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Sometimes A Pair of Pants Can Give You Vertigo

Edward Curtin

Between the experience of living a normal life at this moment on the planet and the public narratives being offered to give a sense to that life, the empty space, the gap, is enormous. The desolation lies there, not in the facts.”
John Berger, “A Man with Tousled Hair” in The Shape of a Pocket

A few days ago, as I stepped into my pants to start the day as is my habit, I happened to notice the label at the waist band. It read “Gap,” and the sight of this word sent my mind spinning into a whirling contemplation of this void that lies at the center of life today, a subject that has disturbed me for a long time.

I had earlier that morning made the mistake of checking the news headlines on the computer. This too is a habit that I no doubt share with millions of other people. It is a dastardly habit no sane person should inflict on oneself. To rise from one’s night dreams and step into a litany of hyperbolic headlines shouting doom and gloom at every turn is to inject oneself with a poisonous drug before the sap of life has a chance to rise in one’s veins and one’s imagination might give birth to new possibilities.

Standing in my pants, I felt as though I were hovering over Berger’s enormous empty space, and if I didn’t wake up, I would tumble endlessly away. Thoreau’s words floated up:

To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?”

So I stepped over the hole at my feet and tried to shake the monotonous clatter of the monstrous media’s messages from my mind. In my vertiginous state I dared not look in a mirror. So many of the media’s lying words that I had already ingested with coffee seemed to float around and within me in an unreality disconnected from the actual world, even the world they were ostensibly reporting on.

I too had written many words about the drastic condition of our world today, thinking somehow my words, different from the corporate media’s, could move the world by pulling back the curtain that the powerful have created through clichés to conceal the sordid reality they have made of this beautiful earth. Yet the presentation of facts seemed to make no difference. Very little, if anything, made a difference.

Most of those who read my words more or less already agreed with me. And many, even friends and family, just ignored them, anticipating that they would disturb them. And the mainstream publications shunned them like the plague.

Between my desire for a changed world and the world that seemed to change only for the worse lay the desolation Berger identified.

Many people feel it, I know, especially dissidents who fight in various ways against the powerful. But we prefer not to go there, to see what it consists of and how we may transmute it into acts and words that might make a difference. We prefer to make believe we are making a difference by repeating ad nauseum the same prefabricated responses, usually directly political, to the atrocities committed daily.

We are caught in what Czeslaw Milosz, writing in a different context, called “ontological anemia” – “among this illness’s symptoms is the nothingness sucking from the center in.”

We try and try but seem to devour ourselves by repeating the same approaches, as if all the slaves know is what their masters have taught them. Milosz knew this because he was an artist and a spiritual seeker, not just a political analyst, and also had personal experience with the totalitarian mindset that is descending on the West.

The twists of history can make one’s head spin.

In writing about Vincent Van Gogh, whose hunger for reality drove him to produce works of achingly loving beauty, John Berger, the quixotic Marxist, writes:

Reality, however one interprets it, lies behind a screen of clichés. Every culture produces such a screen, partly to facilitate its own practices (to establish habits) and partly to consolidate its own power. Reality is inimical to those with power.

Yet while Van Gogh sought reality by breaking the mold, the rich and powerful have devoured the results of his efforts and have transposed them into commodities. Last year, his painting, Laboureur Dans Un Champ, painted from an asylum where he had committed himself, sold for $81.3 million at Christie’s after a frenetic auction.

A humble peasant working in a field becomes a trophy for the rich, who keep the working man slaving away. Words and deeds are turned upside down on desolation row where

Between the windows of the sea where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has to think too much about Desolation Row
Dylan

We need to think again. Imagine! Today we are caught in a void of clichés and in the clutches of rapacious elites. Only acts of creative imagination will free us from their clutches.

I look to my right and on a shelf I see a vividly painted Matryoshka doll. It startles me into the thought that like Matryoshka dolls, so many of our personal habits that deaden us to imagining a way across the gap to a better world are nestled within social habits of thought, speech, and action. We are so often encased like tiny cloned dolls in the social clichés that make us smaller versions of the powers that we say we oppose but which we mimic. We are carved and painted in their likeness, and caught in the habit of reacting to them in ways that reinforce their control.

We must disrupt our routines. We must find new ways, not to just respond, but to take the initiative. When we react according to habits, although we may not realize it, we are being controlled and not in control. Habits, like the word’s etymology reveals, may reassure us that we have, hold or possess a position of strength from which we can move the world in our direction, but the only Archimedean lever and fulcrum capable of that is inspiration.

That involves a new way of seeing, not vertiginous but visionary.

I think I’ll change my pants.

