Oct 17, 2013

Shelley, Painted Veils, and Politics 2013

In the midst of our current political debacle, there's a tenuous pause in the government-shutdown danse macabre, but the best news is that most American citizens are finally getting disgusted. As I look back at our 1960s Civil Rights movement and the protests about the American war in Vietnam, I’m still bewildered at how long it took the general public to feel sickened by burning crosses and lynchings at home and body bags abroad, which is our home away from home.

I’m still not sure Main Street worries enough about racial injustice, or class warfare, or the irrational features of every clergicalized religion, or the human fondness for war (while we make Christian or Buddhist noise about abhorring war, turning cheeks, and judging not lest we be judged). But every once in awhile Main Street just says No to mindless meanness, or it behaves in an utterly compassionate way toward another human or animal, and I just can’t quite give up on us. So, with continued embarrassment, I offer more words, words, words and ignore the fact that less is more.  
Something in all the current political idiocy made me think of Shelley’s seemingly apolitical sonnet, “Lift Not the Painted Veil.”

            Lift not the painted veil which those who live
            Call Life: though unreal shapes be pictured there,
            And it but mimic all we would believe
            With colours idly spread,--behind, lurk Fear
            And Hope, twin Destinies; who ever weave
            Their shadows, o'er the chasm, sightless and drear.
            I knew one who had lifted it--he sought,
            For his lost heart was tender, things to love,
            But found them not, alas! nor was there aught
            The world contains, the which he could approve.
            Through the unheeding many he did move,
            A splendour among shadows, a bright blot
            Upon this gloomy scene, a Spirit that strove
            For truth, and like the Preacher found it not.

I’m not wild about the poem except for its opening and closing two lines, which I’ve remembered since college. Shelley seems to be distinguishing between the material (matter-ial) world—the painted veil—and something like a Platonic ideal or spiritual world behind and beyond the veil.

As human matter—atomic particles and whatnot—driven by appetite, we naturally care about alluring, sexy, tangible veils. (I've sometimes wondered what Shelley would think of Las Vegas). We don’t know what’s behind them, but the little philosopher or theologian in us “would believe” there is something bigger, better, less concrete and crass than gaudy physicality, with its “colours idly spread.” To be idly spread suggests randomness and chaos, so the visual surface would be fetching but ultimately pointless.

Shelley’s sparkly veil is what we call life; we’re satisfied with the surfaces of things. Like crows drawn to shiny baubles, we like a casino on our river. We are drawn to painted masks—unless we are that other kind of seeker, wannabe mystics, oddballs hoping to find a larger truth beyond the appearances of things, beyond matter, like Shelley’s “one who had lifted it” in his search for “things to love.” That guy fails. That “one” ends up wandering in “this gloomy scene” where there was nothing “which he could approve,” as he traveled among the “unheeding many.” It's the thinkers who are likely to end up in this state--only briefly and from time to time, one hopes. 

Sidebar One:  The title character of Hawthorne’s short story, “Ethan Brand,” has a similar problem. He sets out to find “the Unpardonable Sin” and in so doing, he commits the Unpardonable Sin, which consists of setting himself above the masses, even though the masses are a sorry crowd, drunk, disorderly and aggressively stupid. But the story seems to say those are our choices:  be a seeker, which causes the heart to turn to stone, or humbly accept our lot as just one more among the miserable, mindless many.

Sidebar Two: Although Shelley and Hawthorne are concerned with philosophical and theological issues, I’m feeling a parallel in politics. If there’s a star in that sordid arena, “A splendour among shadows” as Shelley labels him, as well as Shelley’s oxymoronic “bright blot,” how is that hero to proceed among the “unheeding many”? 

Politics is a painted veil in the sense that it’s a dance of psychopaths, liars and thieves who are concerned only with matter, not self-examination, or transcendence, or love, kindness and compassion. What conservative ideologues in particular care about, when you strip away the rhetoric, is protecting their pile. I wonder if anyone noticed the way knee-jerk Republicans went like jackals for Obama’s throat when he said, a few months ago, that none of us get what we have entirely on our own. We all have had luck and help from someone along the way.
That statement is self-explanatory and valid to people of good will. However, the president should have padded his point with more context and explanation—a rhetorical diaper for all those infantile foot-stompers at the peak of an orgasmic tantrum.

But humans of good will and adequate intelligence knew what he was saying. For example, in America a white male, like me, is given extra help from his culture the moment he emerges from the womb. No matter what his hardships have been, they’ve been less challenging than they would have been for a woman or a minority. Yes, that is changing, but anyone who denies that as our history, so far, is being willfully stupid or deceitful.

Yes, some people work a lot harder than others to achieve their pile, but no one got his pile without luck and help from others. Anyone who denies that is undeserving of the benefits of American democracy and capitalism.

