White men had a soul, and lost it. The pivot of life had been quenched in them, and their lives had started to spin in the reverse direction, widdershins. That reversed look which is in the eyes of so many white people, the look of nullity, and life wheeling in the reverse direction…. – D. H. Lawrence, The Plumed Serpent
In attempting to convert the dark man to the white man’s way of life, the white man has fallen helplessly down the hole he wanted to fill up. Seeking to save another man’s soul, the white man lost his own… Ibid.
In an era with an eroding safety-net, for one [Billy G., a suicide] who so suffers, s/he must either have a loved-one or money to keep from slipping into the sewer of American despair. – David Rosen, Suicide, An American Nightmare
The article by David Rosen on Counterpunch reveals a real-life example of unrelieved-unrelievable American despair, a despair even darker from my perspective in that the only people Billy G. could turn to for help were medical professionals! It’s really not a secret that it’s no longer possible, for growing numbers of people, to rely on family or community for the necessary support for being alive and human. At the bottom of all of this dysfunctionality, are the fact that families no longer know what they are for, and that practically nobody in the enlightened modern liberal context considers this to be a problem (for “us,” that is!)
The failure of liberalism to have a stand on the most significant human relationships, which surely are being steadily devalued and destroyed under capitalism, and not only for the poor, the black and the immigrants, is the failure to take a stand on the significance of being human, as opposed to the robots it would be more convenient for everyone if we would become! This failure, in turn, is consequence of a successful and totalitarian denial of the reality of “the other within” (the soul), the only reliable line of defense existing between our human selves and robothood. Family well-being, as well as its natural “local” authority cannot be defended in liberal reality; along the way to modernity, the connection to the soul was lost, traded away for participation in the exciting and increasingly rootless modern industrial society that promises more and better for those who will make the necessary exchange, i.e., the lowly imaginative creative indigenous soul for social standing and identification with power in the Oneness of neoliberal techno-wonderful sterility.
But consider this: In a time when increasingly we’ve been conditioned to live temporally, progressively, no limits to happiness (measured materially) or growth, etc., “enjoying” the way of life premised in capitalism that is making mass extinction and rising fascism ever greater possibilities, in this context, can family life – with all its complications and impossibilities – now be seen for its revolutionary possibility? Centered around the vows which most people continue to want to make, family life, available to everyone, shaped from and contingent to biological, organic nature, can act as the vessel for teaching us the wisdom of the planet, of nature, of the body. Precisely because of the challenges marriage presents us with that so deeply offend our righteous personal freedom and which we, raised in liberal society, barely can tolerate, not to mention they have become more famous for abuse than for love, marriages have the potential to counter dominant bourgeois banality. Particularly in the “post-honeymoon crisis,” when the “naked lunch” is exposed, they provide the only context in which liberal, middle class, white people find themselves starkly, disturbingly, face-to-face with “the other;” in this case, an “other” they have vowed to love and honor, through sickness and poverty, etc., ’til death do them part. This opportunity, if it could be understood as such, if we were developing a culture not of escapism but of depth, is the opening by which can be faced the least tolerated “other” of all, the other within. What we must come to realize: not only the GDP is helped by a high divorce rate; human beings kept in a pre-initiatory condition, never required to make the transformation to adult maturity, never experiencing the inner reality myth teaches, are incapable of authentic individuality, and thus perfect candidates for the roles of addictive consumer and obedient worker.
My world today is greatly reduced in scope from my early 1980’s winged-but-vague fantasies as a Yale Divinity School grad and newly minted professional minister. Partly due to aging and partly to some very “unprofessional choices,” my world consists of not much beyond my family and the immediate community I am a part of that has our Cafe as a kind of center. This life that I have been immersed in – often ambivalently – for decades, so shrunk from the big global canvas presented to bright middle-class white kids for their career possibilities, has begun recently to reveal its hard-won lessons. I could say that what is being revealed, beneath all of my refusals of “the right way,” (my “no’s” I call them) are the “yeses” that, all the time, lay invisibly underneath.
Gradually, my eyes have been retrained; shifted from the horizons presented to them by uncritiqued, bright and shiny liberal society; they now see better in the dark. In particular, they see the invisibles of relationship that, because invisible, are defended by almost no one in the liberal enlightened world committed to materialist-positivist-rationalist thinking. Not only are family relationships unchampioned, they are taken for granted in the liberal reality. Focused on the liberal politics of rights and freedoms, liberal society is largely unaware both of the fragility of marriage and family in secular society and of their potential for indigenous authority, for becoming centers (cells?) of resistance to relentless dehumanization. The closeness of marriage and family relationships is a “pressure-cooker” closeness of souls. Were it properly understood, the complicating reality of human depth that makes all the pain and anguish in families, also makes them a constant threat to bourgeois sameness. This “danger” makes marriages and families both fragile, requiring support for their “invisible,” soul-level life (the most efficacious being art), and powerful potential source for deeply creative “tree-like” resistance to soul-killing, humanly exploitative, bourgeois life.
