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Pandemic Purgatory: Can Conscious Suffering ‘Up’ the Snowball’s Chance in Hell?

This is purgatory, a barren parody of real life. We’re living in monochrome, an existence bedevilled by tedium, stripped of spontaneity, robbed of little joys but defined by ever greater stresses. This relentless assault on our wellbeing will only intensify: those left fearing for their imperiled jobs in a nation with a shredded safety net in place of a welfare state; the young being deprived of their best days; the old, denied the dignity and support they deserve in their later years…

Owen Jones in The Guardian, 10/13/20

“After six months at home…without the daily immersion in society, my sense of the world’s outside-in gaze on me has attenuated…What has remained is the inside out.” (Tamar Adler, It’s A Hellscape Out There. Try a Galette, NYTimes Op-Ed 10/13/2020)

“I su-u-ffer, I su-u-ffer,” bawled [the] nephew in the next room.

…Tatyana Borisovna shook her head, “Oh, these artists!” Ivan Turgenev, The Sportsman’s Notebook

It had not occurred to me until reading Owen Jones’s excellent piece that the risk of talking about one’s suffering during the pandemic crisis was that one would sound like a COVID-19 denier. I assumed people talk little about our actual suffering because a) we’ve been taught so thoroughly to keep a stiff upper lip, b) one just doesn’t talk about one’s “mental health crisis” (except like that, in the abstract), or perhaps c) in-person time with others has become so precious one doesn’t want to bring the happiness “down,” by talking about “It.”

How thoroughly I corroborate the pain of what we are undergoing and appreciate the writer who will confess it truthfully, non-trivially! And how gratefully I drink in the words of those who will refer to pandemic’s unique unbearableness even for those who aren’t (yet) facing joblessness or eviction. The torment is intensified here in Utica by the fact it is talked about rarely among my non-covid-denier friends on those infrequent occasions we interact – always a little uneasily – face-to-face. Unless mediated by the writer’s art, mutual confessions have no place on the social surface where we try gamely to act as if good cheer and morale are still possible while the “world” – the social world, the biospheric one, the economic one, the political one – you name it – around us is being shredded to feed insatiable corporate greed.

These thoughts came to me as I read an email by a local CSA farmer friend, forwarded to me by one of her horrified – now former – customers, answering the latter’s question as to why he saw people gathered at her farm without masks. Her detailed note explained why she and her partner are Covid-19 deniers, the pandemic, in their view, an event fabricated for political purposes. She speaks of just that hellscape reality Jones referred to – the suffering of children, of old people, of shop-owners and the jobless under the severe – and she’d say needless – restrictions.

I share her revulsion! But she does not share my consensual participation in this purgatorial sacrifice of the mental health of myself and of others, through mask-wearing, avoiding unsafe in-person gatherings, social distancing, etc., that has altered my reality, pushed me back into some pretty bleak places in myself, vulnerable to my old nemesis of neurotic obsession, and undoubtedly has taken some amount of precious time off my one and only life. This consensual participation, so I don’t just sink into an automatic mode of low expectation, glum resignation, and robotically “doing the next thing,” requires on my part a constant effort to keep the sacrifice in perspective, i.e., suffering it consciously as part of the necessary response, necessarily coordinated top-down, to save lives by containing the spread of the virus.

Her letter has sent a tremor through our small community of “utopianists.” I wasn’t prepared for Covid-denial conspiracy theory, with its inherent implication the rest of us are dupes, coming from “our side.” The divisiveness is painful to me. May I suggest this: to resist corporate state power without participating in the (unintentional) cruelty of exclusivity, we must first strengthen the unseen bonds of connection that otherwise are experienced only “at the barricades,” i.e., against a shared enemy. Our Upstate neighbors, the Haudenasaunee confederacy, model this primacy of inclusivity in their Condolence Ceremony; the idea here being that having first grieved together, diverse people may then stand together as one against in-common threats.

