Those who are against fascism without being against capitalism, who lament over the barbarism that comes out of fascism, are like those who wish to eat their veal without slaughtering the calf…They are not against the property relations which engender barbarism; they are only against the barbarism itself.
– Bertolt Brecht, Writing the Truth: Five Difficulties, 1935
I have known some who have been rationally educated…They were marked by a microscopic acuteness; but when they looked at great things, all became a blank and they saw nothing…and uniformly put the negation of a power for the possession of a power – & called the want of imagination, Judgment, & the never being moved to Rapture, Philosophy!
– Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Letter to Tom Poole
The care with which these [cosmogonic] myths are transmitted from generation to generation and ritualistically rehearsed proves that more than curiosity is at stake in their origin. They came forward to meet a fundamental human need: the need to sense oneself as grounded in the cosmos and thereby oriented. Without orientation confusion sets in; if it persists, life loses its radar.
– Huston Smith, Beyond the Post-modern Mind
The quest that determines the orientation for man in the world (in Islamic thought)… is to find the vertical dimension symbolized by the North Star which makes possible the ascent of the soul toward the threshold of the worlds beyond [i.e., a cosmology in which non-rational, instinctual kinds of knowing still have sense]…To lose sight of the North means no longer to be able to distinguish between heaven and hell, angel and devil, light and shadow, unconsciousness and transconsciousness.”
– Tom Cheever, Green Man, Earth Angel (in part quoting Henry Corbin, scholar of Islamic Sufism)
The liberal ego poses an interesting contradiction. It insists not upon being“egotistical” in the way we think of it, of thinking “too much” of oneself, being self-centered, selfish, etc., but upon being servile, second-rate, low worth, “co-dependent” in relation to the existing power structures. The liberal, while accepting the rewards of bourgeois attainment and thus living comparatively well, in failing to challenge her ego’s supremacy, is automatically obedient to the illegitimate authority of the existing capitalist structures. She cannot do otherwise; she is profoundly disoriented in the metaphysical sense meant by Huston Smith. The drastically ungrounded liberal soul is oriented, not to its “noble origins” but to the reduced view of human life issuing from scientism, unalleviated by imagination, that says we ascend from lesser beings (thus we emphasize “progress”) rather than having descended from gods (i.e., having been born with perfection or wholeness in us). This is not an argument for creationism, but against the negation of imagination that has us training ourselves and our children to become cogs in a machine, rather than to love – and serve – “the Great” and “the Whole.”
The dilemma we face is real: without orientation to the vertical, modern post-religious people have three ways to stay above the terrifying abyss of non-being, the task once performed by religion: 1) turn the clock back to rigid authoritarian tradition, to toxic masculinity, nationalism, militarism, fascism, 2) neoliberal vapid verticality, with its flattened masculinity, normalized neurosis and addictions, and covert barbarism, or 3) to in some non-authoritarian way, restore the relation to verticality (I include those who maintain that relation within traditional religion).
For the secular liberal, following choice #2, the ego is practically unchallenged in the context of mediated reality and social fragmentation that supports neoliberal totality. We add to the debasement demanded by our imperial egos in countless ways. Our stories of childhood origins are narratives of defect and weakness (i.e., I’m ADHD, family dysfunctional, Dad a drunk, I was abused, neglected, etc.), rather than how once we saw that everything, magically, had meaning. Unquestionably childhood wounds must be brought to light, but they are part of the story not the whole. We slander our higher nature as we fixate on fitness and nutrition, and in other ways corroborate the conviction of low self worth (machine-hood) that is by now second nature. Always polite, sometimes witty and clever, we liberals never express authentic opinion for fear of exposure. Our positive will is atrophied; if it were possible to film the liberal will it would be seen to slink, flinch, evade, excuse itself, look sheepish. This is so even if we have all outward signs of material grace. We can pass a lie detector test only if we are not asked: why do you live?
The absence of a positive will explains why the narrative cannot be changed by will alone. At best, like taking on a diet, we may succeed for a few repetitions, but never as permanent habit, which leaves us feeling worse, even more defeated. We can find our true orientation only by recovering the cosmogonic grounding, that verticality represented in the North Star. Self-worth must be positively known if we are to act positively from it. To re-orient ourselves is not impossible, but it calls for an inward turn entirely counter to the anti-imaginative positivist stance of secular rationalist liberalism.
The Romantics, such as Coleridge, who, though admired, have been seen somewhat dismissively as an interesting stage in Western literary and philosophical tradition, now may be understood as having had it right. The “non-romantic” path we’re on, our reduced capacity to look at great things and to “be moved to Rapture” is the cause of our arrested development as human beings. By arrested development, I mean the liberal’s capacity to be “against barbarism but not against the property relations that engender barbarism,” to bow to “lesser of two evilism” that replaces authentic opinion. We will not escape our fate – not just the inevitable destruction civilization is hurtling towards but also our incapacity to acknowledge it – unless we can imagine our way differently, unless we find our orientation in relation to greatness as much as to “baseness.” Superiority to MAGA Trump-followers won’t save us. No political uprising can take place unless accompanied by a spiritual one; we need an uprising against the liberal ego that refuses to see beyond a worldview that robs human beings of our innate power and strength.
