Looking for Lost Sincerity on the Liberal Left


“Thoughts, as Paracelsus taught, when they are visualized and brooded upon for a long while, tend to become entities.”

John Cowper Powys, Autobiography

Obsessed with mere size and number we have been deprived of the feeling for the immense significance of the tiny, tentative first movements in the individual hearts and imagination.  Although our neglect of these impulses is destroying one system after another around us, we go on ardently giving our allegiance to the great established order, as if its continuance were assured.”

Laurens van der Post, The Heart of the Hunter 

Without a guiding star, that is, without vision, program, or ideal, the liberal left can do nothing but helplessly watch and deplore the clown show of the Trump presidency.  We have disdain, we have irony, we have superiority based on education and manner of speech, dress and non-orange coloration. What we need is quite different: we need the zeal of passion and the dynamic energy that comes with sincerely serving Something Larger Than Ourselves.  Without that, we are incapable of leading on the only path that can veer away from this crash-and-burn trajectory we’re on; that is, of giving up the capitalist project of bigger, better, more, entirely; going small and local and returning to ways – at least to some of them – that were better for the health of human beings and the planet.

Since I profess to know the Something Larger really does exist (i.e., it does not disappear when we close our eyes or when we declare ourselves atheist!) albeit not in a measurable, quantifiable or physically verifiable way,  this bind of the liberal progressive left I see as more than partly due to the paralyzing religiophobia that dominates it.   Having overcome the superstitions of religion with science, and with salvation assured by technology, leftward-leaning libertarian individuals have found no religion – no unifying vision –  sufficient to replace what’s been lost.

I write about this subject frequently chiefly because the ironic attitude and the disdain that predominates among my fellow travelers on the left, though I can understand it as defensive,  is painful to me personally.  Being “independently religious” as I call it, I am stranded among the philistines with my childlike relationship to the Unseen. Since the world of my introversion means everything to me, I have no snappy answer, no retaliation I can make to reassert my dignity.  How nice; you’re an atheist.  Well, that takes care of that, doesn’t it?  I have nowhere to go conversationally with this pain administered unconsciously by my friends – they are not even curious about what is hidden from their sight.  Fortunately, I find once I write about it, make direct contact with the world of my own making, the pain disappears.  In my upside-down creative world, it turns out I am right and they are ignorant!  And look where their ignorance has gotten them!  Complete bafflement over the Trump ascendancy that leaves them in a kind of wordless depression.

Seated at a local restaurant recently, a retired school-teacher who we’re friendly with came over to our table as she was leaving and jokingly asked us if Orin and I were making plans for “the resistance” at our little nonprofit arts space. She then vouchsafed to us, in a facetious voice,  that her husband thinks she’s gone “entirely insane.”  Though she did not explain, I was left to assume she meant “because she cannot stop obsessing about Donald Trump.” My response to such indications of mental distress and depression on the part of liberals is this: if they would only take their depression or obsession seriously as a mental disorder requiring immediate attention to their souls, they might actually become capable of building an effective resistance!!

What gave rise to the Trump ascendancy, as others besides me are saying, (including Paul Street in a recent article on Truthdig) is not only the consequence of the noisy “bad guys,” but the silence of the “good people” who are the majority.  Accepting the assumptions of neoliberalism, the materially-speaking ‘good’ lives that capitalism has brought us, has cost us our capacity for sincerity, conditioned us to live banally on the thin gruel of irony and light discourse about nothing, a la Seinfeld.

The other day, I was handed a clue about the place of irony in the secular progressive world.  A well-educated friend, reared in New England, was disagreeing with someone in our Cafe who’d remarked that  Easterners and Midwesterners are “just alike.”  Based on her experiences in Ohio in graduate school and teaching as a post-grad, she maintained that what they are missing in the Midwest is a sense of irony, which, to her way of thinking, is part and parcel of being an Easterner.  Bingo, I thought; no wonder we “Eastern effete snobs” are hated!

What if people, even liberals,  are tiring of the unnourishing ironic diet and, deep down, are starving for sincere profession instead?  Having learned that “magic trick” of turning my own wrong-headed perspective – that which tells me the “Unseen” is as real as the “Seen -” into enlivening truth (“it works for me!”), it doesn’t suit me to remain entirely private about what I know;  I imagine others – other souls –  hungry for affirmation of the spiritual real.  Having been left clueless by ignorant self-satisfied  materialism, by the kingmaker path to wealth and power, by the 24-7 of brainless media distraction,  they can’t find the way out.  In my writings, and in the “Temenos Talks” I give once or twice a month at that little arts space I administer in Utica, I make a sort of end run past the rationally committed gatekeeper ego with its iron grip on the key of identity for each of us in this brutally materialist context.  I (figuratively) dart past the smarmy righteous certainty required by society of our personalities, moving towards the goal, which is to encourage the invisible souls that hurt, as mine does, in this banal, chain-store ugly, smiley-face brutal neoliberal free market world.  Furthermore,  knowing as I do that estrangement from the imaginative soul  is the cause of the blindness and persistent ignorance on the leftward know-it-all side of politics, it gives me pleasure to figuratively bash a few heads with the one area in which I – in my individual being –  know more than the Majority.

