TOURING THE CREATIVE LANDSCAPE

TOURING THE CREATIVE LANDSCAPE

Since the country is going “tribal,” not just politically but psycho-socially, it stands to reason that one would begin to see the towns and cities around him in the context of tribal (or medieval) villages. It seems anymore that if he wants to find respite from this (not to mention from the “medieval” violence which is more and more filling our streets today), he must use his creative instincts. It’s not hard to imagine the American landscape as a mountainous frontier of imaginative scenes.

In the spirit of selective attention, one can see what he wants to see in the heart of any given settlement. Instead of the usual steel, plastic and glass, why not choose a history and tradition for which each came into being in the first place? That means (in my imagination) I choose seeing earthen lean-tos and hide-covered shelters in some places, and sod-stuffed log dwellings in others. Still in others pure futuristic expressionism borne out of the mid-20th century – always looking forwards. Some places remain glass and steel, as they should.

And if we can indulge our imaginations this far, why not push them further and invent a bicycle path connecting these villages? This way we can forge a wide view of everything and an appreciation for the multidimensionality of our creative industry – despite the weight of sublimation forced on it by economics and politics. So we begin our journey – via the touring bike.

Before departing I have to first describe a bird-s eye view of the city, the urban Serengeti, from where we begin. I always see it at night when the lights, some neon, some yellow-amber, blend into a hot-summer mix of smells, conversations, performances, and fortuitous happenings. There’s an underground which supplies and feeds the streets not unlike how supply-rooms below ground equip restaurants above. Night people are constantly “running the stairways” up and down with ideas and objects meant to keep the nightlife going. There’s a familiar drone of fused and confused sounds similar to the sound of a river – about which there’s the famous question: “What is the sound of the river?” Answer: all the sounds in the universe. “Ditto” for the city streets.

This is our launch-point. From here we begin rolling towards one of the countless arterial paths leaving the urban core which splay out like spokes in a wheel, or Parisian arrondissements. The nighttime summer breeze cools us as we ride. We’ve already lived through most of the night. Now it’s daybreak, the horizon ahead is new, and the road actually does “rise up” to meet us.

Various settlements announce profoundly different ways of life. Shapes and smells point to habits which distinguish one village from another, some having pretensions to elegance, others showcasing a rough-hewn, crude, and unfinished ambiance. The color in Colorado shows most brightly in village names stolen right out of a Hollywood movie script. Colorado is a movie set constantly revisiting and rewriting plots and story lines, though the characters (also with colorful names) never change.

Selecting a path and a village to visit is difficult. Some places are compact, others stretch like rubbery conurbations of urban sprawl. But each has its center with stony tracts, fields and pathways, and patchwork bocage protecting it. Hedgerows re-inspire the days when nature marked original property lines. Through such trail markers one can see not how nature survived the villages but how villages survived nature, how they sprouted from nature. Nature in fact moved over and accommodated them.

Once these places were organic and grew like fruit on a vine. They germinated literally and spouted as if from a family tree. Indeed, an aerial view shows appendages growing from limbs connected to branches connected to larger branches, and finally to a central trunk rooted in the urban corridor of ambition, commerce and trade. The primitive road was an artery forcing blood into smaller arterial roads and pathways which extended to the rivulets, the fingers, of the wilderness. Each year the human imprint carves a new gash into the land by moving at the joints. Old joints become arthritic and stop, new ones take over.

Isolation is a weakness and a strength. The village is eternally schizophrenic regarding its goals and needs. Isolation creates and protects its unique flavor and texture. A certain pride prevails for as long as it can claim self-sufficiency and independence – until it can’t. Compromises are then made with each passing year until what it once was is preserved in little more than a reputation, a t-shirt, and coffee mug. “Progress” is that word equally loved and hated. A “pig in a paddock” is worth more than a city merchant, until it isn’t. Then one day it is again.

Once upon a time one’s very first siting of a village was the church steeple. The bell tower holding up a cross was always the tallest structure designed to lend inspiration to residents wherever they happened to be, in or around the village – a visual symbol of strength and unity. Gradually, another (paper) god encroached from outside, at first entering from below, then gradually consuming everything in its path, including the church. Today the bell tower and church below it are little more than old landmarks squeezed between steel and glass – every village has its “Twin Towers” (and Trump Towers). Traditionally, the smaller the village the higher the steeple. But even in the smallest places the “green” god bribes the old god with its Faustian fruits: “Riches are the blessings God heaps.” “Poverty is the sign of moral failure.”

Traversing the landscape I see lanterns faintly outlining earthen windows in the distance. As we approach smells and shapes precede them much like entering a community kitchen. A different incense defines place and time – sage here, lavender there, cedar down the road. Entering this village it’s coffee and sweet pastries, in the next village the odour of stale beer shadowing a constant hangover. Others down the road have no foretaste at all (or even an aftertaste). In those latter places the smells of industry and greed overwhelm the visitor – someone who is most likely trying to escape both. What he seeks instead is finery and garnish, not petroleum and rubber – sensitivity, patience, and craftsmanship – not snobbery, insolence, plasticity, and complacency (the spices of modernity).

The “worst” of all the villages is the one to avoid. It is of course the biggest and most populated. It has become its own city under one roof, a caricature of itself – the super-mall. The mere fact that it’s what Americans populate the most says something about both (patron and place). It’s the only tent-city where one can spend an entire day with family maxing-out credit cards for unneeded junk while stuffing his mouth all day long with toxic food. It’s the perfect climate of consumption and cheap entertainment. It’s also a village that’s most difficult to circumnavigate (in America) since, to this day, it continues to grow like a virus. America, from coast-to-coast, is now one long series of super mega-malls, separated by mini-malls, separated by mini-marts, which are in turn separated by liquor stores, 7-11s, gas stations, and Taco Bells. – Visit one village today and you’ve seen every village, large and small, in America. That is, unless you use your imaginative skills.

This is what happens when one leaves his imagination at home. It’s a warning never to leave home without it. The only thing which keeps America interesting anymore is by romancing it, seeing what isn’t there but what you wish to see anyway. It’s a difficult project by itself, particularly since one literally has less and less to assist him, to sustain his fantasy, other than tourist traps and coffee mugs – or – unless he’s off on his own (Don Quixote) mental quest which unto itself requires a singularly “occluded” perspective.

Take it from me, there is no other way to traverse a pathologically “straight & narrow” world of super-malls, chained link fences, and liquor stores. It comes down to one kind of “mental aberration” looking squarely into the face of another. At least with the one you are your own navigator. Nothing is forced upon you.

With this in mind one can actually become the first postmodern cartographer if he so wishes, the first to beach himself onto an eternally new continent of discovery (in Colorado, a white curtain of mountains to the west, amber waves to the east). He can became a (sacred) geometer given the right “mental aberration.” Consider what he has to work with. Consider the faces, cuisines, stories, and dark hidden corners no one ever sees. Consider the watershed of languages (all in English) from colloquial patois to various shades of the King’s English. Some places are so local they wear their own nationality, their own escutcheon, and fly their own flag. They prove time and again that the more accurate the “official” maps are, the more inaccurate they are. In fact, they are useless. It is one of those rare examples where the most modern cartographic data is less dependable than it was a century ago.

The deeper one goes into the heartland, the more ancient and tribal it gets. These are the forgotten places. And within those crevasses are even smaller, more hidden, places – corners, rooms, backdoor basements and attics – which have forgotten time completely, they have no sense of anywhere else. This deep in, the world is “feudal” and still barters its goods and services (since there’s no money anyway) as the world did centuries ago. Paper money is cold and impersonal, it alienates. Generations stay connected by trading and are oblivious to “exchanges” outside the circle of family names, lineages, and histories. Stories and facts are kept secret, meticulously guarded.

Ironically, what helps preserve this, is its opposite – the “inline” to the other’s “outline” – the thick impermeable walls outside that ancient crevasse – those signs marking the beginning of wealthy fiefdoms, landowners and merchants, the elite minorities who own everything. Even they are oblivious to what exists on the lands they rent out to the lowborn and untitled. But what they encircle only enriches (makes more precious) those old places. They become like the eye of a hurricane, untouched, momentarily forgotten, while tempests destroy everything around them. If they stay “low” enough they manage to stay unnoticed for another year.

The surreality of this is a gated wall belonging to both mega-malls and investors. Huddled inside those walls, in the eyes of the rich, are the pestilential swamps – desolate dirt roads, stunted woods, and wretched hovels. The contrast could not be starker between “rich and poor.” Again, a medieval reincarnation of itself, castles and wastelands, fiefdoms of peasants and kings.

The journey from one to the other, from country to city, can be made through the sounds alone, through dialects. Entering the city, one is barraged with shifting identities marked by languages and accents, all clustered together but separately. It reminds us how we are not so much a “melting pot” as a “patchwork quilt” of separate but equal “sounds” – one looking out for the other to make one aria (or plainsong) . As one heads back into the country he hears that potpourri of dialects converging, conflating, getting lost in a more generic slang, what locals manufacture into an easy and relaxed Esperanto – seasoned with a “twang.” Idioms and tropes form the bulk of the language itself. The urbanite-futurist finds it inefficient and slow, but the ruralite-atavist finds it stabilizing and trustworthy.

Unfortunately, easy labels and categories (of the other) are where both ends find their most common ground. To the lowborn-ruralite the city looks to be squared in zero-sum terms – between rich and poor (of which they’re reminded of their own status every day). But to the urbanite the “other” is given more leeway and fewer stereotypes. There are “gray areas” among the impoverished, some are more deserving than others. They may be a large and luckless contingent, but they’re at least luckless artisans, farmers, ranchers, and people who may have once been successful. Living amongst those who “have” lends the acute fear of someday becoming a “have not” – much more so than being a “have not” who might someday “have” something. When you have nothing, there’s nothing to lose.

Geography, jargon, and labels aside, it must be said, lest it be forgotten, that more universal human issues are what always keep us connected. The three big human events which do not discriminate are love, poverty, and war. Unless one experiences this holy trinity himself, his life (said O. Henry) remains incomplete. All of us generally have too little of the first and a surplus of the others. When comparing love and war side-by-side, man’s biggest tragedy is that “love” is what lets us down the most. The full-time fighter/warrior is too common; we celebrate the culture of war every day. But when we speak of love (being in love) it is most always past-tense or in the subjunctive. War is concrete and visceral, easy to translate. Love is abstract and intangible, difficult to acknowledge even when it’s there. As for poverty, it is what we all have, or fear having, along with war, every single day. – Both urbanite and ruralite, rich and poor, find war (and impoverishment) the easiest and most successful of all the institutions.

