“This place is wonderful. And I love you for trying to provide it for [us]. But there’s nothing here but existence.”
– Lauren Olamina, in Parable of the Talents, by Octavia Butler
“…We need purpose! We need the image the Destiny gives us of ourselves as a growing, purposeful species. We need to become the adult species that the Destiny can help us become!
“It’s more than a good dream. It’s right. It’s true! And it’s so big and so difficult, so long-term, and …so [monetarily] profit-less that it’ll take all the strong religious faith we human beings can muster to make it happen. It’s not like anything humanity has done before”
Looking just at one disaster looming – the coming Presidential election – the two candidates – not yet decided but more or less so, both playing to their base, awesomely lacking in qualities of leadership –
Can there be a shadow of a doubt? The Catastrophe is here. The Catastrophe is needed. It is us. End of sermon.
Well, not quite the end. The day Tucker Carlson got fired, a woman with whom I was working on a project – not a close friend or she’d know my difficulties with the liberal lingua franca – announced this “news” to me. I knew the name, had a feeling he’s someone I don’t admire, but did not have enough to say on the topic to continue this conversation. I asked her to explain the significance (to her) of this firing. I thought that might lead to a clue for me as to how to proceed conversationally. She did not oblige me. Later, probably because the software we were dealing with was causing a bit of stress for two non-tech-savvy women past 60, she mentioned the firing of Tucker Carlson again. Again, I confessed I did not know the significance of this. (What, that he’s too appallingly disgusting for even the culpably amoral corporate puppets at Fox News?) Again, she did not explain.
Later, my shrewd older brother, who watches mainstream news and reads New Yorker magazine, explained it to me. She’s just getting her talk from the news, he said. Ah, I thought! This is what was going on. Instead of a conversation that might have grabbed my interest and brought us closer to friendship – i.e, honest talk about our lives and perceptions of the world – we use processed cheese for the conversation starter! We let the news people do it for us, provide our talking points, like feeding a baby that can’t hold a spoon yet. And, as with the double-dutch jumprope we played in my childhood, if you can’t jump in, you’ll have to stick to the single kind.
Like a stubborn acoustic guitarist while the world goes mad for electric, I stay unplugged, and sometimes it hurts. Instead of plugging in to “the news” as I ought, (whichever “side,” for what’s the difference, once the media is so obviously employed in grinding the axes – and proving partisanal purity – that keep their base satisfied?) Who am I to not take my daily dose of Tucker Carlson, Ron DeSantis, Donald Trump, Marjorie Greene, etc.? To be alternately sickened by them and and then gloating as they (fingers crossed!) face a “comeuppance” – lawsuit or whatever “tribulation” being wanly put in their way by a spiritless opposition. Surely one must take a side; there’s no honest neutrality. But there is dishonest partisanship, refusal to enter the catastrophe, and I just cannot participate no matter what the social cost.
This matter of honesty has been on my mind lately. A reader responded to my last essay that was, in part, about the risk of honesty. He reduced the point of my long (and for him tiring) ) essay to a single statement: “The U.S. Government is the most Brutal Narcissistic World Empire that has ever existed.” Some people might point out that in saying so he goes beyond honesty to “opinion.” (Opinion based, he told me, in his Vietnam war experience as an army medic.) He writes, “There was not one day during that war that the United States Government did not commit an atrocity.” More opinion! That most people uphold the government and its lies, and remain dishonest about America’s barbarism he blames on the refusal of most people to give up their “core belief.”
Perceiving the risk in what he’s saying, I hear it as honesty and not “merely” opinion. There’s something about the risk of honesty, whether confessing one’s addiction to alcohol, or confessing one’s having been abused or raped by a particular person, or confessing the hidden truth of one’s civilization, that takes “truth” to something beyond empiricism. It takes one – and as well, the people who can hear the honest words – transformatively, into a different reality. Honest confession has nothing to do with tell-all confessions a la Prince Harry that serve the public’s addiction to racy celebrity details, or to to being able to denounce “fake news!” It’s not intimate confession of infidelity that’s more about ego needs than the humble work of reconciliation. The sheer impossibility of the honest confession points to the fact that it challenges some major power over the mind ( the “core belief”) one cannot actually perceive until one has made the confession and thereby reached an alternative place to stand. And even then, there’s a “slippery slope” involved, many opportunities for courage to fail one who has tasted the exhilarating release of honesty.
My intention as a writer is to assure people they can let go of the “core belief” that supports the most brutal narcissistic world empire that’s ever existed to which – because there’s no belief alternative – the liberal world clings so tightly, so desperately. Perhaps that writerly intention sounds grandiose on my part. But, as a committed “localist,” my circumstances resemble more those of a prison writer – confined in my remote rustbelt town of bygone glory days, with the same people, day after day, week after week, year after year, and no possibility of parole – than of a normal person pursuing her dream of a career in writing wherever it might take her!
Due in part to my voluntary confinement, I attempt to create in my writing the opening through which can be seen the possibility for an alternative belief – God as the possible – without putting up another God. Confinement drives me to seek freedom in imagination, the alive imagination upon which that possibility depends. Once creative imagination is awakened, it’s not difficult to believe in imagination’s enchanted reality, i.e., the better – utopian, if you will – world. It’s a fragile hope, a mere wisp, as Pandora’s box continues to release new horrors – but so much better than the shambles of this world serving Empire first, common, all-inclusive good last. At least it does not require dishonesty in its defense.
