A Taxonomy of Satanisms

Satan_Calling_up_his_legionsA few days ago I was watching That 70’s Show, and backwards masking came up in one episode. It was season 1, episode 8, “Drive-In.” One character — Fez — is a foreign exchange student (“F.E.S.,” pronounced “Fez” on the show, which is not his real name) from an undisclosed foreign country whose host parents are very conservative Christians. They warn him of Satanic messages that are hidden on rock albums by being recorded backwards and then embedded in the music or between songs. This practice, called “backwards masking” at the time, or “backmasking,” was being widely reported among Evangelical Christians prior to the age of CDs as an attempt to get listeners to unconsciously accept Satanism. It’s a frankly dumb idea on the face of it. Most people don’t get rock lyrics even when they’re hearing them performed forward. But TV evangelists like Paul Crouch would bring “neuroscientists” on their show to attest that this kind of recording could subconsciously influence listeners.

So if you spin the albums backwards (on your record player, of course — this is the 70s, but vinyl is making a comeback) you can hear the messages. Yes, I am a child of the 70s, and I did this myself. As you can imagine, it all sounds very creepy in a campfire story kind of way, so my friends and I enjoyed doing this the way people liked watching Creepshow in the 80s. There’s a great scene in this particular episode in which the teenagers are sitting around, getting high, imitating backmasked messages (“Get Satan a cherry pop”), and generally trying to creep each other out.

But yes, backwards masking is “real” in the sense that some bands did embed hidden messages on their albums. The Beatles (who else?) used backwards recordings on “Revolution 9,” so of course once it became controversial and popularized bands started doing it just to get “exposed” by people like Paul Crouch: this stuff is great advertising. It was taken seriously enough for an anti-backwards-masking bill to be passed in California, of all places, in 1983.

Besides the wonderful reminder that Laura Prepon performed Donna Pinciotti, That 70s Show got me thinking about the figure of Satan in society, particularly what this figure means to different people. The traditional Satan, of course, is an irredeemably fallen angel who has rebelled against God and is responsible for his deception and temptation of Eve and, by extension, the fall of humankind. Adam, in the traditional account, wasn’t deceived: he chose to fall with Eve. In the traditional account, Satan embodies evil and will be cast into Hell at the end of time.

But all that this narrative provides is an outline: the social significance of this figure varies greatly. I can think of at least four different Satans or Satanisms in the contemporary imagination.

Satanism as animalistic hedonism. If you’ve ever seen any contemporary representations of SamaelLilithGoatPentagramSatan at all, you’ve very likely seen at least one version picturing him with a goat’s head and feet. Known as Baphomet, this version of Satan (with wings added) has most recently been in the news as a monument erected in Detroit by the organization The Satanic Temple. While Baphomet has a history dating back to the Crusades in the eleventh century and wasn’t originally associated with Satan, the goat’s head became associated with the inverted pentagram and generally represents the union of physical or biological forces: the point is that it’s all about the body, not the mind or reason. The goat itself has had dubious associations since the time of the Mosaic law, the “scapegoat” being the creature who bore the sins of Israel out of the camp.

If you were to invert the pentagram pictured above, so that only a single point faced up, the pentagram would then be a symbol of man, the head at the peak of the upper point with the other four points symbolizing the arms and legs. So turned one way, with a single point facing up, the head or the human mind stands at the apex of the star, while turned another way, the mind is diminished and the animal is exalted. Satan as goat man is the antithesis of reason and culture, celebrating the release of unrestrained animal forces at the expense of reason. When the film Constantine depicted demons as having animalistic heads with empty brain pans, it was following this tradition.

Given this history, The Satanic Temple’s very noble statement of purpose sounds ridiculous: “The mission of The Satanic Temple is to encourage benevolence and empathy among all people, reject tyrannical authority, advocate practical common sense and justice, and be directed by the human conscience to undertake noble pursuits guided by the individual will.” It’s a wonderful statement of purpose, but it isn’t Satanism, and Baphomet isn’t an appropriate symbol for an organization serving these goals. What Satanism means to The Satanic Temple, really, is a rejection of authoritarian theism, which makes it more sympathetic to Gnosticism — or even to certain branches of Christianity (except that it is “non-theist”: not “atheist,” but non-theist).

You can really get a good sense of what’s behind this movement from the geek-out moments on this video:

Which are probably best compared to this Saturday Night Live skit:

https://screen.yahoo.com/goth-talk-christina-ricci-000000520.html

Gema_o_Piedra_Abraxas_de_la_obra_-The_Gnostics_and_their_remains-_de_Charles_W._King,_1887

Satanism as Gnosticism. Gnosticism was a syncretist religious movement arising in the early days of Christianity that combined the teachings of Platonism, Christianity, and typically some forms of Middle Eastern or Egyptian pagan religions. According to Hans Jonas in The Gnostic Religion, many gnostic religions adopted the following narrative: that there was one true God, and that lesser gods, or demigods (associated with the planets), rebelled against the one true God, creating physical matter as a prison house for the true God and ruling over it as God themselves. They were only partially successful in this attempt, trapping some of God, but not all of God. They then established moral laws by which they could keep the one true God suppressed within the physical creation.

In this narrative, then, the physical creation is a prison house, and human beings are all fragments of the one true God seeking to escape the prison house of matter to be reunited with their source. Human beings gain freedom through arcane knowledge, which allows them to move up through the spheres — the courses of the planets — to finally reunite with the one true God. A Gnostic reading of Genesis would make out the Creator to be a lesser deity, an usurper, while Satan is the hero of the story, convincing Adam and Eve to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which leads to death, which is understood in Platonic thought as escape from the physical body. While the truth about Gnostic religions is much more complicated than this, Gnosticism in common discourse has come to be associated with anti-authoritarianism and anti-morality, Satan in this case being a symbol of Gnostic goals and an emissary of, not rebel against, the true God.

What about Romantic Satanism? Milton’s Satan from Paradise Lost is perhaps the true inspiration for the vision of Satan adhered to by The Satanic Temple, but at the same time, this version of Satan is too petty and vindictive to be heroic: Percy Shelley rejected Milton’s Satan as a viable hero and chose Prometheus instead. Eve is the most admirable figure in Milton’s story, perhaps the only admirable figure in the story next to Christ and then Raphael, and Satan causes her to fall out of sheer vindictiveness toward God, even when Eve more powerfully compelled him toward goodness than anything else in the natural world, including the sun.