Only when I am asked to perform a wedding – which is, thank goodness, just occasionally – do I have to make myself nakedly vulnerable professing sincerely to the “philistines.”  Since it is always friends who ask, sometimes I have to face my fear of  exposing  my childlike believing self –  and tell myself that there has to be one soul there – maybe two – that are hungry for and will be grateful to hear from a ‘believer,’ rather than a garden variety doubter.

Recently I performed a wedding – my first “destination” wedding – for two men who are part of my children’s group of Gen-X friends.  Originally from our Utica area, they now pursue careers in New York City, one in social work the other in corporate law and computers.  Some relevant background: Back in the early days of our Cafe business, the apartments above our storefront became popular with the “creative” or “outsider” Gen-Xers as they ventured forth from under their parents’ roofs.  In the Cafe circle, there was freedom and safety; even to kids we didn’t really know, Orin and I functioned as the archetypal parents of the place that itself had an archetypal “urban” allure as a meeting ground for creative young people. Sadly for us, many of these young people moved on to places like Brooklyn that offered more opportunities for the “best and brightest” than does Utica.  After all, these young people grew up in the same “one capitalist reality” as the rest of us.  Places like Utica can only be revived by people who not only are creative, but who adhere observantly to an imaginative reality; only such “dutiful” dreamers can perceive the opportunity to build the urgently needed alternative world in a place deemed a failure by mainstream, and are not daunted by fear of failure.

What I am calling an ironic attitude pervaded the wedding weekend. When time came for the ceremony, on Saturday evening after a night and a day of pretty strenuous partying that included several hours of (for  me) excruciating karaoke (a burlesque entertainment form that requires the suspension of sincerity), my task became that of “crashing the party” with some earnestness.  I felt the familiar terror in a context where irony, religiophobia, and New York libertarian sophistication and affluence combine to make me feel as if stranded by the waters of Babylon.  To top it off, most of the 130 guests who assembled in the designated outdoor spot were carrying their current drinks, and here I was preparing to be sincere!

Immediately after the ceremony, and throughout the reception that followed I received outpourings of gratitude and sincere appreciation for my words such as I never have before received (except from some of my CounterPunch readers!) from these Gen-Xers, including from the grooms.  I think I am enough a judge of character  that this was not alone the “booze” talking.

What I had done, it seems to me, was intervene in youth culture on behalf of “the invisible reality” as a self-anointed elder.  Though they may have had no words for it, I believe my words, the magic space they wove, caused the young people to feel safe, as they felt years ago when “Mom and Pop” were reliably there at the center of the Cafe and the young kids who were attracted to it.  The intervention was on behalf of tradition –  that is, to tradition that is consciously and sincerely related to the archetypes – such as marriage, family, community, locality – and therefore alive.  The popular, secular libertarian attitude has no problem debunking marriage, nor taking for granted the exalted meaning of a NYC residence over one in dull and dilapidated Utica,  but it creates a problem precisely in that it crushes the longing for constancy and for hope. Our young people, left without a substitute  for the solidity, the stable base that tradition gives to lives that are capable, in their turn, of generativity (i.e., of being sincerely for and not only against) have nowhere to go but the “haven” of the mocking, coolly amused attitude.

I’m not about to advertise myself online as a wedding celebrant. But I do intend to keep up my sincere professing on behalf of our despised spiritual dimension.  Those of us who are elders and not merely aged have a duty it seems to me to act as elders.  That is, we have a duty to restore a context of community and meaning that provides safety for humans with souls. Referring to the Powys quotation above, we have the duty to brood upon thoughts until they become entities, to perceive the unseen that makes every locality sacred as it is mundane and every community representative of the invisible truth of relatedness, and to propagandize for the imagined world as the real one. They – we – have a duty to find out for ourselves that which we can profess sincerely.  If we – in our anarchist spirit – don’t want hierarchy imposed top down, then we each must be the hierarchy indigenously, without which human community cannot evolve, and failing to evolve can only die.

More articles by:

Kim C. Domenico, reside in Utica, New York, co-owner of Cafe Domenico (a coffee shop and community space),  and administrator of the small nonprofit independent art space, The Other Side.  Seminary trained and ordained,  but independently religious.

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