[Writing about Jurgen Moltmann’s concept of “hazardous hope:”] “So then, not in trust of any progress but by insistence on just process, might we strengthen, radicalize, even socialize democracy?”
–Catherine Keller, Political Theology of the Earth
Hesiod conceives Eros not merely as the god of sensual love, but as a power which forms the world by inner union of the separated elements; an idea very prevalent in antiquity, especially among the philosophers.
–fr. Greek & Roman Mythology Dictionary at upenn.edu website
Turning hopelessness into a beginning, not a despairing end, is the magic trick the liberal world must learn at this time if we are to invite in the spiritual rescue that is the only possible help for our progressively worsening condition. Like the “hopeless alcoholic” who can’t stop herself from picking up the bottle and will therefore die, through “hoping falsely” we foster the inevitability we are caving into. Although I’m keenly aware of the risk I take using the word love incongruously, outside its proper (church) setting, I must define this problem as a failure of love. The fact that love has come to sound like the prescription of weak minds, that I sound pathetic to myself, like a Jesus freak or half-baked acid casualty nobody wants to sound like, can’t be helped. Use it I must.
Society’s terrifying plunge into divisiveness, brutality, violence, ongoing habitat destruction, species extinction now moving at warp speed – all is beginning to feel inevitable. I recognize inevitability, along with all the valid-sounding excuses that go with it, from a particular viewpoint, having experienced it interpersonally, in my marriage with Orin, and eluded its fatalism many times over. As long as love remains unreal, which is to say, as long as the god Eros stays within the bounds we assign to him, with its winners and losers, the plunge into fragmentation and chaos is inevitable. Love’s power is only found in honesty. Hopelessness has to be confessed in order for love to do it’s work.
These thoughts came to me as Orin and I celebrated our 45th wedding anniversary Memorial Day weekend. Bringing my marriage into this conversation may appear as absurd as bringing love into it. But if I’m to stick to honesty, grounding my political opinion in non-negotiable reality, it is relevant. No longer are marriage or staying married, or even monogamy required in order to avoid social disapproval. It’s all good, as we say. But if we are going to drop our white man’s forked tongue when we talk about returning to local, sustainable living within our true pluralistic condition, about withdrawing from the system bent on catastrophe and building the new, etc., won’t commitments, vows, covenants become once again relevant? Won’t archaic qualities of loyalty, preservation, patience, forgiveness, etc, have to come back into vogue? But, in the society we have, shaped by secular liberal culture and its ever-expanding freedoms, such voluntary circumscription is unimaginable.
Not so much its longevity, but the energy our marriage has for anarchist or utopian aspiration is due entirely to our mutual willingness to admit hopelessness over and over, to let go, forgive. Borrowing a term from theologian Catherine Keller, we live in a respectful agonism. Moreover, we’ve taught ourselves to see ongoing creativity as the true (transcendent) goal of love over ever-ephemeral “happiness.” “Love’s reality,” then, means to us a call to both the honesty that admits antagonism and the peace-making to restore the condition necessary for creative work, for thought, for breaking out of bourgeois banality, such aliveness being antithesis to the numbing induced in neoliberal banality. As long as the poems and essays, our hymns to meaning, can be written, as long as we understand our public contribution to be advocating for art as social obligation, we feel – at least occasionally – in sync with love’s reality.
Nor perfectly, mind you. But I have come to feel that knowing one is in an agon is not as bad as the absence of such tension. The ideal of a “harmonious partnership” was not granted to me; I’ve come to see that ideal not as enviable, but as a dangerous illusion. When people view monogamy as the enemy of freedom and the cause of social misery, as a young man just did in an email to me, they likely refer to the institution as popularly conceived under that misguided ideal. The illusion of peace requires the consent of both parties never to broach honest conflict between legitimate othernesses, to discount one’s own otherness, to dissolve genuine individuality into the “solution” of bourgeois reality and thus never challenge interpersonally the sleeping giant of underlying, irresolvable antagonism.
The kicker is, in neoliberal reality, this is the only peace we know. Without too much difficulty we can see how this core dishonesty makes peace a meaningless word. Stripped of that illusion of peace, I have had to wrestle not only for my R-E-S-P-E-C-T, as in Aretha’s manifesto, but for my wholeness, my otherness, the identity discarded under the rules of bourgeois peace. This, the struggle for the spiritual dimension of being, a struggle that is fundamentally social as well as individual, both Orin and I – and every person – inherit in common.
That ours may have been a particularly “tough case” we don’t deny, but this makes no difference when the entire society is a tough case, the world is a tough case, and no one is becoming wiser! Amber Heard and Johnny Depp, playing out their enmity in a televised courtroom trial, have placed on exhibition the unraveling of love in our shared market-based, soulless context in which love is surrendered to reality-as-inevitability. Does anyone wonder what happened to the Love that conditions reality instead of yielding to it?
I imagine others besides me have been unable to shake off the horror of those deaths in a Texas classroom, an event that occurred 10 days after the racist shooting of 10 grocery shoppers in Buffalo. The day after the massacre in Uvalde, in the afternoon, as my first-grader grandson Nico and I sat together on the front porch swing seat reading Tik-Tok of Oz, he asked me what had happened at that school in Texas. Caught off-balance, I asked him what he’d heard; he’d heard – from the lunchroom monitor – that an 18-year-old boy with a gun had shot his grandmother. The lunch monitor had apparently prudently realized – a bit late – she could or should not say more. I confirmed what he’d been told, and said – being as truthful as I could bear being – there was more to the story but he needed to ask his mother and father about it.
