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There's a notion, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, that if someone puts in ten thousand hours of practice, he or she can master almost any cognitively demanding field. The theory has been disputed, but a lot of people have heard about it and seem to subscribe to it. David Brooks even used the theory to claim that Mozart, the quintessential child prodigy, owed his success to practice, not genetics.
Personally, I'm skeptical. I don't doubt that practice is essential to perfect any skill. But it seems to me that some people have inborn talents that allow them to achieve a higher degree of mastery than their less gifted rivals, and that these talents manifest almost immediately, long before ten thousand hours of work has been logged.
I was reminded of this while reading a recent book, Master of the Majicks, Vol. I - a look at the early years of stop-motion animator and special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen, who passed away at age 92 earlier his year. The book includes coverage of the teenage animator's experiments with a 16mm camera.
One of the young Ray's early models was this wooly mammoth, seen here in somewhat deteriorated condition many decades later:
I don't know how good the interior mechanism (the "armature") was, but certainly in terms of proportions, detail, and overall sculptural quality, this figure is of professional caliber. It is noticeably superior to models built for feature films like The Lost Continent and The Beast of Hollow Mountain. Yet Harryhausen was only a teenager when he made it.
Below is an impressive shot of a brontosaurus model animated in a double exposure with live-action water. Again, by the standards of the 1930s (or any time, really, prior to the advent of digital effects), this is professional quality work, yet it was done by a teenage hobbyist working in his parents' garage.
Here's a shot of the high school age Harryhausen's tabletop animation setup, complete with painted backdrop, miniature foliage, and foreground glass painting:
Below is the finished effect produced with the above setup:
The bottom line is that Harryhausen just had a knack for this kind of thing. It may well have taken him ten thousand hours to refine his talents, but the raw ability - the intuitive sense of design, movement, and drama - was there right from the start. Most other animators and model makers, equally dedicated, never reached his level of skill, no matter how many hours of effort they put in, because they just didn't have "the gift."
Of course, there are countless other examples from other fields. I picked Harryhausen simply because the issue occurred to me while I was reading a book about him, and because I still enjoy hand-crafted effects work like this.
It would be nice to think that everyone is born equal, and that only hard work makes the difference, but when it comes to talent, I suspect we're largely fated to play the hand we're dealt at birth.
On the journey, when he had halted for that night, Yahweh encountered him and tried to kill him. Then Zipporah, taking up a flint, cut off her son’s foreskin and with it touched his feet and said, “You are my blood-bridegroom!” So he let him go.
This odd, fragmentary text has led to all kinds of speculation and a variety of explanations. Just Google the term “Yahweh tries to kill Moses” and you’ll find a host of articles approaching the problem from every angle.
One difficulty with the text is the ambiguous use of pronouns. As written, it’s not entirely clear whether Yahweh tried to kill Moses, or whether Yahweh tried to kill Moses’ infant son, or whether Moses tried to kill his own son. The connection with circumcision is also problematic.
Still, the most popular interpretation, as reflected in the translation of the New Jerusalem Bible quoted above, is that God – or his angel – did indeed try to kill Moses for some obscure reason, and that the attack was warded of by quick action on the part of Moses’ wife, who managed to appease the angry deity by circumcising their son and touching the foreskin to Moses’ genitals (“feet” is a euphemism).
It is interesting to note in this connection that often, when Yahweh manifests himself, he is referred to by the Hebrew word malak, meaning "messenger" or "angel." That is the term used in this scene. Carl Jung speculated that malak was intended to suggest a certain aspect of God - namely, his will, which encompassed both good and evil. The angel of the Lord, then, could be seen as a manifestation of Yahweh’s dark side, at least in this episode.
Now, I don’t think the Book of Exodus represents any sort of reliable historical record. My best guess is that the story was largely invented during the Babylonian captivity, with Egypt standing in for Babylon (just as Babylon itself would stand in for Rome in the much later Book of Revelation). The story of the captive Israelites being freed by their heroic leader was probably intended to keep up the morale of the Israelites as they slaved away for the Babylonians. It may have been based on some oral tradition about the liberation of a group of Hebrew slaves earlier in their history, but I doubt there was ever a mass migration of slaves out of Egypt; the Egyptians kept copious records, and there is no documentation of any such event or of the plagues that supposedly preceded it.
Whatever the origin of the biblical stories, they do at least serve as a record of the belief system of people of that era. The story of Moses under attack by a vengeful “angel of the Lord” may be mere fiction, but presumably it was inspired by actual events that people had witnessed or heard about – cases of people, even deeply spiritual people, who were beset by evil supernatural forces and brought to the brink of death.
