An Easter song and a moment of reflection:
The first question people always ask me about Hippies is whether this romp through the psychedelics and sexual liberation and ideals, the music scene and the war scene, all the darkness and all the light of the late 1960s, is autobiographical. And am I like Ragman or Ziggy or Tex, etc.?
It’s not exactly autobiographical in that sense. But I draw from autobiography on every page. I am a bit part in every character. But perhaps this is tautological. Perhaps every artwork with more than one character is a kind of psychomachia, all characters projecting different aspects of the writer’s soul or psyche. Perhaps this is not just a psychological necessity (creative arts are after all self-expression) but a metaphysical one as well. How metaphysical? If all the people of the world – past, present, and future – are so many surface expressions of the single personality of godhead, then the whole great drama, the extended “vanity fair” of human history, is one great psychomachia. And divine history, too, as the figures that populate the collective imagination are just as much expressions of godhead as the figures that populate physical reality. Indeed, the figures of imagination may be more intimate expressions of godhead, as Jung’s collective unconscious transcends the individual psyche and gets one step closer the universal Psyche.
At least this literary theory, this metaphysics, seems consistent with the cosmic laws governing the created world of Hippies. And perhaps that is enough.
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 or removing flags – 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? Take ‘Em Down Nola (who led the removal of Beauregard and the other Confederate monuments) has already targeted the 160-year-old equestrian statue of U.S. President Andrew Jackson as well as the French Quarter monument to New Orleans founder Bienville, who died 100 years before the Confederacy existed. For those who are concerned about the scope of the cleansing, if removalists could give them a clear 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. What you spend your time visualizing is what you bring into being. At what point do we focus our considerable energy on the things that connect us to each other and to the future rather than on the things that divide us?
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 …
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)