I’m still wondering if I was right to “chicken out;” there has to be a way, I try to convince myself, for adult guardians to carry out their obligation to truth in such instances, to tell a child about horrendous occurrences in real life, real life slaughters entirely outside the scope of Glinda’s, Ozma’s, or the Wizard’s magic, without damaging their precious innocence.
At such a moment, horrified at the destruction of actual “innocents,” one realizes how great is the desire to protect not only our children’s lives, but their innocence! Anguished letters in the Times cry out: why are we impotent to protect the children? This question surely will touch liberal indignation but will not reach to the root of the problem. It does not penetrate past formidable liberal defenses to the place of honesty, to the truth that we cannot protect the innocents because we cannot protect innocence.
The dark and terrible beast slouches toward Bethlehem, unstoppable. Our imaginations crippled, we believe in no evil from which we must pray to be delivered. Due to the repression Freud taught us is part of our socialization, we lose access to the imaginative/true story of the traumatic loss of our own hope, our personal “paradise (innocence) lost” a story that can be regained, but only by extraordinary means. We apprehend evil only objectively, in the historic evils of racism, slavery, Auschwitz, in Carthaginian slaughter, in the genocide against indigenous peoples and the plundering of the earth. We identify present evil with the right-winger second amendment-defending-stolen-election-Fox-news-watching others hugging their Jesus and his promise to save the just from the fiery Apocalyptic end. We do not believe in evil as real as the rust eating our car or the snails devouring our garden.
The Depp vs Heard trial exemplifies the defiance of relatedness – the object being to win, to be vindicated in a court of law – that characterizes 21st century American politics right down to the family. Were relatedness (love) allowed its ultimacy, the couple might have been brought through their discord to quite different realizations. Society will not go backward; we will not again accept authoritarian rules such as that of Roman Catholicism that, in defense of the Absolute of relationship, forbade divorce. However, we now can see, looking beyond the pain and suffering caused by the Church’s infallible decree, that the reality of relatedness, of interdependence, and the attendant obligations to make peace and reconcile is still real The Church’s rule was meant to enforce that obligation, but the Church did not make it: love is real and now it’s ours to defend.
As society disintegrates, it is that rule of love that calls us to let go of our convenient defenses against its imperium If we are to cease bargaining with love in the way that is now normal, both depending upon and sealing its conditionedness, we must treat its most intense encounters as if they were instances of ultimate meaning, of peace-making and allegiance to truth, and proceed from there learning the lessons we have to learn, making peace where we live. Having overthrown the absolute church, absolute monarchy, the divine rights of church and king, we have now to make direct relationship to that reality that exists and that makes our ultimate obligation as human beings to peace. Because we are freed from being slaves to tradition and custom we must choose for ourselves between conditions that sow hate and and those that foster love. We cannot narcissistically pretend relationships, community, interdependence – the social good – are in place because ours seem to be. Nor can we pretend that committed relationships bind us only until the irreconcilable difference is revealed.
The walls we encounter in intimate relationships, that which is revealed in irreconcilable difference, is the truth of the agon that, in turn has no resolution except in relation to (spiritual) reality. The rewards of such perseverance make it worth taking the chance. The evil or impossible other can be transformed back to simply human other. Evil, then, is immanent, not historic, not partisan, not confined to less-developed societies; it can be spied in that very impulse – one’s own – to enmitize the other while preserving one’s own injured innocence.. Often peace is re-established on the basis of seeing the wounds the other carries, of having one’s own pain seen with compassion. Into that breach, that momentary letting go of animosity, grace appears, and that original inspiriting wholeness (innocence) is felt by both.
Unless someone thinks, amidst this ongoing horror we’re in that we have any choice but to surrender to the rule of love – not as substitute for activism but as the vision that speaks to the human need for unmediated, stable, trustworthy connection and safety over time – then perhaps marriage can still be useful to the common good. Perhaps there are others, horrified by the gun violence but in a state of paralysis as to what to do, no longer able to believe in a political solution from either party, unable to respond to calls from our fellows to traditional hit-the-streets activism, who wait for a different call. The wait is not “an excuse,” not a failure to understand the urgency of the situation. It is due to the natural and inherent desire, long postponed, to feel completeness as a human being, to be reunited with the lost innocence, the imaginatively real that is one’s otherness, therefore one’s basis in the respectful agon of in-common social existence.
At a recent family gathering we four grandparents sat on the porch and talked about Nico’s new drum set, emblematic of his parents’ belief in the priceless value of music. We shared regrets: three of us had picked up, then given up an instrument while still in school, one gave up after several years of harmonica playing in youth bands. Similarly, of the four adult children we have between us, three had taken up instruments but then dropped, probably also left with some regret to this day. The other grandpa made a qualifying point, however, about the life of the artist. He talked about the pain of having gone “as far as you can go” knowing you never can be the best, never can reach that topmost tier.
My view of art is different. I take my art seriously, not imagining I can ever be great but imagining I am responding to a call. This call, not to greatness but coming from the ‘greatness’ – the “other power” in my own soul – is the gift that heals, over and over, the open wound of my lost hope. Creative self-fulfillment no longer may be kept falsely separate from the good for all. Legitimate access to love’s reality is the only empowerment that stands a chance against evil. In the historic bargain we’ve made for our individual freedom, love’s reality has to be accepted with no official guarantor, no certainty except that of, now and then, the vibe of peace.