Washington, CT. Brains as Brawn have gotten we exiles from the Garden of Eden into a lot of trouble over the years. Though capable of spectacular expressions of beauty and love, we more frequently traffic in sordid acts that lie between a grandiloquent “axis of evil” on the one hand or the merely tawdry on the other. It is our wont to seek divinity but more often as not, we surrender to immediate physical compulsions far less noble. To strive would appear to be enough.
In his 1996 book “Forbidden Knowledge, From Prometheus to Pornography”, Roger Shattuck explores the human attraction to both the forbidden and divine. From the book-burning ” Librorum Prohibitorum” of 1559 to Montaigne’s concept of “Portee” or “reach” and Thomas Henry Huxley’s invention of the term “agnostic” to describe himself in opposition to the gnostics who were intent upon solving the riddle of existence, Shattuck explores our attempts at penetrating Huxley’s “insoluable” and the competing need for we humans to know and accept our limits. Shattuck dissects the history of our quest from the “ignoramibus”….that we should “remain ignorant” to the “libido sciendi, our “lust to know”. Faust, of course rears his head and here, Shattuck points not to the well-known Devil’s Bargain but to Goethe allowing the insatiable Faust to creep free under the nose of Mephistopheles simply for his “striving”. Heir to the Enlightenment, we practical and ever-busy Americans are students of the striver’s life, busily dreaming and lustily doing in a non-stop parade of commodified paradise. Tocqueville marveled about our enthusiastic physical expression but wondered what Faustian Bargain we might have transacted when we traded away our sentiment, reflective temperament and artisanal soul in favor of a restlessness attuned to the opportunities of a vast continent with a vigorous marketplace.
The Greeks….grandfathers of the Enlightenment….. they produced a term for it: “pleonexia”…a compulsion “beyond common hubris in refusing any limit, any horizon in an insatiable greed for the unattainable”. The wages of this bitter urge are ably dispatched within Edmund Burke’s satirical work “A Vindication of Natural Society”. Here, Burke pens perhaps the most stunning summary of human warfare in literature. Relentlessly accumulating, the death toll from the frequently baseless quest for empire quickly drives the reader into a cold sweat and deep anxiety over mankind’s blood-lust over the ages. If nature is “red of tooth and claw”, then what be her progeny man? Dayglow Red?
While the same old compulsions and calculations continue to mold our existence, there is something fundamentally different about life in this metallic yet atavistic era we call modernity. Today, what might have been called transgression just a few decades ago is now the conventional. Forbidden Knowledge is an invitation to wantonness rather than an instrument of self- control. To transgress the system of acceptable mores in place today….. this furious parade of popular culture……. is to turn transgression on its head and defy it in order to abide only the traditions of our fathers who ably cautioned us against this moveable feast of want and desire. Everywhere one cares to look, we are confronted with all manner of perverse and quixotic human behavior that is either applauded or relentlessly dissected as though one were choosing flavors in an ice cream parlor of darkly delectable diversion. We are striving automatons and it is little wonder then that there is at long last, an accepted standard of cognition that is more dissonant than cognitive. We accumulate image upon image, sound upon sound, sensation upon sensation in a tableau that would have caused Tocqueville to reappraise his conception of our physicality as entirely too timid. The more we witness, the less we seem to know until the very basis of our political, social and economic system begins to fracture and crumble under the weight of competing interests whose continued existence requires a prevailing lack of resolution. Security is Liberty, Free Market is Corporate Protectionism, Meritocracy is Leveling, Change is Stasis, Education is the pursuit of a standardized sameness and Debt is Commodity. In Arkansas, a pastor loses himself in the notion that liberty is defiance and entreats his flock to lock and load and commune with “Guns and God”. What would Jesus shoot?