Lastly, something to be said about my own “free-wheeling” through this on a bicycle. There was the world before the bicycle, and the world after it. Riding one requires an Einsteinian skill – not to exceed a certain velocity of space and time if he wishes to see something “relatively” steady on the journey. The secret of riding a bike is to pedal just hard enough to keep a preferred view ahead of him. We velocipedes must be light-of-foot yet in sync with the ball-bearings and pneumatic tires which keep us upright – while keeping a (Don) Quixotic frame of mind. Intrigue and exhaustion strike a balance.

Ultimately, the path winds around and returns us home. It’s predawn once again. We’ve been riding a full day and night. We park the bike, spend a few seconds watching the sun stretch across the new day sky and try to summon all that we remember into a succinct memory. But we’re exhausted. More time for that later, after going to sleep and preserving it as the dream that it is. It must be carefully logged and filed, protected from the destroyers of virtue and beauty. This alone is a full-time project. But as long as we keep it locked in the vaults of our imagination, hearts and minds, it will keep its purity and sanctity. It will remain its own village, in its own place and time, camouflaged by ingenuity, connected by filigreed pathways, offered up as gifts to the midnight traveler knowing the secret signs and guideposts.

It’s sometimes said that postmodernism, that vexing phenomenon enthralling us all and “these times,” is just another way of saying “Who cares anymore?” It doesn’t matter” – because nothing fresh, original or worthwhile is likely to happen again anyway. The world has gone flat and all we’re left with is cold and sobering uncertainty, empty hopes and false promises. Nothing could be a more urgent calling for the encouragement and protection of a creative landscape to call our own, and “dream-travel” to go with it. Fantasy is the only reality left, the last real frontier. It will stay virgin wilderness forever only because others can’t get to it and maul it to death. It is theater, but what isn’t?! It’s our theater., our production and script, our technicolor tour into Emerald Cities, “middle earth” shires, and down yellow brick roads – perfect for biking.

© 2018 Richard Hiatt

Advertisements

THE WISH FOR SLAVERY

THE WISH FOR SLAVERY

Could it be that we dignify the likes of Donald Trump because we’ve been the freest nation on earth for two centuries? Could it be that we’ve abandoned science and digressed to faith for answers because of the horizons science offers which religion does not? Could it be that the reason we “choose” trading a government “of the people” for dictatorship is because we fear the freedom of choice?

Old arguments but ones which never fails to linger. Perhaps because we’ve never dealt with them honestly. Perhaps we’re afraid of the answer swhich means we’re equally afraid of facing a part of ourselves which is embarrassing and shameful. Having freedom actually fosters the opposite reaction from what we’d expect: a deep desire to escape it. Noblesse oblige.

The first indicator of this type of human reaction can be seen in two thousand years of religion. We created a deity which promised “freedom” but only rhetorically. Freedom had its own purpose keenly sublimated in the consciousness of its inventors. Everyone knew they really didn’t want it. They wanted shelter, safety, and reassurance from a jealous God equipped with commandments, warnings, and lots of rules. We then told ourselves that we could not be moral or civil without those rules, without the guilt attached to violating them. We would never allow the thought that, just maybe, the ability to know right from wrong, to care for one another, to know values, and to prosper, was already innate within us. No, that would require too much responsibility. We wanted a divine supervisor ready to impose not just indebtedness but “compulsory love” to Him only, someone who also knew our every thought and move, who monitored “thought crime.” We needed an oppressive system and guilt.

And what did we get in return? A system set up to rescue us from life’s slings and arrows. All we needed was “faith,” said St, Paul. For that alone we’d get a messiah taking us under his wing, sheltering us from tempests and evil while remaining sheepishly lost and directionless. “He” would do all the suffering for us which in turn would generate just enough guilt to keep us on the straight & narrow, forever. Guilt is a powerful inducement to freedom surrendered. We gladly pledge ourselves to those propitiations in exchange for “eternal bliss” and safety.

That was (and is) what religion is all about. It is a symbiosis, a spiritual codependency, fabricated between leader and follower. But there’s a political codependency as well short of that loftier celestial contract. In the same way which fuels the “Messiah Complex,” there’s the mutual trade-off between leaders and followers on the earthly plain. Leaders promise (quasi-divine) answers in exchange for what they need to feel alive (to have purpose) – i.e., public adulation, an extended “family” telling them they’re special and loved. The citizen finds such an individual and votes for him in exchange for feeling “saved.” – Yes, even at this level we want a savior, someone who will, either directly or subliminally, tell us that freedom is not for us to discover alone. Leadership clothed in subtle forms of divine guidance is. It’s what we really want. It’s what the demagogue and poseur wants as well – total abdication of power for the one, absolute power for the other.

Unchecked, the wish to be a slave becomes pathological. Not only do we want a leader anointed with supreme power, we want him to be cruel, brutal, and unforgiving. Again, all in the service of punishment for the guilt we carry for our real thoughts surrounding our “birthright” (of knowing right from wrong). Secondly, for the guilt of enjoying too much freedom (as a community, a nation) for so long. This is why we have wars every 20 years (every generation) – to cleanse us of the guilt of so much prosperity at “the world”s expense.” We sacrifice our first-born sons as payment to the gods. Religion is a reification, a distillation, of the “slave wish.” Politics is a secular religion.

Trump knows this too – probably more so than his supporters. And he delivers – brutally, arrogantly, and in zero-sum terms. He lays down the law. Good is good, evil is evil. And anyone even thinking of jumping ship, of apostasy (thought crime) from his Holy Order is “fired” and declared evil. He’s branded a “fake” and cast overboard. He’s part of a “demonic” conspiracy out to overturn his Ship of Fools and the divine rite of kings. Trump essentially “shoots someone on Fifth Avenue” everyday and his flock defends him even more for doing it. Martyrs show up volunteering to take his place should he ever be nailed to a cross. He’s the new Messiah since the original one never showed up. Americans are impatient.

Two mantras were common in Europe in the 1930s: Il Duce ha sempre ragione (“The leader is always right!”) and Ein Reich, Ein Volk, Ein Fuhrer (“One nation, One people, One leader”). One can almost hear the same chants echoing through auditoriums at Trump rallies. If his base were asked today if they’d be willing to give up the “grave responsibilities” of democracy (demanding informed, active citizen participation, debate, checks & balances) for a “liberating freedom” of a monarchy, they wouldn’t hesitate. The new Messiah is a messenger from God laying the foundation for final preparations to the Promised Land. Part of that is also finally giving permission to act on our lowest and most savage (hence most powerful and easy to summon) instincts – to hate and kill, to eliminate the impure. This is especially attractive to White Supremicists..

Everything, according to orthodoxy, promises to be systematically subdued, exploited, and converted (that is “neutralized”), and whatever eludes those first three censures must be “sacrificed” in order to “save from itself.” – This is a creed not difficult to conger and mimic since it’s the same one found in most military texts. God is a “warrior king” empowered by holy writ justifying hatred, vengeance, exclusion, and killing to protect the pure and innocent.

In the end it’s about one pathology fueling another, one deep dysfunction feeding another. The basic pattern known among therapists versed in codependency is that in any large crowd of people a codependent individual will always ferret out another codependent at the “same level of recovery” – that is, who is equally victim to exploiting and being exploited. They play the game together while never calling the other out (this is the contract). As one therapist called it, it’s “suffering by mutual consent.” A Trump rally is a collection of people who have found each other at the same level of neediness. They look at each other and confirm it while agreeing (nonverbally, subconsciously) not to let the cat out of the bag.

It’s about mutual validation of the right of denial. The Messiah Complex is alive and well, and its savior resides on multiple thrones, in multiple kingdoms – 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, New York City, Florida, and in a myriad of ivory towers across the globe where the name “Trump” is the synonym for Jesus. Jesus never arrives, so he martyrs it up. He waves his hand and “promises,” and his swooning and fawning fans, deeply seduced in the fever of sadomasochism, fall at his feet asking that he walk on them. And he does. “Inside the revolution – everything.” “Outside the revolution – nothing,” said Castro. But at least Castro had no designs about Wall Street, and he smoked and dressed with the peasants.

Trump is America’s very first monarch. Congratulations! We’ve finally managed to create what Hamilton wanted in the very beginning and what Republican “reconstructionists” wanted ever since the Civil War. He’s the tycoon redeemer, one whose Ship of Fools is the elitism of fools. Fools who share the self-pity of the self-satisfied, who have no concept of self-criticism. No one is more covetous or greedy than those who have too much. Trump wants a revolution which is painless to him, since he’s never experienced sacrifice. Eighteen months ago Michael Moore said that if Trump became president he would be “the last American president.” He might be absolutely right.

Being the first of the monarchs, his authoritarian trappings are less obvious to the new and inexperienced, far less so than to those who have been there. Many are already comparing he and his family to other monarchies, like the House of Windsor… “a miserable, secretive family, claiming to stand for the nation…. Do we really deserve – have we really earned – this kind of devotion and this level of sacrifice?” said Christopher Hitchens.

To that I say, have we still not learned anything from our English brethren? Oh, but then I forget — Americans have very short memories, short tempers, are strikingly illiterate in world history, and are violently impatient. Salvation and the redemption of souls is on the docket NOW, and with it a primal urge for blood. It’s a new and ugly tribalism oozing up from the swamp.

And what perfect timing too: Trump’s favorite church (denomination) is the NRA, and everyone’s armed. It’s “onward Christian soldiers” in battle for an Aryan Christ. All that’s needed now is the goosestep, jackboot, a hand salute, midnight raids, pogroms, another Night of the Long Knives and Kristallnacht – this time in Camden, Detroit, Chicago, and Sioux City. We already see hatred for free journalism (prelude to book burning) and the scapegoating of an entire Latino race.

Without what looks to be a final fail-safe against this (by way of a mid-term election and a “nonpartisan” Supreme Court), the past will visit us once again. The final days of Weimar, Germany, 1933, will prove to be more than a simple event. It will be part of human nature recycled again and again since ancient times, possibly even part of our DNA.

