Categories
Essay

Countdown to Lockdown: Fear and Loathing in the Trolley Race at the End of the World

Keith Lyons from Christchurch discovers that the big world seems very small when it comes to stockpiling for the coronavirus.

If I had to choose a place to be to sit out the coronavirus pandemic sweeping over the globe, there are probably few places better than the South Island of New Zealand. A significant number of the world’s super-rich have invested in the Southern Hemisphere nation, some even buying residency through a controversial and secretive ‘Investor Plus’ scheme. Tech startup incubator for Reddit, Dropbox and Airbnb, Sam Altman, Pay Pal’s Peter Thiel, and the co-founder of LinkedIn Reid Hoffman are among those who have invested, buying secluded boltholes and luxury bunkers. One US company has constructed more than three dozen doomsday bunkers in New Zealand. Several of my friends have worked for ‘high net worth individuals’ as staff at remote lodges and on luxury super-yachts.

Kim Dotcom, of Megaupload, is among those who have decided to call New Zealand home. I call New Zealand home because I was born here. And now I’ve returned ‘home’ after more than a decade living in China and spending the last few years in South East Asia.

In February, this year, my route back from India via Myanmar took me through Phuket airport where a taxi driver had already been infected with the coronavirus. Transiting Kuala Lumpur’s KLIA2, after an overnight in Denpasar International Airport in Bali, I discovered no tests had been made to determine if anyone had the virus. Then a short stopover in Melbourne, Australia, where there seemed to be no additional measures to combat the spread of the corona virus. Even on arriving in my hometown Christchurch, there were no temperature checks or questioning to see if I had come from China, Italy or South Korea. In mid-February, the most stringent measures encountered were in Central Phuket Festival mall, where the handful of customers going from one half of the normally teeming mall to the other side were stopped for a temperature check.

If 9/11 meant greater security with screening for knives, box-cutters, and nail files, and having to take out water bottles, mobile phones and laptops, almost two decades on, we are now adding to the security screening with thermal cameras and the symbol of 2020: thermometer guns. After the masked official at the Phuket mall held his gun to my forehead, satisfied that I didn’t have a raised temperature indicating fever, he turned it around so I could see the digital reading: 36.8 C. Now, I am not expert on human health, so assumed it was not too hot and not too cold, as I couldn’t make out if the official was smiling or grimacing behind his mask. At least they aren’t taking the readings the old-fashioned way, rectally.

One of the things about the coronavirus is that is it invisible and faceless. Like an imaginary menace. Its presence is only made more tangible and real when we see on TV the patients in ICU units, doctors and nurses in masks and glove hurrying around with beeping ventilators and tubes, maps showing the spread of the new virus which threatens like a hurricane.

The other thing about the coronavirus is the speed at which it moves, spreads, and intensifies. When I travelled back from Asia to Australasia, coronavirus was primarily a Chinese problem, with some possible spread to Italy. But as February turned into March, it became more apparent that this Wuhan wet market virus was going global big time.

I guess we should have all been ready for something like this to happen. It was corona virus — COVID19 — there was bound to be a pandemic which would sweep the world, infecting millions and killing many. After all, such an event has been predicted by everyone from Nostradamus and Bill Gates to author Dean Koontz (see conspiracy theories) and The Simpsons. There are even some among us who believe one episode of The Simpsons foretold the self-isolation of Tom Hanks.

There are also those among us who having known something like this was going to happen have made preparations for their survival. This is now an ‘I told you so’ occasion for the smug ‘preppers’ who feel vindicated having lined their shelters with emergency rations, first aid kits and firearms, though this coronavirus thing is turning out to be mild compared to the much-anticipated zombie apocalypse scenario. Instead, it seems the ‘always carry’ list for those fighting the hidden enemy includes wet wipes, hand sanitiser, and N95 masks. The US company Preppi at one stage marketed a special US$10,000 prep bag which included gold bars for bartering.

My hometown, Christchurch, has experienced several traumatic events this last decade. A large earthquake in mid-2010 followed by a more devastating quake in early 2011 damaged nearly 100,000 buildings, half the city’s roads, and killed 185. A year ago, a white supremacist gunman shot dead 51 people at two city mosques. New Zealand is geologically young, and prone to natural disasters including earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, so most homes have emergency kits with food and water to last at least three days.

However, the prospect of an infectious pandemic with a lengthy lockdown period has taken most citizens by surprise. When on the second-to-last day of February news broke of the first case of coronavirus in New Zealand, brought by a resident returning from Iran, I was in my local supermarket a few hours after the announcement. There was no flour available, the shelves of the 1.5kg bags and 5kg bags were empty. It was not just the ordinary white flour, it was high-grade flour too, along with self-rising flour and wholemeal flour. On the next aisle of the Countdown supermarket, a Thai woman was posing for a photograph in front of shelves half empty of rice. I mentioned my observations later to friends and family, wondering if there was a shortage or some other reason.

A few days later there was news of a second case, this time arriving from Italy. But even though this virus had arrived on our shores, it seemed like its impact would be insignificant, as it was not spreading, and those returning to New Zealand had mild symptoms, not unlike a cold you pick up during a long haul flight. There were reports that some supermarkets have been swamped by customers buying toilet paper, hand sanitiser and tinned food.

Ten days later, the news was full of events happening far, far away in Italy, Iran and South Korea. The coronavirus had spread to more than 100 countries, and infected more than 100,000 — a few days earlier the World Health Organisation declared it an official pandemic. In New Zealand, the sixth case of the virus is confirmed. This did not deter my parents, who did their regular Saturday morning shopping at their usual supermarket. “Yes, it was quite busy, busier than normal,” my father noted.

During our Sunday dinner, I casually mentioned that maybe this was the last weekend that we would have the freedom to do things as normal, and perhaps from now on, it might be best if I went and did the shopping instead. My parents looked at me as if I have overstepped the line between parent and child. Over-reacting again, they are probably thinking.

An international cricket match between New Zealand and Australia was played in an empty stadium, and then the rest of the tour called off. Cancelled too was the memorial service for the mosque attacks. I visited the neighbours of my parents, bringing them a date and walnut cake I had especially made according to a detailed Iraqi recipe. My visit interrupted an interview with a documentary crew from BBC about their son Hussein who was shot dead trying to stop the gunman.

I felt like I am moving between worlds, from the warmth of the kitchen to the coldness of a massacre, and then outside, there was something sinister and foreboding which was looming bigger than kindness, bigger than tragedy, an acute existential crisis that was unknown in its quantity and impact.

In the following week, I set about sourcing various things from around town, and stocking up on supplies. I got some seeds to plant for autumn and winter harvest. I visited two Indian grocery shops to procure green cardamom seeds, almonds, ready-made chapatis, MTR ready-to-eat meals and dosa flour mix. I loaded the boot and back seat of my parent’s Toyota Ractis until its suspension springs almost snap from 450kg of wooden pellets for their fire. With my mother we did one big shop, making sure we got her favourite brands and the foods preferred by my father who is recuperating from an operation for bowel cancer.

During my daily shopping visits, I noticed that this wasn’t the normal shopping experience anymore. I did not witness any of the stockpiling in the early days of the crisis, though at a store I did overhear a staff member tell his colleague, “We need to bring out the remaining fruit stock we have out back, as it is all selling fast. I am not sure why.”

In early March, there was already a run on particular items, most noticeably and perhaps misguidedly, folks were stocking up on toilet paper. I am not sure the rationale behind this, somehow extrapolating that toilet paper might not be available in the future. It seems many people had the fear reaction triggered, and it was compounded by seeing supermarket shelves already half empty of toilet rolls. Toilet paper is non-perishable and will all eventually be used, so it is not an unnecessary purchase. It also is bulky and takes up space, so its absence in supermarket shelves signals to us ‘shortage’, while having it stocked up at home fulfils some primitive need to be prepared and ready, and also signals that we are smart shoppers, having ample supplies of large 16-roll 4-ply toilet paper, what a bargain and an easy way to relieve worries of not being prepared for the impending doom.

There is a meme doing the rounds with a kid asking his mother, “What is the corona virus?” with the parent replying, “Shut up and eat your dinner” with a picture of a bowl serving a roll of toilet paper. The panic buying of toilet paper was a reaction to the mixed messages about the possible severity of the coronavirus, something of an emotional pacifying purchase to gain control over our hygiene. In other countries where a bidet, bum gun or old-fashioned scoop and water pail is used, there must have been some eye-rolling when stories emerged of Westerners stockpiling toilet paper, price gouging and even scuffles in aisles to secure the rolls of toilet paper.

The government was quick to reinforce the message that was enough to go around, and that essentials would be available. That seemed like the sensible approach. And it was an appeal to people’s sense of community and togetherness in fighting the virus spread. But in times like these, a different mindset kicks in. One of my longtime friends showed me a photo of his partner in the supermarket. After finding the shelves stripped bare of toilet paper and hand sanitizer, they found a whole carton of sanitiser behind other items on another aisle, and much to the shame of my friend, his partner (from South America) loaded the carton into their shopping trolley, later posting on social media of her cache.

That shared image, along with the footage of empty shelves and shopping trolleys piled high with supplies reinforce the panic buying mentality across the world. In Hong Kong, thieves held up a supermarket to steal a delivery of toilet paper. In Australia, a newspaper printed eight extra pages for use as emergency toilet paper in case supplies run out. Now in many supermarkets, there is a limit of two items for these symbolic products along with other essentials, with security guards and supermarket staff patrolling aisles and scrutinising shopping carts.