I was reminded of this recently when reading an interesting book called The Red Scorpion, by Rami Kivisalo and Marko Joensuu. The book is a memoir by a former member of a Russian organized crime syndicate (Kivisalo) who found Jesus and turned his life around. I was reading it because I’m doing research on the Russian mafia for a novel I’m planning. I didn’t expect to find anything in the book that would relate to the subject matter of this blog. But I was surprised.
In fact, there’s a great deal of material in The Red Scorpion that I think would be of considerable interest to this blog’s readers. Kivisalo describes how he immersed himself in the study of “snake kung fu,” a deadly art that required him to tap into paranormal or supernatural abilities. He became convinced that he was obsessed or possessed by an entity (or multiple entities) that he called “the beast.” Sometimes, when the beast took over, Kivisalo would black out, committing insane acts of violence and having no memory of them the next day. He became increasingly out of control and, because of his Christian background, was deeply concerned about the fate of his soul. Eventually he underwent an exorcism that seemed to drive the beast out of him, and his recovery began.
The episode that brought to mind Moses’ enigmatic encounter with Yahweh runs as follows:
It was still early when I woke up to a feeling that someone or something was suffocating me. Who is it? Instinctively I moved my hands to my throat to struggle in the darkness against whoever was trying to kill me, but my hands could grab hold of no outstretched arms.Finally, Kivisalo uses the power of prayer to set himself free.
I opened my eyes in the dark room and saw no one. A vise of fear tightened around my mind, just as the clutching fingers of a horrifying creature of the darkness tightened all the more around my throat.
Yes, I seemed to be alone, but I was not fooled. Something was there, something like the tangible presence of an evil being – one that was all the more horrifying in that I could neither see nor touch it. How can I fight what I can’t see or feel? A thick, dark cloud seemed to fill the hotel room, sucking my life out of the very air.
Usually I prided myself on not feeling fear like other men, but now my heart pounded with sheer terror. I could not fight. I could scarcely even breathe. I was about to die. Relentlessly the invisible claws of death banded around my throat, seemingly determined not to let go until I came to the land of the dead …
On occasion I had felt the fleeting presence of evil about me, but never anything like this. I did not know what else to do, so I … just lay there, struggling for breath, waiting for my attacker to relent. I managed to suck in enough oxygen to stay alive and not lose consciousness. But the fight for it seemed endless, threatening to exhaust me.
Hours later Tony peeked in, apparently puzzled at why he had not seen me at breakfast. He saw me rolling on the bed and, perhaps surmising that this was not some kind of fit that could be cured by a visit from a doctor, shook his head and left the room …
Breathing was requiring more effort, and the amount of oxygen I was taking in was getting less. Alone once again – even the chambermaid knew not to come – I realized with despair that I would die in this hotel room.
After seven years of toying with the presence of evil, I had some understanding of what was going on. I had given the devil an inch. More than an inch. I had even, at his insistence, taken a tattoo of the red scorpion. And now he had come to get what rightfully belonged to him …
After interminable hours, the day came to an end, bringing back the darkness. My condition grew worse. Even though the claws still clutched my throat, even worse was the evil atmosphere trying to break down the resistance of my mind, to exhaust my determination, so that my lungs would let go and begin to cooperate with dying.
I was motivated to hang on, however, by fear itself. It was not so much death that I feared. I feared hell.
Popular magazines assure us that celebrities are just like you and me. But it's not really true. Celebrities, like Roman emperors of old, are given unlimited opportunities to assert their demands with no negative consequences. It's the kind of behavior you expect to see in a two-year-old, but not in an adult.
Unless that adult is a celebrity. Then it's par for the course.
I was reminded of this truism when reading the recent book Johnny Carson, by the famed talk show host's longtime lawyer Henry Bushkin, who was immortalized, in a small way, as Bombastic Bushkin in Carson's monologues. The book offers a balanced portrait of Carson, a man whose emotional life was crippled by an unfeeling mother, and whose charm and sociability onscreen were frequently absent in his offscreen encounters. Carson could be astonishingly generous – one time he casually cut a check for $100,000 to a restaurateur who'd gotten into tax trouble, reducing the man to tears – but he was also quite often a jerk, routinely cheating on all of his four wives, ignoring his children, holding petty grudges, and treating even his closest friends and business associates as disposable items.
What does this have to do with the usual subject matter of this blog? Not a whole lot, except that it does show how the ego, unchecked, can reduce even the most sophisticated person to the status of a mewling baby.
