Pulling Out of the Traffic: The Future of Culture (5)

This is the final post in a series of five under the same title.

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In my lifetime up to that point and for many years before, despite our earnest desires, especially Father’s, all that we had shared as a family—birth, death, poverty, religion, and work—had proved incapable of making our blood ties mystical and transcendent. It took the sudden, unexpected sharing of a vision of the fate of our Negro brethren to do it. And though many times prior to that winter night we had obtained glimpses of their fate, through pamphlets and publications of the various anti-slavery societies and from the personal testimonies given at abolitionist meetings by Negro men and women who had themselves been slaves or by white people who had travelled into the stronghold of slavery and had witnessed firsthand the nature of the beast, we had never before seen it with such long clarity ourselves, starred at it as if the beast itself were here in our kitchen, writing before us.

We saw it at once, and we saw it together, and we saw it for a long time. The vision was like a flame that melted us, and afterwards, when it finally cooled, we had been hardened into a new and unexpected shape. We had been re-cast as a single entity, and each of us had been forged and hammered into an inseparable part of the whole.

. . . .

Father’s repeated declarations of war against slavery, and his asking us to witness them, were his ongoing pronouncement of his lifelong intention and desire. It was how he renewed and created his future.

— Russell Banks, Cloudsplitter: A Novel


There is a way of building that closes down, and there is a way of building that opens up. Correspondingly, there is a way of preserving that checks locks and enforces security, and there is a way of preserving that springs locks and sets free.

Cloudsplitter is Russell Banks fine 1998 novel of the life of the great American/abolitionist John Brown, as told through the narrative voice of Brown’s third son, Owen. What Banks/Owen describes in the passage above is a building and then a preservation of the second sort, the sort of building that opens up, then the sort of preservation that keeps open.

The passage comes from relatively early on in the long novel, in the second chapter. What is at issue is at one level a very minor, everyday thing (everyday, at least, in 19th century American families such as John Brown’s): a shared family reading, begun by John himself, then continued by other family members in turn, each reading aloud from the same book, passed on from one to the other.

What the Browns are reading at that point in the narrative is a book recounting the horrors of American slavery. The book does that very simply and straightforwardly. It just presents page after page of the contents of ads of a type often placed, at the time, in newspapers—throughout the slave-holding states, at least. They are ads in which property owners who have suffered thefts of a certain kind solicit help, mainly for monetary reward, to track down and retrieve their stolen property. The property at issue consists of human beings owned as slaves, and the thefts at issue have been committed by that property itself—that is, by slaves who have tried to steal themselves away from their lawful owners, by running off. In ad after ad, slaveholders detail the scars that they have inflicted to the faces, backs, limbs, and torsos of their slaves. The slave-owners catalogue such traces of whippings, cuttings, burnings, and other abuses they have inflicted on their slaves, in order that those traces might now serve, in effect, as brand-marks by which their (self-)stolen goods can be identified, in order to be returned, it is to be hoped, to its rightful owners.

The experience of listening together to such genuinely reportorial reading during the evening at issue galvanizes the Brown family into a “new body,” to borrow an exactly apt term from Alain Badiou’s seminar on “images of the present times” (in which at one point he cites Cloudsplitter, and praises Banks).   Until that uneventful event of such simple family reading of an evening, the Browns had been, despite all family relations, affection, and sharing, no more than a collection of individuals—just instances of a family named “Brown,” as it were. “It took,” as Banks has Owen tell us in the passage above, “the sudden, unexpected sharing of a vision,” a vision “like a flame that melted us,” truly to meld them together and “re-cast” them “as a single entity,” in which each one of them “had been forged and hammered into an inseparable part of the whole.”

In the quiet of their family kitchen, their shared reading that evening brings the Brown family—brings that family as a whole and in each of its family members—to a point of decision. In the fire of that experience the family, each and all, is brought to decision; it gets decided as it were. That night, the family gets resolved. And so it will remain, one way or another.

Lapses will continue to remain possible, of course. In fact, they will all too often actually occur. One or another family member—now Owen, now one of his brothers or sisters, now even “the Old Man,” John himself—will lose his or her resolve, becoming irresolute again. But that will no more rescind the resolution than the breaking of a marriage vow rescinds that vow.

Broken vows and lapses in resolve are betrayals and acts of infidelity. As such, they do not cancel out the original vows or resolutions. Rather, they call for acts of contrition, repentance, and expiation, and, above all, a return to fidelity—that is, they call to renewed faithfulness to the vow or resolve that was betrayed.

