The latest in a series of collaborative dialogues with poet, lyricist and philosopher Phil Rockstroh.
PR: What has been of greater service to humanity, the dark vision of humanity, limned in satire, by Jonathan Swift or the positivity-rancid homilies of corporate church of self-actualization? What is more propitious to the psyche, a descent into the underworld by Orphic imagination or the Icarusian dazzle on Instagram or the narcissistic intoxication induced by gazing upon one’s image reproduced by a thousand retweets on Twitter?
Lorca advised, listen to the beating heart of the monster of the world. Dante Alighieri described that he, upon his first glimpse of Beatrice, experienced the sensation of love in his pulse — a hymnal of the heart ensouling every cell of his body. He and his pagan guide Virgil, the waters of the Lethe frozen by the frigid winds produced by the fanning of Satan’s leather wings, managed to escape from the last, lowest circle of the Inferno by crossing Satan’s musk-plangent groin and hirsute thighs.
“When the poet lives his hell, it is no longer possible for the common man to escape it.” — Excerpt from, The Time of the Assassins, a study of Rimbaud, by Henry Miller
One must learn to navigate darkness — hear the lamentation of the dead — because, unless their stories are acknowledge — they unseen and unheard — direct fate. Shelter cannot be found in the sky while imprecatory winds direct one’s course. A million dead Indians steer the US Empire towards shattering shoals of reality.
A poetic view of existence, in short, worldview informed by the insight — imagination is reality — insists one that embrace the sorrow arriving at the end of things. The times have bestowed on us a shuffle to the graveside of the capitalist epoch, and, we, like members of a New Orleans-style, second line, funeral procession, must allow our hearts to be saturated by sorrowful songs. Yet when the service is complete, the march away from the boneyard should shake the air with the ebullient noise borne of insistent brass.
KO: Imagination is the fuel of life. It is what drives us toward creation. The interplay between the energies of our bodies, our internal organs, and the outer world that we call nature. But in its absence destruction becomes the dominant narrative. This is the song of our times. A kind of dirge full of dissonant chords. And yet imagining has been hollowed out by the specters of capital. It reinforces a kind of manic depressive facsimile of imagination in order to condition conformity and compliance with authoritarianism. And the result is obvious. Addiction plagues thousands. Addiction to opioids, to guns, to food, to entertainment (binge watching, etc), to sex. All those things with the exception of guns are essential to the human story. They are part of the creation myth, so to speak, and in a glorious way.
But I have been thinking of the era in terms of hungry ghosts. The world is brimming with them thanks to centuries of colonial occupation, rampant consumerism and systemic violence. How many walk this terrain with an emptiness caused by the violence of our times? The forgotten survivors of the Empire’s endless wars. The lost beings who get cast aside after each tragedy. Somehow, Western society has managed to shutter them up behind great psychic walls. This can only be accomplished by mass psychosis. By an enforced amnesia that is conditioned over time.
PR: Henry Corbin, the renowned French theologian, philosopher and professor of Islamic Studies, instructs one to be attentive to “the world of the Image, the mundus imaginalis.”
Depression is full spectrum imagining. The psyche’s attention is invaded and held in the thrall of the Underworld populated by shuffling shades and a countenance revealing the cold, black iron tears of Hades. Judeo-Christian monotheism — in its psyche-circumscribing worship of a single, distance-from-the-“sinful”-earth sky-daddy — desiccates the image-rich soil of the human imagination by banishment of the diverse, and often at odds, gods of the pantheon.
With depression, as is the case with extremis states of consciousness, the gods banished from the denuded pantheon return, with a vengeance. For example, opioids bestow the warmth and protection of the womb of the Great Mother. The drug’s effect is the embrace of lost paradise…thus, like the lilies of the field, where, as long as the effect of the drug remains active, therein exists neither toiling nor weeping.
