Two takes on whiteness

Some decades ago on a daytime TV talk show – I’ll never find it – the African-American public intellectual, Cornel West, was seated next to some Ku Klux Klan members, and the host said something about the KKK representing white people. West gestured at the white supremacists next to him on the stage and replied, “These people don’t represent white people; they represent morons.” That encapsulated the norm in anti-racist discourse in the post-1960s trajectory (post-MLK/post-hippies). It was not black vs white but, as Dr. King called it, a “coalition of conscience” on one side and racists on the other, “for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny . . . that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom” (“I Have a Dream,” 1963).

How times have changed. Many in the (ironically named, some would say) “progressive” movement have swung around to suggest that the KKK, in effect, DOES represent white people, as the KKK expresses more overtly what is implicitly baked into white people. Whereas West’s witty remark of yore would marginalize racists and foreground Dr. King’s coalition of conscience, the most prominent voices among today’s anti-racists give the KKK center stage.

“All white people are invested in and collude with racism . . . The white collective fundamentally hates blackness” (Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility).

“The way in which people have constructed whiteness, and even their identity, or even the identity of white people, prevents them from seeing this white terrorist threat for what it is” (Ibram X. Kendi, interview 01/12/2021).

Though Kendi’s remarks are less demoralizing than DiAngelo’s, they still emphasize the battle lines between white and black – not anti-racism as a (rainbow) coalition of conscience against racists, but anti-racism as a battle against “whiteness.”

The two takes on whiteness, in any event, are clear. The post-1960s anti-racist angle was that whiteness was neither here nor there, not a blessing and not a scarlet letter. In the coalition of conscience, whites and blacks joined hands to combat racism and racial inequality, without probing into the color of the hand next to you and whether that color meant secret sins that needed to be called out. The post-woke angle, on the other hand, is that whiteness is indeed the problem. It comes dangerously close to recapitulating the old blackness vs. whiteness dichotomy favored by Bull Connor and the racist segregationists that liberals fought so hard against in the 1960s.

Some of you might find anti-racist inspiration in the woke discourse, and I suspect I might find some myself if I push into it harder, but the overall thrust is a hard sell for me. The idea of teaching children, black and white, the Robin DiAngelo quote above, and how that might affect them socially and psychologically, is frankly a little chilling. The other angle on whiteness, the angle that I have identified as post-1960s (as opposed to post-woke), the angle I associated with that decades-old quip of Cornel West (my more up-to-date readers can comment on whether his position has changed since then) – that’s the angle I like. It allows all people of all races to celebrate each other, to work hand-in-hand to fix continuing racial inequality, each able to express one’s own heart robustly, with full confidence in oneself and one’s fellows in the coalition, not cowering in self-doubt about one’s own goodness or casting suspicious eyes on those around you.

Best that each of us, black or white, express the power of beauty and goodness in the heart without impediment, in the brazen manner of William Blake, or better yet, Walt Whitman:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself…
My tongue, every atom of my blood…
Nature without check with original energy…
The smoke of my own breath…
Stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical,
I and this mystery here we stand.

I know I am solid and sound…
To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow…
I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood,
I exist as I am, that is enough,
If no other in the world be aware I sit content,
And if each and all be aware I sit content.

Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!

(Song of Myself)

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Mausoleum

Mausoleo y áreas colindante (a chapbook of poems by Eduardo Padilla)
Reviewed by Gary Gautier

As a second-language reader of Spanish, this chapbook of poems by Mexican poet, Eduardo Padilla, was more difficult for me than his narrative verse chapbook, Hotel Hastings. If you are upper intermediate in Spanish, I’d recommend Hotel Hastings, where you can follow the throughline even if you miss some of the language. If you are native or advanced, try Mausoleo. Both collections are admirably weird, as Padilla always is, but Mausoleo is less narrative, more purely poetic, a sculpted universe with a lot more pressure on the language itself. Both are available at https://poesiamexa.wordpress.com/2016/03/16/eduardo-padilla/.

The content in Mausoleo ranges from sweeping and cosmic (“todos los objetos imaginables por todas las civilizaciones de la galaxia” [75]) to elemental* to archetypal (“Saturno devoró a sus hijos” [25]) to “escuálido” [33] (urine and flies buzzing a dirty street). There are no rules in Padilla. No, I take that back. There is one rule. Repetition to keep us grounded. Consecutive stanzas might start with the same phrase, or might each start with a phrase picked up from the previous stanza, or might just follow an easy pattern (“A mi primera esposa … A mi segunda esposa … A mi tercera esposa …” [49-50]). The form swings from long, Whitmanesque lines to a kind of choppy folk meter:

*El sol quema,
el agua fluye,
el viento corre,
la Tierra gira. Ninguno …
(p. 13)

And then this verse enjambs into more open free verse swings. But you get the idea. Padilla can orient us with simplicity as well as disorient us with complexity. And that’s just with the form.

The overall structure too captivates – the organization into spaces reminiscent of Gaston Bachelard’s fascinating philosophical opus, The Poetics of Space. In the case of Padilla’s chapbook, the universe is carved into spaces that are domestic but not quite domestic, semi-public but in a brooding and intimate way. Sections of the chapbook have titles like Pórtico, Dormitorio, Comedor, Salón Heráldico, Capilla, Ático, and of course Mausoleo (Portico, Dorm, Dining Room, Heraldic Hall, Chapel, Attic, Mausoleum) – domestic but layered with social and existential significance, spaces in the liminal zone between public and private, as perhaps a cloistered monastery might be for the devotees who live within it. Maybe that’s where Padilla wants us to feel ourselves. Or maybe not. But either way, it’s a space charged with meaning and emotion.

