I am not a mechanism…I am ill because of wounds to the soul, to the deep emotional self…only time can help, and a certain… long difficult repentance, realization of life’s mistake, and the freeing oneself from the endless repetition of the mistake which mankind at large has chosen to sanctify.
–D.H. Lawrence, Healing
The next time early I would search for wisdom. I would not pretend I could be just like others: Only evil and suffering come from that.
– Czeslaw Milosz, One More Contradiction
In those entertaining instructions for souls “made up” by imagination, known as fairy tales, we’re introduced to many characters and things whose “job” is to fascinate. The gingerbread house, for example. The bright red apple. The golden ball that falls into the well. The fatal allure of the spindle on the spinning wheel. The enchanted ship of maidens that captivates Ivan in The Maiden Czar. The irresistible rappi growing in the witch’s garden in Rapunzel. The unhappy Beast’s castle in the woods where Beauty’s father fatefully lingers. The things that fascinate bewitch; they lure the unsuspecting naif into terrors and adventures. In this way, fairy tales signify a reality, a knowledge realm, beyond the everyday one.
Everyone knows what it is to be fascinated by something. Because of their power to lure the unsuspecting into something else, fairy tale fascinators allow the protagonist to cross over into a previously unsuspected knowledge world. In the bottom-up reality of the peasant cultures that gave rise to fairy tales, fascination points to knowledge that is personally meaningful, energizing, initiatory, perhaps leading to wisdom. Even though we’re centuries past the feudal lives of poor millers and woodcutters and kings, jealous queens and princesses in which the stories originated, and even though we no longer believe in that “other” reality, to our souls the relevance is timeless. To our imaginative hearts, it matters what we are fascinated by; it matters if we follow fascination or not.
Though everyone knows what it is to be fascinated, fewer know or want to know the consequences of our choices as to what we will be fascinated by. If you think of fairy tales, fascination is often wielded by a terrible witch of the kind who’d as soon eat you as not. She functions to lure the protagonist into her/his adventure. The witch’s presence tells us the adventure is real – no safety net, no health benefits, no 401 K retirement package, etc. – and thus it can end in being eaten. (I see in my grandchildren’s eyes their intensified interest when we meet the witch, ogre, or beast whom they know instinctively obeys no rules of fairness!)
At this historical moment when it seems as if the last human morsel is fated to feed the insatiable witch of corporate growth, we need to learn this discernment! Because it takes a witch to know one, I volunteer myself for the job of “good” witch!
Today, with imaginations so reduced, fascination for most people is with power itself, the means to control, mediated electronically through screens. In liberal, technological, top-down society, the dominant narrative must discourage human strength and purpose. It must make surrender, in order to be “just like others,” inevitable. Ordinary human beings, bewitched by virtual electronic images and the control of information, stand no chance against the narrative controlled by the powerful and the wealthy.
Unlike fairy tale fascinations, fascination with screen images leads not to a preparation for the very real inward trials and discoveries of the process of becoming a human-with-heart, but to unconscious dependency and the fantasy expectation of a life of ease and plenty attainable without having to dirty one’s hands. From this perspective, electronic media, TV and the rest, is not neutral but, well prior to the now-exposed dirty deeds of Facebook, commits a more serious evil. By providing instant access to virtual reality, to an Olympus of stars, celebrities, talking heads and social media influencers who speak and enchant from a numinous, “higher” realm, the human need for challenge and struggle, failure and success in the process of becoming human is bypassed. Screens do not make human beings morally stunted, incapable of meeting the challenges of humanly social existence. But in ravaging an already fragile sense of connectedness, in referring not back to the human being herself but to a fascinatingly glamorous ultra-real beyond, they serve an appetite for human life essence as insatiable as any witch’s.
This willingness of the masses of naïve people to be bewitched by the wrong fascination came to me recently. We had watched a movie borrowed randomly from the library – Jimi Hendrix; All Is By My Side (2014) directed by John Ridley, starring Andre 3000. Right afterwards I read the online reviews. That is, first I watched the film-maker’s art, then read the words of those whose job is to have an opinion on the art. For whatever reason – we’re told by reviewers it was because the director could not have access to Hendrix’s music – the film was set in Jimi’s life pre-superstardom, in NYC and then London.
In keeping to this focus, the youthful musician’s utter vulnerability in relation to the people who opted to steer his life in the right direction became central. In particular, the young Linda Keith (Imogen Poots), functions as Muse, encouraging him to strike out musically on his own. In contrast, we see the young man’s incapacity, in that vibrant, liberating 60’s youth scene of sex, drugs and rock and roll, to speak to his friends about either the actual pain of his family life or the pain of racism. One might ask: Is the real story – like that of Elvis – of success – becoming Guitar god – or is it the story of the making of a self-destructive human being (sadness and tragedy)?
Online reviewers almost uniformly expressed their disappointment in the absence of Hendrix’s “biggest hits!” They tempted me to conclude the story of the human being James Hendrix was less fascinating than that of the god Jimi, his self-destructive lifestyle and his shocking, sacrificial end. As a picture of American sadism, we cannot do better than this. Celebrity fascination, unlike fairy tale fascination, leads not into but away from understanding of what it means to be human. The movie’s implication that Jimi, though deeply wounded, kept his wounds hidden, makes a very different story, the focus on a man not a Guitar God, on a social environment and not the stage. Without that true story, the stories we’re fed leave us with an illusion of transcendence that substitutes for meaning: it does not have to be struggled for or worked out for ourselves.
