“The unconscious sends all sorts of vapors, odd beings, terrors, and deluding images into the mind—whether in dreams, broad daylight or insanity; for the human kingdom beneath the floor of the comparatively neat little dwelling that we call our consciousness goes down into unsuspected Aladdin caves…[Though] dangerous because they threaten the fabric of the security into which we have built ourselves and our family….[ they offer] a wonderful reconstruction, of the bolder, cleaner, more spacious and fully human life—that is the lure, the promise and terror, of these disturbing visitants from the mythological realm we carry within.”
— Joseph Campbell, The Hero with A Thousand Faces
“The cause of the Unseen against the Seen…”
— John Cowper Powys, A Glastonbury Romance
An article in the food section of the New York Times reports that the number of local boulangeries (those traditional mom-and-pop bakeries that produce the signature bread of France, the baguette) has declined precipitously in the last decade, losing ground to changed eating habits and cheaper corporate-produced competitors.
Further evidence, in case anyone needed it, that culture now is counter culture. The focus of the article is one brave and energetic guy, Pascal Rigo, who single-handedly is working to bring back the boulangeries to France by starting them up all over the country, centralizing some of the production process to make the project “cost-effective.” Thus, each little small town boulangerie will not be run necessarily by a native of the town who grew up in and inherited the family business but a fresh young professional out of bread-baking school who will work at the job until she goes back to school for her Masters. This is of course, a picture that matches the way the world is, nothing we can do about it. It is an effort to reform, not to overturn the disastrous free market economy, which provided the ladder of success that made Mr. Rigo rich enough to take on such an heroic project.
It’s hard to argue against such a good, and feel-good effort. Doesn’t this seem the only way we can hold onto the things of beauty and worth that we want preserved in the world dominated and being replaced by corporate monoculture? That is, to depend on the rich who have consciences, to save us? To me, this “vision” is as misguided, in its way, as violent revolution. Just as violent revolution merely sets the stage for the new tyranny, reforming corporate monoculture by letting others who know more and are in a better position (i.e., have the money) to affect it for the better, ensures the survival of neoliberal capitalism. If compromise with capitalism has not worked to this point, after decades of liberalism’s efforts to soften capitalism’s brutal effects, why would we think it will work if we just give it “one more try?”
In contrast, a more compelling and beautiful vision calls for returning heroism to its proper place in the ordinary you and me, each of us common people. A different sort of movement than the labor movement which, too, depended on its heroes and martyrs for energy and inspiration, now the ‘hero’ is each individual called to, in a quite selfish way, take up the heroism of realizing each his/her own creative self-interest. Make all work art by making all workers artists. The artist’s quest taken on purposely, religiously, will lead to a rebirth of the creativity natural to all work that is the result of the individual’s desire to make things of worth. Though any work becomes tedious, or has parts to it that are tedious, what draws the painter into her studio to paint for hours, or the writer to his desk or the musician to his practice, is his/her very personal passion for creating; this makes art the only viable alternative to the slavery of work for wage because, simply, it frees one from the pervasive, disempowering belief that work without pay is worthless.
It makes a strike for the “unseen” against the nearly completed triumph of the “seen -” which is our current cheerless, dispirited world.
Each person an artist? How can this be? I am neither talking about encouraging a return of macrame belt and tie-dyed T-shirt makers, nor about throwing away standards for great art and calling all art “good.” Rather, I am encouraging people to find a sustainable foundation underneath that desire that appears commonly in the human breast, to follow a passion, to be artists, poets, Do-It-Yourselfers, makers of real and usable things. Ordinarily that dream is discouraged and disregarded, replaced by the need to ‘make it’ in the ‘real’ world, the same real world that is killing the planet and reducing humanity to robothood.
Having a substantial foundation beneath the desire allows whimsy to deepen into the wisdom, self-knowledge and generativity that marked the adult stage of maturity in communities since earliest times. The very process of becoming human is a “hero’s journey,” as mythologist Joseph Campbell pointed out in the 80’s PBS series The Power of Myth. The show popularized the phrase “follow your bliss,” probably the most revolutionary message every presented on that public TV network. An individual who picks up the radicalizing direction of her own innate genius, taking the guidance of intuition and instinct as sufficient “legitimization” for agency and action in the world, and pursues personal bliss as her purpose, her singular duty, is in position to co-build a world independently of the corporate masters.
