Whereas culture is an accumulation of local and historical experience and memory, liberal “culture” is the vacuum that remains when local experience has been eviscerated, memory is lost, and every place becomes every other place…
– Patrick Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed
Culture was the greatest threat to the liberal individual.
Lying on his back…looking at the high cloudless sky, “Don’t I know that it is infinite space and not a round vault? But no matter how I squint and strain my sight, I cannot help seeing it as round and limited, and despite my knowledge of infinite space, I am undoubtedly right when I see a firm blue vault, more right than when I strain to see beyond it.”
– Konstantin Levin, in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina
Our son Nick being very bright, I imagined for him great things when he was young. My “mother fantasy,” undoubtedly compensatory for my own falling short, aimed – though unintentionally – toward the “stage mother” parasitism that feeds off the child’s success: he would get into Harvard and have some kind of distinguished career.
My imagination has come a long way since my 20’s and 30’s. Nick never completed a college degree, though if he were tested in the areas of his interests, in particular books and music, his knowledge would exceed that of the test-makers! Turning 45 this June, he’s a family man and co-owns a bar in Utica. A young woman artist who recently spent time in Britain told me the Green Onion Pub reminds her of the pubs there – a place where one can feel at home. Noteworthily, the Onion has no TV’s; its walls above the worn wooden booths in the dimly lit room are filled with oddities – newspaper front pages from history-making days, cheesy paintings, beer memorabilia, old photos of anonymous people, a couple of exotic taxidermied antler-bearing heads, a map of old Utica, etc. Behind the bar, above the liquor bottles, are shelves of books. Too tiny a space for live music, there’s always music playing that’s worth listening to, maybe to hear something new. Though Nick has 2 business partners, the allusion to books, the wide-ranging interest in music, the overall non-sports bar aesthetic, probably has much to do with his honest taste for things that have meaning for him.
With our daughter Molly running our coffeeshop, both children, bright, multi-talented, and politically non-aligned are seemingly dedicated to the service industry in Utica, as is Molly’s partner. I’m not sure if at times they don’t see it as a “dead end” kind of work. But the shift away from mainstream professional aspiration reflected in their choices, and in ours to start the coffeeshop and run it ourselves for 18 of its 20-plus years, has turned my perspective on “success” completely around.
That our children would be fully local,”lowly” service industry workers Orin and I brought upon ourselves, I suppose, through our mid-life decision to become business owners promoting local consciousness, local culture, local community, and even before that, to have never quite integrated ourselves into full liberal, career-and-benefits ambitions. “We reap what we sow,” and the harvest from such a strange non-agricultural sowing turns out to be something not expected, often feeling like a scarcity, but at times offering us glimpses of unanticipated bounty.
Every conscious move back to the local is a move in near-total dark; the life the soul is drawn to brings the person up against the tragedy of modernity that people learn not to see, and which is never articulated in the world where buying and selling must go on. It cannot be right, but is right by the one arbiter to be trusted, one’s soul. Though I hardly dare say it, there now seems to be emerging from the move we took back to the local, in our revalorizing and reinhabiting the local lives and commitments demeaned in liberalism, an answer to our question: i.e., how may ordinary people live outside the one liberal reality, on the fringe of and in resistance to global corporate capitalism?
Problematically, the answer, like the character Konstantin Levin’s realization in Anna Karenina, though it can be influenced by reading works of great anarchists and lovers of human kind, comes only personally; it’s useful to others only insofar as they will live in uncertainty for very long stretches of time, and as long as they are open to the voice of their soul whose prompting leads towards constraint, contrary to the freedoms granted in liberal society. And, finally, the answer is useful only when the understanding, like Levin’s, is poetic. Thus, until his realization under the “firm blue vault,’ Levin’s in a constant state of alienation amongst his fellows, his only certainties his love for Kitty and his love for his land.
Thus far, my children abide in their parents’ political aspirations, appreciating the family anchoring and locally-based way of life we’ve established, articulating neither their own faith nor their politics (in my hearing). However, they live less ambivalently in their lives than I. Just as when we first moved to Grant St. thirty-odd years ago I didn’t know how to live in a racially-and-income mixed neighborhood that was not a “neighborhood” as I understood the term, while my children took the neighborhood for granted, they have put their local lives together as adults without the self-doubts I’ve suffered. Whether it is actually possible to rebuild culture in the shell of the old without that suffering and self-doubt, without the realization that is soul-deep and personal, I’m not sure. (I’m also not sure that the father and mother don’t have to die before the children pick up the fuller initiation into their identity!)
For his struggle to be at peace with his decision to live on and work his land, alongside the peasants, fictional though he is, I love Levin like a brother. His personal struggle for an identity not conferred by class, in defiance of liberalism’s fear of otherness affirms for me this is what the call to the local is. His example, his struggle and tormenting self-doubt shows me it takes time for consciousness to arrive in the place where the soul was all along.
In other words, for those of us pioneering in the attempt to “build the new in the shell of the old,” we perhaps must see ourselves like the immigrants who left their land of origin to make a better life for their children, our lives a necessary transitional sacrifice so the next generation can be integrated into the new reality. We cannot expect the fight for independent, soul-based identity to be without suffering, for which we are entirely unprepared by suffering-free, “all good” liberalism. But as it turns out, the creative soul is conversant in suffering, capable of taking the lead, of turning sorrow to joy, woe to song or dance, alienation to belonging; its “job” to make meaning where there was none.
I often hear people of my Boomer generation refer to our being like immigrants in the “new world” of computer know-how and wondrous internet connectibility. But in the case of returning to lives based locally, adaptation for people of the political left will not be accomplished by assimilation in the plutocratic-technocratic liberal establishment, but by accepting and fulfilling one’s identity, independent of the technology, as a one-person cultural “other.” Though the process leaves one starved for the sense of belonging with other “others,” the soul-deep truth is, stretches of loneliness and self doubt may be expected; the cart will not go before the horse!
