America's Escape from Knowing
Editor’s Note: For many of us, one of the regrets about dying is that we don’t get to see how things turn out. We must face the fact that we are allowed to view, personally, only a brief chapter of the human narrative. Through our imperfect knowledge of history, we can gaze back through the haze of time at how we as a people (or as a family) got here, but the future is the ultimate unknown.
That is the human condition – a mix of hope, awareness, regret and sometimes willful ignorance – a paradox that Phil Rockstroh confronts in this guest essay, which he dedicates to the memory of “my brave friend and gifted colleague, Joe Bageant, 1946-2011.”
In Berlin, Germany, in early 1939, at Friedrichstrasse railway station, shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, my grandmother placed my mother and her older sister, with a few family valuables sown into their clothing, on a Kindertransport bound for Great Britain.
Soon thereafter, she went about the business of bribing my grandfather's way out of a concentration camp. And then, by means of more brides, charm, cunning, and sheer force of character, she and my grandfather secured exile from Hitler's Germany.
My grandmother, being a shrewd judge of character, was able to accomplish this because she knew Nazis were human beings, desirous of gold and social position; most did not swoon over Nazi ideology.
The majority of Nazis were careerist, simply yuppies on the make ("just looking for a better life for their children") -- and Nazi officials were giving out the jobs, so they joined the party.
Even in the aftermath of the war, after much of their country had been reduced to ruins, the people of Germany refused to face their complicity in the crimes of the Third Reich.
In post-war Germany, memory itself seemed to have been firebombed to ash and rubble. For ordinary Germans, the extent of Nazi evil was too great and their own contribution too quotidian to accept personal responsibility for crimes committed by the state.
How could the flickering of such tiny desires for personal advancement set the vast world aflame?
Yet over time, after much internal struggle and public confrontation by the nation's artists, writers and political activists, later generations of Germans began to accept and take responsibility for the crimes of their collective past. They rolled back the cold slab and forced themselves to gaze within the unmarked tomb bearing the remains of the mortifying history they had buried.
This stands in stark contrast to the manner that the people of the U.S. approach, if at all, the unsavory aspects of their nation's history.
From the genocidal practices inflicted on Native Americans (my father's people) to the irradiated ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to the killing fields of the Philippines, Vietnam, Iraq, South and Central America and Central Asia, the people of the U.S. have refused to acknowledge and take ownership of the collective sins they carry.
German soldiers were no more evil than their fellows in the U.S. military, who, for example, man the operation systems of Cruise Missiles and navigate predator drones, and kill, detached from feeling, from thousands of miles away. After all, they are only following orders, just doing their jobs as loyal soldiers and good Americans...just like all those good Germans of my grandmother's day.
Although, on a personal level I carry a pedigree of atavistic oppression in my bartered blood (my father, born on a so-called Indian reservation; my mother rushing to these shores with the flames of the Holocaust at her back), I acknowledge my guilt in all crimes against humanity. For I am human; therefore, I cast a long shadow of instinctual, racial barbarity behind me.
Although I was nowhere in the vicinity, I am an accessory to the crime.
In the late 1940s, my grandmother ran guns to the Irgun [the Zionist terrorist organization that carried out paramilitary attacks against British officials and Palestinian civilians before Israel’s founding]. She embraced the desperate, nationalist delusion of Zionism. I understand why she did this. But, now, every day, Palestinians are forced to their knees in order to make amends for the sins of Europe.
Although its origins and workings seem to us mysterious and evanescent, evil remains proliferate because our traumatized psyches see it as a force of good. Evil is a deranged angel of self-preservation, convinced his wicked machinations and destructive fury are bulwarks against outside forces aligned to bear his doom.
And that is why I don't support "our troops." They are the delivery system of U.S. imperium (even when deployed for "humanitarian" bombing campaigns by audaciously hopeful, Democratic presidents) and should be regarded as such.
Yet, even as I make the pronouncement, I must maintain a stubborn skepticism regarding my own claims of innocence in the matter.
"A man who is unconscious of himself acts in a blind, instinctive way and is in addition fooled by all the illusions that arise when he sees everything that he is not conscious of in himself coming to meet him from outside as projections upon his neighbor." -- Carl Jung: “The Philosophical Tree” (1945). In CW 13: Alchemical Studies. P.335
The myth of Eden and the fall of mankind is a metaphor for leaving the innocence of childhood. In Eden, God, the Father, is above; the very ground is Mother…where the fruits of paradise flow like mother's milk. Like children, and domesticated animals, the psyche is held suspended there, in primal grace, in a state of unconditional trust to authority.
