cicadas From Planet Xylophone.” It’s
noisy. The mating call of the American cicada, as anyone who has ever heard one
(or a forest full of cicadas) can testify, is a shrill, high-pitched, compressed clicking similar
to the sound of a car’s gears being stripped. Or a DVD player spinning its
wheels. Or a badly designed alarm clock. It can outshout the mating call of a
tree frog.
I’d
rather listen to a forest full of crickets. That can be deafening, too, but at
least I know the crickets are not coming after me.
Basically,
the cicada provides an “ecological” service to everyone and everything by just
dying. It is basically a parasite. It doesn’t even feed on other parasites. Like
the equally useless bagworm, It sucks on tree fluids, becomes an adult,
reproduces, and dies.  It is only good
for being mulched in soil after it dies, or being consumed by ants and other
insects, and by squirrels, birds, and other animals when they’re desperate.
All
the websites on the cicada say that it is a nutrient-rich delicacy. There are
actually cicada recipes. No, thank
you. I have a hard time picturing people chowing down on chocolate-covered ants
and snails.
One
can’t say about the cultural cicadas that make a lot of noise on Netflix that
they’re “nutrient-rich.” These movies and TV series are not nutrient-rich – at
least not for one’s souls – and are otherwise useless as esthetic and/or moral experiences.
They are not produced for “uplift.” They do not provide what novelist Ayn Rand
called “emotional fuel” for one to pursue one’s values. They are a hybrid
cicada, and can burrow into one’s mind and soul to lay eggs. They are produced,
consciously or unconsciously, to inculcate an enervating epistemological and
metaphysical drone that life is pointless, that happiness is random and
arbitrary, and that existence is just one long sentence of spiritually eviscerating
numbness with no chance of relief or commutation.
In
her essay, “Art and
Cognition
,” from The Romantic Manifesto, Rand writes about an artist’s
choice of subject:
For instance, consider two statues
of man: one as a Greek god, the other as a deformed medieval monstrosity. Both
are metaphysical estimates of man; both are projections of the artist’s view of
man’s nature; both are concretized representations of the philosophy of their
respective cultures.
And,
in her essay, “The
Psycho-Epistemology of Art
” in the same volume, she observed:
Is the universe intelligible to
man, or unintelligible and unknowable? Can man find happiness on earth, or is
he doomed to frustration and despair? Does man have the power of choice,
the power to choose his goals and to achieve them, the power to direct the
course of his life—or is he the helpless plaything of forces beyond his
control, which determine his fate? Is man, by nature, to be valued as good, or
to be despised as evil? These are metaphysical questions, but the answers
to them determine the kind of ethics men will accept and practice; the
answers are the link between metaphysics and ethics. And although metaphysics
as such is not a normative science, the answers to this category of questions
assume, in man’s mind, the function of metaphysical value-judgments, since they
form the foundation of all of his moral values.
Finally,
in that same essay, Rand clarifies the purpose of art, whether it is written,
auditory, or visual:
Since man lives by reshaping his
physical background to serve his purpose, since he must first define and then
create his values—a rational man needs a concretized projection of these
values, an image in whose likeness he will re-shape the world and himself. Art
gives him that image; it gives him the experience of seeing the full,
immediate, concrete reality of his distant goals.
Since a rational man’s ambition is
unlimited, since his pursuit and achievement of values is a lifelong
process—and the higher the values, the harder the struggle—he needs a moment,
an hour or some period of time in which he can experience the sense of his
completed task, the sense of living in a universe where his values have been
successfully achieved. It is like a moment of rest, a moment to gain fuel to
move farther. Art gives him that fuel; the pleasure of contemplating the
objectified reality of one’s own sense of life is the pleasure of feeling what
it would be like to live in one’s ideal world.
Our
cicada culture offers drama that doesn’t let one rest, tells one that the
achievement of values is irrelevant and perhaps even discriminatory against
those who have no life-affirming values, and that the ideal world is one of
chaos, anarchy, and medieval monsters. Cases in point:
House of Cards:
I
have written about the American
version
of House of Cards (HOC)
before, here,
here,
and here.
Its star and co-producer, Kevin
Spacey
, is a committed Democrat, but in this series, being filmed now for
its fourth season, all the villains are Democrats together with a handful of
Republicans. A man is known by the company he keeps.
He is a Democrat and a friend of Bill
Clinton
, having met the former U.S. President before his presidency began.
He described Clinton as “one of the shining lights” of the political
process.[9]
According to Federal Election Commission data, as of
2006, Spacey had contributed $42,000 to Democratic candidates and committees.[45]
He additionally made a cameo appearance in the short film President
Clinton: Final Days
, a light-hearted political
satire
produced by the Clinton administration for the White House Correspondents Dinner.
In September 2007, Spacey met Venezuelan
president Hugo Chávez. Neither spoke to the press about their
encounter, but hours later, Spacey visited the government-funded film studio Villa
del Cine
. In December 2007, he co-hosted the Nobel Peace Prize Concert with Uma
Thurman
.
Spacey
is doing the Democratic Party no favors by portraying his party as a gang of
liars, thieves and frauds. So one wonders what his ulterior purpose is in
producing the series.  There are no heroes
in this series, only a few patsies and pawns and other victims of the
power-lusters, the politically and pragmatically ambitious, and the social
climbers. In HOC, Spacey plays Frank
Underwood, a ruthless Southern politician who rises to occupy the White House. He
is a murderer and an adept manipulator of others’ lives and values.
There
is no “uplift” or metaphysical reification of rational values in HOC. Many politicians and fans of the
series have claimed that HOC’s
dramatization of Washington politics is realistic and spot-on. Significantly,
President Barack Obama
is a fan of the series
, as is former president
Bill Clinton
. No surprises there.
The
“message” of HOC is that, for those
who are not in the power game, who have no connections in Washington, D.C., and
who wish to live their lives unimpeded and uncontrolled by government and
conniving politicians, your life is hopeless, futile, and owned by the likes of
Frank Underwood, his wife Claire, Doug Stamper, and other nightmarish
creatures. Spare them the “fiction”
that your life is your own. HOC goes
out of its way to drill into one’s mind that one is merely a gnat to be crushed
or manipulated by efficaciously evil men (and women).  
Orange is the New Black:
This
is, basically, the feminist depiction of American society, which, according to
the series, is nothing but a larger, minimum security prison, in which all men
are contemptible liars and philanderers and exploiters. Or they’re wussies. In
the series,
most women are okay, a few are exemplars of the superiority of women, and a few
not so much. Some are absolutely crazy. The series is billed as a “comedy
drama.” I have not laughed once. I have previously reviewed the series here
and here.
The series revolves around Piper
Chapman
(Taylor Schilling), a woman in her thirties living
in New
York City
, who is sentenced to 15 months in Litchfield Penitentiary, a
minimum-security womens’ federal prison (operated by the “Federal
Department of Corrections”, a fictionalized version of the Federal Bureau of Prisons) in upstate New
York. Piper has been convicted of transporting a suitcase full of drug money
for her then girlfriend Alex Vause (Laura
Prepon
), an international drug smuggler.
If
you have a strong stomach and want to see a cast of some of the homeliest,
unappealing, repulsive women ever to enter the acting field and then be assembled
under one camera, and also get graphic lessons in lesbian and bisexual sex, then
this is the series for you. There is even a token black/transgender/father/ex-firefighter
hairdresser character. There is quite a lot of #BlackLivesMatter and
#HispanicLivesMatter racial conflict for your delectation; whites get trounced,
of course. There isn’t a single character in the series whose circumstance or fate
should concern anyone with the least quantum of self-respect, or whose gaze is
fixed upward, and not down on the sewer.
Believe
it or not, the series is produced by Jenji Kohan, who looks like the
man-hating dyke that would produce it, but who is actually married with
children. Nevertheless, it is a man-hating series.
Mad Men:

