Two Apposite Excerpts


An election year offers special opportunities to observe the sociopoliticoeconomic mechanism in operation.  "From the true opponent, infinite strength flows into me," Kafka said.  In the hope that this may be so, I would like to draw attention to two passages that still seem to me to show with particular clarity what we, the humans, are up against..


At the time these were written, in the 1980's, I hadn't yet happened upon Emerson's observation that "things are in the saddle/ And ride mankind."  That, in the mid-nineteenth century, already said it all.  But the writing of these passages had helped me to understand how this happens and why it has everything to do with the configuration of our current system (government of the people by the media for the corporations).  Most recently, I have been reminded of this by Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006).  The second excerpt begins to suggest the kind of action that is needed to reassert human priorities, and to urge such action was the purpose of the poem. 


                                                                                          September 24, 2012


from Chapter VII


...  the world made and unmade

by the devices of the mind so formed

now threatens to unmake the mind itself.

More even than the exhaustion of resources,

the poisoning of earth, water and air,

there looms above our human diminution

this hypertrophy of the hierarchic

mode in thought and action, which occurs

in consequence of needs we must provide

at more and more removes, a lengthening chain.

When every home fetched its own wood and water

and every village had its skillful hands

to forge and weave and carve what was required

for rural life, then kings might rule afar

and nobles might oppress, but close to home

there was an independence of the person,

a space in which to think one’s thoughts, and sing,

and speak one’s mind, and recognize a friend –

or so we now imagine it, forgetting

what was perhaps a brutish feudal dark

from which we sought to free the miserable

by progress equal to enlightenment,

twinned as were its beginnings to rebellion

against the ancient hieratic fetters

of church and sanctified autocracy

and their complicit myths.  Newborn Invention

clamored for freedom to survey the world

with fearless eyes, untinted by old schemes.

Heedless of all traditional dress and bonds,

the mind Invention hailed as principle

believed a common reason could enact

laws that would check the violent and the cunning

and make the world a place where every mind

might grow unfolding to its fullest flower –

a dream that floated long, a pretty rainbow,

on rivers flammable with industrial waste.

For with each road and pipe and wire and cable

that now supply what once lay within reach,

another metal shoot of hierarchic

control enters the common earth and air.

It is the Company that brings the water

from distant dam, the heat from far-off mine,

the voice of kin from the antipodes

to which it sent him off to earn his bread

and plant another runner of its stem.

And as the organizations grow and join,

subsuming every enterprise they meet

(consumers will not stop them; see them still

shopping for what is shiniest and cheapest,

invisible the talismans of trust

relinquished with each coin they spend that way),

the hierarchy tends to come unstuck

from the community it once supported –

the family, the town, even the nation –

while government and law fall far behind,

dwarfed by complexity beyond provision,

entwined with what they struggle to restrain.

The people’s needs become subordinate

to an autonomous impulse of expansion,

uncontrolled increase of control and profit

is paramount, and necessarily so,

for other such machines made out of men

watch to snap up missed opportunities.

They fashion men who cannot love themselves,

knowing by what means they have had to rise

far from the moderating eye of justice

or wisdom conscious of the needs of all.

Here human beings avoid each other’s eyes

and hide their thoughts, knowing that no bond holds.

There is not much that they can tell their children,

so that a silence opens in the home,

but for this too the corporate mind has found

a cure: a box of noise and flickering shadows

to fill the vacant mind with vacancy

and hunger for what will not satisfy,

to make the home a marketplace, suborn

the vote, till none govern but by its leave.

And some upon the streets you see whose ears

are filled with whispering phones that come between

them and whatever thoughts they may have left,

next best thing to an electrode in the brain:

these are the peons of the system, those

its peers, who cease from song to build machines

that ape and over-ape the robotry

of human thought, when it is only this,

until invention with mad pride aspires

to fashion circuits that outmode the mind.

We know the harm; and yet the fascination

of gadgets grows; we crave them more than bread,

a craving that is in its final essence

a wish to fuse with hierarchic power

which, having gobbled up the rest of life,

now beckons with the sole remaining promise

of comfort – outward comfort – and survival.

So, it is said, a captive rat will press

the button that will shock its brain with pleasure

although food lie beside it, and it starve.