There needs to be a word for this different kind of migration. Wendell Berry calls us “settlers.” Maybe we’re intra-migrants.
That is, this kind of local pioneering is a different sort of “trek,” far more involved than making a political or moral statement. It is not a revolution replacing the old with the new, the new regime looking “same as the old regime.” It is far more than a choice made thinkable by means of the internet and telecommunications, incautious (liberal) use of which keeps people firmly on the neoliberal “grid.” It is rebuilding culture person by person, the challenges to which are immense for we 21st century liberalized leftward people, with our learned disdain for custom, tradition, and place.
As localizing intra-migrants, we’re compass-less. Unlike 19th century peasant immigrants to America, we’ve been scrubbed clean of culture. Our de-culturing stretches far back, much further back than the despicable, genocidal policy of our government that forced Native Americans’ children into white peoples’ schools. In fact, de-culturing stretches further back than liberalism, to the empire builders of the past that erased local cultures to build civilization. Remnants of a pre-civilized culture we might call our own do exist, but only in fairy tales!
Furthermore, we lack the lived proximity to a functioning culture from which we might gain help in the quest for identity. Tolstoy’s Levin, on the other hand, who knew intimately people who knew what God wanted of them, was not so compass-less as we. As the values of his own aristocratic class were becoming liberalized, Levin lived and labored side by side with the peasants who were genuinely other, cultural identity retained in their customs, traditions and in-place roots.
Not accidentally, the conversation that leads to Levin’s realization of imagination’s truth, (like that of the eponymous character in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illich) came directly out of his relationship with a peasant other. We moderns who belong to the liberal state and the global market have no such intimate relationship with “others” that could – now that we at least nominally respect cultural differences, and regret the colonialist and imperialist past – serve to remind us of the soul-deep identity less “schooled” people may have retained. But we have not got that proximity. With our liberal assumption of classlessness, not to mention our increasingly gated lives, we, unlike Tolstoy, are no longer positioned to being influenced bottom-up.
(In fact, liberal egalitarian qualms over using terms like “peasant,” or “primitive,” with their implication of superiority, we frown upon – indicate one effective way we keep from grappling honestly with otherness. And thus we keep our supremacy intact! In one middle school in whitest Vermont, I’m told, in announcing over the intercom a list of words students must not use in school, a principal was fired for saying the word “nigger!” The young relation who told me this story believed this was justice. I see it as liberal tyranny extending its reach, just as does conservative tyranny in
DeSantis’s Florida. In an identical way, each side of the neoliberal establishment stirs up contentiousness and enmities, distracting its adherents from any possibility they might, (putting down the screen for a moment,) bend their ear to the uncompromising voice of otherness in their own soul.
Being unable to honestly admit the superiority that’s assumed in the modern market-based, competitive world over every culture that preceded or is other than our own, leaves middle class white liberals in a continuous anxiety lest we be or become losers. This complication Levin, landowner and aristocrat, did not have. But even for him, it was necessary to have confirmation of the life his soul had chosen; he needed his own imaginative re-seeing of his life and his identity, bringing him into alignment with what his soul already knew. He had to become humble enough to accept poetic truth as truth.
Thus, living locally is transformation into an “otherness,” an identity-level change such that one is now counter to liberal reality not because it is morally and aesthetically repugnant but because it excludes oneself in one’s most cherished, soul-nourishing identity. And for us liberalized moderns, for that reason, the problem of returning to the local is great.
Tethered as liberal society is to the alluring promises of better and more, culture can only re-emerge inside the traditional forms liberalism has abandoned. What’s needed, though, is not letter-of-the-law return to the top-down authoritarianism of old, but bottom-up authority in which the individual’s chief allegiance is to the soul and its capacity – partnered with reason – to lead. What’s called for is reclaiming the social sensitivities we’ve lost, that begin in sensitivity toward the need of the soul for conscious alignment with it, the basis for culture. Cultural forms, customs and traditions must be re-inhabited, re-invented if you will, and made conscious.
Recently we watched two movie remakes of famous 19th century literary works. One, Under the Greenwood Tree, is a 2005 TV-movie based upon Thomas Hardy’s novel. Set in early 19th century Dorset, in a charming village that still retained its local culture, it’s the story of a village schoolteacher courted by 3 men, the rich man, the parish minister, and a young laborer who sings in the village “quire.” Following her heart, Fancy goes for the last, the no-contest hunkiest of the three, who remakes himself for her sake into an ambitious businessman. In the film’s take, Fancy’s choice to remain local for love’s sake, among simple, laboring people – electing to be a service industry worker! – appears easy! In betraying no consciousness of the resistance her choice embodies, the film, though the story it was based on was light for Hardy, was more trivial than Hardy would have wanted.
In contrast, the 2010 remake of Jane Eyre was remarkable for its attention to the real but invisible moral constraints upon our heroine, mostly dramatized in the actor’s facial expression. Jane’s defiance of her aunt’s tyranny, we can “get” easily. But her struggle to be true to her conscience is not one people are familiar with today; when love is unmoored from claims of morality, her choice looks so easy, Rochester so much hunkier than St. John! What made this film powerful, not trivial, is the movie’s faithfulness to Jane’s real struggle in her real soul, a struggle in darkness, which she could not compromise in order to “be a missionary’s wife” nor to live with the married man she loved.
Here in the amoral soullessness of liberal reality, the task now for the restoration of a human-based culture (the only kind there is), is to attend to that struggle in each soul to have it’s voice, and to re-authorize it so the different harvest can be imagined.