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Immiseration Can Wait

Falling Back with Celine and Sally – 

For whatever they may be, the gods manifest themselves above all as mental events.
Literature and the Gods – Roberto Calasso

As I fell back off the ladder I thought about unintended consequences and about the French writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine. The light bulb was still in my hand – one of those beefy exterior bulbs – and as I fell it swung around behind my back so that when I landed the stem of the bulb dug hard into the soft tissue above my left hip. Lying rigid on the hardwood floor I made odd bleating sounds until the firemen arrived some twenty minutes later and smiled, looking down at me.

My thoughts about unintended consequences had been triggered earlier in the day while reading an essay by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of Break Through Institute, an Oakland-based environmental think tank. In 2004 Nordhaus and Shellenberger wrote a critique of the environmental movement that caused a big ruckus, and they continue to lob provocative polemics at an environmental community primed for introspection. Forty years of committed advocacy, they say, has lead to very little change in the rubrics that really matter, such as the rate of increase in the amount of energy we consume. Whatever we’re doing it isn’t enough, and while the BreakThrough-ers aren’t the only ones to point this out (See Mark Dowie’s Losing Ground, for example) they’re audacious in how they implicate the mindset of the environmental movement in the riddle of its own failures. Attempting to shift the basic frames of the debate, Shellenberger and Nordhaus reject the dichotomy between man and nature. They challenge the critique of middle class norms that has become an orthodoxy among progressives (myself included), a critique by which we simply need to face the music and live with less, and the sooner the better.

Break Through’s description of our inability to alter patterns of consumption feels oddly familiar. Habits are tough to shake, and we all know this from direct personal experience. We take vows of abstinence, we fall off the wagon. We take new lovers, and watch them morph into new versions of our old lovers (who tend to resemble disappointing parents). We cringe as we find ourselves saying to our children precisely the same idiotic things that our parents said to us. We covertly engage in self-destructive behaviors large and small that always deliver exactly the result we had hoped to avoid. Eventually, we come to suspect that our whole self-improvement project is fueled by a subtle aggression against our actual natures, and is therefore simply an aspect of our neurosis. As we wrestle with our patterning, we eventually come to understand that real change requires a paradoxical immersion in the underlying web of somatic, affective trauma encoded in our neurology. To find freedom we must befriend our demons.

Louis-Ferdinand Celine made himself out to be a miserable cur, and that’s exactly why he’s so much fun to read. Celine is a merciless deflator of petit-bourgeois values and conceits, a hissing, spitting, ur-Punk provocateur who, in Charles Bukowski’s phrase, really knew how to “lay down a line.” Journey to the End of the Night, published in 1932, is his classic book. A semi-autobiographical coming-of-age narrative, Journey uses a slang-heavy patois to mine the black comedy of nihilistic invective. Later on, Celine undermined his own credibility by embracing fascism and by writing, in the late 1930s, a series of horrifically anti-semitic screeds, but the trenchant style of Journey had an enduring impact on novelists across the globe: Henry Miller and anyone whom Henry Miller influenced; ditto Bukowski, Ken Kesey, BurroughsVonnegut and Philip Roth. Reading Celine you can cozy up your own moral turpitude, your ill-will toward the rest of humanity, and your wretched dysfunction. And it’s oddly liberating: we are working our way closer to the real ground of things where, despite the darkness, real change can happen.

As I fell back and positioned the light bulb in the soft tissue above my pelvis so that on landing I’d lie rigid making strange bleating sounds, I thought about the tantric adept Sally Kempton and how she won my undying loyalty during a break in one of her meditation workshops by mentioning Celine. I had presented the idea that modern art since the Romantic movement is a tantric lineage so covert it doesn’t even recognize itself, and with a smile Kempton invoked Celine in that context. This was sly and astute. If Dostoyevsky was the first writer to give voice to the nihilism dominating the psyche of modern man, Celine made the act of authorship itself an expression of that persona. In so doing, he completed the trajectory of the modernist movement, reuniting creative energy with the here and now of daily life.