I noticed during my pre-lockdown shopping excursions quite a range of responses by fellow shoppers. Many were doing big shops, marking off items on a checklist. Some were clearly in unfamiliar territory or were struggling to decipher the list given to them by their partners or friends. “Is tomato puree the same as tomato puree?” one man asked me rather than call his wife again to clarify the differences. In the aisles, it was interesting to observe the interactions of couples, with usually one being ultra-cautious and thorough, while the other (usually a male) being more carefree and unperturbed. “Shouldn’t we get one just in case?” I heard a woman still in her airline uniform ask her husband, who was displaying the typical New Zealand ‘no worries’ attitude. “No, she’ll be right. We can always get it later.”

As well as tension between shoppers, there was also a new dynamic I noticed. Individuals or families were largely in their own bubbles, increasingly aware of the need to stay clear of others who might be contagious. But shoppers were also aware of the goods others had purchased, peering into nearby trolleys, noting what products others were stocking up on, or what items they had secured the last of. On a few occasions, my eyes met others after a mutual trolley check out, and I made a mental note to get a particular item, or even scoffed at other’s purchases.

As well as the hoarding of toilet paper and hand sanitizer, it was the quick sell-out of perishable items which suggested widespread fear of missing out. Bread and milk were coveted items, along with eggs, meat and fresh vegetables.

However, it was the stockpiling of non-perishable items which contributed to the overloaded shopping carts and baskets, and perhaps revealed most about our globalised connected world. Despite the news being full of footage from northern Italy about the horrors of the virus, in New Zealand and Australia, and other countries, shoppers opted for Italian food. Pasta, pasta sauces, tinned tomatoes, risotto rice and olive oil quickly disappear from shelves. On one supermarket run, I found only a few packets of flat lasagna, just the wholemeal and wheat-free varieties, and the following day, nothing except a couple of damaged packets of cannelloni, the pasta meal that requires the most preparation.

But it was not just Italian food we sought for comfort in our emergency supplies and lockdown rations. While most of the fresh produce is still grown locally, increasingly more things are being imported from Asia, in particular China, along with Vietnam and Thailand. Even homegrown brands are sourced from overseas or made of ingredients from as far away as Chile, the USA, Ecuador or Spain. Closely reading the fine print on a bag of mashed potatoes reveals it was made in Belgium, the tuna was canned in Bangkok, while the frozen strawberries hail from Peru. In the dry noodle section, I have to choose between Mamee from Malaysia or Yum Yum out of Thailand. It is a small world after all.

As I shop locally but collect items from around the world, I wonder if it is being sensible or selfish. I wonder about those that can’t afford to stock up, who survive week to week.

As the coronavirus morphed from a foreign plague to a resident contagion, stores imposed limits on some items, increased cleaning and hygiene, and tried tactics to ease consumer’s concerns. My local Countdown placed a pallet of toilet paper just inside the entrance to signal that there was plenty of stock available. Health authorities reinforced the key message that soap and hot water for a 20-second hand wash was better than sanitizer. I started to get emails, some obvious ‘cut and paste’ jobs, from every business about how they were protecting their staff and customers.

Around this time, there was news of a case in Christchurch. The next day, the government announces it was closing its border, to all but citizens and permanent residents. On the following Saturday, 21st March, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced on a four-level alert system, raising it to Level 2, then a couple of days later raising it to Level 3 and outlining the move to its highest level 48 hours later. Businesses and schools have been closed, everyone had to stay at home, the only reason to venture outside was to shop at supermarkets for essentials, visit a pharmacy, or doctor. It was a lockdown, though people could go out to exercise as long as they did it in their neighbourhood and did not mix with others.

This pandemic quickly changed the boundaries and borders.

It spread. New hotspots light up the world map.

My own personal geography changed too. Other than my local supermarket, less than a 15 -minute-walk, I also factored into my shopping a fresh vegetable market nearby, and a branch store bakery offering bread, milk, savouries and sweets. I figured that this trio of shops within walking distance could be relied upon for my future shopping, along with the pharmacy.

When I first visited the bakery, it was business as usual, and I was rather surprised to see the staff not wearing any additional protective masks or gloves. Three days later, it was a completely different story. I had to wait outside to be called in. There was a station set up with hand sanitizer and blue gloves to be worn (optional) and customers were reminded to keep their distance from others. At the checkout, items had to be placed on the counter, and the customer was asked to step back behind a line so the clerk could price the purchases. The choreography meant the shop assistant would step back and the customer then approached the counter, to pay by card (no cash was accepted), pack their own bags, and then exit, allowing the next person in the queue to go through the routine. On returning home, I described the new shopping behaviour to my parents, who seemed amused at all the fuss. I was half expecting them to say it was all ‘health and safety gone mad’.

The next day I checked Facebook for the store hours and there was a notice that the outlet was now closed to the public. The greengrocer who had reduced hours to ensure more time for restocking also posted a similar notice, not being able to ensure a safe space, and also deemed by the government to be non-essential.

Yesterday I braved the cold winds and ventured out to Countdown (a New Zealand supermarket). Having to wait outside in a long queue, spaced 2m apart, operating on a one-out/one-in rule that meant when I finally got in and cleaned my basket handles, most aisles only had one or two shoppers nervously avoiding each other, and imploring with dagger eyes ‘keep your distance, buddy’. In the chilled food section, I had a moment when I thought I might sneeze, and I worried that if I did, security guards would bundle me up into a bag to be dispatched the hospital. On my list of items to buy was black pepper, but I skipped that, fearing that a whiff of pepper might induce a sneezing fit.

Back home, gloves discarded, hands washed, items sprayed, I pondered the craziness of it all as I savoured my cup of hot miso soup from Japan. All of my shopping could be in vain if I get the virus. One of the first symptoms noted by doctors in Europe is that those with the coronavirus lose their sense of smell and taste.

Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, with a background in psychology and social sciences. He has been published in newspapers, magazines, websites and journals around the world, and his work was nominated for the Pushcart prize. Keith was featured as one of the top 10 travel journalists in Roy Stevenson’s ‘Rock Star Travel Writers’ (2018). He has undertaken writer residencies in Antarctica and on an isolated Australian island, and in 2020 plans to finally work out how to add posts to his site Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).

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Essay

Corona Virus: What’s happening?

By Ugo Bardi from Florence, Italy

The most recent data indicate a decrease in the number of coronavirus infections in Italy. That means we could get out of the epidemic in the coming months. But why do we expect this trend? It is explained in the field of Science called “epidemiology” that studies how epidemics spread.

The first epidemiology studies date back to 1927, when two British researchers, Kermack and McKendrick, developed the “SIR” model (susceptible, infected, removed), still used today. However, the basis of these studies was the previous work of the American Alfred Lotka and the Italian Vito Volterra. A few years earlier, they had developed the model that we now call “Lotka-Volterra,” but also “predator-prey,” or “foxes and rabbits” (although neither Lotka nor Volterra ever spoke of foxes or rabbits).

Let’s explain. Imagine a green islet in the middle of the sea, populated by only two species: foxes and rabbits (there is no such island, but let’s take it as a hypothetical example). The population of foxes (predators) tends to grow when rabbits (prey) are abundant. It grows so fast that, at some point, the surviving rabbits can no longer reproduce quickly enough to replace those eaten by the foxes. The rabbit population reaches a maximum and then falls. At this point, the foxes starve. With few foxes around, the remaining rabbits can reproduce peacefully and the cycle begins again.

The model is based on the idea that predators tend to take more resources than nature can replace: it is what we now call “overexploitation” It always ends badly, but the model describes the trajectory of the populations that first grow and then collapse as a bell-shaped curve. An example of a real case is that of St. Matthew Island in the Pacific. There were no reindeer on the island before the US Navy brought some, in 1944. In a couple of decades they became thousands, they devoured all the grass, and then almost all died of starvation. Then, a couple of particularly harsh winters exterminated the last individuals, sick and hungry. Reindeer was the predators and grass the prey: a classic case of resource overexploitation.

Not that the model can explain the complex interactions in a whole ecosystem, but it is useful to provide us with a framework for what’s happening. And we can use it to understand the current epidemic. It is the same thing: the virus is the predator and the prey is us. The population of the virus is growing rapidly as it always happens when resources are abundant. But soon the virus will begin to run out of prey, fortunately not because infected people die (some, unfortunately, do). They are no longer prey because they become immune. Indeed, the epidemic is following the bell-shaped trajectory predicted by the Lotka-Volterra model.

So, nothing unexpected. Viruses are creatures looking for resources just like we do. They’re doing nothing different than what we did in the past by exterminating species like mammoths or the dodo. And, today, with the huge expansion of the human population over the last 1000-2000 years, we have become a great hunting ground for so many micro-organisms, also because of our tendency to live in crowded cities where it is easier to get infected. Thus, the past history is full of epidemics: plague, smallpox, cholera, influenza and many others.

In a way, we are at war: viruses attack us and we defend ourselves with vaccines, antibiotics, hygiene, and our immune system. But, if it’s a war, we won’t necessarily win it. Maybe we’ll find a vaccine for the Sars-VOC-2 virus, but don’t expect miracles.

Actually, species do not make wars against each other: they adapt, that’s how the ecosystem works. Viruses and bacteria are seen almost only causes for diseases, but our body hosts a large number of them and of many different species. They are not parasites, many are “symbionts” – creatures that help us with so many things, think of our intestinal bacterial flora. So, in time, we’ll end up adapting. And the virus will adapt, too.

Ugo Bardi teaches physical chemistry at the University of Florence, in Italy and he is also a member of the Club of Rome. He is interested in resource depletion, system dynamics modeling, climate science and renewable energy. Contact: ugo.bardi(whirlything)unifi.it

This essay was first published in Countercurrents.org

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the author and not of Borderless Journal.