This
series, starring John Hamm as Don Draper, a Madison
Avenue advertising executive, has reached its nadir. I watched a bit of Season
7, and yawned so much that tears began sting my eyes. I devoted some words to
the series here.
I had watched it infrequently up to the last episode I could tolerate, which wasn’t
the series conclusion. Don Draper is a boring non-entity. Literally. He took
his name from a soldier killed in Korea. Much of the story is about his hiding
his stolen character, or doing penance for it. The series is also as much about
the pseudo-fraudulent mechanics of advertising as it is about “sexism” and
adultery and even, occasionally, about racism and homosexuality. All of the
main characters attempt to escape from their predictable and boring lives by
having affairs here, there, and everywhere, and, of course, by drinking gallons
of high-octane liquor. This is a “slice of life” series.  I am done with it.
The Walking Dead:
This
hit series about a zombie plague, The
Walking Dead
, ironically has interesting conflicts between its principal
characters, and some interesting characters, as well. Overall, most of TWD’s dramatis personæ are more fascinating and addictive than are the “slice
of life” ensembles of HOC and Orange is the New Black. The series is
an extended if unpleasant study in emergency ethics, and will debut its sixth season in October. I
am not a horror-film fan, not in the least. I have argued for decades that the
director who made horror films “respectable” was Alfred Hitchcock, with The Birds, in which reality
revolts against man in metaphysical chaos. This film could also be deemed the
first environmentalist horror tale.
The
series has grown an enthusiastic “cult” audience that surpasses even that of HOC or Orange is the New Black. This is basically because the various
directors and cast members have developed characters whose actions and fates viewers
actually care about. So, the series is not just about plague survivors lopping
off zombie heads. It is also about their having to deal with survivors who have
turned rogue killers whose specialty is killing other survivors. The basic
survivor group, lead by Georgia ex-deputy sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln),
at first holes up on a farm (overrun by zombies), then in a maximum security
prison (attacked by the residents of another survivor enclave), and encounter a
“safe” haven, Terminus, whose residents turn out to be cannibals who serve up
anyone luckless enough to think they’re “safe.” The series is not without its
plot holes and lapses in consistency, but in a culture ruled by moral zombies
on TV, in film, and in literature, this is, by my own standards, the “best” there
is to watch.
A
final note on the absence of “nutrition-rich” art in our culture, by Ayn Rand,
in her essay, “Our Cultural
Value Deprivation
”:
The form in which man experiences
the reality of his values is pleasure . . . . A chronic
lack of pleasure, of any enjoyable, rewarding or stimulating experiences,
produces a slow, gradual, day-by-day erosion of man’s emotional vitality, which
he may ignore or repress, but which is recorded by the relentless computer of
his subconscious mechanism that registers an ebbing flow, then a trickle, then
a few last drops of fuel—until the day when his inner motor stops and he
wonders desperately why he has no desire to go on, unable to find any definable
cause of his hopeless, chronic sense of exhaustion.
There
is no enthralling pleasure to be experienced in any of the works discussed here,
except in the brief twinkle of light seen through a gray overcast sky or
through an impenetrable and increasingly poisonous fog.
Rand
noted in her essay, “Art and Cognition
in The Romantic Manifesto:
Potentially,
motion pictures are a great art, but that potential has not as yet been
actualized, except in single instances and random moments. An art that requires
the synchronization of so many esthetic elements and so many different talents
cannot develop in a period of philosophical-cultural disintegration such as the
present. Its development requires the creative cooperation of men who are
united, not necessarily by their formal philosophical convictions, but by their
fundamental view of man, i.e., by their sense of life….
The movies are still in the
position of a retarded child: born into a collapsing family, i.e., a
deteriorating culture, an art that demanded Romanticism was left to struggle
blindly in the midst of a value-desert. It produced a few rare, almost
accidental sparks of true greatness, displaying its untouched potential, then
was swallowed again in a growing tide of mediocrity.

