“But love is freedom,” she declared.
“Don’t cant to me,” he replied. “Love is a direction which excludes all other directions. It’s a freedom together, if you like.”
— D.H. Lawrence, Women In Love
“…courage, which we now feel to be an indispensable quality of the hero, is in fact already present in a willingness to act or speak at all, to insert oneself into the world and begin a story of one’s own…courage and even boldness are already present in one’s leaving one private hiding place and showing who one is, in disclosing and exposing one’s self.“
— Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
I find myself wanting something to be spoken, in public social gatherings of the liberal and like-minded, that by some kind of tacit agreement, never gets said. A “church” experience without the church, if you will. I’m not looking for any specific words, but for reference to a reality in which I am not so alone. I want “propaganda” of the right kind, for I do not mind a bit if the message is biased, as long as it is the truth I want and need! A heretic like D. H. Lawrence could do it, but he – alas – is not available. Last week Orin and I attended a coffeehouse-style music event, including potluck dinner, that happens regularly during summer months in a church-owned space in a village a few miles outside Utica. The minister, I’ll call him Ron, had opted to celebrate his sixty-fifth birthday by entertaining us with his band, singing songs out of the 60’s songbook, classics like the Zombies’ “Tell Her No” and the Who’s “Substitute.” Impossible for someone my age not to bop along happily! When time came to cut the cake, and the call came for “Speech!” Ron declined. At the time, I agreed with his decision; I and undoubtedly others appreciate that he tends not to speak from the Christian script, just quietly and humorously goes his merry way making the world a better, i.e., more human place. All the Christian behavior anyone could want; no “cant!”
It was in the aftermath, the dead silence of the morning after that I wished he – or someone – had spoken, to cut through our isolation and to underscore the meaning of a gathering so clearly meant for the sake of the simple pleasures of shared meal, music, and human companionship. Bringing up the latest Trump outrage or the likelihood of impeachment would emphatically not have worked to create the kind of unified feeling I am thinking of. Rather, in these distressing times, what I feel is needed (and works) is to underscore the human meaning of whatever event is taking place, be it birthday, wedding or even baby shower. To speak requires crossing that tacitly agreed upon silence, taking up a role no one asked you to take, and speaking personally to the occasion. Such speaking requires, explicitly stated or not, acknowledging the fact that every such simple human celebration is “counter cultural,” its meaning residing in the fact that such events are (or should be) acts of resistance against the dehumanizing context of corporatism, wanting more than banal pro forma recitations, or, in the case of Ron’s birthday, a moment of hippie nostalgia, no matter how fun.
I want the talk that is difficult but “called for” somehow, by the occasion and by the context. I want to “repoliticize” the increasingly depoliticized social context not by means of politics but by means of meaning. We inhabit a shared social world that has been de-meaned. This loss of meaning is cause, not consequence, of the depoliticization. People are now required to exist without a sense that their lives have any deeper meaning or purpose beyond making a living, achieving a degree of material well-being, and rather vaguely being “good people.” What does my work mean? What does my life mean? What do people mean? People who are not knowingly, consciously connected to some large and energizing ideal or imaginative vision that informs their decisions and commitments – that is, most modern liberal “good” people – cannot find energy for anything beyond the rudiments of living and engaging with the culture – the sham – as presented. Dreaming, beyond that, is not possible. To speak within, that shared, demeaned, dispiriting and banal social context, but coming from outside – as I am suggesting is needed – can only be done by drawing words from a deeper pool, the pool from which poetry and myth draw, the pool of the indigenous, imaginative and radical soul residing in each individual, equally distributed among all.
On a less articulated level, I actually “got this” many years ago. Beginning with my husband’s fiftieth birthday, I realized if there was something I longed to hear spoken at a gathering or occasion, I should not undertake a search for the apt Rumi poem or the Native American chant. Rather, I needed to take the truly radical path: I should speak the words I wanted to hear! Over the 18 years since then, this ceremonial speaking has become probably the most “anarchist”thing I do, which is, to speak truly to occasions in a way that revives the eternal meanings and verities for me, trusting the words will strike at least some chords in the listeners The risk, always, is that my words will raise the hackles on the religiophobes in the crowd who fear, not religious dogma as they suppose, but the seriously proposed suggestion of a reality beyond the material. With Orin as my central audience, delivering that fiftieth birthday speech was easy: I announced to him, in front of the large and rather drunken gathering, that it was time to bring the “Ward Cleaver” life to an end, and to begin the “Zorba the Greek” second half. Out of that speech, with its gift of a vision, the Cafe Domenico was born one and a half years later, a work of genius built, as the cliché goes, out of 5% inspiration and 95% (or more) perspiration; but it was the 5% that made all the difference!
