So many of us want to make things better: the world, our lives, the lives of others. Some are driven by a vision; if not the lion and lamb cuddling up together, at least a greater harmony and wholeness. My generation of thinkers and activists is swathed in that desire. Looking back, I see this scene: I am painting a portrait of myself as earth-mother, with a child-sized globe swaddled in my arms; on the stereo, the Rolling Stones are singing “Angie,” and when they get to that line, “Sometimes I want to wrap my coat around you,” the painting is done.
A few days ago, my friend told me that her daughter and her twenty-something activist cohort see life differently from their parents’ generation. They gaze through open eyes at something terrible coming toward us, and are working with great commitment to limit the damage, to live with conviction and enjoyment despite it.
Perhaps we all want Arcadia. Even under the worst conditions, desire is free. But if history is any guide, I’m beginning to think the path of wisdom steers clear of disappointment when Arcadia doesn’t arrive. In Jewish mysticism, the divine energy poured into the creation of the world was too intense to hold. The vessels were shattered, and ever since, it has been our task to reassemble them. Can it be ambition enough to make something beautiful out of the broken pieces?
In Juan Jose Campanella’s mesmerizing film, The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos), a broken typewriter plays a small but pivotal role. It can type only the capital A, making every page an Alpine lAndscApe. In the wild clockwork of the film, that brokenness becomes a tiny lever the protagonist finally pulls, turning a lifetime of fear into the realization of love.
That’s the moment we crave, isn’t it? In politics, in love, in a thousand reasons to worry, we want to be there when the blockage clears, when the debris of a storm finally allows the river to lift it past the rocks, when spiritual impediment floats away, a parched leaf riding the wind. When certainty gallops into the frame astride a white horse.
I’ve been realizing I usually wait to write till the brokenness subsides. I like to know what I think and feel before I set it down. But my own levers are a little stuck and rusty these days. I’m postponing writing a grant proposal for my new book, doubting that the operators of our post-meltdown arts economy will finally choose this moment to anoint me with livelihood. I’m postponing starting the new book, even though I know absolutely that it must be written, and what’s more (whether this is authorial hubris or mere realism) that it must be read.
This is all a matter of a few days, mind you. Next week, I know, the proposal will be in and the draft in progress. Most likely, starting to act instead of agonize will create its own pleasure and momentum, and the stuck, rusty feeling will flake away.
But just now, the gap between my sense of how things should be and how they are has opened wide, and my normally indefatigable energy has been leaking into the breach. I see the toxic spill of disappointment, of discouragement, and the damage it does, but I’m having trouble cleaning it up. In the meantime, I’m seeking guidance from movies.
In the documentary Examined Life, by Astra Taylor, a slew of hip and cool philosophers ruminate on life as they walk or ride or row with the filmmaker. Cornel West went straight to the heart of what is bothering me, by pointing to the Romantic desire for wholeness and harmony as the source of our perpetual (and often disabling) disappointment:
Can you make things whole? Can you create harmony? If you can’t: disappointment….[T]he language of failure and disappointment, disenchantment, disillusionment, is a little bit Romantic for me…. Why not have a sense of gratitude that you’re able to do as much as you did? That you’re able to love as much and think as much and play as much? Why think you need the whole thing? Where’s the expectation that you need the whole thing coming from?
… America’s a very fragile, democratic experiment predicated on the disposition of the lands of indigenous people and the enslavement of African people and the subjugation of workers and women and the marginalization of gays and lesbians. It has great potential, but this notion that somehow we had it all or ever will have it all—that’s got to go, you’ve got to push it to the side.
And once you push all that to the side, then it tends to evacuate the language of disappointment and the language of failure. And you say, OK, how much have we done? How have we been able to do it? Can we do more? In some situations you can’t do more. It’s like trying to break-dance at seventy-five, you can’t do it anymore! You were a master at sixteen; it’s over! Does that make you a failure? Hell no! …You don’t need to be disappointed you can’t break-dance at seventy-five the way you did at fifteen. The way you can’t make love at eighty the way you did at twenty—so what? Time is real!