I love movies. More and
more, to watch them, however, I must go back in time to enjoy them, to a time
when the cicadas did not rule the roost, as they do now. But were Rand alive
today, doubtless she would conclude that films are not governed by a tide of
mediocrity, but by a mob of medieval monsters. I don’t take these monsters for
granted, as the norm, as the expected. Anyone who has read any of my fiction,
will know that.

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4 Comments

  1. Prashant

    Dear Ed,

    I am currently enjoying "Run from Judgement" which I have read many times before. It is what an artwork should be like. It definitely provides one with the emotional fuel to live.

    The subject of the story, especially the part where Fury researches Stella Dawn's background and muses about the state of the art of painting was what I found relevant to this article.

    All the medieval monsters seem like puny cynical nothings that fade into obscurity by the brilliance of your novels.

    Thank You!
    Prashant

  2. Edward Cline

    Prashant: Thank you for the compliments. "Run From Judgement" happens to be one of the least purchased and read among the Fury titles. We Three Kings" sells much better, chiefly because it's relevant to today's headlines about Islam.

  3. Teresa

    "Run From Judgement" is one of my all time favorites. Besides a great plot the characters are wonderfully developed. I wonder what movies and what aspect of the movie Rand was referring to that she saw sparks of greatness in. Do you have any idea?

  4. Edward Cline

    Teresa: She never really elaborated on the subject, never named examples.

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