The work of human thought should withstand the test of brutal, naked reality. If it cannot, it is worthless. Probably only those things are worthwhile which can preserve their validity in the eyes of a man threatened with instant death.
- Czeslaw Milosz, The Captive Mind
This is not a book of celebration, unless it is to celebrate man’s ability, indeed his compulsion, to turn terror into art.
- Harvey Shapiro, editor, Poets of World War II (2003)
These days, the interdependent web of life, the essential relatedness of what we call “Creation,” as far as the human species goes is more like a web of anxiety. Liberal enlightened society, Worldwide Web notwithstanding, has turned interdependence in-side out; “hell is other people.” While industrial society continues to treat our earthly habitat exploitatively, we also make mutually sustaining intra-species (social) relationships nearly impossible to sustain.
Pandemic isolation and increased reliance on virtual connectivity merely intensify a centuries-long social disintegration. Not only do we have difficulty connecting across differences of race, religion, etc., but we’re not always so sure we need the relationships with people like ourselves, beyond family and those closest! An op-ed piece in the Times (Michael Leibowitz, 4/7/22) talks about how since the pandemic, working from home, the author has become used to relying on “ultraconveniences” available via the Internet. Seeing he now has to push himself against a powerful reluctance to go out for social events, he worries that “rather than receding… our pandemic behaviors are poised to remain a part of life long into the future, eroding communal life and public spaces.”
It’s ever easier to socialize without experiencing the unexpected, solely with those with whom we’re at ease, from whom we can expect reassurance the world, for the moment is as it seems and should be. Consciously, we have practically no idea how greatly we depend upon situations in which we can present ourselves minus the doubts, uncertainties, and, yes, terrors, that human beings are prone to and are equally as true of us as our Facebook-managed face. What happens, we’re finding, is that the more we avoid anxiety-triggering social situations, anxiety does not lessen, but grows. Protected from social challenges, plugged into electronic media, isolated in suburban lives, we grow ever more fragile, ever less comfortable in “real” – that is, social – life. Meanwhile, “real life” in the shared world run by and for corporate oligarchs, facing apocalyptic threats of species extinction and loss of habitat, rising violence and fascism, etc., becomes ever more objectively terrifying! But having found ways to minimize awareness of terror lying deep at the bottom of our souls, we seem less able to think about the real world’s forboding ominousness, much less to address it politically.
In his 1951 Cold War book The Captive Mind, the poet Czeslaw Milosz wrote that human thought, to be valid, (that is, “sound,” “just,” “well-founded”) has to withstand “the test of brutal, naked reality.” Lacking such initiation, our thought, even our best thought, is increasingly “invalid.” Not because we have lost the capacity for rational thought, but because we have lost the imaginative, psycho-spiritual knowledge of our essential relatedness that would make our thinking “well-founded” and just. Having escaped, via technology, limitations imposed by nature, and, as American white people, having managed to avoid the personal experience of “brutal, naked reality” that war, slavery and genocide – inflicts, we would seem to have no means left to undergo that test.
That is, our “good fortune” has a definite down side! Have we not, while avoiding the experience of brutal reality, continued to regularly inflict it upon others, as if this exercise of brutality were written in the destiny of white people? Have we no choice, then, but to contribute to this regressive, rapine direction for the human species, no way to rescue or repair the social aspect of our being? Could we, rather than using our relatedness to build a “consensus of cowardice” by which we co- maintain our weaknesses, instead build sustainable communities based validly in our strength?
At a party awhile back, a garrulous friend asked Orin and me what we thought made “the Greatest Generation” the greatest. Sensing a conversational trap, the kind one gets into easily with the sort of people who love to rap about controversial topics, but then don’t reveal where they truly stand, I hesitated. Additionally, I have misgivings about the use of that term to describe our parents’ generation. Orin, however, took the bull by the horns, and asserted, “If there is such a thing, we Boomers were probably it, but then after the 1960’s, we blew it.”
Our friend did not respond. Lately I’ve been sensitive to people who have opinions but – the only way I can find to say it – don’t reveal their center. Not that, necessarily, it’s wise to bludgeon people with our convictions! But liberal reality provides a wide berth for letting ourselves off the hook from speaking – or having – a sound, well-founded (i.e., valid) stand on the moral issues of our time. Consequently the moral vacuum of liberal banality – and its intrinsic terror – is maintained. Recently I spoke in our coffeeshop with a couple of youngish longtime customers about the gun store that appeared several months ago in the “Uptown Plaza” across the street. There had been a rumor the gun shop was planning to set up a shooting range in the building (in which children’s dance lessons, a karate class, and a pizza shop are also located). My daughter-in-law Kate had just protested the plan at a City Council meeting.
One of the guys – I could have predicted it was coming – said, “But I really don’t have anything against people owning guns.” To me, in a time when mass shootings are commonplace, when guns have become the leading cause of children’s deaths, etc., at the risk of sounding like an echo of the quaint 19th century temperance movement, the gun store is an obscenity. Maybe I cannot have any legal recourse to its existing in this urban neighborhood where it’s jarringly out of place but I no longer can excuse the obscenity with the anecdotal responsible hunter who just goes out once a year to bag his deer. Liberals like to blame the massive volume of gun sales in America on a threatened or toxic masculinity, but I say it has more to do with something tragically missing on the (liberal) pro-gun-control side of the debate.