© 2018 Richard Hiatt

CAMERA OBSCURA

CAMERA OBSCURA

In a world of gadgets and megabytes we are unknowingly held captive, dispossessed, alienated from ourselves by the screen. It has become our father and mother, our protector, our salvation, our raison d’etre. This is more or less proven by the fact that it’s our one and only constant companion, replacing the partner, the family, the ritual of communion (in the family room, the dinner table, even during sex) every waking minute of the day. Even reading this requires reading it on a screen – as if this new parent/guardian/savior must first “screen it” for approval: “Is it analyzing me too closely?” it asks. “Does it ask the wrong questions? Edit and delete accordingly.”

Never has the experience of dominion been so clandestine, fast, and seemingly effortless, and yet so wresting. Using it renders everything new gravitas and power, even knowing that it sculpts and reinvents everything to fit through its own viewfinder. But to not use it sabotages crucial realities and events – movements, crusades, demonstrations, and revolutions (personal and otherwise). The concession is thus an easy one to make, to see ourselves according to how “it” wants to see us. “This is real, that isn’t” becomes a canvass filled with a new relevancy while old sounds and images fill the margins, as mere embroidery and backdrop, mere devices of stagecraft.

One can argue that one person’s screen challenges another person’s screen, one image showing what the other’s doesn’t – and thus, not to worry – free expression and democracy are preserved. But that misses the point. The nature of the medium itself is to monopolize, not unlike old monotheisms whose core purpose was/is wealth and dominion. Its doctrine is about total obedience, and its tools of conversion are subliminal psychology, temptation and seduction, and false choices. The apostolic succession of owners and controllers follows history: fewer in number with each generation, their dominion growing imperiously tighter, while their victims grow exponentially in number.

But this takes us from the point at hand. The most vocal critics of this argument will say that we “lose nothing.” In fact we gain tremendously because of the screen. And then they will turn to the screen itself to prove it – “see, look at this.” Einstein’s rule: “It is impossible to solve a problem within the system of the problem” is dismissed. Conservative religious groups and those claiming to be deeply and personally in touch with society reject all such notions of letting technology stand in their way, of obstructing their moral clarity. But here is where the daemon is most cunning and sinister – its most brilliant conspiracy.

Let’s go back to its most primitive form, its primeval mother – the camera. A cold black surface to which people were instructed to face squarely on, not to smile, and not to move (the first order of involuntary obedience). And suddenly the way we always experienced ourselves was reversed. Up until then we thought we were coextensive with our bodies, our minds were inviolable, and we were in command of the world. We were oriented. We sat behind our faces looking out through the windows of our eyes and observed the decisions we made. But now suddenly the photographer intervened with a different kind of existential contract. Before we sat down; now we “sat.” It took on an unfamiliar existential meaning and began to play havoc with reality.

Suddenly our normal networking of consciousness between “in here” and “out there” was jammed. Another control center, now looking “at us” required total cooperation and obeisance if we were to gain what was promised to us – the magical gift of an “image” of ourselves, an idealized “essence” which we would never have to laboriously reconstruct again. This was so compelling that it was the prelude to (an essential accoutrement of) the resume, greeting card, advertisement, billboard, social entree, admissions to schools and jobs, initiations, and inductions. We were suddenly freed from ourselves. The image had joyously disarmed us and taken over. “Holding our breaths” could now be limited to just few seconds instead of an entire day, or lifetime.

Suddenly, the terms of identification shifted. Who we were depended solely on how we “looked.” The image cared nothing about who we were. Today, the first visual impression is everything. We walk around as if trying to maintain the image taken just previously – the “good” side, chin too low or too high, and – oh my God – what to do with the hands?! Meanwhile, the rest of “who we once were” is the refuse left in the cameraman’s trashcan, to the borders of the canvass. The public “eye” is an omnipresent critic trained on everyone’s image, and the critic is a thief contracted to “get something” from the image. It becomes an eternal warfare of first and final impressions. And what the image fails to fulfill in terms of one’s new identity other artifices and distractions step in to fill the gap – cologne, sound, flesh, taste (the other senses).

Behavior dictated by the image is as cold and subtle as the camera shutter itself. It calculates its own light. It instructs us in how to detach from ourselves and go “mindless” like the chiseled and anorexic “alien-android” coming at us in the fashion magazine – called the supermodel – the newly sainted icon du jour. She’s worshipped, adored, and emulated like the Madonna (Mary, not the singer). Meanwhile, not ever able to “measure up” to her, we begin to see cracks in our behavior: we’ve been robbed, we are less than who we once were. With each photo taken we realize that what the Native Americans said was actually true: something vital is taken from us, something never taken before. And to the extent we’ve allowed it to go unchecked, the photographer is thief and murderer.

The photographer wants to “get” something, lock it away as something “captured” by him alone, demand ransom for it, while leaving us empty, lost, as if we had just given our life-force to a stranger and paying him for it. We’re in a long line of those just waiting to be reduced to something generic and lifeless. We’ve been shrunken to a cross section, a sliced ray of refracted light, then abandoned as discarded remains of someone else’s day. We’re left for dead and he profits.

Still, we’re taught to look at the image and say “oh, there I am.” “That must be me” because it’s how the world sees me. Therefore it’s how I see myself. We worry about surfaces (hair, eyes, smile, hand position, attire, light and shadow) because “this moment” will be who we are forever – until it tells us to “capture” ourselves again. It could be a long time, or it could be a minute from now. But it’s much like leaving an epitaph, a personal bio, just in case we get lost (in a trash can) or aren’t heard from again. And each second is an eternity.

The black square space invented in 1836 by Louis Daguerre has become the screen which not only takes the soul away, it now talks back. It has replaced the photographer and actually has an IQ of its own. It is now “smart.” It dictates our intelligence(s), immortality, power, purpose and meaning. It “captures” everything like the old F-stop and shutter did and reduces the world to a planar (alternatively three-dimensional) framed translation. There is nothing else before or after it.

Up until now we’ve been assuming that the screen in question has belonged to a TV. But it has evolved (along with TV) and grown like a “smart” virus adapting to a hostile environment. Both in fact have found their way to a new host – the smartphone. The screen’s powers now spread over horizons never imagined. Its access, mobility, and multi-tasking talents are staggering. It claims, once again, to be “liberating” the human form – this time in a wireless universe anywhere, anytime. Which in turn absconds with one’s most personal information/identity minute-to-minute. Again, “that must be me” which requires constant reinvention from equally constant prostrations to the screen. We literally “bow” to it now for instructions and guidance by looking downward. Each second tells us “you are different than you were a minute ago” because the world has shifted via downloads and e-mails, hence its “memory” of you has shifted as well. “You must therefore update.” – The “mercury” used in the original daguerreotype is now Mercury, messenger of the gods, the “guide of souls” (to the underworld).

This screened artificial light which now invades every room of every house, office, restaurant, church, and bedroom is a jealous deity more imperious than any previous deities ever. It controls our nervous systems so tightly that “fear” (of non-being) is its only requirement for admission to its kingdom. It’s the new Old Testament God, as Joseph Campbell said about his computer, “with lots of rules and no mercy.” It tells us who we are at each moment, in every context. Even when we’re not looking at it, it’s looking at us, surveying us, measuring us, “planning” for us. It’s the Ministry of Truth and Newspeak protecting us from “thought crime.” It’s our Lord and Savior, the Ministry of Love … “with everything forgiven, his soul white as snow…. Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right … the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”

The true purpose and meaning of any supreme God is to save us. We wish to be slaves. We want to be told what to do and how to live, because freedom is frightening, the bringer of enormous responsibilities. St. Paul offered “faith” alone as the carrot to that temptation (we need nothing else). A martyred messiah who suffers for us is much easier. We not only want to be sheep, we actually want our leaders to be cruel and brutal – as punishment, for three reasons: first, for the guilt we have in abdicating our birthright to freedom (noblesse oblige); secondly, for a “savior’s” ultimate sacrifice for us; and thirdly, for the guilt (as a nation) of having so much wealth and prosperity (at the world’s expense) for so long (we sacrifice our first-born sons every 20 years in war to expiate that guilt). – The new digital God now steps up to answer those prayers.

So, now it becomes a problem of addiction recovery – what’s called a “process addiction” as opposed to “substance addiction.” It’s about recovery from what is more than a cult. It’s a self-proclaimed theophany (omniscience revealed) as well as a theodicy (a defense of itself through itself). The task becomes one of literally lifting one’s blind gaze from his lap and fingertips to focusing once again on the human form in front of him. It’s a new “humanism” we’re talking about. It’s about connecting in real time, to real flesh, minus the security of virtual space, anonymity, and distance. It’s about getting back to the awkward, trial and error business of direct interaction and verbal communication without texting. The social illiteracy fostered by the screen leads nowhere except to a community of lost and alienated beings all clustered together, unable to connect even while in physical proximity. If it weren’t so serious it would look comical. And most of the time it does.

Images and texts unto themselves are harmless, but only when we’re able to turn them off and walk away. The screen-god disallows such disloyalty. Walking away is betraying the angels of the wireless firmament, the messengers of heaven’s (cabled) vault who ride on magnetic fields and waves, frequency bands, algorithms, and modulations. As with any religion, they hold firm to their stations and stay pledged to their godhead. They die hard. Thus, the need to recover in the very same way we do with cults and chain-smoking: one step at a time, one day at a time, with moral support.

A good place to begin would be at the family dinner table. Simply put down the device, look at one another, and reintroduce yourselves. Hold the device in your hands (if you must) but don’t turn it on or look at it. Just feel it. Not to worry, it’s not going away. It’s you who has gone away and who needs to come back.

© 2018 Richard Hiatt

THE UNDERGROUND TRUTH and EVERYDAY TRUTHS

THE UNDERGROUND TRUTH and EVERYDAY TRUTHS

Has anyone ever wondered what would happen if, in listening to the news, everyone heard the absolute truth, or as near to it as is humanly possible ? Would empires collapse under their own hypocritical weight? Would religions fold up their tents? Would popular leaders cower in shame and vanish? And in spite of all the above, would systems, those meant to actually serve the commonwealth, magically begin to work? And if not, would others suddenly surface to replace them, the types of which we could never have imagined? Would there be war? Global warming? Would the world end? Would everything magically disappear as the illusion it was always feared to be?