Perhaps it isn’t going too far to say, for we who have not grieved together, it may be too painful to hold in consciousness all the life that needs protecting; all that is now so fragile, so endangered, so unlikely to have a good end. Last week, I had to put down a NY Times article (buried somewhere past campaign news and the Amy Barrett hearings), the environmental science community’s announcement that the Great Barrier Reef has lost half its corals due to the warming ocean. And this is obviously just one evidence of our endangeredness.

Given all this fragility, I could understand the strange turn the farmers have taken as reaction to the complete unwantedness of the sacrifice and deprivation called for by health officials, in whom I too lack implicit trust. However, their principled, conspiracy-based rejection of common sense ( like sneezing into your sleeve) makes response difficult. My response must come from inclusivity – to me, this suggests they have bypassed the deeper unifying soul place that our culture wrongly has taught us can be ignored. That place, wherein our hearts may become one, is poetic, the source of healing that exists, as Keats told us, in the “vale of soul-making.” By means of imagination – not frustration, not rage, not even reason – confessed suffering may be transmuted into beauty and joy that serve both individual and social good.

Nevertheless, calling for people to “confess their suffering” is a bizarre thing to do. By and large, in white bourgeois liberal society, we’ve learned to feel confident the bullet of suffering can be dodged by most of us most of the time. But, for we who enjoy to some degree the benefits of the promise of progress, with its implicit faith that makes imagination irrelevant and suffering anachronistic, it is time to look again. Ir’s common knowledge you do your children no favor by smoothing their way in life – the word for it is spoiling. But spoiling the children simply means making it possible for them to bypass their legitimate experience, trial and error, mistakes and consequences. In liberal society, where the aim of every good parent is to, in some sense, spoil their child so she will not have to suffer, we effectively abort the entire process leading to character and wisdom – qualities so needed when humanity is in jeopardy. It may be we need the horrible pandemic “teacher” that brings us an opening for seeing suffering (not the stoical, stiff-upper lip kind, but the purificatory, transformational kind), from a different vantage point.

Heart-based Critique

My friend Irma, now 75, moved away from Utica 10 years ago when, facing increasing health problems, she needed to live closer to her family. This year she has undergone 2 major medical interventions. In a recent phone conversation we agreed that even a decade of “new normal” following our current rounds of afflictions would be so nice, and perhaps not too much to ask! She told me she and her sisters, following the death of their mother at 97, have been looking over old photographs and reminiscing warmly about a time when everyone in their extended family lived in one neighborhood in working class Brooklyn.

This friend of 30-plus years remarked, as if she were seeing me for the first time,“That’s what you have now! All your family in one place!” I might have said, I thought you’d never notice. Irma does not know – I suspect she’s never read anything I’ve written – that this is my critique of neoliberal society, my rebellion against its progress toward ever greater estrangement, alienation, fragmentation, that I attempt to make not as a crusader for an ideology, but as someone paying attention to how this feels. It’s no simple thing to sacrifice one’s place in self-confident bourgeois reality and avoid either bitterness, or the amplified victimhood of conspiracy-thinking! Either is more acceptable to the ego than the marginalized, mis-recognized, “canceled” place reserved for those who fail to share the most necessary assumption of liberal society; i.e., that life is better than it was. To keep to one’s moral compass on this journey, poetry, or poetic (initiated) consciousness – is an essential part of the gear.

Although our farmer friends share with me valued commitments to local agriculture and local businesses like our coffeeshop, their Covid-denial to me, though gutsy, is not right. Its divisiveness prevents my seeing it as courageous activism against the repellent status quo. Covid-denial divides us not because its science is questionable, but because , as the poetic soul knows, legitimate, non-virtual community isn’t made from the ready-made unity of conspiracy theory but from the ongoing struggle of individuals to remain consciously, inclusively, in relationship.

