My opinion is this – that deep Thinking is attainable only by a man[sic] of deep Feeling, and that all Truth is a species of Revelation…Newton was a mere materialist – Mind is always passive – a Lazy Looker on an external world. If the mind be not passive if, indeed made in God’s Image…- the image of the Creator– there is ground for suspicion that any system built on the passiveness must be false…
–Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Letters
[Hazlitt writes of his first meeting, at 17, with Coleridge ] As we (Hazlitt, his father and Coleridge) passed along between Wem and Shrewsbury, and I eyed their blue tops seen through the wintry branches, or the red rustling leaves of the sturdy oak trees…a sound was in my ears as of a Siren’s song; I was stunned, startled with it as from a deep sleep, but I had no notion then that I should ever be able to express my admiration to others…till the light of genius shone into my soul…. I was at that time dumb, inarticulate, helpless, like a worm by the wayside…lifeless; but now bursting from the deadly bands…my ideas float on winged words….
– Wm Hazlitt, My First Acquaintance with Poets
It comes as a great relief to me that I no longer, in my Utica obscurity and my separation in retirement from institutional life and from the post-modern dedication to deconstruction, have to cut down to size great souls like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, John Cowper Powys, Emerson and Thoreau. I have no money in the game of reason vs imagination in which, so far, imperial reason is the big winner. Like the young Hazlitt, my heart can soar with the great Romantics and I need make no excuse. What I can do is ask how far we have come from a capacity for conversion– such as Hazlitt describes – and is the “progress” we’ve made in our“ system built on passiveness” – worth the cost? Hazlitt himself later turned on his mentor Coleridge; this may have been spurred by mid-life disappointment, causing him perhaps to turn against his own innocent, naive, uncritical, youthfully suggestible former teen-age self.
In our thoroughly mechanized/digitized 21stcentury era, the need is urgent to reclaim just that youthful self, still capable of enchantment, of enthusiastic excess, of the pursuit of the ecstatic and the sublime, that drove the Romantics. The anti-nature, anti-body, anti-soul world system, and the consequent loss of relatedness will continue apace unless we can stop it in our own bodies, by reclaiming the positive imagination that illuminates the correspondences in the cosmos and brings matter back from the dead. Otherwise, we civilized people will continue to helplessly swing back and forth unconsciously, between despising our nature (and projecting that hatred on others) and being slave to it in the form of compulsions, no differently than we have done for centuries, and with the appalling consequences that we now face.
The degraded consensual notion of our humanity – left to being “dumb, inarticulate, helpless, worm-like” with no possibility, any longer, of conversion to its grandness, its nobility, its vocation is insufficient for the kind of strength demanded now. Positive inspiration requires knowing that somewhere behind appearances and the material given, a unified reality exists and that one’s actions make sense in thatreality, if not in this one. Without a visionary standpoint one is unlikely to alter one’s living arrangements in such a way as to defend the increasingly endangered remnants of relatedness. Inasmuch as those existing shreds of a humanly supportive environment are located in immediate relationships in family, community, and roots-in-place, the will to defend these is nearly nil. Without the unifying power of creative imagination, one cannot see, much less bear, the brokenness of the world, one can only live in it as if the given neoliberal reality were the only real. It is evident to me, if the material world is to be saved, just as young Hazlitt’s soul was awakened by Coleridge’s mesmerizing presence, so must the routinely deadened souls of today make their way to that same hidden fire and be brought back to transgressive and insurgent life.
I have no surveys to support my thesis, only my own experience. As a child in post-WWII boom-time America, growing up in a liberally permissive home, I was aware early on that my life had 2 distinct parts, the “daytime” material reality shared with others, in which I was happy, certainly not mistreated or deprived, and the “nighttime” that was entirely immaterial and increasingly populated by phantom terrors. A bed-wetter, a child insomniac beginning at 6, I was terrified of the things that lay in wait in the dark between my bed and the bathroom across the hall. My father called my problem (rather conventionally, for an artist), “an over-active imagination.”
Though even at the tender age of 8 or 9 I felt my father was woefully far from understanding what I was suffering, by the time I left childhood, I had consciously and privately determined to sever myself from that “ill”part of my being that did indeed seem to be my imagination. In my case, this act of will meant burying my relation to my inner being, the only source of the terror I could identify. I now see this as a self-inflicted crime against my humanity with which – horrendous fact! – I was able to get away.
Much later, I came to understand these “original terrors” as being driven by my uncorroborated perceptions of absence caused by the disintegration of relationality in society that by the 1950’s was fully in place, neither spoken of nor acknowledged by anyone I knew, let alone resisted by anybody. Because the felt absences (and what are they but ghosts?) were unverified by anyone else who could make a difference, that is, were apparent solely to my subjective feelings,the absences that both frightened and angered metransformed into aggressive malevolencies aimed at my being. After all, everyone knows there’s no such things as ghosts! What, after all, was absent? Certainly I, as a child, could hardly have answered the question, nor even have framed it to ask of a parent. As children in an age dominated by science and “reason,” we are prisoners of the given daytime world; if that world fails to supply emotional or physical warmth, we cannot ask about that which is not “real.”
