VISION AND REFLECTION

There have always been two predominant and rival views of man and his position or predicament. Tough and tender-minded come to mind, as do cyclic and linear, hawk and dove. Blake saw our ambivalence in terms of biblical vision and Greek reflection. Reflection, relying on material things, ends in the dead inertia of the rock as the only real, the mind as the unreal. Vision is creative imagination using the eyes as windows to see with actively and not through passively.

Vision sees life as an “eternal existence in one divine man.” Reflection sees life as a series of cycles in nature. Northrop Frye says we vacillate our life away between the two notions, never fully conscious of either. Reflection is Blake’s Diabolos, the nihilistic impulse of self-doubt reminding us of our helpless frailty and increasing our dependence on the current priesthoods. If the fire-walker listened to this side of his nature, he would never walk fire. As Blake said, “If the sun and moon should doubt, they would immediately go out.”

The victory of the cyclic theory becomes the view of a fallen, deadlocked world, a mechanical horror. In Eastern terms this world is a cosmic error to be overcome, from which to escape back into an undifferentiated continuum. In Western terms the universe is a monstrous necessity, grinding itself out in a great entropic road to folly and nothingness. Frye points out that we are incapable of accepting this view as objective fact. The moral and emotional implications of it become mental cancers breeding cynical indifference, short-range vision, selfish pursuit of expediency, and “all the other diseases of selfhood.”

Reflection inverts the “eternal mental life of God and Man, the Wheel of Life,” into a dead cycle. Wonder, joy, imagination, ecstasy, even love, are smugly diagnosed by these cyclic destroyers, who test the blood count, analyze the temperature, the oxygen content, the background of the subjects, and learnedly dismiss as aberrations the highest capacities life has yet produced. All free actions are held in ridicule, only reactions are left. The belly and groin are made supreme, the only point of realness, and the strings by which the vulture-priests think to make the Naked Ape dance to their grindings. But the ape is not controlled thereby, he merely goes mad and dies or destroys.

Saturation with images of violence creates violence, and saturation with ideologies of reflective thinking creates suicidal despair. We need an image, a mythos, representing a way upward and outward where creative longing can be released and not denied. But reflective thinking seizes the insight given by vision and turns it into a dogma that makes for reliably ineffective, lifeless supporters of the world, in that world and hopelessly of it.

The cyclic religious view loves to speak of “God’s plan” for mankind. We are a theatrical group, they say, our roles preordained according to some shadowy script. As free actors we do not follow the prescribed actions, as interpreted by the ruling hierarchy of those who know. Or there is “God’s great symphony” spread out for all to play, if we would just follow the notes properly and watch the beat of that great-baton-up-yonder, a pulse which synchronizes strangely with the heartbeat of the current powers that feast on fools.

Science has only a small shift to turn this preordaining god into an inflexible and other-to-us Nature, with all the universe laid out on a grand economy of laws. To discover these laws is the Promethean goal, the religious duty in new vestments. And cultures are crushed, the young gods are condemned to years of a madness-producing attempt at metanoia called education, and whole civilizations are whipped into line to serve the new god.

We are not involved with a preset script on a preset stage. We are a magnificent and terrible improvisation in which we must be spontaneous playwrights, actors, critics, and audiences. There is no orchestral score up there with every note assigned and waiting. We are, at best, an aleatoric performance. Cacophony and discord are inevitable, yet infinite combinations await us. We err and are bound to err in this open system, yet we are never bound to our errors, as an infinite ability to correct these errors is built in.

We long for an ultimate and our longing is itself the ultimate. Our need is the universal, that with which we satisfy is the particular and never sacrosanct. There is no absolute “out there” of logic, reason, love, goodness, or perfection. Nature is amoral, indifferent, operating by profusion. Needing these things we can only become them by boldly beholding them as our rightful due. Life creates myth and then strives to fill it by imitation.

Susanne Langer warned that our losses to science should not be taken lightly. And what we have lost is our psyche, our very soul. Mass psychosis, sickness of soul, is the price we are paying for letting a product become our absolute, letting a tool become master. The young rebel lashes out blindly at this living death to which he is condemned and which he must support, for which he must fight. The tragedy is that by the time he senses a deadly trap he has become, by the very process of reality formation, that against which he instinctively rebels. The only logical tools with which he can fight create the very situation he hates. As don Juan said, “When you find the path you are on has no heart, and try to leave that path, it is ready to kill you.” Very few men, he observed, can stop to deliberate at that point, and leave the path.

