By ‘religion’ I mean a kind of attitude which takes careful and conscientious account of certain numinous feelings, ideas, and events and reflects upon them…and by the exercise of the ‘religious function,’ I mean the allegiance, surrender or submission… to a ‘convincing (overpowering) principle (i.e., an ideal)
— C. G. Jung
The indispensable dark side has been left behind or stripped off (i.e., in the modern Christian viewpoint), and the feminine aspect is missing…Through atheism, materialism, agnosticism, the powerful yet one-sided [ godhead] is weakened, so that it cannot keep the dark side out any more…God asserts his power through the revelation of the darkness and the destructiveness.
— C. G. Jung
“We always consider the silver river of life, rolling on and quickening all the world to a brightness, on and on to heaven, flowing into a bright eternal sea, a heaven of angels thronging. But the other is our real reality…that dark river of dissolution. You see it rolls in us just as the other rolls—the black river of corruption.”
— Rupert Birkin in D.H. Lawrence’s Women In Love
I have mentioned before the seeming delight Emma Goldman took that she, the famous atheist, should be called by a rabbi “the most religious person he’d ever met.” Though the vast majority of Americans insisted on her being dangerous, murderous, (anything but a good citizen), in her life lived in service to an ideal, she was ‘religious’ and enjoyed the rare experience of being seen. For E.G., behaving “religiously,”rather than meaning unthinking obedience to institutionalized authority, could mean being as radical as her anarchist ideal called her to be!
It is still true that people who live religiously, for an ideal, are dangerous. Not because they are zealots (nor to lump them in with jihadists) but because their ideal allows them to lose the habit of deference for received knowledge and ordained authority that limits the thinking and the capacity for action of most people.
Activist and former Weather Underground co-founder Bill Ayers, speaking at The Other Side, our non-profit arts space in Utica NY on May 24 along with his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, mentioned the fact that violence is often a response to ongoing establishment violence that is simply overlooked by those not directly injured by it, and in fact profiting from it in some way that is not publicly acknowledged.
It may be impossible for some of us to fully appreciate how important it is for the majority of us white liberal Americans to ignore or deny the violence already being done, not only to black people, native Americans, to the environment, etc., but to ourselves. I see the effect of this silent adaptation to top-down violence all the time, in the numbers of good people who can summons no passion for living, let alone activism, whose lives are consumed with health worries and Trump horror and their everlasting staring at screens. I see it also in the struggle for survival in nearly every neighborhood in Utica against the forces of abandonment and decay brought on not by natural processes but by decisions made far away by powerful others.
The problem, as I see it, with the liberal world view that embraces all the right progressive values, but votes for the lesser evil, is the failure to understand that living is activism. All the stories provided us by our society, that drive the wheels of our civilization, and by which we “navigate reality” such as, prominently, the myth of progress, tend to undermine the natural strength we have as human beings; they teach us we are separate from nature and must fear it, that we exist in a reality that is limited to the material, they pit reason and feeling against each other and thus exile the upstart imagination, all of which discourage individual agency and initiative. A religious ideal would ground me outside conventional notions of the world and my relation to it and put me into a different “meta-story” such as indigenous people have. It would place on me an expectation that I – and everyone in the community – would undertake a lifelong process of experience and learning from my experience. Without such an outsider place to stand, there’s no way to step outside the civilization that is killing the planet, including for “the best and the brightest among us” (which our liberal establishment tends to be).
All of the inexplicable “blindspots”so perplexingly evident in the secular liberal perspective (i.e., Hillary or Obama seen as humane and pro-peace), are traceable to the ongoing refusal of knowledge of the “dark side” of consciousness, a problem pointed out by Dr. C.G. Jung way back in the first half of the last century. This aversion to inner depth drives the “religiophobia,” the hatred that is not a neutral indifference (nor a respectful opinion) that permeates and cripples the progressive left. Mythologist Joseph Campbell, popularized through a public television series in the 1980’s, used to quote the German philosopher Schopenhauer saying “Life is what should not have been.” Failure to grasp the reality that is not an unending arc toward the light, “rolling on and quickening to a brightness,” is at the bottom of the liberal malaise, it explains why its death wish is stronger than its will to do good.
In other words, the modern religiophobic liberal refuses to take life – his/her own inner life – to the true deep level of human existence in nature. This refusal keeps the majority of secular progressives conveniently incapable of fully doubting the corporate media and mainstream history text version of the ‘dangerous’ Emma Goldman or the ‘dangerous’ Bill Ayers (or the “insane” John Brown, for that matter). I say ‘conveniently’ because to let go of that categorization, that projection, to understand these are/were the uncompromising, utterly faithful, righteously good guys, would mean we too would have to live our lives religiously, that is, in service to an ideal, coming to terms with the full dual nature of life as given, complete with its “what should not have been” dark side. It would mean we would have to pay equal attention to the violence being done under the cloak of goodness, under the bright sweep of that positive story of the ‘silver river of life.”
