Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Holograms, eye-candy and candy floss, the political answers to an existential crisis

Neil MacDonald, in today’s column (September 17, 2019) on CBC’s website, argues that the Canadian election campaign is a “hologram”…”make-believe tensions over miniscule differences”…

Later in the piece, he writes these words:

The campaign is a hologram, the result of an agreement  between political parties, the news media, corporate entities, the chattering classes and, to a certain extent, the voters themselves, although the voters are often the l east important participants—they remain an abstract entity, variously patronized, cited and ignored by the big players, until the one day every four years when they get to be very important indeed. For a set period, we agree to pretend that old is new, vapid is substantive, and make-believe is reality. Out journalistic institutions’ definition of “news”—a dodgy notion even in normal times—warps into something undefinable….
But the campaign is a totem. Democracy itself. It provides the news media an opportunity to pose as referee and watchdog, and voters, most of whom are already decided, a moment to imagine they are thoughtfully considering the leaders’ pitches and closing arguments.

And to reflect on MacDonald’s thoughtful piece, one wonders if we are not living in a hall of holograms, where images flash before our eyes and ears, loud, phosphorescent, metallic and overwhelming, essentially much sound and fury signifying nothing. We recall the prophetic words of Shakespeare’s Mac Beth:

“Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, fully of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Shakespeare’s imagination needed no technological device, like a hologram, in order to paint the picture of his central character’s interiority. And there are so many lenses through which to bear witness to the essence of both MacDonald’s and MacBeth’s perspective. We all participate in the fascination that is the theatre of the public square, whether that theatre sinks into the “weeds” of the miniscule differences between the political parties and leaders (in both the U.S. and Canada), or into the fog of verbally armed warfare of ideology, or into the slipping and sliding into and out of various positions by the politicians depending on the mood, the perspicacity and the venom of the audience, or into the braggadocio of a trump’s “thousands waiting outside, because we could not find a bigger arena,” or into the sweeping and seductive ideological propaganda of the “populist- supremacists” or the “egalitarian-socialists”.

Obviously divided by “platform” and ideology, we seem to be able to “unite” around some of the more creative and insightful metaphors…perhaps shining a light into the darkness of the political process, out from which those politicians worthy of our votes and our serious consideration. Tony Blair made famous the political phrase: “politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose.”

And it is reasonable to posit that the divide between the poetry and the prose, exploding the “mountains of hope and promise” into the iron filings of legislation, a process in which no sentient human finds fulfilling, that leaves the voters terminally exhausted and disinherited. Any magnetism that previously lived in the mountains of hope is dissipated into the filings of laws. Further, the process of the pursuit of the votes needed even for the most minimal legislative improvements, including the wall-to-wall campaigns, the talking heads, the intrusive, vacuous and too-often insulting political advertising and public relations “sound bytes” from the archives of the digital “cloud” flows like a cloud of “weed” over the consciousness of the masses.

If Marx considered religion the opiate of the masses, perhaps today it is the politics of the current iteration of western democracy that serves as another of the many opiates of the masses. Drugged into fatigue, detachment, disillusionment, hopelessness and distrust, the “people” are marching to a different “drum” than those in the political class. And the chase for boxcars of cash, both with and without “strings” of manipulation, continues to provide the fuel burning through the corporate trust accounts and the investor dividend packages of the advertising and media moguls…and on into the lobbyists, the “political puppets” and the chattering classes where “the public” is congealed as a barely understood “public opinion” barely noticed and valued in the political decisions of the legislators.

Looking into the “sky” of the planet as if it were our “crystal ball”, we can all see the multiple landings of torrential winds, rains, droughts, fires, hunger, disease and displacement…all of these sirens pleading for attention, for address and for survival.
And yet, the drum-beat of “tradition” and “convention” and “mediocrity” and “small-mindedness” and the processes and models of at least one or perhaps even two centuries past continue to be revered by the political class, while they all know they are implicated in a sabotage of existential dimensions.

It is their apparent self-serving narcissism, and their embeddedness in long-ago atrophied and exhausted processes and language in service of themselves, that plagues both their futures and ours.

Like candy floss, holograms cannot provide nourishment, except as eye-candy. And we have all noticed the epidemic of undernourished, starved and vacuous eyes from decades of eye-candy, not to mention the hollowed-out expectations of the people, projected onto the political class, both entwined in a gordion knot needing both forces to untie the knot and disentangle the enmeshment of this hologram.

