How do we decide on the meaning of our reality? It’s not a new dilemma. In fact it’s quite possibly coeval with the emergence of a brain that could form images of things that weren’t actually there. It could “see” animals running on an open plain inside a lightless cave. It could “see” living beings after they had died, and dead things as if they still lived. From a bone or a track it could visualize a whole creature.
Other animals don’t need help interpreting reality. But when the brain is lighting up all the time with so many signals that can’t be dismissed or ignored, and yet much of what they convey is absent to the senses, so that even the reality of what is present becomes questionable, interpretation is required. The nascent mind might have collapsed into stupor from the psychic weight of all this information. But interpreters emerged, in our little wandering forage-groups. They were the ones who took on the full madness of reception: information streaming from both the present and absent world—and returned from their immersion in it with a vision of the meaning it had for the group.
That was a long time ago, but it kept working for us. Time took us (some of us) from shamans to prophets to poets, but they are all on a continuum. They invoke a reality larger than one time, one place, and certainly larger than one person. They invoke the whole reality of culture, with its bonds among people, to nature, across time. Their main mechanism is metaphor, which links disparate things, uniting them, taking you from the known to the unknown in a graceful leap of language or performance. We can all think this way, but our interpreters did it best.
But what about now? What about us, here today, our virtual tribes huddled around electronic campfires bathing us endlessly in data-glow? The poets have been sidelined; they are mumbling in the corners, haunting little book-lined cubicles in university basements or pretend-shouting on the crazy streets. The poets are not on TV, or getting over ten million hits on YouTube. Maybe we thought the rock stars could step in—but no, that didn’t work, because they grew rich, and they spoke only to children, who then aged, but did not grow.
Who is it now that tells us who we are, and what our time means? Who interprets the world for us? Salesmen. That’s who. For my whole life, and before, since the beginning of the 20th century, the “Century of the Self,” it has been aptly called, salesmen have been on the rise. Their Machiavelli, Edward Bernays, was the first to realize that a whole nation’s identity could be forged and maintained and its power structures perpetuated by salesmanship.
Salesmanship is a unifying force. We don’t have to go to the same churches or have the same heroes or read the same books or see the same movies, as long as we hear and see the same ads.
The salesmen also sold us our cleverness and our personal importance–even though compared to what there is to know and what there is to be, we know nothing and are nothing. And through the eons, knowing that was the only wisdom. Not anymore. Whatever is wrong, there is a product that will right it, and everything is product. Spiritual growth is a product, sustainability is a product, just like personal computers and food and lipstick. Terror is a product, change is a product, sold to us by leaders who are figureheads created by the salesmen, built by them, and then destroyed by them to be replaced by others who can sell better.
They sell us everything from youth to religion
The same time they sell us our wars
And there is no selling without lying. Think about it. Nothing is ever, ever sold without telling a lie. There are lies of omission or commission. Omission: This is stolen goods. Because if you go back far enough, as with a piece of land, no one owned it. And if it was something made, the labor of its makers was stolen by owners and middlemen. That’s omission.
Commission: This will change your life. You need this. Not something else like it—this.
So the salesmen, who interpret our world for us, who tell us what we need and who we are, are always lying to us. At the very center of their interpretation of our life is mendacity.
But even if we know this, most of us forgive them. The salesmen are us, too. They don’t want power for themselves, or most of them don’t. They just want money. And they want to get it by giving us Everything We Want, by never saying no, like a kind uncle. Who are they? What are their names? Their names are not Enkidu or Hercules or Nebuchadnezzar or Solomon or Napoleon or Hitler. Their names are not Jeremiah or Jesus or Buddha. Their names are not Rumi or William Blake. Their names are not important. They are just us: no better, no worse.
Some people want us to have the old prophets and shamans back: listen to the elders! Listen to Indigenous Peoples! Listen to the Bible! Listen to Mohammed!
Some people want us to have new prophets: listen to the scientists!
Some people want us to figure it out for ourselves: listen to your conscience, your intelligence, your compassion!
Those are languages of the past, or in which deep immersion in the past must figure. Desire has no past. Desire is exclusively the language of the future: I want… I long for… I will have… The salesmen speak the language of desire. None of the others does. Desire has us by the throat. Or somewhere else: as a man whose job it was to sell a war said once, “when you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.”
But then a giant storm with the American nickname of a Greek prophetess of doom comes and strikes at the engine of desire, the city whose land was purchased at a bargain basement price by some of the first salesmen to set foot on the continent, and where the salesmen have been raising the towers of their kingdom ever since. The city has grown and grown, in levels of complexity and hierarchy and technology, until there is nothing that people desire or can be made to desire that is not sold or traded in it. The greatest artists of salesmanship have their headquarters there, and their finely crafted, expensive, intoxicating messages go out to the world. And a new level of mystifying legerdemain is now practiced there: most of the salesmen’s money is made by trading on the future, on things that don’t even exist yet and may never exist.
And the great city, the capital city of desire, the crown jewel of the salesmen’s reich, has never in its 350-some years experienced anything like the devastation of this storm.
Still, be careful if the next phrase that comes to your mind is “poetic justice.” Yes, there is blowback. Eleven years ago in the city, the salesmen’s tallest towers were felled by men whom they had set in motion decades before. Now, a storm strengthened by the heat of our infinite desire for mobility and comfort and speed floods the tunnels, and the ocean surges into the streets. And the future no one would speak of, when the storms come faster and stronger and bigger all the time, and the ocean rises and devours the coast—that future is here.
