Friday, October 24, 2008

Just Say No to Bread and Circus

Today I'm just gonna talk about what's on my mind. I apologize in advance, but I think I've been avoiding the blog because I have felt, of late, like the world and what is going on renders things I say here insignificant. Maybe that's not true, but in any case, I may be able to get back to thinking blissful thoughts once I ramble on a little bit. Feel free to join my rambling in the comments. I'm curious what you all are thinking about lately.

As for me, I feel a bit traumatized. I feel like what we've been going through is kind of a financial 9-11, only in slow motion and with no end in sight. I don't know what's going to happen. I just know that I'm worried. Am I overreacting? Am I not reacting enough? What the hell are we supposed to do?

The emotions I'm feeling are varied. Anger. Confusion. Sadness. Fear. Despair. Frustration. Helplessness. Hopelessness. Vulnerability.

I talked a little about this back in my post on July 23:
Humans are not capable of going it alone, so I guess what I am suggesting is that we take this relative calm before the storm and we begin to reach out to each other, mend the social fabric, and work together.
Well, the storm is here, and I've been doing this, trying to invest in the people that matter, trying to build my social network of people I trust, and yet, these feelings are with me. The people I talk to--friends, family, neighbors--all feel the same way. There's something in the air--a charge in the atmosphere--that feels oppressive and burdensome and, to my mind, claustrophobic.

Sometimes, I truly feel a little crazy. And yet, the world seems crazy to me.

I was reading Campbell's "Myths to Live By," and there's a chapter where he talks about the "present moment." (Which was 1970, when he wrote. However, I still consider this the present moment. Humans are so bad about thinking of time in terms of their own lives, but one generation is less than a blink of an eye, so 40 years is nothin'. Indeed, 100 years is nothin'.)

Here's what he writes:
"But then, in the midst of all that optimism [post WWI] about reason, democracy, socialism, and the like, there appeared a work that was disturbing: Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West. Other writings [appeared]: Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, James Joyce's Ulysses, Proust's Remembrance of Things Past and Eliot's 'The Waste Land.' In a literary sense, those were very great years indeed. But what certain of its authors seemed to be telling us was that with all our rational triumphs and progressive political achievements, illuminating the dark quarters of the earth and so on, there was nevertheless something beginning to disintegrate at the heart of our Occidental civilization itself.

And of all these warnings and pronouncements, that of Spengler was the most disquieting. For it was based on the concept of an organic pattern in the life course of a civilization, a morphology of history: the idea that every culture has its period of youth, its period of culmination, its years then of beginning to totter with age and of striving to hold itself together by means of rational planning, projects, and organization, only finally to terminate in decrepitude, petrification, what Spengler called "fellaheenism," and no more life.

Moreover, in this view of Spengler's, we were at present on the point of passing from what he called the period of Culture to Civilization, which is to say, from our periods of youthful, spontaneous, and wonderful creativity to those of uncertainty and anxiety, contrived programs, and the beginning of the end.

When he sought for analogies in the classical world, our moment today corresponded, he found, to that of the late second century B.C., the time of the Carthaginian Wars, the decline of the culture-world of Greece into Hellenism, and the rise of the military state of Rome, Caesarism, and what he termed the Second Religiousness, politics based on providing bread and circuses to the megalopolitan masses, and a general trend to violence and brutality in the arts and pastimes of the people."
Whew. That's depressing. But there's more.

Campbell then presents a poem by William Butler Yeats, written in 1921, and titled "The Second Coming":

The Second Coming
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center 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?

I find this poem as "awesome" as Campbell does. It electrifies, terrifies, connects you with the long, slow gyration of history in its fullest sense.

OK, so we've drawn this fate. What now? The thing that comes to me are the words of Gandalf (yeah, I know, but Tolkien was a genius) from the Lord of the Rings. (I'm quoting from the film.)
Frodo: I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.

Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring. In which case, you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.
And so, I guess the answer is that we, each of us, is meant to be here, meant to face what we've been given, and decide whether to align ourselves with the light or hide our heads and therefore encourage darkness.

Some of us will be Frodos. Some of us will be Gandalfs. Some will be Samwises. Some Aragorns. And, unfortunately, some will be Gollums. And Orcs. And Saurons. You get the drift.

Joseph Campbell didn't write about heroes and cycles and quests and The Call for his own amusement. He wrote, I believe, to create a document that proved these archetypes were ancient, profound and very, very real.

I am searching for who I am in this time. I don't want to be a Gollum. I want to be a hero. And I'm asking you to be one, and I believe the way you start is by opening your eyes, thinking, reading, analyzing, feeling and listening.

I asked earlier "What the hell are we supposed to do?" My best guess is to do two things primarily: be a friend to others and educate yourselves.

Don't believe anything you have not analyzed. Read history, economics, philosophy, the great books. This is not the time to pretend things are normal and fine. I'll keep watching a little TV and movies (to lighten the mood), but most of my time will be spent educating myself and caring for myself, my family and my friends.

What about you?


erzsebet said...


There are many topics broached in this post, and quite a bit I would like to say. I am not ready to say it all yet, nor am I certain that I'll ever feel comfortable putting some of the things I'm thinking in writing for the world to see. I am processing a lot of new information, which is making me question everything I thought was solid and 'safe' in my life. Would that this were simply a personal problem, too! These disillusions, this uncertainty, it's not just mine. I see it everywhere now: in online writing, in the way people are becoming less tolerant in traffic, the way no one smiles spontaneously. My predominant emotion is one of anxiety. Throw in a measure of vulnerability and a liberal sprinkling of feeling powerless to even see what I'm up against, and that about covers the gamut. None of the usual 'cures' work, or not for very long. Movies feel fatuous, drinking feels like pure escapism but without the sweet dulling of pain, and reading can be hard to do with the constant buzz of anxiety. Worst of all for me, I am finding it difficult to convince myself to work on my own craft, wondering what in the hell it can even matter. It feels like everything is being smashed apart by a terrible something masquerading as the known securities. How silly it seems to write stories when truths are crumbling! Am I overreacting? I feel less like it, having read your post. Of course, that begs the question: do rooms with padded walls allow roomies? ...

What rough beast, and how can anything I've ever put faith in stop it?


Tiffany Hamburger said...

thanks for putting this out there, since it is good to start a discussion, rather than just turn the same thoughts and feelings over and over again inside your head. We need an outlet!

One thing I worry about is that every generation has had its share of doomsayers, and there is something attractive in doom and gloom at times. It makes you feel as though there is something unique happening, and it gives life a sense of urgency. At the same time, of course there are times the doom and gloomers are right (1930s Germany anyone?).

So the question I'm grappling with right now is: How do you know what is real and what is fear-mongering? I don't want to get sucked in, and yet, I definitely feel a sense of anxiety in the very atmosphere--it doesn't just feel like it's me. But again, how much is real--rooted in actual circumstance--and how much of it is created by the media and those who stand to profit?

I look forward to discussing these things with people like you and anyone who wants to chime in!

Together, we'll make a path through the confusion, I think.