Interstates and States of Grief
Editor’s Note: At the Civil War’s sesquicentennial, the United States ironically finds itself caught in another Southern-based rebellion that relies mostly on white foot soldiers (the Tea Partiers) to carry on a fight for the interests of rich white men (the Koch brothers and similar right-wing billionaires).
Yet why so many middle- and working-class people have been drawn into this renewed civil war – on the side of a corporate system that is methodically crushing them, their dreams and the world’s viability – is a mystery that defies the rational explanations of social scientists and may require the insights of a poet, as Phil Rockstroh attempts in this guest essay and video (by Angela Tyler-Rockstroh):
I’m in Atlanta, Georgia, at present, among the scent of pine trees and the reek of Southern denial.
The moribund economy has thwarted the city’s manic drive to silence its resentful ghosts by means of constant motion … Below the lilting Southern accents here, one detects rage … Not simply the ubiquitous hate-speak on right-wing talk radio.
But an animus bred by truth-deferred … that Southern pride is a lie of the mind — a blown banner … foisted skyward to distract the minds of my fellow Southerners from the ground level truths of a system rigged to enrich the privileged few and keep the many working for their benefit. (How do you think they filled the ranks of the Confederate Army to kill and die for the rights of rich men to own slaves.)
I arrived in Georgia by route of the U.S. interstate system.
Traveling U.S. interstate highways one suffers a confluence of so much contemporary madness and tragedy extant in the land … so much suppressed fear and aggression. Yet, through it all, the heart still yearns to see what lies over the next horizon.
Although, lamentably, what is revealed, all too often, proves to be as sterile, inhospitable, ugly, and inhuman as what was beheld at the last.
"Who has twisted us around like this, so that no matter what we do, we are in the posture of someone going away?" -- Rainer Maria Rilke
Any situation, as is the case with interstate highway travel, in which to momentarily stop or even to slow down, one risks death should be regarded as an affront (if not anathema) to common sense and the longings of the heart.
When the landscape we pass through has been reduced to a meaningless blur, our lives grow indistinct as well.
The apologists of the present system tell us ad nauseam, and have convinced most, that a similar disastrous fate will befall the nation if the engines of global capitalism were to slow down even a bit. Interstate travel is emblematic of the manner a system based on ceaseless production and manic consumption degrades the senses and inflicts a dehumanizing assault upon the psyche.
When stopped at an anonymous interstate service island or some off-the-exit-ramp retail strip — those inhospitable nether regions evincing a paradoxical mix of sterility and toxicity — the permeating odor of exhaust fumes and processed food makes us woozy.
These places, only distinct for their ugliness, reek of how soul-numbing and joyless travel has become . . . now a task nearly devoid of any sense of the mystery, the option of exploration, or the possibility of serendipity travel once offered.
Travel has been reduced to a tedious ordeal, whereby our inchoate longings to escape the quotidian prison of our economically circumscribed existence are mangled and suppressed, only to rise as the hollow appetite of reflexive consumerism and the ineffable sense of unease, so evident in the troubled American psyche.
Enclosed in our vehicles, we hurdle from one sterile, impersonal location to the next sterile, impersonal location, and then on to the next. As forbiddingly huge trucks, loaded with the cargo of extinction, bear down on us, we grip the steering wheel -- we know to stop is to risk death therefore we continue onward, believing we must drive and consume and drive and consume in order to survive.
Yet the knowledge nettles, just below the surface of our harried minds, that to continue down this road will, in turn, cause the world to die.
Even the landscape itself of the U.S. is stretched to the breaking point: Cluttered upon it are gigantic islands of garish light that torment the night …scouring away the stars.
As, all the while, SUVs and oversized pickup trucks -- the overgrown clown cars of the demented circus of decaying empire trundle past -- the extravagant size of the vehicles vainly compensating for how diminished and powerless those within feel in relationship to the course of their fates.
The corporate empire is imprinted in us. If one listens one can hear arias of decay -- a death-swoon operatic in scale.
