Fighting Banal Evil with the Truth of Trauma  

An angel carrying the banner of “Truth”, Roslin, Midlothian. Photograph Source: Stephencdickson – CC BY-SA 4.0

Few serve truth in truth because only a few have a pure will to be just, and of those again very few have the will to justice; and the most terrible sufferings have come upon man precisely from a drive to justice which lacks power of judgment.
– Nietzsche

Separated from the sphere of labor where society reproduces itself and its misery, the world of art … remains, with all its truth, a privilege and an illusion.
– Marcus

Today’s truth-teller must speak to head and heart alike. By this, I do not mean that press reports should be written in the idiom of fiction, or that financial analysts must now speak in iambic pentameters. This is not a call for emotional slush, touchy-feely outpourings or New Age news. Truth must always have a serrated edge.  My point . . . is that veracity will be drowned out unless it is resonant.
– Matthew D’Ancona

(all epigraphs from Speaking the Truth with Folk and Fairy Tales: the Power of the Powerless by Jack Zipes)

Truth must be resonant – this must have been my credo before I ever read these words of Matthew D’Ancona. I have long believed politics will remain in service to wealth and power until (white, middle class ) liberals can get this “simple truth” – known since the first fairy tale was spun by some grandmother  –  that people are not persuaded by facts alone.  And if the attempt is made to bully with facts and superior knowing, as our mainstream media does, the facts will support a lie,  for they leave out the whole of the truth, its very essence being contradiction.  And contradiction, as Marcuse called it, “the unhappy consciousness of the divided world, the defeated possibilities, the hopes unfulfilled, and the promises betrayed” (One-Dimensional Man) can be borne by human beings only by means of art.

The “whole truth,” that is, is traumatized. It is never banal. We can never have it  as long as we’re mainly informed not by the resonating heart, but by a partial source that skirts the trauma; all context not seen through the heart’s vision, therefore is and must be partial.  Our liberal social-economic context dominates with partiality; it always will have us see the world in a particular way that keeps us on its side, against the heart’s fuller truth.  Since liberal Americans believe in our freedom to “think anything we want” we don’t think of this liberal context conspiratorially – that’s the way the racists, fascists and other bad guys think – but only as what is, and as, overall, with a  fix here or a reform there, benign. Nothing to get hung about.  

What if, instead of NPR , MSNBC, and the NY Times, one’s chief, trusted source of information is one’s own heart? Or others who speak with hearts’ imagination intact?  (I’m tempted to say here, like children). Does that make one’s words overly Romantic and irrelevant or, now having resonance, relevant at last? 


As a writer I am compelled to witness to the heart’s truth, which for a writer of non-fiction as I am, is tough on the credibility.   Moreover, the heart being unreasonable, it insists on judgments that, though surely reducing my potential readership, are, I hope, anathema to banality.  More difficult personally is the “walking the talk” for,  though tyranny is top-down, it is also cunningly localized.  Face-to-face relationships are conscripted via mass culture, in support of convention.  “Living in truth” would seem to compel one to either escape to enclaves of the like-minded or, remaining in place,  risk hurting peoples’ feelings, which judgments invariably do.  One’s very capacity for moral judgement is held in check by this fear – that my words can hurt others, they will recoil, they will not see me as friend.  Due to the lack of challenge to it except by a brave prophetic few, the monolithic fortress of banality and its fear of judgment is now the tyrant whose rule must be overturned beginning in individual hearts and practiced locally, cultivating honesty and trusting that one’s different vibe resonates in the souls of others.  

How did I come to be this kind of writer that banks upon resonance instead of facts?  My writerly vocation came about by ambush,  an interruption – or eruption from the unconscious – and unwanted.  Being a latecomer to vocation and having had the trajectory of my college-educated life interrupted by the irrational, I rely on the heart’s truth for inspiration simply because it granted me my sanity.  So far,  I stick stodgily to non-fiction when fantasy or sci-fi might be more fitting for a utopianist like me, for I have a debt to repay and must name my creditor.  I’m obliged to soul truth for saving me from what the poet William Blake called single-vision, or “Newton’s sleep,” a condition in which I can only be insane.  As for my life here in Utica, maybe I’m an enigma,  a sign of there being a larger reality from which some can take heart as I do from my Muse.  