In the early 1970s Kempton left a career as a young journalist in the Joan Didion mode to join Swami Muktananda, a master in the Siddha tradition. With Muktananda, Kempton immersed herself in the study of the full spectrum of Indian awareness and devotional practices, and especially a form of tantric Shiva worship that flourished in Kashmir from the 7th to the 12th centuries. Kashmir is where many of the Tibetan lamas would visit to learn about tantric and buddhist practices, and as someone who has practiced in the Tibetan mode for many years, I picked up strong resonances as I listened to Kempton. Devotional energies are powerful and transformative. Tantric traditions such as Vajrayana Buddhism and Kashmir Shaivism deploy the imagery of gods and goddeses to generate devotional energy that can then be used to dismantle the conditioning that separates us from a more direct and vital connection to experience. The effect, hopefully, is to make us more responsive to what is actually happening in our lives.

Empirically speaking, meditation practices like the ones described in Kempton’s new book, Meditation for the Love of It, can be viewed as technologies for enhancing your neurology. Think of them as de-alienating technologies designed to cultivate new neural pathways and greater inter-connectivity in the mind body complex. The aim is to free the mind from limiting narrative frames that distort our understanding of what we are actually encountering in the world. And like all complex, chaotic systems, civilization exhibits self-symmetry across the different scales – affective anxiety disorders that challenge us personally have correlates on the collective level that are inflaming the planet. Liberate ourselves from such collective “conditioning,” and we will perhaps respond more effectively to real problems, such as the fact that we are pumping so much carbon into the atmosphere that the ice caps are melting and the ocean currents are about to shift.

One key to altering behavior on a personal level involves changing how our brains are wired through various mindfulness practices. What would mindfulness look like were it to manifest on a collective level? Answering such a question even in the abstract might seem daunting. But what if we are already a ways along a collective “tantric” path without knowing it? What if we Americans have, all our lives, been covertly practicing tantra on a slow boil, not knowing we are doing so? To understand how this might be so, we must look all the way back to beginning of the modern era for the initial conditions that still inform dominant cultural patterns. The Romantics of the early 19th century viewed Cartesian rationalism, newly ascendant with the spread of the Industrial Revolution, as an unhealthy limitation of our ways of relating to experience. The Romantic inquiry culminated in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, who depicted culture as an arena of conflict between Apollo, the god of rational thought, and Dyonisus, the god of unconscious drives. In the 20th century, Freud, together with Jung and many others, seeded what are essentially Nietzschian insights deep into the culture of the West. And Dionysus, let’s remember, is the Western counterpart of Kempton’s Shiva.

Initially viewed as dark and threatening forces, Dionysian, tantric energies have been hard at work in Freudian and Jungian psychotherapies and the entire mental health edifice they have informed. They have also been in play in the work of Madison Avenue as it has stimulated and manipulated our unconscious drives to launch, sustain and expand the consumer economy that now vexes us. Those who worked to create this economy famously used Freudian insights to conjure consumer appetites out of thin air. Hence, we have all been more deeply infused by this essentially tantric view than we might realize. So, in my little thumbnail culturo-spiritual history, long before the influx of Eastern practices and views in the 1960s and 70s, the ground of Western culture had been prepared for a vital impregnation.

As I toppled back to launch, in the soft tissue above my pelvis, weeks of stabbing pain as from the bite of a small wild animal, I thought about how the current courtship of East and West was in part arranged for us by Big Oil. The long hydro-carbon molecules of fossil fuels are phenomenally efficient and transportable receptacles for delivering nuclear energy from the sun. The oil-fat paradise of Post War America produced the leisure and affluence required for us to focus on our self-actualization. And before the interconnectivity of the internet age, you would have had to devote your life to the task of accessing teachings like those Kempton illuminates in a book now available on Amazon. Here we meet again the counterweight to Nietzsche’s Dionysus – the affluence and innovations that flow from our devotions to Apollo play a crucial role in our evolution too.

