On Turning Points, Change, Action and the Universal
By Gaither Stewart
(Rome) One of my favourite writers, Paul Bowles, lived much of his life in Morocco. His major theme is the clash between civilized man and an alien environment. His Westerner is inevitably defeated by so-called primitive man. In the jungle or in the desert the Westerner is not only lost but also a victim of the primitive environment. Natural man is superior and defeats the neurotic product of technological society. The Westerner searches for “primitive” society, loves it, needs it, but in the end is defeated by it.
Years ago in Tangier, Bowles told me that he wanted to show how badly prepared the average Westerner is when he comes into contact with cultures he doesn’t know—or thinks he knows. The more he tries to penetrate it, the worse it gets, Bowles believed “primitive” man has retained things that western man has lost and can operate in natural surroundings. “Americans are less prepared than Europeans in such circumstances,” Bowles believed, “because they think everyone must do it the American way. Therefore it is hard for them to establish real contact with others. It is a paradox that self-subsistent ‘primitive’ man is more adapted for communal life than is dependent western man, whose attempts at communal life are disasters. Primitives have a communal life. No one owns anything. Everything belongs to all. This couldn’t work in advanced societies. As soon as personal property appears, you have to invent another system.”
It only seems contradictory that in lived life, the more personal, the more universal. For Bowles’ “primitive” man who could live a communal life was more human, more universal. For that reason, I believe, reporters and writers should strive to be as personal as possible. Don’t spare your opinions! Write in the first person when you can!
Newspaper editors insist on objectivity and impartiality. No bias. No subjective stuff. I personally disagree. I have gotten by with bias and partiality. I am convinced that readers want to know the writer-reporter’s personal point of view. Above all, his personal view. How can a reader relate unless he has an idea of who is speaking. Like unsigned articles, or articles signed “editors,” or articles signed “contributing to this story” followed by a list of names. Don’t trust them. Those are meaningless credit lines to show that reporters are not just sitting on their butts somewhere drinking beer. I am convinced readers want to hear the personal in order to feel the personal-universal themselves, even if vicariously. And that they too are part of the whole. That is clearly the communal, the universal in each of us.
I consider myself an example of the personal striving for the universal. Who I am has a direct bearing on what I write. An American from the South morphed into a partial European has a particular point of view. That I am remote (which does not mean detached) and don’t really know who I am is significant. It has bearing on my point of view, my reactions, my opinions, my articles, essays, fiction, and on my commitments, too. Everything is related. Life itself is a point of view. My point of view is determined by who I am, as ambivalent, ambiguous and baffling as that unknown person is to me.
In the same manner, the reader would not perceive in the same way the writings of Karl Marx or the mad ravings of Rush Limbaugh if those were not clearly their personal opinions.
Everything has some meaning. Nothing goes wasted. And who can understand it all anyway? I mean, not even the gods are hostile to the jinns and the demons inhabiting the world. All together the unmentionable elements make up individuals and communities and cities and nations and continents and worlds of people. All together they are unpredictable; and that is our great fear: unpredictability. You believe in Destiny … and you don’t. You call it superstition but you read astrology, pay fortune-tellers to look into your future, and read the little paper-wrapped messages in Chinese restaurants. Yet, if Destiny exists, you don’t really want to know its certainties.
There are the all-important turning points in a nation as in a personal life—unperceived, unforeseen and unimagined by destiny—that change our lives and make us what we are today. Would Lenin have become the leader who changed the world if his brother had not been hanged by a reactionary tsar in St. Petersburg? Would Barack Hussein Obama have gotten the chance to change the world if he hadn’t somehow been selected to become President.
Moreover: what is a writer worth if the reader doesn’t feel in him also the great flaw that makes each of us universal? The great flaws are related to those turning points. If the writer hasn’t both lived with his hamartia and experienced great turning points, he is limited in the universal—I tend to think that the real turning points are painful, not strokes of good luck. In the same way, nations. Nations like people are born in suffering, grow, and then err, some ignoring history and never reflecting on mistakes.
That the real turning points—when what happened really happened, the ones that pinpoint a life in time and space—seldom appear in written autobiography is because of the difficulty of knowing ourselves and even what we are about. We see the same in persons and nations. Seldom appear the reasons and causes behind the turning points. Those all-determinant absences! The cover-ups! You should try to explain your fragility; instead you vaunt your strength or deal in misleading petty faults. You should delve into the inconsistencies and coincidences that mark your life and instead you depict them in grandiose linearity or generously grant yourself minor deficiencies. Nations do the same. Outside our official public lives there always lingers a residue that is the secret, inexpressible thing that only you know.
