The powerful [neighborhood] presences that define one, that tell a person who he is…teach [one] to know what human nature and the human heart is….One’s block becomes the world, and one’s neighborhood radiant with the core values of humanity. These are not intellectual responses to experience but emotional ones, much more powerful and meaningful to oneself than someone else’s ideology. One builds an intellectual framework around such experience as one goes along.
– Eugene Nassar, A Walk Around the Block: Literary Texts & Social Contexts
When I was with [Aunt Lois] I knew I belonged, and that in this circle of belonging I had a place in the stories. Everyone needs this kind of place, this feeling of kinship; without it we are lost children wandering the earth our whole lives. Even a country can be like a lost child, [without] roots in the earth on which it has established itself.
– Joy Harjo, Poet Warrior: A Memoir
In a post-Hurricane Ian story, the NY Times reports on a Florida couple who lost their dream retirement home. The couple’s dream, no doubt having worked hard for it all their lives, was a small mobile home on a double lot, “a fan with a remote and his-and-hers televisions so she could watch her soaps and he could watch cowboy shows.” Now at age 77 and 81 they’re homeless, gradually resigning themselves to having to move back to Kentucky and the reality of “slush.” The woman says “We have talked about it, we have argued about it, we have screamed about it, we have cried about it. Our bubble has been burst.”
This confession of the bubble – perhaps the first time the woman ever realized she lived in one – is a dawning of consciousness unwanted by anyone in liberal America, not just by those who can’t bear to imagine catastrophic climate disaster destroying their lives. Even those who deplore the materialist American Dream live in the bubble of neoliberalism, in a condition of voluntary limited consciousness. The something that’s there beyond the bubble causes disquiet – and sometimes it allures – but – this being a bubble! – cannot gain our full attention.
In the efforts to sustain our bubble, to fend off consciousness, we’re enabled by mainstream media and our mainstream politics, none of which even hints that our way of life is only thinkable as long as we remain inside the bubble. The subtext in every ad, every NPR news broadcast, if we could read it is: People, Stay Calm! Do not leave your bubble! (A humorous faux-Chevron ad forwarded by a friend juxtaposes image after image of beautiful, care-free scenes, children and dogs, sunshine-filled meadows, accompanied by schmaltzy music with the narration spoken in dulcet tones, “Chevron is actively murdering you every day.” Lettered on the final screen next to the Chevron logo: “We don’t give a fuck about you!” (Life in the bubble!)
Last week Orin and I watched the movie Charlie Says (2018, dir. Mary Harron), about the Manson family cult. As well, it’s about the construction, maintenance and, finally, bursting of a bubble. Living in the bubble created by Manson’s personality, aided and abetted by the drug and criminal subcultures active in California at the time, his followers lost their capacity for independent thought. They no longer knew who they were, preferring the world and their identities as Charlie “said” them to be. Within the bubble it worked: they were able to function, to finance their communal existence mainly through theft, to engage in intense preparations for the “helter skelter” end times. The movie’s Manson information was based largely on Ed Sanders’ 1971 masterpiece of investigative writing, The Family. The film’s storyline focused on three of the followers – Krenwinkel, Atkins and Van Houten – serving time in a California penitentiary, and the efforts by an empathetic graduate student named Karlene Faith, to “rehabilitate” them.
Karlene’s task, that is, was to burst their bubble, knowing to do so meant they would live the rest of their lives conscious of the horrendous crimes they had committed for nothing. But, they would be conscious! Considered to be the point of rehabilitation, consciousness – the capacity to see/recognize other possibilities – made Faith’s effort worth it. Given there are circumstances when preserving someone’s bubble may be the right – i.e., compassionate – choice, in general society prizes consciousness over existence in “bubbles,” or having “heads in the sand,” at least nominally. I mean, in the same way that the prison system, on behalf of the state of California, upheld consciousness as the goal for the Mansonites, consciousness is a generally agreed upon good. Anthropocentrically speaking, it’s what separates us from the non-human world. Even so, even with no cult-master to blame for it, few of us burst the bubbles we depend on to keep life bearable, not so unlike the jailed Mansonites!