The figure of devils or of Satan are moving targets in William Blake. Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, consistent with the goat tradition that I described above, associates devils (Satan is not named in this work) with energy, activity, the body, and creativity, but consistent with the Judeo-Christian tradition, sees the body as good. It just needs to be placed in a dialectic with reason, restraint, and order, so that we have enough energy to create, but enough restraint to keep our energies from being destructive. “Angels” and “devils” in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell are then so-called because they reflect the view of these very human forces by the Church of England, which in Blake’s opinion had a negative view of energy and of the body and mistakenly thought that only reason, restraint, and morality were good. Blake’s Satan going forward in his other mythological works is an ambiguous figure, eventually becoming passive-aggressive, like the Satan of Paradise Regained.

So Romantic Satanism is perhaps a combination of Gnostic Satanism and the next kind of Satanism, Satanism as a mirror of society.

Satanism as a mirror of society. This kind of Satanism dominates punk rock and heavy metal. Not long ago I watched Wolfgang Büld‘s Punk in London, his 1977 documentary about London’s early punk scene. Some of the musicians interviewed were asked why they wore swastikas and Satanic symbols, and one of them said that they didn’t believe in it: they were just reflecting back the society that they were observing.

Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” is probably the best statement of this kind of Satanism:

You can read the lyrics here:

Generals gathered in their masses
Just like witches at black masses
Evil minds that plot destruction
Sorcerers of death's construction
In the fields the bodies burning
As the war machine keeps turning
Death and hatred to mankind
Poisoning their brainwashed minds
Oh lord yeah!

Politicians hide themselves away
They only started the war
Why should they go out to fight?
They leave that role to the poor

Yeah

Time will tell on their power minds
Making war just for fun
Treating people just like pawns in chess
Wait 'til their judgment day comes
Yeah!

Now in darkness world stops turning
Ashes where the bodies burning
No more war pigs have the power
Hand of God has struck the hour
Day of judgment, God is calling
On their knees the war pig's crawling
Begging mercy for their sins
Satan laughing spreads his wings
Oh lord yeah!

As you see, this song isn’t about the worship of Satan. Like Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” the song protests the military-industrial complex and its war profiteering, which it associates with Satan by way of hell: the bodies burning on the battlefields resemble bodies burning in hell, and modern generals resemble witches and sorcerers. Black Sabbath’s Satanism, like punk’s, is there to emphasize the implicit Satanism of western capitalism, which is immorally profiteering and murderous. However, it does so from the standpoint of an essentially Christian morality: God eventually punishes the wicked.

Satanism as nihilism. When I was a teenager, I read Anton LaVey‘s The Satanic Bible. In it, there’s an anecdote about a young man who is told by another man on the street that if he will hand over all of the money in his wallet right then, that minute, the man will tell him the secret to a lifetime of wealth. When the first man hands over his money, the second man whispers in his ear, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

It’s a funny anecdote, but the point is that there is no point. This may as well have been a joke told about the purchasers of LaVey’s literature.

The actual worship of the Biblical Satan? Of evil? Doesn’t happen. Every one of these Satanists would be scared senseless if they ever had to confront real evil.

Romanticism and Rock

Updated June 7th with additional links, a bibliography, and an expanded contributor list. 

If you’re interested in the topic of this post, please consider submitting a proposal to the edited anthology Rock and Romanticism.

I’m thinking about developing a course about Rock and Roll and Romanticism for the Spring 2016 semester, so I asked my colleagues on the NASSR list for music recommendations that pair well with Romantic-era poetry and prose. They responded generously with numerous suggestions both for pairings between rock and roll and Romantic texts and for the course in general. I’ve posted a list below.

Why rock and roll and Romanticism? “Romanticism” as a literary movement has traditionally been defined both thematically and as a period, with periodization usually taking priority. As a periodized trans-European phenomenon, Romanticism usually starts with either Rousseau’s writings of the 1760s-1780s, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774, or the fall of the Bastille in 1789, and it lasts until about 1850, at least in England. By this date Wordsworth, Mary Shelly, and most other first and second-generation Romantic poets had died.

Thematically, Romantic literature tends to focus on the individual over and above the state or other economic or political structures, on democracy over and above monarchy or the aristocracy, on nature over and above the urban, and on imagination and passion over and above reason and traditional moral structures. Many of us who think today that our deepest feelings represent somehow our essential selves have the Romantics to thank.

Because Romanticism is a trans-European and trans-chronological phenomenon, it is very difficult to define precisely. Scholars have been wrestling with the question “What is Romanticism?” for as long as Romanticism as been defined as a literary movement, but especially since A.O. Lovejoy’s early twentieth-century essay, “On the Discrimination of Romanticisms.” In it, he claims that the term “Romanticism” has come to mean so many different things that it has ceased to serve the function of a verbal sign.

For the sake of my course, and perhaps to the annoyance of some of my favorite Romanticists, I will probably theorize Romanticism using Sayre and Löwy’s Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity (2001). In this book, the authors develop a taxonomy of different Romanticisms (their solution to the problem Lovejoy posed) while presenting a unified definition of Romanticism as a response to capitalism.

So theorized, Romanticism then exists as a literary mode independent of any period. I am tempted to define English Romanticism as starting with Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749). If this starting point doesn’t make sense to you, try comparing the moral reasoning of its titular character to the presentation of Blake’s Jesus at the end of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, who acted from impulse rather than rules. In this approach to Romanticism, the 1950s and certainly the 1960s are the most recent resurgence of Romanticism as a mode, one that continues into the present. If you were to reread my thematic description of literary Romanticism above, it’s not hard to read it as a simultaneous description of the major themes in a great deal of rock music. And as you’ll see from the list below, many artists from the 1960s forward drew inspiration from major figures in English Romanticism.

We need to be careful when talking about either literary modes or periods, however: it’s a mistake to think that even if we could define Romanticism as starting in 1789 and ending in 1850 that all literature and art during this period is therefore Romantic. Even periodization does not eliminate the need for attention to theme. Earlier generations of Romantic-era scholars tended to define Romanticism in opposition to Classicism, which at least allowed for two different modes of literature to co-exist within the same period (even if they tended to periodize Classicism earlier in the eighteenth century). We should do the same, at the least seeing Romanticism as a mode arising within a specific historical and social context and then continuing into the present, co-existing alongside other disursive modes arising before and after it and continuing alongside it into the present.

A provisional list is below, which as you see very broadly defines both Romanticism and rock and roll. Please email me with further suggestions at jamesrovira at gmail dot com, and I will add your suggestions to the list and credit you below. Many thanks to all who contributed.

If you’re interested in more on William Blake in popular culture, check out the online gallery for the Blake in the Heartland exhibit on this site.

William Blake, general responses

Note: Donald Fitch’s Blake Set to Music provides a comprehensive list up to 1989.

Zoamorphosis is an excellent source of material on Blake and popular culture.

