“The cafe is the last refuge of those exiled by reality itself.”
– George Prochnik, The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World
“[For the true artist] negation is sterile….only acceptance, affection and enthusiasm can place us in a real relationship with things.”
– Stefan Zweig
In his book on the writer and pre-WWII cafe habitué Stefan Zweig, George Prochnik explores an endtime reality very like ours, a reality that “exiles” any of us who dare to dream of a more humanly acceptable world. As a cafe co-owner, Prochnik’s definition (see epigraph) prompts me to insist the dreamers are legitimate, the reality is not. Really. Really! If we dodge the nuclear holocaust bullet this time, if the climate warming doesn’t suddenly make our prized locations in the U.S., through sea levels rising and forests burning, uninhabitable, sloughing off millions of lives in more precarious places, forcing millions more into refugee status, isn’t it finally clear that fundamentally, drastically, radically changing our way of life (5% of world’s population producing 28% of total carbon emissions!) is not hippie fantasy but hard-headed realism? Can’t we at last, improvise, “throw ourselves on the gears” of our own non-negotiable lifestyle?
The answer is no, we can’t. Not, that is, until we free ourselves individually from the inner compulsion to replicate the old order that, although we can criticize it, even rebel against it, will never allow us to defend the more inclusive, in-common good. The in-common good, nice as it sounds, is death to our “first world,” centralized, technology-dependent, anti-social way of life. Although the “first world” crisis is for-real – i.e., either our needs change (i.e., our way of life) or we lose the future – our reality, a media-fed bubble, effectively prevents awareness of real crisis, at the same time keeping us fixated on “the spectacle.” The only way this death trance can be broken is voluntarily, by following the path of individual delight, desire, “bliss,” which is the path of art-making, of “being your own work of art” as if this were one’s duty which, metaphysically speaking, it is!
For this reason, like kindness, dignity, justice, and communality, art-making is not optional for social human beings. Though prized for its expression of individuality, though we look to the great ones –
da Vinci, Michelangelo, Dante, Yeats, Beethoven, Mozart, Ellington and Coltrane, etc., as the pinnacles in our cultural history, art-making is a social, culture-building act, the artist a servant not merely of her personal ego, but of the interconnected whole. Not meant to be an elevation of some few talents above all others, though that some have more talent than others is not a point I wish to argue, art is the means of self-initiation in a society that offers no other means for achieving the individuality that, freed from compulsion, can defend the in-common conditions necessary for human and social health.
If, on the other hand, we’re ready to desert the process of becoming human, ready to “progress” to the next phase as AI-enhanced cyborgs or robots, ever better suited to serving corporate masters or, in the other direction, to regress to the struggle for physical survival in a dog-eat-dog post-collapsed world, the point I make is unnecessary. The point is only important if we wish to retain humanity because we believe, and are willing to put our own shoulders to the wheel to demonstrate with our own lifespans, that humanity is a noble work worth saving. All our preconceptions about art and art-making can be tossed into the bonfire. Art is not about the diploma, nor is talent the bottom-line requirement. Rather, art-making, in serving delight, is an act of continuous liberation of the harmonious inmost being. It serves, not the defensive singularity of the jealous ego, but the Self as archetype of the whole.
Creative expression is the oracle for that holy whole. Creative improvisation manifests the longed-for world of interdependence, wherein each individual has her/his singular destiny, the reality of which can be beheld in imagination’s eye.
Blocked as we are from our imaginations – imagination having been over several centuries so subjugated and demoted – we are no longer equipped for this fight for our humanity. Many of our artists may just as well be STEM teachers, or wall-paper designers. The demotion of imagination makes “creatives” like Walt Disney, the Rolling Stones, and the entire pantheon of celebrities into billionaires, as art and culture, the in-common source of soul nurture for all, degenerate. Having accepted all the pre-conceptions about who gets to make art, the situation is no longer simple to address. Living without connection with the heart’s imagination for so many generations, by now the way to our creative voice, though given in nature, is blocked by fear.
This terror of the soul is caused not only by post-WWI & II horrific reality, though “holocaust,” the word that conjures nuclear annihilation and Hitler’s evil may be the word that best names it. This terror is “everyman’s” in modern industrial society, consequence of imbibing the angers and fears locked away inside a society whose members no longer have a story to contain their personal terrors or explain them. Trauma is passed down intergenerationally such that few of us can act with our full strength, our valor, for the in-common human cause. We can only serve the world that, however immiserating, is.
This inarticulate terror is disguised from consciousness, but it is represented in countless real-world terrors that then become the fear we can articulate. The terror can appear in our neuroses, some based in part in reality, but always magnified by the inarticulate terror down below that paralyzes, forces our behavior into the lock-step of compulsion and panic. What’s then left of the human being, the part unaffected by the paralysis of vitality, is a person who can do many things, be successful even, perhaps even distinguished in her social world, or a celebrity in the media-built world, but he or she cannot free his/her will, the true will, not merely the ego-syntonic one, that is the will of the whole.
I write this on a particular morning in the midst of war in Ukraine; outside, another snowfall (beautiful, actually) in the gray cold density of February in our Upstate climate, Covid confusions still keep everyone off guard, presidential aspirations of Ron DeSantis loom in Florida, and a myriad of more personal woes swarm around me. But also today is the penultimate day of the yearly 2-week long birthday period that begins with my birthday on February13, and ends with Orin’s on the 27th. Both of us children of artist fathers who mysteriously (and in very different styles) blocked all of their children from attaining the same – though transparently, in both the fathers the work was self-evidently a sacred work, (and in my father’s case, provided him a socially positive identity).
