Monday, November 28, 2016
The above is the last half a poem called An Arundel Tomb by the poet, Phillip Larkin (Larkin was just honored this weekend with a plaque in Poet's Corner inside Westminster Abbey), who so plangently renders the timeless relevance of sublime poetry. What catches my attention at this particular moment is the line, And up the paths/ The endless, altered people came/ Washing at their identity. This is a poem that is, on its face, about tourists visiting Arundel Castle in the south of England where there lies a medieval couple carved in stone atop a sarcophagus, he with a gauntlet removed and tenderly holding her hand. What is it about them that draws us to look upon them and feel an instinctual longing, and at the same time, a curious vulnerability?
I think that if I am able to write this essay as I feel it living in me, I shall have succeed in alienating those on the far right as well as the far left, but I don't write to alienate; I write because writing is a way for me to passionately engage the world, to wake myself up. There comes a point in alienation, I suppose, that one becomes so thoroughly alienated that one is alien to oneself, so alien that communal life may no longer be possible, and arriving at such an existential nadir one becomes dehumanized--the greatest risk of embracing the politics of grievance. But I'm getting ahead of myself. It is we who are the "altered people" Larkin writes of. We have altered ourselves to the point that we no longer recognize ourselves as complete, whole people, and have become a people to whom a sense of wholeness is largely unconscious and inaccessible. Once we were beings experiencing ourselves with a vital, physical existence mated to the challenge of exploring and understanding the human experiences of life and living; now we live virtually and vicariously and stake ourselves to a largely metaphysical state of dissatisfaction and lament in which our only responsibilities are protest and accusation.
The politics of identity and grievance have come to occupy American life to such an extraordinary degree that we shoehorn the elaborate heterogeneity of a personality into a single quality or behavior and then demand that this subjective declaration of self-hood be objectively accepted by the entire world. We continue to insist upon being known publicly in only this one particular way, and base an entire metaphysics, language, and world view on that single fact about ourselves--the lone fact of gender, sexual orientation, race, socioeconomics, spiritual practices, political affiliations or any other one of a myriad qualities. Then, too frightened to stand alone in our singularity, we practice our self-righteous, one dimensional uniqueness in groups, attempting to leverage as much power over the thoughts and behaviors of others as we can because we are too frightened of the vulnerability to which standing alone in the world exposes us. We seem to be unable, in modern life, to live satisfactorily as an ambivalent, confused, anxious, easily amused, absurd creature who can be capable of experiencing moments of transcendent beauty and happiness. And I believe that it is the unwillingness to stand alone, to be vulnerable or frightened (what every authentic human being is) is in fact, the biggest threat to our civic life.
We are altered in another way as well; we are altered by our altars. We chain ourselves to altars of belief that reduce complex and nuanced issues such as religions, politics, psychologies, nationalism, race, and power to simplistic, banal statements of irreducible fact and christen it knowledge or intelligence, saying in effect, that because of the complex nature of the issues, my ignorance is as good as your knowledge. This is neither an attractive, nor a recent human development. But what does strike me as novel is the vehement, increasingly angry and aggressive reliance upon raw power and intimidation as though to drive home the point that there is simply no other conceivable way to think. Might makes right, the only catechism needed in the new religion of strength.
The problem with this insipid, mind-numbingly trite, altaring is that it shreds the social contract, the implicit agreement we have with one another to be a democratic, civil society. Democracy is not, in my estimation, best described as a noun, but rather as a verb since it is more accurately an ongoing action, an intentional behavior, a dialectic rather than a thing. The dialectic of democracy requires the cultivation of and subsequent meditation upon certain uncomfortable, discomfiting, disturbing emotions and thoughts which then teach us the way to empathetically enter into each other's lives. This empathetic comradeship may be the most essential of the dialectics of democracy. Democracy depends upon the idea, the very rational idea, that every one's needs are more likely to be addressed or met through cooperation.
