New College of California, 22 October 2003
© Arlene Goldbard 2003
Not to be reprinted without permission from the author
Before I begin, I want to offer a dedication. Each of us is one link in a chain of souls that stretches back to the beginning of human history and forward to its end. When we stand to offer whatever wisdom can be drawn from our own lives and thoughts, the voices of our teachers echo in our hearts, and our voices extend to the students of our teachers and to their students, and to their students, generation to generation to generation.
I’d like to dedicate my talk to the memory of the great teacher and student Paulo Freire, whose brilliant work helped us understand how minds may be colonized by oppressive ideas, and how culture can help those who live as the passive objects of history to become its subjects. These are two of the themes I want to talk to you about tonight. May his memory be a blessing to all those who are touched by his work.
Let’s start with a reality check. How many of us see ourselves as reasonably intelligent, perceptive people, who can generally comprehend what is happening around us? (Show of hands)
And how many of us still have trouble believing that Arnold Schwarzenegger has been elected governor? Like when you wake up in the morning and glance at the headlines, is there a persistent little voice in your head that says “Holy shit, I still can’t believe it!”? (Show of hands)
The way I see it, there are two possible explanations for this dissonance. Either we have sadly overestimated our ability to perceive what is actually happening, or there is a warp in the fabric we are being asked to accept as reality.
My money is on the second proposition. For about half our time together this evening, I am going to tell you why I believe the reality we are being asked to accept is profoundly distorted, and suggest what we can do about it. At the end of my talk, we’ll have time for questions and discussion.
When we encounter a remarkable dissonance between reality as we perceive it and what others are telling us is real, that triggers our anxiety. Some people hate this feeling so much, their response is to do everything in their power to end it. They anesthetize themselves with the drugs that support the illusions of ego; they numb themselves with conspicuous consumption; they seek to dispel their own sense of helplessness by bending others to their will; or if they happen to be world leaders, they order troops halfway around the world to bomb their anxiety into oblivion.
But some of us embrace our anxiety because we know it carries essential information. The feeling that we are living in a surreal society is a sign, the canary in the coal mine. It says that something big is happening, and we had better pay attention. My friend Gary Stewart describes himself as being not on the cutting edge, but on the bleeding edge, of cultural change. Here on the bleeding edge, we can see that there is a great deal of movement, conflict, and dissonance. We cannot know now whether the contractions we feel are birth pangs or death throes, whether we will live to see an old paradigm crumble and give way to a new, more encompassing understanding. But we can welcome our anxiety — that surreal feeling gathering in the pit of the stomach — because it awakens us to our task as midwives for a new paradigm, and wide-awake is what we absolutely need to be.
In the old paradigm, art is entertainment, a marginal enterprise of no great consequence. Attempts to justify public arts funding, for instance, are almost always made on the basis of secondary effects that are presumed to carry more weight: we should support the arts because they create jobs; we should support the arts because they attract industry to a community or because students who take art classes earn higher test scores, or because babies who listen to Mozart in the womb read at an earlier age. If you want to know how effective such justifications have been in convincing public policy-makers — those guardians of the old paradigm — consider that the budget of the California Arts Council, whose advocates have been making these arguments for decades, was cut from $32 million two years ago to $1 million today, effectively ending its grants programs.
Out here on the bleeding edge of the new paradigm, we perceive that culture is central to our future, that in fact, culture is the crucible in which social change can now take place. We perceive that art expresses our reasons for living and for dying. We are part of the phenomenon the writer Carlos Fuentes has described as the “emergence of cultures as the protagonists of history.” We feel the power of cultural expression to illuminate, inspire, and connect; and at the same time, we see how this power may be used to obscure, dishearten and isolate.
Everywhere we turn, the tools of cultural expression — audio-visual media, computers, publications, every sort of sound and image — are being used to construct false realities and impose these falsehoods on huge segments of society.
This cultural manipulation has been so skillful and seamless that earlier this month, millions of citizens voluntarily surrendered the right to govern this vast state to an animated celluloid image of muscle-bound vengeance.
Paulo Freire wrote that each era is characterized by its own “complex of ideas, hopes, doubts, values and challenges in dialectical interaction with their opposites.” In his terms, that is our “thematic universe.”
At one pole of the dialectic, life is tightly compartmentalized. Questions of public policy are reduced to trivialities: instead of democratic dialogue about our cultural values and how we wish them to be reflected in our laws and social arrangements, we are given opportunities to make fake choices predigested by those who think they know better. Should the state spend 3 cents person on the arts, or should we fight really hard to up that to where it was before the cuts, still less than a dollar per capita? Should we cut visual art or music classes to save money in the public schools while we spend it on prisons?
