Freedom and Imagination

by Phil Rockstroh

August 4, 2003


Experiencing the uncertainties inherent in living in Freedom can be daunting, bewildering, even terrifying. In this regard, it resembles the act of sitting before a blank sheet of composition paper or the empty screen of a word processing application, its cursor throbbing like a palpitating heart, in the vain hope of drawing forth the Imagination.

Freedom, like the Imagination, is always with us: Although present, they are not always in plain view. Like the Irish aphorism that goes: "Mrs. O'Kelly, do you believe in fairies?" "No, I don't -- but they're there." Freedom and Imagination may be indeed present, but they simply refuse to reveal themselves due to the fact that we simply could not cope with the verity-decimating implications of their existence.

On the occasions that Freedom does show up, it is more often than not vehemently denounced. From church pulpits to political platforms, its piety and patriotism are challenged; it is told it is a threat to public safety and is relegated to "free speech zones;" it is arrested at shopping malls, banished from restaurants (though it's told it's name may be acceptably applied to thinly sliced, deep-fried tubers that formerly carried an offensive, pseudo-Frankish, given name). It is generally not invited to dinner parties and is not welcomed at family gatherings; it's told to get a job; it is told it can only be safely regarded when pressed under glass and preserved only as a yellowing document of antiquity.

Sometimes, in our better moments, we do leave the seclusion of our habitually self-referential mind sets in an attempt to search for traces of this elusive and intriguing entity know as Freedom. We do this in much the same manner one struggles to string words together in order to see what images and ideas may be born.

Though, on auspicious occasions, mostly late at night, the visions do arrive; of course, they do so, at their own time, with their own agenda -- and if one is diligent and lucky, one may be bestowed with a fleeting moment of Inspiration. And, as is the case with Freedom, we wonder, where does it come from and why does it demand our attention at such odd and inconvenient moments? This is generally the case: An idea arrives, unheralded and unbidden, in the middle of the night, when we are too exhausted and too demoralized to rise from bed.... Of course, this is Inspiration's preferred time of arrival. The same idiosyncratic sense of timing is present with Freedom: It always seems as though Freedom calls for our assistance at the most outrageous and inconvenient hours, calling from jail, saying it got drunk and got in a barroom brawl with the Patriot Act.

But, at times, Freedom and the Imagination do seem to abandon us: Why? And where do they go? Do they grow so annoyed by our relentless pettiness, mendacity, and myopia that they expatriate themselves to some obscure region in the farthest reaches of our consciousness, self-exiling themselves to the far-flung outposts of the unconscious? Those nether regions beyond time, temporal place, and waking understanding, a realm where the language of dreams is spoken -- (it is not that words have no value here; rather, they'are just not the dominant currency). They have returned to the place that is the womb and grave of all things, where ideas wait to be born and old forms are composted back into the seeded soil of future Inspiration. Incipient understandings germinate here; perennial hopes blossom in abundance. Both the reservoirs of love and the swirling eddies of enmity are part of the lineaments of our internal landscape. This is the place where I have been when I awaken in the middle of the night and do know not why I have been weeping in my sleep.... This is the place where departed loved ones live on; where our lost dreams are relegated and where I still love all my ex-lovers and still believe love is deathless; It is a place of sheltering Psalms and endless sobbing, of giddy aspirations and grinding apprehensions. A state of being as impossible to quantify as a flight of whimsy -- but as immanent as the architecture of desire. This is the risen and fallen kingdom on last Tuesday, This is the moment of the universe's collapse into singularity, This is the ghost of a repressed desire, This a Homeric hymn, This is the orgasmic spasm that inseminates the womb of the woman who will give birth the to next Newton (Sir Isaac and Wayne).... Here there are seething cesspools of arrogant ambitions, Here are the orgasms that were the origins of Nixon and Bush. (Yes, it can get ugly, here -- very, very ugly...rutting wildebeests, spawning lampreys, coupling republicans... The mind reels, the stomach churns.)

Here: Niels Bohr's dictum is the law of the imaginal land: "The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth."

The horizon is so vast here; the landscape is infinitely variable. In this realm: Yearning is a commodity; priggishness a sin. (Except among the orders of the peevish Angels of Uncertainty -- among whom reluctance is a virtue -- equivocation is grace... All is included here -- even the refusal to exist is included in the headcount of what is present. In the Realm of Refusal, scholars write the official history of What Didn't Take Place, and the relics of non-existence are archived in the Museum of What Didn't Come To Be... Someday, we will plan to refuse to go there. Maybe when the ideas do not arrive at our bidding, this is where they are. The have made other plans: Maybe, simply to spend the day lounging beside pools of nothingness, floating upon the cosmic pool toys of non-being.

