A Stranger on the Earth

by Sam Buntz

“He only can create the greatest imaginable beauty who has endured all imaginable pangs, for only when we have seen and foreseen what we dread shall we be rewarded by that dazzling, unforeseen, wing-footed wanderer. We could not find him if he were not in some sense of our being, and yet of our own being but as water with fire, a noise with silence. He is of all things not impossible the most difficult, for that which comes easily can never be a portion of our being; soon got, soon gone, as the proverb says. I shall find the dark luminous, the void fruitful when I understand I have nothing, that the ringers in the tower have appointed for the hymen [marriage song] of the soul a passing bell.” — William Butler Yeats

I don’t believe that any writer, artist, or—to include everything that must be included, in one term—creator has ever felt at home on planet earth. This statement is likely to provoke immediate misunderstandings, so I should probably start off by explaining what I don’t mean.   I’m not talking about adopting a Bohemian pose and equating it with the feeling of being “a stranger on the earth” (as Van Gogh—who really wasn’t at home in the world—rightly called himself). This has nothing to do with merely posturing as an outcast—as another bad boy artiste, smoking opium in dimly lit Brooklyn basements, cruising off a trust-fund yet failing to bathe, before eventually overdosing or, having been somewhat cowed by the consequences of excess, dying a repentant Catholic (no offense to actual Catholics intended, of course).

That’s just another way of being at home in the world—though, of course, being “at home in the world” is the goal of so much psychology, so many self-help books, so much religion even: making sure that the soul remains safely ensconced in its acorn and never develops into a great-rooted Oak (to steal a metaphor from the philosopher Jacob Needleman). I propose that even the most outwardly respectable and publicly lauded geniuses—writers like Tennyson, Mark Twain, and Charles Dickens—felt profoundly strange on planet earth (aside from the clear cases like Dickinson and Kafka). I’m not even talking about disliking or hating planet earth—simply about the sense of being a visitant, a soul who in Wordsworth’s phrase “has elsewhere its setting and cometh from afar.” A difference in Vision is what matters—and it’s the only thing that matters: whether one sees by “the light of common day” or by the unmitigated Blaze of an internal, Invisible Sun.

William Butler Yeats made some cutting observations on this topic. In the poetic dialogue, “Ego Dominus Tuus” (Latin for “I am Your Lord”), a pair of characters (Hic and Ille or “this man” and “that man”—though, “that man” is apparently Yeats himself) debates the nature of art and of artists. When Hic says that there must be men who are “lovers of life” and who don’t wage a “tragic war” and yet manage to sing great poetry, Ille contradicts him: “For those that love the world serve it in action / Grow rich, popular and full of influence / And should they paint or write still it is action: / The struggle of the fly in marmalade.” (He also adds, going perhaps a bit overboard, “What portion in the world can the artist have / Who has awakened from the common dream / But dissipation and despair?” I think this last bit has too often been true—but it is by no means universally true, and likely not true in the most important cases.)

“The struggle of the fly in marmalade” is a great way to describe the subject of most political, show biz, and rock n’ roll memoirs. And what is the “marmalade”—the sticky sweetness that the man of action finds to be his native element? Yes, it’s “the world”—but, more basically, it’s Time. The problem for the genuine artist isn’t, at root, estrangement from the world of myriad things in which we pass our days (though it’s that too)—it is estrangement from Time, which nurtures and gives birth to this world of multiplicity that we so awkwardly inhabit. In somewhat Buddhist terms, T.S. Eliot lamented that we live in a world of “Birth, copulation, and death / Birth, copulation, and death”—the ever unvarying three-fold rhythm of Time. For Time is characterized by impermanence—unbearable for an artist who seeks the permanent, the weird and wonderful clime of that which is past change.

Eliot, Yeats, and almost all of the other great poets, were questing for the moment where the Timeless intersects with Time—symbolized, for Yeats, by “The Rose on the Rood of Time”, the Rose being eternal “Intellectual Beauty” and the Rood or Cross being the temporal and mundane world. The minute, sharply observed epiphanies that characterize so much Japanese poetry clearly demonstrate the same principle—a small particle of Time suddenly blazes into full being as a manifestation of Eternity, with a single snail or moth or dewdrop suddenly, yet so gently and quietly, assuming cosmic proportions. Take Basho, for instance: “On the one ton temple bell / A moon-moth, folded into sleep, / Sits still.”