In our thematic universe, insistent, pervasive forces tell us we have no way to engage with the great ideas and challenges of our time, that the best we can do is go along with the game, pretending that the choice between Davis and Schwarzenegger is democracy at its finest. They tell us the best way to live is to stick to a little life, tightly bounded by family, work, and consumption. They tell us to keep our heads down and hope for the best, which increasingly translates into the hope that not too much will be taken away from us.
Being attuned to this voice, being addicted to its perpetual whisper — that is the common trance of our time. Far too many of us stumble through life under its spell.
The countervailing voice — the voice of wakefulness, a voice which is to a large degree carried by artists, activists and intellectuals like those in this room tonight — asserts the interconnectedness of all life, our mutual responsibility, our essential equality, the moral grandeur of which human beings are capable.
There is a mystical idea that each blade of grass has its own angel whose only purpose is to hover overhead repeatedly whispering a single word: “Grow, grow!” In the warped reality imposed on our societies by what Hans Magnus Enzensberger has called the consciousness industry — which we might also call the cultural-industrial complex — there is a malicious spirit dogging each and every one of us, whispering in our ears that we should “Shrink, shrink!” to compliance and passivity.
Which voice will we listen to? As artists, activists and intellectuals, which words will we speak?
We are in a dark time, here on the leading wedge — the bleeding edge — of cultural change, we are pushing into terra incognita. To hack our way out of the thicket of false realities, to shine a light on real possibility, we possess powerful tools: vast creativity, resilience, resourcefulness.
Our task is not one of manufacturing hope from the remnants of despair: false hope obscures reality, impairing our ability to act. Instead, our task is to see clearly, and through our clear sight, to help awaken awareness, empathy, and self-respect in others.
When we see through imposed realities, we are reminded of the essential truths of the human condition. These are the things that most of us know, but under the pressures of the common trance, it has become uncool or embarrassing to say so. In the inspired words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, our true consciousness is one of “radical amazement.” We know we are living on an enormous rock spinning through space. Through the prodigious investigations of science we know a great deal about how that rock and all its component parts and companions behave. Increasingly, we know almost all there is to know about the how of life. But no matter how hard we try to explain things, we can never know why we are here.
We are reminded of this truth when we experience the ineffable: gazing out over the Grand Canyon, standing at the edge of the ocean, listening to music that transports us to another dimension, imaginatively entering the life of another human being as portrayed onstage or onscreen. When we are present to this truth — when we are fully awake in our lives — the common trance has no attraction for us. We cannot be manipulated into using other people as things, into wasting our spirits in the preoccupations and distractions of a shrunken life. We can face disappointment without surrendering desire, we can pursue desire without expectation, suppressing neither vulnerability nor courage.
When we are awake to our radical amazement, astounding truths of our existence emerge. A core element of the common trance is to see the problems of the world as overwhelming, intractable, and dangerous even to contemplate. People who feel this way retreat into private life; socially, they are compliant and easily intimidated. To promote this stance, the operatives of the cultural-industrial complex have effected a transformation of consciousness described by the great sociologist C. Wright Mills as the conversion of public issues into private troubles.
If you can’t get a job, that’s a private trouble and a private shame, not the expression of an exploitive economy or a degraded public sector. The vast migrations from the south to the north of this planet by what the Europeans euphemistically call “guest workers” are private troubles multiplied by millions. People make the unfortunate choice to be born to starving parents, or have too many siblings, or forget to obtain higher education, or merely have the bad judgment to live in a country that globalization is remaking into a feed lot for cheap labor — and isn’t that just too bad for them? But hey, that’s their problem to solve.
In reality, our public issues are approachable. Everything we need to heal the world is already in place on our poor suffering planet. There is enough food to feed the hungry, care for the sick, shelter for the homeless, love for the rejected. In the end, the obstacle is not a dearth of resources or ideas, it’s getting human beings to agree on a course of action.
Let me give you an example. I am an admirer of the economist Amartya Sen, whose ground-breaking work on the causes of famine turned on the elegantly simple observation that “Starvation is the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat. It is not the characteristic of there being not enough food to eat.” The impoverishment of much of the world, which we are now accustomed to see as private troubles (or at best an “act of God”), is in reality the aggregate of decisions by some human beings that poorer people’s access to food and the other means of sustenance is a negligible concern. Reams of analysis on famine and every other social problem have been published, and much of it ignores this basic truth: the main thing holding us back from making needed change is awareness strong and clear enough to rouse us, to turn us toward healing the world and to reject what keeps us from it.
