“The fact that many a man who goes his own way ends in ruins means nothing…He must obey his own law as if it were a daemon whispering to him of new and wonderful paths…He is at once set apart and isolated, as he has resolved to obey the law that commands him from within. “His own law!” everybody will cry. But he knows better…it is the law…the only meaningful life is a life that strives for the individual realization—absolute and unconditional—of its own particular law.”
– C.G. Jung, quoted by Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard
My reading choices, outside of reading for our book club, like my movie watching, proceed according to what I find here at home, and on occasional visits to towns with good used book stores – sort of the luck of the draw. Alarmed as I am by the way so many people feed themselves constantly with the au current Hollywood release, HBO series, NY Times Bestsellers, Netflix documentaries and MSNBC news, – the very same people who limit their politics to lesser evilism – I strike, rather solitarily, against them. Not that I don’t frequently feel left out, and a bit envious of the sense of belonging that comes with watching Game of Thrones, or with knowing who Amy Adams or Emma Stone is. My reading isn’t completely random, but it’s no disciplined pursuit, which would be impracticable in my life dominated by family, small business responsibilities, existing within a limited household economy, and my writing.
Knowing I use what I read creatively, to suit my own purposes, perhaps would not make the authors happy, but it’s morally demanded of me by my dogged faith in “my own law.” I’m not brazen enough, however, to think my own law meaningful or wisdom-bearing for anyone else! The demand I place upon myself I assume is upon everyone else as well; thus, I speak my piece in expectation others will do the same. Otherwise, I’d never leave the starting gate as a writer. An outsider in every way to the world of distinguished writers, with (almost) no access to or knowledge of the world of publishing, my confidence in my writer identity is fragile. What keeps me going is precisely the idea expressed in the Jung quotation above. That is, that it is my duty to follow “my own law,” and that obedience to my own law entails devotion to my own (subjective) creative expression.
The great tragedy all around us, so many unlived lives, so much sadness, and emptiness, the incapacity to act for the full utopian good and nothing less, is because this calling, issued to every human being, is not transmitted in bourgeois culture, and is in fact suppressed.
Last week a memorial service was held for Cal, a regular customer at our Cafe for all 17 years, a retired schoolteacher who’d spent his career on Long Island. Until a few years ago he’d kept an apartment in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. Upon retirement he’d returned to his hometown, to be close to his rather large and close Irish family here. But as a “cultured gentleman,” loving books, art, movies and opera, a very pronounced liberal, and I presume gay, though unpartnered and not very “out,” Cal would have had a hard time finding contemporary friends in Utica without our Cafe.
The other feature of Cal that must be mentioned: he was tall but more noticeable was his great size. He wore a sad, rather than a “jolly” aura, and among his weight-conscious liberal friends, his girth, though never mentioned or alluded to by himself or anyone else, stood out. Several years ago he underwent a dramatic weight-loss, but the weight came back, and a couple of years ago, without comment, he resumed ordering his morning bagel with his coffee and returned to his previous obese size.
After the service, for which we’d inadvertently arrived late, Orin spoke with Cal’s brother, whom he knew slightly. Cal had died sitting in front of his TV; his brother speculated he’d been watching MSNBC, as was his habit. Further, we learned that Cal had obsessively collected and used index cards – all those years of assigning high school history research papers! – writing out on the recipes and instructions, the “right way” to brew a pot of coffee, etc., and taping them inside cupboard doors and broom closets. He asked us to grab a few index cards and “use them in remembrance of John.” As we were leaving the funeral parlor, Cal’s sister came up and introduced herself to us. She told us, though raised Catholic, Cal had forbidden any mention of religion at his service. Asking that we take a “prayer card,” she noted it was Emerson’s words, not scripture, on the back.
The encounter at the funeral home left me peculiarly depressed. Not directly related to Cal’s death, but, rather, a zany depression I attributed to the fact we’d missed the service (through no fault of our own), a “misdeed” that pummeled me with guilt!
At home, realizing I was feeling hopeless, I asked for a chance to talk. It took just a few minutes of reflection for me to see I had been affected by the silence around the sad man. Had I been asked to speak at the occasion (something I’ve done many times as a minister), and thus taken the time to examine my intuition as I was doing now, the creative process itself would have compelled me to break through the silence. I would have had to cross over into the imaginative realm, and to make unverifiable (and unwanted, including by Cal himself!) claims. I would have had to allude to a life I saw as aborted, cut off, from its true aim. The loneliness was part of it, of course. But more so, one could see that insatiable consumption of culture, like the consumption of food, as substitutes for the real longing of his soul for that more which according to the neoliberal, consumerist, adamantly atheist social context does not exist.