Intentionally or not, the movie revealed a world of very young people naively playing with the powers inherent in sex and drugs, devoid of and/or in rebellion against any sort of parental authority, in a sort of “what-are-you-rebelling-against-what-have-you-got” kind of way. In Linda’s encouragement of Jimi’s genius, she was, at the same time unintentionally luring him in the direction of his destruction. No femme fatale – but rather a naïve kid set loose in that 60’s candy shop of rock stardom, with no imagination for its danger, no one to see that Jimi made a frail candidate for superstardom.
How many in my generation carry with them some wound, some hidden pain from that period when we played naively with powerful realms not under human control that, rather, are ruled by the laws of nature and its gods that tellers of fairy tales knew so well? Naively we rebelled against parents who variously caved in to liberal society’s insidious lie: authority – especially moral authority – makes you bad. Once the spell of youth and its golden exceptionalism wore off, most of us opted not for freedom – too dangerous! – but for a life “just like others.”
Now in America’s liberal reality, where the dark tide of fascism threatens, its firing shot the January mob swarming the Capitol, the problem no longer is “the elephant in the living room” (the popular metaphor for denial). Today we areinside the elephant. The social vibe in America, never strong, flickers. The enemy to be feared is not precisely Trump or even rising Fascism, but all that prevents our retaining our humanity; we are in a race with the processes of dehumanization, affecting both ends of the political spectrum alike, threatened with loss of our moral souls.
The fascination we need to seek now is the one that lures the person in the direction of her soul’s desire and its truth of oneness. Talking with my brother recently, in town from Vermont, Orin referred to the realization he’d just had of the unconscious power men have in relation to women. To some liberal ears, including my brother’s, fifty and more years after the feminist revolution of the 1970’s, this may have sounded like a “no-brainer.” Oh…okay…cool. I understood Orin was not simply mouthing the dominant liberal mood of the times, but talking about a genuine change of heart, a personal revelation. In his case, just “talking the talk” would purely be more“cover-up” – he was for years the most articulate feminist I knew personally. I see his realization as real, an attainment in the very long healing process we committed ourselves to back in the late 1980’s.
Inspired by the spiritual recovery movements popular then, and by the input from Jungian-inspired teachers like mythologist Joseph Campbell and poet Robert Bly (whom we mourn), we entered the process earnestly but naively. Due to it’s being a real experience (no safety-net!), adherence to it would have been impossible had not the journey’s many “dark nights of the soul,” brought continual rewards of a miraculous order, rewards coming, as it were, from the bottom up, genuinely fascinating. Moreover, with no end in sight, no salvation, no final triumph, it became our way of living. Like a “palace revolt” against the social science-based system of mental health – neither a professionally guided retreat at a fabulous destiny location, nor an absolution by a priest – we took on ongoing spiritual transformation without oversight or permission. “As long as we work it,” this process has kept us in an imaginative story of our own, by means of which we each find our inclusion in an existing reality of meaning – the “good” witch way!
This redemptive reality comes with a steep price tag: one must not only stay in the process, creatively, but also stay put. The moral choices Orin and I have made that limit our participation in the “freedoms” taken for granted in liberal bourgeois reality, make our estrangement from that reality nearly total, and also vulnerable to its overwhelming dominance. That is, our story that keeps us resistant to “machine-hood” do not fully protect us from it. Liberal, technophilic reality continuously lures us – and bullies us! away from the humble processes and struggles of human becoming. It bullies us with its complacency, in which relationships and communities are temporal (i.e., removing need to practice the traditional means for recognizing and healing relational wounds – forgiveness, etc.); the “spirit of the times” calls for self-interest over other-interest; social media substitutes for more complicated face-to-face intercourse – the list is quite long; for who are we to have lives that are different?
However, it is clear to me – and examples from indigenous cultures confirm it – the transformational, creative process works within the illiberal confinements of nature: in the birth-to-death timeframe, in relationships, marriages, families and local communities together over time. In our own case, the limiting circumstances we’ve chosen to occupy, beginning with marriage, force us to continually re-enter the process to restore our unity/equanimity. In turn, these reconciliations, that depend upon each one practicing a creative work that functions to mediate Absolute reality, generate synergistic energy for the community: our sustainably “no-growth” coffeeshop business and non-profit arts space in Utica, our extended, intergenerational local family living and centered here – all serve our place as a “place,” a center, rather than obliterate it the Dunkin Donuts way. In my experience, the value of “staying put” is the container thus made for a different activism, open to every person who can commit to it, that allows the soul’s lessons of peace-making and moral strength to be learned by experience, to walk the talk. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was exemplary of this truth as I am not, pointed to it in these words : “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”
Liberal reality makes us blinder, not more sensitive, to our power to abuse others, which is to not see them. Attempting to live without bottom-up meaning is futile. Existentially frustrated, we’re prone to passive anger and unconscious meanness, fertile ground for the harmful below-conscious attitudes we call misogyny, white supremacy, and the imperialist, colonialist, militarist course of our history. This bourgeois tendency to be fascinated by power, in which women as much as men are complicit, cannot be treated by resolutions or good intentions to do better, nor by exoteric faith. Only through the bottom-up dialectical process taught for hundreds of generations in religious myth and in fairy tales, in families communities and communal establishments that are essentially steady-state and conservative, can human beings, by means of art, preserve our humanness against the forces destroying it.
As long as our fascination is with screens, with MSNBC and NPR news, images designed for us by the servants of capitalism, thus inherently divisive, a bottom-up revolution of heart will not happen. Nor will it by giving up those screens! Only following the fascination of the process that points to bliss (i.e., to God) can do so. In humanizing us, it makes us, our creativity, into servants of the larger unity. If we refuse the next step – “the difficult, long repentance” – we miss the opportunity to build a less cruel and violent reality; we will have nothing with which to resist fascism.