Artists have the power to shine a light on these truths, to bring light into a dark time. But we don’t always use it. The common trance is not the only form of waking slumber. As we see all around us in the tidal wave of advertising that engulfs our public space, even artistic creativity can be distorted toward greedy or heartless ends.
Even positive impulses, such as the desire to oppose injustice, can be distorted into oppressions. Consider how expression and creativity are suppressed in authoritarian states, where a party line rejects artwork that does not reflect the myth of the state as the source of justice and freedom. In any society, in any movement on the right or left, there are always ideologues ready to tell us what we must do to be real artists, what style or content we must adopt. But in truth, adherence to any ideology or fixed position puts us to sleep. Instead of responding to reality as it unfolds in the moment, loyalty to an ideology causes us to view experience through a grid of preconceptions. We cannot see what is there, only our ideas about it.
In the face of all this, how do artists and intellectuals remain awake and aware? How do we keep our own vision clear? It seems to me that falling into complacency is very easy, but the antidote is close to hand: self-questioning, rather than locking onto a position and holding tight. It is human to want to feel confirmed in our convictions, especially when we espouse marginal or controversial views. But this often translates into insulating oneself from the world with a cocoon of easy approval. This form of comfort is a trap, luring us like the sweet scent of a poisonous flower.
Earlier, I invited you to welcome your anxiety as a sign that you are awake. Now I advise you to welcome self-questioning as the means of staying that way. Every one of us views the world through warps and flaws and biases in our perceptual apparatus; no one is a perfectly clear lens. No one can bring the full picture into focus simultaneously. Identifying with any interpretation leaves others out. To keep our vision clear, it is essential to remain aware of our own particular distortions, to interrogate our own assumptions.
I want to touch on just one of many possible examples, the problem of figure and ground. Have you seen that optical puzzle that transforms the image of a goblet into two people in profile, face-to-face? If you stare long enough at the goblet, the profiles pop out. Once you get the knack of it, it’s easy to toggle the two images at will: goblet-profiles-goblet-profiles.
This trick demonstrates a characteristic of human perception. Images of both goblet and profiles are there all along. What changes is our perception of the figure and the ground on which it rests: when we bring one into the foreground, the other recedes. The imposed realities of the consciousness industry often turn on such matters of figure and ground. When we try to understand what is happening around us, what do we tend to see as foreground or the main event, and what tends to fade into the background?
We encounter many situations where designations of figure and ground are central to meaning, forcing a particular interpretation. For example, in medicine, the intended effects of a drug are brought to the foreground by characterizing its other effects — equally real and often equally profound — as “side-effects.”
Or, as we’ve seen so much lately, the language of war is full of terms that assert a fixed relationship between figure and ground. Bombs are aimed at “strategic targets,” such as military installations. If they miss the mark and destroy a schoolyard, that’s called “collateral damage,” a bloodless term for “side-effects.”
When war statistics are announced at a press conference, a uniformed spokesperson lists successes: how many planes and tanks destroyed, how many soldiers killed or captured. A reporter might flip figure and ground, probing beyond the euphemism of “collateral damage” to learn about civilian casualties. A lot rests on which aspect of the war is considered the foreground: if the number of non-combatants killed vastly exceeds the number of enemy soldiers, as in Vietnam, perhaps this will become the foreground, and the war will lose popular support.
In magic, this is called “misdirection,” creating a distraction to direct audience members’ attention elsewhere while sleight-of-hand is being performed. When George Bush and his minions do it on television — shoving arguments about 9/11 and weapons of mass destruction into the background and foregrounding the doctrine of pre-emptive strikes for their own sake — I think of the end of the Wizard of Oz, with the wizard insisting that Dorothy and her friends should “ignore the man behind the curtain.”
Artists have the power to pull back the curtain, allowing reality to be seen in its full complexity.
Let me tell you about theater artists Paul Heritage and Barbara Santos, who work with the Center for the Theatre of the Oppressed in Rio, Augusto Boal’s organization. In the Community, Culture and Globalization anthology (available free from the publications section of www.rockfound.org), Paul wrote about a project they did in prisons in Brazil, working with both guards and prisoners. Going into the project, the foreground seemed clear: the appalling situation of the prisoners was the main concern, with guards perceived primarily as obstacles to the work.
