Tuesday, April 28, 2009

empty signifiers

Nothing to be done.

-- Beckett, Waiting for Godot


Once again the Irish tragicomedy is on the stage in New York, with two of the age’s greatest clowns, Bill Irwin and Nathan Lane, in the leads. You might think Vivian Mercer was dissing when he called the work “a play in which nothing happens, twice” (Irish Times, Feb. 18, 1956). But Mercer was an admirer.

“Nothing” is an oppressed word, always discounted in favor of “Something.” “It’s nothing,” we say, “nothing at all,” when we don’t want a thing noticed. What did you mean by that? says the out-of-sorts companion or too-trenchant therapist. Nothing, I say, nothing at all. But of course I’m not going to get away with that. It’s out. Someone witnessed it. It’s something now, and I’ll have to figure out what it is.

In therapy, art and prayer, we learn about retrospective causation. The present won’t let the past alone. Memory is a tagger, marking the long wall of experience so that now you’ll know your way back. Every time you return to the site you leave a new graffito. “I was here, today, when . . .” And so the meaning of the event, its relevance and significance, accumulate like a scholar’s apparatus.

When I threw the pebble, or knocked over the glass of wine, or called the lady by another’s name, I didn’t mean anything. There was nothing in my mind. My accident was, as the semiologists say, an empty sign. The substance is yet to come. As the pebble skips, as the wine spreads on the tablecloth, as the puzzled companion returns my gaze, signification lies waiting in the future. Signifiers don’t remain empty. Meaning aggregates like coral on a wreck. Those are pearls that were his eyes. And so, eventually, there are no accidents. Everything happens for a reason, if we can wait long enough.

Mercer was Beckett’s advocate: “He has achieved a theoretical impossibility.” This empty signifier, this failure to move, this sequence of symptoms, this Nothing was To Be Done. And it was done. It takes an hour to do this Nothing. This Nothing, like Pozzo, passes the time. And then there is a second act, and Nothing is Done a second time. Tell me about the play, someone asks you later; what happened in the play? Nothing happened, you say. They did Nothing. It took about an hour. Then they did it again. It held the stage. It passed the time.

Now here’s the scandal, in art and in real life. Our act, this shabby clown-show of one ancient trick after another, still awaits its meaning, as Didi and Gogo wait for Godot. It is not nihilism to say this, for there is meaning, and we shall all be changed; but we must wait for it. The change is a kind of thing that occupies the future. It exists as long as we have a future to preserve it in. We must hold the stage, we must pass the time, waiting. We think the real show – at last! – would begin if Godot would only keep his promise, but if he did, the show would be over. In his mercy, he continues to betray us.

Art and prayer, therapy and love, are ways of waiting: all are faulted if the payoff comes too soon. The incompetent lover, the duplicitous petitioner, the meretricious artist, the unfaithful counselor, try to grab their pleasures now. They have not learned to defer. We always want to have done Something, but there is always something better to be had, if we can keep Something in the future, Nothing before us. It’s what we call subtext, or mystery, or desire, or spirit. Not mine but thy will be done.

Some of the deepest gratitude comes from clients and families whom I am sure that I have failed. Why are they thanking me? I say; I did nothing for them. From them I learn how my impatience skews me. I know I cannot save or rescue and yet, after years of reflection and case study I still want to fix, to alter, to leave a mark, and when I can’t I’m anxious. I can’t outgrow it. It’s mortal. I can only name it. And stand in the face of it.

It’s not supposed to be about me. My anxiety is not the point: I am not there to satisfy it. Perhaps I am best when most unhappy. But what then would be my happiness?

When I can’t do anything, there’s nothing to be done. I need to get busy.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

smaller boat

Why do you look for the living among the dead?

-- Luke 24:5


We are Unitarian Universalists (yes, the name of our faith is eleven syllables long, so long that we can’t endlessly repeat it in conversation, so we make up silly acronyms, family nicknames for ourselves – or call ourselves, slighting one of our traditions, Unitarians). We don’t exactly celebrate Easter. But we get nervous during Holy Week, thinking there is something we ought to be celebrating and not quite sure what it is.