William Blake, An Island in the Moon Live performance, stage adaptation by Joe Viscomi
William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Ulver, Themes from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
William Blake, Milton a Poem, “And did those feet…” Jimi Hendrix, “Voodoo Chile
Emerson, Lake and Palmer, “Jerusalem
William Blake, Poetical Sketches The Fugs, “How Sweet I Roamed
William Blake, Songs of Innocence and of Experience Anda al Sinaia, Songs of Innocence and Experience, “The Clod and the Pebble
Daniel Amos, “Instruction Thru Film” (“The Chimney Sweeper,” Innocence)
Daniel Amos, “Sleep Silent Child
David Axelrod, Song of Innocence
David Axelrod, Songs of Experience
William Bolcom, Songs of Innocence and Experience (2.5 hr. orchestral performance of all of the Songs from the 1950s, highly diverse musically)
The Fugs, “Ah! Sunflower
The Man on the Margin (Italian band), “Songs of Innocence and Experience”
Van Morrison, “Let the Slave
Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, “The Clod and the Pebble
Terry Scott Taylor, Knowledge and Innocence
U2, Songs of Innocence and Beautiful Ghost/Introduction to the Songs of Experience
Van Morrison, “You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push the River
Victor Vertunni, “Little Boy Lost” (Part of his Songs of Innocence and Experience Project)
Walter Zimmerman, Songs of Innocence & Experience (1949 string quartet, not remotely rock and roll)
See Martha Redbone above for several individual songs.
Robert Burns, general responses Hugh Morrison, Robert Burns Rocks
Robert Burns, “My Heart’s in the Highlands” Bob Dylan, “Highlands
George Gordon, Lord Byron David Bowie, “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean
George Gordon, Lord Byron, “So We’ll Go No More A-Roving” Leonard Cohen, “So We’ll Go No More A-Roving
Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights Kate Bush, “Wuthering Heights
Michael Penn, “No Myth
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” Iron Maiden, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Ian McKellen reading “Rime
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Kubla Khan” Rush, “Xanadu
Olivia Newton-John and ELO, “Xanadu
John Keats, “Lamia” Genesis, “The Lamia
John Keats, “Ode on Melancholy” Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds feat. Kylie Minogue, “Where the Wild Roses Grow
Jack Kerouac, On the Road The Waterboys, Modern Blues, especially “Long, Strange, Golden Road
Edgar Allan Poe, Miscellaneous Poems Jeff Buckley, “Ulalume
Marianne Faithfull, “Annabel Lee
Iggy Pop, “Tell Tale Heart
Lou Reed, The Raven
Christopher Walken, “The Raven
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein Edgar Winter, “Frankenstein” (maybe more a reference to James Whales’s film?)
Grateful Dead, “Ramble on Rose
New York Dolls, “Frankenstein
Percy Shelley, “Adonais” The Cure, “Adonais
Mick Jagger reading “Adonais
Vincent Price reading “Adonais” (Yes, Vincent Price is rock and roll — links appreciated if available)
Percy Shelley, The Masque of Anarchy Scritti Polliti, “Lions After Slumber
Percy Shelley, “Ozymandias” Glass Hammer, “Ozymandias
Walter White/Heisenberg reading “Ozymandias” (he’s officially rock and roll now too)
Vincent Price reading “Ozymandias
Percy Shelley, “To a Skylark” The Cure, liner notes to Disintegration
William Wordsworth, general responses Joy Division, “Heart and Soul
Van Morrison, “Summertime in England” (with references to Coleridge, Yeats, and T.S. Eliot)
William Wordsworth, “My Heart Leaps Up” Anton Corbjin, Control, reading of Wordsworth’s poem by Ian Curtis of Joy Division
William Butler Yeats, general responses The Waterboys, An Appointment with Mr. Yeats, September 1913” and others
William Butler Yeats, “The Stolen Child” The Waterboys, “The Stolen Child
References to Byron, Shelley, and Keats Natasha Bedingfield, “These Words
References to John Keats, William Butler Yeats, and Oscar Wilde The Smiths, “Cemetry Gates
“Romantic in tone, mood, or spirit” The Clash
John Denver
The Dropkick Murphys
Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited. See D.A. Pennebaker’s film Don’t Look Back
Echo and the Bunnymen
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros
Flogging Molly
Genesis, Foxtrot
King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King, In the Wake of Poseidon
The Kinks, Arthur
Led Zeppelin
The Moody Blues, On the Threshold of a Dream and A Question of Balance
Ritchie Blackmore’s Night
Pink Floyd, The Wall: FilmFull Album, Soundtrack, Live 
The Pogues, “Lorelei
Simon and Garfunkel
The Tragically Hip, “Poets
The Waterboys, A Pagan Place, “A Church Not Made with Hands
The Who, Tommy, QuadropheniaWho’s Next 
The “New Romanticism” of the 1980s Spandau Ballet

Partial Bibliography

General

Dettmar, Kevin. Is Rock Dead?  

Dettmar, Kevin. Think Rock

Dettmar, Kevin and Willem Richey. Reading Rock and Roll: Authenticity, Appropriation, Aesthetics. 1999.

Doughty, Howard. “Rock: A Nascent Protean Form.” Popular Music and Society 2.2 (1973).

Eisen, Jonathan. The Age of Rock: Sounds of the American Cultural Revolution (Random House) and The Age of Rock 2: Sights and Sounds of the American Cultural Revolution (Vintage Books).

Lewis, George H. Side Saddle on the Golden Calf: Social Structure and Popular Culture in America (Goodyear Pub. Co.).

Maddocks, Melvin. “The New Cult of Madness.” Time Magazine (March 13, 1972).

Marshall, Lee. “Metallica and Morality: The Rhetorical Battleground of the Napster Wars.” ESLJ 1.1 (2004).

Passmore, John. “Paradise Now: The Logic of the New Mysticism.” Encounter (November 1970). CIA funded source.

Prendergast, Mark. The Ambient Century – from Mahler to Moby, the Evolution of Sound in the Electronic Age (Bloomsbury, 2003)

Reynolds, Simon. “Ecstasy is a Science: Techno-Romanticism.” Stars Don’t Stand Still in the Sky: Music and Myth. Ed. Karen Kelly and Evelyn McDonnell. New York: New York UP, 1999. 199-205.

Ross, Alex. The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century.

Weinstein, Deena. “Art Versus Commerce: Deconstructing a (Useful) Romantic Illusion.” Stars Don’t Stand Still in the Sky: Music and Myth. Ed. Karen Kelly and Evelyn McDonnell. New York: New York UP, 1999. 57-69.

William Blake

Clark, Steve, Tristanne Connolly, and Jason Whittaker. Blake 2.0: William Blake in 20th-Century Art, Music, and CulturePalgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Nick Cave

Barfield, Steven, ‘ “The Time of Our Great Undoing”: Love, Madness, Catastrophe and the Secret Afterlife of Romanticism in Nick Cave’s Love Songs’, in John..H..Baker (ed.) The Art of Nick Cave: New Critical Essays (Bristol, UK. Intellect Book, 2012) 239-260.