The truth is a dangerous thing. And no more so than when it’s needed the most. In the absence of crises humans seem lax with it, to the point of indulging the gift of “creative” exaggeration. It becomes a parlor game of seeing just how far they can “bend” it without breaking it. During crises this simply continues but morphs into a more serious “industry,” a studied opportunity to basically indoctrinate, as Goebbels said, to “win people over to an idea.” Hollywood, religion, politics, the social and corporate media all see it as an open field of untapped opportunism, by “printing the legend” as John Ford said. People are most easily exploited when scared, confused, and desperate. Hence, Goebbels again: “Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.”

In the early 1940s allied Europe managed to stay connected throughout the Occupation by means of an Underground Press. Chancy and illegal, wires and batteries linked a network of Resistance communiques designed to serve a three-fold agenda: to pass along accurate information, coordinate between subversive groups strewn across Europe, and sabotage the Nazi effort. This evolved into Radio Free Europe after the war, but it wasn’t the same. Whereas the former was about physical survival, the latter was about ideological survival between capitalism and communism – a war of principles. In other worlds, “death” was optional.

In spite of the so-called “independent” media today staving off corporate versions of history and reality, something is still missing in this effort, something which actually worked well in the 1940s – truth being shared between disparate, isolated and abandoned cultures and languages. The Nazis prohibited the dissemination of unauthorized news. Corporate America today does the same thing. The only difference between them is that Nazi Germany didn’t deny it. Hence, it would seem that an equally diverse majority would rally today just as it did seven decades ago, to defend and protect an “unauthorized” information network of scattered, raw, unredacted compilations of factual data. We always say that it has – but it hasn’t. Somehow we actually sabotage our own efforts. Perhaps it’s because we always go through the channels (legal and authorized) given to us.

For the record, the internet and its social media isn’t the same. Anything and everything is posted there, from the small-town middle-age “kook” living in his mother’s basement to the lunatic cultist screaming about Jesus. Nothing is verified, confirmed, or substantiated as “factual” (or relevant and important), and it has become mostly a wasteland of piracy, intellectual theft, hysteria, salacious rumor, voyeurism and scandal. The truth-messenger (Aletheia) is persona non grata here. Apate and Pseudologoi win hands down in this domain. — So, enough said about the internet, unless (and in the unlikely case) a website can be built as a reliable source of guidance and enlightenment.

Which says something about post-war fascism today and how it has evolved into simply more nuanced and sophisticated forms. And let it be said just once: it was Mussolini who in 1914 coined the term fascio which in 1932 he also said was synonymous with “corporatism.” What this possibly says is that for Americans to actually get the unvarnished news about real events, it would require a truly uncommon subversive activism.

For some years I’ve advocated for a national (socialist) network which doesn’t necessarily mean sharing Marxist ideology but does mean avoiding the trappings of Wall Street. It means that funding would derive from completely non-profit (state funded) sources. Alas, today that means voluntary donations (the proverbial “bake-sale” as opposed to the billionaire-owned media industry). If a network could be set up in this way and actually survive, unhampered by corporate bribes and sponsors, the political landscape would change dramatically, to say nothing of our view of the world in general.

Alas, another difference between now and the 1940s: Back then everyone “wanted” the truth. Today, many simply do not. They want to hear John Ford’s “legend” to which the corporate world (Wall Street) is quick to respond. Citizens vote for those who announce the lies they want to hear, who package and tailor them into comforting myths and fairy tales. This presents a double dilemma for the unbiased reporter, because (in this world) the political truth is “ugly” most of the time. Hence, the even more critical need for the kind of 1st Amendment latitude which avoids political bias and partisanship and which constantly puts the status quo on notice. Democracy is supposed to be a messy business. It’s never at rest. And that means the old standard of using “trusted, anonymous, inside, venerated, infallible, authoritative, solid and official” sources no longer passes muster if it’s the truth we really want.

Beyond the “venerated and infallible” it becomes a matter of individual intuition and consistency. Honest reportage is a self-cleansing process. That is, the truth is usually simple and direct. It needs nothing extraneous to support it. If a clear-minded (informed) person listens closely, he usually knows what is and is not the trustworthy. He also knows when his own biases interfere. A code of ethics can easily base itself on that very principle – directness, simplicity, and clarity (even when the news is abstruse and messy). Through consistency and the connectivity of facts, the truth legitimates itself, and the listener finds it.

Running this kind of operation would first of all require a radical shift in consciousness. Not the kind which normally seeks status or divine rites but which existed among those, again, like the writers and artists of the 1930s – who knew intimate suffering, personal sacrifice, and the exigencies of immediate safety. In the 1930s a unique state of mind connected artists, writers, poets, and teachers who were known as Radical Socialists. They knew the meaning of freedom and slavery. Their purpose was not driven by doctrine or flag-waving but conditions perpetuated by the worst oppressions imaginable, by their most visceral, intimate, and life-threatening encounters.

One of their challenges (and ours still today) was/is to provide the truth about a basic institution – market capitalism – which ironically has always championed “rugged individualism” and personal freedom. Historically (looking at it honestly), it has fostered the exact opposite – the owner-slave relationship, minimal rights and conditions, a gross maldistribution of wealth, and so forth. Just to maintain those minimal conditions, it’s the worker who must risk everything and take it upon himself to lobby against his own employer. And the boss, the typical CEO, must strive to follow the edicts of Henry Ford – turning his worker into an efficient “machine” of production at minimum of cost to himself. Ask any CEO and he will openly confess his (and any corporation’s) chief function – profit. It’s his professional raison d’etre. Everything else is “detail” and subordinated to the bottom line. In his mind (in the American mind), there’s nothing odious or shameful about it. It’s the way it’s always been, and always will be.

If a CEO is ever munificent enough to grant fair rights and powers to his workers, it’s usually not because he cares about them but because he’ll profit more if he does. They work harder and he gets good press for it. A fitting analogy would be (strangely enough) the career criminal: When caught flagrante dilecto he obviously confesses to “having reformed” in court. In the vast majority of cases he hasn’t reformed at all, and everyone knows it. The only reason he says it is because he got caught, plain and simple. If he hadn’t gotten caught he’d still be doing criminal things. Verbiage means nothing, and this is why “rehabilitation” doesn’t work (it’s an insulting euphemism for inhumane, at times sadistic punishment) and recidivism is over 60 percent. – The CEO masquerades behind the same phony rhetoric about “caring for his workers.” It’s politesse and pantomime and little more.

By contrast, and in brief, Marx proposed worker freedom and individual autonomy – and meant it. The worker couldn’t possibly garner any self-esteem without having some pride in his work, identifying with his craft, and being allowed at least some creative latitude. Hence, despite all the “Western” propaganda, his first and most essential principle was “spiritual,” not political or economic. An atheist who never said religion was the “opiate of the people” used economics as a “means” to man’s spiritual well-being.

Hence, the subversive’s most formidable foe, the monster culture which militantly opposes (and deposes) all critiques against it. It goes so far as to even declare that the progressive “left” is dead. It has morphed into a kind of neo-McCarthyism masquerading as democracy. It promulgates an identikit which says all liberal-progressive-radical-subversive thinking is “anti-capitalist,” hence communist and unAmerican, hence non-Christian, hence immoral, hence requiring government surveillance, hence not “with us and for us,” hence a terrorist threat. The segues are astonishing, yet proof in how deeply our systemic indoctrinations have metastasized the national psyche.

What all this rides on is a culture of fear. Fear of unknowns, but also the fear of giving offense, masquerading as “progressive” political correctness. It’s about living in a Kafkaesque environment where we’re expected to support the very thinking we know is wrong and which we abhor. The very forces organized to resist oppression are themselves oppressed, they even oppress themselves, and then call it “the cost of freedom.” Uniformed police frisk people entering meetings convened to fight police oppression. Freedom caucuses crusade to stop “inoffensive” language in the name of freedom of expression. What’s wrong with these scenarios?

The so-called “left” has effectively neutralized everyone’s rights in the name of “equal rights.” In what Robert Hughes called the “culture of complaint,” no one can say or do anything without fear of offending someone’s delicate sensibilities and being sued for it (in the most litigious nation in the world). This is how much power we’ve given away to words and phrases which we’ve forgotten are just words and phrases. This was Lenny Bruce’s argument back in the 1960s which got him arrested and still remains a lesson unlearned: The savagery of words derives from their censorship; the more you prohibit them, the more power they have. Creativity which requires risk and going into uncharted (sometimes verbal) waters, now receives “zero-tolerance” from those calling themselves liberals, progressives, artists, and “truth-seekers.”

Essentially, the Left has gone Right. The “center” of the political/ideological spectrum has drifted so far south (to the right) that no one recognizes “true center” anymore. The “left” of the 1960s isn’t even on the radar. In fact more rights, more tolerance (of feelings and beliefs) are enjoyed on the Right today than on the Left simply because there isn’t nearly as much PC-neurosis. The Left is locked in its own stone tablets, moral codes, and holy writ. This is truly astonishing since it’s also true that what used to be the “lunatic fringe,” the extreme-radical-militant parties of intolerance on the Right, are now ON the radar, ideologically dignified and broadcast daily to millions.

Young people are honest. Some say it’s their downfall, especially when they offend adults. They intuitively know right from wrong and express it, that is, before adults fill them with fear and loathing. Envy is what actually gets in the way while filling them with the arts of “moderation and forbearance.” We “admire” their innocence and purity, so we say. And we all aspire to regaining those virtues again – the “Proustian moment” of “stripping the veil of habit,” and so forth. But what about our real motives? Is it for innocence regained or for reasons more measured? That is, to blame the impertinences of telling too much truth on “finding the child within?” Is the whole cult around “youth regained” really about searching for a means of freer expression and unfettered honesty?

