…that awareness of a ubiquitous, arbitrary death—which descends like a medieval plague on the just and the unjust alike, without warning or reason—is, I think, central to our experience of the 20th century.
– A. Alvarez, The Savage God: A Study of Suicide
“The books we need are the kind that act upon us like a misfortune, that make us suffer like the death of someone we love more than ourselves, that make us feel as though we were on the verge of suicide, or lost in a forest remote from human habitation—a book should serve as the axe for the frozen sea within us.”
– Kafka, quoted in The Savage God
The institutionalizing of knowledge….makes people dependent on having their knowledge produced for them. It leads to a paralysis of the moral and political imagination.
– Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality
A Cafe customer and friend, Brian, handed me out of the box he was carrying copies of the August 18 issue of the New York Times magazine and the Times supplement that announce the launching of “the 1619 Project.” He had bought 50 of them in order to pass them on to anyone who might be interested. Somehow, I had missed the news of this worthy Project, aimed ambitiously and admirably at reframing American history to “make explicit that slavery is the foundation upon which this country is built”- a cause I wholeheartedly support.
Inwardly, and in the face of Brian’s (he is white) perpetual enthusiasm for the topic of race, I am tired. I could imagine myself reading the material, consoling myself and warming my soul with truthy facts from “peoples” history. An oasis right at the tip of my fingers wherefrom I can drink until satiated. But, instead of accepting the materials gracefully, I protested to Brian: “The problem is, knowing the facts doesn’t change people.” I gave him my example of all the customers we lose when their children arrive at school age, and the parents promptly move to the white suburbs with their “higher performing” schools. I emphasized, “These people are not racists; they are pro-social justice, good people. But their behavior will reflect their context, not what they are taught in a pro-social program at school. They will behave according to their fears, not their ideals.”
As I spoke, I had the familiar sensation of the microphone being clicked off. I am talking to myself.
The same day, I received from a friend via email a video that was apparently making the rounds among liberal intellectuals like herself, called The Day Democracy Died. In it, we are treated to delightfully inventive animated portraits of the Founding Fathers, singing to the tune of The Day the Music Died, smart lyrics about Trump and how people must not vote for him. I watched as George Washington, John Adams, and then James Madison sang their verses. I’m not sure I will watch the rest. All I can think of, watching it, is, yes, these are the smart clever guys, the educated liberals, who can put together such a satisfying few moments of …well…liberal satisfaction. I could not think what I had said that made my friend think this was something I would enjoy.
These days, I wonder if I can muster my energy anymore to make the response my soul wants to make to all this good “liberal-splaining.” The difficulty for me, as the ongoing catastrophe – climate – inequality – war – discardability of human beings – keeps advancing, of being continually bathed in a wash of liberal enthusiasms is to keep track of what’s missing, what keeps me from sharing their enthusiasm. Whatever it is, I have to summons it myself; the liberal thoughtworld that turns off the mic on me is singularly bent on forgetting its inner disquiet (or limiting it to “if we can just get rid of Trump!”).
It’s nothing personal, this microphone-switching. It’s what you do when someone is clearly coming from some foreign place whose thought patterns you cannot grasp because you do not know the culture, this “otherness” confronting you. Amongst my liberal friends, it is a general phenomenon, not a unique one; the liberal class believes it exists in a homogenous society marred by racism and poverty, when in fact the society is wholly segregated and stratified; they do not acknowledge “otherness” (other than in the approved categories, thus Kim cannot be an “other;” microphone clicks off). They do not become “others” themselves, unless something terrible befalls them and they fall out of the liberal class, and even that may not do it. What liberals need in order to stop collectively being an obstruction to change, besides turning off MSNBC news, is “soul facts” to stand against the “knowledge that has been produced for them,” dependence upon which is making them stupid. In Kafka’s sense, they should read a book but not another comfortable read by Naomi Klein or Ta-Nehisi Coates. It must be a confrontation with the knowledge that will chop “the frozen sea within,” the kind of soul meeting that society generally leaves to its artists.
The special character of art or creativity, its independence from “facts” due to the relationship of artists to the Muse (i.e., to their inwardness and imagination), allows the artist to function as society’s conduit for necessary compensatory “spiritual” knowledge. Compensatory because it comes from the Unconscious, the realm of the “deep Feminine,” that cannot be contacted via ordinary consciousness, this knowledge includes the stuff most of us don’t like to think about (i.e, death, decay, loss, failure and poverty); it both fascinates and repels. Consequently there’s a mystique about the artist; those who die at an early age (Keats) or by suicide (Plath) are romanticized or fetishized. In post- WW II, atomic-age America, the burden of the modern “awareness of ubiquitous, arbitrary death” was expressed in the bleakness and despair, alcoholism and suicide we associate with the artists of that era. Fast forward to our time: neoliberalism’s triumphal embrace of progress, its offer of salvation by technology, 24-7 media saturation etc., has resulted, catastrophically, in near-complete suppression of the “compensatory knowledge;” even art has come to serve neoliberalism’s benign totalitarianism, sacrificing imagination for the good of the bourgeois whole. In effect, neoliberalism has turned off the microphone for the spiritual voices of its poets, prophets, and mystics while keeping it on for the droning banality of MSNBC and NPR.