Before a turning point you are one person; after it, another. As one Arab writer said—I found only my note, but without his name—“the future lies within the walls of the past … the future is also made of our nostalgias.” The latter appeals to our universal nature enormously, and has bearing on what we think and feel and write. You are aware that your life changes but the exact moment of the change eludes you. Yet, those moments are what you forever long for. They are your nostalgias. Nostalgia is the longing you will feel all through your life for that one specific but indeterminable moment when you became what you are … or in which you could have become another, someone better ... and didn’t. Sometimes you feel condemned to search for that moment in order to experience it again, to feel the exhilaration of the transformation, or perhaps to decide differently and take another path.
From past to future and back to the present: nostalgia.
Not only the moment but also the ungraspable catalyst of change eludes you.
Why is this so? What happens?
All the unexpected turns in life, the expressions of something you did not even suspect and then, all of a sudden, you are in crisis. You have become conscious! And you see your society for what it really is.
That is a major turning point. In an individual, in a family or a nation.
In retrospect it is easy to perceive that for better or worse your life changed at some point. You feel you have become another. You have begun a new life, perhaps your real life. Or, perhaps, when your metamorphosis is already underway you may go on living in the dark, as if nothing unusual were happening. Then, in later life, in a flash of perception, the awareness strikes you like a thunderbolt. Suddenly you sit up, confused, at first disbelieving the clarity before your eyes, and you point your finger at it and say: “There is where it happened.” Or: “Then is when it happened!”
You—or the nation—were living your life of joys and pains, victories and defeats, successes and failures, satisfactions and depressions, seesawing between ruin and hope, between desperation and belief, when it happened, the turning point. Or it happened so gradually that you or the nation hardly noticed the alterations in the scenery when things went awry. Let’s say life was going well, everything like clockwork. You won the prizes and awards. You felt heroic. The world was yours. Until, tout à coup, zap! they—the gods, destiny, events, you yourself, the nation—pulled the rug from under you. Sand into your motor!
At that point you (the “you” here means all of us together) begin to stumble over obstacles that once you didn’t deign with a glance. Successes and failures are no longer the point. Somewhere, sometime, somehow, everything changed. Where along the way did things go wrong?
Turning points, landmarks, signposts, points of reference. The unbelievable coincidences! The extraordinary meetings! Those unexpected and chance occurrences of different events and happenings in the same moment and place … like meeting a person on the street you dreamed of the night before. You don’t know if it is coincidence or pattern. Though coincidence does not prove or disprove that a relationship exists between the parallel events, I believe there is or at least often there is a connection, if only psychic.
Despite my preference for the personal, contradictorily, I mistrust biographies. As a rule they are no less mendacious than recorded history. There are always reasons to doubt the truth in biography-history-journalism. Who killed Leon Trotsky? Who organized the Cold War? Why the Korean War? Who killed John F. Kennedy and Bobby? How did George Bush get elected President of the United States? Who brought down the towers of the World Trade Center? As Virginia Wolfe said, there is no such thing as objective biography. (“Positions have been taken, myths have been made.”) What can one say about objectivity in biography-journalism, conditioned by the compiler’s misplaced love or hate or jealousy or vanity or arrogance or ambition or under- or over-estimation? I can digest Emerson’s quote that “there is properly no history; only biography” only in the sense that he meant life lived by men, not the recorded one. About the reasons men do the things they do, Tolstoy wrote that men make history without knowing what they are doing. Even more, Tolstoy believed that the force that took God’s place and moved history was something great, incomprehensible, inaccessible, arcane.
Bush on trial today could mean blood flowing on the streets of America. Here I interject a report I received today from a friend in Asheville, NC, the writer, Mike Hopping. The gist is that there exists the real possibility of insurrection in the USA. What! Insurrection in the USA! Yes, but not the one we of the Left like to image. Instead, an insurrection of the lethal combination of fundamentalist Christians, defenders of the white race, poorly educated rural people and states’ rights ideologues unhappy with the outcome of the Civil War, who, supported by Rush Limbaugh and Fox News and people like Lou Dobbs, Michael Savage, Rick Perry and Sarah Palin, form the insurrectional BASE. God’s people armed in a wave of record-breaking arms sales! BASE media and its political backers, the tea-baggers and minutemen are sparking a process destined, they hope, to end in violent confrontation. They encourage the developing division of the nation in which the social lines are clearly drawn. All such cheap blather coming out the Heartland sound like mad ravings … except to the estimated 30% of America infected by BASE ideology and uninterested in history or the universal.
