Reality. We cannot change the world. Let us finally disabuse ourselves of that delusion. Our reality has become a complex system of enclosure and insistence. A vicious, totalizing machine producing phantasmal personas—identities—in perpetuity. At least until, spiritually speaking, it kills us: appropriation, conformation, corruption, nihilation. Until nothing truly different and interesting remains. Until all beauty ends. Until all imperfection and idiocy—what is most one’s own—have become claimed in the names of justice and economy. Until then: behold this grand social sphere ever revolving around its violent axis. Power arises as its gravitation and its star pleasure. Fear has always been its atmosphere. All other shifts, relations, and transitions reckon superficially and cosmetic. A cosmic hoax. One played on us, by us. Knowledge of the trick or its many pledges and turns does not save us. We can worship in the temple of being but must remain forever outside the inner sanctuary. No escape through sacrifice or sacred games or communion. All things end. All things begin their ending as soon as they begin. Or, time. Even though we rendered its shape into something comprehensible and useful, we never transcend or destroy the immutable laws of time. Time is a most real and imaginary thing. The transitory, fleeting nature of life needs no defense. Being is fugitive. Yet, however well-embedded in human consciousness the concept has become as a fundamental continuum in and by which everything occurs and all things exist, time—like any other observable property or theoretically deducible principle—arose originally as a way to measure what is. A word to help us understand some essential aspect of being. Perhaps being itself by another name. I do not know. Is time truly an irresistible law? Part of the basic staging of reality? It certainly seems to eat up everything that comes to be simply to grow it all again. Time: the timeless villain. And yet: the perpetual redeemer.
Again, I want to speak principally, though not exclusively, of the social world. The conceptual and relational world. I speak of its unending war against us. Even the rebel, the radical, the revolutionary—ex post facto—become founding fathers, hierophantic cornerstones, courageous martyrs. The heroic dead find themselves woven into canonical tapestries that serve as antipodal testaments. The social world jealously guards itself against radical ideas. It passionately, if coldly, preserves its path. As a totalizing system of institutions, states, ideologies, worldviews, and methodologies, it marginalizes human benevolence and nature’s beauty as impractical and absurd notions or it lays claim to such sentiments and movements when it must, twisting them towards its own preservation and expansion. Arrogation, commodification, recapitulation, reification, ossification: the commandeering of the world’s dimensions and our own mysteries, until, through near-perfected socio-psychological and economic procedures, we gladly participate in our own cultural and private expropriation. We imprison what we fail to give away of ourselves. The Flayed Man becomes our banner, The Hanged Man, sans halo, our emblem. All is forgiven for a smart device, stylish clothes, something delicious, a tantalizing game. Contemplative and material philosophies join in criticism: Gestell und Verdinglichung! The promise of a more enlightened, equitable, and contented society (spuriously) spurs all legislation and social agendas. Science and technology and history’s “lessons” vitally assist us… Unless we remember that we have never been wholly capable of change.
Our most basic rituals chart and testify to reintegration after transition, not change itself. Journeys conclude by returning home. Since ancient times we have sought ways to trick the gods and nature through exchanges of one thing for another. Prices paid or avoided by having someone or something else pay it. Magic, money, concepts, games. Ethics. Kindness has become adopting rescue dogs or giving up a few dollars to the homeless. Beauty tokens an industry and a way of talking about how you feel about yourself. Images and self-image leave no room for the self and its imagination. Self-image has replaced the self and acceptance and self-love have displaced self-understanding and agonistic self-becoming. A violence of intolerant tolerance results, revealing itself most in our perfected narcissism. Slow thinking and fathomless compassion have lost all footing. A society of ideological reactions and fury. Real things happen every day while nothing truly happens. Accomplishment has become so bound up with the metaphysics of causality—historically conditioned subconscious assumptions about hyperbolic correlations—that nothing gets accomplished and nobody understands the cause of anything. All the rhetoric encouraging civic engagement relies on either a) reductive ideological platitudes grounded in uncritical presumptions or b) a privileged and un-ironic sense of resentment towards society’s perceived indifference or antagonism towards our individuated desires and corporate aspirations. Justice is projection. Activists are sociopaths.
Certainly, times change. Cultures adjust. We can speak of epochs or ages (although that can be a deceptive practice.) The collective imagination evolves, barriers break, we find boundaries transgressed, and new laws passed. Particularities of the times become disagreeable. Perhaps even abhorrent. Yet it all seems inessential, ephemeral, contingent. All the old prejudices lie in wait to return at opportune moments of discontent (or an excess of content). Honestly, the sort of world in which most of us would like to live looks as far off and unlikely now as it ever has. Except for those whose vision for that world has the power of dogma or naiveté behind it. We still kill each other over money, we still ruin lives and landscapes in order to maintain a high level of unnecessary consumption, we still fight over opposing national identities, ethnic groups, and religious affiliations, we still hate one another due to issues of race, gender, and sexuality. It appears that The Angel of History, whose wings were long ago caught in the storm of progress, still finds himself unable to tarry and tend to the wreckage of this world. Perhaps it is in our inability to tarry and tend the wreckage that we find the poetic impulse to say: only a god can save us. Then we immediately remind ourselves of the most significant event of modernity: we killed all the gods. Only idols remain. And yet they too fade into their final twilight. Remnants of untimely thinking.