Instead of changing ourselves, we teach our children to feel shame and embarrassment instead. We confuse masochism with minor self-deprecation, self-denigration with etiquette and proper restraint. Kids are taught to put themselves down before others do, because “we know they will.” Better to know what’s familiar, what to expect, than to think and act spontaneously. Better to stay desensitized and numb instead of sensitive, honest, and vulnerable. The need to please, conciliate, and appease overwhelms our birth right to self-esteem. Together we walk on eggshells everyday, worrying not to give offense, while scorning those who don’t walk the same line. – This, believe it or not, is just another side of the new fascism – sacrifice to a higher principle and authority, a flag, a Bible, despotic leaders and demagogues, to a history filled with lies which are morally offensive.

Youthful honesty gets buried by the habits of redundancy and coercion. Denial and careful obfuscation are supposed to make us feel better and safer. The best-selling books are those which “tell us what we already know.” Cliches and platitudes find each other and reinforce a safe feedback loop of evasion and dullness. On one level we openly condemn obsolescence and at the same time commit ourselves to the offenses of banality and euphemism – “all wind, no substance.” Politicians win the most praise for this, even from their enemies, by torturing our language, reducing everything to easy and safe catechisms and syllogisms designed to say nothing. To wit: “Black is evil, no more black, no more evil.” “God is good, people are sinners, the more God, the fewer sinners.” “Torture wins honest confessions, information is good, so legalize torture” – to which Solzhenitsyn added “torture, not to force you to reveal a fact, but to force you to collude in a fiction.”

This serves fascist ideology well, because as Orwell said, stories of cruelty and tragedy not only resemble each other but repeat themselves. They’re easy tools. This is the American media today in the nutshell: 28 minutes of catastrophe and fear (the same themes every night) followed by the 1-minute “feel good” story expected to “balance out” the previous 28 minutes. Then they call it “fair and balanced” reportage. What the third-graders did today at Jefferson Elementary “offsets” nuclear terrorism, earthquakes, global warming, graft, higher taxes, and death. All is well and “have a good evening.”

In the years just after the war science was the buzzword for everything. It cured every problem and promised the heavens. Plastics, aluminum siding, modern refrigerators, drive-ins, frozen TV dinners, fast cars, transistor radios, and Levittown created America’s “high imperial noon” (the 1950s). But it also meant the end of the age of allegory and irony as a way of explaining the world. “Poetic irony” went out with the bi-plane, the “lost generation” (still haunting Paris), and the Great Depression. This was also the opportunistic moment for Joe McCarthy. Along with John Birch and Billy Graham, McCarthy personified what Sinclair Lewis said thirty years earlier: “When fascism comes to America it will be draped in the flag and carrying a Bible.” The new fascism has no use for literacy or free-thinking children.

Today, the pendulum has swung the other way, not with fascism but science. The buzzword now is “faith” preached from the lunatic Right, and there’s a trending towards a kind of pre-Enlightenment atavism. When science is convenient it’s sanctioned by God, When inconvenient, it’s fake and just theory. “Intelligent design” is no longer the stupid oxymoron which it’s always been. It’s “on the radar,” taught in schools, and broadcast everyday to millions.

A “legitimate” Radical Left would confront this head-on, but our best minds simply are not. The few that do are silenced along with the weak scattering of “independent” news outlets. Once again, one wonders if they are sabotaging their own efforts by stupidly going through the official channels handed to them. A legitimate Left would see the trees from the forest, would attack not a symptom of the disease but the entire organism which is systemic and self-perpetuating. – Again, an analogy to 1930s Paris: the Right Bank cafes battling Left Bank cafes. One “negotiated” symptoms and supported status quos. The other saw the disease as the system itself.

The cafes in the 1930s were hot battlegrounds of ideological warfare. By the start of the 20th century the 5th, 6th, and 7th arrondissements made up the preferred haunts of Left Bank thinkers. The Right Bank was comprised of the defenders of the upper classes. Grassroots publications were typically subversive and started on the Left, and if they became prosperous, the Right would notice and offer stipends to lure them over (sometimes bribes worked, sometimes they didn’t). The Left Bank centered around the intersections of the Dome, Rotonde, Select, and Coupole and then to the Deux Magots and the Flore cafes. American writers made Montparnasse a legend, and everyone said it was “the center of the world.” – The Right Bank cafes by contrast were, quoting one critic, “gigantic hotel lobbies, extravagant palaces, without a quiet corner, and where the people of our neighborhood could not survive.” The popular notion was that if one didn’t live on the Left Bank, “there was something wrong with you … and you weren’t a real writer.” You had moved instead to “the domain of the mindless middle classes.”

Today that warfare continues. But the balance has been reversed (along with “faith”) between the small phalanx of “inde” outlets, socialist and subversive publishers – versus — Barnes & Noble bookstores, FOX, CNN, MSNBC, ABC, and Christian-owned universities, publishers/ bookstores, clothing stores, and radio and TV franchises. The “ideological” cafes of the old Left and Right have defaulted to small independent espresso bars, 7-11s, and sports bars. Starbucks remains astutely demilitarized (a latte DMZ) marketing itself to patrons of no particular persuasion. (On occasion it compels itself to call police when two “black” patrons visit and fail to order something).

The coffee served today is also a lactic metaphor for the intellectual currency floating about. In the 1920s Paris was already famous for its arabica bean, strong and black – much like the British for their Earl Grey or the Turks for their tar-blends. Today one finds a “shot” of caffeine thrown into a cauldron of caramel, chocolate, almond milk, a potpourri of artificial favorings, nuts, whipped crème and a cherry. The American palate once again flouts its preference for over-the-top concoctions – elixirs meant to stave off the worst evils of all – redundancy, predictability, and boredom. It’s not enough for coffee to serve the palate, it must “visually” dazzle. It must be a roller-coaster “party” for the tongue and a fashion statement at the same time.

Not to digress … we return to the basic question: What would happen if everyone heard the truth – and nothing but the truth (or as close as we can get to it)? It comes down to “codes of meaning” and a kind of Kabuki theater played in five acts. Each act plays out the languages of truth – from the absolute down to the totalitarian lie and its backdrop, cultural decay. It all depends on the “contract” with language we start with and prefer to keep – specifically, the subversive truth or a regnant American neo-fascism. George Steiner wrote about the crisis of “rationale, humane expectation” during World War II:

We know now that man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning. To say that he has read them without understanding or that his ear is gross, is cant. In what way does this knowledge bear on literature and society, on the hope … that culture is a humanizing force, that the energies of the spirit are transferable to those of conduct?…. What are the links, yet scarcely understood, between the mental, psychological habits of high literacy and the temptations of the inhuman? Does some great boredom and surfeit of abstraction grow up inside literate civilization preparing it for the release of barbarism?

There’s the existential problem with language (the Eastern versus Western questions of “”being”); and then there’s the ideological problem of language, the kind which is far from “absolute” but which tries to convey the best of human virtues, relatively speaking. It knows there is a wide latitude given to human error, that we are mere mortals, but it strives nonetheless for the “last act” in the theater of truth-sharing.

And since it is our preference to reach for the bottom of things, to reduce the truth to its lowest denominator by way of subterfuge, “bent” white lies and half truths – which in turn facilitate bigger lies without any further help from us – we can’t possibly expect much from the standard purveyors of truth (media, religion, and politics). Yet to do nothing about it, to depend on information ex facie, leaves us with the worst alternative of all – the status quo. “We have to do something. We have to at least try,” said William Wallace to his fellow Scotsman, “because do you know what happens if we don’t? – Nothing.”

Another analogy: The “two Americas” (two governments) often written about, two realities catered to by different truths. One speaks in tones pitched to guarantee evasion and meaninglessness, the rhetoric of abstraction and obfuscation, quick to ensure monotony, torpor, stasis, political cynicism and disarray. The other seeks directness and integrity. Lewis Lapham called them the “permanent” versus the “provisional” governments. One wears the mantle of democracy and government “of the people,” while the other does the bidding of oligarchy and its backroom deals. One hides behind the other. There’s always the “talk” of reform but nothing changes – because it’s not supposed to. As Lapham said, the cardinal rule in Washington has always been the “preservation of the status quo” behind the veneer of passionate speeches and causes (all theater) — aka., the “Potomac two-step.”

We know all this already. It’s old news, and I know it’s preaching to the choir. But still nothing changes. The only thing left to say is that it all starts and ends with consciousness, the kind that ignites incentive and urgency – that is, activism. And with activism a means to an end. But with a means must also come unvarnished, unfiltered information. It may require one or two more political cycles to exponentially rush us to a point of existential desperation, but that’s coming anyway. It’s not a matter of “if” but “when.” And when it does happen we will have a choice in terms of “which act” to follow.

Maybe under the rubble of ideological apocalypse we’ll find the old wires and batteries used by the French Resistance and once again plug them into a larger truth-sharing. “Wires and batteries” are a metaphor, but the information which still fails to reach us, despite all the technology we have today, is not. Perhaps our “systems” of communication should be our first clue. Our second clue might be the language of “virtual” fact-checking, so entrusted, so user-friendly and accessible. Such instant, free access with its bells and whistles, not unlike a chocolate mocha frappucino with whipped crème and nuts, should be our biggest red flag. – How about some regular black coffee instead?

© 2018 Richard Hiatt

NECROPOLIS

NECROPOLIS

My residence is an underground city. Catacombs with pools of forgotten waters beaming refracted, undulating figures of light on granite walls announce the rooms of my life. Foyers, anti-chambers, and vaults read like diaries and lost memories.

Sometimes it feels like I’ve stayed around here too long. “Topside” from my tumulus world life is an alien place. I recognize less and less each day, and feel even less a part of it. I feel like a museum relic amidst a fast-moving torrent of bodies and events, all chatting by means of devices in languages I don’t recognize. People are translucent, plastic, virtual souls encased in human flesh constantly scurrying about as if trying to find themselves. Nothing ever was permanent, but now even impermanence is questionable. Was anything ever here in the first place? Everything’s a blur – as if someone took vignetted photos and smeared them across a white canvass, or opened the shutter of an antique camera and accidentally moved.

I am that antique camera-obscura, the wrong lens, the wrong F-stop, for what’s framed in my field of vision. So, I go underground. Even when I’m topside (in body) I go under (mentally) – making sure “not to drive or handle heavy equipment” when so doing.

