Really, we have no choice. We think that reducing human beings to functionaries, careerists, people serving machines or the profit motive or people smoothly adapting ourselves, because we can, to increasingly dehumanized conditions (albeit with lots of opportunity for travel) has no consequence, that we can simply allow our creative nature, our spiritual being, to atrophy and the effect is not worth wondering about.
A CounterPunch article (Notes On Empire and Spiritual Death: a Recent Episode, by Paul Street), rightly concludes after reviewing the history of horrors perpetrated by imperialist America on the “browner” people of the world, that we are, as a nation, spiritually dead. There’s no arguing that point! But here’s what I wonder: if we took to the streets in a sudden mass refusal, shut the government down, produced an effective revolution, then would we be spiritually alive? The act of rising up itself might re-kindle awareness of our long-repressed humanity, the spurned yearnings of our souls for beauty, for lives of meaning and purpose, for the safety of stable community, the warmth of human traditions passed down in families, but how can we be sure of that, as we see little evidence that most people – ever more adapted to disintegration – are aware they even miss these things?
Nor do we see much evidence of understanding that to regain lives rooted in real community, lives in which it is possible to feel that we truly matter and are a comfort to each other and to ourselves, is a very costly enterprise, entailing real sacrifice; it is a stepping down from the American dream of technical progress and material prosperity, contracting into smaller, materially stripped-down living that most people would be repulsed by as too constricting and frankly boring. To revive communities will demand a re-education in the skills of a bygone era, including the communication skills of men and women (“in the plural,” that is, as political beings) who can “talk with and make sense to each other and themselves”- skills necessary for the experience of meaningfulness in the world, as Hannah Arendt wrote in The Human Condition.
By and large it is the people we are supposed to despise and regard as enemies (i.e., the ones we bomb) who’ve retained more of these traditional, community building and maintaining skills; perhaps we hate them for what we perceive they have that we have irretrievably lost.
In D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow, which my husband and I have been reading together this winter, the protagonist, 17-year-old Ursula Brangwen visits her Uncle Tom, manager of a colliery that is just 7 years old, around which the ugly coal town of Wiggiston has sprung up. With her is her beloved teacher, Winifred Inger, whom she is hoping will be a romantic match with her uncle. Ursula is shocked as they drive through the town, and greets her uncle with these words:
‘But is this place as awful as it looks?’ [asks Ursula]
‘It is just what it looks,’ [Tom] said. ‘It hides nothing.’
‘Why are the men so sad?’
‘Are they sad?’
‘They seem unutterably, unutterably sad,’ said Ursula, out of a passionate throat.
‘I don’t think they are that. They just take it for granted.’
‘What do they take for granted?’
‘This—the pits and the place altogether.’
‘Why don’t they alter it?’ She passionately protested.
‘They believe they must alter themselves to fit the pits and the place, rather than alter the pits and the place to fit themselves. It is easier,’ he said
‘And you agree with them,’ burst out his niece, unable to bear it. ‘You think like they do – that living human beings must be taken and adapted to all kinds of horrors. We could easily do without the pits.’
‘I suppose their lives are not really so bad,’ said Winifred Inger, superior to the Zolaesque tragedy.’
Later, Ursula continues her observations. “She knew her Uncle Tom perceived what was going on. But she knew moreover that in spite of his criticism and condemnation, he still wanted the great machine. His only happy moments, his only moments of pure freedom, were when he was serving the machine. Then, and then only, when the machine caught him up, was he free from the hatred of himself, could he act wholely, without cynicism and unreality.”
Who reads D.H. Lawrence these days? And with what regard is he held by our intellectual gatekeepers? In my undergraduate years, Lawrence was disparaged by feminists whose larger movement, in the end, came to imitate the educated “neoliberal” woman, Winifred Inger, opting to serve the machine instead of humanity. What greater feminine hero than the impassioned Ursula has ever been created? In the society at large, Lawrence is known for one book only, the infamous and titillating (to a society terminally sequestered in adolescence), Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I dare say no one understood – no one wanted to understand – what Lawrence was saying to us. That’s what makes his sacrifice as an artist even more dreadful and poignant but also exemplary. One cannot take up the truth and expect anyone can actually hear you. One or two, maybe a few more.
