I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him down the arches of the years;
I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him and under running laughter.
– Francis Thompson, The Hound of Heaven
Myths and folktales make clear that the refusal [of the call] is essentially a refusal to give up what one takes to be one’s own interest. The future is regarded…as though one’s present system of ideals, virtues, goals and advantages were to be fixed and made secure…The divinity itself [becomes] the terror; for…if one is oneself one’s god, then God himself…the power that would destroy one’s egocentric system, becomes a monster.
– Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces
An essay in Counterpunch, “We Should Aspire To Be Peasants” (8/5/22) by Anthony Pahnke and Jim Goodman puts forth the proposition that subsistence farming, or farming for a local market only, be a pragmatic solution to the problems caused by industrial agriculture; moreover it is advocated by the U.N.’s Declaration of the Rights of Peasants (2018) a resolution supported by a healthy majority of the UN’s membership, but opposed by the U.S. and 7 others.
The authors seek to gain support for the U.N.’s resolution as a way government can avert the already advancing climate change crisis. But also, implicitly, the call is for people to downscale, “Walden-ize,” otherwise there’d be no bottom-up (populist) pressure on policy makers to support “going peasant.” Obviously back to feudalism is not what’s meant, but to a basis for agriculture that reclaims food as a right, and restores meaning, dignity and worth to localities and local food production, such that going backward is “aspirational!”
It seems they presume that “backward” is the way forward to the future we who want the good-for-all want, the only future worth conceiving. But reality, in the market-based neoliberal system we’re in, makes any such legitimate call based in the common good a threat to that system. Such a call, then, also demands implicitly we give up our comfort in that system, that we become uncomfortable in it. Everybody now, on some level, “gets” the terrifying threat of climate catastrophe to human existence as we know it. But few can hear a call to “peasantism”as a call to reinvent our way of life and its comfortingly routine expectations. Few can hear it as aspiration! So, instead of sober approaches to our in-common problem of climate change, we have heightening chaos, deception, divisiveness and denial.
Partly, the problem lies in the very nature of a “call.” A call may be cast broadly out to people, but calling is not responded to as a matter of agreement, of “Hey, I like what these guys are saying.” The call reaches individuals who are stirred by it in what we call imagination; thus first, there must be connection to an imagination that is alive. The challenge for any call to the common good today is formidable: the general degradation, dispiritedness and disassociation among people in liberal society, starved for the immaterial connectedness that makes meaning, has made us deaf to our calling.
Among bourgeois liberals especially, the challenge to hearing the call comes from their correspondingly deep investment in the substitute materialist values and meanings of neoliberalism. They cannot be dislodged from neoliberal faith because – even among the skeptics and doubters, cynics and pessimists, rebels and nonconformists, its assumptions are their assumptions, without which life is unthinkable. Thus, in the precarious condition of our humanity – the very humanity in which – without romanticizing them – impoverished, unenlightened peasant cultures were rich – a call, i.e., “my calling,” melts away before it reaches my consciousness.
That said, any legitimate hope lies with that very same, “doomed” call. The calling lures one out from the world defined upon neoliberal terms, from its idolatry, and intuitively is recognizable as better – that is, as kinder, juster, ecologically balanced, etc., as a call for human wholeness (including one’s own), not machinehood. In turn, the “better” reality demands learning the behaviors and understandings of that more “perfect,” wholer, human-centered but-non-anthropocentric world that is not-yet-but-becoming. That is, a calling is not legitimately a calling except insofar as the one called knows that other reality is both totally alluring and the places expectations – responsibility – upon the person called.
Another way of expressing this: the calling is known by its fruits, by the “talk that’s walked.” Such fruits will be recognizable as this-world expressions of that wholer, creatively-lived interdependence that is inimical to neoliberal hegemony. And they will stand against the strongest winds of unconscious fear, hate, and mobbism, if they must. That is, the fruits, in whatever form they take – farming, gardening, carpentering, bread-making, poetry, music, painting, small business entrepreneurship, or organizing – will matter politically. The soil they grew in includes horrific PTSD-inducing wrongs – wrongs in personal histories just as much as those in history writ large – that no longer can be refused in consciousness. Otherwise, we will continue to deny or despise, rather than defend, the “fragility of things.” For the task we’re called to now is not to look to the politicians to save us from Trumpism but to change the political reality such that our politics promote and defend, from bottom up, the in-common good.
Calling no longer is conveniently limited to the exceptional geniuses – Dr. King. Jesus. Joe Hill, all the artists, poets and scientists who have come to represent for us genius. Why, after all, cannot there be a call, for each of us, stuck in our quietly desperate lives, to counter that saddest of realities, expressed memorably by Peggy Lee back in ’65, “Is That All There Is?” Why would we screen out any possibility that life has, for us living here in the redundant tediousness of ordinary lives, just as for the celebrated geniuses, that aspect of chosenness, of the intrinsic rightness that what I take to be “my interest” is what I’m called to? Here, in my actual place that has no Emerald City aura of “dreams coming true,” or of “if I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere…” What if, in the dark awareness of climate catastrophe and the demand for contraction, this vaguely peasant-like existence is where I’m…well…called to be?
Despite the call’s being about, according to mythologist Joseph Campbell, “following my bliss,” it has a long tradition of being refused, far older than neoliberalism. Mystic poet Francis Thompson (see epigraph) expressed this strange persistent human tendency to inhuman self-abnegation. When I first read The Hound of Heaven its words vindicated the feeling I had, as a novice in the unmapped inner life, that a calling should not be refused, however unsuited one feels oneself to be for it. No excuses! Even I am called!
But in neoliberal reality refusal is practically required. The 1989 movie Dead Poets Society, a fervent champion of calling, featured among its establishment “villains” a businessman father who’s deadset against his son’s becoming an actor, exemplifying all the parents who steer their kids away from the acting or dancing career that calls them. On the other hand, and I have seen this in a couple of instances close to me, liberal parents who encourage the talented child’s adventure in art often find themselves with frail adult children who continue to involve the parents in their lives, especially financially, way past the college years.
Missing in instances of parental approval or disapproval, vicarious boostering or misplaced protecting, is the understanding that takes calling out of exceptionality, into even I am called. The calling has its own terms, neither yours nor mine nor the temporal world’s, which is what qualifies it as “divine.” Following the call won’t make a loser, nor a fragile flower, but builds the strength of being human, in both failure and fragility. Parents who themselves denied the call, whether they forbid or naively promote dream-following, protect themselves, not their children, from its uncertainties and dangers. (On the other hand, parents – like my father – who accepted the call on society’s exceptionalist terms, no matter what their explicit message, send a baffling unspoken message to the children: yes, I’m passionate about my art but children don’t try this at home!)
With proper understanding, then, the called knows her call is no sign of her exception but of her inclusion, her being ultimately related in the cosmos with all that in-commonly is. That is, with exceptionalism out of the picture, everyone in liberal reality is called by her/his genius. Further, as was not so clear in previous eras, except to some sensitive poets and prophets, the consequences of the general refusal of that call now, in the second millennium CE can be seen not just as personal private failure, but as having consequences for the interdependent world. Neoliberal hegemony and its empire-supportive systems can be refused but only in my surrender to “what I take to be my interest,” not in my refusal of it! If one is to be any kind of actor in these fearful times, it is by taking responsibility for one’s call. For that, it is not too late.
My nephew, Ben, 32, called me from his apartment in Burlington after he’d been hospitalized for a psychotic episode brought on by his latest session with a psychotropic drug. Perfectly lucid, he explained to me how his first such experience, using Ayahuasca, had been relatively uneventful. That time, his observations of the other participants’ “trips” interested him enough, apparently, to continue to seek relief from psychic pain by these means. This time he had “smoked toad,” or 5-MeO-DMT ( I looked this up) the drug taken from a creature found in the Sonoran desert. The toad stuff engendered hallucinations that continued after the trip and brought him to – fully rationally – admit himself to the psych hospital.
