You run to the gate but you'll be marked late.
It's for your own good. It's for your own good.
You're likely to make the grandest mistakes.
You suffer alone in the skin and the bone.
Let's sharpen those new sets of arrows
for the next generation of playground martyrs,
and join in the game of intolerable shame,
'cos everyone shares in the sins of their fathers.
School bell rings. Single file in.
Trade you my unhappily everafters.
So bring out those things to hammer out the wings
of the next generation of playground martyrs.
-David Sylvian, “Playground Martyrs” (Steve Jansen, Slope)
I'm an art-school witness, witness this device.
I always feel so helpless lost in this episode twice.
-Justin McBride, “The West in Despair” (Finngerhutt, The Secret Life of Bookworms)
We are all of us, who have been wounded by the device of school, witness to it, though some of us have suffered more for our testimony than others. Some of us might not even be aware that we are martyrs: what we went through doesn't mean anything now that we're “grown up.” Or whatever it might mean is just that we went through an unavoidable part of life, an institution, a part of the set-up taken for granted.
In the aggregate we are an archive, a fonds, a record group, a body of evidence witness to the device that has shaped life in the US and in the industrialized world for so long that nobody remembers a time when it did not.
I always did feel so helpless, in those classrooms, on those playgrounds, lost in the episode countless times. I remember playing some sport in the gym, in fifth or sixth grade, and imagining I was in a TV show. My life went on in my mind and body as independently as was possible from the world around me and the experiences of those in it, but they had to coexist to some extent. I had to do dramatic poses and facial expressions in a freeze-frame every time the ball went by me: it was the only way I could make my life into something meaningful, the only way I could redeem it. By acting in my own private little TV show in gym class, I was the star of something. I drew a magic circle around myself, and for a time the derision of the others was an acceptable price to pay for the little bit of mastery that I owned in pulling off those poses. At first I paid the price but I did not count the cost (Neil Peart), but then after a while as it became more clear to me how ridiculous the others found my actions, and how completely they failed to understand why I did them, I think the pain of that overrode the benefit of doing it.
Magic circle, but in some way I had expected my peers to understand what I was doing, because I often assumed that the contents of my private fantasies were openly apparent to others. For a time this made it very difficult to bathe or use the toilet, because I was convinced that acquaintances could magically see through my eyes and would therefore see my private parts if I looked at them. I still have not come to any sort of workable hypothesis of how this kind of thing could have been treated. But what I am satisfied in hypothesizing is that this kind of fantasizing is rampant among children, especially introverted ones, and most especially among introverts who feel insecure packed in a classroom with other children their age and kept there by force, feeling the effects of the authority-imposed pecking order, all the more terrifying and rigid for being imposed by an authority unconscious of its actions, or whose spokespersons sometimes vocally deny the authority's unconscious unspoken actions, try so hard to go against them. Teachers often try so hard to protect children from the effects of the system they serve that it is tragic to see.
Benevolent mothers smother the child, the benefactors are in denial.
-David Sylvian, “The Banality of Evil” (Nine Horses, Snow Borne Sorrow)
Their words and wishes show themselves as powerless.
Powerless I stand before the ocean.
-Craig Bench (Pilot – Provo, 1998-2000, unfinished LP)
I want to get some students together in a safe place, sit down with them and tell them: I know of this. I understand that some of you carry within yourselves these fantasies, these private worlds, things that you cannot share with anyone, that if your parents see a hint of it they immediately judge, they may panic. If your peers see them they attack. If your teachers see they “intervene” and generally make it worse. Let me offer sanctuary. I won't even ask that you share secrets with me. Let me offer a way that you can face them, own them, manage them. I hope that in doing so you can give a space and a time for what drives them to let off steam, to vent, to find an expression that will ease the pressure on your soul and allow you to live a more purposeful, directed, awake and confident conscious life.
Writing in journals? That would be one way. Sitting still with eyes closed, daydreaming, maybe even Active Imagination? Is that appropriate for adolescents?
Dear old Mrs. Harmer in my 7th grade art class had all of us sit in a group and put our palms over our eyes to meditate – even the inveterate offender who muttered “bitch” at her back. You just can't make that kind of thing work if any of the children feel unsafe, and they will as long as there is that dynamic of unequal power relations in a room. And you can't expect to find out those dynamics with clumsy adult attempts to get children to talk as if there were nothing under the surface, however good your intentions.
Maybe that was why I was so interested in the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot as a 7th-grader, because I knew for absolute truth that we stand powerless before the dark water which holds mysterious beings, monsters that don't heed our wishes and which we cannot measure, no matter how many times we look, no matter how sophisticated our equipment is. That monster is there but the deadened eyes of a materialist-minded man cannot hope to see or discover it. It refuses to reveal itself to his arrogant probes.
So what is the kind of humble probe that can reveal it? School personnel just want to know how they can diagnose and treat. That's part of the problem, because the reason they want to do that is in order to get things going efficiently again, move in the direction of a program that would keep everyone safely and neatly on the road to a “success” that they can't really define. Their blind pursuit of progress and uniform success is dumping all sorts of mutogenic ooze into the water to create even more monsters.
What is the monster? I thought of Nessie as benevolent, a sort of guardian. Like Napoleon Dynamite, I thought of her as an underwater ally against the monstrous depredations of my classmates whose souls had been driven into an animal unconsciousness by the larger leviathan of the school.