Manifested before us, it is as visible as the noxious vapors of pollutants veiling the horizon line at sunset; it shimmers like heat spires above traffic-stalled interstates; it reeks like the endless archipelagos of overflowing landfills spanning the length of the land.
Yet, as mortifying as it is, the vales and vistas of the U.S. spread before us … are as horrible and beautiful as a great cry of grief.
Manifested en masse, as our collective way of existing in the world -- the flickering of our tiny desires have set the vast world aflame … There is needless suffering and death that history will affix to our own names … We are destroying our planet and her exquisite, irreplaceable creatures, as well as, our own sanity.
Feeling the full implications of this, how does one make it through the day and sleep throughout the night?
Following their defeat at the Battle of Shiloh, the shattered Confederate ranks fled for their lives. General A.S. Johnston, desperate to restore order and rally his men to return to battle, commanded a fleeing soldier to stop, demanding, "Private, why are you running?" The soldier replied, "General, I'm running 'cause I can't fly."
The act of being in perpetual flight (even the somnambulant variety) from consequences requires a great amount of energy; one must have the endurance of a marathoner sleepwalker to keep ahead of the sound of the fast approaching footfalls of reality at one's rear.
Depression is what catches us.
I have been accused of being a poet … I know I am a wanderer through the landscape of the heart. I navigate by narrative, by words and feelings: It occurs to me: the term depression is a misnomer for feelings of despair brought on by powerlessness i.e., disconsolation over the death of an internal verity -- or having our will thwarted by inexorable, outer forces.
Grief is a living prayer of our vulnerable hearts.
The salesmen of the eternal, big happy ... are just that -- salesmen ... One is required to respond to the intoxication of the sales pitch and is not to question the condition of their heart ... The commercial come-ons insist that the heart's grief and a lost soul's emptiness and panic can be fixed by some new bright and shiny: a new appliance, therapy, "hope and change."
By the incessant promotion of the gospels of the hyper-capitalist sects of Happiness Uber Alles, the implicit message imparted is … suffering is a character flaw that can be mitigated, elevated -- even redeemed by consumerism, antidepressants, acquiring a positive attitude -- all the uttered homilies and donned vestments of the consumer state.
"The foundation of all mental illness is the unwillingness to experience legitimate suffering." -- Carl Jung.
What kind of miserable malcontent would resist changing this social milieu and personal mode of being: Sitting stuck in commuter traffic; eating high-fat, low-quality food from a drive-thru window; languishing in a cubical … stranded in a low benefits, little chance of advancement job -- until, of course, the job is outsourced; waddling around the mall ... clad in off-the-rack, sweatshop sown clothing; dozing off in front of the TEEVEE with Cheetos crumbs stippled in the folds of one's jowls.
Aint that the life -- or what? By any means possible, we preserve the death-styles of empire.
This mode of being is far removed from the norms of nature and the revelries and attendant sublimations necessary to engage in civic life ... Here, ruthlessness and rationalization banish reason; ambition trumps merit; expediency pushes aside wisdom; and empty sensation masquerades as experience.
Like interstate travel, the collective mind of the consumer state propels us forward to the next empty agenda, the next perfunctory task, the next meaningless purchase … But depression slows us down, inducing us to feel the grief inherent in our alienation … to cease the incessant, habitual hurdling forward and striving upward … to stop and investigate the mysteries of our hearts … to feel the sadness of the suffering earth …
"I can't go on. I'll go on." -- Samuel Beckett
But we must slow down: We are destroying our planet and her exquisite, irreplaceable creatures, as well as our own sanity.
Two weeks before the Deepwater Horizon, Macondo Well "spill" (what a dishonest word for that noxious, bleeding gash) into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, I dreamed of a badly injured fish who had had half his face torn off by some brutal method employed by the practitioners of industrial scale fishing operations to exploit the world's oceans …
The fish had worked himself upon a rock on a craggy shoreline; holding an eternity of suffering in his one remaining eye, the fish turned to face me … Ever since, this dream image has lived within me ... I carry the fish's suffering and I bear his dark rage regarding what our species has done to his/our home -- this complex, mysterious, beguiling, dangerous, sublime, monstrous, and magnificent world we were cast into ...
