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“I…learnt what it was that led my father to prefer the company of the most disreputable and drunken members of his parish to the company of smart, clever, new-fangled persons. Such persons were always ready to mock and sneer at his old-fashioned ways and indulge in those debased forms of facetiousness which made my father feel a fool…I learned from him to ground my pride upon a certain human basic dignity that had nothing to do with success in the world, and that a tramp could have as much as a clergyman, and a poacher as much as a gravedigger.”
— John Cowper Powys, Autobiography
” We are all in secret fighting for our sanity. The great thing is to have more than one string to our bow.”
“…the State is concentric, man is eccentric…”
— James Joyce
The popular call to be “our unique selves,” “to become who we are,” even “to be the change we want to see in the world,” etc., is banal unless it is heard in the moral context of interrelatedness that includes the planet. Expression of one’s unique individuality means not just an expression of egotism or personal ambition, a la Hillary. It refers to a task that’s at once nigh-to-impossible and at the same time it is the utmost priority for consciousness. History’s “road” in post-enlightenment civilization bring us to this place. Hesitating to change direction, failing to incorporate our spiritual dimension, only strengthens the destructive potential of human nature. The reason to change is a moral one – it is to “give love/give peace a chance.” Some people would say religion is precisely the biggest obstacle to that goal. I say it it is the anathema, the cold fury directed at religion by thoroughly modern smart people that is the obstacle.
The religiophobia on the smart left makes the project of individuality impossible. Let me explain: I presume that many others besides myself are deathly afraid of “insanity,” a condition that exiles one from the human community in a particularly painful way. But what would happen if we were to question that reflexive need to cling to supposed sanity? Since we’ve long allowed our artists to be slightly-to-very crazy, and still respect them, or at least we buy tickets to their concerts and movies, isn’t it time to ask ourselves what is this thing called sanity to which we cling so desperately? What good has it done to insist before all the world that we are not crazy, odd, or eccentric – oh no, not I!
Being one who struggles not with fear of insanity per se, after having been there done that, but with being socially identified as different, meaning “off,” peculiar, not right – I experience the meaning of difference as pejorative. It is, I think, a white, non-ethnic, straight person’s identity dilemma. In contrast, for those who have been designated other, there’s no such dilemma – the case is closed! It has taken me 6 decades to come to terms with the fact that to be in the minority, to be “eccentric,” perhaps to be not universally loved, definitely not understood, is the existential condition in which most of the people I admire in history lived out their lives. However, the choices I’ve made that I think are moral, i.e, they were made in connection to a world I can love, have made me an island in the sea of my social world, exactly in the way my worst fears as a 20-something would have envisioned.
To be precise, though my life is “marked” in many ways by my limiting choices, including a financially downscaled lifestyle, what is feeling ever more like my most serious transgression is my choice not to keep up with cellphone innovations, nor, closely related, with the entertainment world, with the exception of some kinds of music. I can testify at this point that though people may say, “Good for you,” when you admit you have no cell – let alone smart – phone, or when you take out your old film-using camera, or when you announce you have no TV, so cannot even watch the marvelous HBO series everyone is talking about, the reflexive support quickly evaporates. Those choices that make me “old school,” or “old-fashioned,” keep me continually at arms length from the others in the social world I inhabit. If it were not that we own and operate a cafe that draws a community around it, and that our children and grandchildren live all within a few blocks of us, I’m not sure I could hold out against the pressure to conform!
It is the silence that finally gets to me, with everyone around me texting and discussing Game of Thrones (while I am reading John Cowper Powys whom as far as I know nobody reads!) Though I’m not interested in having imitators nor in starting a Luddite cult I would like it if people talked to me about, especially, their adoption of new technologies and the thought process they engage in as they address the moral dilemma that each new technology brings. Bewildering as it is to find myself in a world in which my neighbors in their idle time, and even in their social time, are constantly doing something with their phones, it is the silent acceptance of these changes – with no reference ever made to ambivalence, to the social, environmental, intellectual, etc., costs of each new convenience – that unsettles me. The silence removes the shared ground beneath our feet; I become vulnerable to a crushing sense of worthlessness.
Did those extremely few who were alarmed about automobiles (either at the speed of them or at the unknown consequences upon human relationships, places and communities) and refused to join the masses in procuring their own, feel as shaky I do today? Or did those who made a decision to veer off from the crowd on a purely moral basis, those conscientious objectors to WWII, ever feel at home in their societies again?