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In Toward a Politics of Speaking Beings: Short Political Treatise II—Pour une politique des êtres parlant: Courte traité politique II (Verdier, 20011), page 56—Jean-Claude Milner cites the 1804 remark, often attributed to Talleyrand, “It’s worse than a crime, it’s a mistake.” As Milner points out, a “mistake” is, at most, a significant “error in calculation.” It is therefore the sort of thing that may indeed sorely need to be corrected. However, unlike a crime, “it does not need to be expiated.”

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“We blew it!”

That’s said by Dennis Hopper’s character in Easy Rider, the classic 1960s buddy-movie about two hippies’ cross-country motorcycle journey together—costarring Peter Fonda, who also directed the film. Hopper delivers the line as the two are riding along a country road side by side on their two bikes, after doing their thing in New Orleans for a while. It comes just before Hopper’s character gets blown away with a shotgun by a Southern cracker in a pick-up.

The moral of the story? Don’t blow it—or you’ll be blown away!

*     *     *     *     *     *

Exactly how the two hippie bikers in Easy Rider “blew it” is open to diverse interpretations. However, by any interpretation worth considering, “blowing it”—whether done by the characters played by Hopper and Fonda in that movie, or by the members of the Brown family in Banks’ Cloudsplitter, or by whomever in whatever circumstances—is not a matter of an error in calculation. It is no omission or oversight in cost-benefit analysis, no limitation in one’s capacities for “rational decision-making.” In short it is not a mistake.

It is a crime.

“Blowing it” is not necessarily—or even in any important case—a crime in the sense of a violation of any law of any such state as Louisiana. It is a crime, rather, in the sense of a breach of faith, a failure to keep faith—above all, a failure to keep faith with oneself. As such, it cries out not for correction, but for expiation.

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The institution of American slavery was a crime, not a mistake. It was a human betrayal of humanity, not an error in calculations or a failure in “rational decision-making.” By the passage I have cited from Banks’ novel, John Brown’s third son Owen and the rest of John Brown’s family were brought together—which should itself be read in a double sense here, to mean both that the whole bunch of them were brought, and that the bunch of them were brought no longer to be just a bunch, but to be a true whole—by an insight into the reality of that institution, American slavery.   Given such insight by nothing more than the everyday event of an evening’s family reading, they were thereby brought together to a point where they no longer had any choice but to join the family patriarch in his declared war against that criminal institution. They either had to join John Brown, the family patriarch, or betray him—and, along with him, themselves.

To find oneself at such a point of decision—but what am I saying? To be brought to such a point of decision is precisely to find oneself! So I should have said that to find oneself at last, by being brought to a point of decision, is precisely in such a way to be given no choice. At such a point, one “can do no other” than one is given as one’s own to do, as Luther said at the Diet of Worms in affirming his continuing defiance of the Church hierarchy and its self-claimed “authority.” One can do no other at such a point than what one finds oneself, at and in that point, called to do.

If one does not heed that call, then one lapses back into loss of oneself, lost-ness from oneself, again. Thus, as I have written in this series of posts before, at a point of decision, one is not given two equally passable options, between which one must choose. Rather, one is given one’s one and only opportunity, the opportunity at last to become oneself, to make one’s life one’s own.*

When one is faced with such an opportunity, such a moment of clarity, such a point of decision, if one even bothers to “count the costs” before declaring oneself, then one has already declared oneself—already declared oneself, namely, to be a coward and a criminal. By counting the costs before one makes up one’s mind in such a situation, at such a point, one has already lost one’s opportunity, and, with it, any mind worth keeping, no matter how “rational” that mind may be. One has blown it.

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In 1939 Random House published a new novel by William Faulkner. Faulkner had given his work the title If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem. In the novel Faulkner interwove two stories, each of which could perfectly well stand on its own, as each—one of the two, especially—has often been made to do, in anthologies and other later re-publications of Faulkner’s works. One such potentially autonomous story is called “Wild Palms,” and the other one, which is the one most often published just by itself alone, is called “Old Man.”

Faulkner took the title he gave the combined whole of the two tales from Psalm 137 (136 in the Septuagint numbering), which sings out Israel’s own vow not to forget Jerusalem during Israel’s long captivity in Babylon. It is an intemperate psalm, declaring an intemperate vow, which is intemperately sealed by a prayer that the singer’s right hand might wither, and the singer’s tongue cleave to the roof of the singer’s mouth, if that vow is not kept. The psalm then intemperately ends by calling down wrathful vengeance on the Babylonians, blessing those of that city’s enemies who might one day, as the psalmist fervently hopes they do, seize the Babylonians children and bash their brains out on the rocks.

Especially today, decent, rational folks are shocked by such sentiments.