In regard to entertainment, Dionysus, as the classical Greeks intuited, was the patron god of theatre. In the Classical Age, theatrical attendance was mandated for Greek citizenry. Comedy and tragedy were not vehicles of escape but of soul-making (the fate of the House of Agamemnon is scarcely the stuff of escapist fare). In the case of guns, the smitten have entered the dominion of Ares/Mars. Regarding human sexuality, the Puritan/Culture simply cannot abide the vicissitudes attendant to contact with the psychical agency of Aphrodite and her son Eros. It is as if beauty is more terrifying to the Christian imagination than war. Thus Aphrodite is held in the perpetual embrace of her backdoor lover, Ares. What James Hillman, regarding US militarist imperium, termed, “a terrible love of war.”
But this is crucial: One cannot approach the Puritan/Calvinist imagination and avoid a mindscape of shame. Chronic and pummeling shame, deployed by the authoritarian culture as a boot on the neck of the working class of the nation. Yet: Shame is an intriguing psychical phenomenon. Transformed, it carries a sublime quality — but, opposite in the manner that authoritarian types and their families, societal systems and institutions deem useful insofar as deploying its depression-inflicting aspect, for the purpose of maintaining control over a potentially restive citizenry.
In the precincts of the ancient Greek’s version of mundus imaginalis: The wood nymph Dryope, experienced mortification at the sight of the offspring of her carnal union with Hermes, the god Pan. She was repulsed by her son’s goat-like features and the sight of his hirsute form inflicted her with a sense of shame. She went to the seat of the gods on Mount Olympus, and attempted to abandon Pan there. Yet upon the sight of the goat God, the Olympians evinced delight. The gods and goddesses formed a panorama around him and their glee regarding his comic form transformed shame (the gods are shameless) into pure joy — withal, acceptance of what the ego will, by compulsion, attempt to shunt from sight…bestows the release from the bondage of self.
In short, accept and revel in the musky, animal body within the pantheon of the psyche. One is only as sick as one’s secrets. As a general rule, the most shameful acts we commit are an attempt to avoid feelings of shame. Moreover, the genius of our animal body allows us to commune with the delights of earthly life. It is for this reason the Puritan/Calvinist imagination detest the body and views animals as lowly, only fit for exploitation.
Pan’s power arrives from the transformation of the shame experienced by the apprehension of one’s inadequacies into delight. The act evokes the laughter of the god’s thereby allowing one to fleetingly experience the glories of things immortal. We humans will never ascend to Olympus but we can know a sense of immortal delight by the act of glorying in our imperfections. Withal, Pan’s arrival in the collective psyche can bring a pandemic of panic or a panorama of delight.
KO: Yes, and it is this divorce of the body and the experiences of having a body from the mind that fascinates me so much about Western society as it is today. And it explains the current order of transactions which countenances horrifying atrocities against the “other,” the foreigner, the immigrant, the “insurgent,” the dissident. If one cannot experience the body as the experience along with the intellect there is a disconnect which becomes pathological. It is how the full scale destruction of the living earth with the excuse that it is “good of the economy” can be tolerated or even celebrated instead of it being looked at as an absurd joke.
The economy of the psyche or soul cannot ever be factored into this equation unless it takes on some kind of false consumerist ethos. And it sounds strange. In the West most would never think they have been conditioned to separate their consciousness from their bodies, but it is evident in many ways. The illusions is in the corporate doublespeak of advertising which relentlessly hammers the notion of the body’s imperfection or in how it must be or present itself in order to feel acceptance or pleasure in this world. And that this can never be achieved represents a rather insidious sadism.
This is a sort of cultural conditioning and it serves a purpose. It reinforces conformity to a system, an ethos. And the less we question it, the more our minds and souls atrophy. After all, this is a system is designed to manufacture hungry ghosts. Empty shells with no capacity, no depth, forever roaming the deathscape of consumer capitalism with artificial and insatiable desires for meaningless things. Enslaved to numbered papers, pixelated screens and Gregorian clocks. If more people took time to ask these questions of themselves and of society perhaps things might be turned on their head. The supposed “order” of things, the accepted injustices, prejudices, endless wars, cruelties, ecocide, mindless consumption, inequities and banalities, might be questioned and perhaps even jettisoned.