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Essay

Poetry as Utopia and Apocalypse

By Dustin Pickering

The word “prophet” is rooted in the Greek word prophetes, a word that breaks down etymologically into “to speak before or foretell”. A soothsayer is considered a prophet in the sense that he foretells events. Such is the soothsayer in Julius Caesar who tells Caesar to “beware of the ides of March” when he was doomed to assassination. The Prophetic books of the Old Testament inform the people of Israel what God desires of them and what will happen if they disobey His commands. In Amos 3:7, it is written: “Surely the Lord GOD will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.” This designates the place of the prophet as one who knows God’s secrets. Amos reveals that the prophets had been instructed to remain silent until the burden became too great. Throughout Scripture, there is a love for justice which maintains the distinct definition of sympathy for the disadvantaged, and upholding God’s Word. A prophet is thus one who speaks on behalf of God Himself. The prophet Amos indicates throughout that the Lord will speak when He is out of patience. God is a God of all nations and will not tolerate disobedience even from Israel.

The Arab poet, Adonis, said, “It is an awful idea that after this one prophet, after this one book, everything would be said and written, isn’t it? If Mohammed would really be the last of the prophets, then no human word can be uttered anymore, and even much more frightening, no divine word either. The holy book is a trap closing in on us. Every monotheistic religion has the same problem. Christianity had the chance to avoid the trap but it didn’t. It identified itself with power and it embraced dogmatics.” Here we have a radical view that prophecy continues in the modern world. Richard Wilbur in “Advice to a Prophet” writes:

Nor shall you scare us with talk of the death of the race.   

How should we dream of this place without us?—

The sun mere fire, the leaves untroubled about us,   

A stone look on the stone’s face?”

Here the poet is a prophet of a particular kind. Bringing God’s message to the people becomes something peculiar— in this, the prophet defines the meaning of humanity. The role of prophet in Wilbur’s poem is one who does not warn of the imminent threats to human life, but rather defines the human role within Nature and Being itself. The modern reflection of God is much more personal and forgiving. As stated by Adonis, Christianity could have unleashed the powers of human language but, instead, gave way to power structures. Language carries the unique gift of uniting disparate things. The power of analogy is that of reconciliation. The poet, with his or her unique gift, invites comparisons between things that have little in common as if to agree with Heraclitus who wrote, “All things contain their opposites.” Perhaps not their opposites, but definitely things of dissimilar nature. The dark contains the light, and the light is contained by the dark. One interiorises the other. This strange capacity of language to reveal what is concealed in the dark is a magic of its own. A word is a form of conjuration, something brought into being by shining a light on it. That light itself is the poem—a unified body of language that conditions the reader to a certain subjectivity, thus causing the reader to recognise some hidden aspect of him or herself.

What is this thing of revelation? “Apocalypse” is from the Greek apokalupsis which means to unveil, uncover. The nightmarish visions portrayed in Revelations are considered to be end of the world prophecies. The opening of the scrolls, the rivers of blood, the hellfire and dragon tossed into the pit: these things are seen as happening at the endtimes. This branch of Biblical study is called eschatology. What is it that eschatology uncovers? What is God unveiling to us in His prophetic writings?

 Is it that true theology, the branch of learning concerned with the study of God, includes a side of God we are less acquainted to receive and understand? In Answer to Job, Carl Jung proposes what he called the Quaternity. According to Frith Luton, “The quaternity is one of the most widespread archetypes and has also proved to be one of the most useful schemata for representing the arrangement of the functions by which the conscious mind takes its bearings.” In Answer to Job, Jung writes of Job himself, “Because of his littleness, puniness, and defencelessness against the Almighty, he possesses, as we have already suggested, a somewhat keener consciousness based on self-reflection: he must, in order to survive, always be mindful of his impotence. God has no need of this circumspection, for nowhere does he come up against an insuperable obstacle that would force him to hesitate and hence make him reflect on himself.” The Quarternity is an extension of the Trinity. Jung believed the traditional conception of God was lacking. He invented the Quarternity to define the evil face of God. Thus, God becomes a holistic vision of the cosmos.

In Answer to Job, Jung portrays a human god who is capable of feeling guilty. In the end, Jesus is sacrificed not to cleanse humankind of sin but to rid God himself of guilt. Why wouldn’t God share the being of that created in His image? However, traditional theology includes a study of theodicy or reconciling divine goodness with the existence of evil. The ultimate question is why God might permit evil. We might even ask what constitutes a definition of evil. C. S. Lewis writes in Defense of Christianity, “God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong, but I can’t. If a thing is free to be good it’s also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible.” However, the definition here has an inevitable fallacy. In using free will to excuse God of wrongdoing, Lewis tells us he cannot imagine a free creature that has no capacity to do wrong. In applying this logic to God Himself, we are left with two possibilities. Either God isn’t a free creature, or God is also capable of wrong. In what capacity could God not be free? God is seen as “omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent.” He is defined as sui generis, a being that causes itself. How could a self-caused being not maintain perfect autonomy? If God has will, He must have the ability to err if we take Lewis’s definition at face value.

 Continuing along my original line of inquiry concerning the Apocalypse. What does it say about God’s nature? One, it demonstrates that we as fallible creatures are capable of causing great destruction. Why is that quality inherent in us? The Apocalypse, or “unveiling”, is shown to be final — creation is revealed for its full promise. The conclusion of time is the extinction of choice — it is ultimate revelation of true being. All secrets come undone. The lid to Pandora’s box is unclasped and all evil is unleashed. This tells us that something is hidden within Creation itself. Our awareness is incomplete. The Apocalypse completes that awareness and shows us the purpose we missed—complete annihilation. Why should God desire the annihilation of His creation? Why did He command the death of His Son as a sacrifice to the world?

Humankind is bent on forging a utopia, a paradise that lasts eternally. Behaviorist B. F. Skinner invented a utopia based on his model of psychological conditioning where people are entirely robbed of choice. Instead they are conditioned by authorities to fit their chosen roles. This theory is presented in Walden Two. In this novel, Skinner applies his understanding of behaviorist psychology to the creation of a perfect society. Children are conditioned to perform certain roles from the onset. Each person has a role chosen for them. What we don’t consider is who is making the decisions for the roles given to each person. By nature, this model eliminates choice by individuals—yet how is there any order without choice? The authorities are making the ultimate decisions but who chooses that role for them? In this utopian vision, we see a flaw inherent in the system itself. Humankind is robbed of “freedom and dignity” for the sake of a perfect community conditioned to serve the aims of the community as a whole. Yet what criteria is used to sponsor this concept of communal well-being? Again, who decides?

Aldous Huxley presents us with a similar enigma in Brave New World. This is a utopia that is so oblivious to its flaws that it is dystopian to the onlooker. People are robbed of dignity again, but in the process, they become childlike in their understanding. Human misery is alien to them because they take measures to eliminate it and inoculate themselves from it. The results are the same. We are left with a set of social engineers who demonstrate scientific objectivity in their observations. They comment on the community, applying their superior awareness of things. Knowledge is too specialised in such a community. It becomes the risk of those designated to “know” rather than the shared offerings of the community. So much for community.

Lois Lowry’s The Giver is another dystopian vision where knowledge becomes specialized for a few. The Giver is a person who is entrusted with the collective history of humankind, and this person imparts it to another person as the role is relinquished. This arrangement resembles the pagan priesthoods where the Eleusinian mysteries were kept secret exempting those initiated into the sacred cult. What did these secret rites entail? No one knows because they are extinct. However, the parables of Jesus Christ contain a certain mystery to them. They are the prophecy of God in themselves. Jesus was known for his unique gifts of teaching and language. The ancient prophecies concerning him told us that he would not be physically attractive so that his message would be the accent of his coming to the earth. In Matthew 13:11, Jesus answers his disciples who ask why he taught in parables. “He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.” So, what are the rites of the initiated?

Paul the Apostle writes in 2 Corinthians 4:4, “In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” Jesus is also described as the unveiling in various verses—thus the Apocalypse is understood as the wedding of the Paschal Lamb. In Exodus 12, the Paschal Lamb is the sacrifice whose blood is put on the doors of the firstborn of Israel so the avenging angel would spare them. Jesus Christ is seen as the Paschal Lamb in the New Testament whose blood protects believers from the avenging angel, or Satan. In Revelations 19:7 it is written, “Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honour to him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath made herself ready.”

It seems God spares those He decides to spare. The firstborn of Israel were spared by Moses’ prayer and desire for their freedom from Egypt. One man’s strong desire for the justice of his people pleases God. As we know, Israel would later also sin and be condemned. However, the revelations of Israel became the truth of all of the nations and God’s people span the entire world.

The relationship of utopia and apocalypse is nowhere more apparent than in the Holy Bible. God defines Israel’s purpose. History shows they failed in acknowledging God after His power rescued them from Pharaoh. Even Moses came up short of God’s will and was not permitted to see the Kingdom of God. One universal truth of Scripture is that all of us, no matter how holy or chosen, fall short of God’s grace. It is thus we see the emergence of Original Sin. Original Sin is itself a revelation of St. Augustine, early Church father and Christian apologist. He began his journey in truth as a Manichean. In Confessions, he tells us that God showed him the error of his ways. It was then he discovered the power of Original Sin—that darkness cast on the world by Adam’s first disobedience. We are created in God’s image but are not God Himself; Jesus Christ alone is seen as the true image and equal of God in his Passion and innocence.

In short, utopia is the promise we can redeem ourselves with radical changes to our world or relations. Utopians tell us that their vision is superior and if we conform to it, we will all be better off. Politicians are often utopians with realist proclamations. They desire to shape the world in their own image, as God did with us, and grant us our salvation. The poets use utopia as a vision—it becomes a kind of mnemonic device in understanding the nature of the world. Prophecy is a revelation of utopia—which is modeled after God’s being. Our concepts of goodness are even deficient, but we all desire to live in a world of productivity and happiness for all. A poet casts his or her eyes forward to a world known in the imagination. Such visions shape the world as ideas and influence our thinking. The Romantics, for instance, were conservative republicans. They desired freedom from authoritarian righteousness—both political and religious autonomy. William Blake, an Anabaptist, voiced these visions the best in All Religions Are One. He writes, “That the Poetic Genius is the true Man, and that the body or outward form of Man is derived from the Poetic Genius.” He further explains that all nations experience this poetic genius differently. He defines this capacity as prophecy. Our true state of Being is poetic. Our form is a distinct relationship to that poetic being. Poetry, then, is being itself expressed in variety.

