Sue Monk Kidd

The author, Sue Monk Kidd

I went back recently to a novel I had earlier read, The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd (New York: Penguin, 2002). The heroine and narrator of this book, Lily Owens, is a 14 year old white teenager who runs away from home with Rosaleen, her nanny and the family maid. The setting is South Carolina, 1964, during the founding days of the civil rights movement. Lily seeks to escape from her cruel father, T. Ray. She finds shelter with a group of African-American sisters who keep bees  and carry on a mystical devotion to a black madonna statue (originally a boat’s masthead).

This book could be read on many levels: as a story about place (the deep South), about race, about gender, or about history. But the idea that brought me back to thinking about the story of Lily Owens is the endurance of loss.

The theme of loss pervades the novel. There is first Lily’s loss of her mother, who earlier died in a gun incident in which Lily fears responsibility. There is the loss of her childhood home. There is the loss of  innocence, including Lily’s insistent belief that her mother could not have abandoned her for a long time when her mother was feeling desolate. There is the loss of one troubled beekeeping sister to suicide by drowning.

Kidd writes with poetic flair but also concreteness, embodying the famous advice of William Carlos Williams, “–Say it, no ideas but in things–”  (from his enormous poem, “Paterson”).  Searching for Rosaleen during the initial escape sequence, and anxious she has has lost her, Lily observes:  ”Looking up, I noticed that the tree I’d fallen beneath was practically bald….Even in the dark I could see that it was dying…That was the absolute way of things.  Loss takes up inside of everything sooner or later and eats right through it.”  (p. 55)

How do we bear up under loss, this thing that “eats right through” everything and leaves it denuded? What allows us to continue?  All of us face loss, including potentially the very kinds of loss faced by Lily Owens: of our parents, siblings, friends, of childhood, and,  ultimately, of our own health and life.  Some are crushed by loss, but others, most of us, manage to carry on.  What provides that power, that resilience?

The Secret Life of  Bees is not a novel that poses simplistic answers to such questions or offers an obvious “moral,” which is to say, it is well-written. However, the story of Lily Owens shows by example certain kinds of consolation, even, one could say, transcendence. One  form is community. Lily was able, despite the obstacle of racism–she is, after all, lily white–to become invited invited into a “sisterhood” that came to include her and Rosaleen as well, through an inclusive principle that bridges the moats of race and kinship. A second kind of transcendence is religious: the ecstatic mystical practice of the black madonna into which she is initiated. A third kind of transcendence is growing up, passing the rites of initiation and being accepted as someone on the way to adulthood. Fourth, there is the consecration of memory, as symbolized by the rock wall with clippings stuffed into the cracks (reminiscent of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem) that is tended by the doomed sister, June, and the suicide note and last testament June left behind. A final kind of transcendence is Lily’s immersion in the truth about her background, her mother and her being: an icy bath for her, but bracing, leading to a deeper and tougher understanding.

Some consider this a “chick novel” that would by implication be of limited interest to guys. I disagree. Although a man, I had no trouble to identify with the heroine’s search. Her quest has many elements of an epic: escape, danger, heroism, death, recognition, redemption. If, as John Cheever wrote in one of his letters, “The first test of any aesthetic is interest,” Kidd meets that hurdle. If anything, I am struck by the universality of this author’s story-telling.

 

About the author:  Andrew Szabo is founder and CEO of MindBodyForce.com.   Comments: please contact Editor@MindBodyForce.com.  Copyright 2013 MindBodyForce.com. 

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Remnants of the Citadel at Persepolis.

Having recently reviewed Ellen Forney’s Marbles, I would now like to take up one aspect of another notable graphic memoir, Marjane Satrapi’s The Complete Persepolis (New York: Pantheon, 2003-2004).

Persepolis relates the story of Marjane Satrapi, who grew up during the time of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. (The story was made into a feature movie that was co-winner of the Jury Prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival in 2007; it was directed by the author and Vincent Paronnaud.)

