In The Company of Phantoms

I woke up the other morning with the phrase “raison d’etre” tumbling around in my head. I thought the stimulus underlying such a random thought was connected to my current online Spanish class, in which I’m finding that a lot of my high school French is still accessible from memory. Although there are plenty of differences between the two languages, their similarities are undeniable. Really, though, that phrase, loosely translated as “reason for being” isn’t just related to language. I’ve been doing deep dives into the overall state of myself and my country for days. A somewhat bleak pair of prospects in this window of time. I’ve been pondering that question, reason for being, while reading some history books about the 1800’s. I did some research and found that apparently, the first time that line appeared in print was in a letter from John Stuart Mill in 1864. Mill wore a number of professional hats in Britain during the 19th century, but was known chiefly as a proponent of social liberalism.

I guess that the phrase “reason for being” sounds like a maudlin topic. I’ve been a bit maudlin in recent days. But given the fact that I listed the next bunch of words which also popped up in my mind that morning, things aren’t as dire as they sound. I wrote them all down. 1) You Gotta Have A Plan, 2) Dilettante 3) Clubless 4) Nightlife 5) Nomad 6) Dialectic and 7) Unreconstructed. This seemingly unrelated cluster is what I think is my unconscious response to having a life without structure. With the death of my dog last week, my only requirement for living in an orderly manner is gone. No one else around who needs anything. How odd. I feel like a balloon tied to a tree on a windy day. I bounce around a lot with a sense that at any moment, my string might come loose and off I’ll fly into space. All the words I wrote are whispers like a phantom’s voice, some known to me personally, like my dad’s, and others whose names I couldn’t immediately access, like Mill’s, the nineteenth century British philosopher with a liberal heritage. A couple have the same last name – Groucho Marx and Karl Marx. They’re subliminal messages coming to me as I bob around, trying to find a meaningful place to be. I think my obsession with the current impeachment proceeding isn’t helping lighten the heavy thoughts. As with numerous moments in history, I can’t look away. This political spectacle is both the most compelling and well done indictment of the ex-president, yet simultaneously, a vacuous sham, because it’s obvious that the Trump-worshipping Republicans will vote to acquit him. I know why they will and it disgusts me. My family and friends tell me to stop watching because it’s bad for my mental health. Another one of the phantom voices pops up. Maybe not true for everyone, but true for me.

I posted an article on Facebook the other day with this preceding comment :

“How these Republicans will let this guy off the hook after today’s chilling, methodical presentation will be at best, utterly cynical and amoral. At worst? They are zombie cultists who have lost their connection to reality.”

And yet, none of what’s happening is as unprecedented as it seems. Trump is not the first con man to emerge in this country. He’s far from original except for perhaps his utter emptiness as a human being. A book I’m reading right now, “The King of Confidence,” is about a similar con artist who managed a remarkable odyssey from atheist to Mormon, to lawyer to prophet, to elected official to self-ordained King, dragging with him a remarkable conglomeration of grifters, wives and sycophants. I’m not quite finished with it, but you get my drift. Throughout history, there have been many frauds who, for whatever reason, find the pulse of vulnerable people who are looking for something to believe, for someone to follow. Intellectually I understand the comfort being part of some movement or belief system must provide. Personally, I must’ve been born with an inherent issue about affiliations. That’s where Groucho comes in. I’ve identified with this quote for years. I’m whatever is the opposite of a joiner.

Quotes from The King of Confidence:

“In every community persons are to be found who are fond of indulging and cultivating a love for what is marvelous, and who are ready to believe that a supernatural agency is involved in whatever transcends their comprehension. Such tendencies are by no means found in connection exclusively with those with low intellectual powers, and small attainments. On the contrary, it is not infrequently the case that persons of education, of reflection and even superior intellectual endowments in some respects, are led astray. Buffalo Medical Journal – 1851.

If ever the world was afflicted with errant humbugs of any age, it is the present,” declared a frustrated writer for Scientific American. “The furious emergence of spiritualism coincided with another phenomenon that seemed to offer evidence of a country losing its grip on rational thought and action. Since the late 1840’s, murder rates ‘had exploded across the nation,’ according to historian Randolph Ross, who notes that some parts of the country that had been previously among the ‘least homicidal places in the Western world suddenly became the most homicidal.’ For years, worried observers of American culture had noted a ‘growing disposition to…the ‘wild and furious passions’… ‘of savage mobs,’ as Abraham Lincoln put it in 1837, and by mid-century, superstition, alienation and blood-lust seemed to be prevailing over reason and the rule of law.”

Photo credit : LA Times

So if we go back far enough, there’s plenty of evidence to support the idea that what’s in front of us right now has historical precedent. Lots of them, in fact. The worshipful Trumpian mob isn’t a new phenomenon. Is it human destiny to repeat the same patterns endlessly? I know about the swings of the political and cultural pendulums. But they’re cold comfort. Watching the Senate impeachment trial, knowing that it’s outcome is a foregone conclusion, makes me wonder what the future holds for this still deeply divided country. Another voice from the past comes to mind.

I hope that the new administration, so much more reflective of the diversity of our populace, will have enough time to undo much of the widespread damage Trump left in his wake. I don’t believe that another phantom in my head had Trump’s one man wrecking ball level of destruction in his mind when he made the following statement.

I’ve lived through plenty of political turmoil. I’ll try to remember that as I move forward, attempting to create some structure and renewed order in what has for me, been almost a decade of continuous losses and adjustments. That’s how life can be. These last five years have made enduring my own issues feel harder. It’s not like I’ve ever felt part of the mainstream. After all, Ronald Reagan was the most admired conservative standard-bearer for years in my early adult life. I remember plenty of what he said and did.

The original “MAGA” team, not a 45 original slogan.
Another 45 stolen catchphrase.

So I have to remind myself of my dad’s ghostly advice, “you gotta have a plan.” I’m working on it, dad. Absent the pandemic, I think I’d feel a little less unmoored, a little more organized than I do right now, but again, the ability to control external factors is beyond my power. I remind myself of the dialectic, the constant friction always in motion. And here comes Karl.

Change will come, no matter what I’m doing. The question is how I’ll respond to it. Right now, still in the midst of social distancing, I’ve got a little order by taking classes and webinars. My QAnon class is eye-opening and terrifying. I feel compelled to learn as much as I can about that movement and others like it, as I believe based on history, that this country is as divided as it’s been in the past and will continue to be, going forward. Then there’s my Zen Buddhism class at the opposite end of the spectrum. I can’t say that I’m likely to become an immersed practitioner of this ancient philosophy, as I’m not what I’d call Zen. But I like working on mindfulness and am definitely attempting to stay present, not in the past, and not too far in the future.

Apt for the pandemic.

I stay up too late at night. I never used to be so nocturnal. The silence and darkness are conducive to reflection. I tend to read books in the evening rather than in the daytime when I’m trying to exercise, do chores and projects and occupy myself, instead of jumping into my car and driving away to lead a nomadic life after all the limitations of the past year. I’m shaving minutes off my climb to the second floor and my bed, before I become a permanent dweller in the world more appropriate for the young than for an oldster. My poor circadian rhythms.

Last night I dreamed I was in a house that had a room set aside for a female dog who’d just whelped a litter. Not surprisingly, they all looked just like Flash, gone in 2015. I’ve only been dogless for a scant week so it’s obvious that my deepest self is already gearing up with the not so subliminal messages. Here I am, engaged with the big and little pictures, as usual. Politics, my reason for existence and dogs. Well, then. Enough delving. Time to be in today.

Flash as a baby

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