What gave their (Kafka and Benjamin) criticism its bitter sharpness was not anti-Semitism as such…it was…the lying denial of the very existence of widespread anti-Semitism, of the isolation from reality staged with all the devices of self-deception by the Jewish bourgeoisie…
– Hannah Arendt, Introduction to Illuminations: Walter Benjamin, Essays & Reflections
Th[e] classical approach [to education, as opposed to the utilitarian] …recognizes that the end and aim of education is really the anthem of Black people, which is to lift every voice. That means to find your voice, not an echo or an imitation of others. But you can’t find your voice without being grounded in tradition… in legacies…in heritages.
– Cornel West, Howard University’s Removal of Classics…Washington Post, 4/19/21
Besides being modernists in rebellion against a knowledge tradition that had been rendered obsolete after WWI, Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin, according to Hannah Arendt, were alike in their opposition to the bourgeois Jewish culture in which they were raised that remained “in lying denial” of the systemic antisemitism around them. They found bourgeois “isolation from reality” less tolerable than antisemitism itself. Likewise, those of us who understand that the bourgeois class functions the same way today in America, isolating white people from the reality of the surrounding “ nightmare,” find liberal self-deception more outrageous than even rightwing hate. We find we must keep calling it out for the very survival of our identity, that is obliterated in the monolithic liberal zeitgeist. The majority, who do not see this, in their beholdenness to liberal “benignity” are blinded as to where it’s taking us.
Imagine! An entire thoughtworld predicated on denial of the extent of evil, of dark reality, of fearful and pending calamity, rot and decay, sadness and defeat, failure and death. Since the liberal class generally has been educated to value culture and thinks of itself as cultured, perhaps the most potent of bourgeois devices is that which functions to keep art, art-making and the Humanities tradition “safe,” i.e., never reminding us we live within an illusion! At best, the Humanities are regarded as benign, at worst superfluous and unnecessary, compared to a more utilitarian, job-aimed, education. (No wonder the poet Robert Bly, in his workshops building the 1980’s men’s movement, used fairy tales to assist bottom-up revolution. In them, dark reality is integral, not Disneyized out!)
Central to this massive deception is the illusion that we have a culture when we do not participate in its making, i.e., as if the existence of the Met or MOMA (or, Utica version, Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute and the Stanley Performing Arts Center) are evidence we have a culture, or else as if the mass-produced, consumer one will do. Many of our artists deceive themselves too, but differently.
Because the bourgeois materialist system is closed, and cannot tolerate independent thought, even many artists miss the point of what they do, going no further in their social/political thinking than the context allows. Rightly perceiving no support for revolutionary outrage, they deny the truth, that art-making is antithetical to bourgeois denial and thoroughly dangerous to its norms. Truth is, in serving the muse by means of the one-to-one compact between the artist and her creative soul, the artist’s consciousness is “flipped right side up.” In its inclusion of both light and dark realities art-making resists the bourgeois materialism that obliterates the soul’s real existence. It protects the flowing waters of imagination, so the native language, poetry, once again is spoken. (i.e., these words by local nonagenarian sculptor Jim McDermid: “I like the energy contained in tree branch wood and logs. ..As the sculpture happens it also changes and shifts its mind and thought to become.”)
In the cultural “sea change” of creative expression, top-down mass-produced “culture” is replaced with bottom-up indigenous authority. Thus art-making, being the basis for culture, provides the ground of otherness that permits members of liberal society to let go of compulsive addiction to self-deception. That is, spiritual truth allowed, it becomes possible to behold the horror surrounding us without being defeated by it. Only standing in a culture can we put our lives on the side of humanity, the revolutionary side.
Without Education, Without Culture
A recent (4/19) NY Times front page headline read: “Pandemic Buoys Older Books, Leaving New Authors In Limbo.” My heart gave a little leap: You mean people are reading Forster, Conrad, D.H. Lawrence, Eliot? Plato? And forsaking Delia Owens and Suzanne Collins? For better or for worse, I always turn to older works, either to fill huge gaps in my less-than-elite education or because I just haven’t caught up to my own times. Needless to say, something else was meant by “older books;” the ones mentioned reminding me of many of the titles donated to our book cart at the Cafe by people with good intentions but what Dwight McDonald would have called “mid-cult” tastes.
I learned, further, that pandemic seclusion caused a greater share of sales to go to online sources like Amazon, making publishers “worry about the long-term health of physical bookstores, a critical part of the literary ecosystem that was battered during the shutdown.” I suppose a writer for the NY Times could say this without irony. In the Utica area we haven’t had a local physical bookstore for years. People here go to the one bookstore (Barnes & Noble) like they go to the one movie theater (Marquee), mainly, judging by the titles prominently displayed, to be fed with the same masscult and midcult – terms so well explained in Dwight McDonald’s Masscult and Midcult (1960) – junk. When publishers decry the loss of the “physical store” where “serendipitous” discoveries occur while people browse they aren’t talking about discoveries of literature by original thinkers, but the loss of the expanded sales that come from the impulse that feeds addiction, not from curiosity, that feeds the hungry soul.
McDonald’s energized critique of mass culture is hard to talk about today; the base upon which he stood for his critique – a truly educated individuality (elitist to some) – we’re now so estranged from that to critique friends’ choices who are plugged in to mass-produced culture verges dangerously – for one seeking inclusivity, not divisiveness – into “cancel culture.”