As Paul wrote, “The role the guard has come to play in the prison is to extend the boundaries of punishment beyond that of the sentence. To do so they must sever the human connection the men have with each other, with themselves as guards and with society beyond the prison. The theater we are trying to create seeks to do the opposite.”
But what they learned through that theater work is that the roles guards play are also conditioned on the treatment meted out to them by society, which then helps to shape their treatment of prisoners. “What I could not have predicted,” Paul wrote, “was the level of emotion and anger toward the society that discriminates against them for where they work. As one of them said in an early workshop, the three worst jobs in Sao Paulo are street cleaner, grave digger and prison guard, but the prison guard is the worst because it combines the work of the other two. Nor could I have expected to hear a guard say at the end of one of the workshops that he loved the chance to do the drama games because for the two hours of the workshop he forgot he was in prison.”
It would be ridiculous to claim that doing theater work together will make guards and prisoners one big happy family. But neither are their human potentials completely circumscribed by their respective roles: just as not every prisoner is a hero, not every guard is a sadist; just as not every prisoner is a villain, not every guard is a protector. We are all people of mixed motives, and that is the basis for real hope.
The point is that I cannot conceive of a context other than the crucible of art — other than enacting their stories in equal humanity, a possibility in theater that often eludes us in “real life” — that demonstrates how much can be changed by pushing past our assumed or imposed ideas about what is worth our attention, by flipping figure and ground to show how things look from the other side.
If we are wide awake as artists, we see much more, both of our own lives and of the big world. It’s easy to let the focus slide inward into a narcissistic self-involvement, or conversely, outward into an obsession with the news. Where is balance? How do artists and intellectuals integrate our deepest individual truths with our concerns for the world?
Let me tell you about one answer. Choreographer Liz Lerman has a framework she uses in creating dance that touches on social issues. Liz calls it “big story, little story,” shorthand for connecting one’s own truth with the larger truth, for looking “for our own personal stories inside the larger fabric of history.” It’s the opposite of the consciousness industry’s conversion of public issues into private troubles. In this process, self-knowledge unlocks knowledge of the wide world. The artist asks, “What kind of headache do I have? Who else has a headache?” The artist asks, “What dream do I have? Who else has a dream?” The artist asks, “How can my own little story connect with the big story of my times?”
Liz’s company created a piece entitled “Safe House: Still Looking,” inspired by the history of the Underground Railway in Wilmington, Delaware. Each individual dancer devised a solo telling a personal, contemporary story that touched on the themes of running away, aiding refugees, the comfort of the known and the fear of the unknown. These were interspersed with “larger-group sections that contained either fierce dancing, stories taken from the narratives of escaped slaves or sections involving the whole group in a kind of prayer.” Here’s how Liz wrote about it in Community, Culture and Globalization:
“So we found ourselves making a dance about historical safe houses while also performing in houses. One of these performances took place in a rather small home, which meant that most of the dancing occurred in very tight spaces. At one point in the evening, the dancers scattered throughout the house to perform their solos…. Each reported how strangely real it became to try to move expansively in small spaces and to tell stories of running in the night, terror, escape and comfort while dancing in a linen closet, a tiny space under the stairs, behind a door or in a dark bathroom. All reported that it changed the way they next performed the work on stage….
“The final performance…took place in the Quaker meeting House where Thomas Garrett and Harriet Tubman did so much of their work…. He was a member of the Quaker Meeting and is buried in the courtyard. She led many escaped slaves through Wilmington, often relying on his protection. At the conclusion of the performance, we taught the audience a simple dance made up of some of the gestures they had just seen. We again mentioned the incredible strength of these two individuals. We asked the audience to think of their own ancestors who they would wish to ‘walk with them’ in this life.
Then we invited everyone outside to perform the dance in the courtyard in close proximity to Garrett’s grave. Suddenly the first movement of the dance, reaching down and touching the earth, had concrete meaning; it was no longer just a symbol. Likewise, the gesture of reaching back to make a beckoning circle of the lower arm took on new meaning, as if we were calling Mr. Garrett and Ms. Tubman to join us in the present.”
Or consider another example, a wonderful documentary film called Galoot, which means “exile” in Hebrew, by Asher de Bentolila Tlalim. The Israeli filmmaker and his wife move to London, both to escape the horror of life at home and so that she can study for her PhD. At graduate school, for the first time in their lives, they meet Palestinians as equals, Palestinians who also find themselves in exile in a foreign land and have never before encountered Israelis on equal terms. Cautiously, they begin to forge friendships, and the experience is like walking on slippery rocks over deep icy water. They struggle to peel away the layers of myth their parents’ generations have used to muffle the rough edges of their separate and mutual histories, to find their own true stories beneath the curtain.