Much as I admire investigative journalism and scholarly research (the best of which always is resonant), and envy those who do it well, my writing depends and subsists on chance meetings with the Muse, such as the article by Jack Zipes (renowned scholar of fairy and folk tales).  My writerly objective being above all to bolster the perspective of my poor heart that, in our socio-economic context, has been abandoned, banished by “single-vision,” my Muse must be biased on behalf of both poetry and the poor and powerless.  I can only pray for such chance deliverances that bring not so much the grist, but the energy to drive the mill of my creative imagination.  And I submit, its not just because of bad luck that I must depend on chance, rather than on careful planning and organizing and making “right choices,”etc., like successful people.  Rather, it seems as if allegiance to the whole of truth though not requiring literal poverty, demands uncertainty for its milieu, its primary source of approval being not  agreement from my fellows (though this is sweet when it comes), but from my soul.  

In between visitations from the Muse, I’m faced constantly “with master narratives that cloud [my] vision of what it means to live in truth.”  Falling out of truth, for me, is no abstraction. Temporarily I might be buoyed by some excellent thrift shopping,  a few glasses of wine, the comforting presence of friends or family, a transcendent night of jazz at The Other Side such as we enjoyed last Friday. But for me, falling out of truth – though a daily occurrence – is a direct route to the personal worthlessness that’s been at home for 72 years in my traumatized soul.  I’m practically defenseless against the message of  the discardability of human beings in capitalist society.  I do take it personally – can’t help it!    And now, as I advance into old age, moving socially downward into a more recognizable caste as “castoff,” the message of discardability comes in surround sound!  And so, vitally important to me, the guiding light for my work and my aim to live in truth is discovering, with the help of imagination’s eye, “the cracks and leaks in the culture industry and the political-economic network.” (Zipes) 

The Muse that crossed my path most recently came first introduced herself via a brand new coffee-table-size edition of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Fairy tales, The Wounded Storyteller, translated by Prof. Zipes.  Although I generally ignore coffee-table books this one leaped into my hands off the new books shelf at the public library. The translator’s introduction emphasized the role of trauma in Hoffmann’s life, that trauma being not unrelated to the dominant banality of life for people of his class in late 18th-early-19th century Germany.  Prof. Zipes sees Hoffmann as using imagination to turn trauma into art.  Thus fairy tales are important not just as artifacts from the past, but for their relevance to people today – or any day – as we live under that particular day’s tyranny that establishes banality for the affluent classes and misery for the underclasses, (banality being misery-with-rewards). 

To have resonance for me, the Muse must be one who refuses the rewards of banality, sees powerlessness as a given, and has the inward strength to identify not with state power or any political “good guys,” but with the great mass of ordinary others in their/our condition of otherness.  For people like me, such an identification goes against earliest conditioning.   My “class identification” was upward, even though tepidly and even ambiguously so, my father having chosen a downward trajectory as artist. 

For the first half of my life my identity was in limbo. I could not accept the given in toto, nor, lacking initiation into Communist or Marxist belief or any other system opposed to the liberal totality,  including the religion of Jesus, had I any basis for deep resistance to the dominant values of Empire.  I had no word such as “Empire.” I consider that many white middle class people share this predicament.  Following any clues I could find as to what I should be doing, finally at mid-life I at last encountered the naked power of nature via mental breakdown.  I  learned via a hard master there were forces over which I had no control, that demanded of me I learn to rely upon my inward gifts that up to then I had not remotely imagined I possessed. The experience was transformational.  This, I figured, I could do.  I could learn to rely upon, as the gnostic gospel of Thomas says, “bringing forth what is within me,” the pleasure of it, as I never had been able to rely upon the actual social-political environment, its uni-lateral direction,  and its culture industry that left my misery intact.  