Ben is the youngest of three, whose mother, suffering from severe depression, left the family when he was 7, his older brother 10 and his sister 13. Now all in their 30’s, his sister, too undergoes treatment for depression. The middle son has been treated/hospitalized for psychosis for close to two decades. The problems of the children mostly have been assigned to the trauma of their mother’s departure. In fact, however, they grew up in a toxically silent household similar to the one in which I grew up; their mother’s messy exit is interpretable as her inchoate bid for survival. Unlike my brothers’ and my childhood growing up in working class suburbia, theirs unfolded in the postcard-perfect Vermont countryside, more beautiful, less full of bullies and other childhood pitfalls, and also far less peopled, possibly even scarier.
Though I’ve long had my thoughts, right or wrong, on what my young relatives have gone through, they cannot be expressed socially; their basis is incommunicable to those who thus far remain moored in neoliberal reality, having not yet responded to their call. Where the soul’s reality remains discounted, divinity can frighten, but cannot enliven us. After all, I have only inward corroboration for my interpretation. And, anyway, what do I know, really?
Even though I’m aware most psychotherapy is not nearly radical enough to treat the deeper social wounds inflicted unintentionally by loving parents in bourgeois liberal society, I was happy and hopeful when several summers ago, both Ben and his sister told a few of us family members they’d opted to face their pain through undergoing psychotherapy. I felt less alone in my awareness of the “dark side” of our family story. A start, but where does it go from here?
How does one, that is, wean oneself off of bourgeois liberal reality such that you understand your (soul’s) health to be in – and only in – counterculture, perhaps in peasant culture – that is, a culture that’s soul-syntonic rather than ego-syntonic, i.e., antagonistic to human wholeness and human becoming? In the course of our phone conversation, Ben, who in college had become a reader and a critical thinker, mentioned both dissatisfaction with his good-paying job in the Vermont state bureaucracy and the fact that he was in the process of purchasing a condominium – no small investment in Burlington! But who will advise him – who would he listen to? – to minimize his investment in the bourgeois lifestyle so he will not be captive in it?
While the benefits of bourgeois lifestyle are everywhere normalized, the values of countercultural outsiderhood, of genuine individuality and socially-motivated action remain “otherized” behind a near-impregnable wall. No wonder the call has a hard time getting through all the ways we accumulate to not hear it! Countercultural ideas may attract liberal followers via Ted Talks or alternative news media, but people are not transformed by being influenced, but only through original experience. In fact, the “realest” human beings Ben may run into in Burlington – people that is, with original experience not given to them by the bourgeois mainstream – may be the woman or man standing on a corner holding a sign saying Homeless Vet, or the black guy working 3 non-prestigious jobs – that is, society’s losers. Smoking toad may be the “gamechanger” for Ben, I hope so, but I also know that if lifestyle choices remain sacrosanct – if peasantry is off the table – it may not be.
Elders who might advise must hold our tongues. There’s no place, in honoring peoples’ process, for putting the cart before the horse. Until habitual ways of thinking have been shed like the snake’s old skin, no longer of use, they recycle over and over in the ego-dominated fiefdom that serves existing power arrangements, making us more peasants than peasants! Only the call itself, issuing from the imaginative soul, can have the power to relativize the absolute value of the bourgeois way of life that, hegemonically unassailable, threatens all life on the planet.
The cost of deferring dreams is not a slight one, and it is not private and personal only. The point of my writing about my family is not because I wish we were “closer,” though I’m sad our way of life has put distance between us. But closeness, for me, means connection in a deeper, non-nostalgia-based way inside an alive politics that is not only critical of the mainstream authority – we’re good at that! – but led by our calling, is becoming the alternative. Vain hope, perhaps; it seems within reach but cannot be so unless/until people a) identify their original trauma and b) know even they are called. People remain with the assumptions of neoliberal reality not (only) because some of us believe in them but because of our unconscious obedience to white liberal exceptionalism – to which the soul’s desire for expression is over and over sacrificed. Thus, “divinity itself becomes the terror,” even as consequences for refusal have become so painfully and terrifyingly clear.