Edward Curtin teaches sociology at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. His writing on varied topics has appeared widely over many years. He writes as a public intellectual for the general public, not as a specialist for a narrow readership. He believes a non-committal sociology is an impossibility and therefore sees all his work as an effort to enhance human freedom through understanding. His website is edwardcurtin.com

18 Comments

  1. Quasimodo says

    The cinderellas of the art world and yet the true sucessors to the expressionists are the jazz musicians. One of Dudu Pakwana’s band told us this story backstage after a gig in Kilburn many years ago.
    The old chief was dying and his people were gathered outside his hut. They asked one of them to go inside and ask him what is the true meaning of life. Tell them life is like a fountain said the chief. After much incomprehension from the assembled gathering outside he was sent back in. Alright said the chief tell them life isn’t like a fountain.

  2. We grow up, take responsibility, settle into our lives and realise this is as good as it gets and we start to vote in elections. Who we vote for is partly decided for us by our parents, we choose to vote as they did or against the way they voted, and partly by economics, buying a house is not just entering into debt and committing to a partner, it’s committing to the Tories, New Labour or the Liberal Democrats.
    So, we understand how things work, and we know we’re going to get shafted but we learn to smile and be thankful for the crumbs. Then one day, when we are older and wiser? We wake up and realise that all those years of voting for Labour and the LibDems in the belief they were the lesser evil, was helping to install the global Liberal hegemony…fascism with welfare. And we realise it really was as good as it gets, and it’s got a whole lot worse in the interval.

    • Entropy Wins says

      Strangely enough Porton Down have already run CW experiments on people on the Underground as part of the US CBW research program. Given ISIS is a part MI6 creation, there should be no problem with ISIS doing the job properly after this dry run.

  3. Makropulos says

    I remember a programme in which ambient guy Brian Eno said that in the US whenever he turned on the media he had the impression of a fire hose type manoeuvre i.e. the aim was to maintain a high tension, a constant state of simmering paranoia which could be focussed at any moment in any direction the powers that be wanted.

    And it has occurred to me that the non-focussed state of this tension would have the effect of nagating any independant movement by having the people constantly mis-trusting each other.

    • Makropulos says

      Sorry, “nagating” shoud be “negating”.

  4. Francis Lee says

    Yes, listening to the ”news” first thing in the morning is a dispiriting experience. The usual fare of daily tripe doled out by the newsreader, who might have even been replaced by a robotic device. And then duly regurgitated by the true believers – who could also be supplanted by robots – consisting of bile, hate and sub-schizoid fantasy. There is a very interesting passage in 1984 here, where Orwell’s hero, Winston, is sitting in the cafeteria and is unfortunately within hearing range of some ranting party ideologue.

    ”At the table to his left a man with a strident voice was talking remorselessly away … the voice never stopped talking for an instant … He was a man of about 30 with a muscular throat and a large mobile mouth … His head was thrown back a little, and because of the angle he was sitting, his spectacles caught the light and presented to Winston two blank discs instead of eyes. What was slightly horrible was the stream of noise which poured out of his mouth. It was almost impossible to distinguish a single word. Just once, Winston caught a phrase, – ‘complete and final elimination of Goldsteinism’ – jerked out very rapidly and then, as it seemed, like a line of type cast solid. For the rest it was just a noise, just a quack-quack-quacking of duckspeak …

    As he watched eyeless face with the jaw moving up and down, Winston had a curious feeling that this was not a human being but some kind of dummy. It was not the man’s brain that was speaking it was his larynx. The stuff that was coming out of him consisted of words, but it was not speech in the true sense: it was a noise uttered in unconsciousness, like the quacking of a duck.”

    I am reminded of the time which during a televised interview with the US ex Secretary of State, Madelaine Albright whether she thought the deaths of in excess of 500,000 Iraqi children under the age of 5 which occurred during the two Gulf wars worth it. ‘Yes’ she replied ‘It was worth it’ Not a blink from the MSM the liberal literati and enlightened milieux of the west. Upon hearing this I didn’t know what to think or say. It was a bolt from the blue which basically destroyed all my assumptions about human beings. All my bearings were gone; was this woman really human? Were Rachel Maddow and the rest of the neo-con crowd really human? And on and on. I was left almost believing in David Icke’s view that these beings are really some type of reptilian imposers. Who knows? Things have got so out of whack that anything seems possible.

    I think this really does give us an idea of what we are up against. Humanity of barbarism.

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    • wardropper says

      “Yes, listening to the ”news” first thing in the morning is a dispiriting experience.”
      My solution is to get up after noon.

  5. BigB says

    Very clever, natural and uncontrived; the way Ed Curtin weaves Berger through this piece …to arrive at the apocalyptic (for me) “Ways of Seeing”: perhaps Berger’s masterpiece and epic TV series. I must have watched it at least a dozen times, and when I’m bored; I’ll watch it again. It is no cliche to say it opened my eyes.

    I fully concur that we need to break the mould and kick the habit, to find new ways of seeing. The “screen of cliches”; the reductionist myths; the established regimes of truth and power; the grand narrative of separation; doesn’t speak to me any more. It never really did.