To provide a classic example from 20th Century Literature (also, there should be a mild spoiler alert here, if you somehow haven’t managed to read this book yet): in The Catcher in the Rye, when Holden Caulfield sees his sister, Phoebe, reaching for the golden ring while riding on the Central Park carousel, he suddenly sees the Vision that he had both longed for and evaded during his sojourn in New York (equivalent to seeing the ducks that had appeared to leave the park for the winter and which Holden wonders about frequently and even anxiously). He beholds the eternal human search for Joy—still worthwhile, still ultimately beautiful—taking place on the Wheel of Time, represented by the carousel. He applies this moment of epiphany to his earlier, seemingly seedy and somewhat sordid experiences (a misadventure with a pimp and prostitute, getting drunk and breaking the “Little Shirley Beans” record he’d bought for his sister, and so on) and sees the entire carnival of human souls, including his own, taking their right place in the search for eternal Joy on the Wheel of Time (or “Wheel of Births and Deaths”)—all reaching for the golden ring.

Obviously, a quest for the intersection of the Timeless moment with Time—whether undertaken in medieval Japan or modern New York—has profound consolations. In fact, in the end, the consolations perfectly match the frustrations and inevitably extreme difficulties that had previously attended the search. Final delight would be impossible without an initial estrangement from Time, and therefore a certain degree of unhappiness—but the quest’s end is in its beginning, the place where the soul first left behind its cloud of glory to make a circuit through materiality. Imagining such a “Return to the Source,” Arthur Rimbaud wrote, “It is discovered. / What? —Eternity / In the whirling light / Of sun become sea.”

An Argument Against the Very Idea of Justice

by Sam Buntz

I don’t believe in justice. I’m announcing this to the world a little self-consciously, but it’s true. However, this doesn’t mean that I’m in favor of injustice—which is obviously just as destructive and hopeless as justice itself, since the very term “injustice” implies the need for a counter-measure of justice.

In the prehistoric past, justice was—as far as we can tell—an apparently minor concern. We continually dredge up one spear-tip riddled caveman corpse after another. (Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals offers a particularly pungent and still relevant linguistic argument for the fundamentally brutal nature of ancient humanity; “might makes right” really was the rule.) But, eventually, justice somehow worked its way into the human mind, probably from the lowest and most ardently persecuted rungs of ancient society upwards… And what was wrong with that? At the time, nothing—it was a positive development.

The world was hungry for justice, it being the necessary antidote to unmitigated war and slaughter, to the barbarian killing sprees common in every ancient culture, to sudden and casual acts of murder and assault. Justice was utterly necessary—but it only set the stage, in a sense, for the arrival of the Gospels’ concept of mercy, or for the Buddha’s teachings on the same. It enhanced the consciousness of humanity by torturing it with the knowledge of sin, the knowledge of good and evil. No progress would’ve been possible without this initial needle in the flesh—this inoculation against thoughtless brutality. Obviously, ancient justice as represented in the Code of Hammurabi or the Mosaic Law was almost as brutal as the reign of injustice that preceded it—but it was thoughtful brutality, a constructive, directed, and refined form of it, which only grew more constructive and refined over time.

We are living with the same basic notion of justice today, though it tries to couch itself in ever more congenial forms. For instance, we no longer support the more honest and obvious varieties of execution—hanging, the firing squad—but have no problem with lethal injection. This is true not only for criminal justice but for all other forms—even “social justice” and apparently liberal causes like slave reparations. If the idea were only to alleviate a burden, to provide aid and ease suffering, “with malice toward none, with charity for all”, it wouldn’t be called justice. It would be called love or mercy.

But since the consciousness of sin is involved (the advocates of social justice don’t call it sin, though that’s what they mean)—a consciousness of past debts, the register of misdeeds—it isn’t love. Actually if it springs out of “white guilt” or class guilt, it’s what the poet Shelley called, “The dark idolatry of the self / Which, when our thoughts and actions once are gone, / Demands that man should weep, and bleed, and groan.” It is purely pointless. Actions springing from an abundance of goodwill, from compassion and sympathy, remedy problems without constantly checking the tally of sins. As it is said, “Where there is love, there is no law.” Jesus and Buddha, among others, came to instigate this inner revolution—this basic re-orientation in the way human beings dealt with each other. They centered the motive for action in compassion rather than in a leveling of accounts.