Would it be the worst thing to have to realize the American way of life into which we’re assimilated – is unbearable? That, though it limits consciousness of frightening possibilities, our way of life cuts us off from other possibilities not so frightening, even desired? We do know, for instance about the possibility of interdependence taught by Native American traditionalists, a belief compatible with our tenuous hopes for averting Armageddon. The native traditionalists opt not to assimilate to the dominant culture and instead remain “others,” outside our bubble but friends, not foes. However, their tradition being theirs not ours, it cannot help us burst our bubble.
The reality that could actually open consciousness is closer than we think, buried out there in our own white peoples’ religious tradition, so unwanted most of us have “canceled” it. Though we don’t think of our casual, almost thoughtless dismissal of religion that way, it’s about staying in the bubble. From inside the bubble, we view our tradition, the sorry, odious history of empire, conquest, enslavement, extraction, plunder, inquisition, witchhunts, war fervor, etc. as incompatible with who we are now! We wash our hands of it, chalk it up to dead white males! Being progressive, we have declared ourselves free of that den of religious superstition, the benighted past, and turned ourselves to the good work of making the world a better place in the better and better liberal way.
The other day Orin read a Counterpunch article (Scott Remer, 10/2/22) that called filmmaker Michael Moore’s proposal to run Tom Hanks or Oprah Winfrey for President “magical thinking.” And isn’t it magical thinking when Hillary calls the election of a fascist woman president in Italy a good thing because she’s a woman? And surely, magical thinking is involved as pollsters seek the “winning message,” through “carefully crafted poll questions, an analysis with key demographic breakdowns, etc.,” an effort I learned about in a recent email from the Zogby Poll. The unspoken meaning of any “winning message” will be “rest assured, none of these changes we’re talking about will ask you to significantly change the way you live your life – you will be permitted to remain in your bubble.” (And Chevron will keep actively murdering us.)
Step One in the “slippery slope” that leads to magical thinking, including the “fact-based” variety liberals are zealous about, is imagining we can magically dismiss the tradition that made us. Even Moore, a professed Catholic, lives in the liberal reality that accommodates the tradition to fit inclination, not the inclination to give way before the absolute. Thus, he, too, is vulnerable to magical thinking. Distanced from tradition as we mostly are, we lose the cultural link to the personal soul that, though it cannot determine a life of integrity, is sensitive to bullshit and will detect it no matter who’s dishing it out. That is, unlike the egoic self that assimilates to the allurements and placations of “normality,” the “other” (i.e. my/your soul), is not infinitely malleable! “She,” my personal “outsider,” reminds me my existence is not separate from others.
Having lost the cultural (traditional) link to the soul does not mean, however, no link can be found. Briefly, in the 60’s and 70’s people experimented with escaping oppressive tradition in order to build a different (counter)culture. Many people took freedom to mean soul-friendly commitment to peace, brotherhood, and responsible living on the earth. But, for the most part, perhaps freaked out by their own excesses, people retracted to the bubble. In the 6 decades since, with few (compared with the original numbers) willing to live by the “good freedom” that linked people in social movements, the fundamentalist and theocratic forces of reaction have grown increasingly powerful, while the left is left with an unfinished business. Still progressively free of traditionalist morality, we have not escaped the philosophical-metaphysical quandary that the hippies left unresolved. Failing to take responsibility for soul-depth knowledge of the interconnected whole, the reality of love, where could hippiedom go other than assimilate into exceptionalism and unconscious hierarchy?