In The Savage God: A Study of Suicide (1970) author and literary critic A. Alvarez wrote of the artist in “totalitarian society:” “When the artist is valued …only to the extent to which he serves the policies of the state, then his art is reduced to propaganda…. The artist who refuses that role refuses everything; he becomes superfluous. In these circumstances the price of art in the traditional sense is suicide – or silence, which amounts to the same thing.”
Though I wasn’t sure if Alvarez referred to Soviet Russia or our own smiley-faced totalitarianism, we know the silence he is talking about. I am tempted to say of Alvarez that, having perceived the artist’s predicament as the choice between either artistic suicide or silence (i.e, professional suicide), he chose the former, as has much (not all!) of the art world since. As literary critic, he championed the confessional poets, many of them self-destructive. His doing so helped his career, and it helped to keep the art world in the popular media. As part of the media spectacle, artists no longer could serve as “conduit” for deep spiritual knowledge with its power to enliven us and make us feel our worth as human beings. With the art world largely having chosen artistic (spiritual), rather than professional suicide, and liberal society’s “microphone off,” a different way must be found for spiritual knowledge to be integrated if we are to be capable of imagining, much less retaining, the necessary conditions for our own humanity,
Fortunately for the human cause, other artists, both known and unknown, responded differently to the great evil of late-stage capitalism than those who succumbed to its darkness. They have consciously taken up the artist’s function as integrators of “compensatory knowledge.” I am particularly aware, from my own study, of contemporary writers and thinkers who were influenced by the poet Robert Bly. He, in turn, was influenced by Spanish surrealist poets, by Eastern spirituality and Sufism, by C.G. Jung, Joseph Campbell, Marie-Louise von Franz, etc., and also by people who, like Bly, were part of the spiritual recovery movements of the 1980’s. The result was a “new age” movement (derided and demeaned in mainstream liberal media) among these explorers of the Unconscious. By a process of descending into their darkness and despair – they learned that integration of darker knowledge could be achieved by means of the myth-informed imagination existing in the soul. Most importantly, those who descend into the indigenous layers of their own psyche, i.e., making the “hero’s journey” in the manner of the artist, can go beyond the stage of healing that just makes people functional enough to keep capitalism going. Men and women who enter and get “lost in the forest remote from human habitation” – a test of courage as perilous as any 19th century explorer of the Nile – can discover the great treasure of “eternal things” awaiting them there, the basis for their own subjective authority, i.e., for their individuality and their art.
Accustomed as I am to speaking with the microphone turned off, I prefer this “death” to the alternative, for without individual truth learned in soul facts, “vision” is limited to liberal consensus. Without a basis in “eternal things,” counter-cultural idealism – that is, the “unelectable,” funky and unfashionable idealism of peace, reconciliation, justice, between all living beings and with the earth – can’t exist. Only with the capacity to be grounded in one’s own subjectivity – precisely as if it mattered! – can a spirit for living humanly and nobly be found that does not shrink back, even in the face of the modern horrors. Built up over millennia of an ever-threatened human existence, the soul’s memory provides a basis for adhering to the center, rather than flying outward in the falcon’s ever-widening gyre (Yeats). Even the advancing threats of the 20th-21st centuries that fall “on the just and unjust alike” cannot vanquish its completely subjective, soul-based idealism.
I write about these ideas not to propagate a new dogma. (On the contrary, decision-making based in “soul facts” rather than in a science-based regime of official “facts,” makes this new heroism intrinsically de-centralized and non-authoritarian, anarchist without Anarchism.) I write purely in the interest of maintaining human aliveness, chiefly my own, so constantly threatened and demoralized in the neoliberal reality. I am willing to be “dead” in this world, as long as I can be livened by the subjective, creative reality within. Therefore, I decline to speak from or for the world based in institutionalized “fact” that’s designed to dominate over the fragile “soul fact,” and leaves all the “others” on the planet to grapple with feelings of smallness, or shame, or being dumb, failed, discardable, unwanted. The contrast provided by those who depend on soul facts, rather than on “the knowledge that’s been produced for them,” allows one to feel the difference between being a subjectively alive human being (i.e., “dead,” microphone off) and subjectively shit (i.e., functional).
The liberal class in America is now highly disturbed and disoriented by the instability of “facts,” the “two sides to every argument” and ”fake news” of neoliberalism’s brave new world. So much so, they will act as if all the error is on the other side, with those who will not listen to science, or reason. Really, though, this betrayal by fact-based, media-propagated “truth” is something we had coming. If liberal society had, after outgrowing religion, kept ears and eyes open to the artists and poets, mystics and prophets, and turned off the microphone on the MSNBC babblers and game players, we would have been better equipped for defending humanity against the increasingly violent forces of dehumanization. As it is now, humanity depends upon each person to be a hero in its defense; and this has to be our cause, over mere survival.