To the best of my ability I follow Yeshua, which is not to say that other masters are unworthy of honor, but that the life and teaching, death and new life of this person is to me the most compelling testimony to the necessity of faith. I cannot honestly say that I judge this to be the case, for my social location irresistibly tilts such judgment. I grew up in New England parsonages of Victorian Greek Revival or authentic colonial style (the oldest of which was erected in 1757), across various village greens from white frame meetinghouses with green shutters, clear windows and tall spires, where my own father, in mixed joy and despair, was the presiding spirit. My cradle songs come from the old hymnody of Protestant culture, accompanied by church organs. “Blessed be the tie that binds.” Though I had quarrels with my father, I have no quarrel with his religion.

So Yeshua’s story, and the inexhaustible paradox of his parables, haunt me. It is, as one of my teachers said, “my story.” “It may not be your story,” he continued; “I can’t even be sure that it’s the best story. But it’s a good story and it’s mine.” It’s mine to unravel.

“Unravel” is a good word for it, for the way I must travel, the search for the real scoop. No contemporary wrote it down: the gospels are from a later generation. None of the gospels were newspapers; none of them had a fact-checking department to call on. Each of them is tendentious, explaining the meaning of Yeshua’s life and death, and the very particular experience, amidst very particular emergencies, of his new life with a specific community of followers. They contradict each other in theology, interpretation and fact. There is no “gospel story,” but only specific stories told in separate gospels. And on these contradictions, glossed and glued over, was erected through later centuries the protuberant edifice of Christian doctrine, a fortress from which ecclesial princes would sally forth, grabbing the very kind of power in defiance of which Yeshua died.

I follow Yeshua. But am I a Christian? I really don’t give a hoot. I ought not to.

Unitarianism and Universalism come from Christian sources more ancient than Nicaea; but over millennia the ecclesial princes cast us out so often that in the last century we started to take their word for it – we no longer contend for the helm of Christianity’s vast galleon. We sail a much smaller boat. Sometimes the two vessels sail in parallel. When they diverge, we remember that might does not make right, and we hope our course is truer.

It’s not my job to affirm or to deny Christian doctrines. My task is to go to the source. I must use the same secondary sources that Christians do, but I read them as my people always have. We are primal protestants: we cry out the message as it appears before our very eyes. We can’t believe that God would damn us for trying to understand. Any being who would do that is not God.

Sometimes we are right. And the Christian churches, though they have sometimes done us wrong, are not always wrong. Both communities carry differences within them. So we may speak at times in agreement with Christians. When we do so, we might be wrong. Or right.

I hope to see a time when Unitarian Universalists will celebrate Easter rituals of their own. We are not there yet. We have come a long way from those decades of the last century when we defined ourselves by anger at the Christian churches. Holy week makes us nervous, and that’s a good sign: we hear the snap of spirituality in the air. But celebrating the always predicted blooming of flowers, though necessary, is insufficient. The flowers are symbols of something beyond themselves, of hope exceeding prediction.

This much is fact. There was a teacher, who said there was another way to live. Those in power didn’t like other ways – so they killed him. Unlike Moses, Buddha or Mohammed, Yeshua died in pain, disgrace and obscurity, abandoned and denounced by those who had pledged their lives to him. It was over.

Now here’s the event that the gospels, in their imperfect ways, try to tell us. As Yeshua’s followers, sick with grief and self-loathing, tried to go home, they found they could not do so. Everywhere they looked, they saw him standing in the way. If you or I, in our modern world, had such an experience (and I am told there are some who do), we might say to our therapists Damn the man! He might as well still be alive. The apostles had to live new life; they had no choice in the matter. Their new life grew from the old life’s grave, proving that not all messages of faith are the same – this one says, You Cannot Hope Until You Have Despaired. Fortunately, there is much in human life to despair of.

My teacher, a scholar and a minister, who said this was his story, also said this. “I don’t think the Resurrection is a fact. But I think it is the truth.” That’s almost enough to make a Christian of me.

Monday, April 6, 2009

comet kohoutek

“Will this wind by so mighty as to lay low the mountains of the earth?”

“No, it will not be quite as mighty as that.”

-- Michael Bennett, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller and Dudley Moore, Beyond the Fringe


Since the beginning of time, millenarians have gone to mountaintops (or in the case of Douglas Adams to a restaurant) to watch the world end. Friends of mine watched the lights of New York City from a mountain ten Decembers ago, to see if those lights would go out when the clocks turned over to Y2K. The lights did not go out, and the rickety jalopy called civilization, backfiring and shuddering, resumed its route toward new horrors and glories, none of them final.