Neither West nor any of the other filmmakers and subjects I quote here believes that accepting the brokenness requires—or even invites—resignation. So I am asking myself, what if surrendering my expectation of wholeness and harmony amounted to nothing more than sacrificing an illusion? What if doing that enabled me to drop the burden of disappointment?
A month ago, The Shalom Center (which I have the honor of serving as Board President) presented the playwright Tony Kushner and several Philadelphia-based artists and activists with its Prophetic Voices award. (Here are my remarks on that occasion.) In lieu of a speech, Kushner was interviewed by another honoree, filmmaker Ilana Trachtman. He said on that evening that if President Obama is defeated for re-election, it won’t be because the right has a better candidate or campaign, but on account of the left’s despair, which he characterized as impatience with Obama’s failure to achieve enough change with enough speed to satisfy progressives.
I’ve been thinking about this ever since: my disappointment with so many of Obama’s policies has been vocal. Is it that old infantile disorder, left-wing dissatisfaction? But then I realized that what I feel about Obama isn’t despair. It isn’t that I expected him to bring heaven on earth and find myself crushed by disillusionment. Nor have I given up on him; I want him to be better.
In Freida Lee Mock’s 2006 documentary about Kushner, Wrestling With Angels, he addresses despair as an ethical lapse:
As far as I’m concerned, it is an ethical obligation to look for hope. It’s an ethical obligation not to despair if you can possibly not despair. If you look, there’s always a possibility of finding a place where action can change the course of things.
And maybe that’s what it comes down to, that my idea of that place—of the space for generative action—differs from Kushner’s. That he sees President Obama as more fenced in by systemic exigencies than I do, while I have a hard time getting past the untold billions for Afghanistan, the offshore drilling, the failure to create publicly funded jobs in the face of epidemic unemployment.
But I also see his point. A few months after Obama’s election, I was on a panel with a scholar who said he’d had hopes for Obama, but now he understood they were vain. Expecting Arcadia breeds despair, no doubt, and despair opens space for those who come from certainty to gallop into the frame and seize the day.
In Examined Life, Cornel West says,
[W]hy start with this obsession with wholeness? And if you can’t have it then you’re disappointed, want to have a drink, and melancholia, and blah blah blah blah.
No, you see, the blues—my kind of blues—begins with catastrophe, begins with the angel of history, and Benjamin’s thesis, you see. It begins with the pile-up of wreckage, one pile on another, that’s the starting point. The blues is personal catastrophe lyrically expressed. And Black people in America and in the modern world, given these viscous legacies of white supremacy, it is how do you generate an elegance of earned self-togetherness, so that you have a stick-to-it-ness in the face of the catastrophic, and the calamitous, and the horrendous, and the scandalous, and the monstrous.
West is referring to a famous quote from the philosopher Walter Benjamin, inspired by a little painting of an angel by Paul Klee that he owned. He saw the figure as the angel of history: “His face is turned towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage.”
Elsewhere in the film, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek uses the same word, catastrophe, to demolish our Romantic idea of nature as whole and perfect, with nothing but our own interventions to destabilize the balance:
Nature is a series of unimaginable catastrophes. We profit from them. What is our main source of energy today? Oil. Are we aware what oil is? Oil reserves under the earth are material remains of unimaginable catastrophes. We all know that oil is composed of remains of animal life, plants, and so on. Can you imagine what kind of unthinkable catastrophes had to occur on earth?
We humans have pitched our tents on the wreckage. “Why not have a sense of gratitude that you’re able to do as much as you did?” asks Cornel West. “That you’re able to love as much and think as much and play as much?”
The Secret in Their Eyes comprises two related stories, one an event from twenty-five years earlier, the other a contemporary attempt to make sense of the past and to set it right. One thing I loved about the film is the way shards of dialogue, plot, and image are redeployed from the flashback story to the current one, a mosaic remaking itself, radiating new meanings with each new configuration. One character after another demonstrates both the splintering extremity of human brokenness and the tremendous grace of which we are capable, despite being shattered.
What if that were enough? What energy might flow then, to clear away the debris of despair?