by Chris Hedges
Artists, writers, poets, activists, journalists, philosophers, dancers, musicians, actors, directors and renegades must be tolerated if a culture is to be pulled back from disaster.
Members of this intellectual and artistic class, who are usually not welcome in the stultifying halls of academia where mediocrity is triumphant, serve as prophets.
Human societies see what they want to see.
This is what nationalism is about - lies.
And if a culture loses its ability for thought and expression, if it effectively silences dissident voices, if it retreats into what Sigmund Freud called “screen memories,” those reassuring mixtures of fact and fiction, it dies.
It surrenders its internal mechanism for puncturing self-delusion. It makes war on beauty and truth. It abolishes the sacred. It turns education into vocational training. It leaves us blind.
And this is what has occurred. We are
lost at sea in a great tempest. We do not know where we are. We do
not know where we are going. And we do not know what is about to
happen to us.
He notes that often we have access to adequate knowledge but because it is unpleasant and disconcerting we choose unconsciously, and sometimes consciously, to ignore it. He uses the Oedipus story to make his point. He argued that Oedipus, Jocasta, Creon and the “blind” Tiresias grasped the truth, that Oedipus had killed his father and married his mother as prophesized, but they colluded to ignore it.
We too, Steiner wrote, turn a blind eye
to the dangers that confront us, despite the plethora of evidence
that if we do not radically reconfigure our relationships to each
other and the natural world, catastrophe is assured. Steiner
describes a psychological truth that is deeply frightening.
And we are equally self-deluded.
The physical evidence of national decay - the crumbling infrastructures, the abandoned factories and other workplaces, the rows of gutted warehouses, the closure of libraries, schools, fire stations and post offices - that we physically see, is, in fact, unseen.
The rapid and terrifying deterioration
of the ecosystem, evidenced in soaring temperatures, droughts,
floods, crop destruction, freak storms, melting ice caps and rising
sea levels, are met blankly with Steiner’s “blind eye.”
He dies, in Antigone’s words,
William Shakespeare in “King Lear” plays on the same theme of sight and sightlessness.
Those with eyes in “King Lear” are unable to see.
Gloucester, whose eyes are gouged out, finds in his blindness a revealed truth.
When Lear banishes his only loyal daughter, Cordelia, whom he accuses of not loving him enough, he shouts:
To which Kent replies:
The story of Lear, like the story of Oedipus, is about the attainment of this inner vision.
It is about morality and intellect that are blinded by empiricism and sight. It is about understanding that the human imagination is, as William Blake saw, our manifestation of Eternity.
The Shakespearean scholar Harold Goddard wrote:
There are, as Shakespeare wrote,
But these things are not vocational or factual or empirical.
They are not found in national myths of glory and power. They are not attained by force. They do not come through cognition or logical reasoning. They are intangible. They are the realities of beauty, grief, love, the search for meaning, the struggle to face our own mortality and the ability to face truth. And cultures that disregard these forces of imagination commit suicide.
They cannot see.
Human imagination, the capacity to have vision, to build a life of meaning rather than utilitarianism, is as delicate as a flower.
And if it is crushed, if a Shakespeare or a Sophocles is no longer deemed useful in the empirical world of business, careerism and corporate power, if universities think a Milton Friedman or a Friedrich Hayekis more important to its students than a Virginia Woolf or an Anton Chekhov, then we become barbarians. We assure our own extinction.
Students who are denied the wisdom of
the great oracles of human civilization - visionaries who urge us
not to worship ourselves, not to kneel before the base human emotion
of greed - cannot be educated. They cannot think.
Thinking is, as Hannah Arendt wrote,
But thinking, she wrote, always presupposes the human condition of plurality.
It has no utilitarian function. It is not an end or an aim outside of itself. It is different from logical reasoning, which is focused on a finite and identifiable goal. Logical reason, acts of cognition, serve the efficiency of a system, including corporate power, which is usually morally neutral at best, and often evil.
The inability to think, Arendt wrote,
Our corporate culture has effectively severed us from human imagination.
Our electronic devices intrude deeper and deeper into spaces that were once reserved for solitude, reflection and privacy. Our airwaves are filled with the tawdry and the absurd. Our systems of education and communication scorn the disciplines that allow us to see.
We celebrate prosaic vocational skills
and the ridiculous requirements of standardized tests. We have
tossed those who think, including many teachers of the humanities,
into a wilderness where they cannot find employment, remuneration or
a voice. We follow the blind over the cliff. We make war on
We never need our thinkers and artists more than in times of crisis, as Arendt reminds us, for they provide the subversive narratives that allow us to chart a new course, one that can assure our survival.
And here is the dilemma we face as a civilization.
We march collectively toward self-annihilation. Corporate capitalism, if left unchecked, will kill us. Yet we refuse, because we cannot think and no longer listen to those who do think, to see what is about to happen to us. We have created entertaining mechanisms to obscure and silence the harsh truths, from climate change to the collapse of globalization to our enslavement to corporate power, that will mean our self-destruction.
If we can do nothing else we must, even as individuals, nurture the private dialogue and the solitude that make thought possible. It is better to be an outcast, a stranger in one’s own country, than an outcast from one’s self.
It is better to see what is about to
befall us and to resist than to retreat into the fantasies embraced
by a nation of the blind.