Considered rightly, the bumper sticker and slogan, “No Justice, No Peace” is actually the opposite of Gandhi’s “an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.” Real progress comes out of this abundance of goodwill and love, but the process of identifying past misdeeds and chucking around blame, while ostensibly attempting to remedy those misdeeds, is just the same outworn precept that children should inherit the guilt of their parents. What does justice actually get for the person demanding it,which compassion doesn’t also attain?

Martin Luther King Jr. redefined justice as “the way love looks in public.” If that were the commonly accepted definition, I could easily go along with it—but it isn’t (though I’m all in favor of redefining it that way, as well). At root, justice is still centered in the ancient prescription offered by both Moses and Hammurabi: “an eye for an eye.” Gandhi was right when he said that this would make the whole world blind, and practically, few people live their lives in a perfectly “just” way, in any case. As William Blake put it, “Friendship cannot exist without forgiveness of sins continually.” I can’t think of a single, long-term friendship I’ve had that didn’t require either the friend’s forgiveness or my own, at some point. To keep an eye fixed on the register of faults—personal faults or social faults—obviously isn’t the best way to get on with people. We regularly abjure the principle of justice when it comes to our own personal relationships—but to apply the principle socially, in mass, seems much more difficult.

None of this, of course, means that I don’t believe in locking murderers away from society for what could easily be the rest of their natural lives. But I wouldn’t do it in a punitive spirit. The mind of an unrepentant killer is probably a miserable enough prison in and of itself—and even if our gestures towards rehabilitation were to prove futile in many cases, they would still benefit our own souls, cultivating our own sense of compassion, giving us the scope to extend it towards even the most reprehensible human beings and towards the non-human world. Perfect justice is best left to the cosmos—but mercy is for humanity. Shakespeare said it best, when he wrote Portia’s famous speech on “The Quality of Mercy” in The Merchant of Venice: “If justice be thy plea, consider this: / That, in the course of justice, none of us / Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy / And that same prayer doth teach us all to render / The deeds of mercy.”

Of Douches, Philistines, and George Bernard Shaw

by Sam Buntz

Recently, Vice published two enlightening articles on a pressing issue: The (Sad) Young British Douchebag. As someone who spent about four months in Scotland on a study abroad trip a few years ago, I’ll vouch for the extreme importance and timeliness of this inquiry into young British male douchery. I can assume the problem has only worsened since I was there… For one thing, Scotland is the only place I’ve ever visited where some douche—who I didn’t know— walked up to me in a bar, plucked off my glasses, and dropped them on the floor from about five feet. (An emcee at a stand-up show in Edinburgh also stole a slice of pizza off my plate—so, he was kind of a douche, as well.) Not to seem bitter about such ancient history—but obviously, this issue has personal relevance, and ties in with some long-simmering grudges.

Vice’s first piece, written by Clive Martin, was resolutely anti-British-Douche, though with a certain degree of pensive melancholy. It didn’t merely despise and deride the douche: it felt for him a bit, as well—if from a safe distance. Martin writes, “…[W]hile it’s easy to scorn the banality—and the vanity—of the modern British douchebag, they’re only products of their environment. An environment that has very little to offer them any more, other than gym memberships, intentionally ripped clothes, alcohol and creatine. The institutions that gave British men a sense of wellbeing have been ripped apart.”

Martin represents what I suppose we might call the “received reading” of the British douche—and I very much agreed with it, at first. Yet, my opinion was somewhat swayed by the second piece, authored by Jack Blocker, which was pro-British-Douche in a manner I found surprisingly reflective—I mean, for an article written by an admitted douche. It argued that being a guy obsessed with working out and with sheer physicality is really just the inevitable result of having lowered economic opportunities, and actually isn’t, given the circumstances, such a bad way to live: “Like it or not, we are the new normal, a roaming mass of men pursuing aesthetic perfection because it’s the only activity our limited talents permit us to draw reward from.” (By “aesthetic perfection” he means working out—not writing sonnets or anything, in case you were confused).

However, I submit that the male sub-species we’ve all decided, in our decadent 21st Century patois, to label “The Douche” is actually a continuation of a human type with a much longer history of derision: “The Philistine”. If we’re going to insist on categorizing contemporary human beings according to archetypes, like the “Sad Young (British) Douchebag” or the “Basic Bitch”—and I’m not inherently opposed to this, at all—we’re going to need to go back and connect with this Super-Archetype. And it’s not a specifically British thing. It’s universal.