Middle earth is a place for memories, of savoring, sometimes rescuing, the past from the kind of quick death it suffers above. Mnemosyne is the dvarapala goddess guarding those comforting thoughts which constantly resuscitate me – always just in time, because I can’t breathe topside. My vision is gone. I have trouble speaking when I need to communicate. My north-south compass points aimlessly nowhere – the needle bouncing everywhere at once. The “rosebuds” of my past, archived in clay, the artifacts of days gone, are filed away in my stone vaults.

There are archaeological horizons below mine too, lives and memories of others more ancient, more tightly interred. These are the worlds upon which I built my own, the foundations and stepping stones to “my” time on (and in the) earth – a Stone Age siring my Bronze Age. We all share one common treasure – memory transformed into re-membering everything together, that psychic cement which puts everything back in perspective. The chronology (layers) of time remains, but only in play, symbolically. The air in my own cavernous room breathes with its own ambient sounds, but only as part of a larger cosmic aria. It’s a reminder that I too am just one horizon, filled with watercourses and stone tools, a stepping stone for those above.

This is as it should be – because it’s how it is. By comparison above, my wall art is minimalist and expressionist. The paintings are stick-figured and the sculptures carved right out of native sandstone. They promise to outlive the art above, always cutting-edge “modern,” always just taking form, and even paleolithic at times in its modernity.

My own neolithic (early) life was just as fast once but without the phones and cameras. Today everything looks eerily the same. I peer above the rabbit hole and the world looks all too familiar. Houses still stand, trees still grow, animals still move about, lawnmowers still buzz as they once did fifty years ago. The scene is beguiling. There’s the appearance of reality frozen in time, trying to lock itself in a picturesque stasis. But it’s a wily deception. Look again and the new and unpredictable invades that bucolia. The corner of Maple and Elm morphs into a nervous scene of cables, satellite dishes, broken water mains, surveillance cameras, toxic fumes, overcrowding, and unprecedented urban noise. A new and different stranger owns the “hood,” those old Victorian homes, and a run-down trailer park next door. The picket fence is replaced by chain-link and warning signs.

The message is clear: There’s a time to surface and a time to stay invisible. I’m a member of a fraternity of “night-watchers. We watch not as much out of fascination as out of confusion, frustration, fear, and displacement. Time is the great trickster. It tells us that life can be found “as it always was.” But nothing’s ever as it was. We witness this fact every night in the shadows.

And there’s the problem. The older we get the more we realize that there are more years behind us than in front of us, and the more we identify with what came before. The effort to constantly reinvent ourselves, to stay current with the “here and now,” is noble and impressive on the surface; but it’s a losing battle. Eventually we succumb to who we “were” and become part of the past, locked in earthen tiers. We subject ourselves to a fixed place in geologic time. Horizons are incarnations, old skin, and we have our place in earth’s foliations.

A thousand generations live below me, and I sense a thousand more gathering above me, even before they’ve arrived. I settle peacefully into my own substratum – dust on dust. I also feel nature churning her children’s graves over and over, like stew in a pot, laminations of life being mixed and remixed in ways that will once again bring new forms to the surface – new species, new dramas, new survivors and non-survivors – the great wheel (sansara) of life and death. We are the grist of that.

Inside my own space vestibules read like a book. They list the chapters of my life – who I was and am now as I still breathe and move about. The “night watch” means something deeper than mere evasion and transparency. It’s about bringing something to the surface subversively, into the collective sub-conscious, in ways not readily welcomed. I’m the “shadow” behind all brightly lit rooms figures, and events. I’m the ballast to all “good” things which ignore their darkest corners. I’m noir and Faustian when men are most deceived and evil, but the bringer of truth and humility when they’re willing to face themselves. There’s no denying our shadows. To “be” requires one and to shoulder it for life.

From those vaults I draw an inner sense of the “vacuums and omissions” left above. I intuit the lie and announce it. It’s no wonder then that we’re identified and labeled by easy stereotypes and fabled images – cloak and dagger, destroyers of public morale and sacred institutions, recruiters of unwanted change. We’re the anima to the animus, the bringer of grace (“painful beauty”).

One particular vault holds all the fallout from a life’s worth of lying and treachery. This is collected and stored, fermented like bitter wine, then returned to the surface and kept nervously over the shoulders of the “truth talkers” – evangelists and politicians.

Another vault stores burnt offerings to false gods. Another our many genuflections to greed, another to vanity, ambition, and so forth. The rooms of the human condition are Borgean in number and variety – a library of stories told and unfinished, anecdotes revealing their fated outcomes, valedictions-benedictions, entrances and exits.

Put another way, it seems as if everything buried (e.g., condemned) rises again in judgment. What comes to mind is the “fifth realm” of the Egyptian Duat – the Judgment scene in the Hall of Osiris. This is the underground “hero’s journey” to Selfhood – six step down, six steps up. In the fifth realm resides a set of scales, the god Thoth recording events on a tablet, the “eater of the dead” (part crocodile, hippo, and hyena), and Osiris himself sitting in judgment. This is the room for the “weighing of the heart” against the symbols of justice and harmony. Forty-two “assessors” (inquisitors) ask the critical questions which either condemn or redeem one to the Sky of Ra. – In this sense, the role as “shadow” is quite effortless. We don’t even create it. It’s created for us and kept alive by those on the surface – those striving to hoard the light of Ra.

But make no mistake, my rooms are not simply to darken the light above. They exist because of my own mistakes and transgressions when I lived topside. The darkness they emit is my own. This is also true for all the incarnations beneath me. They all have their stored memories. Entering one room I find a collection of shame and embarrassment, another room my collection of lies and deceptions, and yet another room memories of false pride. I stand in the grand hallway equidistant from all the rooms forming a circle around me and I attempt to put a summary tag on everything that I am – partly disparaging and deprecating, partly an effort to salvage a patina of self-respect – I was “an enigma,” a “victim of misplacement,” etc. But nothing is complete enough, they’re just pieces to an eternally unfinished portrait.

We’ve all had our heroes, and mine have all been anti-heroes. One comes to mind who occupies a horizon one generation below me: Andre Malraux. He was as caricatured as Falstaff and as tragic as Lear. Today it feels like there’s a “geologic event,” a vein of rarefied crystal, connecting us. I “relate” because he was an enigma in his own way – hated and loved. He was dark and light at the same time, though by no means a symbolAndre Malraux of Manichean simplicity. Philosopher Raymond Aron described him as “one-third genial, one-third false, one-third incomprehensible.” He hovered between hagiographer and con-man, fabulist and fake. He was, in other words and in my view, a real human being.

“Man is not what he thinks he is. He is what he hides,” he said. Also, as author Herbert Lottman wrote, “he preferred to live his life as a novel.” He was devoid of public concerns and yet passionately invested in politics. He would think, write, and speak openly, and yet “if asked what he meant by a particular remark, he could disarm the listener by confessing that he had forgotten what he had just said.” He was a Marxist and yet became fast friends with de Gaulle. He exaggerated his connections with Stalin and Mao but flew missions against Franco’s forces in Spain. He joined the Resistance and went on secret political missions for the French government. He stole money and even a bas-relief from a temple in Angkor Wat (Cambodia), but at a time when archaeologists were removing items anyway with the approval of the French government. He also became a critic of the French colonial presence there which won him no respect.

Some say he rode the war out in comfort in the south of France with his Jewish wife. But he saw combat and was captured by the Gestapo during the Battle of France and later won several service awards.

He was shy and “slightly” manic-depressive. Though his critics called him “self-aggrandizing” and a braggart, his wife, Clara, said he was intensely private and kept to himself. She said that during their marriage she barely knew him. In 1958 he became France’s first Minister of Cultural Affairs (unveiling the Mona Lisa at the National Gallery of Art in Washington). He died in 1976 and was buried in the famous Pantheon. Jacqueline Kennedy said he was “the most fascinating man I’ve ever talked to.”

Regardless of what people thought of him, despite being a living contradiction, everyone knew him to be a great novelist. What he hid about himself in his own subterranean “rooms” were the human impulses most feared and despised. Hence his enigmatic presence and his “love-hate” vacillation among the living. He could speak the truth as long as it was couched in fiction, but if he lived it, personified it, he was scorned and labeled a fraud. “It is difficult to be a man. But not more so in … cultivating one’s differences … by which he surpasses himself, creates, invents, perceives himself.” He was the Judas-goat and the hero at the same time, a truly tragic figure. The contradictions of Malraux are what made him human. He put it to the world: What is a hero except a coward concealing his cowardice? What is bravery except concealed fear? What is honor except concealed hubris and vanity? Who do you think you are?

Behold, this is where I live. Between upper and lower horizons, of reincarnations past and future. I’ve carved out my own space according to how I lived my life in detail, and still live. Again, more and more it feels like I’ve been here too long. It feels like I know too much, feel too much, express too much – inappropriately. I’m out of step with living protocols. Hence the sense I get of settling comfortably in my own dust.

At the same time however, and strangely enough, I still draw air and breathe. Life goes on. As long as I can enjoy the liberties granted to “the elderly” – that is, to this age group traditionally deemed “harmless and irrelevant” – I can go on saying what I want, for as long as I want, here on this blog which no one reads, floating “out there” in virtual space, moving by currents unknown and waters uncharted. – And so I shall.

Entry Number One (note to self): Everything is borrowed, even the unmatched, the inimitable, the original. There are no discoveries except that discovery. All is wind and noise signifying nothing. And then we wake up and there’s just silence. It was all theater. Life is but a dream. None of this is real.

© 2018 Richard Hiatt

THE HOLY EXPEDIENT

THE HOLY EXPEDIENT

Why do we mythologize? Why do we attribute experiences to divine intervention? The common response is that we’re reaching for unreachable things, trying to understand (hence give ourselves over to) them. It’s about applauding ourselves for two things: for making the effort, then conceding defeat and surrendering to a higher power – changing the things we can, accepting what we can’t, “and the wisdom to know the difference,” and so forth.

But is it really about accepting such challenges and trying to work through them, or reducing everything to inexplicable puzzles and paradoxes so we don’t have to think about them? In which case we keep ourselves locked in a kind of circular redundancy allowing us “not to reason why?” Is the real purpose of religion and magical incantation to keep us anesthetized from those higher faculties bestowed by the Enlightenment?

