William D. Waltz

Resuscitating the Devil

A friend of mine spends weekends in a barracks with what he calls an unspectacular crew. From all over Massachusetts they heed the call of the National Guard, and for most, the Guard is a sacred cow that asks for little more than three weeks of summer and a weekend every month. Of course they run the risk of being called to duty, shipping off and fighting the devil himself over the hot sands of virtue. In exchange for this standing army, the State pays for their business degrees and kicks in a small stipend. With a grin, my friend talks about the kinder, gentler Guard and its diversity training: the State teaches soldiers about individual rights; how white should respect black; black, white; man, woman; ad nauseam. A novel idea for an assembly line of destruction, a machine whose primary function is to strangle difference when difference is an obstacle. My friend and his posse of Sergeant Carters stroll out of their Quonset hut of higher education with a new understanding and a new phrase in their lexicon with which they'll demonstrate, at least, a sensitivity to language.

It goes something like this: You're at a pub with the gang and one of them who's had too many, spills a mug into the lap of the sullen mechanic to his right, a regular. His mechanical buddies in the corner come to. You step between the two and demonstrate to the mechanic your friend's inebriation by the simple act of apologizing on his behalf. Sorry about that. He's had a few. Mr. Goodwrench, who isn't sure if he can let it slide so easily, bellows with bourbon breath Yeah, he's a stupid fucking drunk. Now here's a chance to use that diversified Guard savvy. But that doesn't make him a bad person. As part of their re-education these soldiers are taught to acknowledge and accept differences, to withhold judgment—a noble if not ironic effort that leads to a muddy crossroads, where, in its twilight, the American consciousness has confused discrimination with discriminating tastes.

Paralyzed, afraid, confused, America stands gawking at passers-by. Opinions lodged like fishbones in her throat. The fear of error haunts us, rattling the bones of confidence. The fear of revelation hangs over streets like a drab specter. When reluctance turns terminal, dialogue dies, the heart beats ambivalently. It happens everywhere, at home and in the institutions. Friends harbor secret objections like runaway thieves. Dissent is written off as ignorance or arrogance. A Buddhist scripture reads the man who refuses to discriminate might as well be dead. All isn't equal. There are monsters and messiahs and between the two, vast stretches of gray that poets and scientists investigate. They are lured by a fragrance of the flower grown at the gate between known and unknown. It's true we spend the dog-days of our lives in the shadowy gardens, but shadow doesn't provide meaning; it provides texture. Neither the plumber nor the poet can allow himself to be seduced by the ambiguous, the undifferentiated, the uncommitted. Can the wise professor despise the Pulitzer Prize winner and simultaneously appreciate her skillful maneuverings? Can the family dog adore his family and growl over his bone? (Or is Spot a bad dog?) Stifled opinions and shunted emotions dissolve the foundations of dialogue and damper the pilot light of the human soul. The dialectic between the living and life flickers, dangerously.

Our fear of the acrimonious emotions that wash over us ceaselessly like the surf is rooted in the same malaise as our reluctance to have, or rather, to stand by opinions. Simple fears have been transformed into supercops by the managers of our emotional lives. The fears of revelation and of commitment are symptoms of a society stunted by a hulking monstrosity, a hegemony, a mass brainwashing, that points to a market-friendly homogenous state where only the finest, approved emotions are bought and sold. Unlike violence, which in its most popular flavor is apolitical, misery and anger are provocative and have proclivities to revolution. Their very nature makes them a tough sale. Expressing emotion presupposes some degree of responsibility, and in a Victim Culture where the many-mouthed god, pop culture, spews out a sermon that holds no one accountable, responsibility is yet another obstacle to the free expression of humanity's bitter side. Now, hate isn't to be worshipped or coddled. It remains a taste of hell, a low grade fever, a minor suffering, and a bellyful of the devil's draught requires many miles to walk off. But to be drunk a lifetime is better than a month of approximation. There is no redemption for the somnambulist.

Intelligent, sensitive, well-intentioned people lean toward this emotion or that, choosing to approximate hate or anger rather than to swallow the pill. Hate, like love or any emotion, by definition, is an on-going relationship between subject and object. One cannot decide to hate someone and cease to be involved in an ever-evolving relationship, a dialogue. Brutes and thugs wreak havoc upon humanity, but hate doesn't motivate them in-as-much as fear and ignorance do. If a static, calculated decision occurs, the emotion degenerates into a intellectual stance, a position. The morning a man decides he's in love with his chosen is the day his love beaches itself upon the shores of routine. While our foul feelings are being ignored and discouraged, the Be-Happy slice is paraded in front of the public incessantly. In the surface water of pop culture, in our daily lives, true feeling has been diluted, rendered impotent, by the continuous banal trumpeting of the marketers.

Despair and hate, a grisly pair, must be admitted to the Human Ball; they were invited long ago. One mustn't deny their presence or their power. You must ride their runaway sleigh and feel that bitter wind against your cheek. To deny them is to die a little, to become a music box ballerina, an insect, a robot, a mute bee. Outlawing despair and dissent sterilizes the human soul. In the high desert, a soldier marvels at a truck hotter in its gears than on its hood. The professor sleeps with her dream journal open, and under a tin roof, the mechanic curses his last wrench. The poet blows deeply into the mouth of the devil and the devil breathes deeply into the soul of man. To live is to live fully. There is no other way.