Sunday, July 1, 2012

Chris Hedges and the Dark Angels of Hedonism

Last Friday night Roberta and I went to hear Chris Hedges give a talk promoting the publication of his most recent book, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. Not a cheerful title, not a cheerful book. It is coauthored with cartoonist Joe Sacco and chronicles the depredations of the corporate juggernaut. The decimation of West Virginia by mountaintop removal coal mining, the death and decay of Camden, New Jersey, the extreme poverty of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation of the Oglala Sioux in the badlands of South Dakota and the enslavement of farm workers in Florida are some of the issues covered in this book. He ends with a chapter on the Occupy movement, which was ultimately dismantled by a brutal and militarized police force. The reason behind all this misery is painfully obvious : greed. Unbridled, predatory capitalism. The breakdown of the commons and a cruel, heavily cocooned oligarchical class vampirically sucking the blood out of the lower classes in order to keep their yachts afloat and their fluted crystal full of champagne.

The venue for Hedges’s talk couldn’t be more perfect : Seattle’s Town Hall, which used to be the Fourth Church of Christ, Scientist, up until 1998, when it was sold to the Town Hall committee. It’s a formidable structure built in the Roman-Revival style, galore with graceful symmetry, high windows and expansive arches. It boasts a stately large portico with six two-story Doric columns, a vaulted ceiling with central dome and an oculus (a circular window or “rain-hole”), Tiffany-style lighting fixtures and two huge stained glass windows at the northern and southern walls of the Great Hall.
I wondered why there were no icons or religious figures in the windows. Christian Scientists, apparently, eschew icons, sculptures, candles, incense and ecclesiastical figures because they distract the mind with spectacle. The Great Hall is furnished with enough pews to seat 900 people, and the pews are cushioned, thankfully, so there is the feeling of being in a church without the actual trappings and ascetic, hardwood seating usually found in a church. This made it all the easier for the venue to be given over to secular purposes, yet the residual ambience of religious piety was still evident.
This is perfect for Hedges, who has a degree in theology from Harvard, and whose father, with whom he was very close and greatly inspired, was a Presbyterian minister. Hedges is religious but his stance toward institutionalized religion is complex and highly nuanced. He is as critical of atheists as he is of the narrowness and intolerance of Christian fundamentalists. He appears in some ways to be a genuinely devout Christian, endorsing actual Christian values of self-sacrifice and showing compassion for the poor, while being openly critical of people who manipulate the Christian religion for personal empowerment and wealth. He is averse to dogma and champions vigorous, open inquiry. He is a fanatic for fact. He is no friend to superstition, or anti-intellectual emotionalism. He does not like spectacle. He encourages reading, deep inner reflection and solitude. 
I have immense respect for Chris Hedges. His analyses of the social and political scene in the U.S. are compelling and lucid and he has put his own body on the line, undergoing arrest in front of Goldman Sachs on a windy, November afternoon with other protestors from the Occupy Wall Street Movement. He is a dauntless and passionate advocate for workers and the voiceless and invisible population of homeless whose numbers and tent cities have been growing incrementally since the financial meltdown of 2007, largely the result of irresponsible and criminal acts of the financial investment sector. He has also battled fiercely against Obama’s onslaught of civil rights, bringing a lawsuit against Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta for signing the National Authorization Defense Act which authorizes the military, for the first time in over 200 years, to carry out domestic policing. This includes detaining any U.S. citizen deemed to be a terrorist or an accessory to terrorism for an indefinite period of time and without due process. It is, in Hedge’s words, a catastrophic blow to civil liberties. U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest ruled, in a 68-page opinion, that Section 1021 of the NDAA, the part that authorizes military detention, was unconstitutional. This was a stunning and  monumental victory. “The ruling was a huge victory for the protection of free speech,” wrote Hedges for his Truthdig column of May 18, 2012. “Judge Forrest struck down language in the law that she said gave the government the ability to incarcerate people based on what they said or wrote. Maybe the ruling won’t last. Maybe it will be overturned. But we and other Americans are freer today than we were a week ago. And there is something in this.”
There is just one area where Hedges loses me. This has to do with a statement he made in an earlier book, Death of the Liberal Class, in which he stated that it was the hedonism of the Beats that helped nourish the destructive forces of consumerism and the corporate juggernaut. When I first read this I thought maybe it was just an exceptionally smelly brain fart in an otherwise exceptionally well-written book. He did not go into much detail or bolster his argument with deeper thought and research. It is a small point and in the larger scheme of things, neither here nor there. Who really cares? But it bugs me. And during his talk last Friday, he mentioned it again.
Hedges’s misunderstanding of Beat culture is gigantic. I can let that go, because it’s clearly not a philosophy or literary style that he respects. I suspect it’s his Presbyterian background and sensibility that fuels such a severe outlook on the joie de vivre of Beat culture. But it’s way, way off the mark: one of the most defining characteristics of Beat culture is a fierce, indefatigable loathing and hostility toward consumerism. You see it in the work of all the Beats, but its most poignant examples are to be found in Kerouac’s On The Road in which the two main characters, Dean Moriarty and Salvatore “Sal” Paradise, who are the autobiographical names for Neal Cassady and Kerouac himself, forsake conformity to the usual expectations for young men in America of the 1940s in a quest for meaning and a full mad joyful liberation of all the human potential caged in utilitarian values and drab materialism. That’s right: materialism. Let me say that again: materialism. How could Hedges be so infernally wrong about this issue? Has he actually read any Beat literature?  If there was ever a group more vigorously and vociferously against consumerism, it was the Beats. The Hippies, who were the younger version of the Beats, sought an anti-intellectual innocence and tried to remain free of costly amusements, but where the Beats stayed right on course, fighting for ecological values à la Gary Snyder and Michael McClure, and working to liberate human consciousness from a system based on capitalistic aggression and toxic exploitations of human and earthly resources, the Hippies surrendered to capitalism and became people like Steve Jobs and Sir Richard Branson.
I could pursue this argument much more deeply, but what really goads my interest is the issue of hedonism. What exactly is hedonism? I know that it’s the pursuit of pleasure, but why is Hedges so antagonized by it? Is there truly a direct link between the pursuit of pleasure and consumerism, or is it more complex?
According to Aristotle, as he articulated these issues in his Nicomachean Ethics, pleasure is little else than a fleeting sensation. It has no permanence. It cannot be begun or completed like a house or a boat. People who seek pleasure as the ultimate good are fooling themselves, and become foolish. The highest virtue is to sacrifice one’s time and pleasures for the good of the community. This sounds pretty much like Hedges, who lauds the kind of self-sacrifice in figures such as Father Daniel Berrigan, who, at age 92, and despite numerous previous arrests, continues to protest against war and capitalist aggression.
I can’t help think Aristotle was right. True happiness is to be found in any activity aligned with the highest virtue, which Aristotle identifies as wisdom and contemplation. Contemplation requires the least in terms of possessions and allows the most self-reliance. Mere pleasure is the stuff of children. It is infantile. Only slaves and tyrants wallow in it. I’m not going to take on Aristotle in argument. But I continue to wonder why there has always been this profound distrust toward the pleasure principle in western culture. Isn’t it pleasure that gets us out of bed in the morning? The possibility of sex, romance, euphoria, drugs and alcohol, a delicious breakfast with big slabs of butter and rivers of maple syrup drooling over the edges of pancakes that motivates us to pull the covers back and put our feet on the floor and get dressed and go through the all the stifling routines that bring us these rewards?
I believe in virtue. But I also believe, à la Baudelaire, that you can get drunk on virtue.
In other words, virtue, even the most ascetic spiritual discipline, involves pleasure.
Hedonism is the dark angel of our magneto. It is what generates all those delicious alternating currents of selfishness and self-sacrifice. It is what spins us into contrasting hues of decadence and morality. It is what heats our desires and brings us to the cooler waters of contemplation.


