“You see, Mexico really is a bit horrible to me. And the black eyes of the people really make my heart contract, and my flesh shrink. There’s a bit of horror in it. And I don’t want horror in my soul.”
“Why not?” he said at last. “Horror is real. Why not a bit of horror, as you say, among all the rest?”
-DH Lawrence, The Plumed Serpent
Mere personal contact, mere human contact, filled him with disgust…He had to meet [people] on another plane, where the contact was different; intangible, remote, and without intimacy. His soul was concerned elsewhere. So that the quick of him need not be bound to anybody. The quick of a man must turn to God alone: in some way or other….Men and women should know that they cannot, absolutely, meet on earth. In the closest kiss, the dearest touch, there is the small gulf which is none the less complete because it is so narrow, so nearly non-existent. They must bow and submit in reverence to the gulf…Though a woman be dearer to a man than his own life, yet he is he and she is she, and the gulf can never close up. Any attempt to do it is a violation, and the crime against the Holy Ghost. Ibid
Lately I have been preoccupied with the idea of reconciliation, which is, to me, another way of talking about peace-making. I’m interested in reconciliation as an ideal at the level of unmediated relationships in local communities An old idea that’s newly relevant in the neoliberal context in which liberals can talk about being pro-peace (or anti-war) and yet be comfortable with the ongoing relativization of the meaning of relationships in families, communities, and places, a consequence of liberalism’s valorization of self-liberation and unshakeable faith in progress. At the heart of this huge problem of peace is the problem of “otherness,” which liberalism pretends to own but which for them conveniently remains an abstraction, especially convenient when bombing others can be done via a computer screen from a separate continent and even more so, when it is convenient to deny otherness in our most intimate relationships rather than rock the top-down arrangements of neoliberalism.
The denial of otherness in those unmediated relationships where it could actually be met, confronted, and healed is a huge obstacle to peace-making at other levels and more distant relationships. This accepted denial is possible due to the discrediting, in liberal society, of the domain of metaphysical/mythic imagination where dwells the unitive vision, access to which, post-religion, can be had in the individual soul (i.e., “the other within.”) This means, on one hand, because the soul is universal, peace-making is incredibly attainable in a grass-roots, bottom-up way. On the other, sane, educated, enlightened people tend to avoid such an encounter and are supported in doing so by the many powerful distractions and utter busyness that are non-optional in consumer capitalist society. It is no simple matter to bring the dream of peace into the imaginations of people who’ve learned over centuries to oppose their human interests and instead serve interests that are anti-human.
In The Plumed Serpent, which I just read, D.H. Lawrence addresses head on the “gulf” (i.e., otherness) between men and women, or between all individuals where there is that “disgust.” Psychological “projection,” in my understanding of it, is the means the mind finds to bridge that gulf; i.e., positive projection allows one to to connect, to mingle, to fall in love, to adore a saint or worship a movie star. “Disgust,” such as that felt by poet/cult leader Ramon (see epigraph), names the feeling toward all those people who fall outside our positive projections, who are not beloved celebrities, charmers, seducers (or “Obama’s!”), but simply “others.” I have not read Sartre but am familiar with his quotable line, “hell is other people.” To consciously admit the problem of other people (i.e., “otherness”), and to at the same time hold to the truth of underlying (cosmic) unity and interdependence, without relying on old static forms of religion as if people should just return to those confinements, is a very great achievement of love. In these pages Lawrence says much about the reality – the impossibility – of love and of peace.
Beginning with the first scene in The Plumed Serpent, at the bullfight, the savagery of which frightens and disgusts her, the Irish woman Kate returns over and over in her thoughts to her horror of Mexico. But, month after month, attracted to Ramon and the Indian general Cipriano who are attempting to revive pre-Columbian religion, she lingers on. Cipriano asks Kate to marry him, to in this way, “get over” her loathing. As I read it, he is telling her to get over her refusal of the “otherness” of Mexico, of himself, of all that the white woman of good breeding and sensitivity holds between herself and this other reality. She asks, “Ah, how could she marry Cipriano, and give her body to this death? Take the weight of this darkness on her breast, the heaviness of this strange gloom. Die before dying, and pass away whilst beneath the sun? Ah no! Better to escape to the white man’s lands.”
Mexico, standing for the relentless otherness of the other, reveals that gulf existing between all individuals who are others. Lawrence writes well of this true and terribly oppositional condition of our existence, forcing the reader to feel it. The reader must take unsettling, disturbing, implacable otherness into awareness (or else declare fatuously over one’s cocktails, Lawrence is racist, thank goodness I’m liberal and tolerant). Once, I jotted down in the margin of a passage that disturbed me, “Here is Lawrence’s racism!” Reading on, I corrected myself.
Lawrence dared to present in all of its extreme difficulty the (spiritual) reality of the great “invisibles” of relatedness, of which liberal society has become ever more careless and even intolerant. Meanwhile, the top-down produced charisma and virtual connectedness of electronic images, the massaging of mass media and adoration of celebrityhood, provide a fake and glamorous “otherness,” (without the problems presented by flesh-and-blood others) that threatens to replace the immediate, local and conflicted ground of relationships Lawrence wrote about so well. The provision of such an escape hatch for progress-addicted liberals by which they may sidestep the trials and challenges of maintaining the bonds of relatedness, is a real triumph for neoliberal banal reality. By making human community relative, optional, replaceable, the same conversation – based upon the “prompts” from MSNBC, NPR, etc. – replicated everywhere, the dynamic basis for bottom-up grassroots change is eliminated.