Welberry, Karen. “Nick Cave and the Australian Language of Laughter.” Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave. Farnham: Ashgate, 2009. 47-64.

The Doors/Jim Morrison

Paunovic, Zoran. Istorija, fikcija, mit (Geopoetika, Beograd 2006). In Serbian. Essay on Blake and Morrison.

Bob Dylan

Corcoran, Neil. Do You, Mr. Jones? Bob Dylan with the Poets and ProfessorsChatto.
Dettmar, Kevin ed. The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan
Dylan, Bob. Chronicles. 2 volumes. Simon and Schuster.
Ricks, Christopher. Dylan’s Visions of Sin. Harper Perennial.

Mary Shelley

McCutcheon, Mark A. Techno, Frankenstein, and CopyrightPopular Music 26.2 (2007): 259-280.

Contributors
Hearty thanks to the following contributors, in alphabetical order:

Rick Albright
Ian Balfour
Suzanne Barnett
Rick Brenner
William Christopher Brown
Adriana Craciun
Kellie Donovan-Condran
Howard Doughty
John-Erik
Michael Falk
Neil Finlayson
Peter Francev
Sandy Gourlay
Gregory, Stephen
Arden Hegele
Joseph M. Johnson
Aaron Kaiserman
Rob Kilgore
C. Kimberly
Silvia Lombardini
Mark McCutcheon
Theresa McMillan
Terry Meyers
Richard Nanian
Aaron J. Ottinger
James Rovira
David Ruderman
Teresa Romero Sánchez-Herrero
Philip Shaw
Pamela Siska
Eugene Stelzig
Zinaida Taran
Chip Tucker
Ana Vukmanović
Sydney Waimsley
Julie Watt
Paul Yoder

Steve Martin and the Atheist Hymnal

Updated 29th May at 10:35 a.m. with a discussion of atheism as a methodological assumption and of miracles.

Updated May 25th at 9:40 p.m. with another video and a Type 4 atheism: “Christian atheism.” Scroll down to check them out.

My Facebook buddy Artur Sebastian Rosman recently posted to his FB group Cosmos in the Lost a link to his Patheos.com article, “In Monologue: Did You Notice that Atheists Don’t Have No Songs?” It’s a response to a hilarious Steve Martin video attempting to address that problem with an atheist hymn of his own. The following video is of Martin’s performance of this atheist hymn on the David Letterman Show on March 16th, 2011:

Needless to say, the claim just begs for counterexamples, and naturally Artur ended his post with a request for songs that might make up an atheist hymnbook. Of course there’s a list of songs. Not as many as religious songs, because people are more motivated to sing about what they believe in rather than what they don’t, but people have suggested quite a few. Here they are, so far, in all of their glory, with a few of my own added at the end:

We need to start with the Big, Obvious One, the One that’s so obvious Artur said, “Don’t even bother”: John Lennon’s “Imagine.” But it does qualify musically as a hymn of sorts, at least.

Ani DeFranco and Utah Phillips, “Pie in the Sky”:

Tim Minchin, “If You Open Your Mind Too Much, Your Brain Will Fall Out”:

Kansas, “Dust in the Wind”:

Jimmy Buffet, “My Head Hurts, My Feet Stink, and I Don’t Love Jesus”:

Frank Turner, “Glory Hallelujah”:

XTC, “Dear God”:

Elton John, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy”:

Elton John, “Tower of Babel”:

Rush, “2112”:

Monty Python, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” from Life of Brian:

I could add a few other titles by Elton John and Rush, no doubt. What this list does is lead me to contemplate the nature of atheism, several varieties of which find representation in the videos above. The word “atheism” itself, as used in cultural discourse today, means a number of different things:

1. Atheism as critique of state or accepted religion. This is the atheism of Socrates in the Apology, where Socrates was accused of atheism and of corrupting the youth. In this definition, atheism is primarily characterized by rejection of accepted notions about God: in the mind of cultural theism, if you don’t believe in received notions about God or the gods, you don’t believe in any form of God or the gods at all. The problem with this definition of atheism is that it doesn’t acknowledge a variety of theisms: Socrates did believe in God as a divine substance out of which the Greek pantheon of gods was made. In fact, Socrates’s statements about God, and his critiques of the Greek pantheon of gods in The Republic, helped develop Christian conceptions of God in the early years of Christianity.

2. Atheism as polemic against Christian theology. Atheism in this sense tends to associate uniquely Christian beliefs with belief in God in general. It’s not terribly rigorous for doing so, tending to demonstrate a great deal of historical ignorance, and tending to miss that Christian theology engages in the same critiques of its own beliefs as well as wrestle with the same questions; e.g., of the existence of suffering, of the existence of evil, of the existence of hell, of literal interpretations of the Book of Genesis, etc. This kind of atheism is more of a rhetorical gesture than anything conceptually rigorous or historically aware. However, this activity is also very usefully engaged in attacking the crimes committed in the name of Christianity or of Christ, which shouldn’t be forgotten.  

For example, second-third century A.D. theologian Origen asked questions similar to those asked by critics of creation science today in Book IV of First Principles (see paragraph 16: please note that the link is to the much expanded “translation” by Rufinus. Origen’s original Greek text does not contain quite a bit of what you will see on this page, but par. 16 is about the same in both the Greek and Latin texts. What appears to have happened is that commentary and notes were incorporated into the source text by later copyists). He was attempting to demonstrate the problem with reading Scripture only in its literal sense (“How can you have light without a sun?”).

I should add that this sort of atheism is also the most deeply felt, usually by those who have encountered a number of destructive, dysfunctional, and intellectually dishonest forms of Christianity, of which many abound. Sometimes it comes across as a form of disappointment, reflective of a frustrated desire to believe in a faith it wishes were true. Marilyn Manson’s Mechanical Animals sounds this way at times.

My LinkedIn buddy Howard Doughty recently suggested Phil Och’s “The Cannons of Christianity” as an addition to this list, and it fits perfectly here:

The thing is, Pierce Pettis’s “The Lions of the Colosseum” communicates the same message, but it isn’t an atheist song.

3. Philosophic materialism. This variety of atheism emphasizes that there is no God or spirit, only finite objects in a variety of forms, so that God is a projection of human social and psychological forces. This is the atheism of Feuerbach that is behind Freud’s and Marx’s critique of religion. It’s also the narrowest and most useful definition of the term “atheism.” We should note that this atheism isn’t necessarily engaged in denying the transcendent, or that which is beyond human cognition or sense perception. It just affirms that the transcendent, however it exists, and however it influences human consciousness, is part of a universe or multiverse comprised of finite entities without the existence of a supernatural deity common to them all. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is an example of this kind of atheism at work.

