“Perhaps life is not the black, unutterably beautiful, mysterious and lonely thing the creative artist tends to think of it as being; but it is certainly not the sunlit playpen in which so many Americans lose first their identities and then their minds.”
— James Baldwin, Mass Culture and the Creative Artist
[speaking of ‘the black river of dissolution’]”That’s what we never take into count – that it rolls onwards.”
— D.H. Lawrence, Women In Love
‘”The one thing of value in the world,” says Emerson, “is the active soul; this every man contains within him. The soul active sees the absolute truth and utters truth and creates.” In other words, the individual instinct is the thing of value in the world. It is the true soul that sees and creates the truth alive, out of which is to come a still greater truth, the reborn social soul.”’
— Emma Goldman, Anarchism: What It Really Stands For
“What’s Poetry if it isn’t something that has to fight for the unseen against the seen, for the dead against the living, for the mysterious against the obvious? Poetry always takes sides. It’s the only Lost Cause we’ve got left! It fights for the….for the Impossible!”
— Lady Rachel to her poet lover in J.C. Powys, A Glastonbury Romance
Our young friend Will, back in Utica for a visit, following a session of reading poems with his poetry buddies on our deck, spoke of an idea he’d had recently. Like me a melancholic, Will struggles with being in this world in which those who value learning, who participate in thinking and ideas as essential human activities, are so marginalized. He has difficulty with the fact that we are a subjected people who behave as if we’re okay with a world that was getting uglier and meaner every day even before the ascent of Trump. His words, having come at that point in the evening after some beers had been enjoyed, plus a few sips of bourbon, had that fluid sound of people speaking directly from the well of their spirit. Saying this, I do not mean to romanticize alcohol, which someone called the “writer’s black lung.” For some of us the wine allows easier access not to a glib tongue but to one that feels – and sounds – akin to the deeper and more poetic realm of certainty that can barely exist, let alone be shared in a world that more and more blatantly resembles D.H. Lawrence’s darkened view of civilization.
Will referred to a poem he’d written comparing our times to the Byzantine era, when it was left to scribes in monasteries to preserve the accumulated cultural wisdom of Roman civilization. Suddenly I, who had been on the periphery of the little gathering of poets, and not connected to it, felt the world enlarge to include me. I recalled a couple of weekends ago when poet, writer and former environmental activist Paul Kingsnorth, had brought our weekend retreat to a conclusion with the prediction that it may become necessary, in the Dark Ages ahead, to preserve human knowledge in an intentional way, as the Irish monasteries did during the medieval centuries. Hearing Will, I felt once again as if I were in a shared world that sees the catastrophe, no longer in the prevalent one of hedging, pretending, avoiding, distracting, substance abusing, screen watching, Trump watching, Hillary-hating, etc., in order not to see where we are; the extremely defensive reality in which I – and I presume others – am excessively isolated. I would venture that much of the behavior around me these days is dictated by fear, more than by the enticement and joy of texting, or by following major league baseball, or than even by sex. I would venture further to say that few people, even those most heavily engaged in the distractions, feel at home in that world. The unwanted fact of our alienation is, our common lot, our shared pain; paradoxically it is our means of knowing we are “all one” and not as it often seems, permanently isolated, incapable of reunion or reconciliation with one another. But to publicly acknowledge that fact is another matter.
To get to that point of confessing our alienation in the consensus environment, the ‘elephant in the living room,’ is not simple, including for me. Last week an outsider, a visionary city planning consultant who was speaking in Utica, told us our city, with its many empty lots and boarded up buildings looks like cities in Europe post-WWII that had been heavily bombed. Ouch! He was right; but we never talk about this and clearly are not supposed to notice. The pull to be part of the bubbling stream of social discourse flowing on, seemingly regardless of the actual conditions, is too strong, the difficulty of making one’s way down into the caverns where the truth dwells too unsocial an activity to take on in the usual social contexts. This difficulty in holding to darker truth when one is feeling the demand to respond in the given conversation on its terms, (and the lack of opportunities for deeper honesty) are crucial to the continued pseudo-vitality of neoliberalism. The monstrous development that has changed traditional liberalism into blood-soaked neoliberalism depends upon that conditioned tendency to avoid darker truth at any cost. Equally, it benefits from the fact that this ‘elephant’ has its own wiles and guiles.