“Philistine” became a common synonym for “culturally ignorant person” thanks to Matthew Arnold, but George Bernard Shaw provided a more intellectually awakened appraisal of the Philistine as a sort of proto-douche. Shaw liked to divide the world into three kinds of people, and if we’re going to figure out what he meant by a “Philistine”, we’re going to need to run through the other two accompanying categories, the “Idealist” and the “Realist”—terms that Shaw also uses in ways fairly different from how they’re typically applied.

Surprisingly enough, Shaw’s main villain isn’t the Philistine (who’s more of a neutral character): it’s the Idealist or Romantic. The Idealist-Romantic isn’t someone who scales alpine peaks in search of sublime vistas, like a 19th Century “High Romantic” figure. He or she is someone who crowds-out real life by clinging to illusions—typically by over-idealizing the opposite sex, and polishing up societal golden cows, like marriage and the family, instead of wrestling with the underlying economic realities that condition everything. The Realist does just the opposite—like Shaw, he or she is probably a socialist, trying to put a finger on the lever of the world’s real power source (which, underlying even the economic sources of power, is ultimately the Shavian “Life Force”).

But the male Philistine has no idea what these other two types are talking about. He just wants to ride horses, shoot elephants with some sort of old-timey British Raj Era gun, and get laid. And this is where Shaw’s analysis of the Philistine converges with Vice’s: in a world where patriotism and duty have started to seem corny (thanks mainly to the aftereffects of the Vietnam War, and the collapse of the various European empires), the Philistine—who formerly could’ve easily found a place as a socially “respectable” bad-ass, pulling James Bond-style tricks for various spy agencies, or, in an earlier time, slaughtering Native Americans in the pursuit of the “Manifest Destiny”—gradually and inevitably morphs into a simple douche. (That last “Manifest Destiny” example was meant to refer to American douches, not British ones, of course—but it’s all really the same phenomenon: just substitute a different brand of imperialism).

The male Philistine once found a place of constant athletic stimulation in what Shaw called “Horseback Hall” (if he was well-off) or in a coalmine or in the army (if he wasn’t), or doing any number of jobs that required “honest” and intense physical exertion (not that non-Philistines didn’t also work in coal mines or serve in the army). But, as Martin’s article and Blocker’s article both pointed out, the Philistine—thanks to diminished economic opportunities—is now forced into accepting the slave-wages of mere douchery. Without any outlet for his natural physical and energetic tendencies, the contemporary Philistine becomes pathetic and vain, mainlining Creatine (or, uh, however that works) and taking endless selfies of his comically bulging bis and tris… and, apparently, picking strangers’ glasses off their faces.

Both Vice articles bounced some valuable observations off each other. But neither of them really suggested a solution to what ails the douche—I mean, to what makes him a douche. So, I’m going to try to offer the synthesis to their Hegelian thesis and anti-thesis—to resolve their master-slave dialectic.

I don’t exactly have any incredibly specific solutions—but I’ll give it my best shot. The problem seems pretty simple: whereas the Idealist is intellectually directed towards attractive illusions, and the Realist is pulled towards disturbing realities, the male Philistine is simply a reserve of physical energy that can be used for any project. He is amoral and unallied. If he’s needed to serve Imperialism, he’ll serve it and take grotesque pride in whatever battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers he’s been appointed to. But this is true of the Philistines in any movement—they’ll serve Bolshevism, The Enlightenment, Nazism, Social Democracy, or whatever, with the same kind of physical energy and pride in their work. But when the Philistine is morally unallied, left to his own devices, he’s unable to be proud of anything except his own muscles—hence the vanity and all the selfies.

So, the solution is simply to find a movement that doesn’t still seem tacky—doesn’t seem like a bygone relic—and find a way to channel the Philistine’s energy into it. This is up to Shaw’s “Realists”—it’s an “If You Build It, They Will Come” kind of thing, with a Realist Kevin Costner begetting meaningful labor for some resurrected baseball players.

It’s a matter of human will and initiative: whether the douche simply remains a douche or develops into something greater. For isn’t every douche—in Vice’s sense of the term—really just a stillborn Philistine? And isn’t every Shavian Philistine just a stillborn Hercules—that is to say, a stillborn hero?

(For reference, here’s the link to Clive Martin’s article: http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/anatomy-of-a-new-modern-douchebag

And to Jack Blocker’s: http://www.vice.com/read/in-defence-of-britains-sad-young-douchebags).

