The hermit said: “Because the world is mad,
The only way through the world is to learn
The arts and double the madness. Are you listening?”
– Robert Bly, Listening
…while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.
– James Baldwin, Sonny’s Blues
Joining Orin and me for supper the other night, a plan that would allow us time to talk over matters pertaining to our coffeeshop business, our daughter Molly shared news of a Christmas card she’d received from a west coast cousin. The cousin, in her forties, married with 2 children and estranged from her father, Orin’s brother, we already knew to be a Trump follower. The card revealed something more – Rachel is now a Christian, and views her life from the vantage point of the Lord working on behalf of her happiness. Despite a pregnancy that ended in miscarriage, she has been happy the last couple of (pandemic)years, and is pregnant again.
Molly, turned off by the programmed feel of the card’s language, yet found something in the message to affirm. She shares with Rachel this sense of happiness the last couple of years, she says. (In my pandemically-enhanced state of despair, I had to hold myself back from inserting in disbelief: Happy? But what about …the rising sea levels, the tornadoes in Kentucky, the manatees, the refugees, the gross wealth disparities, rising fascism,…?”) Molly’s no anarchist – this I knew; though she runs our coffeeshop as if born to it she does so without the sense of its being the act of resistance that Orin and I see it as. But something in the exchange made me realize the reality in which I exist, that has darkness descending in full view, is entirely separate from hers. A second’s reflection tells me the reason: She cannot bear the full reality – as cousin Rachel too, I surmise, cannot. Each person alive now, upon whom fortune has smiled enough that they will not be among the ones resorting to the oblivion of drugs or alcohol (or suicide) – or, in the case of my children, who are not liberals, to the different oblivion of liberal Democratic positivism – must find her/his way to live.
For most people, maybe all people, this has to amount to some version of denial or distraction. That is, we must conform to, rather than resist, the dehumanizing neoliberal reality that precisely is behind the multiple human-caused catastrophes bearing down on us. We could call this adaptation, borrowing from Bly’s poem, “single madness.”
Seeing this, I am ever more convinced that consciousness of dark reality in the shared social-political-economic man-made world – now so vividly threatening, can only be borne by those actively engaged – as if their life depended on it – in the transcendence (double madness) of creative work. This does not mean everyone should quit her job immediately, nor that every painter, poet, writer, inprov artist, musician, etc, knows the news delivered to us via trusty NPR or MSNBC is coverup for what they’re not saying, that one must struggle to live as humanly (sanely?) as possible within that awareness. But as I see that unbridgeable distance between myself and my daughter, blocking the unity of comradeship, I see it is not to be bridged unless/until she were to have her own devotion, beyond that to her family, until she stands in the alternate, unifying, life-giving reality granted her via her own creative soul. I don’t rule out the option of Christian devotion, either, though to bridge that distance it would have to be understood love isn’t obedient to illegitimate authority.
For I can’t, like the nouveau Christian mega-churches, impart to her her way to salvation. Moreover, perhaps more painful to me, I can’t speak to her of religious truth. Not a “spiritual seeker” but a (esoteric)“knower,” I forgo interfering with the inward process of the soul of another. Within this limitation, I can only participate in our familial social lives ( which is quite a lot in our case, as we live in walking distance and share the family business), in the daily to and fro, the mutual assistance that can ease a little the stress of having to adapt our hearts and consciences to so much assault: i.e., social isolation, the enclosure of everything that once was in-common, the helplessness in the face of take-over by technology, increasing intolerance for difference, etc. I have to hope in a kind of alchemy by which “localism”is transformed from provincial retreat from the world into conscious participation in the world as “commons.”
It has come to pass that white middle class young people, now bump “abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities,” like Sonny in James Baldwin’s magnificent short story, Sonny’s Blues, and Sonny’s generation of young black men growing up in hopeless ghetto streets. Like Sonny, his piano his sole means of salvation, they must start playing for their lives, and for a salvation that is not, neoliberal-style, wealth for me and mine, but enough for all, not a reward in afterlife, but a transcendence while anchored in this one. Like Sonny, they must struggle to win their consciousness – the “cup of trembling” – rather than succumb to the inevitable. This is a personal struggle with deeply social consequences. I have to believe it makes a difference that some elders in the circumference of their lives are struggling to “tell the tale” of suffering, delight and triumph, grappling with it in their creative work, becoming humanin a way that can be felt by others, even if they don’t know what it is.
This faith in “double madness” is not easy to hold onto.
Lately it has become clearer than ever to me that liberal reality is that which keeps us in this impasse that makes impossible the facing of in-common threats communally, and thus makes comradeship rare. The cues we take for maintaining relational bonds come not from mediation between an Absolute and our relative being, the way that would point us through conflict toward transformation and goals of unity, loyalty and mutual aid. Rather, liberal social habits derive from that which we learn in our families and secular social institutions that can teach neither the existence of larger containment for our birth-do-death lives – an Absolute – nor genuine individuality, only obedience. Trained in this way, with no place to stand beyond our relative being, our social aim can be only to please, to help, to “be there for” certain others whose social signals we “get” – a system of bargaining, not love. It works better for shysters and con artists than for human beings with vulnerable hearts.
