Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Severe Punishment

"I lost my arm on my last trip home. My left arm." -First line of Octavia Butler's novel Kindred

Guy 1: I despise your killing. And raping. You're... despicable.

Guy 2: Are you... my judge?

Guy 1: It's just... you should be punished. I'm going to chop off your arm.

An arm is important: we need arms to do nearly everything. An arm is real, and as a symbol, it'll do as well as another: a foot or a hand or an ear, all are members and a team that loses a member cannot function well. Severe punishment can cripple, and what is fair? Octavia Butler's protagonist undergoes her mutilation in order to bear a physical manifestation of the wound left in our culture by the legacy of slavery: a carriage of justice by a cold universe whose laws allow individual harms to go un-redressed, and thirst for retribution, or for water, to go unquenched: a universe whose laws allow something like heroin to be a choice for a person that just wants to feel good, or total oppression of a race an acceptable action for a society that just wants to be the best.

The quote above is from a film sampled in the Wu-Tang Clan song "Severe Punishment", which appears on the quadruple LP Wu-Tang Forever that Frances picked for me this time. I've listened to Wu-Tang Forever more times than most albums ("Did you like, play it over and over again?" a friend asked me, as we attempted to debug why my cassette of it had broken. I was going at it from other angles - are 120-minute tapes likelier to break? Maybe the tape player in my van is messed up? Of course I just worn it out.) but I still can't sing along with any of the tracks. The rapping on this thing is, dense. It's packed with so much meaning that it's hard to tease out the message. If there is a single message.

Recently I spent a bunch of months getting into Pugatorio, the second book of Dante's Commedia. Most resonant for me were happy, positive quotes and philosophical musings, gems like:

Non aspettar mio dir più né mio cenno;
libero, dritto e sano è tuo arbitrio;
e fallo fore non fare a suo senno:

per ch'io te sovra te corono e mitrio.

("Await no further word or sign from me; your will is free, erect, and whole - to act against that would be to err: therefore I crown and miter you over yourself.")

Yes. I can be my own master. Free will is what I'm about, yo. But...

Another sample in "Severe Punishment" is:

He's a womanizer, but he's an expert at throwing knives.

Free will means, anyone can do anything they can get away with, while they live in this world. Punishment, society and conscience are our only defenses against the worst outcomes of our fellow-travelers' exercise of free will.

The gate of Dachau reads: "Arbeit macht frei". Work makes you free.

Punishment and justice is what I glossed over in the Purgatorio - my privileged American upbringing has given me a bit of a distaste for the conception of a Divine justice that punishes: envious souls whose eyes are sewn shut with iron thread (the inverse of this attitude, the embrace of the pornography of violence and vengeance, is what makes Inferno, with its lovingly art-directed justice and painful torture, the most resonant book of the Commedia for our modern tastes, and what makes revenge the most common trope in our films, and what motivates the perps of our most beloved crimes from Saw to Psycho to CSI). I suppose I've always been ok with punishment as long as it's clearly deserved. But as I get older, the black and the white blend further and further until there's no spot of absolutely pure darkness or absolute white: no message can be separated from its medium, no form from its content, no reason from its outcome. Black and White themselves, as symbols invested with meaning, are problematic at best, given the multiple and overlapping contexts in whose service they are routinely employed. An impartial judge in such a world is a special person indeed.

Can there be freedom without punishment? Do the limits of punishment abut the limits of freedom but never exceed? Who owns the right to judge? If no person, then who? None at all? Or everyone? How do you get all these people to agree on what's right and wrong if they can't even agree on Miley Cyrus vs. Eminem?

What about God? Who's that?

Arise, you dogs.

I always mostly ignored the opening track of Wu-Tang Forever, "Wu-Revolution", which contains a lot of instructions and teachings, but no rapping. They got a wise teacher, Poppa Wu, to speak some important knowledge:

Leave all the cigarettes, the guns, the alcohol, everything - that's the mental devil that exists within your body. It's destroying and decaying your mind. The mind controls the body. Everything within must come out.

I remember one time I was playing this track in my van, smoking a cigarette. About the time it reached this point, I was getting on the highway. I remember accelerating up the on-ramp, hearing and understanding the directive, tossing the half-smoked butt from the open window, praying for the wisdom and strength to end the self-pollution. I was pleased that he hadn't specifically mentioned pot. From that minute, I would be free from the mental devils for at least another hour or two. The mental devils are powerful.

Don't look towards the sky, cause there is no Heaven above. Don't look down beneath your feet, there is no Hell below. But Heaven and Hell exist within: Heaven is what you make it and Hell is what you go through.

(There is only one God! There is only one faith!)

It's the first track on the album. The first track! Why so easy to discard?

Then there's two hours of dense, dense rapping that I listened to a hundred times and I can still barely quote a single line from it. And then this:

The bottom line, like I said
Deal with freedom, justice, equality
You know?
Keep shining, add on
Food, clothing, and shelter...

Cause don't think we doing this just for anybody
We doing this shit for certain n****z kid
Certain people rather, certain
Certain fans, certain supporters
Certain delegators, word
What the fuck man, I'm tired of seeing these
Fake ass n****z fucking, running with the fucking globe
Ain't even, ain't even really seeing it the
Way it, it should really be seen
It's like, if you going to spread mathematics
Spread it right

RZA just talking to the mic, alone in the room, and then why does the record end with the sound of a helicopter? Two hours of the densest knowledge and it comes down to this is what I'm trying to say and can you pick it up and brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrbrbrbrbbrbrbrbrbrbrbbrbrbrrbbrrrrbbrbbrrrrrrrr...

You know what I mean?