Here's a case in point, from Bushkin's memoir. Carson had just flown into Las Vegas to begin a hugely profitable engagement at Caesars Palace. (Yes, the universe has a sense of humor. Carson's Caligula-like meltdown naturally took place in a hotel named after Roman emperors.) He stood to make a cool $250,000 a weekend for an ongoing series of appearances - and this was at a time when $250,000 was probably the equal of a million dollars in today's money. Now watch how the infantile ego nearly throws it all away out of spite:
Finally [Bushkin writes] I went out to the bell desk to see what was going on. To my surprise, I ran into Johnny, who had just exited a cab. He was standing at the check-in counter demanding the keys to his suite. "The driver [sent by the hotel] completely f---ed up," he fumed. "He went to the wrong goddamn gate and by the time he found me, I told him to get lost and I hopped in a cab."
At that moment, the check-in clerk advised Johnny that he would have to wait about thirty minutes before his suite was ready.
When this happens to you or me, we are expected to act like grown-ups and adjust. But when this happens to the biggest star in Vegas, who was arriving for his debut performance at what is supposedly the town's premier hotel, well, this, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call a catastrophe.
Carson went nuts. He started yelling at the clerk ...
"Damn it, Henry," Carson said. "Charter me a plane and get me back to Los Angeles. I will not work here."
"You know there are 350 invited guests on their way here," I reminded him ...
"I don't give a s--t," he snapped. "I won't spend one minute more with these monumental incompetents."
The hotel general manager arrived and tried to make things right. A new suite was ready ...; the management could not be more anxious to please this unhappy star.
"Too late!" snarled Johnny ... Then I got a call from Cliff Perlman [owner of Caesars Palace].
"Henry, please bring Johnny up to my sweet. I promise you I won't let him walk because of the f----ups of my staff. Please, please bring him up. Security will be there in a moment to escort you up."
"Okay, Cliff, but let me just say this: right now Johnny needs to feel as if he were the only star you have." ...
Once Carson entered the suite, the Perlman charm took over. He took Carson by the arm and showed him the apartment. Sitting atop the hotel, it was 10,000 square feet of opulence, with a rooftop swimming pool, Jacuzzi, wine cellar, health spa, six bedrooms, and a living room that was easily able to accommodate 300 people.
"Every time you come to Caesars," said Perlman, "this is where you'll stay."
"Nice," said Johnny, now notably calmer. "But I don't see a tennis court up here."
"No, it's downstairs. But you know that our head pro is Poncho Gonzales," said Cliff, invoking the name of one of the greatest players of the pre-Open era. "Anytime you want to hit with him, it's on me."
"Thank you, Cliff."
"You know," said Perlman, closing the deal, "I've never let anyone stay up here, not even Sinatra. But I'll do this for you to show my appreciation for your working here."
The grand gesture appeased Johnny, the weekend was saved, and from then on, whenever Carson came to Caesars, Perlman moved to a Motel 6 across town. Well… at least to quarters less grand.
Notice that Carson was ready to throw away millions of dollars in a fit of pique. Notice also that he thought nothing of throwing Perlman out of his own home every time he came to Vegas (which was often). Finally, notice that even after being offered this penthouse Xanadu, Carson had the temerity to point out that there was no tennis court attached!
This is how the ego behaves, when it can get away with it. And you can see that it has a certain practical value. In this case, it allowed Carson to obtain far more extravagant living quarters then he would otherwise have enjoyed. It allowed him the pleasure of throwing his weight around and intimidating one of the most powerful men in Las Vegas. It gave him the chance to puff himself up and see other people cower and kowtow before him.
But those are only short-term, superficial benefits. In the longer term, Carson's behavior was profoundly self-destructive. It meant that he ended up increasingly alienated from friends and acquaintances. By the end of his life, according to Bushkin, Carson was essentially alone, with only the crew of his yacht to take care of him. It appears that almost no one came to visit as he lay dying in the hospital. And given his propensity to drink to excess on a nightly basis, to smoke four packs of cigarettes a day, to fall into deep spells of depression, and to declare – when he was willing to open up a little – that he was incapable of happiness, it's fair to say that his ego-based behavior ultimately cost him more than he gained.
One of my favorite online scribblings is this extended satire on Ayn Rand and Objectivism, posted at my author site. I've put it up on my blog before, but somehow I felt it was time to rerun it yet again.