Back in 1976 when Orin and I met, we knew this parental similarity was significant, but we never articulated it much beyond offering it as the joking excuse for our being incapable of following careers and thus achieving financial stability and a good retirement. As consequence of taking on our inner transformational processes, beginning back in the 1980’s, we learned that both of us suffered the sort of wounding in the psyche that blocked creative expression. This wound is such that the will is forbidden to claim identity as an artist. Unintentionally at first, the work of our marriage became the taking on of this mystery of each claiming his/her own true, non-exclusive identity as artist.
I call this identity non-exclusive because we had to redefine art from the pattern of exclusivity we had taken in as children, which agreed with the pattern replicated in society as a whole. Thanks to the transformational process, art took on a very different meaning, more about the liberation of one’s soul, the in-common soul shared with every human being, than how art is conventionally understood. Today I would go so far as to say art that isn’t consequence of the struggle against oppression – inner or outer – serves the same banal reality as Disney, and is banal.
Every year, like “clockwork,” winter brings for Orin and me a rendez-vous with Saturn. With the exception of the January (1994) when I suffered a breakdown, Orin’s winter depression has been consistently more pronounced than mine, and always associated with the lead-up to his birthday. It took years for him to accept the extremely painful realization of his having been an unwanted child; even though in his case, it had been close to explicit. In the way children have of creating a means of surviving the unspeakable, an artful repression, it actually took him decades to be able to know consciously the dark social facts that permeated his entrance into this world.
This February, in this depressing but darkly fecund time of year, by means of his daily poetry practice, Orin was pushed to discover something further. He has consistently placed the “blame” for his “PTSD” (sorry for the psycho-babble, but there’s no better word I can grab), the recurring trauma that keeps skewing his reality, on his mother. More recently, he identified his Sicilian great-grandfather, an actual killer, as the source of the family trauma. Now, approaching birthday #73, he at last crossed the most entrenched taboo for a son raised in more or less intact patriarchy, naming his father as the abuser.
Followed the familiar pattern we know well after being at this more than a quarter of a century: major “tectonic” shift in Orin in turn shakes loose an awareness in me. Though my childhood family was a “disguised patriarchy” in that we children were permitted to dump on Dad, something similar occurred that blocks the ability to claim my identity as artist. By “identity” I mean my individuality, my full otherness, my capacity to be without hesitation a champion of the holy wholeness.
Not a brute, by any means, my father practiced a different cruelty, a lack of presence that discouraged the will, whether it be ego-will or desire-will. A different kind of PTSD resulted; the phrase for which came to me this morning as I woke: “martyrdom of the self will.” That is, since it’s very likely that others may see me as someone with her will intact (Yale Div graduate, professional clergy, years of college teaching, co-founder of Cafe and The Other Side, published on the distinguished Counterpunch website), the will I’m speaking of is that which asserts the inclusive whole Self, not only the ego, this whole being that, were we all allowed it, would make all of us artists, never servants of the self-nullifying dominant neoliberal reality. Put another way, the martyred will is the will that serves the Great Mother.
This block against legitimate will perhaps take a unique form in Orin and me, in our having to reckon with both the fact of bliss exemplified so close up in fathers who clearly pursued their art for intrinsic reward, and its forbiddenness issuing wordlessly from the same parent, the father, whose archetypal role is social instruction. We were so blocked, so misfit, so unable to feel at home in any role or work, there was no way we could straighten out the inner turmoil except by challenging this central prohibition. Having fathers who for us embodied this enigma, themselves having found the pearl of great price, at the same time saying but it’s not for you, forced upon us individual “trail-blazing, i.e., the duty of our individuality.
This roadblock Orin and I experienced personally is replicated in the society at large; everyone is encouraged to leave art to “the experts,” the ones chosen, gifted, specially, uniquely called to the work. Thus, we find, the work of taking on the identity of artist (being “your own work of art,” as Kurt Elling sings it) is actually a cultural duty of restoring soul to its natural role and function, and restoring this soulless reality bent on destruction, to a human and humanizing one.
In unconscious obeisance to the inborn terrors of early trauma, we unintentionally create a social reality that is more and more terrifying. My childhood, so safe, suburban and banal, was actually riven with terror at the core of my being, a fact which I did not contend with until my 40’s and then only because I had broken down utterly and had no choice but to enter the (paid for) psychotherapeutic healing process I was lucky enough to have access to and insurance to cover. As a child, who could not look directly into the face of the terror I felt, I contended with multiple symptoms of illness with a kind of existential resignation. What could I do? It was just “the way I was.”
I have seen this resignation in others who, like me, though not victims of blatant (physical) abuse are abused by a culture that cannot teach us how to become human by entering the metaphysical terrors and seeing them through to the blessed unity awaiting on the other end. Forced to normalize the unforgivably unkind situation of early, pre-articulate childhood we’re ruled by terror; correspondingly, and not coincidentally, our world strikes us as an insane asylum. To build a world that doesn’t terrify us we have to begin lifting the terror reigning in individual souls, the original source of our paralysis that, in turn, keeps the world barreling along to perdition. Even if we’re too late, we owe it to ourselves to create a tiny patch of sanity and connectedness that feels whole and safe, in which we can cultivate the dreams worthy of human being. And then, who knows?