Any path we choose is arbitrary, but in our choice we shape the world as it is for us. Cohen felt that whatever reality is, we will never know it. I have claimed that reality is what we do know, that the world as it is for us is one we represent to ourselves for our own response. So it is with nature, God, “ultimate matter,” and so on. We can never get at these as such. Everything we say about them, our sciences, dogmas and creeds, are only representations we seem fated to make and to which we are fated to respond. God, as surely as “Nature,” is a concept shot through and through with the mind of man.

And yet, who for a minute believes that nature is only a projection of man’s mind? Nature is something of which I am a part, and which I must represent to myself. But it is also something which I am not. My thinking and that nature thought about create an event, but they are not identical. Man is not God or nature because he projects gods and natures for his life. Projection is not the whole mechanism even though it shapes the ground on which we stand. There is always more than this.

Joseph Chilton Pearce, The Crack in the Cosmic Egg.

GIFTS

To be more specific, there are three primary ways in which modern artists have resolved the problem of their livelihood: they have taken second jobs, they have found patrons to support them, or they have managed to place the work itself on the market and pay the rent with fees and royalties. The underlying structure that is common to all of these—a double economy and the conversion of market wealth to gift wealth—may be easiest to see in the case of the artist who has taken a secondary job, some work more or less unrelated to his art—night watchman, merchant seaman, Berlitz teacher, doctor, or insurance executive … The second job frees his art from the burden of financial responsibility so that when he is creating the work he may turn from questions of market value and labor in the protected gift-sphere. He earns a wage in the marketplace and gives it to his art.

The case of patronage (or nowadays, grants) is a little more subtle. The artist who takes a second job becomes, in a sense, his own patron: he decides his work is worthy of support, just as the patron does, but then he himself must go out and raise the cash. The artist who manages to attract an actual patron may seem to be less involved with the market. The patron’s support is not a wage or a fee for service but a gift given in recognition of the artist’s own. With patronage, the artist’s livelihood seems to lie wholly within the gift-sphere in which the work is made. Continue reading “GIFTS”

ALCOHOL & POETRY

AA has found that the following may lead a sober alcoholic back to drinking: resentment, self-pity, anger, fear, self-will, self-centeredness, managing, trying to do everything yourself, and keeping secret the things that hurt you. There are two categories in this list. An alcoholic will drink again (1) if he sets himself up as self-sufficient and (2) if he gets stuck in the mechanisms that defend this autonomy. Individualism and its defences support the disease of alcoholism. Just one more example: in this civilization we take personal credit for change and accomplishment. But it is AA’s experience that if an alcoholic begins to feel personally responsible for his sobriety, or if he tries to take control of the group, or if he breaks his anonymity, he will probably drink.

Getting sober goes against the grain of our civilization. This grain consists of money and technology. For more than a century these have been our dominant models for security and liveliness. I want to show quickly how these models feed ‘individualism’ and its false sense of human and higher powers. To begin with we have misperceived the nature of machines. First, we have assumed that they run by themselves, that they can be isolated and self-sustaining. Second, we have thought they were our slaves. But it has turned out that the model of life that includes slavery diminishes humans, regardless of whether those slaves are people or machines. And finally, we have forgotten that mechanical power is only one form of power. It is authentic and important, but limited. In the last 50 years it has become so inflated as to impoverish other forms of power. (These points can also be made about money.  We have assumed that money could be left alone to ‘work’ for us and out of this assumption it has become an autonomous and inflated power).  But neither money nor machines can create. They shuttle tokens of energy, but they do not transform. A civilization based on them puts people out of touch with their creative powers. There is very little a poet can learn from them. Poems are gifts. The poet works them, but they are not his, either in their source or in their destination. The differences between mechanical & monetary power and creative power are not of themselves a problem, but when the former become inflated and dominant, as they have in this century, they are lethal to poetry.

The link between alcoholism and technical civilization and the reason they are both antithetical to poetry is their shared misunderstandings about power and powerlessness. It is a misunderstanding which rises out of the inflation of mechanical power and results in the impoverishment of personal power, the isolation of creative energy, the blindness to higher powers, the limitation of desire to material objects and a perversion of the will.

In a technological civilization one is deprived of authentic expressions of creative energy because contact with the outer world does not lead to real change (transformation). When this happens it becomes impossible to make judgments on the limits and nature of your personal power. You become stupefied, unable to perceive either higher powers or your own. You have a vague longing to feel creative energy, but no wisdom to guide you. Such a person is a sitting duck for alcoholism.

Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage. This is why it is so tiresome. People who have found a route to power based on their misery – who don’t want to give it up though it would free them – they become ironic. This sustained complaint is the tone of active alcoholism.

Lewis Hyde, Alcohol & Poetry: John Berryman and The Booze Talking.