The Curse of the Confederacy: A Plague on Both Your Houses

As I try to think through both sides (and come to terms with my own ambivalence), I don’t see any good guys in the debate about removing the Confederate monuments in New Orleans. I share the underlying politics of the “removal” side – let’s call them the liberals. Namely, the values of the Confederacy in no way reflect our values today. In fact, the vast majority of people (white and black) I have known in my 50 years in New Orleans agree with that. Thus, removing purely political markers like the Liberty Monument makes sense. Changing selected street names – no problem. But I am uncomfortable with the cleansing of art history, as if art history has no value beyond politics and must be purged to suit today’s political values. For example, the century-old Beauregard sculpture’s lines and shadowed cuts and grandeur impressed me long before I knew who was on the horse. It certainly never gave me the slightest pro-Confederate feeling. If it had been quietly renamed “The Unknown Union Soldier,” most could still have enjoyed the aesthetics and most native New Orleanians would have been none the wiser. (My experience is that outsiders coming in are more aware of the political side and natives are more likely aware of these things as the “furniture” they grew up with.) So my concerns on this side are these:

(1) Where does the cultural cleansing of historical-register artifacts from centuries past stop? If you could give those who ask this question some reasonable sense of the endgame before the steamroller (as they see it) starts rolling, it would go a long way toward alleviating anxiety and opening a dialogue. At least it seems a fair question to ask.

(2) How does “us vs them” identity politics ever get us back to the “all-in-this-together” model of Martin Luther King and Mary Wollstonecraft, Frederick Douglass and Olaudah Equiano, Gandhi and Mandela, all of whom placed shared humanness at the center of their visions? Sectioning off white, male, black, female, etc., reifying those characteristics and prejudging people accordingly, seems to keep us on the wrong path.

Pro-monument voices – let’s call them the conservatives here – have, for the most part, been even worse. All the waving of Confederate flags and “Southern pride,” in this context, suggests that they really do still believe in the lost cause of Confederate values. This is almost mind-boggling. Even the ones who complain about “erasing history” seem to be clinging to the political history of a vicious past. I haven’t heard every voice, but has no one disavowed the political values of the Confederacy in no uncertain terms and made the case that art history may have some small value that goes beyond politics?

Removal of the Liberty Monument was an easy call. Removal of the Jefferson Davis statue should also have been an easy compromise, as any art historical significance it had beyond its political point seemed slight. But Lee and Beauregard were on the National Historical Register for a reason, and that reason is not because the National Historical Register favors Confederate values. I would like to think it has something to do with preserving art history as, to some extent, valuable in its own right, irrespective of politics.

In the end, maybe removal of all the monuments was a good thing. I haven’t really canvassed all the neighborhoods to see what people were actually thinking, and I might be swayed by more voices on the ground. I suspect, though, that the most public voices on both sides represent their own fairly small but very active political circles. But each side seems to thrive in its own way on polarization, ready to shut its ears and throw everything under the bus to make its political point. This makes me think that maybe politics itself is the problem. Maybe we should throw politics under the bus …

Click here for “The end of all politics.”

A process of self-discovery

Last day to get Hippies free on Amazon

A new sample (“A process of self-discovery”) is below …

xxx

“Jazmine, the doctor,” said the woman benevolently.

Yes, the doctor, thought Jazmine. She could not grasp what doctor they were referring to, but it sounded right. Yes, of course, there was the doctor. She followed the woman into the house and through a rustic maze of hallways. They came out into a wood-paneled study, refreshingly lit by high windows with brown curtains pulled back. The small room was easily filled by the couch, two upholstered chairs, and a desk with a straight-back chair. The room looked familiar to Jazmine. A fortyish woman with tight lips and glasses stood and stepped around from the desk when Jazmine came in.

“How are you feeling today, Jazmine?”

“I think I’m a little better, Dr. Meyer.” Yes, she recognized Dr. Meyer now. It was all coming back to her. “Definitely a little better. I guess it just takes a while for things to fall back into place.”

“Yes, that was quite an event you had, Jazmine.” She sat in one of the upholstered chairs and gestured for Jazmine to sit on the couch.

“You were quite broken down. Do you remember where you were when we found you?”

“Not exactly. I mean, it’s coming back but not completely. We were sleeping in the car in a parking lot. A train station parking lot. I got out to go use the bathroom in the station. But something in the station. Something horrible. It made me think that the car wasn’t a car. It was a box. It was all some big mistake. I needed to get out and get away from that box. I remembered I needed to get to another station to meet someone. I needed to get to Rhinecliff. Everybody said to go to Rhinecliff Station. Somehow I got there.”

“Yes, good,” said Dr. Meyer. “Yes, you were in Rhinecliff. Do you remember talking to me about it?”

“Yes, now I remember. I’ve been here a few days. You and I talk about it every day at the same time.”

“Good. Now we just need to unravel the story backwards until it fits, until you remember the parts you’ve blocked.”

“It’s all coming back. The tan acid. I took the tan acid and it gave me weird flashbacks. I was in Medieval Germany. Rebecca was my name. There was some kind of divine thing in my body. It appeared like a disease, but it was divinity. It was like the divinity was in my body but I couldn’t feel it right. Like I was repressing something.”

“Yes, good, Jazmine. We’ve been through this, but now you’re awake, you see it yourself.”

“Yes, Meister Berold knew. He wanted to help me. And Jeremiah was going to help me. But something bad happened. Something bad happened to Ragman. But that’s where I lose the thread. Ragman was in a whole different time and place. New Orleans, recently.”

“Do you know what we found in your pocket, Jazmine?”