I think the answer at this point lies in some kind of embrace of sorrow. Grief is the beast we need. It teaches us to cherish and to remember and to preserve. It manifests most fiercely in our body, in how it reacts, how it suppresses and also how it acknowledges it. But it is a beast that demands our attention. When we deny its lamentation it comes to us by other means. Addictions, obsessions, nightmares, anxieties, depression, aggression, dis-ease. It inserts itself through the very fabric of our being and, if ignored, will devour our souls whole. And this has a ripple effect on the whole society. The maladies we see growing become projections of this unmet grief.
As the ice caps melt and plastic brims in our seas, as mad leaders jostle for a piece of the rotted capitalist cake, as more species fade into a distant memory and the Arctic burns, as the waters become fouled or dry up, as homeless shantytowns grow and nuclear arsenals burst, as jackbooted fascists suit up, corporations engorge themselves on misery, and authoritarian dictators join hands, our questions have taken on a new collective urgency.
PR: To paraphrase Rilke: All human beings have a letter written inside their heart and if you don’t live the life your heart yearns to live, you won’t be allowed to read this letter before you die … Thus, influenced by the dictum, imagination is reality, one might infer: There exist, across the land, dead-letter offices, vast and cavernous, where our mail awaits, unopened and unread.
Thus one of the prevailing miseries of our era is: The denizens of the late capitalist/consumer paradigm have agendas — as opposed to lives.
We must begin to grasp the unsettling knowledge that the things we, as a people, inflict upon the world — we will inflict upon ourselves. Withal, the imperative to grieve. It follows: We dwell on this question: When so many external and internal forces work to thwart, degrade, and destroy our essential selves — hence the world — what agency can help to restore us?
Therefore, imagination being reality, I’m calling you out — the hidden side of our collective character — right here, right now. Show us who you are: reveal to us your blank face, in all its banal symmetry and finally, and at long last — give us an accounting of yourself.
I’m not naive. I realize you feel you’re under no obligation to do so. You feel no more need to explain your actions than does Death itself.
Although you have many faces, deep down, we know who you are: You’re a clean-shaven lobbyist, a sharp-elbow careerist, a public relations expert, a land-decimating real estate developer, a rent-inflating landlord, a cunning advertising executive, a weapons designing technocrat, a pentagon planner — you’re the jerk-rocket driving the SUV who is perpetually tailing my ass in traffic, you’re my blank-faced, next-door neighbor, lacquering his hybrid lawn in insoluble pesticides. — In short, you’re all the quotidian and respectable — therefore — highly deceptive faces of Death. You are the bland, murder’s countenance of empire.
How do I reach you — by what means can I beseech you to cease the madness?
You name the place where I can confront you: On a thronging sidewalk on Fifth Avenue, during evening rush, as we’re brushed and buffeted by the squalid grace of crowds. Perhaps, you might take the bar stool next to mine and speak too loudly in my ear, jabbing my chest with your bony index finger to punctuate the pointless palaver of your self-justifying lies. How about: Let’s take a cross-country drive, you and I, and see the fever dream of our sick nation unfurl before us through the dusty windshield of a grasshopper green, 1975 AMC Gremlin … so that we might have time to talk this all through.
Because, I want you to realize this: There are hidden reservoirs of hope within us: reservoirs as boundless as the reach of your ruthlessness. These waters are as deep and potent as you are, at present, shallow and shameless. Yet, they’re inaccessible to you — as long as you insist your drink of choice will continue to be oil and blood, mixed with the runoff of melting Arctic glaciers.
What you do not know is this: From these inner reservoirs emerge rivers of renewal that run between all of those who turn away from the dry, dead landscape of your lies.
Streams of inspiration and renewal silently flow between those who have glimpsed this: That each generation must struggle against the soulless seekers of absolute power, that each era is a wasteland, that every person learns life is unfair, yet the waters of imagination remain — thus one’s tongue need not wither to cynical dust.
