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.