This variety of atheism is the most intellectually rigorous and conceptually consistent. Within it is also included atheism as a methodological assumption, which is necessary for empirical science to function. Atheism as a methodological assumption just means that you assume in your scientific work that physical events have physical causes. If you don’t assume this, you can’t do science, which means that whether you are a theist or an atheist you should accept atheism as a methodological assumption if you’re working in the empirical sciences. What happens, of course — and this is less conceptually rigorous — is that a methodological assumption is assumed to be an ontological truth, which makes the mistake of using the characteristics of matter to make pronouncements on the existence or non-existence of an immaterial deity. That’s bad philosophy and not very conceptually rigorous.

What about miracles? The existence or non-existence of miracles is, again, outside rational analysis, because they are non-systemic: they are seemingly random intrusions upon the material system by an immaterial deity who acts seemingly capriciously upon physical matter. We can’t predict when a miracle will happen, nor can we find any clearly identifiably “God-residue” left upon matter other than the miracle itself. Given this explanation of miracles, David Hume’s critique of miracles in Section X of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding is nothing but a massive experiment in circular reasoning: miracles never happen because they don’t usually happen. People who believe in miracles are pretty dumb because dumb people believe in miracles, and because they’re not as technologically and scientifically advanced as we are, so believe somewhat dumb things anyhow.

But again, miracles are asystemic intrusions upon a system, so they can’t be evaluated in terms of the system. We can try to evaluate the credibility of the people who believe in any given miracle, and the physical evidence supporting it, but what will inevitably happen is that we will interpret the people and events in terms of our own assumptions. We will be inclined to believe or disbelieve in miracles prior to our evaluation of the evidence of a miracle. The most open-minded position is that of believing in the possibility of miracles while also believing most claims for them are probably false, but even this assumption stakes out a position.

I would like to stop for a minute to reflect upon the implications of what I have just said. If a Christian wants to engage in the study of the material world, s/he needs to adopt atheism as a methodological assumption. If an atheist wants to rationally consider miracles, s/he needs to adopt theism as a methodological assumption. Without making that assumption, the question is already answered. Without that assumption, the subject of miracles is not being considered. A decision was made before reasoning began.

I think that Kant’s critique of both proofs and denials of the existence of God in Critique of Pure Reason (Second Division, Transcendental Dialectic) is ultimately the best response to debates between the variety of theisms and the variety of atheisms fighting it out in the public sphere. He attempted to demonstrate that rational analysis equally supports both theist and atheist positions, so that unaided reason leads to an impasse regarding this question. There’s no point appealing to a material universe to support or deny the existence of an immaterial God: those who do so are demonstrating how they reason from their assumptions, not how they reasoned to a conclusion.

Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s response to the impasse set up by reason in its resolution of the question of God is simultaneously the only rational course left and the end of reason. Kierkegaard asserted that to believe in the Christian doctrine of the incarnation is to embrace that which is rationally incomprehensible and so to crucify the intellect. Belief is only possible, then, via the inward, or subjective, apprehension of the Divine by the individual, which is not communicable to another, thus insupportable by argument or demonstration. However, he sets up a densely cognitive system to lead people to this conclusion, so that those who work through it can make a variety of choices along the way to lead them — or not — to this realization.

Is Kierkegaard’s subjectivism a cowardly escape from the dictates of reason? Again, when we phrase the question as that of providing materially demonstrable evidence of the existence of, or experience of, an immaterial deity, I think there’s only one answer: if this deity exists, s/he or it is only comprehensible inwardly and subjectively. The most that we can rationally ask for is an internal logical consistency: if human beings are a synthesis of the material and immaterial, as physical bodies possessing an immortal soul, and if God is immaterial spirit, then it is with the soul that the individual can perceive the divine. In a sense, Kierkegaard’s answer is a very old one, perhaps most reflective of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, given a somewhat different conception of God.

What Kierkegaard responds to, then, are Enlightenment perversions of pre-Christian conceptions of the deity that carried forward through Medieval philosophy. This Enlightenment deity is the God of the rationally demonstrable rather than the inwardly perceived: the God of the traditional proofs of God’s existence that was argued out of existence by Kant’s Critique. The proofs as reasoning from assumptions are fine, but when used that way, they are not functioning as proofs. This God is similarly the object of Blake’s critique, personified in his characters Urizen and Nobodaddy. The God of the rationally demonstrable is the God of theism by force: the God who seeks social transformation through force of law, because anything that is rationally demonstrable can be enforced upon everyone capable of reason. This is the God that tries to Christianize America by opposing gay marriage and teaching creation science in schools. It is not, however, the God of inwardness or of quiet certainty. It’s a God that is threatened by the unbelief of others, so seeks to stamp it out.

These last thoughts lead me to the final kind of atheism:

4. Christian atheism. Yes, there’s such a thing a “Christian atheism.” I think there are three kinds.

Christian atheism type 1: Slavoj Žižek trying to stir a bit of controversy with his participation in the religious turn in literary and cultural studies by affirming the more attractive components of the teachings of Christ without committing to a theology. It’s really a bit more complex than this and has the possibility of being conceptually significant. When I heard him speak at Rollins College a few years ago he seemed in earnest about engaging religion, commenting significantly and seriously on his encounters with religion and the conflicts that came along with those encounters.

Christian atheism type 2: Eastern Orthodox theology. Some Eastern Orthodox theologians assert that “God does not exist,” which sounds like an odd thing to assert. But I’d like us to think about it this way: “existence” is a closed set constituting an order of finite beings, and God is not a part of it, because God is infinite. So this theology is negative: God is “not this,” and “not that,” and “not this either,” etc., until everything that exists is eliminated. What is left is God.

Eastern Orthodox theology tends to be the most experiential and complex of all Christian theologies, perhaps best compared to the Upanishads. This form of Christian atheism has the benefit of truly highlighting the absurdity of the doctrine of the incarnation, that Christ was simultaneously fully God and fully human, so that those who believe in it confront the nature of their choice. I think Kierkegaard would approve.

Christian atheism type 3: The third kind of Christian atheism is the post-Enlightenment Christianity of the rationally demonstrable that I described above. This kind of faith actually exists in a state of bad faith: it does not really believe but cannot admit it. This form of atheism is the reverse side of Atheism Type 2 above. Type 2 atheists, on some level, really do believe but don’t want to admit it, so they rage against the faith they claim to deny. Christian atheism type 3, inversely, rages against its own real state of unbelief, attempting to eradicate external manifestations of its internal unbelief through new crusades fought in the public sphere via courts and legislative activity. So it crusades against gay marriage, against gun control, against evolution, against “liberals.” When its activities are stifled, it feels persecuted, because then it is cast back to self-reflection upon its own unbelief, which it cannot bear. This is a miserable kind of atheism indeed. It needs a good dose of Dostoevsky.

