…he who accepts the ambiguities of his culture without protest and without criticism is rewarded with a sense of security and moral justification. A certain kind of unanimity satisfies our emotions and is easily substituted for truth…In order to protect our common psychic security we readily become blind to the contradictions—or the lies – that we have all decided to accept as plain truth.
– Thomas Merton, The Wild Places, 1968
Every man who has reached even his intellectual teens begins to suspect life is no farce…that it flowers and fructifies…out of the profoundest tragic depths –the depths of an essential dearth in which its subjects roots are plunged….The natural inheritance of everyone who is capable of spiritual life is an unsubdued forest where the wolf howls and the obscene bird of night chatters.”
– Henry James, Sr., quoted in Emerson: The Mind on Fire, by Robert D. Richardson, Jr.
My friends Pete, Ellen and Mark have been fighting a plan by Stewart’s Shops to build a gas station/convenience store in the midst of their (desirable, mostly white) South Utica neighborhoods. The matter came to a vote before the city’s Planning Board last week, in front of a fairly big turnout of opposition. Stewart’s won 3-2. Ellen told me the chair of the planning board, a neighbor of theirs who lives a bit further from the Stewart’s proposed location, said to them a couple of weeks ago in honest consternation, “I don’t see the problem.” Apparently, even after 21 people explained the problem last week, he still didn’t.
Pete and Ellen have told me more than once how hard it’s been to enlist their neighbors in the opposition effort. The time of day for which important meetings are scheduled is generally prohibitive for working people (except for the Stewart’s rep!) But my conclusion is the middle class, riding the American Dream, has caved in to inevitability (yes, because they could afford to). The resulting spiritlessness has cost them their political clout which will only return if people on the left regain the kind of “underdog,” chip-on-the-shoulder spirit that keeps a skeptical eye on corporate, big-moneyed interests that favor the few over the many, including, prominently, the war-making interests of Empire.
In the sense that inevitability seems to rule, I admire these friends for bucking the times. As middle class people, they are not “underdogs” living in a vulnerable neighborhood protesting “our lives matter.” They are relatively affluent, professional-type white people who, suddenly, as I see it, are being initiated into the world of those who protest inevitabilities. They fight City Hall from the most basic motive: they don’t want it – the increased traffic, the offensive commercial lighting, the noise, benzene and toluene fumes – in their neighborhood where they live, raise their children, walk with grandchildren, maintain their properties, etc.
At the Zoning Board of Appeals meeting last month, where public input was allowed, two of my friends were cut off in their prepared statements after 2 minutes. Being newcomers to “underdogdom,” they did not defy the official lady who cut them off, but, steaming silently, sat back down without finishing what they had to say. My friends are constrained by their socialization to be polite, mannerly, never to “demonize” Stewart’s, as if Stewart’s were a person whose feelings could be hurt. That night I heard nobody hint they might shout over the gavel if need be (although the night of the Planning Board’s vote, there was definite unruliness). They lack valuable training in being underdogs, cage-rattlers, trouble-makers, in being poor people whose lives would have taught them the system is stacked against them and kept that “chip” in place.
Another way of saying it: they do not yet know how to protect their inner fire, the fire of justice, which is linked to the cause of justice everywhere. Whether or not my friends will move toward this kind of radicalization remains to be seen. Thus far, my involvement has been to help them with their writing. They wanted to present “facts” but the need I saw was for words to express what they value. I cling to my very tenuous, possibly unwarranted belief that eloquence, and the passion that makes eloquence – still matters. ( I wrote these words within a week of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, who showed us the power of eloquence!)
With due respect for the fact they’re fighting the fight, my friends do not yet know how to make legitimate, valid anger their driving force. The “underdog” education white liberals lack is the education of which all America is deprived except the poor minority people for whose benefit the system is not designed, and except resentful Trump-followers whose fighting spirit aimed at Making America Great Again comes from resentment. On the left, the anger that would maintain the fire of justice in their own souls has to serve something other than hate; to legitimize it they must learn not to fear it.