Empires rise and fall, but imagination remains, flowing through time and place, bearing all things to the sea and back again, perpetually returning, bringing new life to the dry, dead land, slaking our thirst, cleansing our wounds, delivering to us the strength to make and remake the world anew, and, at day’s end, lulling us to restful sleep to the timeless cadences of its ceaseless currents.
KO: Your mention of Rilke makes me think of a verse in the Upanishads which reads: “The little space within the heart is as great as the vast universe. The heavens and the earth are there, and the sun and the moon and the stars. Fire and lightening and winds are there, and all that now is and all that is not.” There is a resonance here with what Rilke reveals about this inner terrain. This exploration spans human history and geography, from the Jewish and Christian mystics, to Islamic poets, to Buddhist pilgrims and Aboriginal seers who grappled with the dreaming world. And yet how many of us are merely pantomiming our way through this life? How many are participating in a kabuki presentation without searching the layers for meaning?
We need to call out more, as you did. Call out the order that is structuring our lives into meaninglessness. Which robs us of our labor and enslaves us to its shallow ethos. The order that is reducing societies to rubble via drone strikes or sullying life-sustaining water with petroleum products and glyphosate. That is driving the living earth and all who inhabit it toward their untimely demise. Yet, it has become all too common in western thought for people to shun the most fundamental of questions. The questions that peal back the layers of life and existence. This is often because to do so often means inviting ridicule.
The pesky questions that reveal our imaginative souls are considered a “waste of time” to the current order of consumer-driven mania, or a thing that toddlers, freshmen philosophy students and old sages do because they supposedly have “nothing better to do.” It is derided as “New Age” nonsense, ironically ignoring that these are the oldest of questions. They are left to the priests, and the clerics, and psychiatrists who too often chide us for thinking too much, for feeling to deeply, or for daring to touch the face of God without their assistance. And who often offer a prayer or a drug to numb that sense of awe we have a birthright to.
And this thing about agendas instead of life also resonates with the attendant, yet unmet, sorrow of our times. Because we know, in a geologic sense, that our moment here is but a blip on the proverbial screen. Yet we possess within us the eternal. A connection to the earth of which we are born which is everlasting. This era of the brutal empire, a system of enslavement, wishes nothing more than to stamp out this awareness from the consciousness of every sentient being. And to replace it with a barcode. Our resistance begins when we no longer parrot the lies of those lovers of absolute power and avarice. When it becomes a song of the dirt and sky and water and sun and all things that actually make us live. And the questions are passages to greater actualization. They deepen us. And maybe that is why those with the most to lose don’t like them being asked in the first place.
PR: Rarely, do we acknowledge the dread simmering at the periphery of our sense of awareness. We allow others their denial and we expect the same in return. It seems as though, at some point, our facade would shatter to shards…that we would turn to friends and strangers alike and sob, “are you not terrified too?”
Therefore, we must keep the conservation going.
Crackpot realist types who bandy dismissive declarations such as, “that is just mere talk. And words amount to nothing.”
Regardless of the opinions of those indoctrinated by Calvinist cum capitalist conditioning, talk is action. Talk is eros. Deeply depressed people lose both their eros and their voice. Books and poems speak. The problem is, all too many of the working class and the poor have been bullied by the capitalist order into believing that we have no voice.
The voice gives rise to the inner self, of the mind and heart, and provides agency towards action and gives context to experience. The crackpot realist’s notion that conversation is a lesser function of humanity amounts to soul-defying inanity, a product of the Puritan Ethic, a coda for slaves. Words are the handmaiden of action and experience.
Talk is audio architecture and dance. In the mythos of the garden of Eden, the loquacious serpent bestowed the key to defiance against the despotic sky god. Words are winged yet speak from the bones of the earth. Denied of words, we lose our humanity, then our souls.
As the poet composes verse, the verse composes the poet.
by Kenn Orphan and Phil Rockstroh
- Title artwork for this piece is Prismes électriques (1914), oil on canvas, by Sonia Delaunay, Musée National d’Art Moderne