Such are the costs and benefits of the “Pursuit of Happiness” when not informed by the calming check of moderation. When “received wisdom” is branded but a kind of tired “romanticism”, the headlong pursuit of this atomized thing we call modernity becomes the only vigorous outlet for a person of even modest aspirations. With this atomization comes a kind of voluminous and ever-expansive ordering that excels at creating the “niche” where a person might sanctify his or her transgression but do so within a welcoming herd. This, indeed, is a life that has “it all” while gleaning little , if anything from the experience of an industrialized abandon. The ongoing fixation upon the sad fate of the pop star Michael Jackson is a case in point. Here we have a man-child who exploded onto the scene during the Viet Nam War era with his siblings and brought enthusiastic songs of love and joy with a back beat into a scene of increasing gloom. As pop culture divided and redivided, so too did this obviously fragile soul who , by all appearances, could never find repose. He delivered joy and energy in large doses but there was always something darkly promethean about him as he attempted to obliterate his own face and build it anew. Before the end, one fully expected to see Mr. Jackson slithering and singing his heart out in a final extravaganza of “America the Drunk” as he donned scarlet tights and piercings under a Gold Lame Conquistador hat while directing Fighter Jets off the deck of the U.S.S. Enterprise in a sprightly little number entitled “U.S. Attacks itself because there are a lot of Opportunity Targets”.
And what of the transgressors of the prevailing transgression? Who can say but psychosis and disillusion and perhaps even, as Caleb Stegall asserts, “Dispossession” becomes the boon companion. When the traditionalist is your radical, it might not be the End of History but it will be the end of history as we know it. One can only hope that the earth is round for a reason. Circling back to a new dawn is as old as time.
Fortunately, one of the great benefits of this noisy spectacle of transgression and atomization we mistakenly call a culture is that it is vicarious at essence and we can simply turn it off at will. Sure, it is accumulating an omnipotent quality that threatens to steamroll any last shred of dignity and reality out of our collective experience but it seems to me that at some point , all this fascination with the salacious and tawdry will become overwhelmingly banal. Then , all eyes will be trained upon those rebellious and oddball traditionalists who seem to not give a rat’s patootie about what era they inhabit because they look beyond era to basic truths and have a discriminating eye for the enduringly beautiful whether it be from the last 10 minutes or 2009 years before that. Nature informs us in like manner. she endures all manner of perturbation with aplomb and does not waste time getting to work and recovering once some “improvement ” has had its way with it.
More importantly, there is not a war between this essentially quibbling notion of modernity and some prosaic traditional antagonist. The very argument is a relentless tedium. As case in point, I stand in that marvelous stairwell of the British Art Museum at Yale. Designed by the mystic Louis Kahn, a modern classicist. The building is a concrete , steel and Beech-wood tour-de-force in motion, light and space. Nothing is sidelined, there is a loving hand in design everywhere , including the stairwell I mentioned. As you ascend the stairwell between enjoying Paul Mellon’s discriminating taste in everything from Turner to Constable and Francis Bacon, you are treated to a lesson in both compression and release…ascent and descent within a square within a circle. These ancient forms known by Aristotle remain modern in Kahn’s deft and discriminating hand as he welds an Ockhams Razor in the building arts. As you look up through the glowing glass block skylight, decorating the interior of the cold concrete walls …and their Roman solidity…… with a fluid of warmly warped light, your mind is full of images that link Aeschylus to Corbusier, el Greco to Turner and Picasso. A certain release can come to you as it is revealed that modernity, this thing we have used as a divorce from tradition is neither a divorce nor something separate and triumphant over tradition. Looking up into the light, you sense that it is all just movement and that what is needed within this concept of modernity is a weight that can steady it more than counterbalance it. It is that weight St. Augustine acknowledged when he stated “My weight is my love”.
We will find our liberty in this beautiful land of freedom’s most fertile home when we understand that the greatest independence comes when we indenture ourselves to the welfare of our fellow and we do so not in pity or angst but in the respect and love that comes with Independence AND Community. This is the timeless circle of a man who gives equal weight to mind, spirit and physical body. Wishing to explode time, we have become enslaved by a niggardly view of it. Time has ensnared us, frozen us in a notion of triumph and victory. We need now a life free of the limiting baggage of epoch. It is a life of simultaneous thrill and reflection….of received wisdom and wonder…..a life in simple love of life, in all it’s magnificent forms. That Indies of our imagination and faith is , and has always been a life In Dios.