In one masterful sequence, a pair of Palestinian students reach deep inside themselves trying to convey to the filmmaker the pain, the extremity of their exile. They ask him to imagine what it is like to be ejected in the night from one’s home, to take only what you can quickly carry away, to know that others now live in the house that is rightfully yours, that others are using your stove to cook the dinner that should have fed your family.
You can feel the Palestinians’ desire to connect, and at the same time see them shrugging with the expectation of frustration you might feel in asking me to imagine life on Mars, so far-fetched does it seem.
But in truth, not much imagination was needed. The next shot cuts to a faded Fifties snapshot of the filmmaker’s family walking down a street in Tangiers, a short time before they were forced out of Morocco under cover of night with just the clothes they could carry, never to reclaim what had been theirs. Decades later, the filmmaker and his brother visit Morocco, find their family house, are admitted by the current inhabitants to briefly walk its halls, remarking on a familiar lamp, a stretch of tile that evokes tender memories. The merchant whose shop stands across the street tells them he remembers the family that used to live in that house, that he wonders whatever happened to them.
In the little stories of these two families — the Palestinians ejected from their homes in what became Israel, the Jews ejected from Morocco — an enormous saga of pain and loss is told. It’s not that an easy answer to the big story emerges from the shared experience of exile, but rather that the sharing of little stories makes it impossible to accept easy answers, and that is real progress.
Let me move on to one of Paulo Freire’s most potent concepts, “internalization of the oppressor,” the way we absorb disabling or belittling ideas about ourselves from those who have an interest in keeping us powerless and small.
To remain awake, we must notice when we’ve tailored our sense of possibility to someone else’s specifications, and that’s not always easy to do. As artists, how do we protect our own imaginations from being colonized?
My own life as an artist began in another era and another medium. I had grown up in the Fifties certain that I wanted to be a painter. I drew obsessively, read as many art books as I could lay my hands on, took all the classes my school had to offer. I also had a keen sense of injustice and a passion to make the world a better place, expressed in such actions as refusing to take part in the duck-and-cover air-raid drills I felt were training us to accept the inevitability of war.
In the Sixties, the early years of American military involvement in Vietnam, I became a committed peace activist, working as a draft counselor, taking part in demonstrations, turning my artistic talents to posters and flyers for the cause. Later, I also worked as an organizer for activist artists — for example, for a group called the San Francisco Art Workers’ Coalition, dedicated to reforming publicly-funded cultural institutions, pressuring them to diversify the art they exhibited and to make their governing boards accountable to the public whose taxes paid the bills. I still think these were worthy and constructive projects.
But through this experience, I absorbed a mass of leftist political and cultural lore, a prefab ideology. The militant spirit and critique of privilege at large in that period called into question the whole enterprise of “being an artist.” It came to seem a most unworthy role — in essence, creating decor for wealthy patrons — and selfish to boot, indulging one’s appetite for beauty and meaning as compared to subsuming personal desires in the great struggle for peace and justice. I allowed the direction of my life to be shaped only by my social imagination and political dreams, repeatedly choosing to use my talent only to carry messages for others, or to help others express their creativity, which was deemed a socially worthy goal.
It wasn’t until my mid-forties that I began to feel the headache I had suppressed twenty years earlier. I was swamped by a sense of the futility of my efforts. Although I still subscribed to many of the same values — inclusion, equality, self-determination — I began to question the baggage I’d picked up while pursuing them. I had rejected potentially useful criticisms and worthy ideas because they’d been put forward by people who didn’t share my political identification, sometimes accepting instead harebrained notions that echoed the familiar pieties of the Left. (For example, I dipped frequently into the Left’s bottomless supply of benefit-of-the-doubt for Cuba and China, doing my best to dismiss those regimes’ critics as reactionaries.) Opportunities for personal creative advancement came my way, but I disdained them as reinforcing privilege or associating my work with institutions of which I disapproved.
Irony of ironies, looking back from twenty years on, I saw that I had surrendered my own voice as an artist to work instead for the principle that everyone should have a voice! I had traded the multi-dimensional, impassioned, numinous world of my artistic vision for a flattened, materialist universe in which all things could be reduced to the distribution of goods and services, to contested rights and power-struggles.