Baptized in existential aloneness at an early age, my survival was aided by neurotic compulsions that sprang into place to fill the void – rituals to keep terror at bay – that were not fully untangled until decades later. Here I suggest is the way neuroses, psychic disturbances, and the helplessness they perpetuate in a world of tenuous relatedness, become commonplace. Although I was “certifiably” neurotic, my condition was hidden, I could still be “normal” through all of the life passages of an unremarkable standard issue life until I broke down fairly totally at 42. By means of this collapse – scandalous to my daytime pretense of normalcy – the mess of my inner “night” world was vomited up into the day.
What I learned from this daytime/nighttime dichotomy in my psyche, that carried me through until the aforementioned crisis, was to crave more than anything the “normalcy” everyone else appeared to inhabit. I wanted convention, not adventure. I wanted structure, not freedom. I liked school, and I loved coloring between the lines. I loved supermarkets, McDonalds and other brightly lit places. Until I was teen-aged, even though the society around me was by then well into the 60’s revolution of youth culture, and I agreed with my peers about the evils of war and social injustice, I possessed no ideas that would have motivated me to positivelyrebel against convention. Having been raised in an artist’s family, where the mainstream materialist aspirations were disdained, and then, at 10 or 11 having ruled so decisively against my subjective interior, no clue was available as to a positive direction in which I might go. No Coleridge to awaken my imagination and my hope. No treasured magazine clipping of a woman’s eyes, the clue Truman, in one of my favorite movies, The Truman Show, clung to as sign of a possible other, better reality.
In fact, that we have come to love the word “clueless” strikes me as a clue that what happened to me has happened to others raised in post-WWII liberal bourgeois white America. It may be a clue as to why, after the 60’s revolution – so very fine in its ideals, experiments and reforms – evaporated, it left in its stead an army of careerists, elegiacists of Steve Jobs, loyal technophiliacs, and liberal lesser-of-two evilites. Though many still thrill to hear Joni sing to us, “We are star dust, we are golden,” alive souls have been replaced by well-armored stoic personalities embalmed in neuroses, the normalized personalities of today, adjusted to the new demands for survival – compliant customers for the gift of bourgeois neoliberal mainstream reality, no down-payment necessary.
The exchange of creative imagination for normal belonging is unavoidable in the post-modern context, not only because the science that launched modernity is so adored, but because the scientific rationalist worldview is defensively hostile to other modes of knowing. The hostility colludes nicely with the fact that people who grow up terrified of their interiors are only too glad to join the ranks of the dominant capitalist reality, safe from any possibility of being seriously different, unique, i.e.,themselves. Lost too in this unholy transaction is the possibility of critique, which requires the outsider viewpoint of authentic individuals. From whence, now, can genuine critique, and genuine disobedience, come? Socialism and other truly left politics lost the fight and have been wiped off the slate of history with hardly a trace (unless you read Zinn, Chomsky, Counterpunch, etc.) Christian myth once supplied such an outsider base (as Coleridge knew). But, mainstreamed, its poetic, anarchist truth finding few “takers” except among a few radicals, it too was absorbed into the dominant capitalism. This leaves, as I see it, the need for individual conversions to heal the split between daytime and nighttime realities, restore connection to the alive, creative anarchist soul, and recover the strength to disobey.
The revelations of psychotherapy that restored me to my imagination, were not sufficient to explain to me the traumas I suffered in childhood. These, I maintain, were a fact of political, as well as psycho-spiritual reality. The terrifying experience of non-being for which no verification existed in the social environment of my childhood because the invisibles of relationship are not real, negated the possibility of my acquiring a positive will (barring a conversion experience that was/is not on the secular liberal program). What happened to me was an act of original terrorism, though it had no visible agent, no brown shirts, and received no sympathy. I was an unwilling vanguard for the world made safe for capitalism, in which the souls of children are the necessary sacrifice, routinely disconnected from that which the soul needs to feel safe, wanted and appropriately powerful (one among many) in the world.
To blame this terrorism on parents, or on parental ignorance or cruelty is merely convenient; the fault is with the arrangements that have been made to benefit corporations, not people. The fault is with the mechanized, reductionist view of humanity that is oppressive, barbaric and cruel. To me, the suffering thus caused – were we of the liberal class able to end our complaisant denial–is sufficient reason for every man and woman to rise up in “new age” protest against the real, active malevolence of neoliberal bourgeois totality. Though as children we could not defend our souls, we can advocate for them now through insisting on our right and our duty to express our subjective, creative, God-filled voices, and through holding the matrices of family and community together against the nihilism and temporality of our time. Though capitalism and its barbarisms cannot yet be escaped, our children might be saved from committing the crimes against their humanity entailed in pursuing the “normal” as if there were no choice.