But poetic justice is too neat. Complexity unleashes effects that can’t be predicted, they can only be identified in retrospect. Many things happen at once—only some of them will join together to create the wave that reshapes the larger future. And any given thing that happens does not happen the same way for all: some pay the ultimate price, some pay a little, and some pay nothing whatsoever. Never does everyone pay all. Nor is payment directly attributable to blame.
A poet understood this, a poet who lived in what may have been the last decades of poetry as prophecy. He cited a painter from centuries before, when painting too was a means to poetic vision:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along
And I understood this, when the storm hit and I was sitting in the bright, calm, generous Indian summer sunshine of a beautiful city on the other side of the continent, whose mock-warriors, boys of summer in their Halloween colors, had just won their laurels the day before. Warm, sunny, clear skies. A new economic boom underway, built on new technologies. Green this and that. Neither the fire nor the water this time, just a gentle summer stretching on and on even as the days grew shorter and the shadows lengthened.
Soon perhaps everyone who lives in this beautiful white city will be rich. We may keep a few hungry artists within the walls to amuse us. And to make ourselves look better we will not be too harsh on the poor. We will just make tut-tut noises and wait for them to be displaced or die off and try to keep them from spoiling the aesthetic too much. Meanwhile, our wealth and our faith in technology will make it easier for us to adapt: as the water rises, or the heat waves intensify, we will figure it out. We will show you what money can do.
(That’s neither here nor there, neither prophecy nor prediction. Sometimes even the prophets were just fulminating.)
Prophecy is not the language of the future. It is the vision that what has happened before will happen again, as long as people do not change. Old prophecy said people cannot change, their natures are fixed, and nature is all cycles, so everything recurs. God-prophets got sick of this and decided that Somebody Someday would come along to stop it. But they were still basing what would happen in the future on what had happened in the past. Like Zephaniah, who prophesied: their towers are desolate; I made their streets waste that none passeth by: their cities are destroyed (3:6). His metaphor for retribution was the cities of the plain, obliterated at least a thousand years before he spoke.
Science, by contrast, says people are almost infinitely mutable, but there is considerable argument about just what that means. Science can make all kinds of predictions but it cannot prophesy, therefore it cannot fill the space that prophecy once did. (Beware the scientists who predict the fulfillment of desire, because they are salesmen in disguise: one day you will live forever. One day robots will do all the dirty work. One day this organism we’ve created will feed the world, will power the world… and so on.) Desire fills the empty space where prophecy was.
But desire always dances in the shadow of apocalypse. And the apocalypse of desire is not a future event. It is always now, for somebody. Twelve people slaughtered like Afghan civilians at the premiere of a movie about a superhero who defends Our Way of Life. Eight people burned to death by an explosion in an old gas main in a San Francisco suburb that the gas company knew needed fixing, eleven people killed when an oil rig blows up; the people over here sickened by poisoned water from a gas well, the people over there by waste from a uranium mine. You can start with the smaller apocalypses and go right on up to the tens of thousands of dead in the Drug Wars, or the hundreds of thousands of peasant farmers committing suicide in India. And that’s just within our own species. Somebody’s always paying the ultimate price for Everything We Want.
It’s not poetic justice. Those who are most responsible for them do not die in the apocalypses they generate, or at the hands of an avenging hero. The system of desire is not just, but nature is not just either.
Neither is nature is poetic. Nature may be the source of all poetry, but nature’s processes are not metaphors. They simply are.
Science tries to understand directly, without metaphor. But without metaphor it cannot understand or communicate a whole, only parts. It moves methodically, step by tiny step, from known to unknown. Sometimes there is a leap and a flash! And the world looks radically different. But at the same time, when you take the scientific approach, whether you go inward or outward in space or backward or forward in time you watch humans and their metaphors and their poetic justice and their desire dwindle to a point and then—snuff out, like a candle. Can we live with that? Can we really sing the songs of our ultimate silence? Some have suggested this is what we should learn to do in these times. But it’s tricky. Desire is a powerful enemy of such silence.
About a year before the storm hit, a few hundred people gathered at the temple in the capital of desire and tried to camp on its steps. The temple that symbolizes, even if it no longer contains, all this trading, this capitalizing of our longing to obtain Everything We Want. You stole our lives, they cried, their voices tinny and echoing in the concrete canyons. We want them back. It is still desire that speaks, but an odd desire, that wants the buying and selling of desire to stop.
They were dispersed, with overwhelming force, in the name of property, in the name of order. They hit a nerve, but not a vein, and things went on. The salesmen went on with business without missing a day. Three hundred fifty some years before, on the continent some of their forebears came from, a small group of people moved on to a little piece of land they held no title to, to farm it.
They were dispersed, with overwhelming force, in the name of property, in the name of order. A fellow countryman of theirs, a marginal poet of our time, sang in their voices:
You poor take courage, you rich take care
This earth was made a common treasury for everyone to share
All things in common, all people one
We come in peace; the orders came to cut them down
Words echo in empty spaces. When the data-chatter is silenced, some words linger like ghosts, ghosts of poetry or prophecy. In the emptiness of Zuccotti Park, in the drowned streets around the temporarily shuttered temple, those words echoed and faded away.
What words, what songs, what stories, what performances, what images can we craft now to mourn and survive the daily apocalypses of desire? Will we try to think like whales, or imagine ourselves back inside the womb we began to rip open when we domesticated goats and wheat? Will we dance with the data of glacial melt? Re-learn the lost wisdom of nothingness? Or will we keep following the salesmen like the rats of Hamelin followed the piper? Without shamans, prophets, poets, only salesmen to guide us, how will we know how to choose?
A complex reality unfolds with gathering speed. We aren’t all experiencing it the same way. We are not in the same boats. Beyond our chatter, nature is always singing the single, massive, complete song of everything, but not to us.