And the zero-sum approach, not having served either politician or voter, it has to be burned on the funeral pyre of ideas, processes and ideologies that serve as components of the political opiates we consume at our peril.

Monday, September 9, 2019

A hymn to feminine courage, imagination and heroism

“What of your works are you most proud of?” asked the CBS Sunday Morning correspondent, Martha Teichner, of Canadian writer, Margaret Atwood.
“I’m Canadian and we don’t DO PRIDE, we only do ‘what has embarrassed me less’!” came the instantaneous, satiric, ironic repost, from the laser-witted author.
Her most recent work of fiction, The Testaments, comes out this week, another offering nominated for the eminent Man Booker Prize and the Scotiabank Giller.
Other Canadian cultural nuggets from the fertile, courageous and irrepressible imagination include:

·        “The dialogue of the deaf,” in reference to the threatened separation from Canada of the sovereignist movement in Quebec, decades ago.

·        “Survival,” the central theme of Canadian Literature, from a book she wrote in the early stages of her long and honourable life as imaginative ‘guru’ of the nation

·        “People who think that progress is a one-way street and only ever goes in one direction have no read a lot of history. You cannot count on the yellow brick road leading to the City of Oz!” in a CBC interview with Laura Lynch on CBC’s The Current. (An obvious and unsheathed barb at American cultural credo of the road to the perfect union.)

·        “The servitude of fertile women required to bear children for powerful men and their barren wives,” the central theme of The Handmaid’s Tale, her novel that has provoked so much conversation including television and movie reproductions.

However, it was her penetrating and unforgettable moment in a small coffee shop in northern Ontario before she was an internationally renowned writer, after perusing a sheef of yellow rumpled pages on which some fragments of “poems” were typed, that is etched indelibly in my memory: “When are you going to leap off the cliff?” she inquired.

I was reminded of that moment when I learned that she had kept notes from the early nineties for a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, without disclosing them to her publisher until 2017. In the same “Current” interview, Atwood indicates the nervousness of her publisher, as well as her own, at her intention to write a follow-up:
 “It’s high-wire act, and would I fall off?” she is quoted as saying.

High-wire acts, of verbal utterances, penetrating the veil of secrecy, of  denial, of profound honesty and through ironic and frequently acerbic phrases that simply cannot be erased from the memories, and  the imaginations of her millions of readers, have been both the menu of her “literary feasts” and the nutrition of much of the more authentic conversation of what it really means to be a Canadian.

Her most recent, “we don’t DO PRIDE” but only reference “what embarrasses us less” on an American network is another in a long line of cogent, and microscopically magnified observations that depict some of the significant differences between Canada and the United States. Parsing the phrase, one glimpses an eye and an attitude that is both a echo of hymnody and a scathing insult, given how Canadians are portrayed as “hiding” our pride, and in false modesty deferring to “what embarrasses us less”….so deeply has the protestant credo of modesty, humility and self-effacing inverse snobbery (especially in reference to the “bravado” of a significant component of American consciousness) penetrated the Canadian psyche.*

That “fiction” is defined as a piece of writing that is not “true” in the narrow sense of the factual, empirical, court-room evidence frame of that word, becomes so hilariously ironic and limited from the perspective of the more penetrating and profound truth that fiction actually discloses. Like the best and most revered writers of the ages who disclose, both through their own “courageous leaping off the cliff,” those truths to which many are either unprepared, or willing or unable to let loose into their public discourse, and even into their private acknowledgements of the confessional Atwood risks it all each and every time she sits at whatever is the instrument of her “pen and ink” currently and throughout her life.

Giving permission, based only on those pieces of evidence that have already been documented in history, if not necessarily from the specific period of history with which the current “work of fiction” is concerned, is only one of the dictums to which she, and other writers worthy of the appellation, are committed.

To Ms Lynch, Atwood says unequivocally, under the rubric of her own “high-wire act” sanction, “I made a rule for myself, which was  nothing goes in for which there is not a historical precedent.”

And it is her penetrating wisdom, imagination, and courageous “leaping off the cliff (or the high-wire)” not only of what might be “embarrassing” politically or culturally, but also of what might even be potentially personally dangerous, preparing the “safety net” of historic evidence, into which to embed her “fiction” that provides a new “take” on some themes to which human nature has apparently clung for centuries.