“Something. I can’t quite remember. I had some coins. A coin purse. I don’t know.”

“Do you remember what it was at the train station? The horrible thing?”

“No, no,” said Jazmine, becoming agitated.

“You’re close, Jazmine, we need to look at these things together, consciously, so you can control them instead of having them control you. Think, Jazmine, think. The train station. You put something in your pocket.”

“Yes, I put something in my pocket.” Jazmine was starting to break down again.

Don’t you want to know what it was, Jazmine? Are you ready now? Do you want to wait until tomorrow?”

“Yes, I want to know what it was. I’m ready. I can almost feel it in my hand. In my pocket. I had my hand in my pocket and was squeezing, crumpling. It was paper.”

“Good, Jazmine. I think you’re ready to cross the next bridge.”

Dr. Meyer stood up and stepped around the desk. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion to Jazmine. Her heart pounded. Dr. Meyer opened a drawer and took out a piece of crumpled paper. She started to come back around the desk. The slow-motion trauma was killing Jazmine. Would she never get around the desk?

Dr. Meyer sat back in her upholstered chair with the crumpled paper in her hand, resting on her lap.

“What was it, Jazmine? What was the paper you put into your pocket?”

Jazmine gasped for breath. “Ragman,” she whispered, and a flood of tears came. Dr. Meyer sat next to her on the couch and put her hand on Jazmine’s shoulder. She had not touched Jazmine before – perhaps there was some professional ethics thing about touching your patients – but Jazmine was grateful for the human touch.

With her other hand, Dr. Meyer held out the paper.

 

A Revolution in Subjectivity: Utopic or Dystopic?

  1. The revolution in subjectivity: Our definitions of human identity and human fulfillment need to change. Definitions based on how many resources you can stockpile and call your own are not sustainable as our consumption level hits ecological limits. Either we evolve in this direction or we self-destruct. See my notes on a post-technological ethics for the coming age.
  2. The good news: We WILL evolve in this direction, just as any species drifts over time toward conditions of self-preservation.
  3. The bad news: Will the drift reach a critical mass in time to turn things around before the tipping point? Possible, but not probable.

Three Takes on Satan

First, there Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost, the guy who would famously rather “reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” He created quite a stir in his neoclassical age. The critics of that age liked for everything to fit into their symmetrical boxes, but there was some conundrum about what to do with Satan. Everyone naturally wanted Adam or the Messiah to be the hero of the poem, but no one could deny that Satan was the most interesting, most memorable, the dominant character who lingers in the imagination. Not that Milton had anything subversive in mind, at least not when it comes to the Christian world view. (His regicidal politics are another matter.) Milton is no doubt a God-fearing Protestant, but Satan steals the show nonetheless.

A century later, William Blake finds a way out of the conundrum. Blake also identifies as Christian, but his way out of Milton’s knot gave no succor to more orthodox Christian souls. Blake had his own visions of divine history – quite literally, as a result perhaps of some psychotic or paranormal power – which, he claimed, confirmed Milton’s epic vision in every respect but one: Milton misnamed the Messiah “Satan” and misnamed Satan “The Messiah.” Blake could not deny his own essentially religious visions of divine reality but he could not accept the principles of orthodox Christianity, which he found deadening and counter to the spirit of the human soul. He and Milton would probably agree that Milton’s Messiah represents restraint and reason, and that Milton’s Satan represents an unrestrained desire, a passion that exceeds all accepted bounds. It’s just that for Blake, that means Milton’s “Messiah” represents everything deadening to the human spirit and Milton’s “Satan” represents the liberating and redemptive power. At first glance, indeed, it seems like Blake puts a lot more energy into debunking Christian orthodoxy than offering anything favorable to Christianity. (The archetypal figures in his visionary works can be interpreted in a way that is commensurate with the Christian mythos but they are not limited to that interpretation.) Blake, however, reminds us in a letter to Thomas Butts: “I still and shall to Eternity Embrace Christianity and Adore him who is the Express image of God.”

Leave it to Percy Bysshe Shelley, the man who was kicked out of Oxford in his youth for writing a pamphlet called “The Necessity of Atheism” and mailing it to every Bishop in England, to take the next move. Shelley keeps Blake’s archetypal structures intact, embracing the Romantic view of imagination and passion and desire as liberating forces and conventional thinking and restrained rationalism as deadening, but Shelley breaks the whole mythos free of the Christian shell. Shelley agrees that Milton’s Satan is morally superior to his God, but he would prefer to draw his archetypal heroes from the likes of Prometheus, as someone who can represent the great forces of our collective unconscious without the risk of pulling the reader into the realm of nominal superstition.

So is that the end of Satan? I doubt it. Even today, Milton’s Satan can capture the imagination of readers – both professorial and everyday ones. And I know religious philosophers after Shelley – Kierkegaard and Husserl come to mind – have wrestled with the role of imagination and desire in a religious framework (although I can’t recall them bringing Satan into it in the same concrete way).

Then there’s Dracula and such villains who seem carved from Satanic stone, but I’m not sure we should start down that road. After all, Satan may be the ultimate reference point for all villains (but especially for gothic villains). So maybe we’d better stop here and ponder 😊

“Meanwhile the Adversary of God and Man,
Satan with thoughts inflam’d of highest design, 
Puts on swift wings, and towards the Gates of Hell
Explores
 his solitary flight.” (Milton, Paradise Lost, Book II, 1667)

 “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” (Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, ca. 1790-99)

 “Milton’s poem contains within itself a philosophical refutation of that system [Christianity], of which … it has been a chief popular support. Nothing can exceed the energy and magnificence of the character of Satan as expressed in Paradise Lost.” (Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, 1821)