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Stefan & Me: Lessons In Exile from Reality

“One thing we have puzzled about in [America] is the emphasis put on the knowledge of facts….We feel it may mislead people into believing that the aim of education is to acquire a vast collection of uncorrelated facts instead of learning a method (of thinking!) to coordinate and correlate the things that come our way.” – Anna Gropius, German WWII emigre, quoted in The Impossible Exile, by George Prochnik

“The new education…. must be built on the thought of all that is common to the peoples [of Europe] rather than of that wherein they differ….” – Stefan Zweig, The Moral Decontamination of Europe (1932)

“Men are free when they are living in a homeland, not when they are…. breaking away. Men are free when they are obeying some deep inward voice of religious belief….Men are free when they belong to a living, organic believing community, active in building some unfulfilled, perhaps unrealized purpose.” – D.H. Lawrence, The Spirit of Place

In elementary school gym class we were taught, from kindergarten through 5th grade, to form ourselves into straight orderly lines, military style, by Mr. Ellis, the somewhat chunky, thirty-ish guy who was our gym teacher. “Dress-right-dress!” he’d shout, and we’d use our extended arm to establish the proper distance with the person next to us.

No one ever pointed out that this was a lesson from military school, or explained why our physical education included it. (Nor was it ever explained why each morning we must stand, put our hand over our heart and recite the Pledge of Allegiance.) Reading George Prochnik’s book about Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, whose WWII period of exile in America, along with many other exiled European intellectuals, brought them face to face with American public education, I learned how perceptive outsiders saw the system critically. Their criticisms did not become common knowledge; likely they never intended them to become public, but also, critiques of our “free public education” like critiques of American “justice for all,” come up against well-defended popular myth.

The exiles’ perspective helps me see the system that raised me; though school closings due to shrinking numbers became a hot issue in Utica, I never heard the system questioned or even evaluated by my parents or anyone else in my conservative upstate NY social world. No light made it into this seamless opacity until high school when I befriended three natural iconoclasts, one female, two males, who became my friends purely because I delighted in their – to me – unexpected allusions, their knowing references to history and current culture, their audacious humor. All three of these individualities carried stigmas of otherness: for one it was poverty and a huge family, one had had Perthes disease that kept him out of school for a year, the third was, though we had no word for it then, gay, and the object of bullying.

For us, especially, who are not forced into otherness from an early age, compulsory schooling was and remains to this day a major contributor to the problem for individuality that I have called “martyrdom of the self-will.”

The“freedom” we were supposed to prize as youthful Americans did not include actually being free individuals, which, as D.H. knew, has to be understood inwardly. Timid soul that I was, as a child, I actually preferred structure and being given assignments, or believed I did. It was only many years later that I came to realize that individuality must, to be individual, include the natural passions for creativity and thinking that lead to individual character and to clashes of opinion, that is, to expressions of otherness. Instead of individuality, by late high school I was, despite my outsider friends, part of the American problem so well discerned by Zweig, ‘following cultural trends that led… to “amusement without exertion, global dance crazes, mass fashion, popular cinema, etc., that were leveling the cosmos of human expression into a uniform cultural schema.”’

I insert here a caveat: On one hand, if you never have an idea that generates friction, you’re not thinking! But ideas have to do more than generate friction. They also have to contain the power to include, their ultimate loyalty being to holy connection rather than to opposition and the limited identity that comes with the ability to discern a limited tyranny while entirely missing the larger one. This is the mistake made by the anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers and other conspiracy propounders, as well as by cynics and withdrawers. Not being soul-based they lack the unifying basis that contains all contrariness and negation. No matter how sharp their analysis, these are not powerful ideas. Ungrounded in the joy of individuality they depend for their energy not on the absolute unity of the spirit, but the contingent unity of opposition.