It is not only ironic and tragic that a writer of fiction, like Atwood, is both supported and encouraged to utter truths to which millions take exception if the same stories were to appear in the daily headlines, under the cloke of fiction, while, the current Minister of Climate Change and the Environment, Catherine McKenna, faces physical, verbal and emotional violence while walking on the street in her home city of Ottawa, with her children, and now needs personal private security. McKenna’s defect is to fight openly, courageously and even somewhat imaginatively for the preservation of the environment when faced with climate change and global warming, thereby threatening the jobs and income of some workers whose foresight extends to the next pay day, excluding the potential demise of the global environment as we know it.

Fortunately, both for Atwood, and for the rest of us, fiction, even the most ugly and most demeaning pictures of both what “has been” and “is” in the pages of her novels, does not preclude either Atwood or her also courageous, and liberating publisher. The dangers of Atwood’s dystopia, in her own word, “a warning,” nevertheless, merit deep and open and conscious deliberation from as many thoughtful readers, leaders and prophets.

It is the voice of prophecy, so long ago abandoned by the ecclesial establishment in the west, that continues to provide the needed “CPR” for a culture that is suffering what can only be considered analogous to the unconscious patient on the gurney in the emergency room. And while, at first glance, there appears to be little or no direct connection between the dystopia of “female enslavement” and the climate crisis, both depend on a deep and profound disassociation even insouciance about “the other” first from a male perspective on women, and then from the perspective of primarily a male perspective of denial of responsibility for pollution and gassing future generations.

It is not an accident, nor is it to be discredited, that researchers, again highly courageous and creative, at Cambridge, were reported to have studied “male testosterone” as one of the primary influences on the economic collapse in 2008, through the generation and production of credit defaults. It is a similar bravado, not exclusive to the male gender, but predominantly dependent on male insecurity, even neurosis, on which both female enslavement and climate paralysis are legitimately hung.

The world needs to be and to express deep and profound gratitude to both Atwood and McKenna for their respective, although applied in different and separate theatres, courage, imagination and indisputable care and concern for the long-term future of the human species.

*Her partner Graeme Gibson, when asked during a poetry day, about his view on dissecting a poem, by a grade twelve co-ed, responded without skipping a breath, “You have to murder to dissect!” another penetrating critical observation that has stayed freshly embedded in memory for the past half century.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Reflections on psychic innocence/denial/avoidance...and the promise of the imagination

When I first read Thomas Hardy’s perception, “happiness is a brief relief in the general drama of pain,” from the Mayor of Casterbridge, I had a moment of clarity and awakening. I wanted immediately to challenge such a negative view of the human condition. Surely, this portrait of the human condition was not either complete or even worthy of credence.

Somehow, somewhere there must be a more optimistic, more uplifting and more inspiring pallet of colours to depict our shared ethos, even though Hardy was writing from the southern moors of England. Surely, what I was experiencing in my family of origin, then seen as turbulent and troubling, was not the general condition of the rest of the town, or the wider world. In 1958, the world was basking in the relief and promise of the aftermath of the second war, and the vision of the political discourse was focused on Sputnik, and the potential of the space frontier. Popular music featured ultra-simplistic love songs, whether composed with a ‘rock’n’roll’ beat of Elvis and Chuck Berry, or the more ‘sophisticated’ rhythm and melody of a ballad, sung by men like Perry Como and Pat Boone.

The trajectory of the human spirit was pointing straight ‘up’ into the heavens, both literally and metaphorically. Riding the tidal wave of such heady hope and optimism, John F. Kennedy eclipsed Richard Nixon in the first televised political debate in the presidential campaign in the U.S. Nixon’s five’o’clock shadow seemed to have betrayed his rejection of basic make-up, possibly a hold-over from his Quaker heritage. The ‘hollywood’ heroic image of Kennedy captured the hopes and dreams of a new generation of Americans “to whom the torch is being passed,” apparently oblivious to or unworried about Kennedy’s Roman Catholic faith.

It was not long, however, before the tension between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. boiled over in the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis, taking the world to the cliff of nuclear war. Averted, however, through the tenacity and courage of the Kennedy brothers, Bobby and John, (as reports coming out of Washington made it appear, heroism in the diplomatic world of geopolitics was not only restored but actually enhanced by this new generation of young and vibrant, hopeful and courageous leaders. We all lost a sliver of our innocence in those dark hours and days, but certainly not all of it.

And then, in November 1963, a knock at the classroom door in which I was teaching a grade-five class of boys, interrupted not only that lesson, but also the calm and optimistic and hopeful and youthful world landscape with the tragic news that the same young vibrant (and happily married, so far as we all knew) young president had been slain by an assassin in Dallas. Portrayed as an isolated incident perpetrated by a loner, mysterious “Russian” agent, and then followed by a lengthy and still controversial Warren Commission into the assassination, America and the world grieved, in a shared empathy with his widow and their two young children. Still contained as an “isolated” incident, analogous to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the transition enabled many to continue to uphold a world view of hope, promise and courage, as if the landscape was precisely the inverse of that old Hardy view, that pain was only a brief interruption in a general drama of hope and optimism.