The writer Peter Linebaugh, in a recent Counterpunch essay tells about a 17th century English Baptist leveler named Abiezer Coppe, author of a manifesto titled A Fiery Flying Roll: A Word from the Lord to all the Great Ones of the Earth. Coppe’s major theme – “Have all things common” – was grounded in the words of St. Paul: “God hath chosen BASE things, and things that are despised to confound – the things [that] are.“ Linebaugh writes, “Those who were despised in [Coppe’s] time were ‘beggars, rogues, Gypsies, cripples, peasants, and ploughmen.’ He [Coppe] quoted James 5:6: ‘The wages you never paid to the men who mowed your fields are loud against you, and the outcry of the reapers has reached the Lord of Hosts.’”
As far as Abiezer Coppe was concerned ‘“he actually spoke with and by and from and for “the Lord of Hosts.”’ That is, he didn’t apologize for his anger; it was God’s!
Today’s secular liberals will not – as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., did – base our actions for justice, and our eloquence, upon Scriptural authority. Thus, although “God chose base things to confound things as they are,” we mainly choose instead the reassurance of “psychic security.” The cost is great: the fire’s mostly gone; we’ve lost the inner, invisible link that would have us defend “all things common,” the basis for political relevance.
It’s not impossible to re-light the fire. But spiritual passion, smothered under liberal society’s consensus choice for psychic security that Thomas Merton observed, is born from insecurity, not security. That is, the psychic insecurity we (understandably) wish to avoid, and which we are encouraged to avoid by every distraction provided in modern techno-dependent, consumer society is a fundamental, humanly necessary condition. While authentic cultures develop ways to overcome the paralysis of insecurity via the imaginative function (in poetry, myth, ritual,etc.,) consensus unanimity manages insecurity, treating the most obstinate cases with pharmaceuticals. In this way insecurity is never resolved, it remains in place, secretly calling the shots.
Thus having opted for psychic security we easily bypass this fundamental experience of in-common humanity. The mental/spiritual crisis liberal consumer society does so well at helping us avoid is the necessary “classroom” that can acquaint the person, perhaps for the first time, with her complete vulnerability to larger forces of which her ego is not the center, God-for-real, if you will! Put poetically, it places her in Henry James’s “essential dearth,” from whence she can know herself as human, humanly insecure, knowing her absolute need for inclusion in encompassing reality, a “base thing.”
Note: Philosopher Henry James (1811-1882) knew whereof he spoke. Dissatisfied with the Presbyterianism of his Irish immigrant father, he’d undergone a mental crisis: “a perfectly insane and abject terror,….only to be accounted for, to my perplexed imagination, by some damned shape squatting invisible to me….and raying out from his fetid personality influences fatal to life.”
James’s spiritual crisis lasted two years; it was finally resolved for him through his explorations of the work of Emmanuel Swedenborg and Christian mystics. Of what consequence to us was his crisis and conversion? Well, fire being what we’re after, let’s allow it can be expressed in more than one form: Henry Sr. having found a psychic security not dependent upon consensus unanimity perhaps allowed the fire of genius in his remarkable and more famous children, William, Henry and Alice!
Grandson Nico, 7 years old, tells me he had a dream after our cat Pandy clawed his sister Cora’s foot here at our house a week ago, drawing a little blood and making her cry. He told me he dreamed that Ralph (their ancient cat, who does nothing but eat and sleep) transformed into a snarling beast! Did the Pandy incident allow him a glimpse into nature’s ambiguity – the cat as sweet rescued Pandy, so recently a kitten, and then as unpredictable beast with zero interest in preserving anyone’s innocence?