David Grove said...

Wow, he's egregiously wrong about the Beats. The Beats had nothing to do with "the corporate juggernaut"; they were totally opposed to that. It's the kind of protestant Christianity Hedge comes from that's akin to materialistic greed! It's individualistic--like capitalism-- in that every man is his own priest, though it's paradoxically anti-individualistic in that it imposes a rigid ascetism on its adherents and brooks no heterodoxy. It enjoins sober industriousness and makes the resultant material gain a proof of membership in the Elect. The Beats' emphasis on art and spirituality--their refusal to distinguish between pleasures of the senses and spiritual felicity--were an antidote to the loathsome materialism prevalent in the 50s. Maybe you should write Hedge a letter. You're definitely the man to do it.

John Olson said...

Thank you for commendation, David. Hedge's was a feisty proponent of religion when he debated the late Chrisopher Hitchens, but his overall views on organized religion of any denomination are extremely complex and nuanced. I do agree that Protestantism, which promotes private communion, and material rewards as a testament to one's faith and virtue, makes Hedge's condemnation of the Beats all the weirder and paradoxical. I hope he sees this blog. I could write to his publisher maybe. I have to admit, though, in the overall scheme of things, it's a rather small issue. It just bugs me. I still really admire what Hedges has done to fight the capitalist juggernaut. Especially when he gets a block wedged under one of its wheels. He really needs to read Howl.