Late-stage capitalism has similarities to an aging billionaire terrified of microscopic germs imagine Howard Hughes at the end of his days trying to extend life by frenetically worrying about invisible dangers, writes Phil Rockstroh in this reflection on his father’s death.
By Phil Rockstroh
My parents modest, single-level, brick home stands on property that was once part of a sprawling estate owned by the Candler family, Atlanta’s Coca-Cola patricians. Built during the post-World War II, 1950s building boom, the small house is situated in a deep ravine that once served as the grounds of the Candler’s private zoo. On the hilltop above, the point of highest elevation in the Atlanta metro area, the Candler family, in the tradition of the powerful and elite, laid claim to the highest ground.
In the 1960s, and apropos to the era, in an odd twist of historical circumstance, the grounds of the estate — earlier endowed to the state of Georgia by the heirs of the Candler fortune — were appropriated for development as a state mental health institution, a sprawling complex of modernist structures, housing those committed for treatment for issues related to psychological disorders.
Emblematic of the decade of the 1960s, the highest ground in the city became the site of a madhouse. Aptly, as opposed to emanating from its traditional source i.e., insular precincts of privilege and power, in the 1960s, spontaneous upwellings of cultural madness were more egalitarian in nature seemingly, a development that the corporate and governmental elite found so troubling that they swore that they would never again abide similar types of cultural phenomenon — instigated by underling upstarts who (apparently) forgot their social station — to rise unfettered.
Consequently, the swift and brutal repression that the Occupy Wall Street movement has endured in its struggle against the present structures of calcified psychopathology known as the corporate state.
Yet, cultures must allow for creative chaos. Otherwise, stultifying social structures tend to engender a sense of powerlessness among the populace, creating a pervasive sense of nebulous unease. Repression creates outbreaks of hysteria, because the source of demeaning power cannot be confronted directly without prohibitive consequences.
From witch burnings, to public lynching, to xenophobic fears of immigrants, to the bullying of homosexuals and social outcasts — depression-mitigating misapplication of misdirected, public rage has been inflicted on unpopular groups and social outcasts. The larger the degree of social stratification and economic inequality in a given society the more noxious the displaced anger becomes, as economic-engendered resentments and group rivalries provide the fuel for flames of pent-up aggression.
Often, the animus is internalized within the psyches of the official operatives of the state (e.g., police and soldiers) who are given carte blanche to harass and oppress minority groups, political dissidents, and enemies of the state, real and imagined. Thus the state, acting through its anonymous operatives, becomes a force of lawlessness abducting, torturing and killing sans sound reasoning and remorse for all intents and purposes evincing the modus operandi of the criminally insane.
A lone, psychopathic killer views himself as a self-contained society of one; therefore, he feels accountable to no one outside of himself. He is a freelancer (a mirror image of the lawless state itself) who has assumed the murderous agency of state power.
No wonder, we, as a people, so greatly exaggerate the danger these extreme cases pose to us on a collective basis — no wonder we insist that the most punitive forms of punishment be inflicted upon individuals afflicted with these rare afflictions that they be locked away in the most secure prisons and executed with utmost expediency for if we gazed upon them for any length of time, we would notice affinities of mind and action — their violent, reprehensible deeds are microcosmic representations of official state policy and cultural norms.
Therefore, we clear these overt monsters from sight, lest we awaken to ourselves — to the casual and mundane monstrosities required to adapt to this prison of the criminally insane we know as daily existence within late capitalist empire.
Here howls the chasm: Between the apparatus of the privileged and powerful, in place, to create false fears and those things that should be rightly feared. For example: being in possession a healthy fear of the damage wrought by the corporate media by their incessant promulgation of manufactured fears.
Conversely, one should fear the harm resultant from the contrived fears perpetrated by ruthless political leaders and mercenary media figures committed in the name of protecting the public at large from imaginary enemies.
This is not so much a problem of: fearing fear itself; rather, it is a matter of gaining a healthy fear of the overkill exacted when self-serving institutions use counterfeit fear as a means of preserving their power — standard modus operandi when institutions, public and private, have lost legitimacy.
The overreactions and overkill of the national security police state are similar to that of a germaphobe (a sufferer of mysophobia) e.g., the forces of state power marshal overwhelming numbers of militarized riot police and recruit entrapment-happy undercover provocateurs against peaceful political dissenters.
Yet: Obsessive hand-washing deployed against imagined microscopic invaders will not serve to sooth the tormented mind of an individual seized with mysophobia, because, in reality, the problem is rooted in the psyche of the sufferer. The further one afflicted withdraws from the world the larger his fears will loom. Isolation causes the mind to become a self-resonating feedback loop of self-referential fear (e.g., an encampment of peace resisters must be met with violent force to preserve the health of the state’s social order).
Providentially, the most propitious treatment for OCD (of both the personal or institutional variety) is exposure to the very things the suffer fears most, i.e., being induced to touch the surfaces that he imagines seethe with vile contagion. Conversely, an army of riot police and billions upon billions of dollar squandered on military hardware and state surveillance can never quell the terror within the isolated elite of a decaying culture.
