With the sinking of high human trust, the dignity of life sinks too; we cease to believe in our own better self, since that is also is part of the common nature which is degraded in our thought; and all the finer impulses of the soul are dulled.
– George Eliot, Romola
[Romola, advising a child] “We can only have the highest happiness…by having wide thoughts, and much feeling for the rest of the world as well as ourselves…this sort of happiness often brings so much pain with it that we can only tell it from pain by its being what we would choose before everything else, because our soul sees it as good.”
Fascinated recently by the abolitionist John Brown’s story, whose raid against the Harper’s Ferry federal arsenal earned him an ambiguous place in mainstream white, secular, colonialist history, it interested me greatly to come across quite by accident another of history’s righteous religious “mad men.” As with Brown, history’s “objective” treatment of 15thcentury Florence’s Savonarola – his infamous “bonfire of vanities” damning evidence of his puritanist excess – emits a strong whiff of prejudice against revolutionaries whose disobedience is on behalf of “God’s inclusive – no exceptions – Kingdom.”
In George Eliot’s obscurish novel, Romola, her alternative reading of the radical reformer suggests another factor in his placement in history aside from the austere extremism that makes him “strange.” This difference may interest us as we face liberalism’s incapacity to act decisively in unison for the common good in the face of imperilment to our humanity and to life on earth. Ongoing prejudice in secular academia against the truth of in-common human nature that both Savonarola and John Brown defended (for them religiously authorized) has been no accident. This prejudice has caused every such activist on behalf of the “mystical” interconnectedness, from Jesus to Joe Hill to the junior MLK, to be treated ambivalently, their core message qualified and tamed, their judicial executions (where applicable) acceptable (if deplored) from every perspective except that of society’s bottom.
It’s easy to see justification for liberal consensus against those who claim their motivation is “doing God’s work.” History provides ample evidence that fired by religious zeal, people can be as cruel and barbarous as so-called savages, certainly belligerent, not to mention colonialist, imperialist, genocidal etc. On the other hand – but keeping with liberal antipathy toward religion – we make exceptions for such as MLK, Jr., whose standing up for justice and peace we so admire, but whom we honor in a way that (condescendingly) cannot acknowledge the part played by faith in his activism.
In so doing, we miss the important difference between the religious activists liberals like and those we don’t. The significant difference is not that some Christians are “exceptions to the rule;” it’s in whether religious identification is exoteric or esoteric. That is, everyone raised Christian begins exoterically, the customs and beliefs handed down through church, scripture, official representatives and parents. Social cohesion comes from in-common assent to the same credo, which unfortunately also establishes an us v. them. In contrast, the saints we like, far from having become exceptions, have “esoterized” their faith to “mystical,” myth-level depths, through a direct inward relationship with invisible reality.
At this level, in-common human nature is a matter of experience, its esoteric truth known subjectively, not received secondhand from and confirmed by the institution or the group. This knowledge based in imagination, that we associate with religious prophets, is freely available to every man and woman. Based in esoteric understanding, the true, in-common human story – all of life connected, intrinsically meaningful, all sacred – can be told. This certainty of inner authority, the only basis upon which real social change toward the in-common good can happen, is anathema to defensively secular liberal reality and to all forms of social organization based in inequality.
Now facing catastrophe on multiple fronts: a planet heating up, rising fascism, pandemic resurgence, political chaos, etc. – we find ourselves collectively packed inside one in-common “foxhole.” Is it perhaps time to rethink our complacently dismissive attitude to “God’s will?”
Although in secular history religion’s heroes and representatives – its prophets, saints, and religious “mad men”- have been largely misunderstood, their deeds qualified, religious understanding may be all there is that can save us from ourselves at this perilous moment. This is a moment to challenge not just white and masculinist supremacy, but the secular rationalist supremacy that’s in the way of recognizing and submitting to the wholly inclusive authority of love. What is that which closes our imaginations against the possibility of a moral authority which tells us we’re created interdependent, an-injury-to -one-an-injury-to-all, etc., and that our moral business is defending and healing relationships, not damaging, relativizing or temporizing them? Is this attachment to rationalism our liberal vanity – and does a bonfire begin to make sense?