Of course, we are not prepared to think of families imaginatively. The real crisis in families has occurred so gradually over time, that the loss of those sustaining relationships, their now temporal status, their replaceability, their modifications and commodification, appear to concern no one. The adaptations and modifications people make, in many cases admirably, to keep families going, are double-edged: they make it possible for the increasingly dehumanizing context to appear to be working, while the deep “in-the-blood” basis for family life, location of the birth-to-death mystery, more truly and accurately expressed poetically than in economic terms, is nullified.
An incident that occurred early in my 10-year career as a parish minister, within probably the first 7 years of our marriage, wakened me to the potential hostility to marriage in secular liberal society. The tiny Unitarian congregation in an upstate NY village, had gone fairly far out, politically and in terms of lifestyle, in the 60’s (more so by reputation, in conservative rural Upstate NY, than in reality), and faced the same post-60’s identity crisis as other liberal-identified groups of the 80’s. Early in my tenure, it became clear that a conflict was developing between members of the congregation and my husband.
I remember clearly how easily the criticisms of my husband, in my insecurity, caused me to feel intensely torn by the 3-way conflict which exacerbated conflicts already existing in the marriage. Struggling to believe in myself as a professional clergy (a struggle I gave up when the decade ended), my domestic roles as wife and mother seemed at odds with my precarious hold on that public identity. The situation was resolved in the end by a professional “conflict resolver,” the professional whose job it was to travel to churches in his assigned area and “put out fires.” I think he was actually visiting us on other business, but the conflict with Orin was put before him. He laughed and said it seemed to him a problem of ethnic difference; Orin’s Italian personality, a voluble extroversion that could verge on aggressiveness, was rubbing the middle class white liberals the wrong way.
Simplistic? Maybe; but that was the end of the conflict (at least overtly). As well, it was my first insight into the hidden reality of “otherness,” including the differences in my marriage that caused me/us severe difficulty, many of which (but not all) were traceable to family and ethnic cultural differences. And it was then I became aware of the fragility of a marriage when facing unconscious forces that could be aroused in a ( avowedly liberal!) community against it.
Years later, Orin and I count ourselves fortunate to have discovered the creative potential in a marriage that tolerates, and does not prohibit or deny, the “others” within which allowed us, as the “nest” was emptying, to begin to dream “outside the box.” Thus were born our family-run business, Cafe Domenico; The Other Side and its many arts and humanities-related programs; and our literary publication Doubly Mad, all of them energized by anarchist spirit. None of these small-scale, local productions would have been conceivable in a dispirited place like Utica, apart from the partnership forged in the creative tension, never once-for-all resolved, constantly reconciling, between our othernesses. Forced to find a “third way,” neither his nor mine, we make the most of our considerable differences and different talents, consciously interdependent in contrast to the ignorant “independence” hailed by much of banal feminism that cloaks its uncritical dependency on capitalism. The marriage became, for us, a community base, outside the isolating collective mainstream consciousness. It allowed us to act in a way that was deeply pro-community but also non-conformist, both conservative (i.e., in regards to “family,” to skepticism toward liberal zeal for growth, progress, technology, etc.), but also open to independent thought (especially imagination-based) coming from outside the banal liberal context; its one demand, besides reconciliation, that we each make daily contact with the Muse.
Recently, the relationship of a married couple in our Utica arts community who, in their relative unconventionality, are particularly dear to Orin and me, has become threatened. After Rebecca’s stroke and consequent brain surgery in early April, while still in rehab, she told a friend she did not want to return to their home; this was reason enough for the friend, with no hesitation due to Rebecca’s possibly not being in her right mind – for which there had been evidence – to make other living arrangements for her. For husband Karl, the bind is rather total. First, he had no say in the decision. Any protest on his part is de facto weakened: he can make no appeal to any sacred aspect of marriage, a cause that will rally nobody. Further, in the current MeToo climate, his protest is likely only to add to suspicions of abuse of some kind as the cause for his wife’s flight. I protested to the match-unmaker friend, but without hope. In the absence of a shared value of reconciliation, my protest could only be misunderstood; no one, including Karl, could imagine, let alone share my distress at yet another consensus-supported failure to take the path of reconciliation, the path of keeping imaginations alive, communities together, roots in a place.
Our communities by now fairly devastated, perhaps good anarchist work would be to create agencies for reconciliation that can work on behalf of unity and love, giving priority to the invisible social bonds over individual rights and freedom, as has happened with Truth & Reconciliation commissions in South Africa and Rwanda. The role of psychotherapists, whose skills would be needed for such an undertaking but who’ve often served to abet the disintegration of families, would need to be consciously both anti-illegitimate authority and pro-legitimate family authority. Local, small-scale “Reconciliation Committees” might provide life-giving support for the “invisibles,” the familial, communal and place-based relationships ravaged by neoliberalism’s intolerance for otherness, and the unacknowledged divisiveness and unintended violence that follow.