Do we need more evidence to prove to ourselves that under neoliberalism life has “lost its radar?” Fancy if, at every public gathering, instead of pledging allegiance to the flag, someone were to tell the story of our noble origins as a people, from the bible or other traditional mythic source as the Iroquois tell of their celestial origins in the Pleiades. The idea would be just to sit and listen, as if to a “fairy tale;” listeners might even engage their “child’s soul,” that self once so capable of wonder that the wonderful is no surprise, to help them listen well.
My hunch is that people – all of us so frightened in these times – would be calmed by the story. They would listen, as if listening to poetry, not expecting what they heard to make literal sense, but letting the words speak to some part of themselves that quite naturally and effortlessly responds to hearing of magical origins. Listening not with the skeptical, doubting mind, but with the heart, they could in that moment glimpse that other knowing, the one so dismissively rejected by the dominant mentality.
We each need now to make such clearings wherein the long-rejected knowledge is revealed. Imagination offers the only alternative to the illusion of control that simply keeps the barbarity and plunder going, and the only palliative to the disabling fear that lies just under that illusion.
For the past 25 or more years, due perhaps to a fragile sanity, I have struggled to keep that alternative knowing real to my well-conditioned liberal, educated mind, as if my life depended on it. The world under capitalism, attempting to live without soul, has increased its dreadful roar to the point that I have no choice – since I refuse the reductionist lesser-of-two-evils thoughtworld – except between two options: Either I cave into my fear orI continue to stoke the fire of the imaginal reality with my writing andalso in my marriage relationship, i.e., with the otherwho has the power, because of our intimacy, to either confirm or undermine the entire metaphysical project. Within these two immediate grounds are embodied my struggle to keep the imaginative realm real.
Many couples, I suspect, tacitly adapt to ways to avoid approaching the fear of non-Being at the core of themselves that threatens, in post-religious times, to capsize the consensual reality making up a marriage. Our “culture” is nothing if not rich in distractions for persons wishing to avoid the reckoning with their souls. Included among these well-trodden detours: becoming compulsive consumers, avid TV watchers, technophiles, globe-trotters, workaholics at the job, etc. For many reasons, Orin and I have mostly refused the distractions, instead committing ourselves to quixotic idealism and “lost causes” that seem to us worthwhile. Having refused the distractions, including that of “success,” we live perilously close to the existential edge. When either of us slips and falls into his/her fear, the “abyss” in the other is activated and we become lost together in a darkness with seemingly no way out. This condition goes on indefinitely until one or the other finds the “trail of breadcrumbs” leading out from the pathless forest and back into the blessing of a “make believe” reality of spiritual connectedness to which we both give our assent. These reconciliations are not so much patching up disputes as recovering our footing above the abyss of non-being, usually involving a “bump-up” in self-knowledge, maybe a kind of love earned.
I say “love earned” neither to be smugly superior (which would be ridiculous, given the weirdness just revealed above!), nor so you will be confirmed in your suspicion that “she’s nuts, and so must her husband be.” I do so to illustrate what it means to take up the struggle to remain human against the dehumanizing “surround,” as I have found it. It is a way to live in immediacy, rather than entirely mediated by neoliberal totality. I have no idea if everyone so committed has to traverse quite so treacherous a path, though, I must add, mythologies say it unambiguously: in becoming human, everyone walks the hero’s path that has no guaranteed outcome (or income!)
Is the difficulty level for us liberalized moderns in the process I describe, just too high? Who thought such Sisyphean effort was involved in being human, for Pete’s sake! But, again, fancy if people came together for the purpose of sustaining each others efforts to hold together families, communities, places, local economies, local agriculture, the intact souls of children – against the hurricane winds of commodification and atomization. They only could do so while standing firm in their own souls against the blasts coming from within. Might not such a localized struggle, on behalf of both individual freedom and the good of the whole, be bearable and even something to celebrate? This is my own anarchist “hope,” which, luckily, depends not on evidence that thereis hope for the earth and for humankind, but on the inexhaustible, endlessly renewing, always teaching, creative soul.
What’s necessary is that I keep at the spinning wheel of my writing, (and Orin at his poetry) – and that we stay in the struggle to keep our domestic community of two rightly oriented. That is, I must trust enough the reality invoked through writing and study, which feels right to my instinct and intuition, to be able to hold on to it when one or both of us becomes disoriented, that we might maintain our fragile prayer of having the strength to stand in against the barbaric neoliberal totality. In keeping the creative fires burning, we, in turn, can concentrate our embattled energy in the immediacies of family, the community of our Cafe and its friends, in encouraging art-making here in “armpit,” dispirited Utica, to, in our way, build the new in the shell of the old.