In their different ways, Western science and the wisdom traditions of the East both aim to enhance our responsiveness. We need better technology to gain more control over how our collective behaviors impact the geo-sphere; we need better “inner technology” to gain more control over the behaviors themselves. Both these versions of technology require energy. Immiseration and self-impoverishment, as Shellenberger and Nordhaus point out, are likely to deliver unintended consequences such as war and famine that do no one any good. Mastering our carbon output is itself likely to be a product of bi-directional innovation. And we can celebrate our growing capacity to think mythically and scientifically at the same time, with proper deference to both Dionysus and Apollo. I find it hopeful to read reports, for example, that the spread of social media has made transparency the value of the day in the business community. The growing recognition that businesses are intricately interconnected with the communities they emerge out of, is perhaps an indication that Apollonian boundaries are becoming more permeable.

As any fireman will tell you, unintended consequences are woven into the way things are. In fact, I was the second wounded light bulb-changer my three firemen had seen that day, and it was only 9 AM. As they looked down at where I lay on the hardwood floor I felt certain they knew exactly what had happened. “She was after you to change that bulb and you got pissed off and put the ladder on the table, right?” the older man asked, looking down at me over his resplendent mustachio like a tantric deity from on high. “Hey, you should be able to work this for a couple days at least.”


  1. Tara Judelle says:

    You are brilliant. I love it.

  2. Gill Gayle says:

    Must discuss. Want to know your feelings on Art as a conduit for imagery that can be used to dismantle said conditioning and the responsibility that we seem to be shirking. This is the most hopeful thing I have read in quite a while. Good work Friend. Is it just me or does most Art (all medias) seem to be reflecting the current state of affairs in complete absence of an evolving Narrative?

  3. john steppling says:

    another good one guy.

    The thing though, about big oil, is that its also an expression of capital. The creation of false needs…….the continuing encouragement to accept commodification and the class structure. Globalization is just the continuation of the Imperialist project………international gangsterism. So, the class structure and durability of capitalism intercede here sort of horizontally. You mention this, of course, but I think its hard to avoid its place in the cause and effect of western history over the last five hundred years. Its an interesting topic. But i always feel that its hard to critique these delusions of the modern man, without somehow figuring out the historical link to capital.

    And celine was a anti semite even when he wrote ‘Journey’….in that sense he had no credibility to lose. Its interesting, as it is with heidegger, to try and comes to terms with that. But in a sense, its Celine’s contempt for “our” concern that raises him above the petit bourgeois value system…..a bit like Bernhard, no? I was thinking about Genet recently, and he has direct link to Celine as well. Its a good time to re-read Celine, probably, and I think you use him here in a valuable way.

  4. Guy Zimmerman says:

    I don’t disagree at all about Capital, John, and it’s an important point. I got into this a bit in my piece on The Social Network, but from the point of view of tantric thinking, Capital is all about separation rather than interconnection. Which is why it’s interesting to see these values of transparency emerging in the business community. We all recognize now that there are no “externalities,” no “hidden” costs. The historical logic at work here is intriguing… though, obviously, it’s a challenging time to find anything to be all that hopeful about.

    Bernhard is correct too. I had him in mind, no question. How in The Loser the whole novel takes place as he’s stepping across the threshold in the hotel… totally had that in mind with the image of falling back that I used.

  5. Dov Rudnick says:

    Speaking of “unintended consequences” Celine hated war. I can think of few more succinct diatribes on the stupidity of war than the opening chapter of “Journey.” As you say, his writing is oddly refreshing, or liberating as you put it, giving comfort to a common disgust at humans and acceptance of our baser drives. “Journey” has a certain generosity in its open-mouthed fumings. And Celine, making a cottage industry of the style, goes on to do his part in the Nazi genocide, however unwitting.
    Celine’s story has struck me as a classic literary morality tale. And it’s interesting that it should arise in your essay.
    As artists hungry for a state of grace free from personal insecurities and addictions, not to mention public humiliation and economic ruin, are we in danger of being seduced by horrific trends such as consumerism simply because the attractive power of their momentum? (I think of the Burning Man playa and its thousands of artists in automobiles.) The boundless enthusiasm for growth is in a sense the modern fascism, no? and heaven hope we can overcome it.

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