Accordingly, the much-maligned serpent brings freedom, including freedom's regrets and sorrows. Ambiguity comes into the world, as opposed to a father-mandated, mother-ensured totality.
(In the socio-political realm, for example, if this psychic passage out of ossified Eden doesn't proceed, its mode of mind can rise as a totalitarian outlook on life. Apropos, the nostalgia of the right to return to an idealized, free-market-guided, and family-values-beholden, paradisiacal past that never existed and can never be.)
With the loss of one's perceived innocence, the world's freedoms, with its multiplicity of things, arises … not only animal élan -- that being, the ability to be present in the breathing moment, aroused by the scent of blood and pheromone held on the wind -- but also foresight and logos, i.e., adulthood with all its regrets, responsibilities, reflections, recriminations and equivocations.
The serpent is the hero/anti-hero of the tale. He is the co-creator of the human psyche. He should be given his due, in regard to providing us with the knowledge necessary to leave the pointless inertia of paradise and blunder into the possibility that we may know ourselves to a greater degree and thus be able to see the world before us with a bit more depth, nuance and clarity.
"Purists are deadly, and so they know all about deadly sins." -- James Hillman
I have right-wing friends who conflate freedom with predator drones; they rage against the government while swallowing the Pentagon's propaganda like mother's milk (a nourishing concoction … if your mother happens to be the Medusa).
In contrast, nice liberals, because they are cut off from their dark, angry side and their hidden, selfish motives, all too often, are boggled by, seemingly frozen in polite mortification, before rightist rage.
(When, for example, a Democratic president orders the launch of cruise missiles, they claim it is done more in sorrow than anger -- none of that crass, testosterone-redolent, smell of blood on the wind excitation evinced during military operations under Republican administrations is allowed on public display.)
Why is rage such anathema to liberal sensibilities?
Rage can be a catalyst for both sweeping social change but can provoke backlash. And both situations are unnerving to liberals of the professional classes, who are comfortable within the present system, hence, deep down, don't desire a shake-up of the system that might threaten the privileged positions they hold within it.
As a consequence, liberals, oblivious of their own buried, selfish motivations, have difficulty understanding laboring class anger and resentment and how it is channeled and displaced by conservatives.
"Hustlers of the world, there is one mark you cannot beat: the mark inside." -- William S. Burroughs.
In the theatre of this faux republic, Republicans are effective at selling their imperialist wars of choice and their class-stratifying economic policies because they have become convinced the roles they are playing are real.
Regarding this situation, Konstantin Stanislavski, considered to be the father of modern theatrical conventions, is reported to have instructed, when an actor becomes so deeply merged with the role he is portraying that he begins to believe he is that character, it is time to escort him from the theatre.
In contrast, Democrats can't seem to find a way into their roles; therefore, they give less than convincing interpretations of the characters they are playing. As a result, their line readings are listless and lack conviction.
And what does this reveal about the rest of us, the supernumeraries in our national tragicomedy, who believe we are central to the plays outcome -- this amateur production of Marat Sade -- otherwise known as -- daily life in our corporate state/militarist imperium?
"Psychoanalysis has to get out of the consulting room and analyze all kinds of things. You have to see that the buildings are anorexic, you have to see that the language is schizogenic, that ‘normalcy’ is manic, and medicine and business are paranoid." -- James Hillmam
In May 1974, the German artist, Joseph Beuys (born: May 12, 1921, died: January 23, 1986) arrived in New York City to present a work he titled, "I Like America and America Likes Me."
Upon arrival at Kennedy Airport, although in good health, he disembarked the jet, secured upon a gurney, and then was transported by ambulance to a room in the René Block Gallery on East Broadway.
Throughout the commute, Beuys, wrapped in a large swath of felt, remained on the gurney, keeping to his vow not to "set foot on U.S. soil" until the U.S. ceased its illegal, immoral war in Southeast Asia and withdrew its combatants from the region.
Once ensconced at his quarters at the gallery, for three days, Beuys shared the space with a wild coyote. At intervals, he would rise to his feet, covered in the swath of felt, and, as he steadied himself on a shepherd's staff, Beuys would induce the coyote to tear at his covering of felt, inciting the animal to rend the fabric to tatters.
Other times, he would simply lie upon a bed of straw, watching the coyote as the coyote watched him … man and beast appraising each other.
