“Abstain from [the certainties taught by the modern world] with great discipline! …in order to be able to face the kind of society we live in and have created, in order to be able, but barely able, to bear the anguish of looking at it.”
— Ivan Illich In Conversation (David Cayley)
“…it’s difficult to tell modern people, young people, that they shouldn’t be afraid of being a candle, a light that others light up in their life. People are used to electric bulbs and switches. The metaphor of light doesn’t work without darkness.”
Many times have I pondered the thought expressed by Ivan Illich quoted above; that is, the metaphoric ‘Star of Wonder’ doesn’t work without the Night. Without being able to comprehend, or allow the truly dark, as if we had power over elemental reality, there’s no true light, only life-lite, that is life management, maximization, & prolongation, fake cheer, and banality – just what the Neoliberal world continues to insist upon. The real horror of Trump is not his outrageous and tweeted pronouncements, it’s his blatant banality; nothing is important but his feeling states, reactions, and “thoughts.” The world as cartoon world, nothing really complex about it. In this he does not represent a different reality than does the liberal Democrat, only a different semblance. Deep down I believe most of us want the person in the President’s spotlight to at least play the part of a wise “elder,” telling us the truth and guiding us in the right way. Though we can find voices that speak to us from a consciousness outside the one that reassures and bolsters mainstream news-fed reality, the poets, thinkers, activists, journalists, etc, who are the candles, it is impossible for most of us to join the outsiders. As the darkness around us deepens, our lost capacity to bear dark truth, i.e., our lost imagination, is our most fatally serious weakness.
We are deaf to ones who speak as elders, whose task is not to reassure and maintain a following, but to love even at the cost of not being loved in return, or of being unelectable. The elder (not equatable to ‘old person’) is an “other.” With our humanity mediated 24-7 by “planned and structured screen images,” we banish the “other” from our awareness with a wave of the wand that says “It’s all good.” To bear to hear the voice of the elder, the prophet whose voice disturbs rather than placates, that our consciousness recoils from as an other, we have to have first reached our own peace with the dark.
The essential matter of otherness has been tamed and made manageable in a liberal discourse of “identity politics” wherein we learn to talk reasonably about “women of color” and Questioning Gender. This discourse serves to make manageable the plague of uncertainty and insecurity, the deep sense of “the other,” of mystery, of all that is not in our control and therefore terrifying.
In the neoliberal reality, we adapt our behavior to the tacit awareness that admission of dark in all of its horrific, unmanageability would be very, very bad for business. At this moment in history, under the constant threat of “quick” nuclear annihilation or slow climate degradation, when every day I beg my despondent husband to “lighten up,” it would be difficult to err on the side of darkness, to be too gloomy, too pessimistic, too “Debby Downer.” However, dark truth is still off the menu in nearly all public spaces I inhabit. The anti-gloom-and-doom patrols are ever vigilant. Amid this stillness, I wonder, are the people texting and Facebooking less alone than I, the silence surrounding them less profound?
I submit that only the capacity to allow that darkness exists co-equally with light will save us from being swallowed up by the very dark we so firmly deny. That means, of course, not giving in to fascism or accepting climate-denial, but acknowledging evil rather than pretending it can be managed (i.e., if we can just elect better leaders!) I take it that Illich’s own star became tarnished – after shining so brightly in the 60’s and early 70’s – when he locked horns with feminists through the ideas that became published in his work called Gender. The refusal of those ideas that insisted on the essential and historical otherness of men and women, sounds very much to me like another instance of refusal of darkness by the triumphant liberal mainstream which came to include and subsume feminism. In the early days of feminism, I – and I presume other women – were like Sandernistas in our enthusiasm. The promise of change was so powerful – just like a candle in the dark. The idea that women had something to offer in terms of our “natural” (being child-raisers and nurturers) preference for peace, for justice, for kindness toward the earth, challenged the ongoing status quo of war-loving patriarchal hierarchy. But, fear that “biological determinism” would lose women our bid for equality with men in the circles of power won the day. Early feminists insufficiently understood their true power as outsiders – as others – and consequently failed the original beautiful, crazy, dangerous vision!