– How then shall creatural mind, so undermined

by the inane, take thought for the creation?


from Chapter 13


Democracy: that is the name by which

we know that leave of absence from compulsion

which still is granted us.  Its premises

are:  that each one of whatsoever rank

shall have one voice to choose those who shall rule,

and that the authorities shall recognize

as greater than themselves the laws that shield

the citizen from the high hand of power.

The law and universal suffrage keep

watch on the hierarchies built by function,

so that the dignity of all is guarded

and a place cleared for free exchange of thought.

That is democracy; it is a form

effective while, to the extent to which

we truly live within it, have not moved

elsewhere and left the empty scaffold standing.

And if that has occurred, then it must be

(seeing that we have placed our faith in form)

that in our freedom's diagram some corner

was left unfinished, or an entire side,

so that we have walked out into compulsion

unawares, and find ourselves benighted,

far from the house in which we thought to dwell.

It is perhaps that in their haste to bar

the door against the power to coerce,

the founders did not wholly have in mind

that there's an obligation to instruct,

which is not won by contest at the polls,

nor purchased with the chair of any office,

but laid by knowledge, insight, conscience, on

 the one who sees.  Whoever has felt that hand

upon the shoulder, knows that truth is not

decided by majority approval,

so that to step into the election ring

to prove it, but betrays it at the start.

And therefore where the people place all faith

in the electoral process, those who see

have little choice but to look tongue-tied on

while multifarious temptations tunnel

their way into the house, and clear it out.

Not all at once perhaps, but gradually,

as weeds and vermin gradually discover

the fields we clear, the houses that we build,

and change themselves, the better to infest them,

did those who take the number for their base

learn how to play to ignorance, appeal

to prejudice, hold up the seeming-easy

answer to the questions of the crowd

that less and less knows what it asks; until

today they sell themselves to those whose hands

are on the dials that synchronize the music,

the simulacra, for the mind-stunned mass:

they speak like actors what they did not write

and thereby win the power to decide

on what they little understand, as pressure

by bloc and contribution may determine;

starting perhaps from the hope of doing good,

they soon find strings being tied around their wrists,

till the watchers tire of the too-evident

puppet-play, and leave their choice uncast.

And even those whom urgent warning wakens

with message for the whole, appear to take

the pattern of their action from this game,

competing for the attention of the public

with others whom a different urgency,

and yet the same, impels.  Those who most fear

the withering of earth, focus their sight

upon pollution and extinction, seldom

looking where others point to signs of  strain

in the economic girders that uphold

concern itself, when what was made with care

is thrown into one market-scale with wares

stamped out beneath no regulating law,

while those who fear the stopping of the wheels

that feed us, see the friends of earth as foes,

and even more those who present themselves

as guardians of human freedom, cleave        

counsel as to what is most to be feared:  

the looming of a massive front of force

across the ocean, magnified still more  

from our opponent lookout through the lenses    

ground by those who stand to gain from strife,

or the metastases of mercenary         

reigns of torment that crush down earth's poor

lest they should rise and join our profit's foes,

led by bands that often scheme to be,

empowered, no less fierce than the deposed,

so that in many a foul tourney flutters

"freedom and justice," like a stolen favor;

and those who fear for peace, and those who fear

conquest by those whose sole desire is might

(which would not lead to peace, but rather sink

the world in war beyond the call of conscience),

cannot admit, each side, that it has dreamed

the other's nightmare with its own, but rather

admit one danger only, which is then

fathered upon the folly of the opponent.

Where two roads fork, yet both lead to one doom,

easier it is to run divided forward

under opposing standards, than to stay

in one place, and think of turning back,

or dig with deeper thought to tunnel under

the wall that stands upon all obvious ways.

To twist the lures for hypnotized opinion

 that strikes at any bait, so shape and color

be fashioned to its reflexed expectation,

and to map out, through the mined field, the sea

dotted with Scyllas and Charybdises,

the one course that would get us through unscathed —

these are two different arts.  The second must

begin far from the market and the polls –

and maybe far, for now, from learning-places

that seem but markets of the intellect,

where technical contrivance overtowers

humanity, and profitable theory

thrives upon differences that advance

the individual career, but seldom

tend to the building of a common world.