I’m saying that despite all the protestations of rationalism and fealty to science, the completely irrational something in us that wants to stay away from darker knowledge, from knowing ourselves “all the way,” as Socrates long ago bid his fellow Greek citizens do, is in most cases driving the car we thought we were driving.
Among many things that Bill Ayers said to us, some but not all echoing the text of his latest book, Demand the Impossible, was the importance of failure, and of being able to learn from one’s failures in order to keep on the activist path (“Fail often and fail better,” he advises.) (Bill and Bernardine’s talk at The Other Side can be seen on YouTube) The next day a friend expressed to me his disappointment that in this age of Trump, such a high profile speaker as Ayers, rather than raising hope in a more traditionally inspirational way, would instead dwell upon failure! This was not the kind of talk we need when all is so dark, despairing and awful….
My friend’s reaction made me think of the difference it makes to live one’s life religiously, in contrast to living liberally, that is, without the constraint of ideals, and allowing no ultimacy to shape one’s life or restrict one’s freedom, except for the dominant neoliberal capitalist reality (which is not considered an ideal but simply the given reality). Lacking surrender to an ideal one will be satisfied with being as good, and good in the way that the dominant reality allows you to be. Under neoliberalism ‘the good,’ which includes ongoing illegal drone warfare, mass incarceration of an underclass, a pitiful education that at best teaches obedience and consumer values, illegal torturing of prisoners and on and on, leaves much to be desired! Decrying these practices as abominations, agreeing with others who share your opinion, is not the same as living your life in opposition to the culture that can allow such brutality and barbarism, in fealty to your ideal. The capacity to serve, or to live in relation to a larger, more encompassing and more thoroughly ambivalent reality marks the difference between those who can act, take initiative, be led by vision, and the vast sea of banal liberalism that continues to wait for the leader who will do the right thing and remove from us the necessity of facing the full awful truth of the horror we’ve brought upon ourselves. That is, the liberal “vision,” if it can be called that, is not positive, but mainly defensive, though the liberal can generally be counted on to insist that others remain positive.
Only those who surrender to an ideal, or to their art, whatever it might be, can learn the art of living as taught in traditional religion, which in turn was simply the effort to formalize the way of life, in community, that will keep human beings in harmony with the cyclical bounds set by nature. Only they who aspire, toward the marriage, toward rooted, local living, toward an art form, toward justice, toward peace on earth, and whose daily practice allows them to knit together the two oppositions, the light and the dark, will learn to live by trying and failing over and over, to forgive, to reconcile, to persist, to suffer, to live passionately and purposefully. To the degree one learns to live, one lives heroically, without extra effort living in resistance to the dehumanizing, destructive capitalist context, counter-culturally.
Such a life is genuinely and humbly a “work in progress.” My practice of writing brings me into contact with the process and the wisdom contained not in every day “unreplenished, mechanised life” (D.H. Lawrence), but in my replenishing soul. At different times I have called the ideal I serve the Great Mother, the “Feminine,” the gnostic tradition, “independent religion,” the Unconscious,” the “prophetic tradition,” and recently, anarchism. I am pleased that my ideal is potentially expressible in a term (anarchism) used in the political, rather than only in esoteric or mythopoetic discourses. Given the pervasiveness of religophobia, I cannot expect that most identified anarchists would embrace or agree with me as to what the full embrace of an ideal is. They might not agree that the anarchist vision must include the mending and repair of the conditions that make human life human. Communities, families, traditions and customs may have come to function as instruments of oppression and bourgeois repression, but all the same, they must be defended against the onslaught of nihilistic neoliberal consumer capitalist culture. This terrible contradiction can only be held in tension by those who have a conscious relationship to the rejected “dark side” of their own nature.
I am tempted to say the time has come to normalize the term anarchism, to refuse its association with the dangerous. However, the example of Bernie Sanders provides a warning. Bernie brought the word ‘socialism’ out of the dark side and into “respectable” usage. Respectability being part of that effort to stay “in the light,” in the end, Bernie’s socialist ideal was subordinated to the requirements of respectable Democratic neoliberalism; socialism was thus cast back into the darkness. When people more thoroughly, more ardently surrender to an ideal, consciousness is forced inward and downward; away from respectability and closer to nature. Though there is still risk, the danger then is to respectability and to the hate, violence and destructiveness that respectability keeps a mask on.