Throw in a few captivating images – “mujeres como picaduras de abeja” [33], “en cada escena del crimen una catedral azul” [69] – and you have a nice neat package of a poetic chapbook. Well, not exactly neat. Luckily for us, it’s something more interesting than neat.

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(Click covers for links)

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Purposiveness and Imagination

Blogmate Paul Adkin has been posting on becoming and purposiveness lately, so I thought I’d chime in.

Stasis and change. This duality has puzzled brains since the ancient Greeks, if not the primeval mind itself. The laws of physics give you the “how,” but what about the “why”? Why all this movement from one state to another? In our own lives, we can call it “purposiveness.” We might not have a definite destination (or a definite purpose) in mind, but movement is always movement toward a destination, however unspecified.

If “purposiveness” characterizes our movements, or changes in state, “imagination” is the best term we have for the force that drives the changes. Imagination is our capacity to project beyond the immediate real, the here and now of our existence. We can anticipate possible futures, reflect on things remote in time and space or visualize things that seem impossible in real time and space. All the possibilities and impossibilities that are not in our immediate sensory arena. That is the scope of imagination. In this sense, it is the source not only of the arts but of scientific investigation in its theorizing mode. Indeed, the quest for knowledge generally is driven by imagination, a reaching out in the mind to grasp what cannot be presently grasped. The scientific method is nothing but imagination systematized.

One might propose a cognate force in the physical universe (or in that aspect of lived reality that we, imaginatively, call the physical universe). As the seed becomes the tree, as mountains rise and fall, as the solar systems steady into their fixed movements, as black holes expand their mass and devour matter, always this drive to change from one state to another. Why? An intelligent God or anthropomorphic consciousness might be too much to swallow, but the laws of physics express a kind of purposiveness, a method to the continual striving from one state to another. And if imagination is the force behind the striving in our little lives, is it too far of a stretch to assume that the same force is behind the striving enacted by natural processes?

I’ll take Occam’s Razor on this one. If there are two ways to explain a phenomenon, start with the simpler, the one that requires the fewest assumptions. Assuming that the same force that drives the trajectory of our lived reality drives the movements of the (purportedly) physical universe is simpler than assuming that there are two separate but remarkably similar forces driving changes in the two (artificially) separate spheres.

Of course, everything could be entirely random. But my imagination tells me otherwise. The capacity to project and orient toward possible futures and possible outcomes, toward fantastic visions and goals at a distance from present reality – that capacity seems to throw a monkey wrench into the randomness. And once you throw in the monkey wrench, where does it stop?

x x x

Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.

Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and increase, always sex,
Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life.

To elaborate is no avail, learn’d and unlearn’d feel that it is so.

Sure as the most certain sure, plumb in the uprights, well entretied, braced in the beams,
Stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical,
I and this mystery here we stand.

(Walt Whitman, Song of Myself)

(Click images below for links)

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Sexual desire and cosmic consciousness

Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.
Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and
   increase, always sex,
Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of
life.
(
from Walt Whitman, Song of Myself)

Sexual desire seems so human to us. Sure, we know animals do it, and even plants, but their experience seems different, alien. So much emotion in the human drive. But if we call it a “drive,” we seem to risk reducing it to just an animal/vegetable thing devoid of higher meaning, devoid of love. But what if it works the other way? To recognize our sexual desire as an instance of the same force that drives the animal and vegetable kingdoms, does that not make the whole thing more meaningful and emotion-rich? Look at the way plants push toward their own physical fulfillment – all the little sprouts and turns and small daily efforts.

Photo credit: Bob Mulligan

The beauty and love we associate with our sexual desire is there already, moving forward the whole system all the time, entangling and driving through our own species as one turn in the much larger road. Our consciousness that seems so special is just a temporary human expression of the great consciousness that rolls through all things.

At least I think that’s what Whitman is getting at, with an assist below from Wordsworth.

. . . And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
(from William Wordsworth, “Tintern Abbey”)

        

Four Sheaths of Identity

alt. title: Paean to D. H. Lawrence and Walt Whitman

alt. alt.: The Meaning of Holding Hands

The Vedantic philosophy of the East sees human identity in terms of sheaths housing the true self. It gets pretty complicated, but we can settle on four sheaths: physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. Think of each as a sock the Self is wearing. The sheaths are not actually separate, but coextensive, so they are really different ways of looking at the same sock, but seeing them as separate layers makes them more comprehensible from the everyday point of view.

When I hold your hand, it’s not merely a physical act, but a trigger, an indicator, an objective marker of all sorts of transcendental knots and connections forming at the emotional and intellectual and spiritual layers of being. If I go deep within myself at that moment, I can feel it to be so.

Today’s religious followers too often feel only the mock-spiritual, an economy of meaning perversely separated from the physical, which leaves them with something dry and unsensual. Obliged to deny sensual richness, they remain sensually impoverished.

Today’s materialists too often feel only the physical and “demystify” the other sheaths into anemic scientific formulas, abstractions with all the transcendental and cosmic life drained out of them. And they wonder why they are unfulfilled, or half-fulfilled, in life.

I feel within myself the measure and vanishing point of all sheaths.
I am the fulfillment of a destiny.
You are the fulfillment of a destiny.
We are the fulfillment of a destiny.

And we know this to be true.

We can fight against it and tie ourselves in knots of neurosis and frustration. Or we can untie the knots, accept the full freedom that destiny expresses through us, and open the flow.

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Painting (“Ghost in the Range”) by Kyle Nugent (www.kylenugent.com)