In an age, when nature is besieged and the political landscape blighted, and one stands, stoop shouldered and wincing into the howling wasteland of epic-scale idiocy extant in the era, a solitary person can feel lost, marooned inside an increasingly isolated sense of self. Whether urban, suburban, or rural dwelling, the sense of alienation, for an individual, is profound … as discernible to the eye as the constellations of foreclosure signs stippling overgrown front lawns across the land … as hidden as the abandoned dreams within.
The fraying ligature of the landscape of the United States reveals an inner geography of alienation and anomie. Living on the island of Manhattan, I daily negotiate an urban layout of practical, but identity-decimating grids — a cityscape of harsh, inhuman right angles … a geography that renders street encounters abrupt, curt and intrusive.
After a time, one begins, by reflex, to buffer oneself against such intrusions, withdrawing inward — becoming a self-enclosed, walking fortress, shielding oneself from the degradations of these impersonal affronts (that feel altogether personal), with I-Pods, Blackberries, and other vestments attendant to the muttered prayers of the self-absorbed.
While above the street — corporate towers — that are steel and concrete kingdoms of blind, willful ascension — blot the skyline; these structures flee upward, as if to escape the implications of life lived at street level and sharing in the consequences of decisions made within their sterile, insular sanctums of power and cupidity.
This is architecture as blind hubris: creations made by the hands of mortal men … yet failing to have any connection to the ground, these buildings crowd out the real estate of the sacred. Moreover, their manic skyward thrust leaves them, and those imprisoned within, bereft of roots that reach down into the renewing loam of the earth, to where mortal vanity is delivered to dust and desperate hopes rot and transubstantiate into the compost that nourishes new life.
And blooms of renewal, I suspect, will not be found online as well. The electronic sheen of social media sites is no substitute for communal fabric. There is no animal musk nor angelic apprehensions to en-soul the flesh and tease wisdom out of obdurate will … No matter how many restless shades want to friend you on FaceBook nor ghostly texts descend upon you in an unholy Pentecost of Tweets, online exchanges will continue to leave you restless, hollow, and yearning for the colors and cacophony of an authentic agora.
The adolescent purgatory of FaceBook — with its castings into the Eternal Now of instant praise, acceptance, and rejection — reflects, magnifies, and acerbates the perpetual adolescence of the contemporary culture of the United States, intensifying its shallow longings and displaced panics, its narcissistic rage and obsession with the superficial. It devours libido, by providing a pixilated facsimile of the primal dance of human endeavor, leaving one’s heart churning in thwarted yearning, locked an evanescent embrace with electronic phantoms, as one, paradoxically, attempts to live out unfulfilled desires by means of hollow communion with the soul-negating source of his alienation.
One can never get enough of what one doesn’t need. Ergo, the compulsions and panic of millions of hungry ghosts will hold an ongoing, hollow mass online, in a futile campaign to regain form, gain direction, and walk in meaning and beauty among the things of the world, but instead will remain imprisoned within the very system that condemned them to this fate.
And this is the place, we, as a culture, will remain, for a time. This electronic inferno will be our vale and mountaintop, our sanctuary and leviathan. We will stare baffled into its vastness, stupefied and lost within its proliferate array of depersonalizing distractions and seductions. The more we try to lose ourselves in it, by surrendering to its shimmering surface attractions, the more tightly we will become bound in the bondage of self.
Naturally, living in the grinding maw of such monsters of alienation will engulf one with ennui and angst. Moreover, the judgment of anyone claiming not to be afflicted should be regarded as suspect.
Possessed by this mode of being: we languish in a zoo of our own making where we gaze, without comprehension, at the confines of our enclosure, chew our paws, pace the cage, and are restless for mealtime. Like an animal in a cage, we are no longer what we were meant to be; we have forgotten what it is to be alive. With the exception of superficial form, we begin to lose our affinity to what makes us recognizable as a human being and as an animal — for we have become simply a sad thing that waits for lunch. And I defy any caged clock-watcher in a cubicle to defy that point.
Restless and agitated in our confinement, we sink further into anomie … into the benumbing embrace of comfort zones (over-eating, anti-depressants, consumerism as emotional distraction, addiction to electronic media) where we chose safety over the truth of our being. In these cages of inauthenticity, our heart’s longings and human needs are held in stasis by the perfunctory persona we cultivated for approval and acceptance; there, consigned to a barren region of mind where one is rewarded for docility and duplicity, one languishes, bereft of eros and pothos — unconsciously self-convicted and sentenced for the crime of being a serial betrayer of one’s essential self.
- So much of the criteria of the modern condition has atomized us, stripped us, collectively, of ritual, purpose and meaning, and placed us in the midst of what T.S. Eliot expressed in prosody as a “heap of broken images.”
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
–From: The Waste Land
There is danger, of course, in such places — but there is also the possibility of renewal.
Personal and historical traumas leave a legacy of bewilderment. And being bewildered i.e., being in a psychic wilderness, lost, having wandered or been cast past the known horizon of experience is to be in position to engage the novel, be in the thrall of unfolding mystery, and wander in a soul-suffused landscape of the sublime.
A state of alienation is right where we should be: To be able to adapt to a culture dedicated to little more than finding efficient means of exploiting the hours of the greater public’s lives for the benefit of a greedy few would be a tragedy. Living within this culture should bring on despair. It is a leviathan that has devoured your existence. Do you think you can renovate the belly of the beast … set up a time-share with Jonah and Pinocchio there and live in comfort?
Should not one stagger and stammer in mortification when shown a handful of dust?
- Moreover, the solution we are offered — making ourselves a dwelling within a prison of consumer kitsch — should and does only bring on more anomie. Eliot wrote the following regarding a psyche attempting to adapt to a dying culture:
[...] Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
–From: The Journey of the Magi
One of the notions, as Rilke might put it, that is “brooding like a seed” in my psyche has been the distinction James Hillman makes between civilization and culture. Hillman avers that, and I agree, civilization is a dead thing — an edifice of crumbling marble enshrined in an eros-devoid museum of the mind where we do little more than give empty, obligatory homage to a fossilized tableaux … our forced reverence is but a perfunctory prayer muttered before the iconography of a dead religion; in contrast, culture is a living, breathing phenomenon of the collective mind, heart, and soul of the people within it. Its logos inhabits the very air of existence, permeating it like the sound of birdsong, and cricket and cicada stridulation throughout a high summer night.
Moreover, he avers that culture is akin to a madhouse; in fact, the solution lies in the back ward of the asylum, the area where are housed the hopeless cases. In other words, like Dante, proceed to the place you most fear looking upon, embrace it, and hear its awful keening and heart-opening agonies. There is the location of rebirth, the last circle of hell, retreating to a comfort zone will simply leave the situation is stasis.
So the question arises: How does one enter the soul-making shabbiness of the human condition, even though, as always, we are powerless against the trajectory of history and lost within the mad proliferation of culture — and, as Bob Dylan limned in lyric regarding the alienation this situation evokes, “[one has] no direction home?”
Try this: embrace the bracing pain of your alienation: make a home in being lost. Gaze with wonder of upon the sacred scenery of your bewilderment … Wandering in the wilderness is a holy state.
- Wendell Berry believes such ventures to be one of the true vocations of the soul:
The Real Work
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
In other words, in times such as ours, when we embrace our alienation then we will be welcomed home — to share a common shelter with the multitudes who are also lost.