Admittedly, much of the humor derives from in-jokes. For instance, we are told that one of Reversalism's acolytes received an honorary degree from Martin and Lewis College. Getting this joke requires knowledge of two facts, both fairly obscure: 1) that one of the few academic awards Rand received was an honorary doctorate from the little-known Lewis and Clark College in Oregon; and 2) that Martin and Lewis were a slapstick comedy team in the 1950s (Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis).
Though it is a very broad satire, the piece fooled at least one reader, who emailed me to ask if Cassandra Prune was a real person and went on to lament her "sad life."
People who enjoy this kind of thing might also like Ellis Weiner's cruelly effective satirical novella Atlas Slugged AGAIN, available at Smashwords.com.
As longtime readers of my Web site know, I've occasionally written essays critical of the late author and philosopher Ayn Rand. But I don't want to give the impression that Rand is the only major American philosopher whose work I've studied. Another one, less well-known but with her share of influence, is considered below.
She was born Melissa Lebensraum in Innsbruck, Austria, in 1915, but emigrated to the United States at the age of eighteen and shortly thereafter adopted the name Cassandra Prune -- Cassandra, after the prophetess in Greek mythology, and Prune, after a packaged snack food she was enjoying at the time. In 1942 she married Elbert Periwinkle, an unemployed grifter and soda jerk, but for the rest of her life she was known professionally by the name Prune or, as her followers deferentially insisted, "Miss Prune."
Melissa Lebensraum, age ten. She was known as a dour child. (Photo courtesy The Cassandra Prune Institute; reproduced with permission)
Though she spent her first decade in America working as a lap dancer in a Vegas showroom, Prune's ambitions were considerably loftier. She intended to be a writer, and not just any writer, but the greatest writer of all time, with the possible exception of Nora Roberts. Her literary efforts were at first undistinguished, consisting of unfinished short stories and grocery shopping lists, and her submissions met with little success, even when accompanied by threatening messages and letter bombs. Her early diaries, posthumously published, show all too clearly the toll that this difficult period took on her:
How I long to rid myself of this execrable so-called "human" filth that congeals in the streets and alleys of this pestilent world - how easy it would be (and how right! and how proper!) to take a blowtorch and burn their witless faces off their skulls or tread them underfoot with spike-heeled shoes or simply commandeer a Gatling gun and march into a subway station at rush hour and pump the lousy God-damned worthless subhuman abysmal commuter bastards full of lead! And no one could blame me for it, either! Not one person!
Finally, in 1952 she achieved success with her first novel Taken for Granite, the story of an uncompromising young stonecutter who finds love, betrayal, and redemption in the big city of Minneapolis (where Prune and Periwinkle had relocated following their marriage). Critics have been divided ever since on the literary merits of Taken for Granite, but all agree that the novel's considerable commercial success was attributable to the famous "spanking" scene, in which stonecutting hero Norman Basehart invades the boudoir of uppity millionaire heiress Lola Frigidaire and teaches her a painful but erotic lesson:
His hand smacked again and again on her firm buttocks, leaving the imprint of his long elegant fingers on her creamy yielding flesh. She cried out in pain, but it was a cry not of dismay but of desire, and with every "No!" he heard "Yes!" and hearing this, he smiled as he continued to mete out the punishment she required. He was laughing ...
This was heady stuff for 1952, and legions of young, emotionally repressed and sexually twisted adolescents gravitated to the book. Girls in particular had their heads turned by the stoic, hard-spanking Basehart. It has been said that for much of the 1950s it was almost impossible for a young man to get a date unless he was employed in masonry. More prudish readers objected to the scene's violent overtones, an objection Prune wittily dismissed in the question-and-answer period of a public lecture: "If it was a spanking, it was a spanking by engraved invitation -- and I have a similar invitation available for anyone in the audience, male or female, between the ages of eighteen and fifty-five." The audience laughed heartily at what they took as a jest, although at the end of the evening engraved invitations actually were passed out.
Reversalist protest march, c. 1954; signs read "Rubella Vaccine = Communist Plot" and "Rubella - Yes! Vaccine - No!" (Photo from the archives of the Minneapolis Handy-Dandy Shopping News)
The book remained on best-seller lists for three years and was made into a 1956 movie starring Claude Raines as Norman Basehart and Jennifer Jones as Lola Frigidaire. Prune wrote the screenplay herself, after an unprecedented agreement with Universal Studios that insured that not one single word or even typo of her screenplay would be changed. Unfortunately, Prune was a haphazard typist, a fact that resulted in some awkward dialogue exchanges.
I can't love you, Lola. You're in love with dearth.
