It is not within the compass of this preface to posit some vast unified (totalizing) field theory of totalitarianism; in fact, it is the essence of my approach to insist, rather, on the revelatory aspect of the specific, the particular, the quirkily individual. One might note, however, how in all three of the totalitarian situation surveyed in the text – Iraq’s, Czechoslovakia’s, and South Africa’s – the regime’s dominance depended, paradoxically, on both the atomization and the homogenization of the subjugated population. Dictators want their subjects both to surrender all sense of themselves into the national (or class) mass and, simultaneously, to experience themselves, qua individuals, as utterly alone, cut off, both endlessly suspect and unendingly suspicious of everyone else. Pithed, in short, of even the fantasy, let alone possibility, of any sort of independent agency. In a sense, the regime intends that its subjects experience themselves as exiles in their own homes – isolate, ineffectual, and utterly contingent. For the conditions of actual exile ordinarily dictates a similar sort of double movement in the victims, towards simultaneous atomization and homogenization and this wearing down of the potential for agency. Edges get shaved away and subjectivity is continuously shorn until individuals experience themselves as little more than abject objects, tossed by a cruel and senseless fate.I suppose it would insult my usual crowd of witnesses if I were to stop here and point out that in talking about corrupted, totalitarian, earthly regimes Weschler reminded me of my own time under the thrall of the heavenly regime. It’s especially true now that I live in exile from those with whom I grew up and, in many cases, still love and miss. It really is a form of exile, one that’s easy enough to return from. All I have to do is take the route of Winston Smith. I just have to accept that 2 + 2 = 5. It’s simple, really. It’s the way the attempts at evangelism I occasionally receive end. “We’re not going to try to make you come back,” they say, “But if you decide you want to you’re always welcome.” But it’s the cost. It’s always the cost. I gradually learned to look around and see twos and more twos and make fours. Somehow, though, I was supposed to add another element that I see nowhere in the equation and come up with a five. What’s the element? Subjugation. Homogenization. So much of my church experience was ritual. There was a ritual for everything, even as they tried to say it wasn’t. Liturgy and ritual were the place for the high church, or the liberal church. The church that wasn’t really a church. Still, there was ritual. Our personalized prayers always sounded the same. There was that which was acceptable to bring up before the congregation. There was that which was unacceptable, dirty, shameful. In making sure everyone saw the same things as acceptable the group defined itself. We sang songs of praise and worship, engaging in a congregational orgasm of praise to join together, hands lifted high, eyes closed except when opened to sneak a peek to see if everyone else was experiencing the same thing. There was power there. We called it the power of the holy spirit. But I’ve felt that same power outside the church. It’s the power I’ve felt when amongst any group of humans united for just a moment in common cause, common purpose. I’ve felt it equally when at church singing “As the Deer” and when at the Vic singing “The Green and Red of Mayo.” Still, it’s supposed to be special. It’s supposed to be a feeling we can only receive in church. It’s supposed to be heaven. But all that is needed to create that feeling is humans. Together. United in purpose and vibrating the room with the power of common cause and shared experience. Still, it’s supposed to be something different, something special with Christians. In that those who go to church are homogenized. That’s the purpose of all ritual, after all. It creates cohesiveness, group consciousness. It creates a place of comfort, a special place. Once in the place of ritual and warmth the desire to stay is powerful. The idea of leaving – worse, the idea of being sent away – is intolerable. It’s terrifying. Ritual is a drug. The homogeneity of the group is something to be sought after. Loss of the group results in a jones, a withdrawal. Still, there are those, even within the church, within the culture as a whole, who don’t actually understand why the homogenization is happening, what it’s all about. They’re generally easy to pick out. They’re usually the ones who are honest. See, there are things that Christians just don’t admit they struggle with. Various things involving sex are usually the last things to come up, whether it’s about homosexual urges, going too far on last night’s date, or masturbation. Those things don’t get discussed much. But there are other weird ones. Doubt rarely gets discussed. Fears about not evangelizing enough don’t come up, but I know lots of people have them. There are others, but, really, it’s been a while. Perhaps someone else can think of something. The fact is that the specific sins that don’t get discussed really don’t matter. What matters is that they don’t get discussed. What matters is that sometimes people do decide to discuss them. Most of the time they’re brought up by someone new or someone who usually hangs around the outskirts of the group and says little. Most of the time when the unspoken and unspeakable sins are brought up everyone else backs away. They don’t want to think of their own sins. They certainly don’t want to admit them. So the individual suffers in silence while trying to fit in with the group. In the act of ritual atomization gives way to homogeneity for a bit, but the doubts are always there. The doubts always creep back in. It’s possible that when you see a group of Christians joined together in praise every one of them is thinking, “If only they knew.” Because it the group truly knew what was in the heart of the individual then the individual would surely be ostracized. This isn’t to say that every single moment of a church service, every word of a praise chorus, is the masquerade of the poseur. Most of the people in that group are actively looking for that moment of homogeneity, that moment when the doubts can be sublimated in to the orgiastic ritual of worship. I think almost everyone in those places is looking for the transcendent. The problem is that they’re looking for a way to cure the sins they wouldn’t have otherwise known they have. Even Paul admitted that without the Law he wouldn’t have known how to sin. When that comes up in church it’s generally used to damn the system of the Law and elevate the forgiveness of Christ. That, I’d assume, was Paul’s original intent. In truth, though, that realization damns the whole system. For what is the Biblical law but a list of often arbitrary rules? And what law do we need beyond “Don’t be an asshole?” What does god care if we do so because it respects the deity, the nation, or the other? In calling each other “brother” and “sister” Christians often condemn each other to exile. It’s the nagging, lonely exile of the one who is not an expatriate but not really a part of the group. The worst part is, though, that there is no Big Brother forcing conformity on all the Winston Smiths. There is only O’Brien acting as an agent, bowing to the will of the constructed party head. Everyone in the church is an O’Brien. Everyone in the church is a Winston Smith. They are the thought police and the criminals, the sheep and the wolves. They atomize and homogenize. In the end everyone chases everyone else away. In the end everyone becomes an exile. I am an exile. I have always been an exile. At least now I get to be honest about it. I can take control of my life, my destiny, my thoughts. In exile I’ve found freedom. Yet there are those who try to convince me it’s punishment. Two plus two makes four. Big Brother is blind, deaf, and mute.
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
Ministry of Love
It always comes back to Weschler. It’s crazy. I forget how much I love how he writes, then something happens and I say, “Oh. That’s right.” I finished Klosterman’s IV yesterday, so I needed a new book to read. Since I linked to Weschler yesterday I realized that now is probably a good time to get around to reading Calamities of Exile. He calls the book “three nonfiction novellas.” Each novella is a different story about someone who tried to fight a totalitarian regime and was forced to go elsewhere as thanks for their troubles. I haven’t even made it past the Preface. I already love the book. That’s what Weschler does to me. I hit on a particular paragraph and had to stop, think, associate.