Friday, November 11, 2005

To Althea From Prison ...

The Bible tells us that "God is the companion even of the residents of hell."

This is a thought worth pondering as we venture out into a world so filled with evils and horrors that love appears to be as illusory and mythical as the unicorn -- unicorns are those beautiful creatures symbolic of love in legends. They are rare and delicate beings.

We live in a time of division, of broken and fragmented people in a schizoid society. The distance between the richest and poorest of us grows by the day, so that some of us purchase one thousand dollar umbrellas while others live on forty-nine cents a day. For some of us, violence is the language of daily interactions with other persons we see or know, while for a fortunate few of us there is love, peace and beauty all around us. Do not be surprised, then, if such different environments produce very different persons.

As I step out of my building and enter the subway station, my reality is so distant from the chatter of politicians or the mindless "entertainment" on television that cognitive dissonance takes over. We forget the grim reality that we inhabit -- maybe that is the point -- when reaching for the remote control, so as to concern ourselves, obsessively, with who won the Oscar and what the various "celebrities" were wearing. And yet, those soothing distractions are needed, if we are to cope with the misery all around us. We want to do more than cope. But how?

Immersion in political realities and obsession with celebrities, fashion, amusement, or tinsel are all ways to avoid that good hard look in the mirror and the confrontation with the grinning skull that stares back at us. Guess where we're all headed?

During the Renaissance scholars and religious persons (often they were the same persons) kept a skull in their studies with the words "et in arcadia ego." This translates as: "Even in the garden of life, there [death] may be found." Students of Evelyn Waugh's novels will recall the chapter in Brideshead Revisited bearing this title. Not surprisingly, Waugh's novel is a very Catholic book. During the holiday season, especially, it is important to hold on to a sense of our frailty and mortality -- not in order to become morbid, but to relish life, to celebrate all that is life-affirming and worthy of reverence in our days and nights.

We are divided within ourselves between hopes for peace and anger at social injustice, between the yearning for harmony in our lives and rage at those who have violated us. We are directed by the love that we feel for a few others to alter our dealings with all others. This is true no matter how angry we have a right to be at those who have hurt us. It is important to realize that those who hurt others are almost always in pain, but are usually too stupid or deluded to know it.

None of this should deter us from insisting on justice. It should make it impossible for us to become what they -- those who have hurt us -- are and will continue to be. Similarly, rage at the passivity and time-serving of judges who wear black robes, but fail to act to prevent the cruelties they see every day, must not lead us to resort to self-help. Protest, shout, rage -- but do not become what the torturers are.

If it is true that rage and violence, war and death are with us always, then so is love and forgiveness, peace and compassion. Do not underestimate the power of love. It is not a "showy" emotion or a flashy mode of being-in-the-world. It is certainly not dismissable as a greeting card sentiment. Love is not loud or brash and yet it wins every time. Loving is what we are here to do or learn to do, as human beings, since it is the achievement of our full humanity.

I did not say that love is painless or easy. And the greatest puzzle of evil is the yearning to obstruct love for others, usually on the part of people lacking love in their lives. Maybe the black robes or symbols of office are enough for them, since many such people claim to be "professionals."

All goodness and beauty flows from this powerful force and emotion. Direct yourself towards it. Walk towards the love and not the hate that you feel. That is today's homily, folks. The rest will take care of itself. This is not Sunday school bullshit. This is no "feel good" or psychobabble crap, it is a form of worldly wisdom. It is wisdom for "tough" guys and gals in a grim world that is filled with pain.

Love's philosophy is a bite in the ass for those of us who like to think that we have become much too sophisticated for that sort of thing. It is the only meaningful response to that skull in the mirror, providing us with our most complete freedom or fulfillment, and also with a sense of peace or "homecoming" in the world. I say this with a full awareness that by choosing love, maybe only our memories of loving, I am asking people to embrace or accept pain -- sometimes seemingly unbearable pain -- since it is the only way to hold on to our humanity.

Very few intellectuals, outside of churches, mosques or synagogues, are willing to be heard saying these things in the public square, but what intellectuals are saying -- playing around with academic forms of Marxism, Postmodernism, trendy forms of Feminism or Identity Politics -- is often meaningless or worthless to most people. This makes intellectuals too often irrelevant, except to themselves. With a few exceptions -- Cornel West is one -- our intellectuals are failing us and themselves in this regard, to say nothing of "therapists," who are the true whores in our society. This accusation of irrelevance I also wish to bring against philosophers. Philosophers must re-enter the public square. The fancy ideas have to be brought to a level at which they can be understood and discussed by ordinary people.

Notably missing in our intellectual culture is a philosophical recognition and response to the assault on memory resulting from our media-saturated environments. What is at risk, with the success of mega-capitalism's new sugar-coated, "tasy, but less filling" ideology, is identity. Our very humanity is imperiled as self-styled radicals make themselves increasingly irrelevant by spouting politically correct platitudes or slogans referring to an outdated reality, having nothing to do with our current predicament. This is mostly the result of philosophical ignorance. This ignorance is both tragic and pitiful, but it can be remedied. Norman Mailer says in his essay on the Ali-Foreman fight that ...

Maybe illness results from a failure of communication between mind and body. It is certainly true of such quick disease as a knockout. ...

Well, America is afflicted with a failure of communication. The mind is not speaking to the body. There is a disconnection between intellectuals and most people who are desperately in need of some meaning, some guidance concerning how the nation's traditional political and ethical ideals may yet provide some hope, hope at this disturbing moment in our history. Getting and spending (and then showing off for our neighbors) we lay waste our powers. Not the world, but Bloomingdale's is too much with us.

We need intellectuals in the public square, speaking the language of ordinary people, after having a beer -- or a Diet Coke in my case -- debating "what it all means," as the cops show up to ask why we are urinating on the sidewalk. We need a conversation that is truly inclusive.

We need, whether we want it or not, a genuine conversation addressed to our painful condition -- for we are certainly suffering as a people -- and this conversation must take place in simple and accessible words. People are begging for that dialogue right now. We can live with anything -- if we believe, if we can be persuaded -- that there is some meaning that justifies our pains. Look at the faces of family members who have lost loved-ones in Iraq. After all, today is Veteran's Day. Those faces are what I mean by suffering. In addition to the pain, we see bewilderment and confusion.

Americans do not understand why this war is happening and the elected leaders of the nation are sunk in details of spending programs, without providing inspiration or meaning to the people. In New jersey they're too busy stealing or posing for portraits even to consider these matters. How is it possible for judges in New Jersey to be aware of torture and do nothing? Ethics?

Too many of us are imprisoned in a defensive alienation and passiveness, amused by trinkets and baubles. We are lonely rather than solitary, even in crowds. As a result, we fall into an unfeeling indifference to the suffering of our neighbors, giving in to apathy before the pointless wars waged in our name, when solutions that provide peace in war-torn places are achievable, with just a little more will and effort. We must not surrender to lethargy and dullness. Intelligence is much too vital at this crucial hour to be abandoned or for us to wallow in mindless amusements. We must find a way to love, even if it hurts to do so, so as to achieve the freedom that only love brings.

If I have freedom in my love
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone that soar above
Enjoy such liberty.

-- Richard Lovelace, To Althea From Prison.



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