The fact that I stopped questioning orthodoxies in service of a good cause doesn’t cancel the stark reality that in doing so, I allowed my imagination to be colonized. I surrendered wide-awake unbounded awareness for an ideology that amounted to sleepwalking through life. I saw myself as free because I took exception to the received idea of the artist as serving wealth and privilege, but I failed to notice that in doing so, I had fallen into another ready-made closely constrained identity, the artist as servant of the revolution.
Apart from the distorting effect this had on my own life and work, it also limited my impact as an activist. To be effective, activists need to be wide-awake, so as to observe and correct our own shortcomings. For example, one of the chief weaknesses of progressive activism is its proclivity to advocate general principles of liberty and justice while demanding its own rank-and-file work under conditions and within constraints that would be loudly protested if imposed on, say, factory laborers or office workers.
If we are for freedom of expression, that has to include our own expressions. If we believe everyone is entitled to a decent livelihood, that includes ourselves. If we believe that every person’s story has value, and everyone has the human right to grow and develop — and in the words of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that everyone has the right to culture — well then, that has to include ourselves. Doesn’t it?
Writing rather than painting has become my art form, and my goal as an artist is to awaken people to the empowering, open-hearted, ideology-free state of radical amazement, which leads to the pursuit of mercy and justice. The antidote to the common trance is to dream boldly, act boldly. The ultimate questions of art are the ultimate questions of life: what is it to be fully alive, to make use of the gift of life in a way that honors its awesome nature? What does it mean to live in alignment with our deepest values, the sources of our dynamism instead of the things that hold it back? How do we focus our considerable energies on healing the world, instead of wasting them in engagement with things that don’t matter?
I don’t pretend these are easy questions. An artist who embraces them will face many obstacles. The discouraging social forces I have already described are arrayed against us, urging us to shrink into our little selves, our more tractable and malleable selves.
But these forces cannot prevail unless we accede to their arguments. Under the common trance, that acquiescence is often tacit, even unconscious: the tongue of personal inhibition slides so easily into the groove of social passivity. We are loyal to our first fears — of public embarrassment, of risking unpopularity, of disapproval, of irking someone we see as having power in our lives, of having to defend convictions against others more glib or forceful than ourselves. We repeat our first desires — for comfort, safety, the protection of hiding behind something larger than ourselves, to be left alone. It requires a tremendous commitment to awareness to stay awake in the face of these temptations.
But there is also great potential for excitement, intensity, and meaning, the priceless satisfactions of a creative life. So far as I know, this is the only life we will have. How can we bear to waste it? We have been given an astonishing task: to awaken from the common trance that co-opts us into repulsive violence, destructive greed, new depths of exploitation and indifference. No one knows how many people need to wake up before the trance is effectively broken. For all we know, it could need only one more to tip the balance. Look around the room: it could be the person sitting in front of you. It could be you.
There is no art form that cannot be deployed in the service of awakening, there is no style or approach that cannot help. There is no form of social action that cannot be shaped by the values of awareness, empathy, and self-respect. Even mundane tasks — filling out forms, going to meetings — are elevated and intensified if understood as part of the meta-act of awakening awareness. With this understanding, I want to pose one more question: how would your work change if you chose each step, each gesture, each utterance mindful of its potential to help to break the common trance? If we choose tasks and collaborators hospitable to our own open-eyed truths, if we allow ourselves to be inspired by whatever we find most urgent and real, everything we do as artists, activists, and intellectuals will help.
In my daily life, music is the art form that most fully engages my spirit, offering consolation and inspiration. It allows us to glimpse the ineffable source of radical amazement through its mysterious power to attune, evoke, to move our bodies and our spirits. And I can listen while I write. Leonard Cohen, a writer and musician for whom I feel a great affinity, has a way with words as well as notes. I especially admire his ability to join heaven and earth, the transcendent and the immanent. I want to end by quoting a lyric that for me, sums up the heart and soul of the artistic mission of bringing light to a dark time, and the hilarious, courageous absurdity of accepting it.
I fought against the bottle,
But I had to do it drunk —
Took my diamond to the pawnshop —
But that don’t make it junk.
Cohen’s lines say that the difficulties we may face in our endeavor in no way degrade or diminish it. The moral grandeur of this effort to awaken compassion cannot be tarnished by exposure to the common trance.
May each and every one of us know the truth of this simple message. May all of us find ways to connect to the big story; may all of us resist the message to shrink. May our hearts, minds, and spirits remain free, and may we use our gifts to heal the world.