Long ago I heard the poet Robert Bly make a point that I agree sounds wacky, though intuitively it has always sounded right to me. It was in a talk he gave on Romantic poet William Blake, discussing the non-optional role of creative work in achieving full humanity(as well as I can recall it these many years later). Bly asserted that inasmuch as people fail to use our creative energy, the unused ‘shadow’ portion does not disappear, it goes to ‘serve the Pentagon.’ In my own case, as long as I served Moloch (which is how Ursula saw her uncle Tom’s work), even part time, which I did for over 30 years teaching at a local college (for every job serves Moloch), I could not fully know how right Bly was. Even such slight hedging makes humanity – that is, full humanity that includes the passionate imagination, the soul, impossible. In serving the corporate system, one’s energy is not burned properly in the fueling of one’s own vitality, and acting and speaking, but is being picked up somewhere else, wreaking violence in some unconscious, shadow arrangement.
We all hedge. Like Tom Brangwen we remain uneasy outside of our job life and, ever more so, outside of our virtual, mediated life. In this way, we participate in the decline of the American soul that has produced our ongoing crisis in leadership; in that sense, we get the leadership we deserve.
In Utica, there survives a remnant, now mainly in their 80’s, who remember old East Utica, the richly ethnic area settled mainly by the Italian and Middle-Eastern immigrants of the late 19th- early 20th century migrations, that evolved into a community of working class people, steeped in old country traditions of food, gardens, poetry, music, and the mother tongue, the memory of which remains powerfully alive in these people to this day, such that I do love being among them. Most of those who are children and grandchildren of the original immigrants long ago removed to the suburbs, or to Florida or places further west. I understand there are many East Utica ex-pats on the West coast (where Annette Funicello, Utica’s most famous daughter emigrated with her family in the early 1950’s), who look each other up (or did at one time) to connect, motivated – I presume – by the potent sweetness of the remembered ethnic, neighborhood bonds.
Most immigrants who came to these shores in those earlier southern European waves, to our great loss, assimilated successfully. Those sweet memories of that East Utica remnant are like a poem whose esoteric meaning the rest of us, raised in the suburbanized reality that replaced that earlier one, cannot penetrate. Growing up outside of Utica in the tract housing of Sunset Manor, as I did, populated by entirely white people who were eager to own their own home, perhaps to escape the limitations of life in too-close proximity to family and busybody neighbors, one did not even faintly imagine something as rich and vivid and felt as East Utica. But we adapted to the less interwoven, less lovely, less “plural” environment we found ourselves in, just as the coal miners adapted to the atrocity of the “the pits and the place.”
A young woman friend who is a farmer, spoke in the little Sunday morning “Temenos” group that meets next door to our Cafe in Utica, about her thought that we adults ought to retain the clear-sighted eyes of innocence she sees in her young niece and nephew who are astonished at “unutterably sad” things like landfills, or spraying pesticides, which we the adults, take for granted. To the eyes of the little children, as to Ursula’s eyes, the soul’s perspective has not been rationalized or made obedient to the demands of assimilation and adaptation. Indigenous water protectors at Standing Rock, too, might be seen as having not only retained their innocence but also attained the will to protect it, and with it, their capacity to act.
It seems to me imperative now, if our spiritual deadness is to be a matter of serious concern and not just strong rhetoric, to restore that innocence which is health in the soul. There is a way to do it that, though not institutionally religious, is religious work: I suggest we each return to art-making as non-optional activity, for I see this as the only way, available and open to all, to hush the powerful voice of self-condemnation for which there is no effective counter in a post-Theistic world. Commitment to art-making, to cultivating working relationships with the creative spirit, can awaken the spiritually dead, and make conceivable a downward, contracted version of living that, though not painless, would never be boring, our energies used up in serving beauty, with none left over for bombing.