“…the comforts of life increase every day… and yet the truth is still far off, and man still remains the most predatory…of animals, and the tendency in the majority of mankind is towards degeneration and the permanent loss of vitality. In such conditions an artist’s life has no meaning, and the more talented he is, the more strange and incomprehensible his role, since… in reality, he is working for the amusement of a predatory, slovenly animal and supporting the existing order of things.”
–narrator, Anton Chekhov’s The House with the Mezzanine
The moral vacuum we’re left in in liberal society is now complete. There’s only my opinion and yours; my facts vs. your facts. Stolen election! Fake news! Unmask the children! My network news vs. your network news! This chaotic context, in which fascism is as possible an outcome as real governance, is as much due to liberalism’s defensive certitudes as to Trump and his followers. Clear to us is that Trump is the bully, the rest of us merely decent people trying to do our best under trying circumstances. But what if that is a lie and it’s really we – the nice people – who are the bullies?
In the neoliberal context of ontological relativism, social cohesion is achieved not by collective allegiance, for there is none, except for the allegiance to the Absolute of capitalism. Cohesion is achieved by bullying and the expectation that people will yield to bullying; among good liberal people – we who cannot possibly be bullies – interactions between differences occur on the unconscious level and must not be consciously identified as bullying. Hence, we have cancel culture, i.e., comedian Dave Chapelle canceled for speaking That Which Must Not Be Said; we have the ongoing, highly disturbing disintegration of humanly necessary social ties, bonds based not in the contingency of agreement but in the truth of mutuality.
This is the context in which I experienced such delight reading Anton Chekhov’s short story, The House with the Mezzanine, in Stories, translated by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky. There, in the climactic argument between the liberal no-nonsense do-gooder, Lida, and the idling artist narrator we hear the anarchist poetic soul’s genuine moral voice in opposition to the invisible bullying that is, still, liberal society’s go-to style of intercourse. Of course, I can assume neither that the narrator speaks for Chekhov, nor even that I’m supposed to take his expressed moral conviction as “God’s Truth!” In the context of the story, and given the narrator’s own questionable character and the outcome, the reader hears layers of dialectical truth, not all relative, but all granted their right to speak. It is left to the reader, her soul responding to words defending a reality beyond the “existing order of things,” to trust in that delight that alone can replace the context of bullying.
In the story, the narrator, a landscape painter taking a moratorium from his work in the country meets the beautiful Lida, who lives on a neighboring estate. Over several meetings they develop a reciprocal annoyance. The aristocratic Lida serves human needs: she teaches school, treats peasants medically, collects books for a library, etc.; her constant activity no doubt contrasts unpleasantly for the artist with his own idleness. Finally, provoked by her needling, he argues“[your hospitals and schools] don’t free [the peasants] from bondage but on the contrary, enslave them still more.” “ When [people] are harnessed to the needs and evils of the day, to first-aid kits and libraries they only complicate and clutter life ….All intelligence, all…energies [going] to satisfying temporary, passing needs…”
In response to the artist, Lida replies as the right-thinking liberal today might: “it’s impossible to sit with folded arms. True, we’re not saving mankind, and maybe we’re mistaken in many ways, but we do what we can …The highest and holiest task for a cultured person is to serve his neighbors…”
Is the artist simply playing the devil’s advocate? He insists the problem goes deeper than Lida’s efforts can go; “people must be freed from heavy physical labor,” in order to have “time to think about their souls, about God, to give wider scope to their spiritual capacities….Once a man is conscious of his true calling, he can be satisfied only by religion, the sciences, the arts and not [books and first-aid kits.]”
His impassioned outburst brings down on the artist Lida’s hatred and ultimately loses him his lover, her younger sister Zhenya, who understood and sympathized with his protest, but bows to her sister’s demand that he be “canceled.”
Banishing the Bully with art-craft
A reader of my last Counterpunch essay emailed me to tell me art is elitist. When I replied, disagreeing, of course, he wrote back to call me a fascist. His brief messages helped me to see that the art-making I argue for – very much as Chekhov’s artist argues on behalf of “wider spiritual capacities” – can make sense only to those already serving the creative soul. This service is not elitist, or fascist, but a most humble sort of adoration of the beauty and meaning (delight) attainable for a human being ( “Marvelous error” as the poet Antonio Machado called the discovery of this inward capacity for awe and delight) – available to every person, barring none. And anyone who had it – as with the taste of freedom for a person long in bondage, or, on the interpersonal level, as with the relief of being released from the enslavement of unconscious projection, or “codependence” – would never willingly surrender this delight. Such an experience makes the previous gray lackluster sameness the unreal, the soul’s vitality the real.
The social critique contained in the story is based in the heart’s imagining – that is, in what would be true if the soul’s freedom and delight were used for measure. Using that measure, the beauty and the marvelous in human beings is the human, and can only be extinguished when people are “harnessed to the needs/evils of the day.” If we add to Lida’s list of “needs” all the needs we’ve accrued since the late 19th century – cell phones, Facebook, TV, Amazon prime delivery, anti-depressants, personal cars, trucks, and water craft, selfies, even retirement benefits and health insurance, etc. – we see that for us, clutter is life, and it is indeed a “wonder we can think at all.”
