This morning (11/6/17) when I turned on the news, Gayle King was interviewing Texas Governor Greg Abbott on CBS This Morning about the mass-shooting in Sutherland Springs TX the previous day. Ms. King said to the governor:
“Governor, we’re hearing stories that eight members of one family lost their lives on that Sunday morning going to church. So now we’re at a place where you get shot at a concert, at a school, at a movie theatre, and now, in church. Do you now think we have to think this is the new normal in this country for the citizens who live here?”
“We need to understand one thing here: killing in this country is illegal. And we’ve seen challenges in all different kinds of ways, as you know. Just last week we saw a person use a truck to mow down people in a bike lane. As you know we’ve seen bombings at concerts, in London, as well as knife stabbings.”
Ms. King (interrupts)
“But right now we’re just focusing on the guns.”
“That’s what you are focusing on.
It’s important that we understand two things: we have evil that occurs in this world whether it be a terrorist who uses a truck or whether it be a terrorist who uses bombs and knives . . . We have evil and, hence, the greatest response to evil is what I encountered in Sutherland Springs Texas last night. And that is the key focus is victims’ families that I got to hug and hold and pray with. They wanted one thing: they wanted a stronger connection to God; they wanted to be able to pray as we shared a candlelight vigil. And it’s important that we go back to the fundamentals of our faith-based nation . . .”
Ms. King (interrupts again)
“Praying and hugs are good, we all agree. But what can we do to keep these weapons out of the hands of people that you were saying yourself are evil? What can we do about that?”
“I’m going to use the words of the citizens of Sutherland Springs themselves, and that is, they want to work together for love to overcome evil, and you do that by working with God.”
Ms. King tried repeatedly, and in vain, to get Governor Abbott to address gun violence.
Governor Abbott’s performance reminded me, as things often do these days, of M. Scott Peck’s disturbing and essential book, The People of the Lie. The gist of the book as I recall it is: the worst lies are the lies we tell ourselves to maintain the ego’s false image of itself so we don’t have to change.
Prior to turning on the news this morning, I had begun this week’s essay this way:
“It was the first time I had dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization, the proof that all things fall apart: I went to San Francisco because I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed. If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder.”
From the preface of Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion
Last weekend my friend Harriet and I went to see the documentary, “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold.” We saw it in a Beverly Hills art house. It was practically a private screening—there were a total of five of us in the audience. Ms. Didion, who is on camera for at least 90% of the film, is absolutely compelling. I urge you to watch it. It’s currently streaming on Netflix. https://www.netflix.com/title/80117454
I was eager to see the film. I’ve been a fan of Joan Didion’s writing since I first happened upon it in New York in the late 1960’s. I had begun seeing a therapist—a somewhat wild leap for a 28-year-old man who had lived 90% of his life in an almost entirely Roman Catholic culture.
The therapist had blown up a quote from Ms. Didion’s 1961 essay “On Self-Respect” which was collected in a series of essays called “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”—more about that later. The quote was on the wall of his waiting room; the last two paragraphs in the essay, read:
“To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of love or indifference. If we do not respect ourselves, we are on the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. On the other, we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out—since our self-image is untenable—their false notions of us. We flatter ourselves by thinking the compulsion to please others an attractive trait: a gist for imaginative empathy, evidence of our willingness to give. . . . At the mercy of those we cannot but hold in contempt, we play roles doomed to failure before they’ve begun, each defeat generating fresh despair at the urgency of diving and meeting the next demand made upon us.
“It is the phenomenon sometimes called ‘alienation from self.’ In its advanced stages, we no longer answer the telephone, because someone might want something; that we could say no without drowning in self-reproach is alien to the game. Every encounter demands too much, tears the nerves, drains the will, and the specter of something as small as an unanswered letter arouses such disproportionate guilt that answering it becomes out of the question. To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.”
This passage still has an impact on me.
The essay was written by the author when she was 27-years old as an assignment for Vogue magazine. Every week I would read and re-read the excerpt on the waiting room wall while I waited for my appointment.
The excerpt became the source of many of the most beneficial conversations I had with my therapist. Those conversations gave me strength and provided a foundation for dealing with the disorder that would soon follow.
To be precise, the therapist was “our” therapist; both my wife and I were seeing him individually and as a couple. During one of the couples’ sessions, my wife took me by complete surprise by telling me she wanted a divorce. When I say “complete surprise,” I’m not exaggerating; I was in the midst of planning a romantic celebration of our fifth wedding anniversary when she dropped the bomb.
I called my parents with some trepidation—there had, to this point, been no divorces that I knew of on either side of the family. The call went reasonably well until I made the mistake of telling them “not to worry about me, I was seeing a therapist.” My mother went completely ballistic—“You’re telling family secrets to a stranger?!?!? I’ll never tell you another thing!” To my Irish-Catholic mother, divorce was heartbreaking, but speaking to a therapist was scandalous– akin to washing our dirty linens in public. (Similarly, when I came out to my parents as gay, my mother’s first response was, “Please tell me you haven’t told anybody else.” Of course, I had.)
“Slouching Towards Bethlehem” the book’s title essay was written in 1967, the year before I left the safety of my Catholic cloister, and headed with my wife to New York City to begin a career in theatre. Didion’s essay is an embedded reporter’s coverage of the “Summer of Love” in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco.
The title of the book (and the essay) is taken from a poem by William Butler Yeats:
The Second Coming
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
First published in 1920, Yeats’ poem seems more relevant today than ever.
