Blindness and Invisibility in an Anagogical Lens
Kerry James Marshall, Many Mansions, 1994
We don't talk, I think, enough about identification, and the aesthetic and ethical role it plays in art and life. But I think, when we begin to apply a lens to the world that can be both Shakespearian and therefore deeply psychological - literary, I suppose, is what I'm saying - then I think we can begin to see that how we identify, with whom we identify, with what we identify, and perhaps even the psychological process itself, the phenomenology of it, needs to be described and understood so that we have any hope of thinking about larger questions related to culture, morality, art, and life.
I suppose we could begin by saying that how we identify, and with whom or what, is what ultimately leads to how we see and what we see. Meaning, if, as a child, we watch a lot of television, and something inside of us responds very deeply to Donald Trump gesturing in viciously mean ways about people with disabilities, then perhaps, as we grow older, we might repeat that behavior, because in that moment, when we identified with that sort of thing, something inside of us, a kind of seed was tapped, and then we only have to wait for a situation to find us, or us to find a situation, for that seed to sprout and the negative behavior to reveal itself.
When we identify, we begin to navigate a terrain of both blindness and invisibility, regardless of the nature of the identification, although the experiences of these two things, these two phenomena, will vary, of course, based on the nature of our identification. If we identify with people who make money their sole objective in life, and who therefore worship a kind of greed - or, if we identify with characters in books who make greed their guiding influence (think of, I don't know, Scrooge McDuck, although who actually identifies with Scrooge McDuck?) -(and think now about the umimaginably important role art plays for ethics, because of the nature of identification at even a young age, to give us good role models for life and help us learn to see and discern) - then we will literally see the world in a different way, I mean fundamentally, at the level of our experience, because our mind, our consciousness, will begin to see from that angle, that light, that peephole, and then various facets of the environment around us will show itself in that light, and our path will begin to unfurl or unroll along those directions. It is not a fallacy, but rather the strongest truth, to say and remember that we value is what we become; yet this is always misunderstood because we often say we value something - or even value something consciously - when unconsciously we value quite different things, and this is why investigating, examining, our own unconscious assumptions - about what we value, and who we identify with and why, and who we don't identify with and why - is so crucial, since when we do so we have a better chance of not only becoming better people but of understanding others better as well.
When I walk down the street in the town in which I live, as I did to send two books to two valued teachers of mine from college, I sometimes see different people and wonder what they value and why. For example, a very fancy car will drive by, and I will say to myself, "they seem to value material possessions." Then I will ask myself, "why?" For example, what does it do to have a good car? How does it feel, or what does it accomplish, or what does it mean? And I come to the conclusion that, at the end of the day, it doesn't mean anything, that it is a means to shore up someone's self-esteem, or make them feel powerful in a weak way that is often sensed as soon as they drive around and see how others actually see them. There is something healthy and tonic about having this experience, even if it is deflating, because then they might actually see how the world outside their community sees and thinks about them. For it is safe to say that these same gentlemen driving around in this car do not drive the car in places of Detroit that they would consider "unsafe," because then they would not only have to face their fears, but have to see how others see them, and that would be frightening, not because that location in Detroit is unsafe, but because it's scary to have to look at one's own evasions in an honest light.
I suppose we are talking about ignorance here, but also in some sense about evil, since evil is banality, meaning people who do not think for themselves. When I think about Nazi Germany, even if this sounds extreme, I find parallels between people driving around in fancy cars in a kind of bubble community, and the Germans in Nazi who fell prey to ideologies that literally controlled their minds and brainwashed them into murdering Jews. These were people without the moral courage and intellectual wherewithall to be able to pause for even one moment to think about what was happening, and therefore they evidenced a kind of blindness, an inability to see either themselves, or the other, or the world. They were like people walking around in a haze, while a different haze fell down over the surface of their eyeballs; like a double blindness, an ignorance beneath an ignorance, like a whiteness behind a whiteness, without strength to live a life with any virtue, or principles, or values, but simply to fall dupe to any ideology that promised false forms of security, or belonging, or acceptance, or "love." The world is full, is rotting, is ripe, with sycophants, with miniature Eichmanns, people without a conscience, people who are zombies, and all of these different people harm communities not to mention make very bad art.
For these types of people, moral courage is invisible, meaning they do not see strength or understand it but cower, and when they cower they reach out desperately for people who will manipulate them so that they do not have to pause and think about their own sad miserable weak lives. They are like pieces of clay that can be moved around by various forms of banal evil, because they are unable to muster even the slightest shred of critical thought. And I think in these kinds of situations, we find a kind of devil at the heart of it all, a sort of diabolical nothingness, which has no ethics, which understands nothing of the heart, which preys on anything that smells of love, and which is what Philip Roth called the "human stain" at the heart of our toxic world.
There are dramatic ways of talking about this banal evil, from Yeats's "The Second Coming" to really any representation of this type of murderousness in TV, or art, or music, and I think the best forms of art fight against this form of evil in marvelous and magical ways that help us to see how the banality of evil is a constant presence in our lives, trying to keep us from reflecting on the actual situation. And the actual situation usually involves a master, a teacher who guides, and a muse, someone who also guides. But I tend to think that people ensconced in various forms of banality and cowardice do not have either a master or a muse, because of the decisions they make, and for that reason fall prey to vicious and virulent ideologies. When you don't have a mind, because you forsook your mind, then your mind can be used by other rather unsavory forces for strange things.
I suppose I am getting kind of metaphysical here, which I try not to do, but something a kind of anagogical take on things, a Dantesque view, can help us imagine the emptiness of the world in a more adventurous and imaginative way. When we watch a show like "Stranger Things," there is something about it that appeals to us, because inside most of us is something good, a kind of spark, and the imaginativeness of a show like that reminds us why we're here to begin with, to flame that spark into a fire, to never forget it, and to use our inherent goodness to fight against the forces of evil, like the scary slithering snake thing that comes down from the ceiling and scares the bejesus out of us. Merely the fact that something in us resonates deeply with something about "Stranger Things," for example, suggests that there is a very hardcore and real truth about this connection between the imagination and our moral lives, at a speculative level that we haven't really come to terms yet in our cultural understandings. One might think, then, that we would start thinking more clearly about genres like science fiction and fantasy, since the imagination riots in apocalyptic stories that set this battle between good and evil in landscapes or mindscapes that gives us courage to continue fighting the good fight.
Some criticism has already discussed this, such as Victoria Nelson's The Secret Life of Puppets, the way in which we derive our transcendence, our morals, our philosophies, our entire ways of looking and thinking and seeing and being today from art, from culture. If the world is a dark place, with no top and no bottom, and if our hearts are a kind of flashlight for navigating the murk - a sort of illuminated blindness, a kind of recognizing invisibility - then it would make sense and follow that art, something that involves the heart first and foremost, would provide us with that flashlight for finding our place in the world, every day of our life, when we listen to a song we love, or a movie we care about, or talk to a loved one (art helping us understand how to do this, and giving us models for doing this, hopefully not too idealized), or read a book.