How come I, daughter of an artist father, a literature-adoring Mother, smart cookie in school – was such a pushover for conformity? The question makes me recall the famous Martin Niemoeller lines that, post-Holocaust, indicted the evil of passive by-standing (“First they came for the socialists and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist,”… etc.) In regards to why it is so difficult to escape conformity in America, I’d say, “First they came for the passion that is native to the soul.” I gave up my native soul without protest for there was no one in my world to speak out. Passion, always suspect, undoubtedly got further stigmatized after Hitler’s demagogic use of it, as if passion could only end up in nationalism, fascism and hate (or, now, Stolen Election!). In fact, passion is neither good nor evil, but if passion and imagination are sufficiently stifled, then stifled too will be the pursuit of delight, of creativity, thought, peace, love, etc. All such aspirations will be reduced to just “being a good person,” a good citizen. When this happens, “ the cosmos of human expression” is indeed leveled. All of this was something Stefan Zweig understood.

In my case, my passion was already compromised before I went to school, in the ambivalence of my parents’ souls. I have mentioned in previous essays the confusing influence of my father’s artist practice that was clearly intrinsically rewarding, combined with his message to his children dissuading us from such pursuit. In my youth I took this to mean he was protecting us from a life of financial and material uncertainty. Closer to the truth was this was his way of resolving his own fear of his passion, no doubt his sexual guilt, that art brought him so perilously close to. For him, the traditional project of marriage and family were prophylactic against the “too much” of passion.

Unsurprisingly, given this project of keeping passion in line, my father was anti-intellectual. Whatever the cause, he did little thinking about subjects other than art, which was for him narrowly defined, emphatically not “coordinated or correlated with things.” If, rather, he’d been a thinker he would have encouraged it in his children, even perhaps to the point of our rebelling against our schooling, rather than being exemplary fact-digesters and test takers. As well, the coordinating and correlating that go with thinking link naturally and inevitably to moral and political thinking, an area my father never ventured into that I knew of. Instead, he insisted on siding with apple-pie Americanism, the Good War, the anti-intellectual-folksy Harry Truman-avuncular Ronald Reagan strain of American politics. For much of my life I believed his ridiculous politics had cost him his influence on me. This was far from the truth.

In her turn, my mother, who attained no degree beyond her high school diploma, maintained a sturdy “pro-intellectualism” without ever becoming intellectual. It was as if it were enough for her to define herself in opposition to my father, a part of their ongoing marital war, but never to step into the waters of her own personal thought; instead, the ideas she had flowed from “a uniform cultural schema,” which, though progressively liberal, and having much moral currency in the 1960’s and 70’s, had been easily obtained from the lefty journals she read and the arts-world friends she kept. I mean, they were not her own thoughts; they did not issue from a genuine inner struggle to have her own voice. She had not, to attain these ideals, come up against the real obstacles to her individuality – the real, ongoing challenge in a conformist society to have her own passionate pursuit. She, too, despite all of Freud’s work in the previous century that freed up human sexuality and the roots of eros, could not combine the expectations of marriage and family with having her full individuality and the expression that goes with it. Not, that is, until she found her poetic voice and its intrinsic joy in late middle age.

BTW: Contrary to more libertarian opinion, marriage doesn’t automatically rule out individuality, any more than escape from marriage automatically frees up individuality. Although I can see, given the painful plight of the suburban 50’s housewife, or the ongoing horror of domestic abuse, why people prefer to believe so, the problem of marriage is not the religious vow or the paper from city hall, nor even toxic masculinity. These misdirects essentially prop up the liberal status quo. The problem is social ignorance, no understanding of – and so little time to give to understanding! – what has already been lost to consciousness due to there being no one to speak up for it. There’s no understanding of the inseparability of individuality (the development of one’s authentic otherness) from social connectedness and its irksome limitations. There’s no understanding of individuality – one’s life as work of art – as a slow process of becoming that actually requires the provocations of intimacy to “fill in” all the “multitudes” contained in a man or a woman.

