November 17, 2003
When I was three, after disembarking from a train from Atlanta, I was
led by my parents through Terminus Station in downtown Birmingham,
Alabama. As we walked, I gazed upon the polished floor -- dazzled --
lost in a wilderness of glinting mica. As we ascended the steps towards
the lobby of the main terminal, I beheld the eternal predator: A six
foot tall statue of Mr. Peanut. This legume-shaped, spindly-armed,
top-hat and monocle-bedecked shill for salted nuts seemed some
alien-insect god, the fearsome emissary of a predatory race. The sight
of this looming, plastic statue overwhelmed me with primal terror. I
found myself thrust into the ancient landscape of instinctual
intelligence. A larger order had been revealed. I had no doubt of its
tangible danger: Small, vulnerable creature that I was, this occurrence
to my child's mind (that had not yet lost its primordial reactions to
the realities of the so-called modern world before me) was tantamount to
the sudden appearance of the shadow of a swooping hawk glimpsed by a
There are days that still play out this way for me. Often, this has been my church and my dinner bowl-- This is the closest I can come to the ancient belief in the unbearable beauty of god.
Dangerous. Impersonal. Devouring. Our existence seems a cosmic food court. A predatory animal might tell us: "It's really nothing personal -- I just find you rather tasty." He would have a point: I harbor no animus or ill-will towards my lunch. I don't read a menu with malice. As a queasy philosopher once asked, rhetorically: "What is the Music of the Spheres? --'Munch, Munch, Munch.'"
Death is more like a kid in a candy store than the grim reaper. Don't ask for whom the dinner bell tolls... Let the Blue Plate Special shine its ever-living light on me. If we were to glimpse into the bowels of creation, we would find a tape worm. I think, even though, we have been born into this hungry place, we might try to resist the temptation to devour the world like it is fast food through a drive-through-window.
Nations, tribes, families tell tales. These stories attempt to make sense of an incomprehensible cosmos; they serve to illuminate the murk of our minds. Temporarily, they warm us, fleetingly banishing the chilling revelation that we, ultimately, face the cold and chaotic world alone. We stay close to our stories, huddling around them, like the homeless do around a trash can fire on a frigid night while castoff from a society that is indifferent, if not, outright hostile to their circumstance and fate. Our stories connect the random swirl of events. They bestow meaning. They give us purpose. Without them, Yeats tells us, we are: "A tattered coat upon a stick, unless Soul clap its hands and sing [...]"
When events and circumstances of our lives become terrifying, daunting, and unbearable, we are prone to create waking dreams of deus ex machina: Of risen and returning saviors, of eternal feasts and attentive virgins in paradise, of communion with space brothers and decisive, time-ending wars that will banish all sin and suffering, but even our epic tales of providence are devoured by the ravening winds of time.
It is difficult to admit one is wrong, that we are often selfish and greedy. We have to find rationales to live with ourselves and to tolerate the presence of those close to us. Our tales serve to repackage self-deception as self-confidence. A nation's acts of genocide are re-accounted as the epic tales of heroes guided by the hand of the One True God. As Jean Renoir piquantly put it, "You know, in this world there's one thing that's terrible, that everyone has their reasons."
Is some degree of deceit and delusion (both personal and collective) necessary and natural? Do we need an inner sanctuary of self-deception where we can seek shelter from the inhospitable climes of larger reality and its ego-decimating storms of antagonistic truth? How then do we account for all the tragedy and the folly attendant to this escape from freedom and responsibility? Crusades, landgrabs, deforestation, the existence of Branson, Missouri, human sacrifice, the slave trade, the traffic on the 405 in Los Angeles, Torquemada, Stalin, Hitler, the collected works of the Osmond family -- You name the era of human history and somebody is lying and somebody is dying as a result and somebody is listening to truly awful music. And I'm not entirely certain these circumstances aren't all in some way connected. Think of the Nixon-era sounds of the Carpenters (if you can stand it). I see the music of the Carpenters, with its ersatz balm of musical palliatives administered to soothe the trauma engendered by the tumult of the 1960s as the pop culture analog of Dick Nixon's "I will bring us together" lies. During times of trauma and uncertainty (which is standard fare for a life on this finite and ever-changing earth) we seek a narrative of reassurance -- even clinging to ones that are spurious -- even preposterous: George W. Bush will restore "dignity to the White House." Right! -- and druggy Rush Limbaugh will restore dignity to the Crackhouse. This addiction to lies of reassurance lies at the heart (or more accurately the black spleen) of today's so-called "Cultural Wars." The obsessive need to believe that it is possible to return to a golden past that is populated by well-turned out children, dutiful wives, docile minorities, all of whom are lorded over by morally upright white men who wield their righteous power guided by the grace and mercy of the All-Powerful, All-Knowing, Ever-Lasting, Great-Big White Guy in the Sky. Conservatives go weak at the knees for this hokum. In the 1980s, they swooned, seeing Ronald Reagan's pompadour held high and steady against the changes that blew in the wind from the odious 1960s. The Gipper's fine head of 1940s' hair should be cast in stone on Mount Rushmore: There, it can defy wind, rain, and snow, and be, axiomatically, impervious to the reality of change -- that is, until, the inexorable ravishes of impersonal, amoral, and apolitical time reduce even mountains of stone to rubble. Alas -- like Old Dutch's Alzheimer's-afflicted neurons -- (alas, like us all, in one way or another, in the end) they will have fallen to the predation of time.
This is the futility of the "it's not the way it was" view of the world; it is a psychological trope which conveys, that, in order to be saved from ourselves, we must bring back the traditions of the past. But if this were true -- and even if there had ever existed such a rarefied era of human nobility and rectitude as this fantasy posits -- trying to reestablish its beliefs and practices to protect us from the vicissitudes of our present lives would be analogous to attempting to find shelter from a sudden rain storm by running to the location where a building that had been torn down years before had once stood.
