On Isolation

Isolation.

I wrote about it here.

*

Lewis Lapham has had a seminal influence on me. he’s always been a writer pursuing what lies beyond the superficial. I read Harper’s religiously when I was young, amazed at how anyone could see so clearly, write so well…. His recent remarks remind us of the birth of the essay:

When I was ten, I delighted in the act of writing, at twelve …expecting that by the time I turned twenty-one I would know how to make of it an art. Before I was thirty I… consoled myself …that by the time I was forty, I would know what I was doing. I didn’t. When I was forty-five, I began to explore the uses of the essay, borrowing the approach from Michel de Montaigne, …who looked to escape …the narrow whirlpool of his personal experience with the verb essayer, … to embark upon. …, (Montaigne) stands in awe before the blank page of his near-limitless ignorance, asking himself at the outset of his reflections, whether on cannibals or the custom of wearing clothes, What do I know?

*

If we refuse to fall into argument silence remains central to our response to any difficult situation. Only out in silence can we avoid slipping into a reactive mode that merely perpetuates the divisions that lie behind our difficulties.

But then, silence can turn into isolation. And when it does we are perpetuating division just as much as if we had simply acted out of anger and frustration. Let’s put it another way… when we are reduced to silence we fall into isolation and this isolation only deepens the divisions that brought us to the point of silence.

With one difference… silence does give us a space in which a new orientation might develop.

Now, in common-speak we might say we, “can come to a fresh, innovative solution if we refuse to react and turn to a creative silence for answers….”

But you see, this just shows how profoundly we underestimate the difficulties of understanding. Our preconceived assumptions are right there, ready to swallow us whole as soon as we foray into essaying what… what we think? What’s our plan? What do we want to do?

The list of possible responses, ways in which we might break the silence, runs far into the distance. No end in sight. But every response that comes to mind sounds like a way to break silence, but not a way to…, heal it?

Isolation, of which silence, this profound reduction of the urge to act into a suspension of action, of speaking? of thinking? of thought? is a symptom; it is also a profound fact. It is also something that cannot be wished away. It is structural at this point. Our every conceivable – and this is the crux – that anything we have managed to conceive of that just might break our isolation is blocked at every level. There is no easy way….

This is part of why ease cannot be taken as a good at face value, something we should hope for, expect. Even when we see it as something we may want to avoid, we still find that we are hampered by its absence. In a working, viable, living situation there is no distinction made around whether something is easy. Necessity is met. In many cases in the-normal-course-of-events. This might be taken to mean that things are in fact easy. But these things include dying, being grievously injured, losing everything…. In war, an ersatz of immediacy wrapped in a reign of terror, we say that dying becomes easy, that life is cheap…. We see this as frightening. Rightly so, for what war attempts to do is to conquer every vital impulse and twist it to the purposes of death-worship.

But… there are so many things that we can only see today as they manifest themselves in some form of toxic simulacra. We live on the other side of a mirror. This is what it means to be so deeply trapped in projection and shadow. What would appear in a virtuous form within a vital situation…

I use this clumsy term, situation, instead of something like “system,” because there is no such system. This habit of speech insists that anything vital can be explained away as if life were part of a machine.

Such a thing would appear clear…, an expression of an appetite fulfilled, a yearning acted upon that brings us to the next point of contact and connection. Here in our broken world we can only glimpse this type of experience in perverted form bound within a pathology of thwarted desire, disassociated from the vital.

Yet, while silence appears to engulf me, us? When it comes to finding vital ways to essay on the matter it does not appear to be a blockage without outlet. I can conceive of many situations in which there can be action, and speech…, speech is a form of action after all, when it is undertaken within dialogue.

Dialogue…. A word engulfed by the parasitic amoeba’s of distortion, projection, shadow. Every son-of-a-bitch and his brother wants to invite us into dialogue…. When all that is meant is to coat bitter negotiation in a sweet-sounding shell.

There have been a few break-through conceptions that came out of the Twentieth Century. Dialogue is one of them. They remain hidden in plain sight. Buried under the noise of that time, our time’s, violence.