I remind the reader again of Heraclitus: “All things contain their opposites.” Therefore, what we see conceals a deeper mystery and faith. Even consciousness withholds certain fundamental values and truths from us. The unveiling of those values and truths has great destructive and restorative power. The Apocalypse is a lifting of the veil of consciousness to bring the powers of wholeness to Being. It is ultimate light and extinction—and therefore it is a vital annihilation. The power of chaos is spoken of in Genesis where we see God wrestling with the deep to create a new world. The creation of a new world from rough matter is the very act from the spirit of utopia. Utopians desire to restructure existence to perfect it. God summons His powers of light to unveil the cloud of unknowing.

Poetry as Being and Knowledge is the truth of God. It declares itself to the world and seeks to order it and restore its original purpose. However, the poet is largely unconscious of this power when he or she writes. Language is the poet’s tool. The poet casts language like a net to gather truth and display it to the world. The poet is a maker, a prophet, a seer, a utopian radical.

The Poet is the sheer image of God and the shadow of Christ’s spirit.

Dustin Pickering is the founder of Transcendent Zero Press and editor-in-chief of Harbinger Asylum. He has authored several poetry collections, a short story collection, and a novella. He is a Pushcart nominee and was a finalist in Adelaide Literary Journal’s short story contest in 2018. He is a former contributor to Huffington Post. 

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the author and not of Borderless Journal.

Categories
Essay

Corporations are Human Creations. We Can’t Let Them Threaten our Survival

By David Korten

We live in a world in extreme crisis. By the estimates of the Global Footprint Network, the human species currently consumes at a rate 1.7 times what Earth’s regenerative systems can sustain. Yet billions of people face a daily struggle for survival that strips them of happiness and fulfillment of their human potential.

A growing concentration of financial wealth puts ever more political power in the hands of fewer and fewer people. According to Oxfam, twenty-six billionaires now hold personal financial assets greater than those of the poorest half of humanity (3.9 billion people).

This rapidly accelerating environmental and social crisis is a direct and predictable consequence of global rules that facilitate a concentration of economic and political power in corporations — rules that provide minimum accountability for the consequences of how they use that power to monopolize markets, evade taxes, and operate in whatever place offers the cheapest labor and least environmental protections.

As Allen White has correctly noted, appeals to corporations to exercise conscientious self-regulation do not work. The reason is simple. Mentally healthy living humans have a conscience. Corporations are constructs of law. They have no conscience beyond whatever responsibilities the law may require of them — backed by strict enforcement.

Corporations that are under the control of individual humans — rather than the financial markets — may act responsibly when those individuals possess a deep concern for the common good. Such corporations, however, are rare — at least among those of any consequential size.

Most large corporations are captives of financial markets that drive the pursuit of short-term financial gain with no concern for the social or environmental consequences. Not only do they fail to serve the common good, but they are also driving us all toward civilizational collapse. Indeed, they are driving us toward human self-extinction.

These conditions create an imperative for urgent structural change. Fortunately, corporations are entirely human creations. Indeed, there is no equivalent in nature. If they do not serve our needs, humans have both the right and the means to change — even eliminate — them.

Corporate purpose

Allen White notes there was a time in the early United States when corporations were chartered only for a specific length of time to fulfill a designated public purpose, such as to build a bridge or a canal. The former colonies had fought a brutal war to gain their freedom from the abuses of imperial rule, including the state-sanctioned monopoly power of the British East India Company. They were acutely aware of the potentials for abuse of corporate power, and they wanted none of it.

Despite that early public awareness, corporate interests have been able to mount a relentless drive for power that has, over time, reduced US democracy to little more than an aspiration. Indeed, the United States has become a global driver of the processes by which global corporations pursue with impunity the destruction of Earth’s capacity to support life. And ironically, they do so for the primary purpose of growing the fortunes of billionaires.

It is worth remembering that a corporation exists only when a government has issued a charter. There is no legitimate reason for any democratically accountable government to issue a corporate charter other than to serve a public purpose. Similarly, there is no legitimate reason why a corporation chartered by one government jurisdiction has any inherent right thereby to do business in any other jurisdiction unless granted that privilege by the people of that jurisdiction through their government.

That current law contradicts these simple truths is a consequence of corporate interests’ ability to manipulate the legal system.

Current rules governing corporate conduct encourage and reward what should be treated as criminal behavior. Consider the following examples:

1. They allow corporations to reap the rewards of their decisions without bearing the full costs. For example, when they evade paying taxes, they evade paying their fair share of the costs of infrastructure, education, or other essentials of doing business.

2. They allow the corporation to assess value only in terms of financial costs and returns, thus ignoring the need to secure the health of Earth’s regenerative systems on which all life depends.

3. They allow corporations to use their enormous financial resources and centralized decision-making to shape public opinion and pressure politicians to assure that laws favor corporate interests instead of public interests.

Calls for corporate responsibility generally assume that those who work for corporations, especially top management, are free to exercise moral responsibility on behalf of the corporation should they choose to do so. This ignores an important reality. Unless they own the corporation, those who lead a corporation only appear to be in charge. They serve only at the pleasure of financiers who compete for control of any corporation that is not taking full advantage of opportunities to maximize profits – which often means externalizing costs.

Business in service to community

Science is coming to recognize what many indigenous people have long understood: life exists – can only exist – in diverse communities of living beings that self-organize to create and maintain the conditions of their own existence. The concept is captured by the South African term ubuntu, which translates to “I am because we are.”

This basic frame of how life organizes is demonstrated in a very personal way by the human body. For each of us, our body consists of tens of trillions of cells and micro-organisms that self-organize beyond our conscious awareness to create and maintain the vessel of our consciousness and the vehicle of our agency. On a far grander scale, the countless living organisms that comprise Earth’s community of life similarly self-organize to create the conditions on this planet essential to life’s existence.

The purpose of all human institutions—including corporations—must be to serve human well-being and the health of the planet on which we all depend.

Trying to set and enforce rules at a global level to force transnational corporations to serve the people and planet they were created and designed to exploit would be an exercise as futile as a call for voluntary responsibility. Any global institution created to implement such rules will be subject to nearly instant co-option by the very corporations it is created to control.

A better solution is to break up transnational corporations and restructure them in ways that assure community accountability. How this might be done to best serve the well-being of people and Earth is a topic worthy of serious discussion, with implications well beyond the corporation.

With few exceptions, humans have fallen into a pattern of organizing around hierarchical institutions that centralize power. Capitalism vs. socialism is a false choice specifically because both, as currently understood and practiced, centralize rather than distribute power. Thus, they diminish local control and responsibility and suppress essential local adaptation to changing local conditions. Electing the leaders who head those institutions is only a partial corrective.

Our challenge in learning to function as a global society dependent on the health of a living Earth is to learn to organize as life organizes – within holonic structures that self-organize from the bottom up in response to constantly changing local conditions, with the support of higher system levels. It is a frame for which we barely have the language needed for a coherent discussion. Yet it is the way that life has organized since life first emerged. And it is the way we must now learn to organize.

The closest human approximations would probably be the organizational forms common to most indigenous societies. In the business sector of contemporary societies, they might be the varied forms of cooperative organization based on cooperative ownership.

The work of developing creative options would be a fitting challenge for schools of management interested in creating organizational models for the new human civilization we must now create together.

Dr. David Korten is the author of Agenda for a New EconomyThe Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, and the international best seller When Corporations Rule the World. He is board chair of YES! Magazine, co-chair of the New Economy Working Group, a founding board member of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, president of the Living Economies Forum, and a member of the Club of Rome. He holds MBA and PhD degrees from the Stanford University Graduate School of Business and served on the faculty of the Harvard Business School.

First Published in Countercurrent.org

Categories
Essay

Cavorting with Camus and The Myth of Sisyphus

By Rakhi Dalal

Camus, as a writer, receives mixed response from the readers. It is understandable when some readers avoid reading him, because he seems a difficult writer whose works are taken to be disturbing. Some readers appreciate his writings though they do not agree with him. While for some, Camus’ ideas are irrelevant when compared with those proposed by existential philosophers. Although Camus is often categorised as an existential philosopher but he himself never approved of that. In one of his interviews he said:

“No, I am not an existentialist. Sartre and I are always surprised to see our names linked. We have even thought of publishing a short statement in which the undersigned declare that they have nothing in common with each other and refuse to be held responsible for the debts they might respectively incur. It’s a joke actually. Sartre and I published our books without exception before we had ever met. When we did get to know each other, it was to realise how much we differed. Sartre is an existentialist, and the only book of ideas that I have published, The Myth of Sisyphus, was directed against the so-called existentialist philosophers.”*

Albert Camus

When compared with different periods of his life, his writings offer an insight into the state of mind Camus was often fraught with. The penning of The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus, which he did almost simultaneously, came at a point when he himself faced despair about the kind of life he was living, which included his anxiety about his future as a writer and finding his place in the World. At this time he was in Algiers, his native land, far from the hubbub of Paris. His more mature works , like The Rebel and The Plague, came later on where Rebel dealt with the problem of “murder” as against the problem of “suicide” which he dealt in ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’.  We can notice the change in the focus of the writer, which turned from inner to outer, from individual to social as he moved from one work to the other. As he matured as a writer, Camus himself felt annoyed at his proposed idea of absurd. He said:

“This word “Absurd” has had an unhappy history and I confess that now it rather annoys me. When I analyzed the feeling of the Absurd in The Myth of Sisyphus, I was looking for a method and not a doctrine. I was practicing methodical doubt. I was trying to make a “tabula rasa,” on the basis of which it would then be possible to construct something. If we assume that nothing has any meaning, then we must conclude that the world is absurd. But does nothing have any meaning? I have never believed we could remain at this point.”**

Now this is what keeps me in awe of the writer. He is one writer, who has never been afraid of opening his heart, his thoughts, anything which plagues his mind, before his readers, before this world. In that sense, he may be termed as a radical and approached with scepticism, but it cannot be ignored that the ideas he proposed came to influence the generation of writers engaged in the works of absurd, for example, Samuel Beckett who contributed significantly to the Theatre of Absurd.