Having just torn through almost all of African American sci-fi author Octavia Butler’s work, I declare that two of them, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, written in the 90’s, are particularly notable for the honesty that’s so difficult for us liberal white people. The two “Earthseed” books are set in California in the near dystopian future, economy wrecked, society breaking down, some people holding onto decency, working at cooperation, while hordes of armed marauding robbers, killers, traders in human flesh, threaten everybody, especially the poor and most vulnerable. Catastrophe denied in real-time 2023, is, in the Parables, well advanced. Butler’s protagonist, Lauren Olamina, is intent on building the alternative – a self-supporting, mutualistic community believing in a collective Destiny, which is to reach the stars (space colonization). In Talents (1998), Butler’s awesome prescience reveals a societal deterioration that has gone as far as the election of a Trump-like fascist president, who preaches making America great again, the Christian fascist thugs now having official backing!
Religiously, Lauren has established an actual God belief (“God = change”), expressed in a book of aphorisms she calls Earthseed. Due to her creative giftedness that can imagine an alternative to the horror and the God that would empower people to build it, the fictional Lauren is a woman with a mission. Her “God-shaping” is reminiscent of great visionary woman religious leaders such as Mother Ann Lee, Jemima Wilkinson, Mary Baker Eddy, Dorothy Day, or mystics like Hildegard of Bingen, who “shaped God” – quite heretically – in the form of their own soul’s vision. That is, they are artists whose subject is God. To the list could be added defiant activists like Harriet Tubman or Sojourner Truth, who also shaped God, but were not religious leaders per se. (For that matter, Abraham, Jesus, Mohammed and the Buddha were great “God-shapers” as well)
In no way, except in what drives me beyond merely “existing,” do I put myself in a category with the exemplary God-shapers. However, though Lauren might be called (and qualify as) a fanatic, and I, for better or worse, don’t have her amount of zeal, in her struggles to be who she is, in the utter confoundedness of her prophetic calling and her vulnerability to self-doubt, she reminds me of myself. I can identify with what might be called her unjustifiable assumption as to what human beings need – that is, purpose, a non-coercive but religiously binding meaning – and I identify with her commitment to social transformation on that completely inclusive, transcendent basis.
Short of providing a God belief, as fictional Lauren does, like her I was motivated (with help from Orin and others) to found the small non-profit arts space next door to our Cafe in Utica as my expression of God-shaping. The purpose of the space was not the obvious one, the events produced in it over 16 years – art exhibitions, lectures, classes, film screenings, community activist meetings, jazz performances, poetry readings, etc. that have given the space its identity in Utica. Possibly due to my desire to avoid “crucifixion” in liberal reality for my belief, the real purpose of The Other Side is less “transparent.” Were you to question my creative soul directly – she’d say the purpose is the Temenos talks I give occasionally on Sunday mornings, based upon the essays I write for Counterpunch and the discussion provoked by them, that draw anywhere from 2 to 10 people.
I cannot deny that there, in the ritual space dedicated to honesty, to strengthening the individual voice in each person, the soul-based voice of the true and the right, is the center the two establishments (Cafe and arts space) are based in. One doesn’t take on monumentally difficult, long-term and unprofitable ventures like ours in Utica except on the basis of what is true and right. If I have any sort of a “global” readership thanks to Counterpunch, the meaning of my writing depends entirely on my commitment to the impossible here in Utica, down in the “mean streets” of liberal reality.
Fictional Lauren’s artistry, drawn from Octavia Butler’s genius, is to bring homeless, utterly disenfranchised, apocalypse-surviving people together into actual, living-on-the-land community. The author’s firsthand knowledge of catastrophe, as a black woman in America, influenced her character’s God-shaping. My vision comes from the honest owning of my whiteness, of the liberal reality conceived in whiteness and in the denial of catastrophe that is the moated castle of whiteness. Perpetuating the dishonest lingua franca of liberalism assures catastrophe will be the lot of others. Confident of the soul’s non-existence, liberal reality unknowingly makes all human beings discardable.
Lauren’s God-shaping is a way that both assumes there must be a divinity, and makes the theological task conscious. Placing the task on individuals – everyone asked to be a shaper – removes the danger of hierarchy. My way has been to ask – through my writing – for the genius God-shaper in everyone to be expressed creatively. As I see it, this is the way – the only way – to connect with the discarded soul that is white peoples’ “blackness.” Put differently, the only way to enter the catastrophe of whiteness, its exceptionalist and hierarchical immutability, is through taking up creative work religiously.
Here, I’m riffing, but, after all, God-shaping is God-improvising. For those of us existing in dishonest white liberal reality, being a “shaper” commits us to refusing its dishonest certainties. To live locally and immediately, which I have referred to as like incarceration by choice, is not only a pre-condition for ecological sustainability, but a necessity for honesty. If not communally as in Lauren’s Acorn, God-shaping demands voluntary circumscription of liberal boundlessness to a specific place and people, However, though severely bounded, living locally in a small city as I do is also improvisationally free. More than that, continuous creative improvisation (the having of one’s ideas) is needed in order to let go of the compulsion for manufactured and manipulative “processed cheese” information.
For people born black in America, the “catastrophe” that informs/shapes Butler’s fictional vision is difficult to deny. For people whose whiteness gives us an unearned pass, to be conscious of catastrophe, now become a tsunami aiming right at us, something different is demanded. For what need is there to take all that risk to build a utopia if life is already mainly benevolent in my case and in my social world? For white me, with all my choices, (all with serious hidden price tags), I need the reality that’s not white, that makes me have to write or not know who I am. In my better moments, I can feel I may have confined myself here in Utica for a reason. Following William Blake (“Every honest man is a prophet…The voice of honest indignation is the voice of God” ) I now suppose I’m here so I could be forced, even inside liberalism’s enclosure, to be honest.