I make no call for purism, even though Puritanism runs in my Anglo-saxon blood. I fear purism because of its proximity to the obsessive compulsion that ruled my life unconsciously for many years. In part because I see it as an illness and want no part of perfectionism for its own sake, I continue to eat meat, though I prefer vegetarian food, to enjoy regular carbs in my diet, drink more than the doctors’ advised 2 glasses of wine per day, avoid fitness gyms, and even occasionally have a cigarette (hand-rolled, very tasty!)
Neither is this holding out against lockstep adoption of every new and wonderful gadget about eccentricity for the sake of making an independent gesture. But I’m no moral giant; the lack of shared moral context makes me vulnerable always to doubt and that yawning pit of worthlessness.
That marginalizing word “love” was moved to the center in the talk by Vanessa German, a Pittsburgh artist one of whose works is included in the collection at nearby Hamilton College, that Orin and I had the good luck to catch last weekend. This remarkable woman who in her strength reminded me of Maya Angelou or Toni Morrison, but whose vulnerability speaking before the white and affluent audience about poor and black and gay lives mattering was apparent, insisted that we need to focus on love and understand how what we do is – or is not – love. I got from it that in the context she (and we) live in today, to protest is love and to love is to protest. Every act one performs that dissents from the mainstream runaway train headed for destruction of people, cultures, the planet, is love, and it spreads outward invisibly but surely. Acts of protest such as Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock are acts of loving.
My own participation in protests is infrequent these days, tied as I am to a small business that cannot survive without constant tending, and to the contemplative activity of my writing. I have stubbornly maintained – with very little confirmation from others – that my committing to a forsaken place such as Utica, to a business that is about community as much as profit, and even my aversion to social media and cellphone convenience, are in their againstness, in their protestation, love. In calling these choices to live “backwardly” love, I can depend only on the confirmation from my own soul – and from the few who stand on the shared ground with me. In the end, that confirmation must suffice.
And who knows but that my white woman’s insistence on remaining a skeptic regarding the American dream of progress may meet in some highly agreeable way with the Black woman’s insistence that Black Lives Matter? Faced with climate and ecological disaster, the majority clings to the fantasy that we will find some way to fix the energy problem such that we can continue present patterns of travel, of relocating, of chainstore and Amazon.com consumerism, of that materialist well-being that bolsters the fragile self-worth that is our whiteness. Perhaps only those who make themselves answerable first to their own souls, religiously, will be able to face the political/social death (marginalization) that advocating for contraction inevitably means; the necessary step down from white supremacy.
Such unresolvable tensions as we face today can be resolved only through the mediation of contemplation, through the application of thought and imagination undertaken by individuals. It is necessary not that we act in particular ways, this way right, that way wrong, but that each understands, antinomially, the meaning, the rightness, of his/her actions and fights for the sanctity of that besieged, hopelessly outnumbered, constantly transgressed temple of the self. It is more important for us to learn once again to develop our contemplative nature than to take “the right action” regarding climate change or to elect a “better” President. At the moment, and to the degree that we disregard the demand of our souls to be inward-dwelling, and to take our direction from that onboard mystical ground with which each person is endowed at birth, all of our actions are tainted by that initial rejection of ‘God,’ we cannot be radical as we need to be.
To concretely decide how we white people will put our lives on the side of humanity and our Mother the Earth, making us heretics, outsiders and others – we must contend first not with “identity politics,” nor with whether or not to settle in a locality, or commit to a community or draw the line in relation to technology. Each must first contend with the shame that shadows our unearned privilege, the existential worthlessness that is inescapable in the de-mythologized context of contemporary secular life. The radical “non-act” upon which love depends – and without which each ‘good’ action will have its nullifying shadowy, destructive counterpart, is to act in defiance of the shame, be uselessly contemplative, live in intimate relation to the “eccentric” diversity contained in our nature in the imaginative, polymorphous soul.
Taking up one’s contemplative, artist nature saves no one from doubt or suffering, but can bring moments of feeling one with other outlaws, saints, mystics and poets who have insisted upon understanding what they do as love.
*the designation “white” is used in the sense that James Baldwin speaks of whiteness as an identity that presumes supremacy.