Monday, December 5, 2011
The Wonderbread of Civiliztion
In case you've wondered where I've been these last weeks--MIA from my tiny perch in the library stacks of the vast blogosphere--the truth is I've been doing something as ancient and essential as wrapping Christmas presents, even while avoiding the national nervous breakdown known as presidential politics. (Although I confess to secretly reveling in the moral undoing of that world-class liar, Herman Cain, who I think hoped he would be the last cookie left in the jar. Not--unless, of course, he returns as Newt's running mate for VP, and if that should happen, remember you read it first here, but do not blame me.)
There have, of course, been moments of anxiety interruptus: joy at eating a braised breast of duck with a friend at The Blue Apron; excitement at seeing the new movie "Hugo" in 3D with another friend; and a surprise revisiting of the life and work of Carl Andre via Calvin Tomkins' profile of him in The New Yorker. It's been years since I pondered whether or not Carl Andre pushed his then wife, Cuban artist Ana Mendieta, out of the window of their Spring Street apartment in New York City. The doorman (Tomkins reminds us) heard a woman cry "No, no, no!" just before Mendieta's body slammed down into the street below. At Andre's request, there never was a juried trial, and eventually Andre was acquitted by a judge who claimed there wasn't enough evidence to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that Andre had committed a crime.
Reading about this again recently reminded me that I once met Ana Mendieta when I visited Iowa State University to give a lecture many years ago. She was not yet famous. The professor who brought me there to speak was living with Mendieta at the time, and I was invited me to their house for dinner. Mendieta cooked us the most delicious Cuban black bean soup, and then showed me pictures of her seemingly premonitional work--imprints of her own body lying in sand, as if she somehow had intuited her terrible fate.
Seeing Martin Scorsese's film "Hugo" last week has led me intuitively to want to write a few words about my old friend, James Hillman, who sadly died in his home in Connecticut on October 27th. I think he would have loved this movie. It is based on a children's book about an orphaned boy who lives in a train station in Paris in the 1930s, snitching broken toys from the toy maker's repair shop and hot croissants from the bakery. If the movie has any message, though, it has to be this: if something in the world is broken, it behooves us to fix it. That is our human purpose, and what gives life its meaning. But it is the way the movie mixes it all up and becomes a monumental tribute to the human imagination, that reminded me so much of Hillman and his work.
Like Scorsese in "Hugo," Hillman was committed to the human imagination as the primary activity of the psyche and as the motor force of civilization. Hillman dedicated his life to the "anima mundi," to instigating a return of soul to the world. And, as his good friend Thomas Moore observes in his prologue to excerpts from Hillman's collected writings, "The Blue Fire," Hillman sought to re-vision psychology by moving it away from emotional personalism and its focus on individual suffering, towards a larger consideration of the life of external objects, and the suffering in the world and in nature--attending to which he considered the true work of the soul. As in the movie, Hillman's work often studies waterworks, streets, railroads, buildings, show business, ecology, bombs, work, education, and architecture.
Here is a wondrous example from "The Blue Fire" of Hillman's ability to "mix it all up." In this particular riff, he humorously channels Freud and Nietzsche, in an almost comic-strip parody of their ideas that quickly becomes, in Hillman's hands, a send-up of the byzantine ways of civilization itself. You really need to read the entire excerpt, but as I say, Hillman knew better than anybody else how to mix it all up:
"When Nietzsche said "God is dead," he had just been served a slice of wonderbread by his sister, and his mouth crammed with an unswallowable gulp of the stuff, she misheard what he was trying to say. Never imagining that a diseased mind like her brother's could make an intelligent comment about what he was eating, she transcribed his remark on the demise of bread as yet another of his attacks on deity. Poor Nietzsche. He was never understood."
"In the same way, some decided that my book on wonderbread ("The Future of an Illusion") was a deliberate attack on the illusion of salvation in "white Christian civilization."...But these critics, as always with my work, missed the point. I was not out to get salvation. I was only trying to save bread....The illiusion we call bread has no future. Nor does the civilization that comes wrapped with it. As long as the prayer goes forth daily to Mister Muffin Man in the Sky to give us this day our daily bread, our flour mills will go on grinding and bleaching, our loaves knowing neither ferment nor crust, and our sandwiches dwelling forever in the house of gumminess and goo...."
"I offer no recipe for bread...But advice I do have: if you would live s long as I, if you want a future that is not illusion, get a nice loaf of Jewish rye. Enjoy!" [Cookbook, 174-177]
Unmistakably, at this point in time, we are witnessing the end of the age of Wonderbread. If you ask any Wall Street Occupier, we may even be facing the end of that illusion, civilization itself. People are becoming aware that their future has been seriously foreclosed. In the current non-trickle-down economy, everyone would love to find, hidden behind that empty cookie jar, one really nice loaf of Jewish rye. True to the spirit of James Hillman, it would be a gift, not from the Muffin Man in the Sky, but from a sympathizer at the local delicatessen.