In the pre-dawn darkness of Thanksgiving morning, I’m gazing out my New Orleans hotel window at the Mississippi River below. A ship’s horn sounds close by, but I see neither ship nor barge and figure it is just America moaning in its sleep.
Business brought me here and away from family this Thanksgiving, so I can be forgiven for romanticizing the errand a bit. I have on my iPod Folkways’ wondrous 1957 release of the University Players’ Walt Whitman readings. Still at the window, I listen to “Song of the Open Road.”
To know the universe itself as a road, as many roads, as roads for traveling souls.
All parts away for the progress of souls,
All religion, all solid things, arts, governments – all that was or is apparent upon this globe or any globe, falls into niches and
corners before the procession of souls along the grand roads
of the universe.
Forever alive, forever forward,
Stately, solemn, sad, withdrawn, baffled, mad, turbulent, feeble, dissatisfied,
Desperate, proud, fond, sick, accepted by men, rejected by men,
They go! they go! I know that they go, but I know not where they go,
But I know that they go toward the best – toward something great.
Tempted by a post-modern savvy I didn’t order, I sometimes consider Whitman’s grand optimism embarrassingly naïve. Then I double-back on his time of Civil War, industrial madness and the shooting death of his beloved Abraham Lincoln. Whitman’s resilience becomes awe-inspiring and it makes it a little harder to feel sorry for myself.
Still, it’s not easy these days to keep faith in the progress of souls, especially in their brief embodiment on “this globe or any globe.” America seems to have stumbled into a bloody, Dick Cheneyesque dream of all against all and Power’s final victory over poetry, empathy and human ease. The weight of the struggle toward democracy in America is almost more than can be borne.
Like Sisyphus, we pushed the boulder up the mountain where Martin Luther King, Jr. had been, but we’ve lived ever since in the time of the rock’s descent. Some have shouldered it again, but goddamn the mountain’s steep.
I’ve been asked many times about my own apparent optimism, anemic as it is these days. I’ve always answered that it’s sure not a matter of will or even conscious thought. It seems more like a lucky blood type than stubborn devotion. I don’t know. Is there something to know about it?
As I look out on the Mississippi, whose mighty consciousness I’d like to tap on the matter, Albert Camus’ advice comes to mind instead. I recalled that Bobby Kennedy turned to Camus after his brother John’s assassination, and that he always carried an index card with a quote from Camus in his pocket: “Knowing that you are going to die is nothing.” I don’t know if he had the card with him when he, like his brother, was gunned down.
The famous last line of Camu’s The Myth of Sisyphus is this:
One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
Sisyphus, sentenced by the gods to eternally roll a boulder up a mountain only to see it roll down again, was Camus’ symbol of life’s apparent absurdity. In such a circumstance, even false happiness seems possible only through unconsciousness or blind escapism. How could Sisyphus be happy? But, just before Camus’ command to Sisyphean happiness, he writes:
The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.
There’s a glimpse of something here. Maybe it’s no mournful national nightmare I overheard from my hotel window but a good ship’s “hallo” on the Mississippi after all.
My hopes for democratic achievement are based on the possibility of a social order that fills the hearts of all. And if it’s the struggle and the knowledge of its possible meaning that fills those hearts – not with resignation or loss of ideal or effort, but with the love that is love’s possibility – then poet William Carlos Williams was close to the bone: “the descent beckons/as the ascent beckoned,” he wrote in “The Descent.” Although “made up of despairs,” the descent “realizes a new awakening/which is a reversal of despair,” Williams wrote.
Close to the bone, maybe, but is it relevant to the work of democratic political achievement? I think it is. With the manufacture of the public’s impotent docility in mind, Power would make shadows of us and strip a human dimension or two from politics. Thinned by a hyperactive, linear politics-by-chess-clock, actual human beings become light as dry leaves and are easily swept away.
But only an always-examined life can ever be free, and the examination requires us to be and to see in all four dimensions. Even then it’s not possible unless we abandon the narcissism of Power’s cheapened “self-help” industry and take to the open road of inter-dependent fellow travelers.
Private struggles with our own doubts and complex hopes about the possibilities of freedom and escape from the Cheneyesque dystopia become living, shared manifestos. The most important calls-to-action we will ever receive won’t arrive by email.
And so, I’m gazing out my New Orleans hotel window at the Mississippi River below. A ship’s horn sounds close by…