With connection to the absolute of solidarity and interdependence lost, even if we profess egalitarianism, we’re no match for the exceptionalist bubble that is bullshit neoliberal reality. But exceptionalism (the condition of mind that deems some entities “exceptional,” implying a hierarchy of ontological value) has a great weakness; like any bully, it is inherently defensive. Imbubbled, one is, falsely, not just “better than certain others” but better than our past, better than all other possibilities such that all those other possibilities that might have been or still might be do not matter. Imbubbled, barred from possibility, the individual wanting to do good sees only impossibility, and is helpless. What’s needed is to call the bully out, an act of poetic disobedience.
In Utica, a group of us prepares for a public reading of literary works by local scholar and author Eugene Nassar (1933-2017) this month at our little arts space. Included in our selections is the story called Summer 1958, that we intend to present as a “play.” It consists of the dialogue between two immigrant women swapping stories in the kitchen over coffee about different people (mainly the men) in their close-knit Lebanese-American community. In the process there is much laughter and some tears.
One of the women, Mintaha, based upon Gene’s mother, is a challenge for post-liberation women to relate to. First, she’s a housewife, cooking, cleaning, hanging clothes. Suffering since the recent death of her husband, she worries about her family’s health; in particular, she worries about the fate of her sons in America. To me, her thoughts, given us through the narrator, are the most deeply compelling lines in the “play.” They express the intuitive consciousness of relatedness, her fears for her sons that “America would take them, would swallow them up, would crush the family…she prayed that all would not be obliterated, for that was twice death and what then was it all worth?”
By and large today we do not share her fears, nor her depth of moral suffering. We’ve been swallowed up by America; we live inside “the beast” or “the greatness” – the bubble, however we see it – and cannot imagine the outside. For us there is no process of assimilation, no sense of something being lost, no wrestling over the rightness of having made sure the sons (and now daughters) went to college when the consequence may be unbearable loss of meaning, of a social fabric based in tradition, memory and face-to-face relationships. Mintaha’s pain fascinates me because it is the pain of that “outsider,” the heart, that knows the person must adapt (assimilate) to the given conditions but, as well, knows/feels the cost – i.e., “twice death.”
Might not Mintaha, with her large, suffering heart, who could scarcely bear the thought of the twice death, provide us a direction, instead of a piece of nostalgic history? Her influence on her son was such that he declined the career advancement he had earned and walked a walk of poetic disobedience. He opted to stay in Utica, teaching at a small college here, remaining a part of a dwindling East Utica community. Though it was dying out, that interdependent community of immigrants is still invoked by many former East Uticans, but helplessly, nostalgically. They never understood an act of poetic disobedience was called for if they were not to die twice.
More and more it seems to me the question for the left as to why not defend our families against the corporate context that “ doesn’t give a fuck about us” is like the questioning of the left’s adamant atheist rejection of God. Such “cancel culture” wand waving, though one understands the need to escape oppressive traditions and rigidly defined gender roles, is magical thinking. It amounts to incapacity to see what’s outside one’s bubble, to see the “other possibilities,” the multivarious consciousness that frightens us. Gene Nassar “walked his walk,” remained here in a city that does not feed illusions or egos, out of loyalty to the ethnic community that had raised him. For him, the sense it made to stay was not replaceable by careerism, or the admiring eyes of people he didn’t know. The fact that the culture that raised him is gone does not eliminate the possibilities such cultures present us with. Nor does it eliminate our accountability for our souls, that is, for our real presences here in our place, for our stories that entwine us, the“radiant core” always potential.
In one scene in Charlie Says, a young woman is being shown around the Spahn Ranch – by this point in the movie we’re familiar with these tours that end with the teenager happily staying on with “daddy” Charlie. She has a brief exchange with the (naked) Manson that ends with her saying “My daddy taught me not to take shit from guys like you.” He tells her “Go back to Daddy;” she walks away, to our great relief! Charlie was powerless against someone who declined entering the bubble of his insane brand of freedom. At the movie’s end, what we get to see is the three women breaking through into painful consciousness, into their humanity. It’s a fair picture of the choice to be conscious at all. However painful, can we burst the bubble before the next catastrophe bursts it for us?