In the title essay Didion writes about the children of the first generation of the post-Atomic Bomb era. “You can’t pre-plan” a young man named Jeff tells her. “You can’t pre-plan” resounds like the fatalist mantra of a generation that witnessed the assassinations of Martin Luther King and both John and Bobby Kennedy; a generation that sacrificed so many of its young—generally its less-privileged young—to the Vietnam war.
Joan Didion wrote about Haight-Ashbury 50 years ago. (According to last week’s edition of CBS Sunday Morning, 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of the first issue of Rolling Stone magazine which began publishing in San Francisco the same year Ms. Didion published the essay.) Describing the population of Haight-Ashbury she wrote:
“Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that held the society together.”
The children and grandchildren of that era who never learned the games that held society together seem to be running things now.
You can trace a direct line from the children of Haight-Ashbury to the children who live in the Magic Castle Motel in the film, The Florida Project, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. (Homesick for Oakbrook)
As I reread this essay for the first time in nearly 40 years, I thought of a class Caroline Myss taught in Oakbrook, Illinois a few years ago about the post atomic bomb era in the United States and the world. I hope she will return to this topic; it is, I believe, vitally important to an understanding of the situation we find ourselves in now. Caroline’s focus was on the political and psychic impact of the August 1945 detonations; mine is on the popular cultural history—the movies, novels, theatre, and television—these two focuses, I am convinced, complement and illuminate each other.
At the same time that I am re-reading “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”, I am getting deep into Ta-Nehisi Coates newest book, “We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy.” I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
Like Didion, Coates writes about America—in particular about the legacy of shame and horror that is a result of the doctrine of White Supremacy, the root cause of over 200 years systemic disorder in our nation.
Although the prose of both writers has raw truth and an urgent, even hypnotic musicality to it, there is nothing even vaguely sentimental about either writer. They write it like they see it.
“Art was not an after-school special. Art was not motivational speaking. Art was not sentimental. It had no responsibility to be hopeful or optimistic or make anyone feel better about the world. It must reflect the world in all its brutality and beauty, not in hopes of changing it but in the mean and selfish desire to not be enrolled in its lie, to not be co-opted by the television dreams, to not ignore the great crimes all around us.”
From the essay Notes on the Fourth Year: We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Artists (and both Didion and Coates are, make no mistake, artists of the first order) are the prophets and truth-tellers of our age and they are in short supply. They speak truthfully, without sugar-coating of the epidemic disorder of our times.
As I both wrestle with and seek escape from the disorder and chaos of these times, I am blessed to come upon the Sunday New York Times review of We Were Eight Years in Power. In the course of his review, the reviewer, Kevin Young, cites a poet, Toi Derricote, who I was not previously familiar with.
If there’s anything to critique in Coates, it is that for him black autobiography — the story black folks tell themselves and sometimes others — is chiefly trauma. There is another, blues-based tradition, embodied by the likes of the poet Lucille Clifton or Zora Neale Hurston — an ethos that is often as Southern, countrified and womanist as Coates’s vision is Northern, urban and male — which, while forgoing easy optimism, sees black life as a secret pleasure, or at least sees joy, however hard-earned, as “an act of resistance.” (The depiction of joy is from the poet Toi Derricotte; Clifton used to inscribe her books with “Joy!” which I always took not as balm but challenge.)
I went in search of Toi Derricotte—God bless Google—and found this poem:
Joy is an act of resistance
For Telly the fish
Telly’s favorite artist was Alice Neel.
When he first came to my house,
I propped up her bright yellow shade with open
window and a vase of flowers (post card size)
behind his first fish bowl. I thought
it might give him something
to look at, like the center
of a house you keep coming
back to, a hearth, a root
for your eye. It was a
wondering in me that came up with that
thought, a kind of empathy
across my air and through his
water, maybe the first
word that I propped up between us
in case he could
hear. Telly would stare at the painting
for hours, hanging there with his glassy
open. At night he wanted the
bottom, as if it were a warm
bed, he’d lay there
sort of dreaming, his eyes
gray and dim and
thoughtless. For months he came back
to her, the way a critic or lover
can build a whole
life on the long study of one
great work. I don’t know why
he stopped, maybe it was when
he first noticed
me, the face above my hand
feeding for, sometimes, when I’d set the food
on top, he’d still watch me, eye
to eye, as if saying, food
isn’t enough. Once, when I
bent, he jumped up out of the water and kissed
my lips. What is a fish’s kiss like?
You’d think it would be
cold, slimy, but it was
quick, nippy, hard. Maybe it was just
what I expected. For all
our fears of
touch, it takes so long
to learn how to take in.
When he stopped coming
to the top, I guess I did all the wrong
things—the fish medicine
that smelled, measured
carefully for his ounce of weight,
for his gills worked
so hard and he lay still,
tipped over slightly
like a dead boat.
How do you stop the hurt
of having to breathe?
After, I took him to the middle of the
yellow bridge right near the
Andy Warhol museum—
I had put a paper towel
in a painted egg and laid him in it—
and, at the top,
I opened the casket and emptied him out
into the water.
The sentence, “Joy is Resistance” invigorated me. Since, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, “My Job is Joy!” I had to ask myself what is Joy in resistance to? Here’s what I’ve come up with so far: Joy is resistance to disorder, cynicism, entropy and despair. It is not simply resistance but courageous resistance that, I suspect, transcends reason. Most miraculous experiences baffle reason. I can attest to that.