Thursday, February 7, 2013

Magic and Reason



“the fate of our times is characterized . . . 
by the disenchantment of the world.” 
Max Weber, Science as a Vocation 

It may be that all journeys are circular and the orbit of planets is a pattern we reproduce in our mundane travels. After more than a decade living overseas, I have been forced to settle back in the States. I have returned to where I started, though like the proverbial river, things are not the same. I set out because I felt starved on the thin recycled air of office spaces, mass transit, sealed automobiles, and high rise apartments, just like old people wheezing on those dog days that settle around New York and smudge the sky with lead. I needed to slip the clutches of a system ruled by clock punching and daily planners, half hour lunches and appointments on the dot – a routine whose only merit appeared to be whether the timepiece that goaded you was a Rolex or a cheap Timex. 

The do’s and dont’s had choked off the maybe’s and might’s. La vida loca was the stuff of digital pop dreams, and pioneering was just corporate R and D. Ironically, I returned because I needed to take advantage of the medical benefits afforded by all that R and D, and had I not done so, I most surely would have died in a makeshift emergency room or a dilapidated bed under mosquito netting, surrounded by old women chanting the rosary. 

Presently I am recuperating in a Florida town that in some ways is as foreign to me as the places I visited abroad would be to others. Even if I had never set foot outside the States, Southern habits and society would have seemed novel, to say the least. Yet it is foreign to me not for its regional eccentricities but because it is a deeply American place, where God and country march in step to rousing martial themes of personal salvation and world dominance. There are pockets of unruliness, of dissonant nonconformity – the pine scrubs where crackers live off the land in shacks or trailers, the segregated black neighborhoods whose residents practice an ambivalent and wary allegiance to an America that still doesn’t accept them. And it has many virtues, not the least of which is the courteous behavior that is universal here, a social virtue that is as indispensable as the love of Jesus extolled by the evangelicals. But overall, there is the same obsession for assembly line order that compelled me to seek out those corners of the world where life spills out untidily like sewage in potholed streets. Strip malls, four lane highways, chain stores, family-themed restaurants, and easy access parking lots. It’s Heaven at your car door. Life comes shrink wrapped in a store or cathode-tubed via the Box, and pre-fab housing developments are rolled out across the hammocks like super sized Happy Meal boxes at lunch hour. 

I live in a colony of retirees where every little detail is supervised, down to the type of birds that visit the feeders. No children allowed, nothing boisterous other than the occasional bark of a lapdog. It is thoughtfully designed: the houses are well built, the broad avenues are shaded by majestic live oaks, the landscaping is tasteful and well kempt. Nature is pruned, groomed, and swept clean with the same regularity that one observed when clocks once were wound. There are social clubs of every stripe, activities, lectures, a pool, a gym, shuffleboard, a golf course, a miniature golf course – it is the meticulous realization of middle class affluence and its rewards at the end of life. A showcase of Planned Living, that most American of concepts. It’s what you get these days instead of a gold watch. It’s the American Dream converted into Eternity’s waiting room, and quiet is piped in like muzak. There is nothing unsettling or stirring, except perhaps when the ambulance arrives to carry off one of the residents whose tenure is at an end. It is comfy as a sweatsuit and bland as lean pork. 

My neighbors are almost entirely unknown to me. I have met a few who like to take walks or ride bikes, but life is lived indoors and you hardly ever see people. Just houses with imitations of people and animals in the form of quaint statuary decorating the lawns. On the porch of one house there is a porcelain German Shepherd, and I always look twice when I pass by because I forget he’s not real. The whole complex is a doubletake on reality. 

Nothing could be more different from the cacophony that ruled the places where I lived before arriving here. Life was played with the volume all the way up. The air was filled with the raucous chorus of people passing pell mell through the course of the day. The Flesh and the Word were one, and whatever pricked the flesh, loosed the tongue. In one country town where I stayed some years, my neighbor was a victim of Tourette’s who would launch invectives at the world outside his tiny porch. “¡MalDITo sea dios!” “¡MalDITo sean los ladrones!” God, the devil, saints, and thieves. No one was spared. He loved the word maldito for its sonorous audacity. A few doors down, the sound of dominoes clacking on a makeshift table mingled with mildly drunken gossip and shouts of victory. “¡Capicúa!” Children ran about yelling and singing odd rhymes. “Debajo de la cama hay un perro muerto. . . .” An ice-cream man selling pops pushed a little cart and sang a song about his wares, promising he could kill the heat. I’d walk the streets, and while my feet skimmed the bed of asphalt or pebbled earth, I felt as though I were stroking, lungs swelling, through a current of voices at high tide, inhaling salt inflected words. 

These days I stroll the uneventful streets of my residential complex, and I can’t help but dream of the volatility of my previous way of life in a so-called developing nation. Such places are like frontier towns on the fringes of the global capitalist order: while they succumb eventually to Reason and Progress, outlandish anomalies wearing carnival masks still burst atavistically onto their newly paved streets, bearing with them a bit of that mythic magic that existed before the disenchantment of the world. Progress couldn’t stamp out the traces of the past, which stuck out here and there like hairs from a bikini. Some streets were paved; many were not. Some had signage; most did not. It didn’t matter, because the direction of any one-way road was determined by the heading of whoever entered it first. Red lights were yellow and green were irrelevant. Most drivers had no licenses. Planning was a veneer over an irresistible entropy. 

Keeping order is a matter of drawing strict lines. A place and a season for everything. But in my tropical home, profusion defied time and space. The seasons bled into one another and were hardly distinguishable. While the city disgorged its concrete onto the surrounding fields, the countryside daily penetrated the heart of the metropolis. When I lived in the city, the cock's crow woke me before my alarm clock sounded, the beat of palos called the misterios among us, and the pregones of the itinerant street vendors, who rode in on a cart hitched to a mule, induced me to buy fat avocados or golden mangos before I ever set out for the supermarket where intercoms announce a sale on items in aisle 5. These rustic rhythms throbbed in counterpoint to the 4/4 measure of the workday. 

It was not only the mundane that defied pigeonholing. In such places the metaphysical and the physical are parallel, their relation is osmotic. In America, these planes of existence are strictly hierarchical and rigidly separated by time and space. Overseas, I slipped between them without knowing, I walked on water without ever getting my feet wet. My neighbor Sofi was a bruja, a witch who holds the keys to the doors of perception, and what you might see there was not calculated to return you to a nine to five world of Mondays. Crossing that threshold was transformative, a peril to the self. One doesn’t politely address god from a pew; one submits, like the Maenads, to a peremptory and capricious force, and the words one speaks are Delphic. Sofi was an ordinary housewife, but when the spirit of San Miguel moved her, she spoke in tongues, drank and swore like a sailor. 

But Reason has its transformative magic too, more prosaic perhaps for being explicable, but wondrously effective.  My survival is an example of this kind of sorcery.  The surgeons cut me open and reconfigured my entrails, creating a new kind of organism from the ruins of the old.  I live, however hobbled.  The misterios could not have practiced such magic on me. But like those ancient gods, Science exacts its price, demands its sacrifice, compels fealty. Having submitted to the scrutiny of a relentless Empiricism, I am condemned to live within its familiar precincts, excommunicated from that other nebulous but poetic magic. The dimensions of life have shrunk to three. 

And so it goes. I vault between these poles of being, like Rilke's acrobats, “worn by their continual leaping,” and never find the means to reconcile them.