While Persepolis reveals the repression meted out by the post-revolutionary government against women, religious minorities, gays, dissenters, and anyone who simply by accident ran afoul of the often cruel and always humorless authorities, the author also brings out the struggle of an Iranian woman to feel pride in her Iranian nationality–and to keep her promise to her uncle and grandmother never to deny that identity.

Satrapi

From Persepolis

The title, Persepolis, makes reference to the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire, also known as the First Persian Empire, which is now a “World Heritage Site” in Iran and includes remnants of its citadel. The title ties in with Iran’s rich historical tradition and achievements.

There is this profound irony of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, as brought out by Ms. Satrapi. Iran enjoyed a rich and influential Zoroastrian religious tradition that was later usurped by the Arab invasions of the seventh century A.D.. The Islamic invaders sought to extirpate traces of the native creed; it was identified with the just overthrown Sassanid dynasty, who had ruled for almost one thousand years. (Later, after the catastrophe of the invasions, the adherents of Zoroaster gained some tolerance from their new masters, as long as they paid tribute, though they suffered continuing indignities.) Thus, the Islamic revolution, led by cleric Ruhollah Khomeini (which overthrew the Shah in 1979), created an Islamic state in the name of the Iranian people– though Islam is essentially a foreign influence in Iran (both as to language and doctrine) that had centuries earlier captured the region by force. Islam is an import to Iran, or–since it was achieved by force–an export from Arabic speaking lands of the Middle East

The life of the prophet Zoroaster (a Greek version of the name Zarathustra) is shrouded in mystery, but he is thought to have lived ca. 1500 to 1000 BC in the region of modern Afghanistan and Iran. He is associated with a monotheistic tradition–analogous to that of Moses and Pharaoh Akhenaten–which probably derived from a simplification of Indian Hindu tradition.

Most scholars agree that Zoroastrian doctrine influenced Judaism, and through Judaism, Christianity and (later) Islam. Further, the notion of the opposition of forces of good and evil, intrinsic to Zoroastrian thinking, resonates with the opposition of heaven and hell in Abrahamic religions as well as Islam. Vladimir Lenin once said that “history is sly,” and it is certainly more complex than will be granted by authoritarian governments seeking to administer by  the claim of divine right.

Thus, there is significant evidence of common themes, and cross-influence, in the historic “great religions,” including influences to and from the Far East (including Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism).  As a further irony, the humane creed called the Baha’i Faith (founded in 19th century Persia by `Abdu’l-Bahá) , which emphasizes commonality in religious experience, has been fiercely persecuted in post-revolutionary Iran, even more so than Judaism.

In one passage in Persepolis, the author makes reference to one of Zoroaster’s mottos: “good thoughts, good words, good deeds.” As someone was was raised in a (dual) Judeo-Christian home, I was thinking of comparison and contrasts. The notion of a close connection between thought and deed is very deeply rooted in my own tradition. In Western law, the purpose of crime is thought to be very important in matters of punishment, even if the effect is the same. The notion of “good deeds” brings up the Reformation debate of “faith versus works,” but the message of Zoraoaster’s credo is everything.  It embraces thoughts and words and deeds; it is totalizing in its prescription for goodness.

Zoroastrians favor conversion, like Christians and Muslims, but unlike most Jews. In general, conversion doctrine has both humanistic and despotic possibilities, occurring through evangelism (teaching) or force, or both. One thing I do like about the doctrine of conversion is its non-racist premise: all peoples are eligible for salvation. In this sense, there is no “chosen people,” which is a concept I bridle against for humanistic reasons, despite my ancestry.