They didn’t seem to shock Faulkner, however. Or, if they did, it would seem to have been with the shock of insight and recognition, since he not only chose a crucial line from the psalm as the title to his double-storied 1939 novel, but was also chagrinned—and protested, to no avail—when Random House, on the basis of its own cost-benefit analyses no doubt, made the quite rational decision to refuse to bring the book out under the title Faulkner had given it. Instead, they took the title of one story (with ironic justice, it turned out to be the title of the story that has subsequently “sold” far less well than the other, in the long run, judging from subsequent re-printings/anthologizings) and published the whole as The Wild Palms. Not until 1990, twenty-eight years after Faulkner’s death, did an edition come out under the title Faulkner originally chose.

The Wikipedia entry for If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/If_I_Forget_Thee,_Jerusalem) characterizes the novel as “a blend of two stories, a love story and a river story,” identifying “Wild Palms” as the former and “Old Man” as the latter. However, the entry goes on to point out that “[b]oth stories tell us of a distinct relationship between a man and a woman.” Indeed they do, and I would say that, in fact, both are love stories—only that one is the story of a love kept, and the other the story of a love thrown away. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that one, “Wild Palms,” is the story of a decision to love, a decision boldly taken and faithfully maintained, regardless of the cost, whereas the other, “Old Man,” is the story of refusal to decide to love, and a cowardly clinging to security instead.   The first is a story of love enacted; the second, a story of love betrayed.

I would say that, read with ears tuned for hearing, the Wikipedia entry brings this out very nicely, actually, in the following good, short synopsis:

Each story is five chapters long and they offer a significant interplay between narrative plots. The Wild Palms tells the story of Harry and, Charlotte, who meet, fall in forbidden love, travel the country together for work, and, ultimately, experience tragedy when the abortion Harry performs on Charlotte kills her. Old Man is the story of a convict who, while being forced to help victims of a flood, rescues a pregnant woman. They are swept away downstream by the flooding Mississippi, and she gives birth to a baby. He eventually gets both himself and the woman to safety and then turns himself in, returning to prison.

To be sure! Whoever refuses the opportunity to love does indeed return to prison!

That’s just how it is with decisions, whether they be decisions to love, or to take to the streets in protest of injustice, or to hole oneself up in a room and read, read, read, in order to write, write, write—or, perhaps, the decision never to forget.

Faulkner’s story of Harry and Charlotte’s decision to love one another whatever the cost, especially when that story is read in counterpoint to his story of the old man who prefers the security of prison to the risks of love (and who is made “old,” regardless of his chronological age, precisely by so preferring), shows that such decisions can have serious, even fatal, consequences. Yet it also shows, even more strongly, that only an old coward would count such costs before deciding to love, when the opportunity to do so presents itself.

Most of us most of the time are old cowards. Far too often, all of us are. None of us never is. That, however, is no excuse.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Making a genuine decision is something very different from choosing between brands of beer, political parties, or walks of life–all of which are subject to the sorts of cost-benefit analysis that pertains to what is, in our longstanding “Newspeak,” called “rational decision-making.” In sharp contrast, making a genuine decision is nothing “rational.” Rather, it is taking one’s one and only chance to live, and to do it abundantly—rather than just going on surviving, hanging on and waiting around until one can finally “pass away.”

It is just because that is the nature of genuine decision that there is always an ongoing need, past the point of decision, after one has decided oneself, from then on to continue regularly admonishing oneself to stay faithful to one’s decision, to keep one’s resolution.   For the same reason, it is essential, having made a decision, to continue regularly to ask for, and accept, whatever help one can get from others to keep to one’s decision—and, in turn, willingly to help others who have joined one in one’s decision to do the same: to “keep the faith,” as the old saying goes. **

It was in just such a way, “in repeated declarations of war against slavery,” and in repeatedly “asking [his family] to witness them,” and thereby making “ongoing pronouncement of his lifelong intention and desire,” his life-defining intention and desire, that John Brown “renewed and created his future,” as Banks has Brown’s son Owen say at the end of the passage cited above. So must it be not only for John Brown, but also for us all. Only with such help and such repetitions of our own declarations of whatever may demand such declaration from each and all of us, can we have any hope of “renewing and creating” our own future.

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Since the ancient Greeks, the work of art has been taken as a paradigmatic cultural product, in the sense that I have been giving that latter expression. In 1935, when he first delivered his lectures on “The Origin of the Work of Art,” Heidegger argued that the work of the work of art, as it were—what the artwork does, we could put it—is to bring those on whom it works to a point of decision, to use my way of articulating it. The work of art, says Heidegger, this time still using his own terms, opens up a world, and sets that world up by anchoring or grounding it in the earth. The artwork is the very place where that takes place. As such, it is not interchangeable with any other place. Rather, it is absolutely singular, utterly unique: something truly new under the sun, something the like of which has not been seen before, nor will ever be seen again. It is one of a kind—namely, one of that very kind of kind that is really no “kind” at all, since it has only one “instance,” to use one of my ways of speaking from earlier in this series of blog posts.