Is it tautology to which we reduce everything – a place of refuge when there’s nothing but fear otherwise and a loss for answers? Everything stops and the air gets stale, but we prefer it because at that point a higher authority takes over. (S)He/It answers everything – or dismisses the question altogether. It saves us from the distrust we have in ourselves and those instincts which tease out those questions. The fact is that incantatory refuge is mostly circular, and it’s easier to let it lazily fall into a simple, childlike cliché or bromide and call it “god” – ad absurdum before reductio.

We can’t seem to not romance phenomena, attribute realities to serendipities and magical coincidences. They’re easy and simple. We relish sleek, gestural, and theatrical mythologies which take hold of everything and emancipate themselves with intransitive verbs (“God knows,” “Life just Is.”). They manufacture their own microclimates which we can crawl into safely, like a womb, where warm baptismal waters cleanse and protect. It’s the same instinct which then entices us to being rescued and saved by a higher authority – to hide under a parental wing (Paul’s inviting overture: do nothing, know nothing, simply “have faith”).

One example I recently came across: the so-called “magic” in the making of the Stradivarius and Guarneri violins. The craftsmanship is inimitable and unparalleled, there’s no questioning that. But what makes that craftsmanship is hard work, meticulous training, endless mistakes and apprenticeships. It’s also finding the best wood on earth for these violins. It’s about years of trial and error and the luck of nature preceding what becomes a perfect instrument. But folklore, fable, and romantic fiction could not leave the truth in its own stink. History had to romance it, elevate it to “God’s workshop,” creations crafted by “divinely gifted” hands, and so forth.

The wood comes from a “magical forest” of “resonance firs.” Forget that it came from geology, the science of pressure and time – a mini-ice age 15,000 years ago, and a period of harsh winters in northern Italy in the 17th century which forced the trees to grow slowly – which in turn gave them a micro-porous hardness – which allowed the wood to transmit superior acoustic waves (timbre). – No. These centuries-old spruces lived (and still live) in a “magical forest,” creating their own “cathedral” canopy, emitting a spiritual silence heard only by angels.

It’s said that Antonio Stradivari himself selected the tree he wanted to harvest by the light of a full moon. He would lay his ear against the trunk, knock the tree with a hammer, and “listen.” If he liked what he heard it was taken and transformed essentially (might as well say it) from water to wine – from crucified tree – to resurrected instrument – to its divine aria (ascendance). The Italians never could resist a good dolce farsa.

Even science is nothing without “a conscience.” On one level all abstractions must be reified, even when the opposite is the case. And all major breakthroughs must be the result of inspired moments and inscrutable divine interventions. “I don’t know what happened, but something intervened and took over.” We immediately dismiss the possibility of one’s own intelligence “leaping forward,” as it were, with a clarity only possible as a result of hard work, with nothing supernatural about it. We are much too self-deprecating. Like children, again, we want to genuflect and thank something external and fatherly-motherly. And even when we acknowledge that it is something “we” did, we attribute it to a inner “divine spark.” Again, tautologies and endless circles going round and round. The double helix is stuck at one level in aeternum.

Intellection stays conveniently, but aggressively, anti-intellectual. It must remain so to allow itself to concede at an appointed hour. It’s about preserving an order which too much thought destroys. Roland Barthes said we are like “masters tugging sharply on their dogs’ leashes; thought must not range too widely, the world is filled with suspect and futile alibis, we must play our common sense close to the chest, reduce our leash to the distance of a computable reality…. [T]he tautologist furiously cuts down whatever is growing around him, for it might smother him.”

We need not even mention the tight, circular logic within which America tucks itself so perfectly. The culture is legendary. Barthes again: “too much intelligence is ruinous, philosophy is a useless jargon, you must leave room for feeling, intuition, innocence, simplicity, art dies from too much intellectuality, intelligence is not an artist’s virtue …. [T]he war against intelligence is always waged in the name of common sense.

The New Age as a community is worse than America as a nation. If falls back to koans, conundrums, catchy alliterations, and deconstructions that even prohibit the asking of a question – because it’s the “questioner” himself that the indictment falls upon. The questioner may indeed be the problem’s source, but it too quickly becomes an “out” from allowing our intelligence from going its natural distance. Everything is couched in riddles. The most looming questions are formatted to answer themselves: “If the whole universe is just one atom, and the only real thing is everything, then what is it?” – This is the absurdum well before the reductio even turns up.

Redundancy takes on a style all its own, and style then replaces substance. It’s what we remember, the first and last impression before exiting the room. And with style comes texture, timing, tone, color, and of course the “resonant firs.” In other words, its about theater (pantomime and stagecraft). America most of all stays safely inside its own theater: monuments, lapidaried proverbs, statues, hallowed grounds, sacred institutions, purple mountain majesties and amber waves keep it moving to a cadence neatly tailored to a Christian hymn or a Sousa march – the morning benediction before tarrying forth. We mold the day according to scripture, to Longfellow, Keats, and Shakespeare – or to the latest RAP song at ear-piercing decibels. We “get out groove back” each morning this way.

The morning benediction is about moral and ethical redemption with regard to past deeds. It’s a constant daily purging of sins by way of scapegoats (blame anything except what we”re not doing). It’s about militating the truth down to fantastic images, rhymes, cliches, platitudes and soundbites about who we are. Hence the ease with which demagogues and poseurs – masters of the masterful lie – take over politics and keep us going round and round with their pleonasms. The cardinal rule in Washington (as always) is “the preservation of the status quo.” – “Oh so proudly we fail,” allowing the “same few” to always win.

In the end no one is to blame and everyone goes home innocent of their crimes. This is because redundancy perpetuates vacuums of meaning and cozy obfuscations when it comes to needing specificity and clarity. Poetry and myth must always stay locked in their own special vernacular, otherwise they vanish – and the magic vanishes. Magic becomes a convenient and effective sanctuary. Again, tautology does away with progressive ideas, of moving forward, hence of any personal accountability for deeds done. “Laziness” (predictability, passivity, silent conformity) in Washington becomes the synonym for rigor.

Perhaps the quintessential personification of statued redundancy is the televangelist. “God is God, after all.” How do you know? “Because the Holy Spirit says so.” And what is the Holy Spirit? “The Holy Spirit is God sent down as Jesus Christ.” … on and on, ad nauseam. The trick is to constantly elude evidentiary rebuttals by making statements so vague and “mysterious” that “proof”s and “premises” are not needed. Foundational principles remain spectral. It’s all predicated on belief (or faith), and one “sees it” or he doesn’t. He’s “saved” or he isn’t – the ultimate (cowardly, evasive) hubris.

With no need for proof of anything, the most absurd allusions to divine intervention follow. A baby falls from a high-rise window and lands on soft grass and “God intervened.” When it lands on concrete and dies then “God moves in mysterious ways.” Earthquakes and hurricanes arrive and they say it’s God’s revenge for sin and homosexuality. Then they go louche when hearing that the only region of New Orleans which did not get flooded during its biggest hurricane was the Red Light District, or that San Francisco was hit by earthquakes and floods decades before it was “condemned to hell” as Sodom and Gomorrah.

The worst sin of all is what becomes the very essence of sadomasochism – that is, the master-slave relationship with a totalitarian ruler. We cannot be free, or moral, without “permission.” We must be constantly afraid while being forced to love what we cannot see or know – “compulsory love.” It is a God who knows our ever thought and every move 24/7, even in our dreams, ready to punish us even for “thought crime.” He is a jealous God. – Nothing is more wicked than this. It’s the lowest of human abjection. This is the evil of evils.

Reality is always pounded into recognizable forms. Hence the crucial importance of divine images and Hollywood idols. It must be objectified, totemized, simplified, seen in the guise of a Greek goddess or Hollywood starlet. The smile of the Mona Lisa “says it all.” Lady Liberty wears a nation’s suffering and sacrifice, “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Garbo, Audrey Hepburn, Meril Streep, Victor Mature, et al., are the faces in a Waterhouse or Rossetti painting. Each could be the face of some kind of virtue – a principle, an inspiration, memory, wisdom, love, or purity and strength. It’s the culture of graven images.

Okay, time for the obvious concession: Yes, there are the trappings and limitations to pure reason as well, of too much mental toil. There are those moments which demand that the mind be set aside – especially when we allow it to take us just so far. And from that intersection we must “become” whatever it is that reason prohibits. Yes, there is that concession. The pendulum swings both ways, and, to risk another cliché, a balance must be struck. At such times mythology, poetry, and irony must fill in. But the point here is that the balancing needed most (especially in this climate of escapism) is for fewer riddles and more grounding. Thanks to “the transcendent” and supernatural, reason is constantly having to redeem itself. We only see its most parochial/unintelligent side.

The reasoning mind actually conspires with itself. It tells itself that it’s worked overtime, gone to its extreme ends, when it hasn’t. Then it looks for an “out” as quickly as possible so as not to discover some stone unturned. In fact, says the “non-theist,” the mind leaves open terra incognita, ultima thule, it knows to exist but never explores. It’s afraid that it might uncover remains buried and forgotten – artifacts which might challenge or invalidate our magical-conceptual models held, as Barthes said, “close to the chest.” The effect may just demystify things. And, for the record, humans are intellectually “lazy” generally speaking — stunningly so in America.

The consequence of more “balanced” reason could be the destruction of our iconographies and idolatries so effectively keeping the world euphoric. In other words, it would mean the end of circles going round and round on an invisible (baseless, illusory) axis. This is because of an ugly truth about us: not wanting to go anywhere. We stop thinking and it brings in a host of “lazy” mantras which demand that we remain lost children in the wilderness, crying out for the wing of Pegasus, the crystal-comforts of Mother Nature, or the silvery light of the Virgin Mary.

Reason does not “win out” in the end. Nothing does. This is may be the only metaphorical “circle” which does bear some semblance to reality. But it does come around like the seasons and must be given its freest expression and its own space. If it isn’t it becomes dark and demonic – a winter of discontent – while “spring” remains a meadow of butterflies and songbirds. Be careful what you ask for: The valley you think protects you, wraps you in its bosom, is a fairy-tale dream. The sun sets, skies turn gray, butterflies die, and songbirds become ravens. – Then what do you do? Do you look to the heavens again, for some sky-god (crystal or fairy angel) to explain it, or do you use it as an portal for unfettered abjuration, to see with your own eyes?

