Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Pierced Vessels.

Most of us are desperate for some meaningful human connection in our lives. There is so much loneliness in a big city, like New York. There is so much pain that is written on the faces of the strangers that I see in subway trains, or at a Deli ordering a sandwich, at a bookstore or coffee shop.

At times, I see so much yearning in people's eyes and a desperate hope for love that I can barely keep from crying. Other times, I sense a forlorn and lost condition in a person, who seems (spiritually) petrified, frozen and atrophied, stone-like, behind walls that will now never be scaled by another human being. So many have given up, choosing a kind of death-in-life. Too many of us in big cities have chosen to exist, defensively, "in splendid isolation" -- like the British during the Edwardian period.

I see people who have taken their hearts, placed them in a steel box, and buried them in a desert deep within themselves, turning into "cleverly constructed automatons" (Descartes), who only resemble the human beings that they once were. In the movie The Sixth Sense, the child actor who is the protagonist of the story says, "I see dead people." I wanted to shout in the movie theater: "I do too." The dead people are all around us. Worse, we are in danger of becoming one of them, without realizing it.

Community, real community, genuine social interaction is a necessity. I will say this again for those who came in late. We need other people and our relationships with them. Contrary to America's unspoken religion of "self-reliance," and to Dr. Phil, life is not about "being who you are" and "making yourself happy." That very American tendency to self-indulgence is a necessary way of coping with the pain resulting from the absence of meaningful relationships in life, something which is reaching epidemic proportions in America (along with the selfishness and lonelyness that this absence both causes and reflects). Individualism is necessary, but it is not enough for any of us.

This widespread suffering is partly due to moronic advice from "therapists" -- like Dr. Phil and even the much nicer Dr. Ruth ("use a cucumber!") -- but it is also the result of a confusion of the means to happiness, for happiness itself. Money, power, fame -- all run a distant second to love and beauty. You all know that, unless you are an imbecile ... in which case you would not be reading this, but would have entered politics long ago.

Yes, you need some money to survive, but why surive? What is it that makes that survival worthwhile? The look in someone's eyes who matters to you. We can accept this much from Freud: The reason why most men, anyway, do most things is to impress a woman -- one woman in particular. We laugh and hope, we dream and play, much more when there are children we love in our lives, children who speak -- usually without intending it -- to the child alive in us.

I have suggested that human connection is becoming more, not less difficult. There are many reasons for this and for the human misery that results because of it. Most of this misery has to do with the sheer idiocy of our therapists. Some of it is the result of how we live now. We are overworked, skeptical from coping with all the bullshit dispensed daily by politicians and advertisers, cynical about politics and everything else, way beyond a simplistic or literal religious belief, even when we claim that we believe. Nothing matters, people say. Everything is tainted by the banalizing power of the mass media, a power which must be reappropriated by and for us.

There is a terrible, bleak and cold emptiness inside people, inside us, and lethal boredom. Hence, the bandaids that are placed on the gaping wound of alienation. Indiscriminate sex, greed, trinkets, drugs, pursuit of power, all of the usual baubles that we seek in order to avoid facing both our sense of this nothingness or of something "missing," and the oh-so literal death that awaits all of us.

Many of us are attracted to art, to the wonders of the aesthetic encounter which provides clues to what we really want, ultimately, which is love and social transformation. You know who the authorities are at this point: Plato and Kant, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Walter Benjamin and Iris Murdoch, together with many others. And yes, for those who are not religious, there is also Jesus. Not the Jesus of the television evangelists, but Jesus the rabble rouser, fellow sufferer, rebel with a cause -- a postmodernist Jesus, who wears faded denims and a baseball cap. "Jesus," says an eloquent New York t-shirt, "is my homeboy."

For those who wish to be seen with impressive books everywhere, books that define you as an "intellectual" -- as you wait for your Mocha Frapuccino at Starbucks -- I suggest Professor Terry Eagleton's The Ideology of the Aesthetic, or anything by George Steiner or Richard Wolheim. Yes, I go to Starbucks and, occasionally, I even have a book in my pocket, but I NEVER order "Mocha Frapuccino." Not lately, anyway.

"You are a fucking Anglophile!" O.K., O.K., read Gore Vidal's essays and Norman Mailer's Advertisements for Myself. Susan Sontag or Jonathan Franzen won't kill you either. My point is that art, which is fun, may be the easiest access to the communal in a time and place intending to deny us communal experiences of any kind. Religious ceremonies are unlikely to make a come back among the hipsters in the East Village, while sports are "too corporate" and electoral politics is about big money and sound bites in America. But there is still art. In a democratic age, cinema rules.

I anticipate that there are some readers who are determined to twist anything I say into an insult or to provide a gratuitous psychobabble analysis, so I will try to be cautious. Best of all, for the hostile crowd, is to find an interpretation that makes an accusation of political incorrectness against me plausible, but the need to find the most dismissive and insulting, demeaning and basest interpretation of everything anyone says is also a sign of pathology. The Internet is the realm of insult and accusation in debate, almost like the U.S. Congress. The accusation of childishness directed at another, for instance, is a way of not facing the hunger for imaginative expression and connectedness in the accuser. Are you denying your own remaining child-like needs or hopes by accusing me of childishness?

Our aesthetic encounters provide a clue to the loving recognition for which we really yearn. Art is a revelation of the "unalienated relatedness" that makes life meaningful and good, that we know must exist somewhere -- like "Shangri-la" in Lost Horizon -- and it is the pointer to the love which redeems the human condition. These encounters are also politically significant now, because they expose the vicious injustices against which we struggle as we cope, and from which, we seek relief.

Some readers will doubtless find my use of the category [of the aesthetic] inadmissably loose and broad, not least when it comes at times to merge into the idea of bodily experience as such. But if the aesthetic returns with such persistence, it is partly because of a certain indeterminacy of definition which allows it to figure in a varied span of preoccupations: freedom and legality, spontaneity and necessity, self-determination, autonomy, particularity and universality, along with several others. My argument broadly speaking is that the category of the aesthetic assumes the importance that it does in Modern Europe [and America] because in speaking of art it speaks of these other matters too, which are at the heart of the middle class's struggle for hegemony. The construction of the modern notion of the aesthetic artefact is thus inseparable from the construction of the dominant ideological forms of modern class-society, and indeed from a whole new form of human subjectivity appropriate to that social order.

This paragraph is taken from Eagleton's treatise, but what follows is from Steiner's introduction to Iris Murdoch's collection of essays, Existentialism and Mystics:

[Dame Iris speaks of the art object as a "pierced object,"] Note the exact felicity of "pierced object" (would that Dame Iris had alluded to its source, which is the famous kabbalistic trope of the "pierced vessels" of divine creation). ...

Art is our supreme clue to morals (an arresting phrase). Both [art and morals] direct the spirit towards the MYSTERIUM of love. The program is [always] that mapped in Neo-Platonism, in Augustine and in Dante's PARADISO. ... Dame Iris argues for a morality of love, of individualised reciprocity whose foundations can, ought to be those of rational humanism. Or indeed, as a number of her most intricate fictions suggest, of a remembered paganism, of myth and allegory as metaphors of ethical possiblity.

Let us dream together of "ethical possibilities," for a little while ...

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