The neoliberal state resembles Howard Hughes in his final days shuffling the penthouse floors of a succession of resort area hotels muttering about microbes his vast riches and security details offering no balm; his fear of human touch served as a self-issued death warrant. In a nondenominational Pentecost of redemptive paradox, the very thing that evoked such overwhelming fear in him might have served as the very agency of his salvation.
My family’s death vigil has come to an end. My father passed from this world early in the morning of May 21. In the last few days of his life, he drifted between unconsciousness and excruciating pain. When he would rise to awareness, he would quake in agony, his bone-thin arms raised, grasping into empty air, imploring, “Help! Help” futile pleas that proved to be the last words he uttered in this life.
He died as he lived a vivid presence, although inconsolable regarding what he deemed the implacably cruel nature of human life. At last, his pain has ceased. His flesh and bones will soon be rendered ash almost weightless, his remains will be free to drift in air released from his imprisoning pain.
I shuffle through memory; itself a dimension of imprisonment — its confines circumscribed by fate and limited apprehension. I festoon the walls of my individual cell with fragments of imperfect remembrance. What was once flesh has been transmuted by time into shards and vapor.
You are now free, my father but for the solitary confinement of my memory.
Not too long ago, I had a dream wherein I stood gazing over the atrium of a large complex of multi-story structures. Inadvertently, I dropped my “special” writing pen. It glinted silver as it spiraled down into the lobby, below the atrium, where it came to rest on the carpeted floor. I searched for a down stairway or an elevator in order to retrieve it, but discovered the only means of descent would entail having to make my way down the floors of a public hospital adjoining my present location.
The dream communicated to me — as occurs, at times, in the lingua franca of the soul — the tacit understanding that in order to regain possession of my writing instrument I would be required to view and chronicle much suffering (as well as healing) in the wards of the hospital that I would be shirking my duty as a writer (I would lose the instrument of my art) if I avoided the task of looking upon affliction, recovery, madness, birth, and death.
This spring, upon my journey south, I have gazed upon suffering and death, as my father made his agonized exit from this keening sphere. My father — who was a man of half Native America ancestry, brought by tragic circumstance to the Deep South of the U.S., to later marry a woman, my mother, a survivor of the blood-besotted madness of 20th Century Europe — carried the wounds and evinced much of the madness of his times.
He imparted his wounds to me. I carry them with my own wounds — those incurred by unavoidable circumstance and those that are self-inflicted.
As I trudge through the wards of the wounded and the restored, I will do my utmost to send out dispatches bearing my observations. From maternity ward to madhouse to morgue and all the precincts in between, I will attempt to chronicle what I witness for to ignore the admonitions of one’s soul and its dialog and dance with the Anima Mundi of one’s time is to drift toward the tragic fate of a life deferred.
I close this essay seated on an Amtrak train, trundling through the June night. … Sleepless. … A full moon skirts through ink-black clouds … the landscape visible in snatches of sheeted light and silhouette. Towns and cities drift past. Northward bound, Georgia recedes behind me but memory holds fast.
At hospice, my father succumbed to death in a morphine-induced coma. Too heavily medicated to desire drink, he died of thirst his face and body as gray as granite when the attendant from the mortuary service arrived to transport his corpse for rendering by the Cremation Society.
When my father was seized with rage — a frequent occurrence throughout his life, and only diminished in the last stages of his protracted illness — his blood would rise, in an instant, from his chest to his face; his anger-contorted countenance would flush a deep, reddish brown … the color of steak gravy broiled out of raw beef when cooked at a high temperature.
Seemingly, the veritable thunder of an outraged god, his outbursts terrified me. Shortly after my fifth birthday, after being witness to a fit of my father’s temper, I have a memory of slipping out the back door and coming upon a bed of fire ants that had erected an outpost of their larger colony against the concrete foundation of our small, brick apartment building in Birmingham, Alabama.
The insects seemed to me to be a seething mass of coruscating rage — and I answered their animus by kicking at their ranks with the tips of my high top Keds. The sight of their crushed bodies, frozen in death, affixed to the side of the wall, held me enthralled. The illusion of control seized me momentarily mitigating the terror that my father’s rage had instilled in me. Is this the mental architecture of sudden violence murder war?
In the seats around my own on this train, African-American grandmothers are holding an impromptu confab on the subject of the sins of our age. … The topic: A generation has been lost because the art of dispensing regular beatings for infractions, large and small, is in the process of being discarded by hapless parents. One proclaims, through a wizened grimace, “My father … took to hitting me all the time, and it never did me one bit of harm.”
Sure thing, Granny … each blow served to move you closer to God in his Heaven.
I, myself, in a fit of righteous fury, sent a troop of fire ants his way when I was five.
Phil Rockstroh is a poet, lyricist and philosopher bard living in New York City. He may be contacted at: [email protected] . Visit Phil’s website http://philrockstroh.com / And at FaceBook: http://www.facebook.com/phil.rockstroh