Rethinking Savonarola & the Purpose of Art
If I am known for anything by my readers, it is likely for my writerly exhortations to make art, akin to a call for repentance, as the way to challenge secular rationalist supremacy. Creative expression is – or can be – the means to that esoteric religious understanding that sees and acts on behalf of the heart’s truth of in-common human nature. It should not surprise us that neoliberal reality conditions us to take sides against our artist selves. As liberal reality enjoins us to see not the greatness of soul of a Brown or a Savonarola but their fanaticism, we are enjoined by our shame against the greatness of our creative souls, as if serving them were the “vanity!”
Eliot seems to have struggled a bit herself with her conclusion about the Dominican friar’s place in history. In the very end, however, we learn of Romola’s final “take” as she advises her young charge against seeking purely after pleasure. After Savonarola’s condemnation as a heretic, his cruel torture and death at the hands of Florentine authorities, she concludes on the side of “Fra Girolamo’s” greatness, for his having, on behalf of others, “struggled against powerful wrong.”
Did Eliot forgive him as well his intolerance for secular art and the humanism for which we celebrate the Renaissance? For Fra Girolamo, only sacred art could express the soul’s (i.e., Christ’s) truth. This austerity – not his defiance of the corrupt pope and the corrupt power of the Medicis, nor his support for the republic – is most offensive to a liberal sensibility. Trained as we are to see through a liberal lens, we easily miss the fact that Savonarola’s antipathies weren’t partisan, but based in “the greatness” of his heart. What if he was right: art that is obedient to to a heartless – evil – system is disobedient to art’s sacred – that is, intrinsic – purpose? Such a “philosophy” of art is of course unworthy of notice in today’s art world. However, I am in sympathy with the distinction Savonarola made. Art fulfills its purpose only inasmuch as it is duty to the soul. That is, in a soulless culture, art is inherently countercultural.
To me, giving a mad preacher his due, as Eliot does, raises the interesting possibility that even our greatest Renaissance artists may have painted or sculpted subjects favored by the Medicis, rather than solely by the unfunded truth from their own souls ( was it realizing this that caused Botticelli to throw two of his paintings into the bonfire?)
Moreover, if we take the side of Savonarola’s “greatness,” perhaps we can appreciate that the great art we inherit, appreciate, and adore – worthy as it is – does not necessarily save the soul of you or me. Only my own practice of art can realize for me the truth of inclusiveness, based in in-common human nature, supportive of the worth and dignity of every human being against the prevailing class stratifications.
Moral Calamity & Liberal Vanity
In the main storyline of Romola, the protagonist is betrayed by her amiable, charming, husband who has used his charisma and gifts of learning to great advantage among the Florentine power-and-wealth-class. The words describing her feeling of betrayal (see epigraph) speak eloquently to the position of all of us in late capitalism. No longer are there leaders in whom to place our “high human trust,” the loss in human dignity is immense. Besides having ceased to believe in “better selves,” our thought is degraded, the “finer impulses of our souls dulled.” This is what I see, but must turn to a 19th century author to have my sense of things affirmed!
For who, anymore, makes such distinctions in human character? For too long, wrapped in the vanity of liberal, middle class well-being, we have deceived ourselves, believing we can exist without the aspects of our “common nature” that depend on religious understandings. Without the soul’s imaginative power to sustain us in times of trial and ordeal we cannot conceive the full apocalyptic truth of our situation, this endtime reckoning with the demands of justice – the relatedness we have long, however unintentionally, violated. I use the term apocalyptic because that word reveals its origin in imaginations that could conceive of a catastrophic endtime, as we cannot. Liberal “vanity” allows us to be distracted with surface, positivity-bolstering understandings (Progress! Green economy! Technology! No need to be scared!) so we can successfully navigate our social/economic/political lives on capitalism’s terms.