My sense of sorrow, at times, seems unbearable; my rage … bottomless ... Who will speak for the voiceless -- who will make amends for their suffering?
In childhood, I loved this body of water … loved it as one can love any living thing (which it is). I swam in it, collected jewel-like shells on its beaches of bleached sand, and went deep sea fishing with my father in its azure waters …
Wherein, I was in awe of its (seemingly endless) bounty and abundance. Its winds and waves intimated to me the nature of eternity and the Gulf's living things drew me into the beauty and terrors of the living moment.
Approximately, ninety percent of the large fish (Tuna, Mackerel) in the world's oceans are gone due to overfishing. Oceanographers predict in 50 years time the oceans and seas the earth over will be dead. (And these are conservative estimates.)
Much like the denizens of late Cretaceous looking dumbly at the sky and barely giving a second thought to that bright, shining thingy that appeared above, this is a calamity so large in scale and so all-encompassing in its implications that we human beings just can't wrap our minds around it …
In fact, by our elevation of willful ignorance and mindless consumerism to a cultural imperative, we human beings, acting collectively, are the equivalent the planet-decimating Cretaceous comet.
I try to resist losing myself to misanthropic rage when I read statistics such as this one. Yet I am enraged at the waste -- the sheer stupidity, mendacity, and hubris of it all.
I want to grab the human race by the lapels and shout, "Stop it. God damn it. Just stop it. How could you destroy something so beautiful and then just continue to go through your sub-cretinous day? What the hell is wrong with you? Didn't anyone ever teach you the meaning of decency?
This is not a political debate. This is a choice between sanity and mass suffering; perhaps, even the survival of our species and a mass die-off.
But listening to the pronouncements of Washington's political class and the mainstream media's ceaselessly shallow, miss-the-point narratives is like eavesdropping on the palaver from a petri dish.
Excuse my sense of fatalism: At this point, the system is too far-gone to be redeemed; it is in the process of systemic breakdown. Although, this is not as awful as it sounds, for one must let the old go and let a natural process of decay take over.
When the rot is this advanced, at best, what you have is culture as a compost heap. Yet that doesn't mean in times of decay, there cannot be meaning and beauty, because life itself becomes vivid and alive in contrast to the extant ugliness.
Without decay, there is no change. The world would be as pointless as paradise. If you wish to find the future forest, look to the humus upon its floor. The future is decay; and decay is the future. The old ego must sing, even within the compost heap of its own putrefied concepts.
And, as it does, it must sing of its suffering and the sorrows of the earth … singing like the severed head of Orpheus floating to Lesbos.
Arias of compost sing of new understandings but you cannot skip the singing school of grief.
Frank O’Hara suggests: “In times of crisis we must all decide again and again whom we love.”
Things are going to work out -- but not in ways we can predict.
There is a mournful beauty, even a providential utility, attendant to living through at time of putrefaction: Compost (the anti-Astroturf) nourishes fledgling life and novel forms. A new paradigm will morph from the remnants of the old, putrefied system.
If Confederate ghosts could shout through the prison of their enshrinement — they would call out to us, “Don’t believe it. Having seen the meaningless waste of war, we know now that we would have chosen to live out our lives, breathing in the humid, Georgia air, having our troubles softened by the sight of dappled light filtered through pine needles, and being lulled to sleep at night by the song of crickets and cicada.
“Don’t you believe the lie, as we did, that dying in a rich man’s war is a virtue; don’t buy into the fraud that working all your life for a greedy few is a sound way to proceed through the fleeting and finite years of your time upon this earth."
Watch the video version of this essay (by Angela Tyler-Rockstroh) by clicking here: http://vimeo.com/channels/philrockstroh
Phil Rockstroh is a poet, lyricist and philosopher bard living in New York City. He may be contacted at: email@example.com. Visit Phil's Web site And at FaceBook.
Angela Tyler-Rockstroh is a Broadcast Designer/Animator who has worked with major Networks such as Cartoon Network, Disney Channel, HBO Family, PBS, as well as, with Michael Moore on his documentaries, "Fahrenheit” and “Sicko."
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