Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Flower in the Crannied Wall


Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies; --
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower -- but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.

-- ALFRED, LORD TENNYSON.

The most dismal aspect of severe depression is a terrible sense of disconnection.

Think of an electrical appliance that is unplugged, deprived of energy. It is useless, almost dead. I say this of a machine, something non-organic which shares in a field of energy, electricity, that can suddenly "connect" it to our technological world and to us, making it, as it were, "come alive."

Persons are also within fields of energy. We live in rivers of flowing energy -- energy that is shared, bringing us into relationships (as individuals and in groups) with other persons, with friends, family and lovers, persons who feed and replenish us, and are then nourished by us in turn.

Language is one such river of energy, connecting us to many generations that have come before us (memory) and to our fellow language-users at any time. There are many other such rivers. Art is one such river. Religion is another. Science also is a great river of learning and shared effort. All of them come together in a single word, culture. I have learned much about the importance of culture from Roger Scruton and Terry Eagleton.

We are like plants in a garden (in culture) sharing in sunlight and each producing its flowers, adding to the beauty of the total spectacle. Beauty is a useful notion for the point that I wish to make.

Art is an attempt at unity in terms of purpose, integration or wholeness, among other things, so that the recipient of a work of art is unified with it, plugged-in to it, in a way. This is true however abstract or modern the art work happens to be. The experience of a masterpiece is always an entry into a kind of community. (See "Colin McGinn On Movies and Minds.")

Community is so essential to what we are, paradoxically, even to the preservation of our uniqueness and individuality, as persons, that loss of community, isolation, alienation, the loss of love and exposure to hatred and suspicion from those who surround us, can produce effects on a person similar to the loss of light for a plant, or disconnection for an appliance: shut-down, closure, darkness.

Persons surrounded by hatred and evil, especially in childhood, suffer a kind of spiritual death. This is especially likely where the effect is cummulative, so that hatred in childhood only leads to more hatred in adulthood. This is part of the evil in racial and ethnic prejudice, the way it leaves lingering wounds in the psyches of its victims.

Love, on the other hand, is like the sunshine and rain that brings a flower back to health. This is no "touchy, feely" platitude. It is, as the saying goes, as "a dose of reality."

The absence of love and loss of connection has become a general characteristic of the lives of many people in our world. Communities are disintegrating before our eyes, as persons concentrate on what separates them: ethnicity, race, gender, political differences, rivalries, hatreds, festering ancient resentments in some of the most unfortunate places in the world. Competition and struggle characterize our lives; we are at one another's throats; we hunger; we envy; we covet; we struggle against one another.

We forget that we share a common fate. We are all going to die, sooner rather than later, if we fail to cooperate or care about one another.

Beauty in art is a reminder of the soothing and healing that flows from goodness, from re-connection to community, from unity or integration, which is a reminder of the possibility of transcendence through love. I never tire of saying this, especially to young people in blighted areas, you must walk towards the light of love and not towards the hatred and darkness. This light that I speak of is colorless, like love. Love has no ethnicity or religion. It is so tempting and easy to succumb to rage, especially rage arising from justifiable anger. We must not do so.

There are aspects of our contemporary American society that reinforce these tendencies toward fragmentation in all of us, tendencies that can only lead to spiritual death. The hyper-commercialism that reduces everything to a product, including intimate relationships, semi-aesthetic sensations (King Kong in 3-D!), illusions of political solidarity (balloons at conventions where the candidates are "pre-selected," like the lunch menu) to replace genuine politics, which is debate leading to real choices, more interactions with machines than with people, people that are machine-like.

Worst of all, is the religion of dehumanization that features in our social sciences, especially in mainstream American psychology, that hopes to reduce the ontological status of persons to that of objects, to make us into things that are to be manipulated and fixed, so as to be made to comport with notions of "normality" external to them, to us, reducing persons to mechanical functions that are defined and measured by others.

Fixing a refrigerator will not help as long as it remains unplugged. Medicating persons into a state of chemical lobotomy will not make them happy or good, not even functional, only mentally and spiritually dead, zombies, which is exactly the condition of the loveless person -- even if that loveless person happens to be a so-called "therapist" or lawyer, Supreme Court Justice or banker, media executive, or a writer thinking about these issues and inviting others to do the same. None of us is immune to what I describe.

Art and beauty remind us of belonging to communities, which helps us to achieve an acceptance of restful death. ("Death is an embrace at the edge of the sea," says the Nicaraguan poet Ruben Dario.) George Santayana pondering the ruins of the world that he had known before the First World War, said ...

You must remember that we were not very much later than Ruskin, Pater, Swinburne, and Mathew Arnold: our atmosphere was that of poets and persons touched with religious enthusiasm or religious sadness. Beauty (which musn't be mentioned now) was then a living presence, or an aching absence, day and night: history was always singing in our ears: and not even psychology or the analysis of works of art could take away from art its human implications. It was the great memorial to us, the great revelation, of what the soul had lived on, and had lived with in her better days. But now analysis and psychology seem to stand alone: there is no spiritual interest, no spiritual need. The mind in this direction has been desiccated: art has become an abstract object in itself, to be studied scientifically as a caput mortumm: and the living side of the subject -- the tabulation of people's feelings and comments -- is no less dead. ...

The more American pychologists and so-called therapists, social-scientists and social engineers poke and prod the social body, the more pathologies emerge: alcoholism, drug use, violence, destruction of families, military conflict, greed, mindless consumption of material goods ... and yet, what strange healing power seems to arrive -- almost magically -- with the fragile beauty of a single flower or love. Beauty is still enough to make us joyful ... like children. That's what I call "therapy."

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