This reminds me of a recent experience in New York City. We see these “Mitzvah-Mobiles,” which are vans operated by members of the orthodox Lubavitch Jewish sect. “Mitzvah” is a Hebrew word that means “commandment” or “blessing.” The adherents hope to encourage ethnic Jews to follow Judaic law more closely. A man in orthodox dress and hair style approached me on the sidewalk with the very direct question, “Are you a Jew?” I could have used a mitzvah that day, so I decided to respond, and answered, “My father is a Jew.” He let me go immediately, saying, “For us, it goes by the mother.” I was slightly offended that this man would seem to speak on behalf of all Jews and to exclude me. He didn’t stop to find out that the Gestapo killed ancestors of mine in Budapest; for fascists, it doesn’t go just “go by the mother.” From my family experience, I would offer a sociological definition of Judaism, based on whether fascists define you as such.

I can’t discern, as to revealed truth, a grading of the world’s religious traditions. But from a humanistic viewpoint, I would be ready to defend those religious practices that show tolerance, respect for other beliefs and non-violence, and which eschew fanaticism. Something that influenced me was John Stuart Mill’s essay, “On Liberty,” a masterpiece of classic liberalism.

It makes one unspeakably sad to think of what Marjane Satrapi’s and her generation went through, as an abomination of human thought and culture and governance. Out of that grim tragedy, which continues, and for which we Americans bear significant historical responsibility, comes Persepolis.  Writer, artist, director: Satrapi, this multi-talented woman, has taken a horror and transformed it into an abiding work of art.

About the author:  Andrew Szabo is founder and CEO of MindBodyForce.com.   Comments: please contact Editor@MindBodyForce.com.  Copyright 2013 MindBodyForce.com. 

 

 

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Picture credit: hayhaycandy.co.nz

Picture credit: hayhaycandy.co.nz

 

“Our audience is like people who like licorice,” Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead once said. “Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice.”  ”Annals of Obsession: Deadhead–The Afterlife,” by Nick Paumgarten for The New Yorker.

One path to marketing success is “licorice,” in Jerry Garcia’s sense. This could be defined as earning an extremely loyal, cult-like following. Advertising is to a significant degree by word mouth from existing followers to new converts, like an initiation ritual. Thus, licorice can work for upstarts with little budget. As a consumer, you buy the product or service, not just because you like it, but because it confers membership in a group of like-minded people. To achieve licorice status, you can’t seem to be seeking it; the followers must confer it. There is usually a counter-cultural shading to such brands–that is, some kind of association with the anti-establishment trend of the 1960s that has continued on, being embodied today for example in the green movement. Somewhat paradoxically, you consume because you are against consumerism. But for the believers, licorice is more about the experience and less about the thing itself.

Here are some examples of “licorice”:

  • Whole Foods Market
  • True Religion Brand Jeans
  • Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream (including of course the Cherry Garcia flavor!)
  • Alienware gaming laptops
  • Vibram Five Fingers running shoes
  • Harley-Davidson
  • Skullcandy earbuds
  • Tesla Motor Cars

Tesla Roadster Sport 2.5

Can you think of other examples? Your comments are welcome–

In the skull category, I would mention a relatively new entrant, Crystal Head Vodka, which was conceived by comedian  Dan Aykroyd and artist John Alexander. The bottle is a very striking: a transparent skull. I have a friend, an ace beverage marketer named Patrick Dillon, who is selling the brand throughout East Asia, and he tells me that the cool bottle, though expensive to produce, is stunningly effective in making sales. I don’t think you throw that bottle away–it stays on display for your friends. Even the minis have the trademark shape, which could make them a hit in hotel wet bars, airlines and liquor stores. (The bottles are actually made of glass, not lead crystal, which is a good thing, as experiments have shown that the lead oxide in true lead crystal can leach into liquids, and this effect is very striking when there is a high alcohol content or high acidity to the liquid. Safer crystal can be made from oxides of barium, zinc or potasssium.) ( Legends of crystal skulls are popular in New Age circles, as is the pseudo-science of healing by crystal; some museum skulls made of quartz or other minerals are claimed to be pre-Columbian, but scholars have shown most or all of these are actually 19th century European in origin.)