But it occurs to me that I may well have just described a taxonomy of theisms as well.

On Being Creative

Newyorkstories

I’m going to be writing about what it means to be creative, which will lead to some advice about how to be creative. My advice won’t be usual, though, and it may even be a little disturbing, but I think it will be an accurate representation of the creative process for many people. There is other, less disturbing advice on being creative out there, and I advise you to seek that out too. But the advice I’m going to give here will probably disturb you unless you’ve experienced what I’m talking about, or unless you’re a sociopath. If you’re a sociopath, please, read on. You’ll enjoy this. Much of the other advice out there really is good, by the way. If you’re not interested in the voice of the sociopath, seek out what the Care Bears have to say about creativity. All of it will have some validity. I’d recommend seeking it out even if you choose to read this post.

Artists and their Art

I’m going to start by illustrating my points from two films: New York Stories and Bullets Over Broadway. I won’t be discussing it here, but I would also recommend the film S.O.B.

New York Stories is an anthology film featuring three short films by Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Woody Allen, respectively. Scorsese’s and Coppola’s films aren’t at all characteristic of their usual work and are wonderful, magical, and worth watching. Allen’s contribution is a hilarious abstract of his entire life’s work. If you can pick up or stream these films, don’t pass them by.

Scorcese’s short, Life Lessons, is about New York artist Lionel Dobie (perf. Nick Nolte) and his much younger live-in protégé and lover Paulette (perf. Rosanna Arquette) immediately before a big opening for one of Dobie’s shows. They have become estranged but are still living together. Dobie remains sexually obsessed with Paulette, while Paulette continues living with Dobie to be mentored by him and to receive some confidence in and validation of her work as an artist from him.

He continually withholds his praise, however, always coming back to, “Well, what do you think?”, which increasingly frustrates her. She, in turn, teases him sexually almost to the point of torture while still withholding herself from him, largely as punishment for his refusal to validate her work. I think she would even have been happy with a clear invalidation, for that matter — so that she could know she was wasting her time. But she didn’t get anything from Dobie either way. This dysfunctional dynamic, combined with how difficult it is to live with Dobie (he can only paint with his music on at almost concert level volumes), ultimately drives her away in a rage right before his show.

But what’s particularly interesting about the film is its depiction of the artistic process. The more tense, dysfunctional, and intense this dysfunction became, the better Dobie was able to paint. Her screaming and their shared frustration seemed to fuel him creatively. On the night of the show, he attends alone, and at the end we see him recruit a new young female protégé, one clearly hoping to be mentored by him, and clearly intended to serve as his perverse, dysfunctional inspiration for his next project.

Now just hold this picture in your mind while I move on to the next film: Bullets Over 220px-Bullets_over_Broadway_movie_posterBroadwayBullets is about young, idealistic playwright David Shayne (perf. John Cusack) who seems to be seeking fame with marginal talent. He cuts a deal with a mob boss to get financing for his play: in exchange for financing, the play will star the mob boss’s girlfriend, Olive Neal (perf. Jennifer Tilly). To both keep her safe and to make sure that David lives up to his end of the bargain, the boss assigns hitman Cheech (perf. Chaz Palminteri) to attend rehearsals.

In the course of rehearsing the play, however, David’s bad writing is confronted by the professional actors he hired. Cheech, sitting in the position of the audience and the critic, virtually rewrites the play with David as it is being rehearsed: Cheech has a talent for character, narrative, pacing, and lines that David doesn’t. In short, Cheech is a real writer.

When the play goes to performance, it is universally praised, with the exception of Olive’s acting. Olive is not only a bad actress but something of an idiot. When that becomes apparent to everyone, Cheech does what needs to be done: he drives her out to the docks and shoots her, dumping her body in the water. Olive’s part is then played by a professional actress and the play goes on to be widely acclaimed and to a national tour.

What I’d like us to consider here are two characteristics of the artist beyond talent:

1. You’re willing to kill for your work. Short of that, you’re certainly willing to do anything else. It’s the work that matters.
2. What you think about your work is what matters. You know that because you’re the artist. You may listen to others, but in the end, it’s what you think that matters.

Now, you’re reading this post to learn how to develop your creativity. I have two questions for you:

1. Are you willing to kill for your work? No, I’m not asking metaphorically. I want to know if you’re really willing to kill someone if that’s what it took to perfect a great work of art. What are you really willing to do to create something great? For anyone with any kind of moral compass, the answer is always “No, I’d never kill anyone,” so let me follow up with another question: If it really came down to it, would you at least be seriously tempted?
2. Do you think external validation for your work is irrelevant, at least while you are creating it?

If you don’t answer “Yes” to both of those questions, you’re not really an artist yet, and your creativity will be hampered. You’re in the position of Paulette, who wants to please an audience and get praised for it (in this case, Dobie), or David, who wants to get famous. But you’re not focused on the work itself. You’re focused on drawing external resources inward (which is narcissism) instead of projecting internal resources outward (which is creativity).

Both films affirm this answer in their own ways. Dobie’s refusal to validate or invalidate Paulette’s work was actually the best thing for her, the thing most likely to transform her into an artist. Asking, “What do you think?” directed her to the only question that matters, at least during the creative process. He was trying to get her to fall back upon her own resources, to exercise her own critical judgment of her own work, to act and think like she knew what she was doing.

Everyone wants a great review: don’t get me wrong. But while you’re creating, what you think is primarily what matters. Getting feedback on the finished product — if the feedback is professional, good, and focused on your intent for your work — that helps too. But in the end, it’s what you think that really matters. But do you know what needs to matter even more than your opinion of the work? More than anything else, in fact, even more than you yourself? The work.

Not your reputation, your praise, your recognition, your self-image as an artist, your theory of art, your ideals about art, or the politics of your art: just the work itself. That’s why Allen’s representation of the true artist was willing to kill to perfect his play. It was easy for him because he was a hitman, but I think the artist part of him would have been just as willing to kill himself for his work if, somehow, that is what it took to perfect it. At least in theory: in reality, that’s never the case. Suicides for art are generally by pseudo-artists seeking fame.

If you know what it’s like to selflessly love your children, I think you know what I’m talking about, but I only say that with the caveat that to develop as an artist you need to understand that your work really isn’t your baby. That means you’re willing to sacrifice anything within the work itself to perfect the work. The real killing takes place during the creative process, within the creative work itself.

Creativity vs. Narcissism

rawmaterialNext, I’d like to return to the idea that creativity is the act of projecting internal resources outward. It’s not unusual, of course, to see an artist’s work as a representation of his or her experiences. Perhaps the best statement to this effect is Wordsworth’s 1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads. But that’s only partly what I’m talking about.