And then there was Bobby, and Martin Luther King Jr., both cut down in their prime, and then there was Viet Nam, and napalm, agent orange, street protests of flower children and their Woodstock and hallucinogens. Still, we were a generation raised on the wave of hope and promise of the aftermath of that deadly war, and while there were increasingly complex and powerful weapons being designed and tested, we were generally bubbled by a protective layer of public hope. The most penetrating question that I faced as a now grade ten history teacher, to another class of young men went like this: “Sir, would you go to fight in Viet Nam?” The young man, Ed Kotke, who posed that question remains a fixture in my mind as both courageous, somewhat brash, yet nevertheless eminently worthy of a legitimate and honest reply: “Only if I could serve as a teacher,” I blurted.

To be sure, there were disappointments in my singular lack of academic prowess at Western, almost exclusively the result of my own obstinence, defiance, rejection of the politically correct and familial “duties” and expectations of family psychic barnacles. There were also many parallel experiences of achievement and community outside the classroom and the library, confirming the ancient trope that undergraduate years really are the best years of a young life.

Births of three children, new career opportunities, new colleagues, and additional coaching challenges coalesced into a gestalt of at least a decade of hope, optimism and personal frontiers magnetically challenging and life-giving. While there were sounds of storm clouds rising on the horizon about oil prices, environmental dangers of acid rain, and rising alienation threatening political division in Canada, personal lives were unlikely to be threatened by the shifting of political tectonic plates.

Innocence, of the kind that sustains a smiling public face, belied a growing consciousness that work, and the rewards of good performance especially in the public eye, were somehow very hollow, fickle and very emptying of both energy and creativity, and yet somehow, continued to demand and provoke excessive effort, in what was beginning to appear to be an obsessive pursuit of applause.

Clearly the public mantra of climbing a ladder of achievement, income, status and prominence was a form of entrapment ensnaring many including this now mid-forty ‘innocent’ who perhaps was beginning to grow up into a new consciousness, less innocent, less arrogant, less overtly ambitious, yet nevertheless, still requiring heroic address through personal action.

I had heard words like ambiguity, uncertainty, paradox and irony, as intellectual notions prevalent in literature inside an English classroom; yet somehow they remained detached from personal experience, except as they interacted with “teaching moments” to support students. Teachers, educators, by definition, are “expected” to have answers, in the face of students’ confusions.

And then, attending a workshop in “creating” near Boston, conducted by Robert Fritz, I heard him say, “It is of course OK to know that you do not know and to acknowledge that you do not know!” This kind of moment etched itself in memory, as the kind of peeling of the mask of blind ignorance (literally, not knowing) that had not previously confronted my consciousness, illuminating a long-standing darkness, a blindness, a studied innocence as the mask I had been wearing, and behind which I had been  performing vigorously and vainly for the previous nearly five decades.

There had been a similar moment, in a class on Frye’s “The Code,” in which the professor had noted the “divided mind” of Paul’s writing in Romans, (I do what I would not do and do not do those things I would do.) However, keeping such moments encased in some cognitive capsule enabled a prolonged detachment from the full implications of these “nuggets” of wisdom.

It was only after a complete collapse in both career and personal terms, that I was introduced to the fullness of the human condition, reflective of, and even incarnating the much deeper and so long resisted wisdom and truth originally visited in Hardy’s novel and the core truth of many other shamans, poets, prophets and spiritual pilgrims.
Writing his report of the Fifth Danish Thule Expedition 1921-24, across ac tic North America from Greenland to Cape Prince of Wales, Alaska, by the explorer Knud Rasmussen, Dr. H. Ostermann quotes a scalawag in Nome, Najagneq, who had faced seemingly indomitable forces and powers that threatened his survival in the Arctic, when asked if he believed in all of the powers he spoke of, responded:

“Yes, a power that we call Sila, one that cannot be explained in so many words. A strong spirit, the upholder of the universe, of the weather, in fact of all life on earth—so mighty that his speech to man comes not through ordinary words, but through storms, snowfall, rain showers, the tempests of the sea, through all the forces that man fears, or through sunshine, calm seas of small, innocent, playing children who understand nothing. When times are good, Sila has nothing to say to mankind. He has disappeared into his infinite nothingness and remains away as long as people do not abuse life but have respect for their daily food. No one has ever seen Sila. His place of sojourn is so mysterious that he is with us and infinitely far away at the same time.
Echoing this wisdom from  Najagneq, Ostermann also quotes his countryman, a primitive Eskimo, Igjugarjuk:

The only true wisdom lives far from mankind, out in the great loneliness, and it can be reached only through suffering. Privation and suffering alone can open the mind of a man to all that is hidden to others. (Both quotes from, Joseph Campbell, Primitive Mythology, The Masks of God, Penguin Compass, 1959, p.51 and 52.)