Thus, in the dominant secular social reality “the glue that holds us together” is not strength (love) but weakness (guilt). At the level of everyday social relationships in families and communities, the glue of guilt is called, in social-sciencese, “codependence.” Without initiation into the larger reality attainable by means of creative expression (or ongoing repentance), unconscious co-dependence never can transform into conscious interdependence: that is, the build up of bitternesses, betrayals, angers, resentments, etc., reach such toxic levels that the merely relative bondscannot hold. The social matrix has deteriorated to the point that our relationships – for we must have them – embody not the union of strengths in brotherhood but the false and ultimately destructive dependencies of weakness that make an addictive system: a triumph for capitalism and an immense obstacle to the common good.
For several years, on and off, I’ve given monthly Sunday morning “Temenos Talks” in our gallery space on Genesee St. in Utica. The format is simple. We get coffee next door at the Cafe. Orin puts some music on. I read a current essay, usually after publication on Counterpunch. Afterward we circle the chairs and converse, taking off from the essay and going whither conversation leads us. Sometimes poems are read. In early December I read my recent essay dedicated to poet Robert Bly, who died at age 94 on November 21. The music that morning was Keith Jarrett’s “Koln Concert,” referred to in a Bly poem. With 13 people present, we may have hit an all-time high in attendance!
We discussed Robert Bly’s prophetic foreseeing of the “sibling society.” That is, Bly understood moral authority (God) was equated in liberal minds with patriarchy, not “Absolute” but relative, a man-made construction and thus equivocal. In the context of this ontological relativity, “the right thing to do” is to venture no opinion at all (in politics)and, rather, to squabble over conveniently distracting issues (i.e., identity politics), imbuing them with false ultimacy. I had written that “questioning authority, never finding it, keeps everyone well within the bounds of neoliberal reality in which (as in our Congress) the intensity of the worst (the Christian fascists) rolls over the timidity, passivity and visionlessness of the so-called best.”
In the fact that no longer can people look to guidance for the right thing to do from our political or social institutions, we can agree with the rightwing extremists. But that leaves those of us who cannot be rightwing extremists at a moral cul-de-sac. We can be guided now only by the voice of our own souls and consciences. To reconnect with these is an individual struggle, like Sonny’s at the piano. Sonny’s struggle as a musician, Baldwin’s story makes clear, is not solely a technical one, but a spiritual and moral grappling with no assured outcome. Whether one is atheist or not, this inward struggle is a mediatiory relation with “Other Power” beyond one’s individual control, “located” metaphysically in the subjective realm of creative imagination. Really, in the realm of extreme personal challenges, it may be time to call off the planned confrontations with trackless wilderness, the scaling of sheer cliffs, the mastering the 46 high peaks in the Adirondacks – time to give Mt. Everest a break from the continuous traipsing up its height! – and turn to an equally dangerous and more humanly meaningful task: the extreme creative task of regaining one’s soul.
But, to regain moral authority, or the deeply held personal standpoint one would conceivably die for, pits one against the pervasive guilt that has replaced moral authority. Looking around, one sees peoples’ actions and even their worthier enthusiasms predicated in and limited by (liberal) guilt. A moral standpoint has almost nothing to do with being “moral” as people raised in puritanical society (including its rebels) usually construe it – but with being free of co-dependence, that is, able to act independently on behalf of the Truth of interdependence. Unless moral authority be reinstated within individuals, by individual effort, no other kind of relatedness exists except the mutual guilt of co-dependence,
I began with Molly and I return to her. For a Christmas gift to her nephew and niece, Molly rented out the lobby in our local, independent, non-profit Uptown Theater for the Creative Arts, to show a movie we all – the extended family, plus the theater’s “CEO couple “and their 2 children – could watch with the kids on a Sunday. Molly has been promoting – in the family and among her friends – non-material Christmas gift ideas and supporting worthy local business and enterprises, thus this gift was Molly’s walking her talk.
The event went well, with delectable home-made appetizer dips and mimosas enjoyed by the adults beforehand, while the children had a ball running around the theater lobby, eating gummy candies and popcorn. But toward the end of the movie (Home Alone – the premise of which, the horrible degrading meanness of Kevin’s family, was hard for me to get past)), I began to fear the gathering would simply dissolve afterwards. I feared there’d be no mention of the gift, no individual recognition for what Molly had done for Nico and Cora (and for all of us). Even acknowledging that everyone was tired, overstressed at holiday time, some hungover, and that virus infections are rising alarmingly in Oneida County, etc., none of these were the reasons for the absence of celebration which I feared. With no one officially designated MC, (with Molly herself not performing this role, possibly due to exhaustion), there would be no ceremony. What does this mean? On one hand, it could mean we’d be spared any cheap, feel-good Christmas message, like the one in Home Alone! On the other, it meant that the meaning would be assumed, Mom; it doesn’t have to be spoken – the “glue” holding the social gathering together mysteriously mitigating against celebration.
But this, I insist, is not so. It matters if the meaning is spoken, and it will only be spoken when the surface, relaxed (often wine-aided in my family), conviviality of the social gathering is broken through, lifting it from co-dependence to interdependence, from gathering of atomized isolates to communion (art). Moral authority is and only can ever be a subjective judgment entirely outside criticism, blame, or guilt, in reference solely to the Absolute’s claim upon us. Taken up, like Sonny at the piano, it is the struggle for transcendence in a sibling context that otherwise relativizes everything meaninglessness; the struggle for kindness in a larger context of unintended cruelty. I understand this ritual function to be an elder role; in recent years I’ve been letting go of it so as not to become predictable and tiresome. On this occasion I limited myself to simply fetching Nico and Cora from their play and bringing them forward to thank their aunt. Did it make a difference? At a vibrational level I believe so, but I can’t tell.