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A Time for ‘Sublime Madness’

Posted on Jan 20, 2013
Flickr/Humphrey King

By Chris Hedges

(Page 2)

Primo Levi in his memoir “Survival in Auschwitz” tells of teaching Italian to another inmate, Jean Samuel, in exchange for lessons in French. Levi recites to Samuel from memory Canto XXVI of Dante’s “The Inferno.” It is the story of Ulysses’ final voyage.

“He has received the message,” Levi writes, “he has felt that it has to do with him, that it has to do with all men who toil, and with us in particular.” Levi goes on. “It is vitally necessary and urgent that he listen, that he understand … before it is too late; tomorrow he or I might be dead, or we might never see each other again.”

The poet Leon Staff wrote from the Warsaw ghetto: “Even more than bread we now need poetry, in a time when it seems that it is not needed at all.”

It is only those who can retreat into the imagination, and through their imagination can minister to the suffering of those around them, who uncover the physical and psychological strength to resist.

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“ … [T]he people noticed that Crazy Horse was queerer than ever,” Black Elk said in remembering the final days of the wars against the Indians. He went on to say of the great Sioux warrior: “He hardly ever stayed in the camp. People would find him out alone in the cold, and they would ask him to come home with them. He would not come, but sometimes he would tell the people what to do. People wondered if he ate anything at all. Once my father found him out alone like that, and he said to my father: ‘Uncle, you have noticed me the way I act. But do not worry; there are caves and holes for me to live in, and out here the spirits may help me. I am making plans for the good of my people.’ ”

Homer, Dante, Beethoven, Melville, Dostoevsky, Proust, Joyce, W.H. Auden, Emily Dickinson and James Baldwin, along with artists such as the sculptor David Smith, the photographer Diane Arbus and the blues musician Charley Patton, all had it. It is the sublime madness that lets one sing, as bluesman Ishman Bracey did in Hinds County, Miss., “I’ve been down so long, Lawd, down don’t worry me.” And yet in the mists of the imagination also lies the certainty of divine justice:

I feel my hell a-risin’, a-risin’ every day;
I feel my hell a-risin’, a-risin’ every day;
Someday it’ll burst this levee and wash the whole wide world away.

Shakespeare’s greatest heroes and heroines—Prospero, Anthony, Juliet, Viola, Rosalind, Hamlet, Cordelia and Lear—all have this sublime madness. As Theseus says in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”:

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.

“Ultimately, the artist and the revolutionary function as they function, and pay whatever dues they must pay behind it because they are both possessed by a vision, and they do not so much follow this vision as find themselves driven by it,” wrote James Baldwin. “Otherwise, they could never endure, much less embrace, the lives they are compelled to lead.”

 

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Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt, By Chris Hedges, Truthdig Columnist and Winner of the Pulitzer Prize -- Get Your Autographed Copy Today Also Available! Truthdig Exclusive DVD of Chris Hedges' Wages of Rebellion Lecture The World As It Is: 
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