The idea of repetition which he proposed with Sisyphus, which in turn was inspired by Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s Repetition, is witnessed significantly in the works of Beckett too. What is more, his ideas also, even now influence the readers like me in whose face the “why” of existence suddenly strikes one fine day. It wouldn’t be an overstatement or some form of fervent adherence to the writer if I admit that he inspired the mind to seek more and not be satisfied till the response unites the thought and the experience.

He is not an easy writer to read, agreed, but his writings are not disturbing, specially if one gets to understand that his writing, whether The Stranger or ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’, is a declaration of writer’s notion that the life must be lived fully in awareness of the absurdity of this world.

In the ‘Myth of Sisyphus’, he terms the world as absurd because it doesn’t offer any answer to the question of existence, it being a silent spectator to the suffering of whole humanity. In a universe, divested of meaning or illusions, a man feels a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. But does this situation dictate death? Camus ponders upon the problem of suicide and contemplates then whether suicide is the only answer to this absurd world which doesn’t answer anything.  He opines:

In the face of such contradictions and obscurities must we conclude that there is no relationship between the opinion one has about life and the act one commits to leave it. Let us not exaggerate in this direction. In a man’s attachment to life there is something stronger than all the ills in the world. The body’s judgement is as good as the mind’s and the body shrinks from annihilation. We get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking. In that race which daily hastens us towards death, the body maintains its irreparable lead.

And to kill one self means to allow both life and death to have dominion over one. Hence, the absurd doesn’t dictate death but calls for the awareness and rejection of death. It calls for living it with consciousness —- with revolt, freedom and passion.

Neither religion, nor science for that matter, provides answer to a questioning mind satisfactorily. While the former tends to imbue it with an idea of eternity; an extension of life in heaven, the latter merely tries to explain it by hypothesis. But Camus cannot believe either of them.

Then turning to existential philosophers, he says that they “without exception suggest escape”.

“Through an odd reasoning, starting out from the absurd over the ruins of reason, in a closed universe limited to the human, they deify what crushes them and find reason to hope in what impoverishes them. That forced hope is religious in all of them.”

To further explain this, he presents to us the ideas proposed by different philosophers. For example he says:

Of Jasper:

Karl Jasper

Karl Jasper, psychiatrist and philosopher, writes: “Does not the failure reveal, beyond any possible explanation and interpretation, not the absence but the existence of transcendence?”

So that Jasper proposes the existence which cannot be defined as “unthinkable unity of the general” and the “inability to understand” as the existence which illuminates everything.

Of Shestov:

Lev Shestov

Lev Shestov, the Russian existentialist philosopher, names the fundamental absurdity by saying: “This is God: we must rely on him even if he does not correspond to any of our rational categories.”

For Shestov, reason is useless but there is something beyond reason, even if that something is indifferent to us.

Of Kierkegaard:

Soren Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard calls for the third sacrifice required by Ignatius Loyola, the one in which God most rejoices: The sacrifice of the intellect. He says, ‘In his failure, the believer finds his triumph.’

Kierkegaard substitutes his cry of revolt for frantic adherence.

Camus doesn’t agree with these philosophers, who did, all of them, tried to understand the absurd but finally gave into that which they found impossible to define. He calls their giving up as philosophical suicide. He cannot believe in Jasper’s idea of Transcendence. In response to Shestov, he says “To an absurd mind reason is useless and there is nothing beyond reason.” He chooses ‘despair’ instead of Kierkegaard’s frantic adherence. He says “I want everything to be explained to me or nothing.”

 So now when faced with absurd and being in consciousness, how best to live the life? Camus advocates the life of a seducer (Don Juanism) actor, conqueror or creator following the three consequences of absurd i.e. revolt, passion and freedom.

 By revolt, Camus means to keep the absurd alive by challenging the world anew every second.  

By freedom, he means losing oneself in that bottomless certainty, feeling henceforth sufficiently removed from one’s own life to increase it and take a broad view of it.

By passion, he means being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom, and to the maximum.

Though he praises the absurd man in a seducer, actor or conqueror, it was his stance on creator which I drew me towards his ideas. He says:

“Creating is living doubly. The groping, anxious quest of a Proust, his meticulous collecting of flowers, of wallpapers, and of anxieties, signifies nothing else.”

Sisyphus

Towards the end of this essay, he compares absurd with Sisyphus, who, according to the myth, was condemned to rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, only to see it rolling down back every time he reached the top. He says that though Sisyphus is well aware of his fate, of the continuous struggle he has to engage in, but he is still passionate about his life and doesn’t give up. It is during his descent, that Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained.

Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up. Unconscious, secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and price of victory. There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his effort will henceforth be unceasing. If there is a personal fate, there is no higher destiny, or at least there is but one which he concludes is inevitable and despicable. For the rest, he knows himself to be the master of his days. At that subtle moment when man glances backward over his life, Sisyphus returning toward his rock, in that slight pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which becomes his fate, created by him, combined under his memory’s eye and soon sealed by his death. Thus, convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see who knows that the night has no end, he is still on the go. The rock is still rolling.

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

The other essays in the collection, ‘Summer in Algiers’, ‘The stop in Oran’, ‘Helen’s Exile’ and ‘Return to Tipasa’ are worth reading too. In ‘Return to Tipasa’, we observe Camus prevailed over by nostalgia for home, for his land. It is here that he says:

In the direction of the ruins, as far as the eye could see, there was nothing but pock-marked stones and wormwood, trees and perfect columns in the transparence of the crystalline air. It seemed as if the morning were stabilized, the sun stopped for an incalculable moment. In this light and this silence, years of wrath and night melted slowly away. I listened to an almost forgotten sound within myself as if my heart, long stopped, were calmly beginning to beat again. And awake now, I recognized one by one the imperceptible sounds of which the silence was made up: the figured bass of the birds, the sea’s faint, brief sighs at the foot of the rocks, the vibration of the trees, the blind singing of the columns, the rustling of the wormwood plants, the furtive lizards. I heard that; I also listened to the happy torrents rising within me. It seemed to me that I had at last come to harbor, for a moment at least, and that henceforth that moment would be endless.

What I realized reading these essays over again was that despite of being labelled as the proponent of absurd, it is actually living that he so fervently speaks about; Not just living but living passionately and fully. Living in awareness and questioning. Though he seems to be recommending a negative faith (as James Wood says in introduction) against the religious or existentialist ideologies, he nevertheless demonstrates a distinctive way to the seekers to come to terms with the existence; the way to be chosen henceforth, of course, depending upon the individual, starting every day with an ever new light.

“In the middle of winter, I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer.”

*From an interview with Jeanine Delpech, in Les Nouvelles Littéraires, (1945). Cited in Albert Camus: Lyrical and Critical Essays, Vintage (1970)

** From an interview with Gabriel d’Aubarède, in Les Nouvelles Littéraires, (1951). Cited in Albert Camus: Lyrical and Critical Essays, Vintage (1970)

Source : http://www.camus-society.com/albert-camus-existentialism.html

Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ . She lives with her husband and a teenage son, who being sports lovers themselves are yet, after all these years, left surprised each time a book finds its way to their home.

Categories
Essay

The Poet as Warrior

                                    (Dedicated to Kai Coggin)

By Dustin Pickering

W. H. Auden’s poem “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” is often quoted to dismiss the importance of poetry as a form of social justice. The current fashion among poets is that poetry can revolutionize social inequalities, make positive changes, build empathy for marginalized groups, and convey information about causes important to the poet. For example, Robert Huddleston writes in Boston Review, “In its day, W. H. Auden’s claim that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ was a necessary reproof to an ideologically mandated culture of protest that had a chokehold on the literary left in the 1930s, an example it remains important to consider today. Clashes over the political rights and wrongs of poetry, then as now, are often disguised contests over cultural and academic turf, ideological purity, and even the relative priority of criticism versus artistic practice.” He is correct concerning the cultural war that cloaks literary discussion. Literary figures and public intellectuals are often chided for their implicit biases. However, I conceive of the poem as saying something drastically different; I do not see it as being a political rebuttal at all, but rather serving as one within a larger context.

Auden’s poem contains these lines:

…For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives

In the valley of its making where executives

Would never want to tamper, flows on south

From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,

Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,

A way of happening, a mouth.

The poem carefully navigates the terrain of the unchangeable dimensions of political life. However, it clears a safe space for the poem as a thing of its own. Poetry does not instigate events; rather, it is an event itself. The day remains cold for Yeats’s death, and his poetry lives beyond him through the many misinterpretations it will face. “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” defies the culture war to uphold the dignity of the human spirit to which poetry testifies. Auden once defended Pound from censorship by his publisher. He said anti-fascism will become the new fascism. The publisher relented and granted Pound a space in the anthology. In this course, Auden defends the integrity of the poet as a person whose work dignifies the ideal humanity. In this respect he clears a space for poetic license because a poet must spend their life empting themselves.

