Monday, March 21, 2016


"Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist."
--Emerson, "Self-Reliance"

In these dark days, when the far right threatens to inflict upon the rest of the world its dark, demented, Trumped-up, ultra-conformist, cheer-the-bullies vision of America, it is meet (as the Elizabethans would've put it) to restate a lesson we all should have learned in junior high but, in most cases, won't truly understand before we are coffined and entombed: the most important parts of you, the parts you should embrace, are the things that set you apart, make you different from the conformist mass... Most Americans will lipserve this idea, but few have the courage to live it--for it does take courage, an enormous amount of it, to stand against all the forces (familial, social, corporate, economic, political) that flatten most people into coins thin enough to fit society's slot.

A good word to describe the rhetorical stylings (sic(k)) of Donald Trump: coprolitic, meaning 'having the qualities of fossilized excrement.' Trump's verbal spew is a coprolitic rhetoric voicing the fossilized prejudices and imbecilities of followers who love bigotry so much they have become it. This is hardly a new phenomenon. It's as old as demagoguery--which was democracy's evil Athenian twin. Jean-Paul Sartre saw it in French antisemitism 70 years ago:
"We can now understand [the anti-Semite]. He is a man who is afraid. Not of the Jews of course, but of himself, of his conscience, his freedom, of his instincts, of his responsibilities, of solitude, of change, of society and the world; of everything except the Jews. He is a coward who does not want to admit his cowardice to himself; a murderer who represses and censures his penchant for murder without being able to restrain it and who nevertheless does not dare to kill except in effigy or in the anonymity of the mob; a malcontent who dares not revolt for fear of the consequences of his rebellion. By adhering to antisemitism he is not only adopting an opinion, he is choosing himself as a person. He is choosing the permanence and the impenetrability of rock... Antisemitism, in a word, is fear of man's fate. The antisemite is the man who wants to be pitiless stone, furious torrent, devastating lightning: in short, everything but a man." (from Sartre, "Portrait of the Antisemite," in Walter Kaufmann, Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre)

Whenever I see a news report from a Trump rally (as close as mainstream American politics has ever come to the sadistic obscenities of European fascism), I'm reminded of another quote from Emerson's great and widely misunderstood essay:
"Well, most men have bound their eyes with one or another handkerchief, and attached themselves to some one of these communities of opinion. This conformity makes them not false in a few particulars, authors of a few lies, but false in all particulars. Their every truth is not quite true. Their two is not the real two, their four not the real four; so that every word they say chagrins us and we know not where to begin to set them right." -- Emerson, "Self-Reliance"

This weekend I watched filmmaker Guy Maddin's magnum opus, The Forbidden Room, and afterward, while decompressing (like one of the unlucky submariners on Maddin's S. S. Plunger) from this sui generis surrealist extravaganza, I scrawled the following paragraph into my notebook:
When I think of the films of Guy Maddin, David Lynch, the Coen Brothers; of the novels of Cormac McCarthy, Antonio Lobo Antunes, W. G. Sebald; of the paintings of Anselm Kiefer and R. B. Kitaj, of the books of Iain Sinclair--when I think of these or any other contemporary artworks that deeply impress me (leaving aside for the moment all the stuff from Homer and Ovid to Bunuel and Bergman that megatons my mind), they are usually works that exhibit a deeply individualistic style, that come from deep inside an artist unafraid to open himself... One gets the feeling that the work exists because it has to, that the artist was compelled to create it, to create this work and no other (to write Blood Meridian and not a variation on Louis L'Amour), that it not only comes from the deepest part of him, but might also be that deepest part. There's always an element of exhibitionism in an individualistic art. Dare we gaze upon a naked mind, a mind's hairy asshole, a mind's bushy pussy, a mind's cock and balls?

There is in all of us an internal, instinctual politics which might be at variance with one's external, intellectual political positions. Intellectually, I'm a left-liberal civil libertarian, but in my instincts I'm an anarchist.

Most Americans conform unthinkingly; they've been drinking the Kool-Aid of ideological interpellation since it mixed with the water that washed them in the womb. Others of us, the unlucky lucky ones, require conformity lessons from an early age. And if we're truly lucky, the lessons won't stick. If we're almost unbelievably lucky, lotto-level lucky, we might find a way to live well on the margins of this corporatized team-playing world. We might live like subversive, labyrinthine doodles in the margins of the social contract: lives like illuminations on medieval manuscripts. People will still wonder over us long after the text has become unreadable.

1 comment:

tyslo said...

I just want to say, I've been keeping up with your blog for about five years now, and I think your posts are fantastic.