Tuesday, January 31, 2017

To Communicate Liberally

To communicate liberally; to be useful.

- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

* * *

This photograph is by Walker Evans. It was taken on the subway in New York City sometime between 1938 and 1941. It shows a blind man playing an accordion: busking. When I first saw this image a few years ago it fell on me like a thunderstorm. Here, in a single image an entire life was held, suspended upon the moment: the surface tension of a subway car, it's uncertain balance as it rocked and teetered on the tracks, the blind man's faith in his ability to stand unaided, his mouth open, singing and the indifference of the man reading the newspaper on the right, and the light, the incandescent light of bare bulbs in a dark place. I tried to imagine the blind man's morning. Was it like every other morning as he dressed and carried his accordion into the subway? Did such things feed him, or was this proud desperation? I peg the guy as Irish. The face, the lighter hair, its curls. Who ever he was, he is long dead. What happened after this picture was taken? Did he have family? Had he always been blind, or was this a late tragedy? Was he loved? When he died, what crossed his mind? All we know is there in the picture taken about 80 years ago. Yet, when I look at this image I cannot help but feel a kinship to this man. It is a reverence for his willingness to stand and sing and keep his balance and not be aware of those who ignore him. He is a sign, a signifier of how lives are reduced by circumstance and chance and its sufferings made indifferent by those who don't count those particular afflictions among their own. He is also what he was: a man who dared. This humbles me. It emboldens me. It tells me to forever rise.

Such a message is sorely needed today.

* * *

Let me be clear: I stand opposed to the Trump administration. I see in it the very real threat of authoritarian fiat and the corrosion of civil society. My position is not based on politics, the mere swing of a pendulum, but on something that supersedes politics: the nihilist glorying in pain inflicted on any who are deemed the other. I have not been able to approach this project with any cohesive thought since this malignancy arrived in the body politic  What in the hell could I say or do that mattered? The project seemed small, vain, completely insufficient to the moment. I was embarrassed by things I've said here: too small a view, parochial, gated. 

I have been lazy and assumed too much for too long. That truths I deemed self-evident were not because I did not tend to them, did not insist upon them, did not fight for them, but cloaked myself in the delusion that the things I valued - openness, dignity, transparency, the arc of the moral universe bending towards justice - were inviolate. By believing this, by failing to bolster and support those values in day in and day out actions (private and public), I have contributed to the threat they are now under. 

So, what is a writer of a small blog to do? Aurelius tells me I am to communicate liberally; to be useful. I will take him at his word.

This project began many years ago and has stumbled forward by shifting focus every now and then. It has been a move from what was personal to what I hoped was universal. The work of each life is to come to know itself without fear. If there is one thing that we might all agree on it is this: fear pervades the public space regardless of who you voted for. Trump's assent was fueled by fear and resentment that others we getting ahead at the cost of the majority. The response to Trump is fueled by the fear of what will happen to civil society as that anger is unleashed on those who oppose it, those who are minorities. Fear has taken on flesh and roams freely and stokes enmity on every side.

This is not a false equivalence. I firmly stand against Trump's fear mongering and the monstrous nature of his ego.  If you are a Red Hat, a Trump believer, there will be little for you here. I will not spend a moment of my life arguing with you. Your revelation will have to come from elsewhere. This project is now devoted to supporting and encouraging those who would resist the desolation of civil society and the rights of minorities. It affirms the truth written out by William Blake that everything that lives is holy, the truth lived out by the Baal Shem Tov that within every object, within every aspect of world we inhabit there is a spark of light and our work is to release it into the surrounding darkness. This includes those who seek to harm us, those, who in their blindness reject the very possibility of light, who will do great harm to others. They, too, retain that spark. 

So, what to do? 

My answer is this: to communicate liberally; to be useful and help those willing to keep fires lit, even when there's nothing left to burn. Perhaps, someday, those blinded by hate will see, but I'd rather concentrate on making sure they feel the heat of the fire at the very least.

We're all accordion players now.

* * *

After the murders on September 11th, 2001, I found myself in a faculty meeting at Columbia College Chicago. The world had shifted off its axis. We were trying to figure out what to say to our students, all of whom were writers, dancers, filmmakers and photographers. My mentor, John Schultz, by then professor emeritus, spoke up and said, "Fuck it. Let's go make art." I found the response to be woefully useless to the matter at hand. Of what use was art in this new world where death rained on innocents because of religious extremism? It smacked of self-satisfied elitism. And it certainly can be read that way, lived that way and so add to the balance of hatred. The reason for this is simple: we use a very shitty definition of art. If all that comes to mind are museums and sculpture parks, graffiti and operas, Moby Dick and the King James Bible, Phillip Glass and Allan Ginsberg, then we have failed miserably to describe what art is and what it is not. Art has nothing to do with galleries, publications, events, or the deadly dull history of galleries and those accepted into the galleries. It is a way of being in the world: engaged, questioning, looking, listening and making use of what is at hand. No paints required. It is solely about engaging with the world as it is and taking a stand.

It is resistance to entropy. It is an answer to the void. It is, by its very nature, courageous: a man or woman insisting that THIS, right here, MATTERS. You can disagree if you like, but you cannot denigrate the life made vulnerable by its acts of meaning, its acts of solidarity to a cause other than itself.

The world shifted again with the election of Donald Trump. Norms we'd taken for granted have been dissolved. The kabuki theater in Washington will have its run, and still the question remains: what can you do in this new world? What will you do?

* * *

Josef Sudek lost his right arm as a young man in WWI. He returned to Prague and was told to beg in the streets. Instead, no longer able to work as a book binder, he immersed himself in his previous hobby: photography. For almost 60 years he documented his city. During WWII, when the Nazis occupied the city he was no longer allowed to walk the streets. In response he spent years photographing the view from his studio windows. When the Communist government erased all personal savings in 1953, he lost what was left of his fortune (he's spent the war years hiring Jewish friends to keep them from the camps). In response he delved deeper into light, trying to give substance to it. He continued to pursue it: aged, one armed, robbed of his wealth, surrounded by a repressive and conspiratorial regime. The photographs he took are beautiful, sublime, but the art he made was the life he lived. Our task is to do the same: to work with what we have and build a life worth having regardless of the forces that sweep across the plain of our time.

It is our job to work fearlessly, to live awake to the light and let nothing and no one say it doesn't exist. Only in this way will the blind know our fires burn. Only in this way will the riders on the subway know our song.

If you'll stay with me, I promise to help you in every way I possibly can.

* * *

May your well run deep.


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