In part I’m saying the element of risk has to be returned to public speaking, not in the sense of being careful to be politically correct, which will never unify people, but in the sense that real speech, or eloquence, entails not knowing, before one sets oneself to the task, what one has to say. I refer here not to impromptu speech, or mastering the much admired art of brilliant, off-the-cuff spontaneity. Rather, I mean improvisation off a very deep source, off the message “written” in one’s own soul. The famous and universal fear of public speaking should be not fear of embarrassing myself or of “my mind going blank” – ego fears – but the fear involved in trusting that what comes to me to say, or to write in order to say – unauthorized as I am to speak as if I knew something – is what I should say and am called to say.
The very large problem the dispirited liberal world faces is, having lost access to a collective transcendent meaning that binds people in a communal reality, it has not caught up to the actual change occurring in consciousness that could repair the damage. Briefly stated and simplified – the evolutionary change moves the locus of God from “out there” to within the individual, a process based in faith not in an unseen transcendent God but in inward creative, dialogic experience. In fact, in its tenacious clinging to religiophobia, its refusal of non-rational knowing, liberalism and the secular progressive left puts up a strenuous reactionary defence against the revolution in consciousness. In earlier eras, the heroic act was taken against authority on behalf of individual freedom; freedom from interference is now only part of freedom’s task. To be complete, the heroic act must be to first release the submerged, sequestered “deep” individuality, located in the soul. Unlike the ego, the soul is not a singular entity, but made up of a multiplicity of real existents. (According to author and archetypal psychologist James Hillman, psyche is “polytheistic.” That is, not only does it contain multitudes, but these are gods; their reality and their voices intrinsic to the health of the whole.)
Paradoxically, deep individuality is inseparable from “deep” community such that anyone risking the vulnerability of acting/speaking from that deeper individual self (i.e., as a poet, prophet, idealist, improvisational speaker, etc.) will always be speaking on behalf of the reality of community and connection (which is love, and is powerful). When Orin heard me calling to his “free spirited,” imaginative and creative self at his fiftieth birthday, the arrow sent forth pierced not his ego but his heart and imagination, reviving an unheeded longing that had been buried over several decades.
The risk one feels in stepping up to opportunities to speak publicly comes from the fact that in the shared liberal context, most people are committed to not admitting that community has been destroyed, that in some way they/we are complicit in its destruction. Those to whom one speaks, in their defensiveness, will not see that in order to speak, one first had to withdraw from the culture and its demeaning context, then risk the disfavor, disapprobation and puzzlement of one’s fellows, and most difficult of all, challenge one’s own deeply embedded sense of unworthiness to speak as a sharply distinct other. They will not see that if one refuses to speak (one’s true words) across the isolating separateness then one thereby gives tacit approval to the dehumanizing context that, in destroying meaning robs each of us of our human dignity and the possibility of self-respect, just as back in the 70’s failure to speak up in a racist conversation was understood as being complicit with racism.
All of us find ourselves in gatherings or occasions where words – other than the conventional – are wanted but not spoken, where culture has been stripped of “cult,” where the “binding” function is provided by the schmooze of alcohol. Those of us who are church-averse (but not religiophobic!) can make “church” (i.e., meaning) happen in the moment. These are (I’m suggesting) anarchist opportunities for providing propaganda that on some level, because of its deep affirmation of human worth, people are hungry for. And the point is now that this sort of public art – and it is art – is anarchistic but not just in the way anarchism has been communicated in the past: not only proclaiming Free speech, Free John Sinclair, Free Mumia, Abolish Solitary Confinement and Mass Incarceration, (or if you were Emma, Free Women from the Bondage of Marriage) etc., but also using speech individually to cross the no man’s land of silence to regather the broken threads that bind our othernesses together in deep community.