Alienation as we find it in modern society is almost total: it pervades the relationship of man to his work, to the things he consumes, to the state, to his fellow man, and to himself. Man has created a world of man-made things as it never existed before. He has constructed a complex social machine to administer the technical machine he has built. Yet this whole creation of his stands over and above him. He does not feel himself as a creator and center, but as the servant of a Golem, which his hands have built. The more powerful and gigantic the forces are which he unleashes, the more powerless he feels himself as a human being. He is owned by his creations, and has lost ownership of himself.
If you recall, the tenth premise of this book is “the culture as a whole and most of its members are insane. The culture is driven by a death urge, an urge to destroy life.” The fourteenth premise, somewhat related to the tenth, is, “From birth on—and probably from conception, but I’m not sure how I’d make the case—we are individually and collectively enculturated to hate life, hate the natural world, hate the wild, hate wild animals, hate women, hate children, hate our bodies, hate and fear our emotions, hate ourselves. If we did not hate the world, we could not allow it to be destroyed before our eyes. If we did not hate ourselves, we could not allow our homes—and our bodies—to be poisoned.”
This hatred can be more or less overt, in such manifestations as the Seekers of the Red Mist, the KKK, or the military (called “peacekeepers” by those in power, and “trained killers” by those who teach them their cadences). Sometimes the hatred is harder to see. As I tried to show exhaustively in The Culture of Make Believe, any hatred felt long enough no longer feels like hatred, it feels like what passes in this culture for religion, economics, tradition, the erotic (each of these being toxic mimics of what they would be in a human culture). It feels like science. It feels like technology. It feels like civilization. It feels like the way things are.
When you somehow extricate yourself from these iron cages of hate, what do you see?
I’m standing in line at a Safeway checkout counter, holding torment in my hands—torment I will soon enough take into my body—holding in my hands the processed flesh of plants and animals who were systematically enslaved and tortured, who were not merely killed—we all have to kill to eat: as a tree said to me, “You’re an animal, you consume, get over it”—but who were denied their very nature, disallowed from ever simply existing, from being who they are, free and wild.
I look at the magazines, so many processed women, artificial models showing others, by contrast, their own inadequacies—including the attractive flesh-and-blood woman standing right in front of me, who is nowhere near as attractive (can never be as attractive) as these distant women neither she nor I shall ever meet—teaching them first and foremost to hate themselves, to hate their own never-good-enough bodies. The checkout guy hates his job. Or at least he would if he allowed himself to feel in his body the slipping away of his own precious lifetime. Perhaps, though, it’s more accurate to say “his own no-longer-precious lifetime,” since if it were really precious he would not—could not—sell it so cheaply, nor even sell it for money at all. But he has been trained to never think of that, and especially to never feel it. If he thought of that—if he felt himself spending the majority of his life doing things he did not want to do—how would he then act? Who would he then be? What would he then do? How would he survive in this awful, unsurvivable system we call civilization? How, too, would we all respond if we fully awoke to the effects of the drip, drip, drip of hour after hour, day after day, year after year sold to jobs we do not love (jobs that are probably destroying our landbase to boot), and how would we respond, too, if we paid attention to the effects of other incessant drippings such as airbrushed photo after airbrushed photo on something so intimate as what—not whom, never whom—we find attractive?
Two days ago I was at a meeting of local grassroots environmentalists. One longtime activist approached me to say, “I read your books, and even if your facts are true and your analysis is correct—and it really seems they are—I cannot allow myself to go there, because I would not survive in this system. I need denial, even if I know that’s what it is, and I need to hope that the system will change on its own, even if I know it won’t.”
A high school student bags the groceries. She’s been through the mill. Twelve years of it, not counting her home life, twelve years of sitting in rows wishing she were somewhere else, wishing she were free, wishing it was later in the day, later in the year, later in her life when at long last her time—her life—would be her own. Moment after moment she wishes this. She wishes it day after day, year after year, until—and this was the point all along—she ceases anymore to wish at all (except to wish her body looked like those in the magazines, and to wish she had more money to buy things she hopes will for at least that one sparkling moment of purchase take away the ache she never lets herself feel), until she has become subservient, docile, domestic. Until her will—what’s that?— has been broken. Until rebellion against the system comes to consist of yet more purchasing—don’t you love those ads conflating alcohol consumption (purchased, of course, from major corporations) and rebelliousness?—or of nothing at all, until rebellion, like will, simply ceases to exist. Until the last vestiges of the wildness and freedom that are her birthright—as they are the birthright of every animal, plant, rock, river, piece of ground, breath of wind—have been worn or torn away.
Free will at this point becomes almost meaningless, because by now victims participate of their own free will—having long-since lost touch with what free will might be. Indeed, they can be said to no longer have any meaningful will at all. Their will has been broken. Of course. That’s the point. Now, they are workers. They are productive members of this great and benevolent structure of civilization that brings good to all it touches. They are happy, even if this happiness requires routine chemical assistance. There is no longer any need for force, because the people—or more precisely those who were once people— have been fully metabolized into the system, have become self-regulating, self-policing.
Welcome to the end of the world.
She wears around her neck a cross, symbol of Christianity, symbol of dying to the flesh so she can be reborn to the spirit, symbol of perceiving the world— the body, her own body—as an evil place, a vale of tears where the enemy death constantly stalks, a place that is not and can never be as real as the heaven where bodies—these wild and uncontrollable things we’ve come to see as so flawed— no longer exist, a place that can never be home. (Would Christians object to the systematic exploitation, toxification, and despoliation of heaven as I object to the same on earth?)