Many people grasp that mass incarceration is a tool of “the new Jim Crow” to keep black people marginalized in virtual slavery. Few realize the powerfully intimidating message sent to us “law-abiding” Americans, that marginalizes our most sensitive, potentially prophetic, poor and defiant ones, when we institutionalize and medicate the “crazies,” i.e., the bi-polars, the OCD, the depressed and suicidally depressed; mental illness is imaginable to any of us if we imagine allowing ourselves to “go too far!” Let’s turn the tables: let us marginalize the entire top-down media propagated fake world of talking heads, professional sellouts and experts of every stripe brought to us 24-7 on TV screens and in the liberal press. Send them – arguably the ones making us “crazy” – all packing to the furthest fringes of our consciousness, freeing up the psychic space in which the the alternative reality may be imagined. Only people who are passionately engaged in the enthusiasms of their own work, an intensity that builds immunity to the many-headed toxic lures and fear manipulations of end stage capitalism, can succeed in exiling mainstream reality.
What is the basis for cohesion in a movement of individuals intensely focused in their individual artistic enterprises (which may sound like a herd of cats)? Obviously, the basis for unity is very different than a movement focused on a collective ideal and consciousness of shared oppression in the usual sense. The artist, who inhabits the same neoliberal smiley-faced, perfectly coiffed and articulately presented air-conditioned suburbanized nightmare as the rest of us, likely is not desperately starving nor being beaten on by hired pinkertons nor in a condition of slavery that matches the popular idea of slavery. The artist must defend something more fundamental, which by and large no people have ever had to defend before, which is the conditions which make art-making possible. Coincidentally, these are the same as the conditions necessary for maintaining connection to one’s own soul. Artists defending their own precious and necessary creative process need time for solitude, a place to practice their art, a safe and mutually respectful community, a culture that reflects back to them, in terms of its regard for beauty, truth and meaning, the very humanity-valuing their work engages in. That is, they require a culture that is also the result of what they are doing, which is making culture.
The mythic hero’s journey, popularized in Campbell’s work, is the inner, psycho-spiritual complement to building the world, the growing up process no longer undertaken in western societies even though it is the foundation for culture. Traditional religion concerned itself with the process of human maturation with its given spiritual, imaginative dimension, in a manner designed to turn out individuals who can work together for the society’s continuation; in traditional societies vulnerable to threats from nature as well as from warring entities, producing adults who understood their role as being in charge of ensuring safety and stability for human beings between birth and death, for the present and future health and flourishing of the community, wasn’t optional.
Over many generations, in the name of (pseudo)-freedom, we accustomed ourselves to bypassing traditional initiatory work. By now the fear of entering that psychic terrain, always daunting, now is powerfully supported by technology’s promises and widespread ridicule of the religious. We have adapted well to the world that is, to its demand for lower-level functionaries and managers in an economy that decrees diminished human worth, ever greater triumph of the machine and the profit makers. To take up the role of becoming our individual selves, the template for which is in our own soul’s imaginative depths, is beyond the power of by now reduced imaginations. Though we still resonate to the old human stories of quest and adventure, trials and treasure-seeking, we accept their commodification by Hollywood, their pale echo in the perils of climbing the ladder of corporate success, their privatization in the heroic cancer survivor and the wheelchair distance runner. The most successful among us, aimed at a spot in the corporate system that will grant survival, are resigned to a life of boredom, of never doing anything they truly want to do, which makes them/us dangerous people.
Remember the feminist movement that was meant to encourage women to free ourselves from the life of enslavement in the home, from lives wasted in unpaid and unrewarded work, never able to choose for ourselves the lives we wanted? Then it turned out what we wanted was just to be treated like men in the marketplace, which further meant, to be “men” rather than the different being a woman is! The feminist movement failed to include the inner dimension of the human being which would have opened up the universe of “wanting” to goals beyond (or below) becoming corporate lawyers, busting through glass ceilings, and having universal paid childcare. It would have opened the path to becoming women, instead of bypassing it.
Yet this heroic adventure in the “vale of soul-making” as the poet Keats called it, is human life, our heritage and birthright. So far we are not fighting for it, for the right to have our own suffering, beauty, meaning and purpose. We forget the warnings issued in fairy tales, familiar aids to our ancestors: we accept the poison apple; we – against the advice of the disturbing dwarf or the warty crone – take the short and easy way to the castle instead of bushwhacking through the briars and brambles; we rat on Rumpelstiltskin; frozen in terror at the witch’s cottage, we fail to ally with our animal cunning. Worse than that – for these are human errors – we abandon our souls, the reality of them and our need for relationship with them. It may be too late to save the planet from the destruction now advancing on us, but to tell oneself it is too late to marginalize the real insanity and to each turn to making the “fully human life,” is a lie.