After this report, I wonder: Did all this not take place many times before? After the collapse of the Persian Empire and then later after the demise of the Roman Empire? Or after the dissolution of the Ottomans and after World War I? Is this pervasive sensation of catastrophe, of decadence, of the end of times, something new? For our generation, it is new. Not for history. The BASE in the USA is ready to rise up against warnings of the danger of our being sucked into the Black hole of the universe.
One problem is that in all this, though a desirable goal, subjective honesty is impossible. For how can you be transparent to yourself? What can you say about the auto-biographer’s loyalty to his self-image when human beings cannot even live by the rule of not betraying themselves? For nostalgia too is often a great liar. The shock of waking up and seeing ourselves as we really are would be too great—I use the conditional here because as a rule we do think we are loyal to ourselves.
There is a fine line between autobiography and fiction because of our natural inclination to fictionalise our lives and personalize fiction. The same works for nations. You hope to set a goal and not be deflected by what in the long run is unimportant. But how difficult to hold to this path. Perhaps, as in the words of Czeslaw Milosz, “only Fate aims straight for its target, while those who are ruled by Fate can only decipher vaguely its main lines.” No wonder that autobiographies are destined to be chiefly misrepresentation or lie.
Yet—and here is the contradiction—we have to try! For that reason the attempt to be personal is universal. The attempt at being honest with ourselves is a good exercise. After all, we pay psychiatrists in an attempt to see our true selves. Right?
Still! There is the lie to be dealt with. During the composition the writer cannot necessarily rely on experience because experience too eludes words. And the words you choose serve to make your elusive intuition false. You would need the one magic word you are always searching for, the one genial stroke of the brush, to depict the true subject: yourself. The universal.
What goes into the biography-journalism and autobiography? In biography-journalism or history, a list of events and a mass of details and lies. The writer does not want to dwell on mediocrity. The writer wants to attempt elevated subjects, simply because the life of a person is an important matter. What is needed in true and telling biographies and autobiographies are precisely those secret, hidden things that do not go into CVs. Even if this means self-indulgence in metaphysical thought, because men—each extraordinary, personal, universal—need more than the assurance that two plus two makes four. Each needs comfort and the feeling of the universal.
You can hope to find bits of truth in fiction because it is there that can appear out of the facts and data of history something authentic drawn from the personal life of an invented individual, in comparison with which everything else seems dry and objective on one hand, false and apologetic on the other. While I have read that many writers at the end of their lives consider their diaries—that is their autobiographies—their most important works, such a claim in my opinion is the maximum egotism. However, probably true!
Academics are careful when quoting another writer or, say, the Koran. They tremble and sweat for fear of making an error of misquotation in a biography, a fear, which creates a lot of formalism and resistance to true truth and the tendency to never call things by their true name. I read the comment of a foolish literary historian about the impossibility of committing a foolish act arbitrarily or intentionally: “It’s always a mistake and unintentional. There’s nothing arbitrary in the psyche’s life.” But Freud wrote somewhere, “we can’t even perceive of the powerful determinism the psyche is subjected to in life.”
Much goes on inside us that we cannot define in words. It is precisely that dark pit that is my state of mind that I would like to describe, like the smell and sound of oars splashing, waves beating against the sides of a fragile black gondola in the lagoon of Venice.
We often seem to live in a dream, a stifling house of images and compulsions and manias and obsessions and forgotten things that are still there inside the well that is us. I have always had the hope of experiencing everything, of touching everything, believing that contact with everything is accessible, the everything, which is my engagement with life: to see it, touch it, hear it, feel it, speak it, do it. Yet, at times I wake from a dream and wonder who and where I am. At this moment when it seems I have led many lives, sometimes separate, sometimes simultaneous, I realize that I cannot find the words to describe what it is I want to describe. Everything has its own dimension. Everything is one. And everything is separate.
Yet, despite all, there arrives a time when candour needs a new chance. For one thing is certain: just the attempt to say what is true is a liberating sensation; in the midst of it you feel freedom rising up from your guts.
Now, there is the matter of choice in our lives. For men and nations. Does choice really have bearing on all this? Yes, definitely. I reject that the poor choose to be poor. Workers do not choose to prefer short-term gains and cheap thrills. Whether young men joined the Yankees or the Rebels in America or the Reds or the Whites in Russia or the Partisans or the Fascists in Italy or the Resistence or Vichy in France often depended on where “chance” happened to have them at the moment. That is Destiny. Not choice. Then, later, the period of action sweeps you up and you precipitate pell-mell in one direction or the other. Maybe decades pass before you suddenly wonder: Is history ever true and honest and do people make choices? Or is it only whim and chance?
You come to believe in the close relationship between individuals and the maelstrom of historical events, which means no less than Destiny. And it is also the universal. Yet, men, in their hopeless attempt to control history, commit the greatest follies: Bush came to believe he could export democracy to the Middle East! The neocons believe this is the American century. Economists believe eternal growth possible. The military-industrial complex believes permanent war necessary.