History, alas, just doesn’t end. The doors of the car are locked, there’s no emergency brake, and somebody keeps filling the gas tank. So take a deep breath. We have to keep driving.

There are two kinds of millenarians. To one kind I am utterly impervious. To the other kind I am vulnerable as a baby.

The first kind are the ones who say the world will end because the Bible says so. All those who said the world would end last month, or last year, or the year before that, or on April Fools’ Day, or when Obama was inaugurated, or in the year 1000, were deluded heretics; but our teacher, they say, has read the Revelation in its true code and we’re right, so don’t pay off your credit cards or plan for your children’s college educations.

These millenarians are laughable – except when we invoke the law to keep them from doing harm. They misread not merely the world but their scripture as well. To liberals, such people seem not only wrong but vulgar. It’s a class thing: in our drama they are clowns.

But there is another kind of millenarian, the ones who say the world will end because some historical or physical or psychological process is careening toward conclusion. They back up their claims with diplomas and degrees, with footnotes and data, and with specialized terminologies of expertise that is not mine. They compose long sequences of evidence, that shine with scientific method and logical analysis, and prove that we’re doomed, and doomed soon, and there’s nothing we can do about it, and anyone who doesn’t accept their sentence of death is a rube. These are the millenarians who know where all my buttons are. Though I have an expertise, it is not theirs. I don’t know how to refute them. If I speak against them I am an amateur. They bind me, by my own values, to bow to their proof.

But no matter how much sense they make, I just can’t go there. I’m not Nellie Forbush: no cockeyed optimist, I know that horrible things happen, though glorious things also happen and get less press. We walk like Philippe Petit between mortal towers, putting one foot before the other to keep our nerve. The depth below attracts us. It’s the resolution of our terror.

That’s the draw of millenarianism – the end of mortal terror. But we have a duty to live; and besides, life is where the action is. Like Robert Frost, we have miles to go before we sleep.

In the summer of 1973, when I was a Ph.D. student and my first child was conceived, the world was ending. I heard this gospel on the best authority from all my graduate student friends, who lived around me in my graduate student ghetto. I heard it in their various learned languages, from their various departments and specialties. There was famine, and you couldn’t buy a whole tank of gasoline. Wholesale prices were rising four per cent per month. The presidency was exploding. Society was collapsing. There would be martial law, then dictatorship, then nuclear war. The tail of Kohoutek, the “comet of the century,” would strike Norfolk, Virginia, and the Appalachian Mountains would be the new east coast of America. I learned all this from people with PhD’s (or at least AbD’s). Our friends across the alley had saved enough gas to drive their beetle to Georgia (why Georgia would be a place of apocalyptic safety was never explained). Did I want to buy a rifle? Did I want to buy an emergency food supply? I bought the food, a dozen cases of it, from a Mormon.

It wasn’t a great year. Worst of all perhaps was Comet Kohoutek, the disappointment of a century, barely and briefly visible for a month or two. It wasn’t the end. Of what could it have been the end? The child conceived that year is now a competent adult. Right now we’re worried that gasoline is again too cheap. Women have entered the work force (I work for women, in fact). A black man is president. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss all this.

Once again, I live amid projections of doom. I’m told that if the greedy imbeciles of Wall Street haven’t already done us in, then the pitchfork-wielding mobs who come to trash their houses will start a civil war, burning the infrastructure of Enlightenment to the ground. Wars and rumors of wars. Should I buy a rifle? Should I buy another food supply? It’s in the gospel, after all: look it up (Mt 24:6).

In 1989 Francis Fukuyama confessed his “powerful nostalgia” at the “end of history” – a benevolent if boring vision, if not exactly the victory of liberal democracy, the sclerosis at least of all alternatives. No need these days for such nostalgia: we learned on Ground Zero that individuals, empowered by basic technology and pixilating ignorance, can restart both horror and history. I can’t refute the apocalypse, but I must live in it. Few things are ever as good as we hope or as bad as we fear. Yet we must hope, and we must fear because we hope. The wind will not be quite as mighty as all that.