The shock of such a work as such a place, the shock that such a work, such a place, is there at all, calls upon those whom it shocks to make a decision. That’s the work of works of culture, the produce of cultural production. So shocked, one can enter into the work of the work itself—as John Brown’s family in Banks’ novel entered into the work of John Brown (though he was no work of art, to be sure), when that family was suddenly shocked into seeing reality. Or one can decline so to enter into such work—and, in so declining, enter, despite oneself, into one’s own decline.

If one does not decline, but joins the work in its work—as John Brown’s family joined him in his—then one preserves the work. That does not mean, as Heidegger insists it does not, that one takes the artwork and locks it away safe somewhere. Rather, one preserves the work by doing what one must to keep open the world that the work first opened up. That is, one preserves the work of art by persevering in the work of that work, regardless of whether that work of art itself even continues to be around. Only in that way does one truly keep or preserve the work.

That includes keeping or preserving it “in mind,” that is, remembering it. To remember a work of art properly—that is, as the very work one seeks to remember—is not recurrently to call up any “memory-images” of it that one keeps locked away in one’s memory banks somewhere, whether those banks are in one’s brain or in one’s smart-phone or wherever they may be. Rather, properly to remember a work of art is to keep open the world that the work first opened, or at least open to it.

In just the same way, to stick with the analogy I’ve been using, those who preserved John Brown’s memory, once he was arrested by Federal forces and then hanged by the state of Virginia, did so not by erecting memorials to him at Harper’s Ferry or anywhere else. Nor did they preserve his memory by recurrently spending time looking at old pictures or other images of the man himself. Rather, those who preserved John Brown’s memory—those who did not forget John Brown’s body as it lay “moldering in the grave,” as the song says—did so by continuing to carry on the very war he had declared against American slavery. Well, just as John Brown continued to call people to decision even after his death, so can works of art call those who encounter them even after have ceased to be at work themselves.

What is more, John Brown can continue to call us to decision even today. Even now—long after John Brown’s body has moldered completely away, and nearly as long since the war he waged morphed into the Civil War that eventually brought the institution of American slavery as he knew it to an end—we can still be moved by being reminded of him. It no longer makes sense to speak today of joining John Brown in his war against the institution of American slavery, of course. The world in which that did make sense is no longer our world today. Nevertheless, we can still continue to be moved (even moved to join new wars declared in our own day) by the memory of John Brown—moved that way by reading Russel Banks’ retelling of Brown’s story today in Cloudsplitter, for example, or perhaps by visiting memorials to the sacrifice he and the others who carried out the raid at Harper’s Ferry made.

In just the same way, the world that was opened up by and in the works of art of the ancient Greeks has been dead for a long time now, far longer than John Brown. Yet we can still be moved by visiting the remains of such works in the museums of our own day. The world those works themselves opened up is no longer there for us to keep open, any more than the war John Brown declared against the institution of American slavery is any longer one in which we can enlist. But being reminded that there once was such a world, just as being reminded that there was once such a war as John Brown’s to fight, can still bring us to a point of decision of our own, a point where we are at last given our “one opportunity,” as Knausgaard was once given his. Even reminders of long dead worlds brought to us by mere fragments of what were once genuine works of art, genuinely still at work as works in opening up such worlds, can deliver to us the message that an “archaic torso Apollo,” according to Rilke in a poem of that name, delivers to those with eyes to see who visit it in the museum—the message, “You must change your life!”

The future of culture is dependent upon no more, and no less, than keeping alive the memory of such works. It does not even depend on the possibility that new works of such a kind-less kind will continue to be created. Even if they are not, the future still has culture—and, far more importantly, there still continues to be the future “of “culture, the future culture itself opens and holds open, which is to say the future as such—just so long as we keep on doing the work of preservation. There will be a future of culture so long as we truly do, but only so long as we truly do, “never forget.”

If we don’t remember, and do forget, then our right hands will wither, and our tongues will cleave to the roofs of our mouths, regardless of whether we pray it may be so or not.

*     *     *     *     *     *

In my next post, which will have the same main title as this series (“Pulling Out of the Traffic”) but a different subtitle, I plan to discuss an example of how we can “keep our memories green,” as it were.


* As Knausgaard found himself given his one opportunity, as he describes in the passage I cited at the beginning of my preceding post in this series.


** That, in turn, is something very different from demonstrating one’s “fidelity” to some “brand,” such as Coors or Budweiser when it comes to drinking beer, or Republicans or Democrats when it comes to electing politicians.


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