© 2018 Richard Hiatt

BEING BLACK AND FRENCH

BEING BLACK AND FRENCH

The battle for Paris in World War II lasted six days, from August 19th to August 25th. When you watch the footage of the Parisian underground, the Free French Resistance, and ordinary citizens doing everything possible to save their beloved city, an occasional Negro appears among them. When I see this, something compels me to try and imagine “his” world.

To be black, French, clearly “inferior” in the eyes of his oppressor, and a target for eventual extermination or enslavement (should the oppressor win) was singular and unique – if for no other reason than his memory of white oppression extended beyond Nazi ideology. It involved white people in general. Hence the line between good and evil remained uncomfortably vague and always uncertain.

To the extent that one kind of “white” evil was imminently near in 1944, a call to arms was anything but vague in terms of what to resist at the moment. One can imagine the desperation, the primal need to mobilize everything in one’s power, to weaponize and resist German tanks charging through the city’s boulevards. That experience was traumatizing for everyone, but also one which was uniquely inaccessible to Parisians unless they were black.

Archival footage of urban warfare is abundant. There are scenes of fighting, wins and losses, on every street corner. But when a black man is badly wounded and carried off my comrades, or physically escorting a Nazi prisoner to a holding cell, the adrenaline is visible and palpable – not just for him but to one witnessing the “victor-prisoner” dynamic – a war still conceivably lost, but a huge victory for this one soldier. Tears cascade from his eyes while a nervous smile congeals around the mouth – a confused and nerve-racking convergence of emotions separating upper and lower face.

The black man is rarely seen or mentioned (because of his blackness) in the annals of World War II among Europeans. In the United States he’s an embarrassing and uncomfortable “issue” since he’s fighting alongside whites for “freedom and democracy” and always exposing the hypocrisy of that. But the English and particularly the French never regard him as different. They never see any justifications to discriminate. They don’t see skin color, just a comrade among comrades.

I realize I have the advantage of hindsight, but in the 1940s it would have seemed clear to the average black American that expatriation would be a logical decision – an idee fixe in fact, a personal mission. Family, politics and money were heavy burdens in the US making a boat ride to Europe difficult at best. But still, as James Baldwin will testify later (below), it would have seemed worth it at least to press on in that direction.

Indeed, black American musicians touring Europe between the wars proved this point. They were embarrassed and stunned to feel the weights of oppression lifted as they stepped ashore into France. The French not only loved American jazz music, they treated them almost like royalty. Every store, cafe, and brasserie embraced them and their music. An experience like that must have been almost numbing by comparison to what they left behind and were fated to return to.

To be French and black (to Americans even today) is as exotic as it is to be British and black. To hear either of the two languages from their lips is almost transfixing. It feels incongruous, out of place, ripping right across the rough grain of the nation’s most shameful stereotypes. In America one is either an “African-Haitian” immigrant – or – he’s oppressively identified by the sounds, inflections, and colloquialisms associated with the urban ghetto or the deep south. It smacks of the indoctrinated racism of white America which disallows “blackness” to coincide with white cosmopolitanism or Eurocentric sophistication. There is no mental space, no informed response, in the national psyche for that. Most white Americans are taken back, mystified and marginally amazed.

Imagine that dilemma: Here is someone who occupies a real no-man’s land, exiled even more at home than elsewhere. America, in its rhetoric that “all men” are free, has nonetheless always taken it for granted that “progress” requires black labor and black misery. And in other countries like France (despite its hospitality) they create, as Edward Said wrote, a presence which “complicates the presumed homogeneity of the new societies in which they live…. [He] is likely therefore to be a source not of acculturation and adjustment, but rather of volatility and instability.” In other words, he’s the easy, most visibly targeted, scapegoat.

The French patriot/Freedom Fighter in 1944 has to be a mystery even to the French. Perhaps his fellow white Parisians wonder about things he knows which they do not. Perhaps one question is this: Though they are all immigrants together (the variable being how far back one chooses to look), he is even more so (of mostly Senegalese descent). France becomes home to the black man, but his roots are disheveled and scattered in all directions, clothed in mostly horrific stories. There’s the question of survival in a diaspora which can only be equaled by the Jews.

Which brings up yet another mostly undocumented story: that of any special bonds between blacks and Jews. Were there any during or after the war? Did the thought of color and religion simply fade in importance for these two tribes who possibly saw themselves through the other? They had one very clearly defined enemy, but also a clearly “fenced” world beyond fascism which would continue to censor them both. There must have been alliances between these two very disparate cultures, different in every way imaginable, now forced together by war. Seeing the two standing shoulder-to-shoulder in Paris had to have cemented a bond to some degree whether they knew it or not, welcomed it or not. Together they exposed the depths of world bigotry in one frightened moment (captured by Ernie Pyle and British-French photojournalists). Here were its two most targeted scapegoats of all time – the quintessential symbols of darkness facing down another darkness which was eugenics.

In ancient times tribes would pack their monthly sins onto the backs of goats which were then sent out into the desert to die of starvation. It was their way of expunging sins and cleansing souls (redemption). Hence, “the scapegoat” and its essential place in the social-religious order. It was the precursor to the Catholic confessional and the idea of a messiah arriving to die for one’s sins (“vicarious suffering”) – both having the effect of relieving people of moral responsibility (not in principle but certainly in practice). For tribes, ancient and modern, it created the ideal combination of purged sins without guilt. As for the Church, it saw scapegoating and ritual sacrifice as an opportunity to acquire more legitimacy (and converts) by “upping the stakes,” that is, moving from animal to human sacrifice.

An afterthought to this: If the two tribes – blacks and Jews – had ever found themselves historically united, the goat would have made an ideal symbol of tribal unity. In the same tradition of the Egyptians and Greeks, it would have seemed natural to give it deity status. The goat was the object of oppression and suffering, but now something potentially recrudesced from the ashes, like a Phoenix, recast into the image of invincibility and power. The weak and defeated always return triumphant.

When on film I watch the wounded and bloodied black man, rifle over one arm, satchel hanging below the other, limping down the Place de la Concorde, fighting desperately for France but also for a deeply private and personal cause, I see the soul of the pure immigrant, the eternal stranger in a foreign land. These are the thoughts which come to me. No other human could possibly personify the most basic human instincts as clearly, viscerally, and virtuously as this individual. He’s truly a tragic (and timeless) figure.

And what is some of this “private and personal” history? Let’s begin from 1914 to 1918 when 170,000 men, mostly from West Africa, fight with the French in the Balkans. W.E.B. DuBois convenes the first French Pan-African Congress in Paris whose first meeting addresses codes of law, civil rights, the League of Nations, and publishes an international quarterly, the Black Review. There are no commemorations specifically honoring blacks after the war, just those for “soldiers” – some of which were (just happened to be) black.

The Negritude Movement begins between the wars in Paris by three young intellectuals who also start the journal The Black Student. One of them invents the term “negritude.” These are African students most inspired my American black writers like DuBois and Langston Hughes.

Then there are notable individuals: Josephine Baker’s father is white, but it’s moot point – because she’s born in St. Louis, Missouri. When she’s old enough to perform she boycotts the segregated audiences. It’s not hard when she decides to come to Paris in 1925 at the age of 19. She becomes an “erotic dancer,” marries a Frenchman, and immediately signs up for duel-citizenship. She’s the first black celebrity in Paris, called the “Black Venus.” She’s astonished to find absolutely no segregation laws. By 1939 she joins the Resistance, spies for the French Intelligence, and becomes a Second Lieutenant. She hides fellow resistors at her chateau. At the end of the war she earns five military honors (medals) and continues fighting against anti-Semitism. She dies in 1975 in Paris with full military honors.

Visiting jazz musicians like Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and Charlie Parker are invited by famous French writers like Juliette Greco, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simon de Beavoir to the nightlife along the 6th arrondisement. It’s a special honor for writers to be seen with black musicians of that caliber (or any caliber) and to escort them around Paris. Miles Davis has a long romance with Greco.

Other notables include Nardal Paulette who is the first black woman to study at the Sorbonne. She organizes the first feminist movement in France and begins a salon focused on racial consciousness. Christiane Taubira is the first black woman to run for the office of President of France and becomes attorney general. Bessie Coleman is the first American black woman (also Native American) to earn an aviators pilot’s license in Paris in 1921. She’s called “Queen Bess” in the US upon her return, a popular celeb. But she has to study French and go to Paris to get that license. That achievement never would have happened in America.

Perhaps the most telling story is that of the writer James Baldwin who settles in France after the war. As a “subversive” writer and a homosexual who writes freely about both subjects in Paris, he has this to say in retrospect:

I got to Paris with forty dollars in my pocket, but I had to get out of New York…. When I arrived in Paris in 1948 I didn’t know a word of French…. It wasn’t so much a matter of choosing France – it was a matter of getting out of America. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me in France, but I knew what was going to happen to me in New York. *

Today 80% of French blacks are of African descent. The rest are from scattered regions like the Caribbean. Most are Christian and Muslim. There is one black person buried in the Pantheon who participated in the Resistance and became a politician. Two others are commemorated there with named plaques but are not buried there. Today, many from Mali, Senegal, and Mauritania are “undocumented” French citizens, but being undocumented is a virtual non-issue. It has never blown up into the political football/quagmire which now exists in the US.

Enough history. Being a pure immigrant, to me, captures a certain essence. It’s about being the perfect citizen of the world, a tragic figure who survives every sling and arrow imaginable. He takes away what is of value and leaves behind what is of no value, and knows the difference. He carries a wisdom under his wounds which speaks to everyone but is not for everyone to hear. Alas, he is worn down, bruised and fatigued, even in his youth. He still has strength enough to convey what he knows and a spirit to fight on, but deep inside he’s silent and withdrawn. He retreats into the only domain still trustworthy enough – the arts. He is solitary even in his public persona, accessible but guarded and secretive. He holds on to a worldly knowledge which he will disclose only to those willing to listen – it cannot be given away. He takes his secrets to the grave.

© 2018 Richard Hiatt

*Information about blacks in France from 1914 on is taken primarily from French Journalist Jennifer Padjemi, in her article, “48 Things You Never Learned About Black People in Paris,” (Buzzfeed, 2016). The Baldwin quote is also in Padjemi, quoting from an interview with Baldwin in the Paris Review (Spring, 1984), interviewer, Jordan Elgrably.