“No I.D.”

by Sam Buntz

The now deceased poetess, Adrienne Rich, once wrote a poem entitled “The Ninth Symphony of Beethoven Understood At Last as a Sexual Message.” While possessing some rhetorical ability, the poem is a deeply repulsive piece of nastiness—yet, it represents a certain attitude on the far-far-far-left that I’ve discussed before to some extent, and one on which I’d like to expand. (For the record, I consider myself a moderate liberal—though a pretty disengaged and dispassionate one, admittedly). Rich’s poem revels in a fellow human’s disability, namely deafness—reminiscent of a Fascist railing against the weak and disabled, but from the other side of the ideological spectrum, praising the pain inflicted by nature on a white, rich, talented, German male. Ms. Rich delights in the supposed fact that the Ninth Symphony is the music of “a man in terror of impotence or infertility, not knowing the difference…the beating of a bloody fist upon a splintered table.”

This is, for one thing, a moronic interpretation of music that expresses the very opposite of impotence—supreme creative triumph and joy in life, the surmounting of all trials to finally say, “Yes”. More importantly, listening to Beethoven’s music entirely (or even mostly) as the product of a supposedly impotent or infertile, white, German man is beyond ridiculous. It’s like being entirely hung up on the fact that Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life was written, sung, and performed by a black guy, and keeping that at the forefront of your mind the entire time you listen to the album. Doing this would be truly racist, in my view—it’s better to approach all music, from The Beatles to Prince to Aretha Franklin to Mozart to Ladysmith Black Mambazo to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to Joni Mitchell to Kanye West—with the same carefree, calm joy we take in any aesthetic splendor. Don’t dig (or not dig) the skin tone or the genitals—dig the music, because, otherwise, why are you even listening to it? Obviously, being hung up on an artist’s various identity labels is not a very healthy method for appreciating any creative work, be it one by a black, white, green, or blue person—it’s (what else can you call it?) a diseased, paranoid, and resentful way of engaging with art, not to mention with life.

But the consciousness that creates is distinct from race—its racial, sexual, and class background exists as something of which it is conscious, something that conditions how it is conscious, but not something that it is. Anyone who rejects this view, who believes ethnicity and sexuality are super-essential, seems to me to be arguing that Hitler and all the other far-right purveyors of hate in human history were basically right, but were simply on the opposing team—that there really is such a thing as essentially “Jewish” art or essentially “Aryan” art, and that nothing is allowed to just be “Art.” Obviously, this isn’t to deny that there are rich distinctions in the diverse styles and art-forms produced by all cultures, affluent and impoverished, black and white and beige, or to deny that we should be really grateful for that diversity, or to defend the way that privilege has benefited so many rich white males above others throughout history. Rather, it’s an argument against getting stuck merely at that hyper-superficial level of interpretation, making racial and sexual conflict the lens through which everything is perceived. If there were no underlying humanity or soul in art, then all African and Asian music would be incomprehensible to Americans—it would just be a bunch of incoherent squawks and buzzes. But that so totally isn’t the case—music easily crosses borders because of this underlying soul, which generates everything that we humans have ever created, though cloaked in a million disguises that both reveal and conceal it.

Quite frequently, we’re not locked in these different conflicts, we’re just existing—and these assorted identities become more like trappings and trimmings, not the real Identity.   Adrienne Rich was never able to understand this—she confused what William Blake called the “sexual garments” (and the racial garments) with the soul.   (Blake was able to imagine an afterlife in which white and black people would no longer exist—they would only exist as souls free from time and space, free from “white cloud” and “black cloud”, as he put it.) Rich’s like-minded cohorts are just as confused as she was, even more so in certain cases. Rather than living life with a profound yea-saying—like Blake or Whitman or Prince—people who engage in this kind of identity politics frequently fall into a form of cultured hate, hating anyone racially or sexually associated with historically more powerful classes (regardless of whether the specific individuals in question actually were rich or poor or prospered or did not prosper while living under those classes) and pretending not to be haters by couching their arguments in jargon. Rich typically did this, but her poem on Beethoven allows her hate to emerge fairly distinctly.

Of course, I’m not saying that white men are a persecuted minority or anything stupid like that—clearly not, a thousand times! But I have noticed a strong tendency in the left-wing websites I read to nearly always interpret art through the prism of racial and sexual conflict. I’m not trying to make any sort of profound point—I’m just saying that this kind of ideology doesn’t fit with our experience, doesn’t jive with how most of us engage with art. You need to keep that ancient American imperative—which is also a universal and cosmic imperative—in mind: you gotta have soul.