During the performance piece, Beuys would engage in ritual acts, such as playing percussion on a large triangle and playfully tossing a leather glove to the coyote.
After three days, alone in the room, with the animal, Beuys hugged his companion (who appeared to have accepted the artist's strange behavior) and bid him goodbye.
Project completed, Beuys returned to Kennedy Airport, transported, once again, by ambulance, making good on his promise of exiting the U.S. without having set foot upon it.
As Beuys would later aver, "I wanted to isolate myself, insulate myself, see nothing of America other than the coyote." -- Uwe M. Schneede, Joseph Beuys Die Aktionen. 1998, p. 330
Thus Beuys identified with and symbolically merged with the psyche of his coyote co-art conspirator and opened himself to the cunning, death-devouring spirit of the much-scorned animal (the coyote is an animal that lives on carrion) to gain the creative wherewithal to renounce the death-drunk spirit of U.S. Empire.
This is art done not as portfolio building. Beuys did not shirk from his vision as an artist by avoiding what is painful (thus, the ambulance deployed as symbol) and ugly about the world and about himself; instead, he delivered himself directly to its carrion-reeking maw, but refused to have his soul devoured by it.
"A terrorist is the product of our education that says that fantasy is not real, that says aesthetics is just for artists, that says soul is only for priests, imagination is trivial or dangerous and for crazies, and that reality, what we must adapt to, is the external world, a world that is dead. A terrorist is a result of this whole long process of wiping out the psyche." -- James Hillman
In the last few days, I've noticed a marked rise in the levels of anxiety and apprehension in the minds of many of the folks with whom I have contact. Images of irradiated rains and bombing campaigns have left many riddled with dread, haunted by the uncertainty of it all … gripped by the feeling that events are hurtling at an exponential rate of speed towards some ill-defined but tragic reckoning.
Once at an amusement park, when I was three years of age, I released a cherry-flavored lollipop from the apex perch of the carriage of a Ferris Wheel. Entranced, I watched its speed accelerate, as it fell in a plummeting spiral, then shatter to crimson shards on the pavement below.
Enchantment broken, stricken with mortification, I recoiled into the coaster's car … aware, in a flash, of the fragile nature of life. How life and death are bonded together. An eggshell, in which, neither outer shell nor what is contain within can be revealed to each other without a violent intrusion into the other's sanctity.
Even a singular conversation, like a popular uprising or an encounter with a work of art, can be similar to this. One cannot realize the presence of another nor open oneself to real change (in contrast to, hackneyed commercial come-ons and political campaign legerdemain versions of such) without giving oneself over to a small death.
As a rule, we remain un-shattered by the presence of others because we cleave to the quotidian shell of selfhood … the habit of remaining intact superseding the eros of the other's immediacy.
Yet there have been moments when I let myself fall … have been shattered to shards … a broken soul among vast constellations of broken souls … and have forgotten, momentarily, my own aloneness … wandering in a unifying wilderness of glinting shards.
"There is a secret love hiding in each problem." -- James Hillman
I find this heartening: With the uprisings across the Islamic world being partly a result of secrets brought to light by WikiLeaks, we have a good illustration of an "unknown variable factor" in play.
Such situations bring both opportunity and peril. Power becomes brutal and ruthless when presented with a credible challenge. This is why Bradley Manning is imprisoned and Julian Assange is under house arrest awaiting extradition, and both will be made to suffer greatly for their actions.
Regardless, I'm switching my party affiliation to the Unknown Variable Party.
As illustrated by Joseph Beuys, I advocate transforming PTSD into Post Traumatic Poetic Discontent. My platform: Don't miss an opportunity to turn suffering from private shame to public incitement.
My mother escaped Nazi Germany; my father was orphaned on an Indian res., left starving, on the doorstep of a church, during the Great Depression. My earliest memories involve the Civil Rights struggles roiling my native Birmingham, Alabama.
Then came the Vietnam War, Nixon, and Watergate. Next, arrived the backlash, in the form of Reaganism that since has diminished and degraded the nation.
Accordingly, I've never held any illusion that this world was not seeded with the potential of man-made tumult, stupidity, and tragedy.
But, man, oh man, those shattering moments, delivered by art, music, beauty and love, this life reveals. It just might be worth the risk of sticking around for a while longer to see what shakes out.
Phil Rockstroh is a poet, lyricist and philosopher bard living in New York City. He may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit Phil's Web site And at FaceBook.
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