Against the collective bourgeois will to banal sameness, Lawrence insists the repulsion against real others is real! Not just, or mainly, against foreign, darker-skinned others: this repulsion exists in every relationship where the positive, cosmetic projection has not allowed disgust to be (illegitimately, in Lawrence’s view) bridged through “fusing,” which relieves the unbearable aloneness without going through painful reconciliation and self-awareness. As the descriptions of the foreboding, brooding, closed off and “inscrutable” Mexico, and the insistent perception of Mexicans as death, darkness, hostility and malice, are repeated, I can put in place of “Mexico,” “Utica,” a place of obdurate dispiritedness, unrelieved (for me) by positive projections of a “saved downtown” and a “brighter future,” where I live.
In place of “Mexico,” due precisely to the “until death” vows of marriage, which in short-to-long order, strip away the positive projection and leave one face-to-face with “the other,” I can, and many times have, put my husband. Forty-two years ago I married someone who would not, could not turn himself into the kind of “fuser” the “fuser” in me sought. Perhaps this was due, we could say, to aspects of his personality it would be easy to pathologize, including a “strange gloom” like Cipriano’s! During episodes when his otherness is revealed, I, like Kate, do not want “the horror in my soul.”
But in liberal America, officially speaking, we have no “Mexico,” no place or people that elicit our disgust (except for those Trump-followers, who draw our most negative projections!) What that means is we can have no real consciousness of the reality of Mexico, or of any other place on the globe that we form ideas about, or even visit tepidly as tourists, or of other people. It means we can get along with the people closest to us only if they present no disagreeable, unacceptable otherness, if they “agree” (non-verbally of course) to be “fused” with ourselves, rather than be difficult and non-conforming. Inasmuch as we perform this mutual service for each other, refusing to leave our areas of agreement for fear of disturbing each other, the art of peace-making is unnecessary. Our mental lives are conveniently contained within media-fed neoliberal consensus reality, which is, though we never acknowledge it, top-down, and infantilizing. Consequently, even in our local communities and immediate relationships, we are actually relating – via the medium of neoliberal capitalist reality – not with “the other” but with neoliberalism in each other! This situation will not change until we can stand a little horror in our soul, allow some disturbance from the other(s) with whom we are stuck in this life and, when a break occurs, seek reconciliation.
Borrowing once again Wendell Berry’s term, “stickers” – to “stick” in a place such as Utica that lacks “positive branding” (branding being a top-down projection), or in a marriage and a family, is not to “fuse” but to, by sticking, recover in a bottom-up way the basic relationships of human community that are now so relativized and damaged. To “stick” is to bring oneself into the crisis of otherness that, in turn, gives the imaginative soul access to consciousness. The inconvenient fact is that otherness can be met only in unmediated relationships. The soul, apparently apparently needs this severe limitation, possibly because it was tutored for millennia by human beings “stuck” in smallish tribes and in nature’s birth-to-death allotted span (unliberated by the false promises of progress and unlimited growth).
If the crisis of otherness cannot be taken on and faced (despite its being too late! – with Arctic ice melting, the government bombing, and fascism menacing -) then purported liberal goals of saving the planet from destruction, or the soul of America from its racism, militarism and greed, will remain a sham. Liberal “disgust” now laundered and made sparkly clean by identity politics, denial near-total, liberals can only hold out for top-down coercion of the smiley-faced, Yale-educated, articulate, “fusey” kind.
The fact that unity can only be bottom up means it must begin in “mysticism,” in the relationship of each to his/her own soul’s dark otherness. As we know, liberal, secular rationalist reality marginalizes and demeans spiritual reality. Less noticed is that, by making the quest for “self-liberation” and the promise of progress supreme, by insisting we must/need never be “stuck,” liberal reality shields us from the horror of the other. In so doing, the conditions (i.e., crisis) by which ordinary people can experience “mystical” unitive reality via imagination, are removed. Thus lacking imaginative, mystical amplification, the ordinary roles and relationships in human family and community are deprived of their whole, rooted meaning. Rootless people, cut off from the nourishment of culture, have no strength to resist the top-down meanings consumer capitalism gladly propagates. Our best hope for resistance now is that people might once again recognize their human need to “stick” within the real affinitive bonds, and to relearn the arts of community, i.e., forgiveness, reconciliation, mutuality, loyalty, fidelity, patience, etc.
Unlike Lawrence, who wanted to build a “commune” that likely, based in his principles and personal charisma, would have been a cult, I harbor no such utopian illusion. My particular soul’s demand that I persist at my crazy creative work, allows me to be at peace with my actual helplessness to affect anyone else. My trust is rewarded by contact with a wisdom exceeding what I could otherwise attain. In the soul’s wisdom, covenants and promises are great human ends; nourished and enlivened by the creative imagination, “stickers”in relationships over time may become “vales of peace-making.”