I, all on my own, with only the guidance of my epic sense of entitlement, decided the vast cosmos needed to be my wet-nurse -- that I was entitled to the milk of inspiration every time I cried out for in it the night. It is all so difficult, now that I have left my private Eden of Infantile Omnipotence -- I have to struggle for substance now -- grow it, hunt it, harvest it, earn it -- The whole exquisitely painful ordeal that allows me to gain a glimpse of awareness into the complicated interplay between necessity and desire and between the ever-shifting shadow play between life and death -- not to float in the blissful oblivion of the womb of timelessness. It is painful out here; there is much struggle. The ripe fruit of Freedom is not instantly available in low-hanging branches of trees. Living things, things I love and care for, age and die here in the inscrutable vastness of the world beyond the glades and glens on my Edenic longings for safety and permanence. Unlike the fabled fruit of paradise, my face has been changed by time. I want to cry out: Please -- suspend my existence in perpetual bliss -- Botox my face back to the paralysis of paradise. Protect me from anything I cannot dominate and possess. The only thing sacred is my tiny will. I am a storm trooper of the tiny agenda. My rationalization to curtail the chaos of Freedom is my personal, perpetually burning, Reichstag fire, borne of my thwarted drive to destroy everything I cannot control. I am J. Edgar Hoover trundling the streets on Washington D.C. in my specially-built, armored limo; I am Howard Hughes, hold-up in the hermetically-sealed penthouse of the Landmark Hotel in Las Vegas, clutching sanitizers, muttering at dust. I am John Ashcroft draping a shroud over the naked breasts of Liberty. Yes, Liberty stands exposed -- and this is not because she is a hootchy-kootchy dancer (well, not all the time)-- It is because to be free -- is to be open -- to move spontaneously in the world -- to not reflexively cover-up its fleeting beauty and pervasive ugliness: -- Yes, Liberty is a grand lady and tawdry hootchy-momma -- She meets our gaze full-on: She obliterates us with beauty and redeems us by revealing to us the squalid grace of our imperfect humanity. She finds the best within us -- but, at times, she has been known to hang out with the worst sorts.

We can exist without her -- but our lives are diminished by her absence. We become slaves who love their chains. We lose ourselves to mindless appetite and meaningless sensation: We mistakenly think we glimpse her in soul-numbing theme parks, in the legal larceny of Las Vegas, in the empty extravaganza of "blockbuster" movies and "big" Broadway shows. Liberty does not go through life as a dim tourist, hubristically mistaking all the things of the world for "my vacation experience."

Without her expansive tutelage, our better aspirations wither. Exploitation becomes the rule of the day: The Tree of Life is clearcut, then processed down to toothpicks and emery boards; History begins to repeat itself so often that it develops a stutter and must be placed in speech therapy; flights of the Imagination are grounded and searched for dangerous and smuggled cargo. A monkey in a man-suit is foisted as our leader. A million lies are told; a million promises are broken. The poor starve; the rich rot from within. All we hold precious is imperiled, as we engage in an endless struggle for the procession of piffle. Am I -- a human being, born of woman, endowed with heart, sinew, and soul who yearns and grieves, and trudges into the morning drizzle, or am I -- a marketing demographic, a compendium of advertising clichés and avaricious fantasies who exists in the nowhere realm of the consumer noosphere? Thank you, Lord Jesus -- Thank you, Paine Webber. Now: I must have a god that speaks to me in the language of consumerism that I am accustomed to; one that addresses the times I live in: I need a Risen Christ of Marketing Values, a gospel that might read something like this "... so in the new millennium, it came to pass that Jesus wised up -- he learned from his early years of hanging around the wretched and poor that there is a better way to brand them with his logo of consumer salvation. Now, he's opened a mega-store, named Saved-Mart.... His plan is to open one in every town on the sinful earth and put those pitiful, main street churches, mosques, and synagogues out of business for good.... He's more powerful than the Son of God -- He's a god damn CEO! For He so loved the world -- He bought the company. And the word rang from the mountain tops: 'Attention Saved-Mart shoppers'."

Christianity was born as a desperate fantasy of the oppressed -- positing the comforting but curious notion that somehow, in some way, some invisible Sky-Daddy, who exists beyond the clouds, cared enough about our wretched plight to send a filial savior in order to shake up the brutal, intractable social order that subjugated us, to turn the existing hierarchy upside down. It has always provided palliative relief for slaves. It resonates still in this age of reconstituted oligarchy. The fantasies of the apocalypse and the rapture will free us from our meaningless jobs, our mindless consumerism, all the empty appetites of our corporate Babylon. In the meantime, you may displace your discontent with MORE work and MORE shopping, attempt to snuff out your dread, engendered by the emptiness of it, with anti-depressants, and, when a tiny voice inside insists there must be MORE to life than this -- stuff it down with MORE food, MORE TV, MORE mega-stores.... Now: Piety and Consumerism synergize: There is no wall of separation between the church and the corporate state, All mammon is blessed and all our manufactured and material goods are holy -- from our convenience store burritos to our thermonuclear bombs. Saved-Mart is the natural byproduct of this system of belief: We shop for bargains and salvation throughout the Mall of Earthly Paradise -- while Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John become beatifically smiling greeters at the door, exulting us, as we enter the sacred place, "Welcome to Saved-Mart -- Have a nice Eternity." We are conditioned to believe MORE stuff purchased with MORE money will set us free -- but, if the oligarchs have so stacked the game against us that this cannot be accomplished -- Jesus will return to set it right. He won't allow us to suffer the indignities engendered by our thwarted impulses for instant gratification for long. How can he -- for he loves us? Right?