landing_bottle_2

Crystal Head Vodka

Some marketing is quirky without being licorice. Dr. Pepper’s slogan used to run, ”Dr.Pepper, so misunderstood; if anyone would try it, they’d say, ‘It tastes good!’ ” Their plea is reminiscent of the great Bennie Benjamin song, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” popularized by Eric Burdon & The Animals [video credit: YouTube.com]. No brand wants to be misunderstood, but liking Dr. Pepper is a miscellaneous trait. It may mean that you prefer black cherry taste to Coke’s burnt caramel-vanilla or Pepsi’s lemon-lime, but  that doesn’t entail embracing a sphere of values or perceiving valuable group membership. In the same way, Pepsi used to call itself  ”the drink of a whole new generation”–as if to distinguish itself from those old fogeys down in Atlanta sipping Coca-Cola on the veranda of the manor house–but this was an amorphous demographic pitch without any real content. General Motors gingerly suggested, “It’s not your father’s Oldsmobile,” but the brand wasted away and management soon after that euthanized it. More precisely, as these examples suggest, licorice is a matter of degree: from the gimmicky and transient on one end to deeply ingrained and socially embracing on the other. For some motorcycle club members, Harley provides a source of both identity and community. No matter if some Japanese superbikes are faster or nimbler. The more personally and socially embracing, the more valuable and enduring the impact on the brand.

Katie Beckinsale in True Religion jeans

There are disadvantages to licorice, or at least dangers.

First, once a brand reaches a certain size, it’s no longer so cool to be associated with it, as the essence of cool things is restricted access. A licorice eater wants to be part of a special group, what sociologist David Riesman [in The Lonely Crowd, 1950] once called an “inside dopester.” As James Baldwin wrote, “Where everyone has status, it is also perfectly possible, after all, that no one has” [from Nobody Knows My Name, essay on "What it Means to be an American" (1964)].

Second, the followers will tend to look for all around good guys according to values widely shared by the followers. If you’re a licorice brand, your vendors’ factories are not supposed to collapse in Bangladesh and kill over a thousand workers.  

Third, if you seek to broaden your market by reaching out to mass taste, you risk losing your core followers. The drinkers of old Coke won’t abide the New Coke (of course, Coke was already long established as a mass brand, but its studies had suggested that many drinkers would prefer a sweeter taste comparable to upstart Pepsi).

Fourth, if you screw up in an area of core values, you will will vex your followers. The publicity will suggest “betrayal.” Whole Foods recently caused an uproar when it mixed up vegan and chicken salad labels in a number of stores. It’s easy to tarnish a halo.

Some once cool brands that have gotten very big and are in danger of losing their cultish mojo include Apple,  Google and Dell. Sometimes,  a large company will seek to create a subsidiary that can attract those offbeat buyers. Hallmark Cards offers some humorous cards under the Shoebox brand, which evolved out of the tall studio cards that became popular during the 1950s.  Shoebox refers to itself as a “tiny little division of Hallmark cards”–though the word “division” isn’t very good at suggesting tininess, and it’s probably used in irony.

Licorice may be an enduring or permanent characteristic, as it was for The Grateful Dead. Or it can be a transitional characteristic of an early growth phase, later turning into something more corporate, while maybe holding on to some reminders of early cult status. Sometimes the aspiration is transparently phony from the start, as when big Detroit car makers try to associate their products with rock ‘n roll and hip hop songs whose lyrics seem intentionally subversive. If the tune helps sell cars, the manufacturers could care less about the artistic intention, and I suppose that the artists appreciate the big royalties; in this way, art becomes flattened out by the steamroller of commerce–Alvin Gouldner wondered if this could be an instance of what Herbert Marcuse referred to by the term “repressive desublimation,” or maybe the bigwigs just don’t get it.  But although all marketing is about commerce, the very nature of licorice is that the followers see a vivid and unmistakable difference between the real thing and phony impostors, just as the guardians of the spirit of real rock ‘n roll decried its debasement by disco.

About the author:  Andrew Szabo is founder and CEO of MindBodyForce.com.   Comments: please contact Editor@MindBodyForce.com.  Copyright 2013 MindBodyForce.com. 

 

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