It's not dearth I love, Basehart. It's lifting. I want to lift!
The climax of the film is an extended soliloquy by Norman Basehart as he faces a firing squad for the crime of mowing down a crowd of commuters in a subway station with a Gatling gun. In his impassioned 37-minute monologue Basehart defends the right of every man to kill pretty much anybody who rubs him the wrong way. The firing squad, moved by his statement, tearfully shoots him full of holes. The film was a commercial flop but can still be seen on very late-night TV in the programming slots normally reserved for infomercials.
Claude Rains as Norman Basehart, with Gloria Stuart as spurned lover Vestal Virgin, in Universal Studio's mega-flop Taken for Granite (1956).
Despite the publishing success of Taken for Granite, Prune remained dissatisfied. Her intentions had now moved beyond literature to the founding of an entirely new philosophy of life which she called Reversalism, because it was based on the premise that "the truth is the exact reverse of everything you believe." She had decided, she said, to challenge the 4000-year-old moral tradition embodied in the Ten Commandments. "God says thou shalt not kill?" Prune writes in a 1958 leaflet distributed on windshields throughout the Twin Cities. "Reversalism says thou shalt! God says thou shalt not covet? Reversalism says covet all you like! Traditional morality is a philosophy of self-denial, which means: a philosophy of self-abnegation, which means: a philosophy of self-destruction, which means: a philosophy of death, which means: a philosophy of not being alive. Against this age-old primordial cult, Reversalism proudly offers itself as a philosophy for living it up." (emphasis in original)
In a 1960 interview with Modern Bride magazine, Prune was asked to summarize her philosophy while hopping on one foot. Smiling, Prune calmly raised one leg, hopped twice, and booted the interviewer in the groin. (In technical terms, this was an "ostensive definition" of Reversalism.) It was the only summary of her views she ever offered, and people were understandably reluctant to ask her again.
Accused by critics of fomenting a rearguard action, Prune defiantly replied that sometimes backsliding was the best form of progress. "In our battle," she wrote, "we man the backside of the barricades, advancing with every retreat. As your general, I ask you to join me at the front -- that is, the rear!"
Well-attended Reversalist rally in downtown Minneapolis, on August 13, 1970. Prune is speaking on the dais. Dr. Linwood Spleen stands on Prune's right. (Photo courtesy The Cassandra Prune Institute; reproduced with permission)
Her fans took up the battle cry in growing numbers. One of these enthusiasts was the young Arnold Schlotzsky, who first met Prune in 1958 during a "personal audience" at her Minneapolis split level. Schlotzsky, with his formidable intellect, coolly logical demeanor, and heroic buttocks, soon became a favorite visitor at the Prune-Periwinkle home, especially when Elbert Periwinkle was out pursuing his newfound passion for gardening or, in the winter, building snowmen with corncob pipes and funny hats. Impressed with Prune's fictional heroes, Schlotzsky soon changed his name to the more rugged "Arnoldo Purenson." It was later noted that the name Purenson is an anagram of Prune and son. Was Schlotzsky slyly suggesting that Miss Prune was in fact his intellectual mother or, as she would prefer, his father? The question remains unanswered.
Purenson became one of the first in a series of ardent admirers who made the long trek to Minneapolis to become part of the Reversalist movement. The young fans were known collectively by their formal name The Acolytes, though among themselves they referred to the group more humorously as "The Jerk Squad." Only years later would some disaffected followers realize how accurate this latter designation had been.
In 1975, after years of heroic procrastination, Prune completed her magnum opus, the 8,046 page epic novel Prometheus Burped. The Acolytes were convinced that the book would sweep the country and ignite a philosophical revolution that would convert all of America to Reversalist thinking in a matter of hours, if not minutes. Prune herself was less sanguine, arguing that a complete remaking of American society could be expected to take much longer, perhaps even a month. But even Prune was unprepared for the barrage of critical hostility unleashed against Prometheus Burped. A Newsweek reviewer wrote acidly, "I wouldn't wipe my butt with this sludge," while Time magazine observed, "Yeah right, like anyone's gonna read 8,046 pages." Perhaps Prune's greatest disappointment was that no prominent intellectuals spoke up in defense of the book, although Art Linkletter did send her a postcard saying he'd read the first chapter and thought it was "pretty okay so far, but you can't quote me on that." Prune kept the postcard and in later years said that it may have saved her sanity during this difficult time.
