I strongly recommend Linh Dinh‘s series of posts on his sojourn in Santa Cruz (he spent five days or so in town before giving a reading on Friday, November 14). Unlike most writers, who parachute onto a campus for a day of readings or workshops, followed by cocktails at the English Chair’s home or the faculty club, Linh hits the streets, talks to owners and denizens of bars and bookstores, delivers tantalizing bits of local and personal history, all delivered in his own brand of Kerouacian “spontaneous bop prosody,” but laced with an empathy and incisive social concern more reminiscent of the late Studs Terkel.
One passage in particular caught my eye in one of the posts, where Linh recounts a visit to “a little anarchist bookstore, lending library and minimal café,” in which context he picks up a copy of Lewis Mumford‘s Technics and Civilization, where he comes upon this quote: “The eye, the ear, the touch, starved and battered by the external environment, took refuge in the filtered medium of print; and the sad constraint of the blind applied to all the avenues of experience. The museum took the place of concrete reality; the guidebook took the place of the museum; the criticism took the place of the picture; the written description took the place of the building, the scene in nature, the adventure, the living act.”
A bit later, Linh makes a characteristic leap from his anarchist bookstore to a thumbnail sketch of the entrepreneurial life and premature death of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, an Italian radical whose fascination with political violence strikes me as something we could see in our own country sooner rather than later.
Anyway, I posted this comment in response to Linh’s entry. It may not mean much out of context, so do see his post before reading on:
I can’t quite describe the impact of this entry, Linh. I haven’t been in Santa Cruz in 30 years, but it seems to be micro-mirroring the macro shift that’s been going on since 1980: the vampirical feasting of the rich on the poor and middle class. The Mumford quote is startling, and brings to mind his biography of Herman Melville, where he writes: “Melville, like Buddha, left a happy and successful career behind him, and plunged into those cold black depths, the depths of the sunless ocean, the blackness of interstellar space; and though he proved that life could not be lived under those conditions, he brought back into the petty triumphs of the age the one element that it completely lacked: the tragic sense of life: the sense that the highest human flight is sustained over an unconquered and perhaps unconquerable abyss.” We are rediscovering that abyss—in Santa Cruz, Washington, New York; in all the suburbias, gated or not. I shudder to think what will happen if a few hundred Feltrinellis take their well-deserved disillusion and rage into the streets. But we’d better all think about it, because the chances seem good that it’s on the verge of breaking loose.
I’ve been telling friends that I’ve slipped into a post-election funk. The thrilling balloon ride of Obama’s campaign has ended, and the reality of the massive task he faces has set in. That reality has been vividly sketched out by Gerald Celente‘s The Trends Journal, which predicts tax revolts, food riots, gas riots, and other apocalyptic events as the world financial system continues its collapse.
Maybe this is “creative destruction,” a “paradigm shift” that will ultimately lead to a less brutal, more communitarian economy worldwide. I hope so. But whatever the outcome, the interim looks to be one long misery, and I’m old enough to imagine that I may not live to see the end of it.
It’s at times like these that realism—not just the literary kind, but the political and spiritual kind—becomes crucial. By “realism,” I don’t mean what our pinhead TV journalists would call “doom and gloom.” After all, Buddha confronts suffering and puts forward an approach to that reality that does not depend on preening televangelists, or vice presidential candidates who believe the Earth is 6,000 years old because a 2,000 year old book tells them so, or demagogues who thrive on fear and hate (whatever may be said to distinguish the mindset of George W. Bush from Osama Bin Laden’s is a distinction without a difference), or raping the poor in order to finance yacht ownership among the wealthiest of the wealthy elites. Edward de Vere, enmeshed in the fanatical police state of Elizabethan England and writing as “Shakespeare” in a largely vain attempt to protect his reputation and estate, manages to deliver a vast amount of truth about humanity. And Ishmael escapes to tell his story.
It may also be worth pointing out that the Galápagos Islands, which reminded Melville of “five and twenty heaps of cinder dumped here and there in an outside city lot” when he visited them in 1841, had already been visited by Charles Darwin in 1835—who experienced the “blinding flash of inspiration” that led to The Origin of Species, an advance in human understanding that no fundamentalist mumbo-jumbo, in the long run, will be able to undo.
As Mumford wrote about the author of Moby-Dick: “Melville was a realist, in the sense that the great religious teachers are realists. He saw that horsehair stuffing did not make the universe kinder, and that the oblivion of drink did not make the thing that was forgotten more palatable.” We need to pay attention to the artists and thinkers who look into the abyss and tell us candidly what they find there; the last thing we need to waste our time on is art and ideologies that trivialize and falsify the nature of our situation and its dilemmas.