Most of the people crowing about creating their own pile and defending it with many guns are Christians—you know, the religion that says the meek are blessed. It’s the religion whose hero was a hippie born in a manger and hanged with two thieves.  Between the manger and the cross was a lot of wandering, like Shelley’s “one,” and meditating, and praying, and talk of turning the other cheek, and forgiveness, and care for the poor. Christianity is anything but the religion of the rich. I was taught Jesus showed anger only once—when the money lenders (hear, bankers) entered the temple. Oh, and there’s that business about the camel—it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.  How many Christians work on Wall Street? How many are totin' steel in the NRA? No, I mean real Christians. How many conservatives call themselves Christian? Do you see how all that oddness adds up to a painted veil? A theater—devoid of fact and truth?

It’s a “miracle of rare device” that conservatives have turned the essence of Christian self-effacement into the politics of greed, guns, and deception. It’s a miracle of absurdity that politicians now paint the average citizen as a white guy sitting at the kitchen table, paying the bills and feeling victimized by Commie-liberals and people of color.
An even greater miracle is the way Democrats have permitted it, have passively held open the door and failed to demand better behavior and consistent logic. Extremist conservatives love the constitution and the Bible only when it helps them hoard, pile up their pile, stuff upon stuff, and keep undesirables away from their golf sanctuaries (their gulf clubs). 

So, yes, politics is a painted veil. Is Shelley right? It’s “Fear/And Hope, twin Destinies” back there behind the veil--something darker and more absurd even than the veil itself? We might do well to settle for surfaces, if the scene behind the curtain consists of ersatz Christians stroking their guns and raiding Grandma’s retirement funds, while Democrats, the party of godless Commie Libs, are pushing for compassion and being ignored.

And, Percy Bysshe Shelley, when the images on the painted veil can be so gorgeous, maybe we ought to settle for what's there instead of groping for more. And more.


Jean Spitzer said...

Terrific photos.

Weird, but the painted veil made me think about how controlling entropy is, in our world.

Maybe that helps us embrace the imperfect and the abstract, as we try to impose patterns and order on them.

Stickup Artist said...

There is a lot to grapple with here but I will limit myself to a wholehearted agreement with your assessment of Christianity; it's hypocritical and to me, really odd modern "incarnation."

And I also will agree wholeheartedly with Jean up there. The photos are stellar. I love that red bridge!

Banjo52 said...

Jean and Stickup, thanks.

Jean, entropy, etc., is as good a theory as anything I can come up with.

Stickup, I think I still get hung up on it because the contradictions are so apparent, which makes people's bastardizing of it so odd. Never mind that I don't agree--I just can't get past the curiosity of it. It's as if there's a four-headed elephant sprinting down the street and nobody's thinking twice about it.

Everyone, sorry for the long-windedness. Had to shout to someone . . . And I do honestly think there's something weirdly fitting about a painted veil as a metaphor for the political dance of clowns and more vicious asses. It's very dark to think there's nothing meaningful that makes sense behind that veil.

That weird dance of asses, probably rooted in racism if Truth could be known, could ruin everything, and for all that's wrong with this country, I don't know of a better one. (Gee, no one's ever said that before).

Ken Mac said...

"All those infantile foot-stompers at the peak of an orgasmic tantrum." Perfect. I also think of these morally bankrupt "Christians" as turning the faith into the equivalent of 1984: war is peace, etc. Doublethink, doubletalk, all designed to fool the fools who call themselves Tea Parry conservatives. I wonder what Hitler's early supporters called themselves. Brown shirt? Brown noses? Maybe just evil.

Banjo52 said...

Oooooh, I like that 1984 comparison. I confess I've also considered Germany, then tell myself, nah, that's too extreme. But is it? Thanks, Ken. Nice pooch, too.

Hannah Stephenson said...

Ooh, sparkly veil!

Some would say that the veil is all there is. (Nietzsche, maybe.)

But lots of us go Platonic and see shadows and forms.

Banjo52 said...

Hannah, thanks. The cave wall, was it? Watch for the Jane Hirshfield I post next time, maybe tomorrow. And I'll be briefer.

Sometimes, in the right place at the right time (like autumn in the Midwest), I think that if the veil is all there is, I'm full of gratitude for that (as if I have a choice). But just as often I'm all about shadow.

RuneE said...

Hear, hear - if a foreigner may have a word in edgewise. The 1984 comments above seemed very appropriate considering the latest scandals concerning the secret surveillance of top leaders all over the world. Not to mention the little guys. And who gets the blame? The messengers - just like s Greek drama. Having written this (and endorsed your views) I'll probably not be able to enter America again :-)

PS And kudos to you for you photos, too.

Banjo52 said...

Rune, thank you. Maybe we could exchange you for a few dozen Tea Partiers?

Hannah, no Hirshfield this time, but I think she's next. The Brian Teare was just too timely, seasonal, to postpone.

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