Despite the book's formidable length and the fact that it consists of the same five scenes repeated over and over with the exact same dialogue, only with the characters wearing different clothes, Prometheus Burped became a surprise bestseller. Again, Prune's ability to weld complex philosophical issues to steamy sexual content undoubtedly played a role in the novel's popularity. A word count by prominent Prune critic Jeff Hatcher (included in his exposé The Wacko Nut Cult of Cassandra Prune and Her Crazy Wacko Nut Job Ass-Kissing Followers) lists 879 uses of the word buttocks in the novel, 326 uses of the word ass, and 17,321 uses of the term rear end -- although Hatcher cautions that in some of those cases rear end refers to the rear end of a train. (Conversely, the term caboose is not invariably used in a locomotive context.)
Prometheus Burped created a demand for more information about Prune's innovative philosophy. Arnoldo Purenson was quick to oblige, creating the Arnoldo Purenson Institute for Advanced Intellectual Masturbation, which operated out of his powder room. At first tens, then dozens, then scores of eager young "disciples of Reversalism" flocked to Minneapolis to attend lectures given by Purenson, his wife Beatrice, and their trained macaw Bernie. Occasionally, Cassandra Prune herself would condescend to attend the question-and-answer periods. She cut a dramatic figure on stage, wearing her stylish 1930s pageboy 'do, clad in her trademark Eskimo parka, and holding aloft her gilded riding crop.
In 1981, a noted film producer, fresh from his dazzling success with the international hit movie Debbie Does Dallas, held a press conference at Bob's Big Boy on Sawtelle Avenue in West L.A. and announced plans to make a seven-hour theatrical film version of Prometheus Burped. Unfortunately these plans were scotched the very next day, when Prune insisted on not only directing the film but playing all the major roles. Prune was to spend the rest of her life fruitlessly seeking the financing necessary to bring her novel to the big screen, or at least turn it into a four-color comic book.
It was at this point that Prune, depressed over the failure of her ideas to appeal to anyone old enough to drive, embarked on a controversial three-way personal relationship with Arnoldo Purenson and her pet dalmation, Rex. The unconventional menage a trois disturbed her husband, mainly because he was not included. Elbert Periwinkle took to spending a lot of time in his room and, in Beatrice Purenson's muckraking 2005 biography The Colossal Bitchiness of Cassandra Prune, was even said to have become an early user of crack cocaine. This claim, however, is fiercely disputed by Prune's partisans. The executor of Prune's estate, Dr. Linwood Spleen, responding to allegations that Periwinkle's room was found cluttered with coke spoons, has explained that Periwinkle actually used the spoons for "mixing tea."
Rex. Photo taken in 1982, shortly after the commencement of his menage a trois with Cassandra Prune and Arnoldo Purenson. (Author's private collection)
Spleen was a comparatively late arrival to Prune's inner circle, but his dogged sycophancy quickly made him a fixture in the movement. He became known as the intellectual leader of the Acolytes, inasmuch as he was the only one of them who had actually finished college. (He obtained a bachelor's degree in Philosophy, with a minor in Home Economics, from the University of Saskatchewan. He later received an honorary doctorate from Martin and Lewis College.) His book The Horrendous Similarities, originally intended for publication in 1972 as a protest against the McGovern presidential campaign, was slightly delayed by Prune's insistence on revisions, and eventually saw print in 2004. Prune, in her foreword to the book, praised Spleen as "the foremost intellectual figure in the world today other than myself and Nora Roberts" and said that the 120-page monograph was "destined to reshape, or I should say reverse, all the intellectual trends of today's debased culture, and then some." The book sold 372 copies, most of them purchased by the Cassandra Prune Institute under the direction of its chairman, Linwood Spleen. Used (but frequently unread) copies of The Horrendous Similarities can still found on eBay in the "intellectual claptrap" section.
During her lifetime, Prune did not allow anyone other than members of her increasingly limited inner circle to refer to himself as a Reversalist. Instead, those interested in the philosophy were ordered to adopt the term "disciples of Reversalism," although the alternative designation "Reversalist brown-nosers" was also permitted. The movement swiftly grew throughout the 1980s in the go-go Reagan years, its numbers enlarged by the publication of several collections of Prune's nonfiction essays in book form. In The Antebellum South: The Forgotten Ideal (1982), Prune argued that America below the Mason-Dixon line during the plantation era had been a paradise for both slave owners and the slaves themselves. The idea that slaves had suffered during this period was a distortion of history, she argued, foisted on an unsuspecting public by "Marxist historians, leftist propagandists, and subhuman quasi-Neanderthal pseudo-intellectuals with flabby sagging buttocks." Prune laid particular emphasis on the custom of whipping errant slaves, which she proved was not an act of abuse, or if it was, "it was abuse by engraved invitation."