What is happening to us? I'm certainly not the first, nor the only one to ask this question. It's nearly the sole preoccupation of many people's minds. Generally speaking, we don't wrestle or explore or try to understand what disturbs us, we simply erupt in anger and try to intimidate the other to fall in line. We seem to live in a hot house environment of perpetual grievance, believing in the childish fantasy that my outrage and anger will restore what has been lost or taken from me. Everything will be made right by outrage. I do, by the way, think there are times when anger might be a helpful emotion to entertain because it might be a sign that some remnant of dignity has not been extinguished, that some humanity still abides within, that one may still marshall one's energies to respond to social injustice--that is the very anger which moved me to write this. But as soon as anger is used to frighten and intimidate others, whatever shreds of dignity and humanity might have previously existed, one has now sacrificed all traces of them and moved closer to the smothering embrace of totalitarianism.
What is happening? Well, one of the things happening is the subtle shift, ongoing for several decades now, in the preferences of modern Americans--Americans on both the right and the left--for authoritarian models of government, education, religion, law and law enforcement, business, and especially modes of thought. It is, I submit, undeniable; from the fatuously slow-witted, antediluvian, repellent second amendment fetishists to the equally fatuous and dogmatic, politically correct thought police terrorizing college campuses and other venues of public discourse. Authoritarianism is, literally, all the rage. Believe in supernatural beings ordering your life and the universe if you want, that is your right. If you seriously believe that a flying spaghetti monster created the universe and controls your life, I truly do not care as long as you don't attempt to make me believe or practice it, or teach it to my child in school. I think you may do whatever you like in private, but don't presume I should do it too. If you like, create an enormous pile in your living room out of all your assault rifles and handguns and writhe, naked, among them attempting some form of human-semiautomatic sexual congress, that is your right. Make sure you live every single moment mindfully in a state of spiritual bliss so you needn't be bothered with that messy, distressing, reality-based life that tends to destabilize your downward dog posture, that is your right. Police your thoughts so that you never harbor a resentment or a wound, a sorrow or a frown, a contradiction or a doubt. That, too, is your right. Above all else, one must be happy; be happy with a vengeance. And if you can't be happy, then you can be aggrieved. The politics of grievance, the social capital of victim hood and the tyranny of political correctness have largely created what Larkin termed our "helpless[ness] in the hollow of an unarmorial age." Life is not Disneyland, and it's not even close to being fair, or safe, or guaranteed to be fun or your money back. If you think your life should be happy, you're wrong. Not only are you wrong by believing that happiness is the most important thing, you've sentenced yourself to a lifetime of unhappiness. But life should be, and needs to be civil, perhaps that's the most we can ask of existence, the most we can humanly create, and when you stop to think about the freedom and security civility creates, well, that may be as close to Utopia as we're likely to come. Civility means that you don't have to think like me, but you must let me think. You don't have to live like me but you must let me live.
As Larkin notes in his poem, we no longer live in an armorial age; the brutish feudalism, the xenophobia, the bondsmen, the slaves, and all the other sundry roles of illiteracy no longer need be acted out in contemporary life. Who knows what the medieval stone couple's relationship was really like? But Larkin is sure, as am I, that time has altered (and altared) them "into untruth." Their actual lives were almost certainly nothing like we imagine them to have been in our childish romantic fantasies. And the untruth they "hardly meant," the fantasy of pure, gentle, romantic love has been clumsily altered into an idea that we achingly wish were true, an altar to which we moderns make a pilgrimage, shed a sentimental tear or two, and hope that what survives us, absent knowledge of our efforts, our works, or our words, will be love. What draws the tourists' gaze, what creates the vague sense of vulnerability is the wish for love to be real enough, and encompassing enough, to save us. That in the end, we hope we have not altered ourselves to the point where we no longer know how to love, and must face the disturbing fear that love has fallen out with us and fled from the world entirely.