I have friends who are Buddhists. They, too, are trained away from their bodies, away from the real, away from the primary, away from the material, away from their experience, away from what they call samsara (literally passing through in Sanskrit: what my dictionary calls “the indefinitely repeated cycles of birth, misery, and death caused by karma,” and what one Zen Buddhist calls “the hellish world of time and space and the shifting shapes which energy assumes, the fluctuating world which is apprehended by the senses and presided over by the judgmental ego,” all of which sounds like an awful drag, and really, to be honest, does not sound in the slightest like life as I experience it), away from what they call illusion, and toward what they tellingly and pathetically call “liberation” from this earth. As Richard Hooker puts it on his “World Civilizations” web pages, “If the changing world is but an illusion and we are condemned [sic] to remain in it through birth after birth, what purpose is there in atmansiddhi? The goal became not an eternity in a blissful afterlife, but moksha, or ‘liberation’ from samsara. This quest for liberation is the hallmark of the Upanishads and forms the fundamental doctrine of both Buddhism and Jainism.”
In short, Buddhism and Christianity both do what all religions of civilization must do, which is to naturalize the oppressiveness of the culture—get people (victims) to believe that their enslavement is not simply cultural but a necessary part of the existence to which they’ve been “condemned” (what does it say about them and the lives they lead that they perceive life not as a beautiful gift from the world, something for them to cherish and be grateful for, but as something to which they’ve been condemned?)—and then to point these people away from their awful (civilized) existence and toward “liberation” in some illusory better place (or even more abstractly, no place at all!). How very convenient for those in power. How very convenient for those who enslave human and nonhuman alike. These are religions for the powerless. These are religions to keep people powerless.
There are many Buddhist stories I love (as there are many Christian stories I love). In one of them, set during Japan’s feudal period, an army sacked a neighboring shogun’s village. Most of the villagers had already fled, but when the general of the attacking troops entered a Zen monastery, he found the master meditating. The general raised his sword. The master did not respond. The general sputtered, “Don’t you realize I’m the man who could cut off your head without blinking an eye?”
The Zen master responded, “Don’t you realize I’m the man who could have my head cut off without blinking an eye?”
Since hearing this story I’ve admired the Zen master’s equanimity in the face of certain death, and when the time comes I pray I manifest the same serenity. But the more I’ve thought about this story the more I’ve realized that the Buddha not only is always killed on the road, as Tom Robbins wrote (“Ideas are made by masters, dogma by disciples, and the Buddha is always killed on the road”) but, and I’m sort of inverting his language here to emphasize a similar point a different way, the Buddha must be killed on the road, by each and every one of us, each and every day.
It all has to do with something I’ve been hammering on throughout this book: that all morality is dependent on a particular context, as is effective action. What may be appropriate and moral in one circumstance may be inappropriate or immoral in another. This means that while it’s often useful to look to others for models on how we might behave under certain circumstances, it’s foolish to the point of being potentially fatal to consider these models as applicable in all (or sometimes even in any) other circumstances. It is crucial to this story of the Zen master, for example, that the master faced down a shogun’s general who was steeped in a tradition that respected rituals shared between these two men. Had the master given his same response to Genghis Khan or Tamurlane the Great, the other would quite likely have said, “Okay,” and lopped off his head (both men had penchants for constructing huge pyramids from their victims’ skulls). Likewise, if a typical modern American SWAT team ordered the Zen master to lie face down on the ground—“Don’t you realize we’re the team who could taser and pepper spray you without blinking an eye! Get the fuck down, motherfucker! Get the fuck down!”—and he refused to follow their instructions, he’d soon find himself lying in his own shit and piss, a sodden mass of muscles that no longer worked. Afterwards he’d find himself facing charges of resisting arrest, quite possibly assaulting a police officer, and worst of all, contempt of cop.
My real breakthrough in understanding this story came when I realized that the Zen master’s actions only make sense if at least one of three (unstated of course) premises is in place: either 1) he believes in reincarnation, which means if he dies he’s coming back anyway; 2) he believes the material world is not primary, but instead a “hellish illusion” to which the Zen master has been “condemned,” which means he won’t so much mind leaving; or 3) he’s powerless to avert immediate death anyway.
If any of these are accurate, his equanimity makes some sense. And if any of these are accurate for me, then I could consider modeling my own attitudes and behavior on his.
But if his life is precious and meaningful to him—if he is in love not only with his own life but with at least some of the humans in his community, and also with the swirling of fog in the tops of trees, and the way the fog fades in the morning sun, and in love with the way baby bears shimmy up trees when frightened, and with the chattering of squirrels teasing dogs, with the squabbling of songbirds over seeds, with the slow majesty of newts, salamanders, and turtles—and if he has the opportunity through any action to stop the general and his troops from sacking the village, from destroying his own life and the lives of those he loves (Seven Samurai comes to mind), then this Zen master’s equanimity becomes nothing but a mask for cowardice, stupidity, and an appalling lack of creativity. And surely you can see that if he has the power to somehow stop the shogun’s general but does not simply because he believes that the world is not primary, his beliefs would directly serve those who wish to exploit and destroy. Surely then you can also see how these beliefs would be promulgated— pushed very hard—both by those in power and by those who believe themselves powerless, those whose cowardice makes them wish, unconsciously of course, that they actually do have no power.
And why would they wish that? Because then they need not take responsibility for the actions—the sacking of the village, for example—they take no steps to prevent.
Continue reading: Part 2