Our habit, conditioned over many centuries and pointed out by Lawrence and other prophetic writers and poets, of insisting on a bright, progressive, ever upward and improving reality, the “sunlit playpen,” as James Baldwin called it, effectively excludes the dark reality that is equally real.
The gathering I attended in early June with Dark Mountain Project co-founder Paul Kingsnorth, was explicitly for the purpose of addressing the “deep cultural roots” of our global environmental crisis, to get us to begin the work of changing the narratives our civilization bequeaths us. He told us an old European folk tale in which exiled truth, in the form of a serpent, returns to wreak death and destruction in the kingdom. Even at that conference premised upon dark truth (i.e., our civilization is killing the planet and traditional activism, including electoral politics, now is a waste of time), where, so to speak, elephant pie was on the menu, the communal feeling remained elusive; neither elephant nor serpent appeared at the table.
While some of us can still think clearly – if any can, living in these times when the falcon is out of earshot of the falconer – it seems to me that exactly what must be grappled with is that which we have for so long, by convention, agreed to treat as if it were not there. Over time, refusal to see outside our dominant frame of reference, be it capitalism or “whiteness” or “American exceptionalism”as some have called it, has crippled our own humanity; it has become standard equipment, a permanent and lethal handicap. The 99% will fail to meaningfully challenge the plutocracy if we cannot recognize our common plight, a plight which has both its interior, imaginative (and personally terrifying) dimension as well as its outer, shared-world, mutually terrifying dimension. To complicate matters further, having lost the container which religion provided for our imagination, our fear is healthy and justified; without such an imagination-based container, raw reality – the revelations of apocalypse – would likely be too disturbing to handle.
For all that Americans easily consign our puritan heritage to the ash heap of baneful human ideas, puritanism, unlike the liberalizing religious trends that followed it, took the dark side of human nature seriously. (See The Witch for corroboration of this!) Throwing off the Puritans was good for some things ( for example, the fact that we no longer have to worry that the terrible violence we commit in the world is sin, because there’s no such thing!…) but America – to our great loss in consciousness – never again obtained a common public language for speaking of the dark side of our nature – and of divine nature – as real.
The little Temenos group that gathers twice a month at The Other Side around my talks has, without any real ritual, become a communal space in which it is safe to acknowledge darker reality. Last week I received a note from one attender that said: I always walk away from your talks feeling less alone. The group is self-selecting; no one comes who is committed to the ‘sunlit playpen’ because I pointedly mention dark reality in every notice. My “preaching,” like that of the Puritans, insists on including the dark aspect of the larger spiritual reality, what Jung called the dark side of God or the still evolving God-image. I take for granted that spirit is real, and that its imaginative reality becomes real only in elucidating the darkness repudiated by sunlight strivers. Exactly at the place where I confront “what I do not want to know about,” “what terrifies me or I cannot bear to know about” is the point wherein the soul’s imaginative capacity kicks in; where the soul’s ability to read the signs like a native tracker in the deep forest of his familiar element is precisely what is needed. One would be extremely unwise to attempt the crossing without the aid of religion, or art or of initiated healers. But if we fail to make the attempt, if we fail to connect with both spiritual reality (anathema to religophobes) and death’s reality, if we do not find the poetic sensibility, there is only neoliberalism and its unexamined complacency, further descent into barbarity, and further estrangement from our humanity.
Being presented with the truth by going to alternative websites will not alter this fact. Pointing to the elephant so obviously right there will not do it. Only Emerson’s ‘active soul,’ its seeing, uttering and creating, will do it.
I write this piece on Emma Goldman’s birthday, June 27. To me it is fitting to be questioning the isolated condition of our existence, which EG fought against throughout her life by standing up for exactly those who’d fallen through the cracks of the society’s limited capacity to care for one another. She blamed not people for this, but government and authority. Today, the anarchist ideal is still the best proposal out there, in my view; it’s the shape the ‘elephant’ would take if it were allowed to express its positive nature in political terms. Behind what we most fear and what appears most dangerous to us is what we most want, a world based in mutual trust, mutual recognition, in which each is allowed to follow his/her “individual instinct” – different and free….Impossible!