“We are poised between needing to radically transform how we live and becoming extinct.”
Adrian Parr, The Wrath of Capital: Neoliberalism and Climate Change Politics
‘I think,’ said Konstantin, ‘that no activity can be solid unless it’s based on personal interest. That is a general truth, a philosophical one,’ he said… as if wishing to show that he, too, like anyone else, had the right to speak of philosophy.
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
In his story Summer 1958, collected in the book East Utica that follows peoples’ lives in a close, socially rich Lebanese-Italian immigrant neighborhood in Upstate New York, author Eugene Paul Nassar introduced a phrase that captures the dissolution of a universe of meaning. The narrator is describing the fears of Mintaha (the author’s mother), recently widowed, whose three sons were “all [she and her husband] had had, and all that would have mattered in the old country.” But, she feared, “America would take them, would swallow them up, obliterate the past…She prayed that all would not be obliterated for that was twice death and what then was it all worth?”
Many of us no longer can imagine the “twice death,” much less know this apprehension that gripped the immigrant woman’s heart. For many, like me, more distant descendants of immigrants, the obliteration of an in-place local culture of connection and meaning, of a commons, occurred generations before we were born. By 1958, an intact peasant culture such as existed in East Utica – with its strict limits on personal freedom, its precedence given to claims of family and community (backed by patriarchy and its rule-bound, guilt-bestowing church) – was fated to to dissolve into assimilation. The special “mother province” of the heart, with its need for connection and meaning, dependent upon the whole village for its protection, was necessarily relativized. Until now, in the context of a capitalist economy and liberal, secular zeitgeist, the choice to refuse or limit personal freedom in favor of non-reactionary “sentimental” claims of the local, the unmediated, and the relational, was more or less unthinkable, except for the impoverished, a few dreamers and romantics, and in modified form, beatniks and hippies.
However, the multiple threats coming at us today from the “wrath of Capital,” pose such a serious question to our way of life (leaving aside the uncertainty as to if we’re too late already); surely we’re
thinking the unthinkable is called for? Needing to “radically transform how we live,” can we, who have relativized the claims of culture and tradition, re-inhabit them but on a different basis? That is, could we learn to honor the claims of the heart, especially its need for stable community over time, not in narrow parochialism, but in openness to the process of living locally within a cosmic reference – in inclusive interdependence with all others, human and non-human?
Because Mintaha’s suffering anticipates a condition we take for granted makes empathy – that we feel easily for border immigrants or bullied trans people – difficult. Liberal reality demands not protection for the heart’s connectivity but, at best, “going with the flow” of a system that talks fairness, but intends neither kindness nor justice. Thus, the radical shift must occur first in imagination, in transformation to a consciousness that takes into account plural truths and the relationality of everything. “Great Mother” consciousness, or eros, are good terms for this, being both poetic and rooted mythologically, but beware: one who speaks them must be unafraid of being met with silence! Although poetics don’t (yet) stand up against the unchallengeable rightness of the markets, perhaps now they must.
Last week at The Other Side, a small group calling ourselves The Voyage of Life Book Readers Theater performed a reading from the works of (late) local scholar/author Nassar, including a selection from Summer 1958. Preparing for the reading focused my attention on Gene and his choice, as a rising-star literary scholar, to decline a promising academic career and stay in his natal East Utica community. That choice, which I see as his faithfulness to intrinsic meaning, i.e., meaning connected to his heart’s poetic understanding, was inexplicable to practically everybody. It made him, though he had too much dignity and kindness for it ever to be anybody’s spoken thought, in popular parlance, a dinosaur.
Not in spite of but in consciousness of the “twice death” prophesied by his mother, Gene lived among us. In his retirement, he wrote columns for the local paper, gave lectures, including several for us at The Other Side on Eliot, Pound, Yeats and others, met daily with his oldest friends at an Italian bakery in the old neighborhood, and was always generous, even with remoter friends like Orin, whose poetry manuscript Gene read at Orin’s request and gave to it extensive helpful commentary. He lived, that is, in a manner that entitled him to be called a man of integrity, though that term – so unflashy! – is not fashionable today.