In fact, it should not be left to individuals to question the technology dependence and mid-cult tastes of our friends and relatives. It rightly is a matter for education, the education most of us did not and never will get. Inasmuch as we assume our public educations were sufficient – not downright shackles for the mind! – we deceive ourselves. For most of us white middle class people, to the degree we accepted our schooling docilely, though we likely were good at it, we were conditioned away from the ongoing, autodidactic process of reading and study that liberal education is. We’re left to “make our own choices,” which is to feed our minds on that which the marketplace makes available for acculturation. While in NYC this may include museums and live shows, for the vast rest it’s the information, “influence,” and entertainment available electronically. Culture-by-electronic consumption leaves practically no possibility of building a culture from the bottom up; to build a culture amidst the ruins of the old takes each person fiercely thinking, engaged with others in a community of thinkers in which minds can meet!
Philosopher-theologian-activist Cornel West’s argument against Howard University’s removal of its classics department provides a case in point. For decades “Brother Cornel” has walked his talk, tirelessly preaching the revolutionary purpose of education, its aim to “ draw out” the individuality inherent in each person, not to force-feed in the way that breeds passivity, and supports bourgeois society’s “lying denial.” He makes clear gaining an education is a liberatory process, joining oneself to humanity’s cause against the forces that would destroy the soul that makes us human. His defense of the classics department on spiritual grounds comes from an academic maverick and ceaseless political agitator, the sort that most classics and humanities departments prudently stay distanced from. What is of worth preserving, as he knows, is that which assists people in retaining our hearts and souls – basis for culture and morality – evidence for which is there in the earliest writings and art forms in the Humanities tradition.
I forwarded Dr. West’s letter on to a friend, a retired classics professor; she responded it had already caused a buzz among her classicist friends. Secretly I hope the “buzz” acts like a (figurative) bomb. The classics professors have done their part in their own decline, not reading the handwriting on the wall, denying the ship was sinking, going along with the direction of “applying” classics to subjects more fashionable, rather than defending the intrinsic worth of the education they were so immensely privileged to receive in the first place.
Needless to say, a college education is not required in order to have a heart, and the case can easily be made that if the goal is to preserve the heart’s authority, stay away from school! But liberal western society is defined by our belief in and promotion of education, a fact for which those who value freedom of the mind must be grateful. However, when education omits to affirm the existence of the heart and soul, as western education without the Humanities does, what’s left is education to machine-hood, to class stratification and various sorts of orientalism, not to one’s humanity.
So-called educated people, stranded as we are in the arid desert of rationalist-empiricist supremacy, our indigenous knowledge lost to us, need education that aids and affirms the very bottom-up conscious connection to the reality the heart perceives. The empirical world is presented to us as being inevitable and “all there is;” only fools would think otherwise! Hence classics professors who cannot be fools, cannot defend their discipline on the grounds that it is spiritually necessary!
Taking Back In-Common Culture
With that neoliberal world now offering (for a price!) universal access to online virtual reality – its marvelous convenience, its dazzling array of entertainment, its social connectivity! – the challenge to the merely human – slow as we are, full of weaknesses and faults, vulnerable to loss, aging, and decrepitude, dependent on making a living on capitalism’s terms – is immense. From the perspective of restoring in-common culture, virtual connectivity – because of its usefulness to liberal self-deception – ought to be regarded like the polished apple proffered to Snow White, or the sweet-tasting gingerbread cottage of the old hag in Hansel and Gretel. Humans beware!!
Only intrinsic human wisdom – the wisdom of the commons out of which came fairy tales! – and the practice of an art can allow the human being to “compete” with the transitory “fulfillments” obtainable in industrial society by means of consumer culture and the wonders of technology. Convinced (or bullied) as we are in the narrowed viewpoint of empiricism, positivism, and scientism, so captive to the salvific promise of progress have we become, so lacking the capacity to appreciate what art is in its “supernatural” and “divinely” authoritative function, we miss the connection to the imaginative commons. Precisely for its uselessness to the projects and profit-making purposes of industrial society and consumer culture, art is useful in its ancient ritual function connecting persons to awesome, indigenous immaterial reality.
In all cases where the pursuit of art-making is undertaken by serious devotees of “the muse,” whether the devotee is Nina Simone, T.S. Eliot, Bertold Brecht, or our little band of local Utica poets in “the Rag and Bone Shop Poetry Theater,” whether the artist is at a novice stage of development or a lesser god-given talent, its presence evokes awe, the experience of which is fulfillment. Having experienced it, one knows the very having of meaning depends upon that experience of being awe-filled.
That so few have the in-common experience of awe keeps the false opposition between culture-as-elitism and popular democracy going. I speak not just of rightwing extremists’ belligerence toward the elite liberal establishment. But many of us who aren’t paid to be scholars are mightily tempted to regard study as a guilty pleasure at best, and contemplation as an indulgence of privilege. Even among people educated enough to scorn mass culture, liberal whiteness conditions us against recognizing the flame of creativity where it is actually burning, possibly under our nose. We learn culture is “high,” not at the warts-and-all bottom, where the non-ordained perform and read their work. Art’s first “public” is local, in the cafes, bars and “juke joints” where its power to sustain human aspiration may be felt. It must be snatched back from the publishing industry, the theater industry, the music industry and performed locally and face-to-face so it can spiritually enliven everyone in the community, eliminating forever the loathsome category of “dummies!”
Our R & G Poetry Theater’s recent reading, “The Delicate Thing Which Lasts,” was attended almost exclusively by artists. With people still pandemic-skitterish, (even though a second show had to be scheduled!), this is evidence of the outrageous shortcomings of our educations. We rightly ought to be educated so awe and wonder are understood generally as the right and the duty of each person, displacing financial survival concerns in capitalist society as if “money will follow.” Poetry readings, difficult to construe as “entertainment,” call especially for participation in that sacred reality of useless (ritual) activity that makes not an elite, but a commons. As long as poets will stand in that commons, they revive the culture that feeds human souls, a revolutionary act for this simple reason: “heart and soul” cannot tolerate bourgeois reality’s “lying denial,” any more than a free black man or woman can tolerate white supremacy.