No, poetry makes nothing happen. It is an event itself. It is the fire of intellect applied to the cold apathy and spiritual destitution we suffer. As protest against the human condition, it becomes universal in its design.

Hence poetry is spiritual warfare. The poet is a paradigm for virtue. The contemporary world now challenges the absolute freedom of the visionary. It is historically stated that the visionary should be exempt from moral considerations. Recent shifts in consciousness concerning this attitude are becoming mainstream. The UK Telegraph reports, “Janet Marstine, Honorary (Retired) Associate Professor, School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester, added: ‘The National Gallery has taken an important step in acknowledging that it is no longer ethically tenable to interpret in an aesthetic vacuum. An artist’s position in the Western canon does not make them immune from accountability.’” The visionary in question at the National Gallery is Paul Gauguin. He is under question for exploiting the myth of the noble savage for his sexual and financial gain. The moral dilemma posed by such considerations does not discount the artistry or accomplishments of individual artists. Its intent is to hold artists accountable for immoral behaviour. The hope in the #metoo era is these considerations will keep living artists accountable rather than giving them license to act uninhibited, and influence the broader society.

Vincent van Gogh, a friend of Gauguin who he accused of insanity, wrote, “The way to know life is to love many things.” Van Gogh is historically considered a misunderstood visionary who underwent severe lifetime disappoint and failure. His legacy is a myth of its own. He was expelled from his church where he was minister. His father thought of him as a lunatic with stupid ideas. However, he is also considered a beautiful person who showed the world a light it misses in so much conflict. Don McClean wrote of van Gogh, “The world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.”

These two towering figures in art leave us with widely divergent displays of personal conduct. Van Gogh’s misconduct is chalked up to a serious mental health issue, but Gauguin is a sexual deviant who exploited the European assumption of the noble savage. What can be learned from these patterns? Emerging views of artists’ conduct have more at stake than aesthetic considerations. They are the battleground of the purpose of ideas. Gauguin’s art and moral conduct are under question not because his art is unpleasing, but because ideas hold power: we must take into account how ideas can effect culture and the treatment of others. Misconceptions of indigenous people have serious repercussions historically. Our worldview must consider that others are right to their cultural experience without infringement. This is where the culture war stems.

If we conceive a race as inferior, does our conduct toward them change? Gauguin is not being questioned as much as an entire colonialist legacy and how it shapes the behaviour within the culture that adopts it. Human dignity is universal; a person should never be treated as inferior. Perhaps we are right to question history so vapidly, and demand the culture at large change. The most important thing may be a humanist conception of world culture. Those who deny it are perhaps harming not only others, but also degrading themselves.

The culture war is the domain of values and whose values develop dignity in the human heart. Art is one of the most developed and poignant tools to communicate values. The Marshall Plan advanced capitalism throughout Europe using art to influence people. Culture is what stands as testimony to prevalent attitudes, reactions to those attitudes, and the historical presence of a people. We are right to subject it to deeper inquiry.

In fact, I would consider a moral duty to question historical circumstance through art. Duty is defined in the Bhagavad Gita, “It is better to do one’s own duty, however defective it may be, than to follow the duty of another, however well one may perform it. He who does his duty as his own nature reveals it, never sins.” This offers a subtext for individuality. Art is the historical realm of the individual—they who create art are the most developed in ideas. One’s heart will reveal one’s purpose. St. Paul writes in Romans 12:2 (KJV), “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” The world’s major faiths are abundant in praises of nonconformity. As St. Paul carefully describes, interpreting the will of God is a struggle. One must resist pressures external to oneself. Sometimes one must question oneself deeply to find the moral current within. Jihad, or “struggle”, is spiritual warfare in three senses: against one’s own temptations, against one’s peers, and in defense of one’s territory. Aristotle wrote, “Wicked men obey from fear; good men, from love.” The perennial wisdom seems to be of the consensus that morality is deeply personal, and one’s character is deeply revelatory. Art is where the person speaks honestly with high eloquence. Art itself is action. How much of artistic achievement depends on cultural consensus? Is art rather a defiance of consensus, bearing more of the soul of the artist than their times? A moral purpose should derive from the inner life, and counter the wheel of consensus in bare revolt. John Milton writes in Paradise Lost:

“A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.”

Vatsala Radhakeesoon, contemporary poet of Mauritius, grants insight into the nature of freedom, character, and morality of being in her poem “Unconditional Thread”:

Born from
the Divine’s golden thread
Molded with
perfection, purity and grace
I’m the invisible heart –
the unconditional thread
ruling the universe

I’m soft
I’m generous
I’m not from
the Mundane
the materialistic world
the uncanny competitive rules

I’m omnipresent
but recognized, seen
only by the unadulterated

I, Unconditional Thread
survive in immortal realms
and go on whispering
in every ear
“ Love, love and love
discarding mental blocks
and embracing spontaneity.”

A poet warrior embraces compassion, action, duty, and dream. Henry Miller writes, “All growth is a leap in the dark, a spontaneous unpremeditated act without benefit of experience.” One’s leap becomes one’s light. The darkness illumined is one’s spiritual landmark. To seek beyond one’s perilous comfort is an act of defiance in a world where complacency is sanctified. The artist’s presence stirs the world from sleep if they are securing their foundations. Ultimately, we are clueless about life: where it takes us, what it means, how we cope with it. We engage in symbolic acts of protest and incite civil discussion on important issues. Papers are published on every subject; scholars shake their fists at apathy and ignorance. Theories emerge from data and trends. Life’s most recent turn provides us with newfound perspectives. Once the trend is fulfilled, new storms rage on the horizon. Science is continuously revising and incorporating new facts and figures. There is nothing steady in the order we endure; in fact, to call it order defies its purpose.

In such a world of flux, kindness is even spirited defiance. In “Kindness”, Naomi Shihab Nye carefully constructs the meaning of kindness in counterintuitive language:

Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt weakened in a broth.

What you held in your hand,

What you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness.

How you ride and ride

thinking the bus will never stop,

the passengers eating maize and chicken

will stare out the window forever.

Walter Pater writes in The Conclusion to The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Ideas, “Great passions may give us this quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity, disinterested or otherwise, which comes naturally to many of us. Only be sure it is passion—that it does yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness.” Kindness is passion. Etymologically speaking, “passion” reflects suffering, endurance, and loss. Compassion means to “suffer with”; hence, Nye’s poetic rendering of kindness defines it as passion.

St. Francis of Assisi writes in “Praises of the Christian Virtues” of the three virtues of Wisdom, Poverty, and Charity that “Whoever possesses one virtue without offending the others, possesses them all.” Guatama Buddha is recorded as saying something profoundly similar, “We will develop and cultivate the liberation of mind by loving kindness, make it our vehicle, make it our basis, stabilize it, exercise ourselves in it, and fully perfect it.” In the doctrines of Buddhism, the problem of suffering is rooted in attachment. Attachment pertains to physical things, mental habits, and stubborn attitudes. When one is attached, the object of attachment invokes fear of its loss, and can trap the mind in unhealthy suffering. In Sanskrit, the word samsara translates “it flows together.” In  Hinduism and Buddhism, the concept signifies worldliness, attachment, and the cycle of rebirth and suffering. To be released from this cycle one must be released of oneself and desire. This state of enlightenment is called Nirvana.

Octavio Paz, poet and ambassador of Mexico to India, writes in “Perpetua Incarnada”:

Hour by hour I saw him slide

wide and happy like a river

shadow and light linked its shores

and a yellow swirl

single monotonous intensity

the sun set in its center

Then he writes:

I ask for strength I ask for detachment

open the eyes

unharmed evidence

between the clarities that are canceled

Not the abolition of images

the incarnation of pronouns

the world that we all invented

sign town

and in its center

Solitary

Perpetual incarnate

one half woman

peña manantial the other

Word of all with whom we speak alone

I ask that you always accompany me

man reason

This poem reflects an existential loneliness but it extends into territories much broader. He asks prayerfully that the world be returned to the state of the ‘Word’ from its embodiment of images. Once again, we return to Pater in his essay on Leonardo da Vinci. “We recognise one of those symbolical inventions in which the ostensible subject is used, not as a matter for definite pictorial realisation, but as the starting point of a train of sentiment, subtle and vague as a piece of music.”

 In “Flux and Movement in Walter Pater’s Leonardo Essay” critic Lene Østermark-Johansen writes, “The body which twists around its own spine creates the illusion of moving from one extreme to another thus resulting in a kind of harmony of opposites, a concordia discours.” This statement not only describes drawings and sculpture, but applies to rhetoric also. The concept of Self is illusion because all things contain their opposites. One cannot step in the same river twice. We are the river, and our Self is a form within the flux of promissory existence. We are granted time within this cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. As the Cross represents redemption, one reaches Nirvana by letting go. Christ is reborn to demonstrate he can conquer the forces of death.

 Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche writes, “The Shambhala teachings are founded on the premise that there is basic human wisdom that can help solve the world’s problems… Shambhala vision teaches that, in the face of the world’s problems, we can be heroic and kind at the same time.” A warrior poet sets the world aright through their heroism, but what does setting the world aright mean exactly? According to Shambhala: the sacred path of the warrior, the world must restore its focus to human dignity.

Mirabai writes:

O friend, I sit alone while the world sleeps.
In the palace that held love’s pleasure
the abandoned one sits.
She who once threaded a necklace of pearls
is now stringing tears.
He has left me. The night passes while I count stars.
When will the Hour arrive?
This sorrow must end. Mira says:
Lifter of Mountains, return.

– “The Necklace”               

We cannot restore dignity alone. Existential dread implies that as individuals we are alone to choose and must live with that responsibility. In her abandonment, Mirabai still affirms her dignity as God’s beloved. She calls to God to return. This reflects the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth as eternal flux which harmonises with our physical existence. God is with us. Christ is ever present in our domain of suffering.