 Here in Utica I have not even the pretense of support for this kind of gnosticism from my immediate environment, including from its established artists, who seem not to understand art as “the Great Refusal, the protest against that which is” (Marcuse).  So for many years, over and over, I’ve held my my hands out, palms up, waiting for them to be filled with the Muse.  She appears to me in different guises, mostly in books, mostly via avatars who are Westerners like myself and thus facing the same historical forces, all of them contributors to the West’s noble heritage of dissident knowing that reveals the cracks and fissures in an otherwise seamless “master narrative.”  


The original error in that dominant narrative, a tendency that bloomed fully, as Blake knew,  in the enlightenment abandonment of irrational knowing, is based upon an entirely mistaken ontological premise:  the empirically real – real gold! Real money! is the only real.   By this false belief human beings are sentenced to solitary, isolated existences wherein “only the strong survive.”  Although cultural inputs from quantum physics, and from eastern and indigenous spiritual traditions have had influence, there’s been little trickle down; the vast majority of educated liberal lives, still are based in the old premise as far as I can see.  

This old materialist  premise has been particularly disastrous for the notion of freedom;  it omits awareness that the soul is not free in banal reality. For freedom to be real, the mainly unconscious belief rooted in the materialist zeitgeist of modern society – personal worthlessness – must be revealed for what it is: a defensive cover for real trauma to the soul.  For most of us, if the word trauma has meaning, it refers to historical awareness of the threat of nuclear annihilation, of civilization’s predilection for genocide,  of the potential for mass extinctions due to global warming, etc.  But, in the same way that childhood abuse, or war, leads to personal trauma, the fact of birth in a society that can put no value on the human soul is personally traumatic. Even fortunate economic conditions cannot deliver one from this trauma.  Only individual rescue of one’s personal soul –  attention to the truth of one’s Muse –  offers deliverance. 

It’s natural –  even “healthy-minded” – to deny personal worthlessness and its traumatic basis due to the real dangers of the unconscious. If one unfortunately “falls into” that deepest of wounds, as many do,  it can only lead to the mental institution or at best, some kind of paralysis in the life force. Even the magic of creative expression is no guarantee against madness.   But, still, art and art alone provides the most effective means humans have to both recognize life’s terror and live sanely.  

The “master narrative” encourages one way to expiate personal worthlessness; although this way avoids the risks associated with the Unconscious,  it must not be taken.  Living for others, having one’s identity approved by others, may mitigate the feeling of guilt and fill it with a sense of being needed, of really existing, but freedom is not gained this way.  Inward freedom (not the Ayn Randian freedom to get rich without guilt), selfish as it seems in a society overwrought by the guilt of our individually traumatic isolation, must come first.  To claim one’s individual freedom is not a negation of the truth of interdependence but the means to fulfill it. On the other hand, bowing to the ego’s demand to be righteously giving,  sacrificing for others, to achieve the sense of goodness that comes at the expense of one’s own magnificence,  is just more conformity within the master (imperialist) narrative.

This does not mean we ignore the suffering of our brothers and sisters.  It means we treat the most immediate suffering other – the one in our own soul – as primary obligation.  Ignoring its trauma brutalizes us. This recognition that expression, one’s own voice, is an obligation  – is the foundational judgment upon which all other judgment – the capacity to be a moral being – depends.  As Nietzsche knew, nothing pariahs one as much in the world based in “sham virtues” as judgment.  One makes judgments knowing here, in me, the buck stops; I’d rather pass but I cannot.  I must decide.  Judgments are not dogma.  Truth can live without dogma, it cannot live without the “serrated edge” of judgment. If art, as Marcuse wrote, is a privilege, it’s a privilege based in the soul’s commons.   For “the liberal elite” this might be good news about a holiness that’s not holier than thou.

Kim C. Domenico, reside in Utica, New York, co-owner of Cafe Domenico (a coffee shop and community space),  and administrator of the small nonprofit independent art space, The Other Side.  Seminary trained and ordained,  but independently religious. She can be reached at: