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The Myth of Human Progress and the Collapse of Complex Societies

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Posted on Jan 26, 2014

By Chris Hedges

(Page 5)

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.

We cheered, but soon that cheering turned to woe,

    for then a whirlwind born from the strange land

    battered our little vessel on the prow.

Three times the boat and all the sea were whirled,

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    and at the fourth, to please Another’s will,

    the aft tipped in the air, the prow went down,

Until the ocean closed above our bones.

“He has received the message,” Levi wrote of his friend and what they shared in Dante, “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 harness their imagination, and through their imagination find the courage to peer into the molten pit, who can minister to the suffering of those around them. It is only they who can find the physical and psychological strength to resist. Resistance is carried out not for its success, but because by resisting in every way possible we affirm life. And those who resist in the years ahead will be those who are infected with this “sublime madness.” As Hannah Arendt wrote in “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” the only morally reliable people are not those who say “this is wrong” or “this should not be done,” but those who say “I can’t.” They know that as Immanuel Kant wrote: “If justice perishes, human life on earth has lost its meaning.” And this means that, like Socrates, we must come to a place where it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong. We must at once see and act, and given what it means to see, this will require the surmounting of despair, not by reason, but by faith.

“One of the only coherent philosophical positions is revolt,” Camus wrote. “It is a constant confrontation between man and his obscurity. … It is not aspiration, for it is devoid of hope. That revolt is the certainty of a crushing fate, without the resignation that ought to accompany it.”

“… [T]he people noticed that Crazy Horse was queerer than ever,” Black Elk said in remembering the final days of the wars of Western expansion. 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 lie the absurdity and 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, Antony, Juliet, Viola, Rosalind, Hamlet, Cordelia and Lear—all have this sublime madness. King Lear, who through suffering and affliction, through human imagination, is finally able to see, warns us all that unbridled human passion and unchecked hubris mean the suicide of the species. “It will come,” Albany says in “Lear.” “Humanity must perforce prey on itself, Like monsters of the deep.” It was the poems of Federico Garcia Lorca that sustained the republicans fighting the fascists in Spain. Music, dance, drama, art, song, painting [have been] the fire and drive of resistance movements. The rebel units in El Salvador when I covered the war there always traveled with musicians and theater troupes. Art, as Emma Goldman pointed out, has the power to make ideas felt. Goldman noted that when Andrew Undershaft, a character in George Bernard Shaw’s play “Major Barbara,” said poverty is “[t]he worst of crimes” and “All the other crimes are virtues beside it,” his impassioned declaration elucidated the cruelty of class warfare more effectively than Shaw’s socialist tracts. The degradation of education into vocational training for the corporate state, the ending of state subsidies for the arts and journalism, the hijacking of these disciplines by corporate sponsors, sever the population from understanding, self-actualization and transcendence. In aesthetic terms the corporate state seeks to crush beauty, truth and imagination. This is a war waged by all totalitarian systems.

Culture, real culture, is radical and transformative. It is capable of expressing what lies deep within us. It gives words to our reality. It makes us feel as well as see. It allows us to empathize with those who are different or oppressed. It reveals what is happening around us. It honors mystery. “The role of the artist, then, precisely, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through the vast forest,” James Baldwin wrote, “so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.”

“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 Baldwin. “Otherwise, they could never endure, much less embrace, the lives they are compelled to lead.”

I do not know if we can build a better society. I do not even know if we will survive as a species. But I know these corporate forces have us by the throat. And they have my children by the throat. I do not fight fascists because I will win. I fight fascists because they are fascists. And this is a fight which in the face of the overwhelming forces against us requires us to embrace this sublime madness, to find in acts of rebellion the embers of life, an intrinsic meaning that lies outside of certain success. It is to at once grasp reality and then refuse to allow this reality to paralyze us. It is, and I say this to people of all creeds or no creeds, to make an absurd leap of faith, to believe, despite all empirical evidence around us, that good always draws to it the good, that the fight for life always goes somewhere—we do not know where; the Buddhists call it karma—and in these acts we sustain our belief in a better world, even if we cannot see one emerging around us.

The Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, who spent most of his adult life in prison or in exile, knew something of despair. But he knew something too of resistance, of that rebellious spirit which must define us in times of terrible oppression and woe if we are to remain fully human. Any act of resistance is its own eternal triumph. Hikmet captured this in his poem “On Living.”

Living is no laughing matter:
      you must live with great seriousness
            like a squirrel, for example—
  I mean without looking for something beyond and above living,
          I mean living must be your whole occupation.
Living is no laughing matter:
      you must take it seriously,
      so much so and to such a degree
  that, for example, your hands tied behind your back,
                      your back to the wall,
  or else in a laboratory
      in your white coat and safety glasses,
      you can die for people—
  even for people whose faces you’ve never seen,
  even though you know living
      is the most real, the most beautiful thing.
I mean, you must take living so seriously
  that even at seventy, for example, you’ll plant olive trees—
  and not for your children, either,
  but because although you fear death you don’t believe it,
  because living, I mean, weighs heavier.

II
Let’s say we’re seriously ill, need surgery—
which is to say we might not get up
                from the white table.
Even though it’s impossible not to feel sad
                  about going a little too soon,
we’ll still laugh at the jokes being told,
we’ll look out the window to see if it’s raining,
or still wait anxiously
            for the latest newscast . . .
Let’s say we’re at the front—
      for something worth fighting for, say.
There, in the first offensive, on that very day,
      we might fall on our face, dead.
We’ll know this with a curious anger,
      but we’ll still worry ourselves to death
      about the outcome of the war, which could last years.
Let’s say we’re in prison
and close to fifty,
and we have eighteen more years, say,
                  before the iron doors will open.
We’ll still live with the outside,
with its people and animals, struggle and wind—
                        I mean with the outside beyond the walls.
I mean, however and wherever we are,
      we must live as if we will never die.

III
This earth will grow cold,
a star among stars
          and one of the smallest,
a gilded mote on blue velvet—
        I mean this, our great earth.
This earth will grow cold one day,
not like a block of ice
or a dead cloud even
but like an empty walnut it will roll along
        in pitch-black space . . .
You must grieve for this right now
—you have to feel this sorrow now—
for the world must be loved this much
                      if you’re going to say “I lived”. . .


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