This tragedy cannot be escaped in bourgeois society; ignorance of it, though general, allows thanatos to dominate over eros. It was unusually exemplified in Cal’s case; it took only a moment’s reflection to sense the yearning for transcendent, unifying, “salvific” meaning that underlay his pursuit of culture. But who, besides myself, read his story this way? In this busy, multiply distracted, screen-fixated life, confronted with the fact of the death of a familiar person, if not a close friend, more often than not one does not leave the comfortable bubble of silent consensus, asks not if more might be said of this man’s life, or, more importantly, of one’s own.
This lack of “surplus realization,” (i.e., truth) which I suspect is common, has consequences for one’s humanity. In such invisible, barely sensed transactions, the soul, that has her own perspective on the life/death events of the human organism, is muted. In my case, this imposition of silence upon my intuition, colluding with the social silence that maintains the banal story of a “good, gentle man,” offended my soul, she who sees and must have the whole truth and nothing but. In this way discounted, my soul, you could say, retaliated. Even though I am dedicated to staying alert to such attacks of self-loathing, and seeing through them, this never works perfectly; in each instance, one has to find the way back to that imaginative seeing, one has to transgress anew against the dominant, ego perspective. In bourgeois society, souls are murdered twice; once when we are encouraged to be “realistic” and forget about these vague, inchoate longings after an art or a devotion of some kind, and again when the social silence totalizes everything such that the demand placed upon each soul in the room to differ and speak its “otherish” truth, is compliantly suppressed. The low self-esteem that is basis for bourgeois reality has its source in this complicity with silence.
Thus it is that holding one’s peace becomes the norm for all of us “good Germans,” as our souls are abandoned to their fates, buried under a conditioned contempt for the non-empirical being that cannot speak for itself and relies upon the individual to bend down to its predicament. Any profession, any salary, giving us entree to bourgeois elevation, exacts this price from us, that we never speak the truth which, coming from the bottom up, is unsettling and revolutionary
This really is why I write – to disobey the totalitarian rule of silence on behalf of my soul. Currently, I’m reading Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, a cheap paperback version I picked up in a used book stores years ago, that has waited patiently to be read. Matthiessen’s account of his spiritual quest reminds me how pervasive such quests were in the 1970s. Back then, I was oblivious to my spiritual aspect, having never dared to experiment with psychedelic drugs, and being stuck with conventional middle-class consciousness and aspirations. Though I caught some of the exotic whiffs from these migrations of my contemporaries to Tibet or Taos or Tangiers, my own interior wall against the possibility of there being another reality was unassailable. Not until the wall broke in my forties was I capable of experiencing what such quests were about. By that time I had to do some pretty strenuous swimming, with help from psychotherapy, not to be drowned in the sea of the creative unconscious, that dark place where one is answerable not to bourgeois society, but to the Great Mother, she who “issues” that particular law of the individual.
Being a late-bloomer has had its advantages. When I finally experienced alternative reality, I was at mid-life, married, with children and without a profession. Unlike Matthiessen and other 70’s spiritual pilgrims, I bowed to my life circumstances as established and determinative. To be able to be fascinated by eastern or indigenous religions, or to pursue ecstatic experience, was to me a luxury, nor was I interested in making self-discovery the focus of my life. Instead, my interest was limited to what I could do, affordably and in one place, with this awareness, I’d come by accidentally; how might I apply my knowledge of the potential available through expanded consciousness to support a moral vision that was missing for me in untethered spiritual quests. Though I consciously and gratefully stand on the shoulders of those who broke that trail between western and eastern consciousnesses, I felt my writing must speak for the nobodies, failures and stay-at-homes like myself, the common-as-grass ones. For us, transcendence may be the means to living meaningfully again as “locals.” Living here in “armpit” Utica, New York must be what the Great Mother wanted of me.
On my side is the fact that our civilization is dying of self-inflicted wounds; something we’re doing is obviously wrong! It was even possible that all my mistakes – having too little ambition, never having ridden a horse, nor become skilled on a musical instrument, having stayed married through all sorts of “irreconcilable differences,” rather than claiming my right to be buoyantly independent and single, having raised children ignorant of the needs of their souls, because ignorant of my own (and this is a partial list!)…..What if not having been “a contender” was not one’s total fate? As in the experience after the funeral, when I was blindsided by an undefinable, existential feeling of failure, what if, at all such times, more can be said, and meaning be resurrected, if one disobeys the rule of silence?
Obedience to neoliberal reality requires that we fail our lives. Good, decent, gentle, yes, totally offended by Trump, but to be that kind of generic nice guy, that ethical liberal, one must disobey the inner law predicated in one’s soul. This is what most people do, it’s fully accredited, it will keep you out of trouble. Until everything breaks down, which surely is already happening, it may earn one a good retirement, as Cal had. The tragedy is in our staying hidden from each other, encased in the silence, unable to feel each other’s humanity that is like our own. To me, mass extinction is a terrible, frightening likelihood, but in failing to teach, and ourselves obey, the soul’s law, we have already ended the world.