Other Prune titles of the period include The Virtue of Self-Righteousness (1987), in which Prune argues that dogmatic insistence on one's position regardless of evidence is the essence of morality, and Hippies and God: America's Twin Menace (1992), a challenging look at the folk music scene, with particular emphasis on the metaphysical contradictions of John Denver.
Although Prune always insisted that politics would be the last phase of American culture to reflect Reversalist dogma, ironically it was in politics that her burgeoning movement may have made its most lasting impact. A small but determined band of Reversalist infiltrators managed to insert a plank into the Reform Party platform of 1996 attacking the civil rights movement, hippies, and the rubella vaccine. The Reversalist position is even said to have exerted some influence on top advisers to Ross Perot, or at least on some people who met Perot once at a barbecue and say they shook his hand.
Image from Prune's disastrous appearance on The Jerry Springer Show (Oct. 26, 1997), which ended in a riot. The episode aired only once. (Photo courtesy Jerry Springer/Upchuck Productions)
By the late '90s Prune was largely alone. Elbert Periwinkle had died in a fire started when one of his tea-mixing sessions went tragically awry. Following a romantic misunderstanding involving a branding iron, Arnoldo Purenson had split with Prune to start his own 1-900 telephone sex service in Tampa. His ex-wife Beatrice, expelled from Reversalism for questioning Prune's choice of underarm deodorant, was at work on an unflattering biography of the movement's leader. Most of the other members of the inner circle either had drifted away or had been "purged" in a series of "show trials" held in Prune's rec room. A few were beheaded. Even Prune's beloved dalmatian, Rex, had succumbed to unspecified rectal injuries. Only Dr. Linwood Spleen remained at Prune's side.
Reversalist rally, late 1990s. The falloff in attendance from the earlier "glory days" can be clearly seen. (Photo courtesy of Beatrice Purenson; reproduced without permission)
These last years were difficult ones for Cassandra Prune. She was once observed staring moodily out the window on a winter day and whispering, "Holy shit, did I ever fuck up my life or what?" Her only solace came from rereading her own novels, flipping through the well-worn pages, lingering particularly over the steamy sex scenes. In her later nonfiction essays she became prone to quoting from her fiction, often inserting long X-rated passages from her novels into articles on trade policy and border control.
Late in life, Elbert Periwinkle discovered a passion for art. In his chosen medium of Magic Marker he produced dozens of works, including "Sunrise Over My House" (above). Periwinkle's paintings are sold as limited-edition lithographs by the Second Rendezvous Bookshop, a subsidiary of The Cassandra Prune Institute.
In her final years Prune's health deteriorated, possibly in consequence of her lifelong habits of smoking cigarettes, consuming diet pills, eating broken glass, strangling puppies, and feasting on human flesh in satanic midnight rituals. Eventually she was confined to her bed. Though her body was immobilized, her mind was reportedly as sharp as ever, and she spent her final months working on TV Guide's weekly crossword puzzles, completing most of them.
After a series of hospitalizations and surgeries for liver failure, pancreatic cancer, irritable bowel syndrome, cyanide poisoning, and bubonic plague, Prune finally expired in December of 2004, ironically on Christmas Eve, only hours before the dawn of the holiday she had once described as "an orgy of bloody subhuman self-abnegation and hypocritical, malicious envy disguised in the bright red suit of a flabby-assed Santa Claus delivering sugary sweets to nasty foul-smelling street urchins who are in desperate need of a serious spanking." She was interred in a two-story pyramid topped by a stylized twenty-foot riding crop -- the symbol, as she put it, "of free rein and therefore of a free mind."
Following Prune's death, the Reversalist movement has been split by further schisms and purges as well as by Internet controversies. (The average Reversalist spends a minimum of 17 hours a day online, and even more hours on days when his parents don't make him do chores.) One of the more noteworthy disputes involved a proposal made at a leading Reversalist newsgroup site that the Bush administration should drop nuclear bombs on any U.S. city that traditionally votes Democratic. The so-called "nuke Boston" thread attracted much attention. Spleen himself appeared on the top-rated Fox News Channel program The O'Reilly Factor to advocate the policy, prompting host Bill O'Reilly to blurt out, "What are you, pal, some kind of freakin' nut job?!"