Further, we are disabled by isolation and loneliness, a social dystopia – though worsened with the pandemic, that’s a permanent condition of modern life. NY Times columnist Michelle Goldberg (7/20/21) accurately names extreme loneliness as a major factor sending people into the arms of Donald Trump, into fascism, into Q-anon type conspiracy theories spread through social media. She quotes Hannah Arendt: “The chief characteristic of the mass man is not brutality and backwardness, but his isolation and lack of normal social relationships.” However, Goldberg does not mention the effects of this dystopia based in the ultimacy of self-interest – upon the liberal class; she neglects to point to how the loss of community, stable social relationships and the imaginative capacity to acknowledge our own human, in-common vulnerability has caused us to forfeit our moral compass, and to instead place our sunken trust in “lesser-evil” amoral neoliberals like Hillary Clinton, Obama and Biden.
From the soul’s angle (so to speak), we’re not vain because we’re “wrapped up in ourselves,” care too much about how we look, how fit we are, if other people like us, etc. We’re vain because we cling to the mental reality we know, which allows us to avoid the (temporary) dissolution of ego that goes with the experience known as repentance. Without that powerful disturbance, no other reality exists outside the one our minds, thoroughly adapted to rationalist materialist reality, make, in which we are in effect imprisoned. We cannot find our way back to being the kind of human beings that can unqualifiedly defend in-common humanity. Rare in western history, ascribed to fanaticism when it is defended, in-commonness prevails in indigenous cultures and in ephemeral, often art-based countercultures.
Is Art A Vanity?
In these trauma-inducing, apocalyptic times, a bonfire of vanities is called for, but not of other peoples’ vanities. The vision that has kept Orin and me going in our quixotic pursuits, our coffeeshop business and the small nonprofit arts space next door, always was countercultural. We have understood our resistance being, at its bottom, to the erasure of voices, including our own, which makes it obligatory for us to express our voices, to create art. We see art-making not as a privilege to be defended but a common-as-dirt duty to the soul and soul’s “greatness,” a truth that’s been relativized in history as surely as the truth of the soul’s inclusivity motivating a “King Ludd” or Savonarola. The pursuit of art is free, the imaginative capacity bequeathed to every human being, which is why art-making is dangerous, why it must be contained/controlled within hierarchies and judgments. Our best efforts should be not to collaborate with class distinctions, in art or in society, but to “save souls” from the ego supportive attachments (vanities), beginning with the attachment to our reasons for not making art, the vanity that blinds us to our obligation to the in-common soul!
Fifty years ago, having dropped out of college, profoundly troubled and confused, not knowing there was any such thing as trustworthy (disinterested) guidance for young lost souls, not knowing I was one, I accompanied a boyfriend, at his suggestion, to a gathering of “spiritualists” in a church basement in Portland, Maine. To his possible credit, he may have seen my hollowed-out, depressed state, and thought this might help. There, one of the middle-aged women at the “seance” had a vision for me. She saw a dead tree, its branches black and bare. I was so disturbed by the image – its truth – that I buried the memory, mentioning it to no one, for I had no idea there could be help for my “dead” self. “Help” came 20 years later, when breakdown overcame my fear. I am grateful now for crisis, for every opposition to what I believed I wanted for myself, every “dead end,” every insoluble problem, every deep abiding unhappiness that led to that bonfire fed with my vanities, and brought life back to my soul.
If those of us inside neoliberal mediated reality are to be motivated to address the crisis of the world, the dialectic revealed in breakdowns/spiritual crises is necessary; the soulless reality we vainly attempt to preserve, feeding us ppms and tipping points, is not. Through personal crisis the spiritual means for me to conceive of apocalypse is restored along with the capacity to conceive I’m included in love’s reality. In defying the erasure of my voice with which I am chief collaborateur, I defy liberal vanity. I free myself to be on the social bottom with those who are erased in their physical being and their basic human rights; not pain-free, but at times, in tune with “what the soul feels is good.”