It is no coincidence that Paz concludes his poem with the words “I ask to be obedient to this day and tonight.”

U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo writes in “The Myth of Blackbirds”:

“Justice is a story by heart in the beloved country where imagination weeps. The sacred mountains only appear to be asleep…We cannot be separated in the loop of mystery between blackbirds and the memory of blackbirds.”

Myth is a cultural awakening. Being “alone to choose” does not defer human dignity or one’s relationship to the divine because we are creatures of memory. As Plato reflected, learning is remembering what one already knows. Such a cycle is not promising. It is eternal.

 We are ripe with questioning historical errors in this period of history. “The emergence of pessimistic philosophies is by no means a sign of some great and terrible distress; rather, these question marks regarding the worth of life arise when the human condition has been so improved and ameliorated that the mosquito bites of the body and soul are found too altogether gruesome and gory, and in their poverty of experience of actual pain, people will even take being troubled by ideas to be suffering of the highest order,” writes Nietzsche in The Joyous Science. Is our ability and right to assess history as such a privilege offered by our affluence and security? It was the intellectual who once hid in ivory towers. Now, do we all live in ivory towers with epigenetic fears and concerns?

Such a question does not demean our relative poverty, private traumas, failures and shortcomings, or deprivation. What it suggests is we have plateaued to become so complacent and unconcerned that it requires serious tragic thinking to stir our imaginations. We may long for suffering; yes, we may hunger for the cross. As they say, comedy is born of tragedy. Is the opposite also true?

Wendy Chen-Tanner describes Kai Coggin’s collection Wingspan in the following words: “Wingspan is a book about becoming, transforming, and unfurling into the fullness of selfhood in all its disparate parts.” The human soul fluxes and fades with the human condition. Being is Becoming. This discovery of the fullness of being is impressively expressed in “Everything Silver/Artemis and Her Lover.” Students of Greek myth know the story of Actaeon and his tutelage under Chiron. When he witnesses Artemis bathing, she turns him from hunter to the hunted. Coggin’s poem is deeply personal. She observes the two as lovers experiencing oneness together. She writes:

“I will watch them,

the hunter and the hunted,

these lovers mounted in the stars,

I will watch them,

and wish for an arrow to fall from the sky into my open heart.”

Aside from the sheer beauty of these lines, the poet transforms herself into hunted for the sake of the poem. Perhaps it is self-voyeurism—the poem is solitary in tone. Gazing into the attic of her heart, Coggin sees the night sky and the eternal myth of huntress and hunted. The ebb and flow of life enchants the poet deeply and she wishes to be one with it. The opening phrase “attic of my heart” parallels the night sky and symbolically suggests yearning for oneness. Chen-Tanner’s description is impressively accurate. Jeremy Taylor writes in Psychology Today, “The universally experienced world of dreams and dreaming has always been a deep mystery, ever since the first confusing hints of self-awareness arose in our instinctively nervous, curious mammalian ancestors. Awakening and remembering that we were dreaming just a moment ago always suggests that we live in two successively alternating worlds – one of made of dreams, and the other composed of our waking experiences.” The article (“The Expanse of Our Unconscious is as Immense as the Night Sky”) combines psychology with evolutionary principles to explain the interconnectedness of the dream and waking worlds. Poetically rendered, Taylor incidentally offers insight into the importance of myth. Our minds are myth-makers in their own right. The bridge between self-awareness and yearning, our ancestral past and myth, is accentuated in the story of Actaeon and Artemis. Coggin immortalises them in the starry fixtures of night. The hunter and hunted are not only archetypes, but also offer a dialectical conversation with oneself. Akin to Hegel’s master and servant dialectic, the need for truth anticipates struggle and dissipation.

 Coggin’s poems are rich in spiritedness, thoughtfulness, and hope. Hope strives for unity of self, toward knowledge of one’s desires, and deeper into the wilderness of dream. The dialectic flips on itself as the wise hunter becomes the hunted—his desires are too stubborn to resist, and he is transfixed by the translucent beauty of the immortal. He ascends into fatherhood by transfiguration into his master’s image. The transfiguration is an exact mirror-image of his role as hunter. This reversal is symbolically important because it reflects a registry of Becoming. Revolutionary ideas shrivel into double standards, mimicry of their exactness, and memory. Hope is a struggle against the unfathomable and inevitable decline of meaning. It is assertive. Like energy within neurological structures, it dissipates and connects. The mind is forever incorporating the ancient and traumatic into meaning.

 Andrea Gibson writes of Coggin’s Periscope Heart, “Kai Coggin’s Periscope Heart is beauty mapping the dark, a canyon of becoming and letting go.”

I want to learn you like a language,

speak you on my tongue until I am

no longer foreign to your body…

Periscope Heart feels more personal. In “Language”, loving is compared to constructing a language. In a real sense, myth-making is language. Language is universal mapping, constructing roads through the caverns of being, and developing a common language. Powerful insight serves as the poet’s resolution.

Dorothy Day writes, “To offer the suffering of celibacy, temporary or permanent, to the Lord is to make use, in the best possible way, of man’s greatest joy.” Such is the world we live in, Day writes, that “The lack of tenderness in people’s relations with each other, tenderness expressed by warmth of voice and speech, handclasp and embrace–in other words, the warmth of friendship–lack of these things too means a concentration on sex, and the physical aspects, the animal aspects of sex.” Poet and reviewer Jagari Mukhergee writes in “Metapoem”:

“My poems are vinyl dolls that I make for you sketching in eyes and nose and lips with watercolor ink. My poems are glass lanterns — every time one is lit on nights when the soul has no electricity from within… My poems are a dusty tempest seething. Each a life.”

The warrior poet brings light to the world. Her tenderness is chastity and her self-love is universal nature. Her tears water the foundations of our aching existence. Our longings are satisfied in her dissolutions and dreams. The warrior poet is the self within each person.

Dustin Pickering is the founder of Transcendent Zero Press and editor-in-chief of Harbinger Asylum. He has authored several poetry collections, a short story collection, and a novella. He is a Pushcart nominee and was a finalist in Adelaide Literary Journal’s short story contest in 2018. He is a former contributor to Huffington Post. 

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the author.

Categories
Essay Musings Slices from Life

Stray Musings – ‘Love at the time of corona’, as it were!

By Debraj Mookerjee

Those familiar with the cult author Ayn Rand (she of The Fountainhead fame) will possibly remember her somewhat sobering thoughts on love: “After a point, YOUR LOVE for a person becomes more important than the object of love” (Capitalisation mine). What is love, or the easier poser: What do we make of the idea of love? That love is a compelling emotion, which is perfectly democratic and non-discriminating in affecting the bright and the otherwise, the poor and the rich, the old and the young and so on is an incontrovertible fact. Its universality does, ipso facto, predicate on some common streak that runs through humanity. Is it the innate desire, an almost mammalian need, to copulate and propagate that stirs us into “loving” another, as a prelude as it were to pairing, and therefore mating and procreating and so on? Or is it some deep insecurity within, of a feeling of incompleteness till we have loved or are loved? Or is it just a reflection of the great human propensity to possess; more precisely to call things our own, to be comfortable only when what we desire, that is what we consider of worth, is ours for keeps, like the valuables we stash in our bank lockers?

To begin with, we ought to take a look at the popular rhetoric encountered in our representational sphere of reference to understand how love, though imagined as something special, is as much a commodity as anything else. Why do we say, for example, things like “he (or she) belongs to me”, “I wish to belong to her”, “I could not belong to anyone”, “I want her bad”, “Gosh, I can’t live if I can’t have her”, and so on and so forth? If love were so noble, or even selfless as it is often made out to be, why should it make us want to own the object of love unless it be to serve as a perpetual reminder of the great feeling of love that we have experienced for that object? It is as though our love would crumble to dust should the one we love not be ours forever. And we thought love was an abstract idea!

So let’s test the proposition with a hypothetical (though perfectly credible) situation. You say you love somebody. Now that somebody loves you well, after a manner, you know; loves you but is not in love with you, whatever. Here the balance is delicate. You can’t stop loving that person because you know her (or his) love could grow with time. Unless you keep professing your love, how can you fuel whatever spark she (or he) has for you, right?

Over a period in time, she may not progress beyond her incipient leanings. At some critical juncture, you have to take the decision on whether to let go of your love for her (or him) or push just that little bit more. What is this game, ask yourself? If this is love, fine, so it is, but let’s not pretend and suggest it is some elevated concept that can only be experienced at a heightened level of consciousness. The processes that it goes through is no different from the ones you adopt before deciding to buy a pair of pyjamas – is it good, is it worth the price, how much can I beat the price down to, and of course, how long will it last?

Love therefore, is not an abstract idea. QED. It is an idea though because we don’t know what it is. Probably it is nothing really, at least nothing tangible. But that does not make it abstract. The only way to know it is to register all the things we build around it and what we do with it. It is somewhat like the honour pupils earn in a boy’s school for pissing highest against a wall. The honour means little. It does not guarantee against urinary problems in later life, no does it confirm sexual prowess, but the effort to earn that honour is tangible.

To return to Ayn Rand, and the big question: Is most of what has to do with love merely a role? An assertion of what we can or must or should do to express our love. And what do you think would remain imprinted on the mind – our efforts or the object of love? Come on be honest; of course, we’d value our love more than the loved one.

But all these theories pertain to love that has to do with the desire to own. Love that does not demand, love that is not fixated on one person, love that is not possessive or centred on one’s singular desires comprise another kettle of fish. This is the sort of love that you can shower on so many people at the same time. Where you remain a free agent, and so does the person you love. And each of these loves can have sanctity. Because there is no sense of possession tied to such love it seldom unwinds, unlike the other type that tends to come apart when the tangible grounds for its existence seem to come unstuck.