By this time a certain pessimism had crept into the Reversalist movement. Spleen began insisting to Prune's longtime publisher that all future editions of her works be printed on acid-free paper, with ten percent of the printings distributed to caves and mine shafts, where they would be protected in the event of a worldwide nuclear holocaust. "My thinking," Spleen said at his annual Reversalist lecture at the Gerald R. Ford Forum in Anchorage, "is that if even one of these copies survives, it will be enough to rebuild civilization on a new, rational foundation. This will be true even if nobody actually finds the copy."
While Spleen may be pessimistic, the growing cadre of "Prune scholars" are delighted with the wealth of new details about Prune and her thinking that continue to emerge, thanks to the tireless effort of the Cassandra Prune Institute. The Institute has announced its intention to put into print every single piece of paper Prune handled in her lifetime, even ticket stubs. Posthumous publications that have already been issued or are in the works include The Diaries of Cassandra Prune, The Letters of Cassandra Prune, The Recipes of Cassandra Prune, The Doodles of Cassandra Prune, The Angry Scrawls of Cassandra Prune, and The TV Guide Crossword Puzzles Completed or Nearly Completed by Cassandra Prune.
These posthumous materials offer a fascinating window into the mind of perhaps the 20th century's greatest and most profound thinker, other than Nora Roberts. And they reveal an intellect that was forever active, never satisfied with thinking "the same old thoughts." In The Marginal Jottings of Cassandra Prune, for instance, we read Prune's spontaneous reaction to a 1992 Weekly World News article reporting that an extraterrestrial visitor has endorsed Bill Clinton for the presidency:
Those God-damned lousy triple-damned bastard extraterrestrials cannot destroy this country by overt invasion so they stoop to conquest via the political process!!! It is a perfect illustration of the epistemological self-contradiction inherent in Kierkegaard's view of Man as a subhuman cockroach who exists only by feeding on the fecal matter of cows!!!!!!! Well, now the cows are coming home to roost, brother!!!! Damn and double damn those lousy God-damned bug-eyed Martian bastards!!!!!! I'd like to commandeer a Gatling gun and march into a subway station and open fire on those God-damned alien commuter scum!!!!!!!!!!!! And no one could blame me for it, either!!! Not one person!!!!!!
Currently there seems to be a heartening resurgence of interest in Cassandra Prune and Reversalism. Hollywood producers are attempting to develop a TV miniseries based on Prometheus Burped for public access cable, and there is talk of a remake of Taken for Granite starring Jude Law and Nicole Kidman, or maybe Clay Aiken and Paris Hilton. Linwood Spleen's long-awaited book Reversalism: A Guide to the Perplexed has finally hit bookstores, offering the first comprehensive overview of Prune's radical vision. So far, however, the book has not been adopted for widespread use in university classrooms, perhaps because of the somewhat off-putting tone of Spleen's introduction, in which he writes, "All you smarty-pants college assholes can kiss my ass and go fuck yourselves, and I mean all of you!"
But perhaps we should leave the last word to Cassandra Prune herself. In her famous afterword to Prometheus Burped, Prune summed up her guiding philosophy and reinforced the convictions evident throughout her work in a single bold statement:
Nobody ever gave a damn about me, and I never gave a damn about anybody, ever. And I mean it.
Her more sympathetic apologists deny she really meant it.
I've read a lot of books on the evidence for life after death, but of them all, the one I would most recommend as a general, nontechnical introduction is Greg Taylor's Stop Worrying! There Probably Is an Afterlife.
In the past, I sometimes toyed with the idea of writing a nonfiction book that would provide an overview of afterlife evidence. But when I read Stop Worrying, I realized Greg had already written the book I would have wanted to write - and he'd done it better than I could have.
There are many things I like about Stop Worrying - too many to list in a brief post. I like the structure - the way the book eases the reader into the evidence, moving smoothly from one topic to another (the segue from NDEs to mediumship is particularly effective). I like the choice of what to include and, even more so, what to omit; the book does not get bogged down in technical debates about super-psi or convoluted skeptical objections, and does not cover physical or materialization mediumship, areas that have historically been rife with fraud.
Above all, I like the book's tone - friendly, relaxed, reassuring, and undogmatic. Note the all-important word "probably" in the title - and the cover image of a smiley-face Grim Reaper.
Stop Worrying! There Probably Is an Afterlife is currently available in a Kindle edition, and I'm told a paperback is forthcoming within a week or so.
More info can be found at Greg's website, The Daily Grail.
Disclosure: I contributed a small amount of money to Greg's crowd-funding effort, and I received a free review copy of a late draft of the manuscript.