Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Shape of Things to Come -- Part 11:Lux Facta Est

Though my previous post might seem to imply a sudden, universal realization, the breakthrough will not arrive everywhere at once, because the conditions preceding it will be, as one might imagine, chaotic. Light will dawn in some circles before it dawns in others.

What is this light that will finally dawn? For those who've been following this blog from the beginning the answer should come as no surprise. As I wrote in an earlier post: "Funny thing about this thing called 'wealth.' After all that devastation, you'll look around you in every direction and not notice one single thing of any real importance that's any different from the way it was before."

It was only when I came to the realization that the "catastrophe" everyone now fears is in fact a grand illusion (though an illusion with potentially tragic consequences), that I felt the need to write about it in the voice of a poet -- and with the authority of a poet. And here I am speaking not simply of my own poetry, which may or may not have some lasting value, but on behalf of the great poets, the visionaries, capable of seeing far beyond the intellectual limitations of their own time.

The most rigorous logic is nevertheless constrained by ideology. The deepest thinker will not be able to completely transcend the limitations of his or her own time and place. Only the artist, the visionary has the power to soar above such constraints to see his own world in perspective. In this sense the "Zen mind" is the poet's mind, the turn from what everyone already "knows" to be true to what actually stands before one -- yet cannot be grasped with the "ordinary mind."

What's especially remarkable for me is the fact that the extraordinary nature of our present crisis turns some of the most "visionary" language I know of into something far more practical than anyone could possibly have imagined -- reminding me that Zen itself, far from being mystical (or even religious, in the sense of professing a belief system), is an eminently practical, down to earth, discipline, whose goal is the most simple and direct experience of reality, in all its richness, with all its contradictions. A reality that, for various reasons, we are often unable to accept.

William Blake's insight, in his great poem, London, is especially clear:

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.

I recently found an excellent online essay on the political implications of this poem, William Blake's London, by Simon Korner. Korner writes,
These sixteen lines do far more than describe the city in which William Blake lived for most of his life. The poem is a devastating and concise political analysis, delivered with passionate anger, revealing the complex connections between patterns of ownership and the ruling ideology, the way all human relations are inescapably bound together within a single destructive society.
If Blake is a visionary, which he certainly is, this does not make him any less of a realist. Woodie Guthrie too was both a visionary and a political agitator, as was Walt Whitman. What the "seer" sees is nothing mystical, but simply what is before us that we cannot see. Not due to any optical deficiency, but because of the "mind-forged manacles" gripping every aspect of our being.

Woody Guthrie's great song, This Land is Your Land, might, on the surface, seem like a rather innocuous patriotic statement, fully consistent with the ideals of democracy. In fact some have suggested it as a national anthem. But if we think more about it, we realize that the current state of our democracy is not consistent with the ideal expressed in the text. This land is neither your land, nor my land, but the landowner's land, and if you have any doubts in that regard, just take a look at that sign over there, which says: Private Property. This is the key stanza in Guthrie's song, but also the one usually omitted in almost all the standard textual sources and recordings. As I see it, the entire song is an expression of a very deep illumination regarding the fundamental nature of true democracy, i.e. life itself as a manifestation of freedom and equality. Here Guthrie takes the leap over the precipice, smashes through the invisible barrier, and in the simplest possible language vanquishes the impenetrable aporia posed by the phrase: PRIVATE PROPERTY. Don't be fooled by the "great high wall" in that verse. Because it's not the wall, but what it represents, that constitutes the "gateless gate" -- i.e., the "mind-forged manacles" that keep us from realizing our destiny as humans. The much quoted lines inscribed by Dante on the gateless Gate of Hell have a very similar meaning. Inspired by his mentor, Virgil, Dante takes courage and the two poets pass through the gate anyhow. Why? Because "on the other side, it didn't say nothing." What makes the gateless gate impenetrable is not the gate itself, which doesn't exist, but the warning inscribed deep in the soul that prevents us from recognizing the true nature of what lies before us.

So what is it that lies before us? What is the nature of the Hell we must endure as we pass into forbidden territory?

(to be continued . . . )

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