Alastair McIntosh talks of the fact that what we decry as Fundamentalist, whether in one religious tradition or another, one politics or another, is a pose playing at returning to the root while proving that their proponents are just not fundamental enough. They have gone nowhere near the root. This appears to be another case of what it is like to see darkly through our distorted mirror. Some reductive fantasy attempting to bind everyone into a particular prison of fear and belief is not really an attempt to grasp what is fundamental. No matter how much its allies or so-called enemies – mirrored reflections of projected shadows – would want to claim/paint them to be, calling the trivial fundamental is another sign of our particular enormity….

We fetishize these celebrations of delusion, giving them an appearance of weight that gives them tremendous gravity, that provides them with inertial effects pulling at our psyches, our lives. Beneath the more visible damage is a fundamental danger: we ignore and misrepresent what it means to look into the heart of what matters.

All the forms available to us within conventional roles, all of the ways of being and acting that appear available to us on the surface, are corrupt.

How can we take this seriously enough?

*

Let’s look at what’s happened to satire. I spent my twenties spinning away in a tightening loop of manic, satiric humor. Everything was scary and everything was funny. And, somehow laughing at everything seemed like a radical act.

Radical means reaching towards the root.

There may be a moment in a culture, in a life maturing into awareness, when satire does move us from a more stuck to a less stuck place. Laughter is healing. Fear’s paralysis can, at times, be broken if we let humor dissolve its power over us.

By the time I hit thirty it was clear that my satiric habit had become its own prison. I was discovering what it means to be Sophomoric….

When the country seemed to enter into its own satiric phase as a rebound from the horrors of perpetual war then spreading throughout the Middle East it might have seemed like a positive move. As easy as it was to laugh at what passed for sophistication it troubled me.

We have laughed our way all the way to this. And still, a powerful industry continues to sell us access to this so-called radical avenue. And behind that lies a whole system – in the actual sense of the term as relating to a complex machine – that profits from our perpetual, chronic, debilitating juvenility.

Satiric humor looks to uncover the absurdity beneath the surface of things, but it ends up, has ended up – as with every other reactive response to our predicament – co-opted and consumed by that which it purports to overthrow.

Satire is not fundamental enough.

But this learned aversion to sincerity, a trait that first-level frauds learned to fake long ago, is so ingrained that every effort to be fundamental, to take things seriously – again, another abused term – is degraded before we can even make contact. This mechanism further holds us in our isolation.

In a peculiar, or maybe only a particular way, this essay is heading towards affirming that this is, increasingly, a time for action. That it is no longer a time when anything can be gained by trying to uncover and describe yet another way in which everything is broken – as if any explanation or exhortation could bring a positive result! It is becoming clear that what is needed is action. Breaking isolation by making contact….

Our path is littered with examples of how purposeful action is an illusion, a chimera we chase at our grave peril. Any time we think we are “making a difference!™” We delude ourselves, papering over the depths of the difficulties we face and risking further damage done by those who, “Just want to help!”

Our capacities to see the enormity of what we face are degraded. We barely recognize how little we can know, understand, affect by directed action aimed at achieving some planned-for result. Our reflexive twists and turns, our attempts to avoid facing these emerging facts, have whipsawed us between various forms of active and passive nihilism.

Yet, all this leads to the conclusion that this is increasingly a time for action. So long as we remain open to the fact that we cannot know what to do, or why, or even if what we essay will have an effect anything like what we wish for….

It is increasingly apparent that in our time action is something else….

Now, if we can hold this in mind as we proceed…,

We can and must act!

It’s the only way out of our isolation.

If this makes sense to you.

Once you stop laughing!

We should talk.

 

 

 

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4 thoughts on “On Isolation

  1. Lapham was also a favorite of mine. I looked forward to every issue of Harper’s if only to read his opening essay. I think I see what you mean, and I might attempt to phrase it as Honesty is real action. But not the honesty of acknowledgement and analysis, but more radical honesty, which recognizes the deception from the ground up. That honesty is action and it’s inseparable from a revivifying, non-satiric, but often self-deprecating and black, humor. Not laughing away the problem reductively, but laughing one’s way out of the problem. I think that’s the harmonious with what you’re saying.

    1. Lapham was the only contemporary writer in the seventies that I felt that way about. Yes, his essays made it worth the subscription price!

      Your response helps clarify what I was stepping out into by speaking from where I did not know. Quite harmonious!

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