What I really mean to allude to here is the artist’s management of emotional resources to create art (also the subject of Wordsworth’s Preface, by the way). When you create anything, you’re usually going to have to tap in to some reserve of emotional resources that allows you to create, or to some defining experience that has somehow created the person that you are, or to a compelling emotional need. Whatever that emotional core is, you will draw from it to create, and your creations will somehow be reflective of that.

Now I’m not talking about “writing what you know,” and I’m not claiming that all art is autobiographical. That is dealing with art in the realm of fact: character, plot, setting, etc. Content is interchangeable: the emotional core of a work is what I’m talking about. What makes Stephen King keep writing horror? What makes Nicholas Sparks keep writing romance? Why did Zane Grey focus on adventure and the west? In each case, the author’s creativity comes from some kind of inner emotional core, but that emotion varies widely by artist. It may be fear in some people, anger in others, romantic love in others, sex in others, or depression, or joy, or politics, or God, or just one specific woman or man… all of these result in very different creative products.

I have a friend who is an aspiring novelist who, years ago, left his wife to live with another woman for awhile. It didn’t last long: he returned to his wife, his daughters are healthy and beautiful and grown up and married, and he’s still happily married to his wife and childhood sweetheart. But that interruption of his marriage still haunts him and inspires a lot of his work. He writes about very dark, even demonic things, but he writes about them from an ethical position, even if those ethics are never specifically articulated in the work itself. Sometimes his work is so twisted he worries about himself: How am I able to write this stuff? Where is it coming from? He isn’t the demon. He’s just observed it very closely and even held its hand for awhile, and he still remembers what it looks and feels like.

Now I’d like to add a caveat here: not everyone writes like this. Some writers (let’s just talk about writers for now) — and these are among the most productive professionals — see writing as a bag of tricks that they can manipulate expertly to any effect. But this meme artmemehere exists for a reason: talking about your art is a seemingly narcissistic enterprise. That’s why I started this post with a longish discussion of two films. It’s too easy to spend too much time talking about yourself when writing about the subject of creativity.

The problem is, if you’re a writer writing about creativity, you have to talk about yourself (viz. Wordsworth). So please bear with me as I talk a little bit about myself right now to illustrate my points in more detail. I am going to try to limit this self talk to what is most useful while discussing creativity.

When I first started writing creatively — mostly poetry back in the late 80s and 90s — I found my emotional life became something of a rollercoaster. I found myself releasing emotions that I wasn’t aware existed. What I’d been before that was a generally affable Mr. Spock with some temper and stress problems. My main way of confronting the world was rationally and logically. That’s why I pursued a Ph.D. in English rather than an M.F.A. even though I was interested in writing creatively. Ph.D.-style writing, which usually operates as a rational exercise, came more easily to me.

When I started teaching Creative Writing: Poetry at my current institution in 2008 I found myself writing poetry again. I was past graduate school, past my dissertation, soon to be past my book, so I was able to write something other than papers. And again I confronted the emotional rollercoaster. I started writing again, seriously, early this year: again another emotional rollercoaster, though perhaps this time the rollercoaster prompted my creativity rather than was created by it. And this is scary: I found myself on rare occasion manipulating my interactions with strangers in order to be able to create something from them (And I mean total strangers, not anyone I’d ever had more than one conversation with, so if you know me, quit worrying, at least for now).

I do like messing with the people I know, but that’s a form of play, and they always know what’s going on. Okay, almost always, and I usually try to tell them if they don’t. My children are immune: don’t worry about that. My eight year old daughter has already mastered a range of disapproving facial expressions to throw at me, and my four year old daughter is the household tyrant. Someone needs to protect us all from her. But what I found myself doing this time was different: it was more along the lines of that U2 song “The Fly” (video linked below): “It’s no secret that a conscience can sometimes be a pest / It’s no secret that ambition bites the nails of success / Every artist is a cannibal / Every poet is a thief / All kill their inspiration / And sing about the grief.” My basic ethos is that you don’t use people  to achieve ends. I’m very Kantian that way. But I found myself doing it, and it felt wrong and vampiric.

I was willing to kill for my art.

I think I’m okay with that, but I’m watching myself very closely.

But more to the point about the creative process (see how narcissism slips in so very easily?): when I am able to write something, I have to manipulate emotional material. And that emotional material has to be linked to a word, an idea, or an image. But once I have distinct emotional material linked to a distinct image or word or line, I can write. I usually think next of poetic form — which poetic form is best suited to this content — and then I write.

Art and Its Sources

Now I’ve been publishing my poems on my blog since about January of this year, and I’m moving toward publishing my first book of poetry. In every case I found some emotional content, latched onto it consciously and deliberately, found words for it, and wrote. But I’d like you to consider the variety of emotional content that we experience every day: it ranges from deep, long-term commitments to fleeting thoughts. However, when you turn any of those into a creative work, they all develop the same profile: they seem big and important.

10644949_713856375336016_5831366228878047703_nThat’s just not always the case subjectively, though. On more than one occasion, I have had people close to me ask me some specific questions about my personal life because of the poems I’ve written. Are you okay? Need to talk? Alright, who is she? I totally understand that: the questions always reveal the insights of a friend who knows me. And if every poem that I wrote had the same emotional profile, particularly the one implied by the poem, I would need friends asking those questions.

Furthermore — and here we’re getting into territory that helps us interpret as well as create art — whenever I grab an emotion and turn it into a poem it becomes something else. Whatever the emotion was that I first relied upon to create is transformed in the creative process, so that the emotion communicated through the work is in somewhat different form the emotion present in the finished work. T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” has become for me, therefore, more than a significant theoretical work from the early twentieth century. I now understand it as a personal statement with some applicability to me.

So, you’ve read this far: very far. Over 2500 words far. I think you deserve to have it all boiled down to a few bullet points. So here you go. If you want to create,

  • Care about the work itself above all else.
  • As a corollary:
    • Forget about yourself: think only about the work.
    • Forget about being a writer or artist. Focus on writing or creating art.
    • Forget about being creative. Focus on creating.
    • Forget about what other people think. What does the work do for you?
      • And forget that self-conscious assumption that your work is crap, which is always just fear of rejection. I’m going to break up with him/her before s/he breaks up with me.
    • Do whatever it takes to grab that emotion that will allow you to create.
    • But don’t be a sociopath. People are always more important than things: “Every thing that lives is holy.”
    • Create. If you want to be creative, create.

10371963_649270955163324_8959216672163100761_nI’d like to conclude by articulating an unspoken assumption that’s been guiding my thoughts so far. You actually need to know something about your art. You need to know its history, master its conventions, understand the theories behind it. I’ve been able to refer to a couple of texts about creativity here only because I’ve read them. You need to train your knowledge of your art academically. By “academically” I don’t necessarily mean for college credit, but by studying the field systematically. And you need to train or develop your taste. If you don’t develop your taste, you’ll be one of the worst kinds of artists: you will believe that only your own opinion about the work matters, and your opinion will suck. You’ll be an idiot about your own work. Good luck with that.

