We would rather be ruined than changed. We would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the moment and let our illusions die.
– W.H. Auden
…the spell of globalization confounds the sustenance of local culture, in fact forbids and vanishes it. This spell marks that devastation so skillfully and obscenely that the particulars of those local cultures still standing look like obdurate, progress-defiant obstacles to solving our “global problems.”
– Stephen Jenkinson, Come of Age: The Case for Elderhood In A Time of Trouble
We global Westerners live under a spell that keeps us in a condition of forgetting. It’s just the same old spell conjured for many, many centuries, since the time when local life, local Gods, and a commons were delivered up to the few with power and wealth and imperialist ambitions. Elder Stephen Jenkinson got me thinking of banal consumerist obedience under global corporate capitalism this way and I find it a useful perspective. It opens up a way for resistance as spell-breaking, which calls for a starting point outside the “thinking” controlled by what I call rationalist supremacy and its insane logic. Spell-breaking is something only ordinary people can do, a resistance that starts truly at the bottom, in the body, in imagination, and that defends something of intrinsic worth – the humanity we have in common with all other people.
The power to break spells, a sort of “wisdom” gift, is not dished out by any certified authority or expert, but is authoritative for persons nonetheless. It can be spoken of in many ways; I usually shorthand it to “the soul’s truth.” The elders, in societies that have them (we have very few) are the keepers of this truth that is protection against the conquerors and the spell they cast.
Just speaking of my own boomer generation, although nothing stops many of us from being spell-breakers, by and large we’re not. Mainly, we confine our search for “solutions” to the anthropocenic ruin steadily advancing upon us, to the politics we have. Since there is no substantial difference between our parties, both serving the same corporate “masters” as Chris Hedges calls them, politics can make no substantial difference. If, on the other hand, I change myself by taking up the cause of my (mute) soul, which cannot speak without a human voice or hands (or pen or paint or camera or musical instrument) to express itself, I experience change in a profound way that places me outside the entrapment and futile logic of Democratic Liberal Party politics. With Jenkinson, I’m convinced that the soul contains ancestral memory, possibly back to that pre-conquest time when my ancestors lived locally and interdependently with animal and human neighbors; soul truth, being of the body, is local, face-to-face, mutually sustaining.
Is this taking up the cause of the soul what the poet Auden called climbing “the cross of the moment?” Would that be something like taking fully into consciousness the catastrophe of our situation – the truth – that is not the truth we want, and instead of acknowledging which, so far, we’d rather be ruined than aware? Other than the catastrophe of war we have deemed necessary, we (that is white people) have mostly (but not all) dodged this consciousness-shaping awareness of catastrophe for generations. Now, in the anthropocene, catastrophes threaten – pandemic, global warming, pollution, social disintegration, economic collapse – that clearly include us, along with all people and the earth, in their apocalyptic sweep.
Meeting up with the cross of the moment, breaking the spell, is not impossible (theoretically). But the spell is cast continuously, through powerful agencies – including NY Times, NPR pundits, all the devotees of progress – assuring us the way things are, all woke and virtually connected, is the best possible way they can be. Skepticism alone – and many of us doubt what the talking heads and pundits are telling us these days – will not break any spell.
A less poetic term for the climb up “the cross of the moment” is “initiation.” As we know from anthropology class, initiation is an organized rite of passage meant to be undergone by every member of a society that aims to live within the limitations deemed necessary in that society. Initiation begins a “growing downward” that leads not to the ego-gratifying process of becoming “better,” but of becoming human. It’s about root-growing equally as about blossoming and fruit-bearing. It’s easy to see why the practice has been discarded in western societies, the very basis for which is defiance of limitations/forms and uncritical worship of progress.
Having become less and less wise, with elders extremely scarce, most of us on the white liberal left no longer make any connection whatsoever between the conditions of our everyday lives locally, and the larger momentum that shapes those conditions against our valid, human self-interest. Not just against the interest of black people and immigrants and the poor, but against the entire “99%”. The spell works effectively to keep us living within that momentum driven by corporate self-interest, and away from our self-interest as human beings, and, increasingly, away from any conception of what that self-interest (mine, yours) is.
Instead of breaking the spell, many of us keep ourselves in it through staying distracted with relations to substances and certain processes (shopping, screens, busyness, etc.) that function as addictions. Despite its insidiousness, it’s possible, occasionally, to glimpse the actual workings of the spell. Orin, for instance, after spending two years in prison as a twenty-year-old for a crime he did not commit, his family too poor to hire a good lawyer, has never been as spellbound by benign liberal reality as me.
This past fall and leading up to the end-of-year holidays, I was drawn into a controversy by citizens opposed to a plan by Stewart’s Shops Inc to take down a former restaurant building in South Utica and put up one of their gas station/convenience stores. The citizens, novices at political protest, oppose the plan more because of the location than because Stewart’s has moved into our upstate region like the U.S. military into poor central American countries (or substitute any example of conquering colonialist armies!) At the Planning Board meeting that was Stewart’s final hurdle, after 23 residents and interested people spoke out against the plan, it was approved by a clearly pre-determined vote of 3-2.
Afterward, Orin and I reflected on on the smooth way the chairman of the planning board had managed this meeting (i.e., upon request, he generously allowed time for letters to be read by protesters who could not be present), on its progression from the vivifying effect of hearing my fellow citizens speak from the heart, to the realization no one on the board was listening to the people who’d voluntarily gone out of our way to be present. Something usually hidden (the “banality of evil!”) had been revealed. When the meeting was just over, while my mind was still wondering what just happened, my body took over; I felt an uncontrollable seething in my chest (the very seething the city officials had anticipated with a metal detector at the door and, upon hearing some murmuring, with immediate stern threats to have people removed if there were any disruption!)