    To step away from the description and into the art: that is what Berger taught me. To step from the conceptual into the actual. The discursive is not the reality; or the lived experience of the reality. It is a mask, a screen, not even a relational one: and far from a compensation. Why exchange a system of cliches for the lived experience? I’m really not sure …didn’t someone say “humankind cannot bear very much reality”. Having studied Sanskrit and Pali, Eliot should have known better (perhaps he mistook a grand narrative of his own?). It is the cliches I cannot stand. The art is the lived experience. Art does not mimic life, in the ways the descriptive cliche does …art is life. To see is to see life.

    Thanks John for the lesson. Thanks Ed for reminding me.

    • Robbobbobin says

      ‘True’ art (‘true’ insight), and that–for different reasons–is not usually on chocolate boxes or (yet) in steel vaults, is our replacement for religion since, pace Nietzsche, God died (and, incidentally, is the source of all identity politics: you don’t imagine we chocaholics hate Muslims for no good reason, do you?), essentially a bridge of form into the formlessness of actuality. It is the seeming ravings of minds that have been into that abyss as schooled adults and returned with enough strength and lucidity to map its edges for others to use when approaching it. The formlessness of reality id not something any sentient being, far less organised groups of sentient beings, can survive (let alone survive in, without the grace of God or his many temporal personae–Instinct (even some dogs go mad), Philosophy, Psychology, Science and All. Of course ‘true’ art and ‘true’ truth are co-opted or exterminated (there’s no other option) by the those whom actuality has rendered not egoless but psychotic – all God’s chillin got stomachs too.

      • Robbobbobin says

        Typo. For:

        (let alone survive in,

        read:

        (let alone survive in)

        • BigB says

          I’m glad you mentioned Nietzsche: art is the human project …not half a calf pickling in a tank! Which we actualise by our “down-goings” and “over-goings”. I would disagree that the premature admonition of the “death of God” is the source of identify politics. Our identity crisis has no first cause as such. Our history is a history of self. The identity crisis, psychoses and neuroses are co-evolutionary. Our sense of separation is a function of dualistic language. What came first: mind, self, or language? Or are they co-determined, co-dependent and pan-historic?

          What is formlessness? Consciousness is dependent on form. Consciousness is form, and form is consciousness. “Consciousness is always consciousness of something” is the essence of phenomenology. I can posit “formlessness”, but I cannot experience it. Thus, are down-goings and over-goings into the “formlessness of actuality” anything but linguistic abstracts? Without linguistic abstractions (the discursive “screen of cliches”) there is only the actualised form of the unique lived experience, is there not? Art becomes life in the form of the here-and-now, does it not? If art becomes form, and form becomes art: is there any temporal duration to the lived experience …or is it “timeless”? If it is timeless: are there any limits to how much we can stand? You may say we cannot survive in it, but can we survive without it?

          • Robbobbobin says

            I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t speak, understand, read or write this sort of drivel when I was born. My eyes could, but wouldn’t, even focus on the tits that were essential for my continued existence. Fortunately, for the me I am now, genetics laid down from millenia before my ancestors even had human form and epigenetics from more recent generations contained just enough form for me to, mentally, cling on. But as the sum total of all the me I was then, all of that was the void in which the form the I needed to be to be to survive could be created. Fish, as they say, are not aware of the water in which they swim. For them, it is the formless in which the forms of their lives are created.

            When a young acolyte-to-be was on his way to join a monastery for a lifetime as a monk, a passing traveller asked him what that hazy shape was on the horizon. The acolyte replied, “it’s a mountain.” Some years later, as a young monk, when he was sweeping the path outside the monastery, he was again asked what that hazy shape on the horizon wss. He took the opportunity to expound on the buddha mind, the shapes of being and non-existence and so on and on until the enquirer crept quietly away, leaving the young monk talking to himself. Many years after that, still sweeping, yet another traveller asked him what was that hazy shape on the horizon. The old monk, now nearing death, hardly looked up from his daily task. “It’s a mountain,” he replied.
            (I can’t remember where I read that. Maybe in Chuang Tzu.)

            99.5% of all art, all philosophy (high and popular), all formalized religion, is unmitigated bullshit posing as insight.

  6. Fair dinkum says

    But what were you putting in your pants Edward?
    That utterly amazing and magical thing we call ‘our body’
    Beauty is not of the mind.
    Beauty is unfathomable.
    Just BE.

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    • Robbobbobin says

      “To do is to be.” — Socrates
      “To be or not to be.” — William Shakespeare
      “To be is to do.” — Jean-Paul Sartre
      “Dooby dooby doo.” — Frank Sinatra
      “Yabba dabba doo” — Fred Flinstone
      “Dabba dabba doo” — Kate Bush
      “Do be a do be.” — Miss Louise
      “Scooby-doobee-doo” — Scooby Doo

      —— Usenet

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      • Fair dinkum says

        To have or to be-Erich Fromm
        Be as you are- Ramana Maharishi
        Let it be- The Beatles.

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  7. Re unsanitory habit of reading news headlines at breakfast:

    “Be careful what you take into yourself”. — Karl Jaspers, The Way to Wisdom.

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