Thus, a “successful” marriage in which differences remain unexpressed and “harmless,” where the unconscious agreement prevents any hint of the long-lost original soul-wholeness and passion from intruding will not challenge the de-souled American way of life. In refusing depth, it will not challenge the evils of war-making, inequality, environmental destruction, racism and injustice by insisting on a way of life consistent with the soul’s wholeness which will, in turn, bring with it exile from the consensus reality. Such a change requires a new community made up of men and women who, conscious of the full horror of anthropocenic, militarist, racist catastrophe, can actively defend the social/communal bonds that are the matrix for human health. This is humble culture work; it entails repairing those bonds down at their very roots where antagonisms sprout from old unhealed wounds. Reparation has to begin at the bottom, in closeness; it is these unsuspected antagonisms that feed the negation, divisiveness, and self-profiting at others’ expense in our disintegrating social world.

I hope I’ve made clear my parents’ antipathy to passion – to thinking – was learned. I blame my mother and father for nothing and thank them for everything. That I continue upon this self-imposed project of recovering my martyred self will, is with understanding my problem is not solely personal; I have this soul-wound in common with those of my broader liberal class and whiteness, each of whom shares the same bamboozling wrong belief, i.e., that my passion and my truth-saying, is illegitimate. Engagement with this problem, I discovered, opens up the great social secret – the painful personal loss of one’s creative voice and one’s native power of thought – against which most of us, not by accident, cannot speak out. The fear silencing us is not of the gestapo. It is fear of standing up on behalf of “the other” of one’s estranged soul. This makes the process of individuality, like the defending of social/communal bonds essentially connective, reparational, bottom-up.

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Stefan Zweig’s call for a pan-European pacific humanism, like the “new community” I advocate, was also based on that which people have in common, by which he meant the arts. Reared in what Hannah Arendt charged was his “gilded trellis,” his highly privileged youth, he missed what was happening in Austria’s streets, the massive unemployment that contributed to Hitler’s appeal. Though it’s not true he was oblivious to the suffering, it did not come naturally to him to identify with it – as is true for most of us who are neither black nor poor. I’m convinced, as one who shares his dream of a world united by the in-common, who does not charge him with elitism, that his thinking fell short because his quest for identity needed to go deeper than his assimilationist German-Austrian identity. It needed to come from his own deep struggle – for he could never be assimilated in a racist society – for identity rooted in his otherness as a Jew.

That is to say, learning the psychological (soul) truth of one’s personal wounding is essential for the having of a moral voice. Actively speaking up on behalf of one’s rejected passion, of the inclusive, non-rejecting soul, brings with it the dark knowledge of unwantedness, of non-being. Practicing one’s creative expression and taking on, unauthorized, the perils of thinking-as-human-duty drops one down into in-commonness with struggling humanity, with all struggles against oppression, even as one is exiled further in relation to the dominant reality.

For years after I took up the commitment to my writing at mid-life, I conceived of “the writer” as separate from myself, literally in the third person. Why was this? Simply, I had no way to include that “coordinating, correlating,” thinking self within my “I.” The writer self’s social critiques, especially, as necessary as I knew them to be – for I had to understand my own alienation, rather than condemn myself for it – kept me mistrustful of “her.” My entire upbringing had been to submerge my individuality so that, push come to shove, I’d take the conciliatory socially ingratiating side rather than the side of my “negating” self. To be allied with ”her” I had to understand that negating voice as connected to the unifying and inclusive Whole – a connection only possible by means of creative imagination – “art-speech” the “only truth,” as D.H. knew!

With war in Ukraine, climate change rapidly advancing, pandemic hangover keeping us depressed, this may seem a strange – even in-poor-taste timing for bringing up the problem of individuality and the martyrdom of self will. Yet it is exactly these monstrously unsettling, terrifying times that I am addressing in the only way I can. Whether or not we’re just too late to save the earth from our non-negotiable way of life and humanity from capitalism’s destructive imperial grasping, the only real resistance that can come from the white liberal “educated” class is from individuals who will accept exile from dehumanizing reality as the price for speaking out for their passionate souls.