Memory believes before knowing remembers.
— William Faulkner
In an era of corporate-state colonization of both landscape and mental real estate, when the face of one’s true oppressors is, more often than not, hidden from view, thus inflicting feelings of anxiety borne of powerlessness over the criteria of one’s life and the course of one’s fate, often, to retain a sense of control, people will tend to displace their anger and shame. Firearms provide the illusion of being able to locate and bead down on a given target. (How often does a person without wealth, power, and influence have any contact with — or even a glimpse of — the financial and political elite whose decisions dictate the, day by day, criteria of one’s existence?)
Beginning in childhood, carrying the noxious notions of the adult world, the viral seeds of mental enslavement to shame and the concomitant attempt to protect ego-integrity through psychological displacement are spread child to child.
All too often, internalized shame robs a child of his innate identity before it has a chance to jell. This is one, among multiple social factors, by which the collective mindset of capitalist/consumer state forcefully usurps an individual’s mind and holds it in torment.
Therefore, it is imperative for an individual, marooned in the shame-haunted miasma of the capitalist/consumer paradigm, to reclaim his/her own name. Even if the process entails (as it as played out in my own story) a descent into the underworld of memory and a confrontation with the ghosts therein.
A personal encounter with the raging ghosts of memory: Late autumn. 1965. Atlanta, Georgia.
At my back, as I stepped from the yellow school bus, and hurried in the direction of the small, two story apartment building, a seething cacophony of taunts and insults seemed to buffet me forward. Marc Leftcoff had sneered that the apartment complex where my family dwelled was, “The Projects” — that he proclaimed to be “a roach nest for losers, unemployed rednecks and divorced hussies — only a place white niggers would live.”
(And no, I didn’t grow-up in a Quentin Tarantino movie. People, even children, spoke like that in those days.)
Months earlier, on my first day of school — after our family had moved from Birmingham to Atlanta, where my sister’s and my new school district included white, laboring class families (often shattered and reconfigured by divorce and second and third marriages) and neighborhoods of affluent, upper middle class Jewish families — I was debriefed by Josh Corbin.
“So,” he clicked, his tongue producing a percussive, supercilious sound by creating a vacuum at the top of his mouth. “Are you upper-class, upper-middle class (like we are) just plain middle class, lower-middle class, or poor (he emitted that clicking sound at the word, poor). You look poor. What is that you have on — Kmart Specials (click). My clothes come from Saks in New York. My Mother and I buy them there when we visit our relatives in New York City, three or four times a year.”
I had no idea what he was talking about. But, I detected, through the mind-diminishing haze of my naivety, a discernible menace in his tone.
“You should really have your parents buy you some presentable clothes…What’s the matter, can’t they afford to buy you anything decent?”
I scanned his outfit. A little alligator seemed to be smirking at me from his shirt. Why did this kid have shiny dimes glinting from the surface of his oxblood loafers? (“Why insert pennies when you can afford dimes,” Corbin was inclined to boast?)
And what was the meaning of that clicking sound that he kept making with his mouth?
Later, I apprehended the sound pertained to the fact that I, and my family, had been labeled, “White Trash.”
Of course, I was ignorant of the social implications of the term, but, nevertheless, an image formed in my mind: My family had been dismissed as tossed-away refuse, reeking like garbage in the Georgia sun…weightless as windblown litter. Inconsequential: our existence…only a foul odor, fleetingly detected, and deserving, when noticed at all, of the contempt of society’s betters.
My heart felt as though it had been ripped into tatters in a windstorm of shame. It seemed as though all I knew about myself had been negated.
This is how shame works on a person. Internalized shame seems to commandeer a person’s DNA and replicate itself into the cellular structure of his being.
In the thrall of internalized shame, one is gripped by the compulsion to hide his face from the world. One’s own thoughts and feeling seem a foul pestilence from which to flee. Thus, a person will come to believe that the only way to absolve oneself of one’s inherent reek (Marc Leftcoff claimed he had seen my father shirtless and announced to our classmates that he “stunk like a rutting nigger”) was to become someone else…to have a family blessed with money and nice things…to have a smug alligator gazing upon life from Saks Fifth Avenue-procured shirts, and have dimes glinting unto creation from the tops of one’s polished loafers. This is one, among multiple means, that the capitalist/consumer state forcefully usurps one’s mind and holds it in torment.
After school, buffeted by these sessions of shaming, I would take refuge in the wooded areas near my home. There, sheltered among the pines, popular trees, and ancient oaks of the Georgia Piedmont, I would seek solace in books and my own wild imaginings.
I recall writing a story in my loose leaf notebook involving a lonely, bullied boy, who, shaken by shame and humiliation, played hooky from school.