Final bit of advice: quit thinking about being creative. Quit studying being creative. Quit reading about being creative. Go out and create something. Above all else, quit being such a chickenshit. Create. Become a god.

Should you go to college at all?

Most of my posts about higher ed. are directed toward people who are planning to go to college. What about those on the fence? Should you go to college at all?

The quick answer is, if you can do it debt free, do it. Do it and pursue your love. And I would say this on all levels, from two year degrees to Ph.D.s. If what you love isn’t practical or doesn’t provide a clear job path for you, or if it’s creative and if, in this field, being successful is like a small lottery win — still do what you love. If you can go to college debt free, or with very minimal debt, you have more to lose by not pursuing your love than by chasing it.

Now of course you need to worry about employability. One problem with higher ed. right now is perhaps best illustrated by the embedded table.

GRE Scores by Major
From the report “Educating School Leaders” by Arthur Levine, 2005. Click the image to go to the report.

This table lists the top scores on the GRE (Graduate Records Examination) by major. The GRE is typically taken by college students near graduation to qualify them for graduate study at different institutions. You can think of it like an SAT or ACT for graduate school. It measures students (or used to) in three areas: Verbal, Quantitative (math), and Analytical (logic). The table to the left is arranged in the order of who gets the highest analytical scores. Can you guess? No, not science or philosophy majors. English majors score the highest on both the analytical and the verbal sections of the GRE, followed by, in order, Religion, Physics, and American History.

Now of the top four highest scoring majors, only one of them seems to hold the promise of any kind of certain employment. So the situation seems to be that the majors that are the least practical offer the highest potential for cognitive and creative self development, but somewhat lower potential for income and employment. Which is unfortunate, because of all of the people who might walk into any office to be interviewed for a job, the most intellectually capable will usually be liberal arts majors. They can think the clearest and the fastest and can learn the quickest.

The reasons for this are simple: liberal arts majors, and especially English and history majors, read the most and write the most. So do religion majors (religion is just the study of a different set of literatures). At my institution, typical English majors will read perhaps 20,000 pages or more and write about 2,000 pages or more over the course of their study.

But the problem is, employers don’t know this, and they don’t know what to do with them. What we have is a massive disconnect, then: employers don’t know how college educations work and what they produce, and neither do they seem to know how to match employees with jobs if their education isn’t specifically vocational. Colleges and universities, on the other hand, don’t know how to sell their majors to employers. So it seems that the safe thing to do is to pursue a major that clearly matches a job, and then to get the job that your degree has prepared you for.

But no, that’s not the safe thing. A highly vocational education prepares you for a very limited range of jobs, and if you hate that one job that you’re educated to do, you’ll find yourself either working a job that you hate, or going and doing something else and feeling that your college education was a massive waste of time and money. And if the industry changes, or rather when the industry changes, every time the industry changes (and it will), you will have to educate yourself again. Education never is a waste of time or money, of course: it always develops you. That is an investment that never goes away. Even if you don’t use your specific skill sets, you have developed cognitively in ways you may not even know. But you still don’t want to be found in this situation.

But that brings me back to my first point: if you go to college, pursue the things that you love. If you devote your time studying what you love, you will never regret that time spent, and it will develop you in ways you never before considered possible. But as you major in what you love, minor in something that employers recognize: marketing, PR, management, finance, coding (.html, .xml, .php, flash, java). . . there’s a wide range. I would advise all English majors to learn a programming language and web technologies. I would extend that advice to all liberal arts majors.

I have not yet made it to the central question, though: should you go to college at all? I have known many capable, intelligent, and yes educated people who have never gone to college and have done well for themselves. These people are, however, in every sense of the word, exceptional. You also probably don’t need to go to college to play pro football, basketball, baseball, or if you’re very good at making money and selling, or if you have a marketable skill and a good head for business, or if you win the lottery, but most people can’t count on any of these things.

The numbers are out there. As poorly as the job market is performing for college grads, it’s performing even worse for those without a college education. Except in very rare cases, employers won’t consider your application unless you have at least a bachelor’s degree, and if you get a job, you will only go so far unless you have a Master’s degree.

So if you can go to college, go to college. It’s still the smartest choice. But as I’ve been saying, study what you love, get a vocationally oriented minor, and go to school as close to debt free as possible.

How can you go to school debt free? Attend a state school. They’re cheaper. Start at a community college and transfer in state — that’s even cheaper. I had a student today describe in class students who take out student loans so they can party during Spring break: okay, don’t do that. I had friends in high school who worked Alaskan fishing boats over the summer, made a lot of money, and then used it to pay for college during the year. And most importantly, go before you get married, and especially before you have children.

Do you need to go to college to be educated? No, of course not. I didn’t start college until I was 23, and by that time I had done more reading on my own than I was required to do for my college classes. I only went to college because, I thought, if I’m going to do all of this reading and writing I may as well earn a degree with it. So I know what it’s like to be self educated, and I also know what it’s like to go through an educational system (I have a Ph.D. in English). The only thing you need to get educated is enough of an education to get you started, a willingness to work hard, and a library. The advantages of a college education, however, are that your knowledge is structured, that you have some guidance and confidence in your knowledge, that you have credentials, and that you’re learning with other people, which makes the educational experience that much more intense, rewarding, and meaningful. And perhaps most importantly of all: you have a sense of what other people know. You know what knowledge to take for granted. That’s part of being socialized into the knowledge that you gain, and you learn not just a bunch of information, but how to arrange that information — you learn what’s more important and what is less important.

Ultimately, what will matter is what you can do. There are plenty of useless people out there with degrees, and the people I know working at the highest levels care about what you really know and what you can really do, not so much about your credentials. Credentials are just a way to weed out people less likely to perform — they are a way for the people holding the keys to the doors to hedge their bets. But credentials are no guarantee, and too many people waste their time in college, squeak by in their classes doing minimal work, and graduate almost as useless as when they went in, usually after taking some kind of vocationally-oriented major.

How do you avoid being one of these useless, credentialed people? Study what you love.

Addenda: I have to add this after reading an early comment (below). There are many two year degrees offered through community colleges that are vocationally oriented and lead to good paying jobs. Again, your training will be very narrow, as will be your skill set, but some of these jobs pay better than most four year grads make right out of college. This may be an option if you don’t know what you love, or if you know that what you really love will never be something you can do for money. But you will find if you choose this path that you will peak early in your career unless you finish a B.A. and Master’s degree, so the upper end of your earning potential — at least as far as your degree will take you — will be limited compared to those with more education.