As Hamlet before us, we turned inward. Our heavens and hells arose within our own minds. The sociology of shame gave way to the psychology of guilt. The mortal being (anthropos, distinct from the gods and therefore necessarily pathetic) became a person (persona, a character in a play), the person became a subject (subjectus, the person placed before him or herself as his or her own object of cognitive domination and origination), the subject became its own other, its own alien, its own stranger (extraneus, one that comes from without). Once we started encountering our own being as some stranger who did not belong we invented methods of cognitive rehabilitation and social reincorporation. A process eventually achieving impossibility and deification in the age of psychological pathology. Freedom had to become synonymous with wholeness, wholeness with self-acceptance. We donned masks to assist us in modifying our behavior for new socio-political realities. Seemingly preferable. We covered up the appetites and irrationalities that were most our own as sacrifices to and for civility. We set ourselves outside of ourselves only to rediscover ourselves later as lost selves hiding amongst various products and reified affiliations requiring our time and dollars. Unknowingly, we found only semblances of who we once were. And yet we continue to be sold on the idea that we very much need to re-appropriate our true or genuine self. Be authentic, be real. This self, unfortunately, has become transubstantiated and dispersed into a variety of commodities only attainable when we define ourselves as individuals within or against select group identities. Socially conditioned tastes. Then, through correct cognitive apprehension of our identity—the proper labeling and categorizing, however fluid and overlapping, of our feelings, experiences, tendencies, and values—we once again become clients capable of bearing our own being through the world. A theoretical capability demonstrable via our consumptive choices, negative mood thresholds, group affiliations and aversions, and the pursuit of happiness as euphoria. A whole self then reemerges that is, ironically un-ironically, the same self the social world required we relinquish. But now “rediscovered” hollow and comprehensible. Now bored, now amused, now sterilized. Still, we gladly welcome ourselves back into the world that demanded we lose our own distinct being in the first place: “The liberty of the individual is no gift of civilization.” And this does not simply apply to our own being: reality itself is a world of forgotten concept formation. Systematization and nominalization and preservation through institutionalization. Visible paradigms and invisible epistemes. Dreams, mirages, hallucinations: history, futurity, reality. Or, knowledge, hope, truth. Our arts and sciences so easily find what we have made and hid from ourselves that their efficacy leaves little room for doubt (except among those living out rebellious fantasies). We act out the fates we wove, the destinies we determined. Awareness offers no salvation and discovery no promise.
To be sure, this is not an assertion that we ought to avoid civic and political involvement altogether, nor do I want to label the desire to change the world as necessarily misguided (though it most often surely is). Play and folly ought always to have a place—at least a relative one—in every area of human life. Otherwise beauty becomes excluded. And, clearly, we should get involved in the affairs of our communities (since we always already are involved in myriad ways) and in the alleviation of suffering when we can. Yet, it seems that for many of us there remains a sense of helplessness, a loss of genuine agency in the broader scope of social and political life. Alone or in the company of likeminded friends, it as though we can do little but stand by and watch as the affairs of the day move along—inexorably—according to instrumental forces and social energies beyond the influence of the gentler, more humane, powers we possess. Chief among these gentler powers: compassion. I mean a profound compassion arising within the moral imagination and residing in the heart. A state of being completely overwhelmed by the suffering, injustice, or fear of others. A good parent or partner is possessed by it. A true friend. We find its finest expressions in forgiveness, mercy, and grace. We see it in simple acts of kindness and comfort. A loving word. This humble power stands against any merciless enactment of will or privilege at the expense of others. It stands against its very own moralizing through prescriptive formulas and ideological platitudes. It rather grants the possibility of finding another way through this world other than the tyranny of pragmatism, the savagery of violence, and the tragedy of absolute efficiency. There is no “bottom line” for true compassion.
And yet, this gentler power, compassion, remains only ever a possibility. “Ay, there’s the rub!” Its imperatives cannot be compelled. Its power is evocative. We, whatever our condition, situation, or station, possess the freedom to accept or reject its call. This helps explain why expressions of compassion have always found themselves subordinated to all other exercises of human power. True, we find occasional exceptions and anecdotes, but history has shown little kindness for kindness in the grand scheme. And when the world has inexplicably smiled upon compassion it has done so by appropriating it and institutionalizing it—in non-convivial fashion—thereby robbing it of its evocative power. We see this most pronouncedly in religion, where compassion’s free possibility—the liberty to suffer with someone—became a demand; a requisite for admittance into an exclusive association granting the guaranteed benefits of moral superiority or divine compensation; it became a political expectation (one payable in taxes and tax-free contributions). The authentic cult of love here gives way to the hidden edge of resentment contained as a consequence within organized acts of unnecessary self-preservation. And when it becomes institutionalized in this way, compassion, at best, signals merely pity and, at worst, a sublimated mode of revenge: power and the will to power working their way through almost all our activities, even the ones attempting to abate those primal currents.
To say it plainly: I want to reconsider compassion in order to reclaim its evocative power to rouse us into action. To change the way we live. And I want to consider it through an outdated sensibility: love of the beautiful. I have come to think—to feel—that love of the beautiful establishes the precondition for kindness and all its kin. This aboriginal love grants the possibility of genuine sympathy and tenderness towards others. Love comes prior to grace and all the Graces. Some old poets place Eros’ birth only after Chaos, the Earth, and the Abyss. All other divinities arrive sub-sequentially. Even motherless Aphrodite. Of course, to follow this line of poetic intuition and phenomenological reflection begs a few questions: What is love? What is beauty? What does it benefit us to rehabilitate compassion in the 21st century? I make no promises but to try.
For now, an imperfect maxim: beauty is a wound. The ache of this wounded state—our aesthetic trauma—allows us to become, I believe, the most authentic of friends, lovers, neighbors, guests, strangers, and celebrants. It allows us, in a most extraordinary and ethical sense, to become co-conspirators. Conspiring for or against what? We will see.