I was reminded of the horrific scare of my childhood, when in a Gothic horror comic book I had found in a corner of the bedroom I’d been assigned for the summer, the blonde-haired maiden in blue cloak wandering in a rainy woods at night turns to face the prince on his horse and he sees the face of a horrible hag! At age 6, this shocking reversal spoke to some hidden (repressed) awareness in me, scaring me so profoundly it darkened the remainder of my childhood. I could not be reassured by anyone; shadowy immateriality now spoke to me exclusively of hidden menace. This was a revelation from that unsubdued forest! Had I lived in an indigenous culture, how differently the experience might have been handled!
The biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson I finished a week ago began in the familiar territory of his early and courageous stand for subjective truth that had him break with the formal church. I took heart, as always, from his counsel to uncompromisingly adhere to inward truth and to give that soul truth expression. But something is missing for me. Apparently Emerson could not have that Jamesian initiation that would allow darker truth into his consciousness in such a way that would have forced him beyond critiquing Christian corporatism to replacing it with a more inclusive, disobedient mythology. He lent his immense prestige to the cause of abolition and to championing the poet Walt Whitman, but he did not marginalize himself by being a mystic Swedenborg or a William Blake whose vision would challenge the motives of Empire.
The world now knows when you liberate yourself from the religious forms, as RW did, you abandon something that cannot be made up for purely with optimism. The imaginative soul has the power to question ambiguities as materialist-based thought cannot. Avoiding his initiation, Emerson may have played into the hands of the materialism he decried. If he had implied soul truth is “Lord of Hosts,” he’d be a footnote like Henry James the elder. Instead he’s the icon of American liberalism, the full and powerful import of his stand for soul’s truth mainly unheeded.
This is said not to fault Emerson; the rest of the way is – and was – up to me! In my case initiation (as it turned out, that comic book hag had revealed a true existent in my soul who, in my 40’s, would not allow me to put off meeting with her!) gave me the “wings” to transcend liberalism – but it did not make this mental realm attainable to my everyday consciousness. I – like you – am being persuaded 24-7 in media-saturated, socially fragmented neoliberal totality to forget my psychic insecurity, which leaves me at the mercy of “sunny” (not angry!) liberalism. And, because I feel anything but sunny in liberal reality, I am – can only be – some kind of mistake! Only that unwanted knowledge – often ‘messaging’ me indirectly through my neuroses – has the power to save me from sunny liberalism! To be sane, then, demands I practice my art.
When “Original Tragedy” is not made conscious, evasion of it becomes life’s purpose! This is the liberal bind; liberalism cannot take after Coppe’s “Great Ones” because it doesn’t know there’s a fight. To escape the bind, the way must be found back to choosing the base, the underdog identity for the in-common, and the human. Perhaps I can’t actually “thank my lucky stars” for the deep, existential terror that drove my soul into hiding, but my gratitude for its having been made conscious is beyond measure. Consciousness of the tragedy, of one’s personal case of shell shock, one’s PTSD, the encounter one’s soul has had with “insane and abject terror,” frees the soul to do it’s work; repressed, it is just one’s private inferiority that must not be revealed in society, the psychic insecurity that is the basis for liberal consensus.
Consciousness breeds a kind of healthy skepticism; by means of it one knows the lie of “sunny liberalism” that we have accepted as “plain truth.” But this skepticism is not for its own sake; it accepts no truth but the very most inclusive reality – the reality of connectedness, love, inner peace. It rejects the lie of sunny liberalism, but for the sake of something better which is the knowledge of the interconnection of everything (aka, God, who’s angry at the Great Ones of the Earth?), basis for sanity.
That is to say, psychic security is necessary, of course. But the way to attain sanity must be honest, in daily confession of the irreversible tragedy done to one’s soul, bearable by means of expression. A confession not of “sin” but of “the depths of an essential dearth” one has in common with every other human being who ever lived or is living – the baseness that is our means of connection. No one escapes the “dearth,” but the effects of refusal of it in consciousness means we can only surrender to neoliberalism’s “inevitabilities,” the world filling up with toxins, plastic junk and CO2, nuclear proliferation, neighborhoods sacrificed to make way for another Stewart’s. If God chose base things to confound the mighty, shouldn’t we?