Ridiculous positions have been taken, dastardly crimes against humanity committed. No wonder I hate the expression, “It’s time to move on.” No wonder I am critical of Western society. Though I live in it, I feel the right distance from it to believe I can see it for what it is. Perhaps not exactly as four-fifths of the world sees our society but I do see glimmerings of the truth.
JUDAS ISCARIOT, ILLUSION AND REALITY
A recent survey conducted among Italian Christians of the Web koinè show that, after Jesus and Mary Magdalene, Judas Iscariot is the most appealing character of the New Testament. We Westerners know that Judas is notorious because he “betrayed” Jesus, thus entering into expressions such as “false as Judas.” But the Judas story does not end in squalid betrayal. On the contrary. In these times of betrayal left and right, Judas gains in impact and momentum. I see Judas as an active force, a metaphor of our times.
For the character of Judas Iscariot contains a combination of both sadness and responsibility. Enough to make him more sympathetic, attractive and appealing than the other disciples.
Yet, the fatuous desire to please others cannot be ascribed to Judas Iscariot, who, I believe, was both responsible and honest. When I was young I wanted to DO WELL. Still, at a certain stage I came to realize that the attempt to please was destined to flop and was not a life goal. For the desire to please and to be right is one of the most dangerous characteristics of deception. Both lead down perilous paths.
Most of us believe we are responsible. But does responsibility not presuppose honesty? In theory, yes, of course. But though most of us consider ourselves responsible, we know we are not as honest as we would like to be. Many of us do not even think about honesty. Or we do not care if we are not honest. Strange and incongruous as it seems we justify dishonesty in the name of responsibility. Responsibility to family or to nation or to some great idea. My point—and my “honest” doubt—is the correlation and the clash between responsibility and honesty. As if honesty were only ancillary, an optional, in a life of responsibility.
Was Judas responsible and honest when he betrayed Jesus? If he did! One line of interpretation of the Gnostic Gospel of Judas is that Judas interprets his great act as obedience to his Master Jesus. He believed that his act was the catalyst for the pre-orchestrated events that followed. Thus, his was an act of responsibility. The Master and His most faithful and responsible disciple decided together the common action. Judas acted responsibly and honestly in order that mankind be redeemed by both their deaths. Thus, for this wing of Christianity, Judas is a hero. He did what he did so that Jesus could die on the cross as pre-planned. Or, he simply obeyed Jesus’ command that he do so—honourably, responsibly, honestly. In any case, forever and ever, Judas was different, separate and apart from the rest.
“Christian” America, which has no knowledge of that alternate view of Judas and betrayal, has betrayed itself, squalidly, vilely, from the beginning. Traitors to its own false America. Loyal to the evil, inward-looking America that has existed from the start. The false Judas of the dream of the unreal, fictitious and chimerical America is an apt metaphor for that stillborn America, the America that never was.
Ergo: I conclude that America’s time of “bullets” is only on hold. To the degree that electoral campaign speculation about Obama’s security and longevity have resurfaced, parallel with labels of him as Socialist and unfurled slogans of secession and state sovereignty, the popular President’s disinclination for criminal proceedings against members of the Bush administration grows. BASE Puritanism smelling of Taliban and Khmer Rouge nourishes the lunatic fringe of ultra-extremists, tea-baggers and racists and militants calling for annihilation of the White House itself.
Remember: this is the blinded segment of a party that nearly captured the White House a half year ago. Characters in search of a leader to sweep them into a populist revolt of “us against them.”
The irony is that the self-applied BASE designation is the English translation of Al-Qa’ida. It produces the environment for the Fox News Media Militia and the likes of conspiracy-minded Richard Paplowski who in a domestic disturbance took out his AK-47 rifle and shot dead three police officers, convinced that Obama was going to take away his guns, fearful that America was going to see “the end of our times," and that The Great Obama Deception was going to destroy America.
Maybe President Obama hesitates on exacting justice against the Bush regime because he is indeed dodging bullets and because of the real or perceived threat of an insurrection by the BASE. Not an insurrection in favor of the social justice Dr. King dreamed of, but in the name of hate and prejudice. Therefore, if the unthinkable does happen it will be violent and bloody. For, as Martin Luther King also noted, the line between defensive violence and aggressive violence is very thin.
I for one take all this personal.
© Gaither Stewart, Senior Contributing Editor and European Correspondent for Cyrano’s Journal, is a novelist, reporter and essayist on historical and cultural topics. His observations, often controversial, are published on many venues across the web. He resides in Rome.