Admittedly, mine is an unusual basis for critique. But I maintain its subjective, illogical, unscientific basis, that makes it unpalatable to the liberal, educated mind, is at the same time the source of its power to strengthen resistance. Although the soul’s voice is intrinsically authoritative, the soul is highly sensitive and easily hurt; it’s all too easy to dismiss Her (I prefer traditionally gendered, myth-based reference) moral pain, Her wordless voice , as weakness. However, though I may – and do – temporize, She does not. Paradoxically, the fragile, dismissible heart is also an acutely accurate “bullshit detector. ” Her critique, that needs no confirmation from “real” authority, neither government, science, nor God, insists on the human-supportive, inclusive, kinder, sweeter, playful (utopian) social reality that has less than a snowball’s chance in hell in this world of ever-hardening oppositions.

Liberalism makes good skeptics, but bad believers. Our hearts and imaginations dulled or dumbed down, we have practically lost our ability to distinguish heart-based dissent from opinions that are merely anti-authoritarian. As basis for critique the heart stands outside mask-deniers and gun protectors, and outside liberal temporizing as well! As long as progress-fixated bourgeois society demands we become ever more machine-like and “autonomous,” the movements we make “backward” toward confinement in local, interdependent relationships of mutuality and trust, in place over time, cannot be suffering-free. The heart’s critique comes down to the willingness, or lack thereof, to suffer personally on behalf of that interconnected, inclusive whole known to imagination. This makes the creative imagination – that handles suffering by making art from it – essential for resistance to bourgeois reality.

The very fragility of utopian hope means the accompanying despair is likely greater than people raised in materialist, rationalist, progressivist liberal society can bear. More than most, then, the dreamer must depend upon imagination in order to retain her dream. Without it, the community is united by what is hated in common, not by what is loved and grieved for, and longed for, in common.

Art Is Underground Art

In contrast to what I’m saying about art, popular images of artists, to be compatible with bourgeois mainstream, trivialize both art and the artist’s suffering. As children watching TV in the 1950’s we were amused by the character Maynard G. Krebs’s caricature of the Beats, or “beatniks,” but learned nothing – I wasn’t even curious! – about real poets or real counterculture. In a similar way, scenes and stories of starving artists, such as the garret apartment scenes in La Boheme, or artist suicides, are rendered into popular images that help to trivialize art and artists, making them “safe” for public consumption. It doesn’t take a genius to see why a life-way that veers from the bourgeois norm, that refuses to be trivial, placing a higher value on art than on materiality, would be ridiculed in popular media. As a consequence, non-commercial, non-ironic art-making, being lively, countercultural, and underground, is truest to its soulcraft.

Inscrutably to their fellows, artists keep at their art as calling, not as job. The ones I know just keep making art, enjoying each other’s company, showing occasionally at the public library or the newest pop-up gallery, playing – or reading – at one of the few coffeehouse-type local performance venues. The deeply and meaningfully erotic relationship between art and artist is successfully veiled from the majority of society left to worship celebrities and chuckle over Maynard hiccupping each time he utters “work!” This obfuscation is so effective that I did not come to understand the countercultural calling of the Beat poets until my 40’s, too late to influence me to disavow the life of work!

Reading in the NY Times recently, I resonated to the food writer who used her pandemic opportunity/crisis to turn toward doing what she likes (i.e., making galettes, a sort of downscale pie) regardless of how she is perceived – in my eyes, a freeing, non-trivial move!

The liberal world’s obfuscation of art-making misleads people about the truth of our soul’s innate aspiration for the unifying effect of making art. No wonder people for the most part go after what glitters, and bypass completely the gold that can be mined by their own creativity, through the suffering that comes with refusal to be trivial. Purgatory, remember, offered a “second-chance” for wrongdoers instead of going straight to the Other Place. Coming up to election 2020, the flames of corporate capitalism – from whose triumph there will be no redemption – can be felt licking at our flesh. Isn’t the horror of purgatory looking better?

Kim C. Domenico, reside in Utica, New York, co-owner of Cafe Domenico (a coffee shop and community space),  and administrator of the small nonprofit independent art space, The Other Side.  Seminary trained and ordained,  but independently religious. She can be reached at: kodomenico@verizon.net.

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