No matter how terrifyingly depraved are the acts of gun violence we’re informed about (and desensitized to) every day by our media, we continue to exist in a reality unaffected by genuine fear (in the sense of having respect for) the reality of evil; we lack knowledge of “brutal reality” but, if anything, are fascinated by it, as the news industry well knows. We are never pushed by our disturbing and unavoidable awareness of the indifference to human life so common in our society to understand that one must have a belief. Hate exists and love exists – I think of the tattoos on Robert Mitchum’s hands in “The Night of the Hunter,” an interesting movie that takes up this metaphysical quandary. It’s no use “remembering the Holocaust” unless we understand we’re not a better grade of people than the “good Germans” and in fact are not behaving better as our military rains bombs on innocent people and as we cannot come to grips with the demand climate change and environmental degradation puts on us to change fundamentally.
Our young iconoclast friend Todd, already a vaccination questioner before the appearance of Covid, became anti-mask during the pandemic. A few weeks ago I got an email from him asking me if he could use the nonprofit community space, The Other Side, to show a 2 1/2- hour film that would reveal the Covid lie for what it was.
As the space’s director, the difficulty I had with this request wasn’t (only) the controversial subject matter. During the pandemic we denied him use of the space for the monthly “herbal study” talks that he, a local CSA farmer, had coordinated for several years, when he wanted to make them “mask optional.” Though I wanted our friendship restored, my answer was no. I wrote him honestly (at some length) saying I’d rather hear from him personally than listen to a conspiracy theorist giving me the government-suppressed facts, etc. His reply began politely, thanking me for taking the time to give a thoughtful response, after which he addressed nothing I had said. Instead he explained, using more facts, more expressions of concern for children and minorities, etc. He took the high moral ground in response to my use of the term “conspiracy theorist,” calling it a put-down.
Finally, Todd had made me angry! I wrote him one last time, to this he did not respond. Because I cannot detect “a center” that would speak to my own, the anti-authoritarian suspicions and counter-facts he purveys somehow displace communality, much like a Fuck Biden sign on somebody’s lawn. As we talked together about all this, Orin wondered if conspiracy theories are the extrovert’s way of managing the same raw terror introverts manage by means of neurotic obsessions and compulsions.
“Usually, what is strong in the West is purely negative,” wrote Czeslaw Milosz, in the context of discussing why Western intellectuals’ critiques of Communism were ineffective against its believers. The problem with the “purely negative” as Milosz pointed out, is it has no power against “a (false) Messiah,” such as the then New Communist Faith, a system that would, for many believers, particularly those who’d suffered in the brutal on-the-ground reality of WWII, be valid despite the loss of individual freedom. Anti-mask theory, in its pure negativity and its fake concern for the less fortunate, similarly lacks the power to validly confront evil. Neither western academy-trained intellectual thought nor independent science-based thought has power against either a false Messiah promising an egalitarian society, or a Christian Fascist’s theocratic one.
It seems to me clear that if we’re to become able to oppose what we oppose, we educated white liberals must seek the experience that would make evil real to us, i.e., initiate us, or else forever be complicit in it. This is the most compassionate hope there can be for people who will say, “Well, at least with Biden we’re better off than with Trump.” Purely evidence of the captive mind! What’s missing, that can free minds captive in liberal reality – including conspiracists like Todd – is the test of naked reality. This test, as I advocate it, can be had, and does not pre-require actual tanks filled with armed fascists rolling into town, or a ravished earth that no longer can support life, but individuals willing to face the terror in their own souls.
It’s not as if we don’t already know the terror lying within (even before the pandemic). Speaking metaphorically, the tanks rolled in long ago! Anyone plagued by depression, phobias, anxiety attacks, OCD, etc., already is acquainted. Anybody who drinks, smokes, eats, or drugs too much, or, on the other hand, follows nutrition and exercise regimens as if to save herself from weak-willed eating, smoking, drinking too much, is already at least one-remove acquainted with the terrors lurking in liberal minds! The test of naked reality I’m prescribing simply requires letting go of the various charms, amulets, mental habits, obsessions, distractions, – screens! – and learning how to treat the terror instead of inflicting it on oneself or others.
For any who will seek this meet-up with the darkness I offer one precaution – besides to have a good psychotherapist handy! – that is, to work creatively, make art – anything from personal journal to painting to poetry to gardening, dance or jazz – that will allow you to stand in the alternative (imaginative, spiritual) reality. The process you initiate, though bringing moments of wonderful at-oneness, will as surely be painful. But the creative soul, formed from tests like this over millennia when humans lived in naked reality, flourishes in crisis – and can be trusted.
During a wakeful night recently, of which I have many, the thought came to me that “belief in God” is a misleading phrase, emphasizing, as it does, the “God” part and thus forcing people into that useless pondering over “whether or not I believe in God.” That pondering, inasmuch as it leaves out the test of brutal, naked reality, is nothing more than “mental masturbation.” Many of us smart people smirk at the bible’s prohibitive attitude to “onanism;” however, for the mind that knows the cost of what it takes to have a belief that would be valid in the face of instant death, the analogy holds up better.
Belief is not about “God” but about the center in oneself that believes (I would add “or doesn’t,” but the center is the believing, alive, creating part). In this sense, to declare oneself atheist reveals more about the person than about the poetic reality of “God.” It tells others you are avoiding the “near danger” of the real soul, just as casual sex can help circumvent the threat of intimacy. Belief is an initiation into poetic thought, peace, or shalom, the reality, all else counterfeit.
Due to our generation’s remaining uninitiated, we Boomers failed our shot at being the greatest generation, which is probably unimportant anyway. But the fact that what this generation was known for – mass movements to end a war and gain freedom of speech and civil rights, serious efforts to commit to ways of peace, justice and respect for the earth, an upsurge in creativity in music that still stands as a “before and after” moment – beats any generation’s claim to greatness being they fought the winning side in a “just” war. The only war worthy of us is the war for peace. Heroes are those compulsively poetic thinkers who will rebuild the “interdependent web” in its reality of belief.