Letters at 3AM
By Michael Ventura
July 8, 1997: Take heart from the ruins. When a teacher showed us photos of the Acropolis, I noticed the temple was a ruin yet Athens was intact. I raised my skinny arm, flapped my eager hand, and asked was it true, had Athens continued all these centuries, a city where people worked and loved and hated, had babies, made politics, wrote poems... while on the hill above, the Acropolis' marbles tumbled from disuse and no one bothered to set them right again, no one even knew what they were for anymore? Was that true? The teacher said yes, she said it was true. Did anyone know the exact day that Athenians stopped caring about the Acropolis? She said no, she didn't think anybody really knew.
It was one of the few things I really learned at school: That a certain day had dawned, a day like any other, but on this day the people of Athens simply stopped going to the Acropolis for anything but to take walks or have picnics. It had once been the center of their civilization, but there came a day when no onE really remembered what it was for. Yet life in Athens went on just fine.
And the same thing happened with the Sphinx -- in fact, most Egyptians forgot the Sphinx was ever there! Only last century did some Frenchmen uncover it from eons of windblown sand. And the cliff houses of Canyon de Chelly... Stonehenge... those temple-fortresses of India... there came a day when they were left behind, though nobody went anywhere. Folks stuck around and seemed to do alright, though what they'd called their "civilization" just kind of evaporated in front of them, leaving nothing but some empty buildings and huge tilting stones.
People still danced, sang, made babies and war and art, prayed, loved, were possessed by revelations, whether their "civilization" was cooking or not. Commerce thrived, or didn't, as usual; they had good years and bad, as usual. Their "headlines" (in whatever form) changed or disappeared, but still they celebrated and mourned. Their gods died, were forgotten or forbidden, but not their sense of the sacred. Something shined in their eyes, whether the famous made speeches in the Acropolis or not. The mystery of being alive didn't diminish one bit.
For what we call "civilization" is only the current explanation of the mystery that lives in our eyes. But it's too big a mystery for any explanation to last indefinitely. The explanation gets exhausted by the sublimity of what it's trying to explain. Any shared collective official-sounding explanation sooner or later just crumbles, and we call that the end of a civilization. But the mystery is too enormous to crumble. It creates civilizations, but they can't contain it; nothing can contain what creates it. The mystery of the human heart inspires the explanation, then gradually eats away at that explanation, and then forgets the explanation somewhere in the immensity of its mystery. We need a word for that, so we call it "history."
Oh well. I guess we gotta call it something.
All of this is, to me, a song not of ruin but of freedom.
By freedom I don't mean the "rights" we clamor about, arguing what's a right and what's not; I mean what makes us really free, the most drastic space of all: The human heart -- the mystery.
There may or may not be a God, nobody really knows, but we feel that we contain some kind of great mystery within ourselves, we see that mystery in each other, in how we never really know each other -- and this mystery outlasts what it creates. Within the immensity of this mystery are all the variations of what it means to be human. The inevitability, the insuppressible force, of our variety -- this is our freedom. Much more profound (for it's more unknowable, more unpredictable) than any declaration of any temporary definition of independence. The one consistent lesson of history is: Human beings will do just about anything. Which indicates a great force within us that is always breaking boundaries. That force, and not any assignment of rights, is the root of freedom.
D.H. Lawrence described that force more drastically in a short story called "The Princess":
"People and the things they say and do... it is all nothing. Inside everybody there is another creature, a demon which doesn't care at all. You peel away the things they say and do and feel.... And in the middle of everybody there is a green demon which you can't peel away. And this green demon never changes, and it doesn't care at all about the things that happen to the outside leaves of the person..."
So now we have a civilization that consists mostly of people doing work they don't love and watching TV. That's how most of us spend our time and enact our history: the job, TV, the car, the computer. Not exactly pursuits of passion, pursuits to satisfy the hungers of Lawrence's green demon. So is it a surprise that a perversity sooner or later infests all this, a psychic computer virus that inevitably infects all our programs? For the mystery, the green demon, will have its innings sooner or later. That's just another example of the explanation becoming exhausted by the effort of trying to explain and contain the unexplainable.
Technology can change everything but the mystery of what we are. Since technology can't change that, then it's only changing the surface, beneath which lurks our insatiable freedom -- a mystery that sooner or later will break through its boundaries.
Consider: We live now in a state of corporate anarchy. Old-timey capitalism needed a certain leeway with which to function, the freedom of individual rights. But corporate anarchy depends not upon rights but upon confusion. Only a people terribly confused about what to do with themselves would spend so much time in front of screens. (The world is so vast. There's so much beauty, yet we stare at screens, because we're afraid of the freedom inherent in our mystery. Oh well.) TV, computer, newspapers, ads, most movies, most books -- they are messengers of confusion. All that's really being broadcast is a cacophony of absurdity. Its purpose is to befuddle and gobble up our precious time, in order to create profits that most don't share.
Confusion and profit have become the explanation, the civilization, of our time. All the doctrines, all the religions, all the arts, have been caught in the centrifugal swirl of confusion-for-profit. So much input, so little time. It is nothing, nothing, nothing but a way to numb the mystery. I know people who check their e-mail a dozen times a day. They don't have to. It doesn't accomplish much. But it's there, so they do it. And every time they do it, the mystery is numbed. Because they know life isn't about checking your e-mail and dashing off terse notes to folks you haven't much connection with. Life isn't about that, is it? Oh well.
Freedom is actually pretty simple, and it's not merely a question of rights. (Rights are an expression of freedom, they're not freedom itself.) Freedom boils down to the use of your time -- to how free we are this hour, free to feel, to speak, to keep silent, to move, to wonder. The question of freedom is the question of how much we participate in the current inane explanation that calls itself civilization these days. It's a question of realizing that most of what's presented to us as "input" has no importance whatever. It neither explains nor enhances the mystery of that drastic space within us: the heart. Freedom is a question of seeing that whatever doesn't address or give space to the mystery of the heart, has nothing really to do with us -- doesn't just waste time, but wastes the mystery.
One must, of course, earn one's keep. But beyond that we don't have to take this civilization on its own terms. We really don't.
For myself, I look upon it as though it's already in ruins -- as one day it will be. To turn away from the death-in-life ghostly chatter of these ruins... and thus create a space where one can listen and watch for some impulse or message, either from one's own heart or from the true heart of the world (which we recognize by the word "beauty")... and then to have the courage to heed what comes. For something does approach, when you reject all that dizzying silly input, when you ready yourself to be approached. Some impulse. Some message. Some strange compelling inner guidance. (It can take some time. Oh well.)
These steps aren't easy. Merely simple. It's all a ruin anyway, a ruin in the making, upon which another light will shine -- a light not of our day or definition. Why wait? Our restless half-benumbed desires are our freedom, and all they wish is to be listened to, that they may show us paths, expressions, which have nothing, nothing at all, to do with the inane demands of this civilization. Why wait?
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