Another shop-worn coping-device of the conservative mind-set is their liberal use of the false dichotomy. For example: If one opposes the doctrine of unilateral, "preemptive" war, then one is in support of terrorism. Using this method of debate they can twist even the most innocuous statements into utterances of menace and treason. Suppose you declare that "the moon is very lovely tonight" to a right-wing practitioner of the art of the false dichotomy, they might counter, "that's just like you liberals to hate the sun and actively support the forces of evil that wish to destroy it and plunge the world into perpetual darkness. Why do you treacherous moon-mollycoddlers so hate the world that you wish to destroy the earth? It's only because America exists on it and George W. Bush is her leader -- isn't that right? You so hate George Bush that you would blow up the sun just to get him, wouldn't you?" Or: You might state, "I have a pet goldfish." To which they might inveigh: "Why do you hate all warm-blooded things? It's because you're trying to further the perverted piscatorial agenda, isn't it? You hate the human race, don't you? You hate the fact that there are decent, air-breathing, two-legged, heterosexual, Christian families walking around on dry land, don't you? You wish to convert us all to a lifestyle where we would lose our god-given extremities and sprout flippers and fins and return to the seas and become cold-blooded, homosexual, atheistic sea creatures swishing around in the licentious ocean? Why do liberals hate the very air we breathe?" Or: You say, "I gave away my old sport jacket to the Goodwill" "Oh sure," they'd fume. "That's just like you liberals. Just play sartorial wet-nurse to the poor. Nobody takes me to Brooks Brothers and fits me for a new business suit whenever I have the whim. And they should. You know why: Because the wealthy can handle fine clothes and the poor cannot. I mean you start giving them clothes and what do they want next? Free, shiny accessories to go with those clothes. And soon the situation gets completely out of hand.... I mean, soon, they're covered head to toes in shiny, shimmering jewelry and we rich, pink people are made to look so bland by comparison. Doesn't anyone care about the growing and dangerous bling, bling gap that's tearing this country apart? Where's the outrage? You liberals are at it with the class warfare again, aren't you?"
Take away our tales of reassurance, our tropes of trip-wire denial and invective, and our child-like desire to believe that the world can be controlled, explained, and magically manipulated to soothe our fears and cater to our desires -- then what remains? The daily criteria of our lives would seem an incomprehensible roil of chaos. At night, we would stand lost and bewildered beneath a wilderness of indifferent stars. So we personalize the universe. "It was God's will that the trailer park was flattened by the twister." (Of course, it had nothing to do with the violent collision of powerful air currents, rural poverty and shoddy building materials.) Or: "Jesus died for our sins." (Of course, his execution had little to do with his pissing off the Powers That Was of his era by his agitating for a more just society. Nope, he just decided he should be nailed to a cross and be left to die an agonizing death under the merciless desert sun because he had looked into the future and saw you downloading internet porn at work and knew he had to do something dramatic that might give you pause.)
Even finding patterns in the aforementioned stars of the nighttime sky is fodder for the fantasists: "My rising sign has entered Leo, the Lion, so I'm feeling brave and expansive, only I have a strong urge to mark my neighbor's property with my leonine piss, but, fortunately, Mercury has gone retrograde, wreaking hell on mechanical objects and causing my zipper to become stuck in the closed position, hence saving me from possible embarrassment and arrest. Plus: My third house of Capricorn has gone condo and since Scorpio is rising in Pisces I have leaking plumbing and bugs in my second house, all of this causing my celestial property values to plummet while my sun sign, being effected by Aquarius, is causing me to retain water."
It all has to mean something, doesn't it? Alas, who are we in a universe which is wholly indifferent to our fate? What are we left with? Torment and terror to be sure. With the light of what kind of narrative can we illuminate the ever-present darkness of our lack of knowledge of ourselves and of the world? Between the silence of infinite space and the din of our closer cosmos comprised of eating and coupling and laughing and weeping, how might we create a story that gives us meaning and also provides us with the strength, passion and sense of purpose needed for getting on with our lives?
What kinds of stories might serve to console us? Or: Is this even possible at this juncture of human history?
Is it possible that we need -- not only to be comforted -- but to be moved, stirred, and transformed as well? Perhaps, the acts of eating and coupling and laughing and weeping are about as honest as we can get. Has there ever been any human utterance as starkly honest as the whistle of a winter wind through the branches of barren trees or even the simple decisive crunch created by a horse eating an apple? The order of impersonal nature and her murderous and regenerative beauty plays through us in our everyday acts of passion and necessity. Is this not sufficiently sublime for us?
If I were to simply declare myself befuddled by it all (which is the closest I can come to knowing the truth) might Truth's cousin Clarity cease her practice of avoiding me on the street and dodging my phone calls? If I were to just admit my utter wretchedness, would her beautiful sister Grace (as in: Moments Of) deign, from to time to time, to bestow a pity-fuck upon me. Alright, I'll settle for a pity-flirt. OK, OK, a moment of eye contact from across a crowded room. I'll settle for that and be grateful -- and I'd brag about it to all my friends, who, of course, will think I'm making the whole thing up. And I would be -- like we all do: Individuals, groups of friends, lovers and enemies, tribes, organizations, corporations, nations, religions, the lot of us -- as we search the sky for signs of salvation and scour the earth seeking out comfort and necessity -- but deep down knowing we'd be lucky to simply spend a few fleeting moments just being smiled upon by Grace.
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America the 'beautiful' on Swans
Phil Rockstroh on Swans (with bio).
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