The Czechoslovak writer Milan Kundera once spoke of two types of love – lyrical and epical – with reference to men. In the former, you see all women in one woman, and in the latter, you see one woman in all women. One liked the concept when one was young (that’s why the quote is remembered). Not anymore. Real love is ‘topical’ love, as it were, where you see all women (or men really) in every woman (or man). Anyway, the more you love, the more love there is that goes around. Philosophically, that sounds better than ‘winning’ somebody in love, as though the person were some prize catch!

And no, this piece has nothing to do with the virus. Of course, it’s possible that thoughts of mortality urge the mind to come clean on vexed conundrums, none more twisted than the subject of love. It circles the context of the writer’s consciousness because everybody is thinking corona, but it does not (in his opinion) contaminate his thoughts. Except to the extent that he could not help adding it to the title, unapologetically, and admittedly gratuitously!

Debraj Mookerjee has taught in Ramjas College at the University of Delhi for close to three decades, with specialised interests in Literary Theory, cultural studies, and popular fiction, especially SF. He is also a columnist, writing on culture politics and society, apart from food history. Mookerjee likes to travel and curate life and its myriad complexities. He is deeply interested in  exploring alternative pedagogies, because he feels higher education should unleash academic creativity and not constrain scholarship through enforced regimentation.

Categories
Essay Feminism

Do you think solidarity between women is possible?

By Meenakshi Malhotra

During the first few decades of the feminist movement, it was assumed that women as a social group, as a political constituency could organise themselves as a unified entity in order for them to give voice to their  demands. Underlying this assumption was the belief that women’s oppression was a more or less universal fact  and so there was a measure of solidarity in the hurt claims that women were voicing. In some societies like India which was under the yoke of colonialism, the reform movements  of the 19th century brought  the miserable condition of Indian women to the attention of  the colonial  government and to the public at large, leading to a series of legislations which ostensibly helped improve the condition of Indian women. However mindsets took longer to change and despite some changes in the public domain and ameliorative measures, the material condition of women within the family continued to be unequal and oppressed.

 The first wave of feminism or liberal feminism was  visible in the west, specifically US and England and had its roots in both Enlightenment rationality as well as in 19th century liberal thinking represented  by Mary Wollstonecraft, John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor Mill, who stressed on the importance of liberty or freedom for the individual (whether to pursue his/her profession/religion), on individual rights and justice and also on political equality. However the operative assumption was that the subject of this feminism was a homogeneous and undifferentiated subject. So when Virginia Woolf invokes “human nature” or the category of “woman” in her writings, one gets  the sense of a singular monolithic subject of feminism. Factors like imperialism, colonialism or race and class did not alter or sufficiently inflect Woolf’s understanding of the category of woman.

Similarly radical feminism also sought to locate commonalities in women’s experiences. In their focus on the personal as the political, on sharing of experiences and of consciousness-raising, women were encouraged to forge solidarities based on common experiences of victimisation  and oppression. As Valerie Bryson, the British political scientist who has written extensively on feminist theory and politics, points out, consciousness-raising demonstrated how  “the trauma of a woman who had been raped or who had to resort to an illegal abortion  seemed to be linked to the experiences of the wife whose husband refused to do his share of housework…or sulked if she went out for he evening; the secretary whose boss insisted that she wear short skirts and expected her to ‘be nice’ to important clients; and the female student whose teachers refused requests to study female writers or even traded grades for sexual favours.”(Bryson,1999:27)

This sense of solidarity fostered by the women’s movement even if temporarily created a sense of sisterhood  and of bonding. Their stress was on values and qualities culturally associated with  women albeit a somewhat essentialized notion of womanhood. Underlying this notion of sisterhood was also a set of assumptions articulated  by Alison Jaggar and Paula Rothenberg:

“That women were historically the first oppressed group

That women’s oppression is the most widespread , existing in virtually every known society

That women’s oppression is the hardest form of oppression to eradicate and cannot be removed by other social changes such as the abolition of class society.

That women’s oppression causes the most suffering to its victims, although the suffering might go unrecognised because of the sexist prejudices of both the oppressors and the victims.

That women’s oppression ..provides a conceptual model for understanding all other forms of oppression.”(Jaggar and Rothenberg, 1984 :186)    

In the whole afterglow of a temporary sense of empowerment  generated by the women’s liberation movement with slogans like (the one that evolved out of the title of Robin Morgan’s book)  Sisterhood is Powerful doing the rounds, the valorisation of motherhood and the sense that women are the nurturers of nature (ecofeminism), the presence of many deprivileged women who were not even in a position to articulate their oppression was perhaps forgotten. In a sense it was a metonymic displacement where one group of women stood for the whole and spoke for all women in what they felt and thought was a unified voice. Was and is this an issue of misrepresentation or partial representation?

It was in the 1980s that the third wave or difference feminism was manifesting itself in diverse ways. As American feminist, Rosemary Tong, summarises, “multicultural, global and postcolonial feminists push feminist thought in the direction of both recognising women’s diversity and acknowledging the challenges it presents’’(Tong.1997:200) The category of woman is not a singular, unified or monolithic category. Both female essentialism — the tendency to see the category of woman as a universal category outside of history and culture- and female chauvinism were seen as problematic and eschewed.

The attack on Anglo-American feminism came from several quarters-multicultural immigrants’ French feminists and ‘third’ world and postcolonial feminisms. Marginalized women, particularly women of colour and lesbians but also poor, uneducated and immigrant women complained that the feminism propagated by the so-called feminists who were in the academy did not work for them. (Tong, 202) Rather it catered to a very small segment of elite feminists comprising white, heterosexual, middle-class, highly-educated women whose interests are put forward as that of all women. There is obviously no such universal version of womanhood available. Elizabeth Spelman urged feminist theorists to not gloss over women’s differences, since such standardisations invariably also assume a norm of how a woman should be. She observes:

“I believe that the woman in every woman is a woman just like me, and if I also assume that there is no difference between being white and being a woman, then seeing another woman ‘as a woman’ will  involve seeing her as fundamentally like the woman I am. In other words, the womanness underneath the Black woman’s skin is a white woman’s, and deep down inside the Latino woman is an Anglo woman waiting to burst through a cultural shroud. (Spelman,1998:13) Thus to stress the unity of women is no ‘guarantee against hierarchical ranking’ and this assertion of differences can therefore  function ‘oppressively’.”(ibid)

Difference feminisms were articulated by postcolonial feminists like Chandra Talpade Mohanty and others. Among the strongest articulations of difference were the ones by bell hooks, Audre Lord and Patricia Hill Collins. With their main focus being African American /black women, these feminists foregrounded the multiple and interlocking oppressions of race, sex and class. These multiple oppressions could not be separated into primary and secondary but had to be understood simultaneously and addressed together. Their ideas about multiple oppressions were also voiced in various registers by other groups like the Latin American /Hispanic feminists and others.

While keeping in mind the differences, too much stress on mutual differences can end up throwing a spanner in the works as far as forging a global feminism is concerned. Global and postcolonial feminists rather believe that women “cannot work together as true equals until women recognize and address their differences.”(Tong:217) According to Audre Lorde, when a feminist walks into a room filled with women from all over the world, she probably does not always want to highlight the differences but stress the similarities and commonalities.(ibid) So rather than plurality she focuses on ‘oneness’, on unity. Audre Lorde says that it is precisely this type of behaviour that explains some feminists inability to forge alliances:

“Advocating the mere tolerance of difference between women is the grossest reformism. It is a total denial of the creative function of difference in our lives. Difference must not be merely tolerated, but seen as a fund  of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic.”(Lorde, quoted in Tong:217)

Thus, going  by the logic of this argument, the existence of difference does not exclude the idea of solidarity shared on the basis of a history of similar (though not the same) oppressions. However , the idea of coming together as feminists has also been challenged by several schools of feminism, including post-structuralist feminism and others. To cite one example, Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva feel that the idea of all universal ideologies based on a common human nature is outmoded.

Similarly poststructuralist and postmodern feminism offer a threat both to the subject of feminism as well as to the question of forging solidarities between women as the question of difference proliferates even more sharply. “Taken to extremes the emphasis on ‘difference’ could lead to losing sight of all commonalities, making even communication impossible.”(Shiva and Mies,1993: 10-11)

One way to address the issue of difference, rather to sidestep it, is to abandon the idea of solidarity and sisterhood since it is impossible for all feminists or all women to unite on a common platform or under the same banner. The other is to invoke Gayatri Spivak’s idea of strategic essentialism, and concur with Leslie Heywood and Jennifer Drake’s laying out a program and agenda for third wave feminism:

“Even as different strains of feminism and activism directly contradict each other, they are part of our third-wave lives, our thinking, and our praxes: we are products of all the contradictory definitions of and differences within feminism, beasts of such a hybrid kind that perhaps we need a different name altogether.” (Heywood and Drake,1997:3)

Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi. She  has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender and/in literature and feminist theory. Some of her recent publications include articles on lifewriting as an archive for GWSS, Women and Gender Studies in  India: Crossings (Routledge,2019),on ‘’The Engendering of Hurt’’  in The State of Hurt, (Sage,2016) ,on Kali in Unveiling Desire,(Rutgers University Press,2018) and ‘Ecofeminism and its Discontents’ (Primus,2018). She has been a part of the curriculum framing team for masters programme in Women and gender Studies at Indira Gandhi National Open University(IGNOU) and in Ambedkar University, Delhi and has also been an editorial consultant for ICSE textbooks (Grades1-8) with Pearson publishers. She has recently taught a course as a visiting fellow in Grinnell College, Iowa. She has bylines in Kitaab and Book review.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the author.