Let's not insist on a coherently logical structure of metaphor here. I don't know how much I thought of Nessie as benevolent, but being so far away she couldn't get at me even if she had a mind to chomp people. Maybe it was that I felt I could hold onto something mysterious: that there were these mysterious things: monsters, aliens that I felt I could know or at least know something about. And by reading those books about monsters and aliens I felt that I had a way of managing them. At the least it was empowering to feel that I had a knowledge of things that were mysterious, maybe. Or it was a way of affirming the truth of how much that shapes life is unconscious.
Mystic rhythms, under northern lights or the African sun.
Primitive things stir the hearts of everyone. . . .
Mystic rhythms under city lights or a canopy of stars.
We feel the powers and we wonder what they are. . . .
We feel the push and pull of restless rhythms from afar.
-Neil Peart, “Mystic Rhythms” (Rush, Power Windows)
Few of my peers accepted the stories of literal monsters below the surface of factual lakes. Looking back, does it just show how little they thought of the reality of things shaping our lives that went on unspoken, impossible to challenge because they were impossible to articulate, unless in ways that could be dismissed as childish? Were my peers more interested in finding a place in the order where they could have comfort, find a place at the table, gain the favor of the king, a seat on the bench in the mead hall? Some of them were obviously going somewhere with their lives in a way that I wasn't. Some seem to have set themselves up pretty comfortably after having passed all the requirements set by that unconscious beast.
Ich bin das letzte Biest am Himmel.
-Blixa Bargeld, “Letztes Biest (am Himmel)” (Einstürzende Neubauten, Halber Mensch)
The school leviathan swirls over us like the clouds – not out of a death-eater skull, because that would show too plainly what it was up to. Some sort of imperial Chinese dragon. A superior force hovering over like a facile god: above=greater, superior in every literal sense, self-evidently our ruler. The heavens where the invisible being dwells in a place no scientific probing can ever hope to discover (another reason why I was susceptible to cryptozoology? And the shame at seeing the extents of credulity to which faith might lead was keener for my friends than for me?), and whose dictates are to be obeyed without question.
The waters above the firmament as well as those below: those unconscious processes, the mystic rhythms or the sinister forces that drove us, were not just subterranean. Subterranean were the forces that set my peers against me, that drove our conflicts with each other, that tried to find expression in what the ready guide in the celestial voice (Peart) made permissible and possible. There were unconscious forces above us that ruled over those below, and made the vessel in which the lower forces cycled and fermented.
Ancient idolatries born of natural psyche are wholesome and benevolent compared to the modern ones born of the machine which made bold to exist in the spirit instead of obeying (Rainer Maria Rilke). And it is one of the saddest ironies to me that those who shave their faces and straighten their ties should ally themselves so fully with the modern idolatries in denouncing the ancient ones as wicked, should assert that the God who brought the human psyche into being is identical with that leviathan which swirls invisibly in the skies above the school building and the skyscraper, the one that cooks children in its vessel that I don't want to call hermetic. A celestial dragon that wears smiling masks but puts the lid on us in the pot, fires below, heating the waters of our psyche in an industrial recipe. Some of the dragon's acolytes have written cookbooks and now their heirs are following those recipes, without question, because this dragon is a god to be obeyed without question. We leave the judgment to the experts, we defer to something above us, also unknowable.
This is hard, because certainly the true God is also unknowable at the core, but I hold to a segment of Rod that Nephi wrote: he doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world. I also think of Alma's seed metaphor: something is true because it is light, is discernible. It leads you along but in a way that you see plainly, even if it is only one step at a time. A kindly light leading through a dark night, instead of a prideful, garish day (John Henry Newman) – I have always found that image of the garish day to be very interesting in light of our habitual symbolism of day and light. Spiritual metaphors are like language: if one talks about above=good, below=bad, light=good, dark=bad, that's a discreet system. Within its own boundaries, those signs are valid, but it's not a universal truth, like a map might show Minnesota as purple and it works within the map, but the land isn't really that color.
The Earth's core is a second sun underground, the cthonic sun? The invisible sun?
There has to be an invisible sun. It gives its heat to everyone.
There has to be an invisible sun that gives us hope when the whole day's done.
-Sting, “Invisible Sun” (The Police, Ghost in the Machine)
Like Robert Ingersoll I want to stand on a rock of surety in this: there is a plainness like Nephi says, a basic benevolence or rightness that is discernible to everyone, the capacity to spot a naked emperor; and that this doesn't ever truly die even if we ignore it. I want to believe that no matter how deep we might try to bury this, it will keep speaking to us, and I accept that its voice speaking like familiar spirits out of the dust (Isaiah), coming out of those deep layers might sound so spooky that we will be even more likely to fear it, shun it. We could trivialize it (like using Tibetan monks' chants for Hallowe'en sound effects), or we could condemn it as evil in the same hasty judgment that one of my youth leaders showed in saying Queensrÿche's Batman-like logo looked Satanic. Or my fear that King Crimson's “Thrak” and “VROOM VROOM: Coda” were Satanic when I first heard them – and my roommate said as much: “this is Satan music!”
It certainly was eye-opening music that King Crimson gave me: they beguiled me, and I did eat. (And then learned about Thrace, which has Turkish-influenced folk music in asymmetrical meters. Robert Fripp referenced Bulgarian music as part of his European musical heritage. Like I wrote before: orcs-Turks.) Here was something that gave eloquent voice to those immeasurable monsters in the deep. And over time, I have learned that some of them indeed are our allies.