Hiding out in a section of woods near his school, he was bitten, while exploring a deep ravine, by a venomous copperhead snake camouflaged by a carpet of pines straw. The incident was witnessed by a grizzled hermit/wizard who dwelled in a secret cave in the woods. The boy is revived by an elixir of anti-venom of the wizard’s devising that had the unattended side effect of bestowing the boy with the ability to bring inanimate objects to life…which, the boy, much to the distress and consternation of the old wizard, utilizes to transform the Izod alligators adorning his school yard tormentor’s clothing into agents of vengeance that devour the offending parties.
Anger dwells as deep as the pain leveled by being shamed and humiliated. From road rage, to internet trolling, to the compulsion to humiliate women in certain forms of porn, to right-wing radio ranters, to violent video games, to gun-sown episodes of mass murder — the shame-besieged psyche of the American male, in vain, attempts to mitigate a psychologically devastating sense of powerlessness.
The actual progenitors of his torment reside in the ghostly domain of personal memory as well as are veiled from view by a class-stratified economic system that serves as an analog of childhood humiliation.
But such prodigious amounts of pain do not remain buried. In the current day U.S., there are multiple factors that bar access to collective memory: the heap of fragmented images constituting the mass media multi-scape and its attendant 24 hour news cycle; suburban atomization and urban alienation; a cultural refusal to confront the true nature of the nation’s history, other than through hagiography, because to face our past would serve to bring us to a rude awakening regarding where we stand at present.
Cue: Existential dread. We are approaching the endgame of (global) capitalism; the system is headed straight to the landfill (its own creation) of history (that is, if global, late stage capitalism doesn’t bury the human species first by means of ecocide). Therefore, it is imperative, as we move towards the future, that we straddle the past, as we become attuned to the lamentation of the ghosts of memory, personal and collective.
Otherwise, the unhinged among us, psychically bearing the things we bury, literalize our denial, even by acts of murdering the living (even school children) in a futile attempt to kill the raging ghosts of memory deferred.
There has been a deadly legacy wrought by social structures that inflict shame and thus sows seeds of inarticulate rage. By the malefic vehicle of these tormented individuals, who are lashing out like a wounded animal, we can apprehend much about the death-besotted trajectory of U.S. culture.
Deep emotional scars can warp libido; thus, in our age of corporate state hyper-authoritarianism, obsessive materialism, and neo-puritan pathology, all too many people have become terrified of their own passion, from sweat plangent lust to incandescent enthusiasm, right down to even accepting the shadows and perfumes borne of an inner life, and have withdrawn into forms of self-exile, such as addiction, alienation, depression, compulsive materialism, and narcissistic striving.
We are convinced we know our own mind…that the decisions we make are based on logic and the wisdom gathered from experience. We believe our night-borne dreams and seemingly random, daylight imaginings are furtive shadows, inconsequential to the choices we make moment by moment as we navigate the linear timescape of our days.
Yet, what if you were visited by a rude angel who revealed to you how your mind had been usurped — the moments of your day harnessed for agendas not your own; your life had been waylaid by interlopers (e.g., Madison Avenue, family legacies, social pressures) who you do not remember granting entrance into your mind?
What kind of a tale of horror is this, you would demand? How did it come to this? Angel, you would cry out, what kind of a cruel joke is this? Why me?
And the angel would simply flash you eternity’s impersonal grin and tell you it is not personal. You have done the very human thing of gathering thoughts and beliefs like a bower bird gathers shiny objects. You have mistaken the bauble-stippled nest of found material for the honey-hive of your soul.
In contrast, passion arrives as a surging flood; the caress of silver moonlight on dark water; a golden fire blazing through one’s blood. But its purpose does not end there; i.e., in a fleeting incandescence of the soul. The energies of a fast moving wildfire must be transmuted into the persistence inherent to a stalwart heart — the maintenance of an interior hearth.
Those who evince passion will suffer. Worse, those who demur will suffer confinement in a cold, protective lock-up of their own construction. The union of passion and suffering, with much patience and persistence, transforms winged passion into a deep-dwelling compassion. Luminous angels are drawn earthward to weep.
Life beckons, but all too many ignore the call or defer adherence until it is too late…Too often people confuse a sense of purpose with an obsession for seeking safety; they long for purity, and fear the sublime awkwardness that allows you to lose your balance and fall into your essential self.
By embodying the latter, you have entered a realm that exists beyond success and failure, because when you venture into the heart of creation, you venture deep into your own being. The more passion you evince in life the deeper you inhabit your own humanity.
The only failure in life comes to be when you dismiss destiny’s invitation to dance.
The death-besotted, collective psyche of the late capitalist state reveals the consequences of a culture-wide refusal to heed the call.
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
— C.G. Jung -
(*The names of the individuals discussed in this article have been altered by the author.)