To this Freedom, Liberty, and the Imagination reply, "If Christ died for my sins -- then he grossly overreacted."

Ivan Illich wrote: "In a consumer society there are inevitably two kinds of slaves: the prisoners of addiction and the prisoners of envy." The word "consume" does not mean to acquire or take in -- it literal means to burn -- to be consumed by flames. We are being burned at the stake by our shallow obsessions for material objects, literally sacrificing the sacred moments of our lives at the alter of our possessions.

But there is another variety of flame (and I don't mean hackneyed hellfire -- or even all too veritable Hiroshima) -- the sacred and sacrilegious flames of Freedom and the Imagination, which are both wildfire and domestic hearth, flickering matchstick and exploding supernova, ground-lightening and divine fire -- they warm and illuminate -- they can create a firewall to protect us from the consuming flames of consumerism. Freedom and Imagination counsel us not to burn with shallow ambition -- burn those shallow ambitions. The truths of our heart are a protective flame. But they cannot and will not provide for us -- a nebbish's fantasy of absolute protection; rather, they counsel with a terrifying beauty. Like a Rilkean angel, they state: "For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we still are able to endure, and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us...."

Freedom and Imagination will not comfort us with Oprah-palaver; instead, they will decimate the banal intricacies of our self-absorbed casuistry -- because their vocabulary consists of the eternal, the grammar and syntax that connects the narrative of all things. They speak: Star, Ocean, Storm. They will not say: "Good boy. Now here's your reward: A life free of doubt and uncertainty. Are you feeling better now? Good -- Now back to work!" Freedom and the Imagination do not concern themselves with the brittle sensitivities of prigs, phonies, soulless prevaricators and feckless ass-kissers. They know there is more to us than simply our pallid fantasies of control, consumption and protection: There are vast landscapes of the heart to explore; they remind us that we are more than mere mollusks -- our shells clamped against oceanic existence; that there exists an expansive cosmos of yearning within us -- that we are more than a compendium of marketing clichés, that the narrative of our lives consists of more than a litany of self-serving lies.

Rilke once said something along the lines of: Everybody has a letter written inside their heart and if you don't live the life your heart needs to live, you will not be allowed to read this letter before you die.... Then we might infer that: Somewhere there is a dead-letter office, vast and cavernous, where, perhaps, our mail awaits, unopened and unread....

What might be written in these lost letters -- What thoughts and feelings might be contained therein: they might be evocative of the deep yearning Wordsworth experienced, longing to see Proteus rise from the sea; or -- of Allen Ginsberg's anguished cry against the devouring Moloch of the commodified empire; it might be revealed in the impertinent flutter of Groucho Marx's eyebrows; it is the feeling that rose within us, in our childhood, when we first saw the ocean; it is to be found at the center of Saturday night; it is evoked in the act of telling off a son-of-bitch of a boss when we quit a bad job and then spending the remainder of the afternoon in the park; it is heard in the whistle of a train in the distance and in the enveloping calls of animals and insects on a warm night in high-summer; it might very well be summoned in the miracle that transpires when we fleetingly find the resolve to open ourselves to the uncertainties of Freedom and when we attempt to follow the example of the Imagination by breaking free of the shackles of mundane thought and reflexive conformity, and it may be revealed to us when we rally ourselves to counter the relentless aggression of the Demons of Banality by siding with the Angels of Reason and Inspiration. Don't delay: Act as if your life -- if not the survival of the world -- depends on it.

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America the 'beautiful' on Swans


Phil Rockstroh, a self-confessed gasbag monologist, is a poet and a musician who lives in New York City (Manhattan). Rockstroh is co-author, with Chris Chandler, of Protection From All This Safety, (Portals Press, 1997, ISBN: 0916620301). He's had short fiction published in Silver Web Literary Magazine, Thin Ice, Brutarian, and poems included in a few anthologies, such as "From a Bend in the River." Owed royalties galore by various publishers, Phil Rockstroh sent his first contribution to Swans with the queasy relief that he would not be financially compensated for it.

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Published August 4, 2003
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