It happens that Orin and I are currently reading together Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. It’s easy to make the connection between Gene’s localism and the character Konstantin Levin who confounded his aristocratic social set by choosing to stay on his land rather than live in Moscow or Petersburg and, worse, to labor in the fields alongside the peasants. The inexplicability of Levin’s choice, the invisibility of its basis in the embodied soul, comes across vividly in Levin’s conversation with his enthusiastically intellectual brother. Sergei Ivanovich presses Levin on his having quit participation in the “zemstvo,” one of the local organizations set up to benefit the former serfs. Levin cannot explain himself to his brother; he follows no cause but “self-interest,” that is, the meaning that is personal. To anyone but a poet, Levin’s choice, even though we like him, may be as incomprehensible as it is to his brother; it may appear troublingly selfish, not justified.
Lately, and since the pandemic, I’ve found myself in a downward spiral of depression. As often happens when I’m especially depressed, I seek the why. My surmises may be way off the mark because the possibilities are so many if one cannot don the rose-colored glasses provided by neoliberal NPR-MSNBC-Netflix-social media-constructed reality. The “cause” may be personal (aging, illness, deaths), familial (fears, like Mintaha’s, for children and grandchildren, and for our precariously existing coffeeshop), fascist resurgence, war insanity, extinctions promised by climate warming, etc. From inside the depression, while the causes of it may be beyond my control, my conscious choice to live local, declining cellphone or cable TV, inexplicable to most people and thus making me, too, a dinosaur, feels like (meaningless) martyrdom.
Martyrdom, the ultimate heroism, death in a collective (higher) cause, ensures one’s place in the calendar of saints. We for instance at our Cafe display the Autonomedia Calendar of Jubilee Saints that includes many martyred in the anarchist cause. But the martyr ideal has its costs. Levin-like, I place self-interest before most collective causes (and moreover believe common good and personal good to be inseparable except artificially). My devotion to self-interest arose twenty-five years or more ago, in conjunction with mental breakdown and years of intensive psychotherapy, and with help from archetypal psychologist Carl Gustav Jung’s written work. The reward that came to me – beyond my wildest dreams – the discovery of my self-interest, pursuing it in my writing – caused me to see my existential problem had come from too little self, too much unconscious martyrdom.
As many do not see who are persuaded through the compelling act of the martyr’s sacrifice to give themselves to a cause, I saw, without taking anything from that sacrifice, another way to “heaven” is possible. At the time, an insight I gained from Jungian writer/psychologist Marie-Louise von Franz, helped clarify this for me. In one place she critiqued Christian eschatology for its implication that martyrdom – dying for a higher good as Christ had done – is the ultimate good deed. What she implied, as I understood it, was since the prospect of death is not alluring, most Christians would not seek it. That is, due to this misunderstanding, they would never realize the appeal of the good is actually intrinsic, that Divinity appeals to self-interest, that what must die is unconscious, Divinity-obstructing obedience to self-renunciation! For me, this insight amounted to the possibility that living for self-interest, rather than self-sacrifice, is a moral choice, even a calling.
Put another way, even for we who are raised “post-Christian,” and “liberal/secular,” it’s nearly impossible to escape the assumption that personal good (eros or joy) is damningly suspect compared to “saint-like” renunciation of self, even for no cause! Under this no-win regime ( no matter one’s gender identification, I’d argue) it’s difficult to be other than a lost, very discouraged, partially-alive human, as I was. (I cannot escape the suspicion that liberal reality is made up of people like me, perhaps better actors, with more access to antidepressants and trips to Tuscany, etc., but pathologically joy-deprived “zombies.” And, like me, they will be resuscitated only in following the “golden thread” of self interest available only subjectively, esoterically, thus “unspeakable.”)
Maybe I was a tougher nut, more resistant to my calling than most people – I was deaf to it, for instance, all through the 60’s when poetic eros-disciples were flocking to the East Village just 5 hours away. (And perhaps those disciples harmed the cause of poetic consciousness through their confusion of freedom and licentiousness!) But looking around I’m quite sure I’m not alone in my affliction: this dehumanizing deafness to divine (poetic) calling.
Coming at mid-life and in a very different era, my calling bears little resemblance to that earlier 60’s emergence of “Great Mother” energy. For me, “self-interest” includes correction to – but not renunciation of – the earlier hippie/Beat enthusiasm. Self-interest includes interest beyond self-expression and beyond protest. It seeks the lost culture, the intimate (local!) context bonded in affection, in place over time in which families and communities can have health, all that is embodied in “the commons,” i.e., a culture counter to the liberal establishment that obliterates culture. Having chosen “conservatively” an in-place, local, enfamilied life in an urban context, a writer’s life and a coffeeshop-owner’s life, the greatest challenge to my self-belief comes not from my surroundings in fertile MAGA territory. Rather, disturbance comes from the liberal side with with its resolutely conventional understanding of “good works,” its enthusiasm for Democrats and giving money to save the donkeys or the whales, its faith in its conscientious recycling habits, its “martyr-like” renunciation of self that occludes self-interest, isolating me in extinction limbo.
Consequently, though I’ve no taste for martyrdom, I do not escape suffering! But then, too, suffering is not the enemy. I’m incredibly grateful, for example, for the pain of consciousness that brought me to the knowledge of my self-interest. Stubbornly self-renunciatory as I was, this could not have happened painlessly. As well, that pain of breakthrough brought me precious awareness of the “twice death” – of the absence of a culture of connection and rooted meaning in which I’d been reared – as painful as Mintaha’s forboding. Awareness led me to surmise there once had been such a culture, otherwise how could I have known – how had my soul come to know – such unrequited longings that in my case had gone unmet? Thus as I see it, commitment to self-interest includes commitment to alternative, humane, culture that’s unspeakable, invisible among those who renounce self-interest and therewith deny possibility.
One additional point on behalf of suffering: For white people like myself, whom history has “favored” and mistakenly caused us to confuse self-interest with selfishness, there’s no pain-free, well-lit shortcut for radical transformation. The pain of awareness that reveals self-interest, one’s “bliss,” is initiatory. Revealing as it does possibility where before was impossibility, initiation makes art, or creative expression – but not martyrdom – obligatory. For the artist bears consciousness of the twice death, the world that forsakes the Mother, denies the heart’s truth over and over, but also the consciousness that joy is obligatory. Surely, the root cause of the radical evil of neoliberal reality is martyrdom-as-unconscious-ideal, the suppression of the embodied joy, intrinsically good, of creative expression.
Without having personal roots in a peasant culture, as Gene had, and being so painfully aware of my invisibility, my un-speakable difference, in my one social world, perhaps I must contend with the destabilizing feeling of martyrdom, of “sacrifice for nothing,” forever. Levin, having failed to communicate with his brother, wondered “whether [that failure] was because he’d not been able to say clearly what he meant, or because his brother had been unwilling or unable to understand him.” To me, there’s the shadow of the cross in this powerlessness to communicate!
It’s as if, though nobody intends it, the liberal world’s preoccupation inside partisan-NPR-informed constructed meaning produces an insistence that the “good” deed of walking one’s walk, “staying” instead of going with the flow, must, because it is unspeakable, be realized in ultimate sacrifice (in obliteration). If I am made a martyr despite myself, this can be for no other reason than that so few seek intrinsic meaning for themselves. Indeed, how can people who’ve not found the intrinsic good of self-interest, not heard the Divine call, overcome the thorough training we’ve had in scarcity and competition? This conditioning, in turn leaves us continuously guilty toward all the “less fortunate,” with no way to be good other than in martyrdom, in serving the “zemstvo,” in obliterating the poetic soul.
To “radically transform how we live” calls for taking up the unthinkable; i.e., the claims of the local, the unmediated, the relational, escaping the “thrice death” fated in neoliberal reality. Even though the cost be social misrecognition, in a sense unwantededness, this is preferable. Even my having missed out on the momentary triumph of poetic eros experienced in the 1960’s may not be completely regrettable – for where did the poetic eros go? Without protection by adult humans who will relativize neither its creativity nor its constructive politics the heart’s fragile reality is extinguished. Surely, no sane mind wants that! Living in the world Tolstoianly, Gene-like, clinging to the living vibe of self-interest, in solidarity with the soul-seat of culture, unspoken except in art, may just be doing my part to save what I can from extinction.