What keeps the liberal majority so awesomely captive in their unleavened mono-reality? Orin and I recently began together Paul Goodman’s classic Growing Up Absurd. There it is, that clear light cast into the darkness of its day, the darkness that is still our own, denied by the vast majority of our peers. The book speaks to the unsolved crime of our 1950’s childhoods, that period when he and I became, in different ways, I far more than Orin, captured and woven into the dominant capitalism-adjusted consciousness, and, in different ways, neurotic and self-destructive as persons. The greatest lesson the dominant society has to teach us was learned then: to be extremely skeptical toward the possibility that knowledge coming from within oneself can be good and can determine one’s life in a way that will make one’s life make sense. I was taught no way to receive nourishment for my spiritual self, as if it were possible, without such nourishment, to be a whole, fully functioning, original person. No, more than that, as if it were irrelevant whether or not I, from birth onward, were an original, separate, “person,” an other whose very personhood required protection from the insatiable consumer society that needs product-devouring robots not persons. Goodman’s book reveals a society prepared to offer up its children to the meaninglessness and purposelessness of a profit-based economy.
For the first time, I am able almost – almost, mind you – to believe that what we (my husband and I), blind and uninitiated as we were during our parenting years, have done in raising children who’ve kept out of the global capitalist economy and “success” on its terms, is good. We have left them free to find the conditions by which they may be persons and not machines, robots, or replaceable units. We have kept our family face-to-face and living “within a horizon.” We have done this with support or affirmation from few people, including our children! Even now, the affirmation we feel from the very fact of our son’s carrying on with a family of his own, their residence only a few blocks away is never put into words. How do we verbalize and affirm these defiantly human choices that, by the signs we can read coming from the left/liberal side of our ideological spectrum, are misguided, even wrong?
My ideas about family would be controversial if I were important enough to put them on a public platform, as Illich did in the 70’s, thus getting himself sent straight to the Siberia of marginality in the burgeoning feminist neoliberal reality. What strikes me in conversations with many other parents is how acceptable they find the odd arrangements we’re given in which to be parents and grandparents. By accepting them, however resignedly, giving them tacit approval, family becomes ever more “inscribed” within the one system. Being responsible for children, but having no knowledge source more authoritative than for-hire science, or that transmitted to us through “carefully planned and structured screen images that tell us how to see, what to see and what not to see,” how can a parent be certain she was right? I’m far from insisting my choices are the right ones, but I ask, can we question the lockstep college education, the career path into the “organization,” the moves that take us far from our roots in family? Might it in some weird way be better to have one’s adult kids hanging around after college, or, worse yet, no college, having no idea what to do with their lives, “causing” the parent to feel like a failure (and thus forcing the question as to where the sense of failure really comes from?) Don’t we need these kinds of crises instead of our comfortable assumptions and certainties? Such a crisis and opportunity – the one of juvenile delinquency – was what Goodman tried to point to in the 1950s.
An older woman friend, an artist and like me a grandmother, when I told her how helping out with my grandchildren was yet another demand on my overburdened time, tongue in cheek said to me, “Oh, we did that the right way; our grandchildren are in Albany and in Princeton. We can get away!” I attempted to insert something about how we wanted to be – were so happy to be – persons in our grandchildren’s lives, really, extended family; her husband, in the background, nodded, but did not speak.
Without the embodied complexity of Grandpa and Grandma, the eccentricities and strangeness you’re unlikely to see in twice-a-year visits, the smell of their house so very familiar, their voices, their attentions and inattentions, their shortcomings and “good sides,” without knowing them as the soil out of which I come, has not the actual field of grandparenthood been abandoned? I understand the economic realities that cause our societal nomadism; I am familiar with the incredibly intense conflicts existing in families, so much less safe than the “households” we comprise for marketing purposes! But the obstinacies, intransigencies and miseries of families are not why these fields of traditional family relationships are being retreated from; the threat of domestic violence that justifies professional social work is not cause to persuade ourselves that family is an optional, obsolete arrangement, the highest good for which can be to succeed as coordinated units of consumerism.
Families are being lost because they are culture, an other that is in essential opposition to the one imperialist neoliberal reality. Though difficult and conflicted, families (I speak in the heterosexual frame for that is what I know) are quintessentially non-banal; rooted in us and we in them; they are constitutive of our humanness, i.e., a partaking of the reality expressed by Illich that “we are one insofar as we are the meeting of [a dissymmetric] two.” Families can be neither maintained nor defended without a basis in such a non-rational, paradoxical understanding, attainable by men and women who will bravely meet their individual inner darkness in order to find the soul’s alive otherness. If early feminists had understood the need for the deep mythic imagination, counter as its truth is to the relentless progress of dehumanization, their original brave program might still be inspiring today’s public discourse. Though it would be perhaps smaller numerically, it would be more radical, more true, with each woman and man a candle burning for his/her community and family.