The “sophisticated” and “educated” and mostly “urban” (and clearly urbane) society, unfortunately, has considered much primitive wisdom to be just that, both primitive and savage. Archives shelves are lined with the stories of colonization of the Najagneq’s and the Igjugarjuk’s of our culture, including the dismissal, denial and the avoidance of their prophetic insights. Writing about how “cultured” humans “know” their personal and private truths and realities, James Hillman writes these words:

Our souls in private to ourselves, in close communion with another, and even in public exhibit psychopathologies. Each soul at some time of another demonstrates illusions and depressions, overvalued ideas, manic flights and rages, anxieties, compulsions, and perversions. Perhaps our psychopathology has an intimate connection with our individuality, so that our fear of being what we really are is partly because we fear the psychopathological aspect of individuality. For we are each peculiar; we have symptoms; we fail, and cannot see why we go wrong or even where, despite high hopes and good intentions. We are unable to set matters right, to understand what is taking place of be understood by those who would try.
Our minds, feelings, wills and behaviours deviate from normal ways. Out insights are impotent, or none come at all. Our feelings disappear in apathy; we worry and also don‘t care. Destruction seeps out of us autonomously and we cannot redeem the broken trusts, hopes loves.

The study of lives and the care of souls means above all a prolonged encounter with what destroys and is destroyed, with what is broken and hurts—that is with psychopathology. Between the lines of each biography and in the liners of each face we may read a struggle with alcohol, with suicidal despair, with dreadful anxiety, with lascivious sexual obsessions, cruelties at close quarters, secret hallucinations, or paranoid spiritualisms. Ageing brings loneliness of soul, moments of acute psychic pain, and haunting remembrances as memory disintegrates.

The night world in which we dream shows the soul split into antagonisms; night after night we are fearful, aggressive, guilty and failed. (James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology, Harper, 1976, p.55-6)

It is our historic and eminently human and limited capacity to render our psychic pain into one of two conceptual baskets, that of science or that of religion. In the case of the former, our pain is an “illness” while in the case of the latter, our pain is “evil”. And whether considered from either perspective, so far, our pain has “needed” and even “demanded” an intervention. We need to change, and to get well, or to get right with God, or perhaps even both.

Both religion and science have adopted a language that is dominated by what can be categorized as literalism. In religious history, many of the original images or icons have been trashed as idols and the literal features of human behaviour have been rendered “judged” in the aberrancy. In science, only the literal, the empirical and the specifically “denotative” features of each and every symptom are the focus of the attention of both researchers and practitioners.

Hillman argues persuasively, that through such reductionism which may have empowered both the medical and the theological communities, we have lost sight of, and certainly the gifts of the imagination, of the poetry and the truths that underly each of our lives, and more importantly each of our encounters. We have effectively dehumanized each human, and reduced each to a functioning thing.

 Hillman posits three ways by which we deny the imagination in our perceptions of human psychic pain:

We put empty names on our psychic complaints: alcoholics, suicidals, schizophrenics (nominalism).

We reduce patients to “cases” only persons in situations. (nihilism)

We idealize humans in our attempt to restore our dignity, promoting a one-sided sentimentalism with words like health. Hope courage love maturity, warmth wholeness…and in goals like freedom, faith, fairness responsibility, commitment. (transcendence) (Hillman, p.58-67)

Perhaps, just perhaps, through a re-visiting some of our language, and the depths of the images, the myths, the gods and the poetry, all of them the free expression of our imagination, we might join a human race in touch with our complexities, and the gifts of our darknesses, without having to resort to the kind of scathing and judgemental interventions both in language and in action that refuse to acknowledge the depths of our fullness.

Would that the current existential crisis facing the planet and each person living on it might bring about a new consciousness that is not nearly as dependent on an external saviour or judge, dependent itself on a depth of fear and neurosis of those extremes of both feeling and action that are innate to each of us.