Except from a standpoint that exceeds Lida’s and that sees the contradictory and “down side” of her earnest efforts, Lida’s good work is safe from judgment. Her work functions within the existing order like the slaveowner who is good to his slaves, not a brutal “slavedriver.” By and large, in the neoliberal world in 2022, the heart’s larger, more radical vision is so marginalized we never hear about the in-common social goods, peace and justice, except from the oppressed and marginalized, or on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, maybe. Black Lives Matter notwithstanding, the enslavement of labor goes beyond brutish oppression, racism and poverty. It extends to the slavery embraced by the liberal class in jobs and careers. Few can figure out how to release ourselves, or even identify our desire to be free.
That is, although “freedom from slavery,” etc., sounds like an obvious, consensus “good,” it is not obvious to us who imagine we’re free. People enslaved to jobs and careers, and to their needs, do not see how we are the obstacle to the freeing of humankind from enslavement of the soul. We cannot see we’re out of touch with the creative soul’s vitality because, programmed by rationalist supremacism, saturated with media banality, we don’t believe the soul is real.
This is why art-making must not be reserved to the geniuses, and must be practiced neither demeaningly, as in taking up a “hobby,” nor safely, in groups around a Teacher/Guru (though this may be a start), but passionately and independently, in trust that one’s own voice – one’s genius! – is in there somewhere just waiting to be asked! Deferring to the soul’s delight is the essential revolutionary (non)act.
If we are to reinvigorate social purpose, the restoration of the soul’s vitality must come first. Souls starved for their imaginative expression – song, dance, poetry, not as decoration but the basis for any meaning whatsoever – cannot help their fascination for the clutter of images and “connectivity” provided through the magic of gadgets and screens. But the revolution based in a person’s imaginative expression places one in the reality – not just the words – of interdependence and inclusivity. The essential social bond then becomes not the shared cause, but the spiritual bond of our in-common humanity experienced through art. By this means individuals can be inspired to reject virtual community in order to relearn and practice being in in-place community.
The blues & legitimate transcendence
From time to time I confess to friends that I am depressed in the pandemic. I get so little response that I feel I must have said it wrong. But recently, a new thought came to me regarding this dilemma: the difference between us is I’ve learned to have a friendly,”working” relationship with my deepest “blues,” or rather, I allow the blues (my depression, etc.) to be true. While I don’t exactly love them, I do not treat them as alien. To do this can be terrifying. For the most part we only allow our blues when we can’t deny or take a pill for them: the hardship, the sadness, the unwantedness, the being different, the affliction, the pain. But to refuse to alienate our blues, especially for those of us who imagine they’re optional, is also to free ourselves of them in the only way that’s legitimate and non-bullying.
Befriending the blues is the way of art, legitimate transcendence, neither denial nor escape.
To be clear, I speak not as someone who does this razor-edge walk of consciousness well. Having learned it the hard way, dragged kicking and screaming one could say, I resent its having been imposed on me. But I find this “walk,” like living through dread winter in upstate New York, is worth practicing. Otherwise either the blues are going to do me in and I’ll be just another pessimistic moper and a social spectator (or snow bird), or I will find some “illegitimate” escape hatch that will put me back in the world of liberal “do-gooders” – a job is the one that comes to mind, though at 70, I will gladly deny myself that fantasy.
Because the “clutter” is the meaning in Lida’s life, she has no choice but to defend her choices, i.e, to be a bully. From her defended “throne” of irreproachable moral superiority, she attempts to bully the artist as she bullies her mother and sister, both of whom are afraid of her. Like others in her class, she’s unaware of the standpoint that could escape this trap, the standpoint available to the artist, the poet, religious mystic or holy fool, and which finds its special soil, paradoxically, in unmediated relation to poverty and wretchedness (the blues).
In Chekhov’s story, the narrator, undergoing some sort of realization, confesses his wretchedness: his life is“dull, heavy, monotonous… chafed by jealousy, dissatisfied with myself, always poor.” This act of humility seems to free him to ask the “normal, healthy” (and exceedingly boring) Belokurov, the landowner with whom he’s been staying, a mind-blowing question: “Why do you live so uninterestingly, why do you take so little from life?” (i.e, since there’s nothing stopping you).
Whoa! Who has the right to ask that question? Perhaps the person who’s freed himself from his ego and befriended his blues can ask it without bullying, even though he transgresses against the unspoken agreement upon which our social cohesion depends ( i.e., that we evade that question forever). In doing so he allows the authentic basis for cohesion to be realized. Were we all to make this shift, Mark Zuckerberg could no longer make his billions off our lost vitality!
Despite what fear may tell us, social comradeship is possible when one “befriends her/his blues.” Beyond the consensus circle of do-gooders, there is life, but it is life on a spiritual, imaginative basis, not the “bullshit job” or the clutter of needs! It should not be – must not be – left up to the ones on the literal social, economic bottom to verify the blues are real. Nor will the Black Lives Matter lawn signs do it for us. For the bourgeois liberal, her blues unknown to her, is equally or more deprived of meeting the needs of the soul as the oppressed and impoverished. This highly disturbing condition we find our world in today, on the brink of multiple collapses of civil, economic, ecological systems is both inevitable and transformable. Because, in the context of normalized bullying, to honor soul’s desire for its own health and vitality is precisely what I must not do, my soul and yours need their voices urgently, now. If people will humbly bend down and pick up the tool of their art and craft their lives in freedom, it’s possible we could prevent permanent loss of our vitality – the real social problem – and “save the patient” that is our humanity.