Because Hannah Arendt’s term “banality of evil” is closely associated with the Holocaust, using it as I do runs the risk of offending (as Arendt offended many Jews to whom it sounded, because it depersonalized the Nazi atrocities, like a whitewashing of the perpetrators). My use of the term might sound like a “blackening” or besmirching of the good citizens on the Planning Board with their predetermined vote! But the term is too important to refrain from using out of fear of offense. It refers to the numbing effect upon the visceral, human response to cruelty at all levels (not only the spectacular cruelty of the concentration camps), the spell cast upon everyone born into the society that disrespects human persons.
In joining my fellow citizens in protest, I had unexpectedly discovered that up-close encounters with banal evil can provoke the anger, the soul’s anger that is of the body, intensely local. That anger, besides being mine, connects me to ancestral suffering, intolerable losses of culture and local ways of life. The disrespect is not new and it is not just something that happened, according to official history, to slaves brought from Africa or to First Nation Americans. The soul’s spontaneous anger shows that banal evil, its unseen architecture, can be exposed by events that provide an opportunity to feel, concretely and directly, disrespected, thus to know that the system in control favors Stewart’s interests, not mine. Because public protest provides opportunity to personalize banal evil I recommend becoming involved in a “lost cause” of your choosing!
Related to this, I do get it why some people were saying everyone should be made to watch the police cam video of the beating of Tyre Nichols. But, at that electronic remove, will the viewers know the disrespect is for themselves as well as Tyre? Will they feel that intensely uncomfortable surge of rage in their chests toward which they then must decide if it’s prompting is friend or foe, God or Beelzebub? Or does the electronic distance allow the person to feel that “good” (safer) outrage on behalf of a racially oppressed other, freeing me from having to contend with a disrespect that is directed at my humanity?
There’s a drawback, however, to the very personal clue anger provides to those of us who do not live – so we think – on the frontlines of the power imbalance and never expect to have to. For those like me, who’ve undergone powerful conditioning to be good, and therefore to have deep misgivings toward my anger, including legitimate anger, it feels like something upon which I cannot act. In part, this caution towards my anger has social benefits, and certainly it has validity. Think about the riot in the Capitol on Jan 6 2021; action anger or revenge-based action is frightening. Though the peoples’ anger has a legitimacy, even if I agree with them in part, such mob-like action feels wrong to me.
No, for “non-banal” anger to break the neoliberal spell and its Zombie truths (i.e., the market system works for the greatest good, etc.,) – for good liberals like myself – it cannot partake of unconscious rage. It must be allied consciously with a “higher” authority speaking to me individually, not to a mob. For this authority I struggle to find a better word than “love.” People raised as I was do not easily see the very political reality of corporate dominance as having anything to do with love. But doesn’t the fact that one cannot oppose Stewart’s without marginalizing oneself as an anti-progress dinosaur, point to the need for a deeper-based love, perhaps connected with primeval memory, of a time when there was a culture, the local Gods, a place-based way of life?
That is, as well as being patient and kind, the love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things, as my anger informs me, is disobedient. Authority for this love is with the first other which is my soul, for whom I will speak. Disobedient love’s “first cause,” as Emerson teaches, is the expression of individual soul truth. Following this premise, it’s clear that other ways to protest, other forms of disobedience are possible, even necessary.
Thus, with apologies for presuming, my advice to any who desire to retain her/his humanity, breaking the bewitchment of corporatism in this time of trouble, has two parts: One, as I repeat so often: Practice your art – whatever creative expression that has allure for you – as if called to it. This is a powerful breaker of the spell, subverting its dominant effect which is to silence the inward voice! Practicing art as calling, especially against the conviction you were not called – committing to it, the art will embody the soul’s truth, making prophecy out of honest indignation. It will be disobedient. As such, art – meaning your art, or mine, whatever form it takes – is initiatory.
Second, to live locally, but in a way that is conscious of its disobedience. For, pretty obviously, local living can be as much about escaping the cross of the moment as climbing it. That is, in order for it to be a soul-growing, downward process, into its roots, becoming human, as in a local culture that had its own gods and its mutual inter-reliance, it has to be initiatory, intrinsically adversarial. Reclaiming the local and face-to-face, its fidelities and its impossibilities is the very ground of loving disobedience. It will make one’s life, too, an art, a difficult one practiced against banal reality in obedience to the soul’s embodied, ancestral truth.
My commitment to living local in Utica was born of attraction – just as one marries someone who one is attracted to partly for reasons known, and partly for reasons unknown that one may discover if the marriage lasts. For me, the commitment to this place serves a counter-intuitive, adversarial function that does not allow me to share liberalism’s banality or assumptions. In establishing our Cafe here together, against the global corporate zeitgeist and conventional “wisdom,” our marriage became disobedient in liberal reality; the basis for (counter) culture. Like farmers yoked to the land, we lived for 20 years with a farmer-like division of labor along gender lines, not like a modern, career-based couple for whom marriage vows, let alone marital fidelity, are relative in value to the freedom to actualize.
Provoked to find how to love this rustbelt, entangled urban reality without falling permanently into the city’s despair we followed a dream; we built our Cafe, a lure for community, a place that feels like home. Its disobedient existence gives the lie to Stewart’s Shops benign banality. Certainly, it speaks to the young, and may be a kind of eldering, a means to breaking the spell of neoliberal absolutism, and to remembering how to be human.