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conformity

The other week I had a few dinner guests over and I was bringing up the subject of sainthood and pathology. One bright guest (he attended Harvard) said: “Oh no… I’m tired of all that Freudian analysis of sainthood.” I said: “me, too. I don’t mean it that way, but I think it is interesting that, just as the real flesh of Jesus and his blood appears under the signs of bread and wine, and this is a scandal many cannot accept or that they openly refute, so, too, the presence of sainthood under the ‘Signs’ of pathology and scandal is something I remain interested in. The saint’s unity with the sinner, with the one who is lost, broken, poor, diseased has to it the fullness of Christ’s unity with the sinner on the cross, and so the question is: Do we believe that Simone Weil was an anorexic in the sense of a disease, or do you believe she was a mystic, inspired by the spirit of God, and hidden under the signs of anorexia? Or was she both: anorexia plus? Furthermore, by my love of tri-partite registers of terms, I cannot resist seeing anorexia as the neutral expression for Simone’s own spiritual term “decreation.” We might lay it out as follows:

Laudatory: decreation into perfect unity with the suffering Christ and her fellow Jews.
Neutral: suffering from anorexia
Dyslogistic: mentally deranged and suicidal, as the factory workers saw her—a weird virgin.”

I once did a few chapters on Saint Joseph of Cupertino that I never finished. In many respects, he had all the symptoms of impaired mental faculties–perhaps autism, perhaps epilepsy, and, without doubt, a brain wracked with inexplicable fits of rage (which might imply some early brain trauma). Yet, it is documented that he had many of the gifts peculiar to the sainthood, most especially the discernment of hearts, and the ability to levitate and bi-locate. Somehow, his extremely limited intellectual faculties did not keep him from being one of the greatest confessors of the church, nor did his horrible rage issues enter into his perfect and placid obedience to the church when it forbade him from saying mass and, for all intents and purposes, locked him away. He was a living example of God revealing to the simple what he has withheld from the wise.

So, like my friend from Harvard, I think it tiresome to wash the saints in the bath of modern psychology and cleanse them of their strangeness by applying to them those terms which they seem to fit in our time of diagnosis, and yet I think, free from the standpoint of conformity to Christ, we must suspect and perhaps be wary of any saint who isn’t in some way, a scandal, and an aberration to the church—an example of perfect and passionate obedience, that most revolutionary and strangest, most terrifying of acts. Let’s look at some of Weil’s own words translated by Sian Miles:

We possess nothing in the world—a mere chance can strip us of everything—except the power to say, “I.” That is what we have to give to God—in other words—to destroy. There is absolutely no other free act that is given us to accomplish—only the destruction of the “I.” (From “The Self.”)

Weil goes on to elaborate that this destruction of the I from outside the self (Affliction, the oppression of workers, slavery, social injustice, abuse, etc, etc) is the worst thing that can happen to us “because then we cannot destroy it ourselves.” She expands on this by saying that such a destruction of the “I” from outside does not rid the afflicted one of egoism, but instead creates an “egoism without an I.” The resentment Nietzsche saw working among certain Christians, and also among the “humble” or slavish poor. This could be likened to the automaton, to the one incapable of true action (except to hate what it obeys). It could be compared to Buber’s I as it, mere motion rather than true action. This ability to choose to be “decreated” is the right exercise of free will, for Simone says in other writings: “The one gift God has given us that we must give back is our free will.”

To a culture glutted on a thousand self-help and self-esteem books, to a prosperity minded Christianity, this idea of destroying the “I” must seem ill phrased at the very least, and downright crazy at the worst, but let us quote Christ:

Anyone who becomes naught for my sake shall discover who he is.

All those who try to save their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for my sake shall live.

This decreation of the self might seem to contradict the very foundations of the Judaic value of “yacheim” (to life), the proverb, “better a live dog than a dead lion.” But Simone Weil, like Tolstoy, does not consider merely material existence to be life at all. One must destroy the self that insists on “I” above all else because this is the ultimate idol worship. She holds out this hope, even to those going through persecution, trials, in short, what she calls extreme affliction:

So long as we ourselves have begun the process of destroying the ‘I’ we can prevent any affliction from causing harm (I believe she means harm in the spiritual sense). For the I is not destroyed by external pressure without a violent revolt. If for the love of God we refuse to give ourselves over to this revolt, the destruction does not take place from without but from within.

And so the willed destruction of “I” is, to Simone Weil, the one act of perfect obedience. But she says something here that is a wonderful and nasty little paradox: one resists having the “I” destroyed from without by not revolting, by not resisting the “I’ being destroyed from without. One defeats the process of outer destruction by refusing to resist outer destruction. This is a mystical oxymoron, but one not at all rare in the realm of mystical tradition. It is one with what I said in an earlier essay on obedience: perfect obedience destroys the system that seeks to destroy it by being perfectly obedient unto the systems pre-systemic origin. Isaiah chapter 42:

Here is my servant in whom I uphold,

my chosen one with whom I am pleased

Upon him I have put my spirit;

He shall bring forth justice to the nations.

He will not cry out, nor shout

Nor make his voice heard in the street.

A bruised reed, he will not break.

This is the figure of the suffering servant, the one who does not resist, but obeys, and by obeying, is, in the words of Simone Weil, able to “destroy the ‘I” and its egoism from within.

Lest we think Simone Weil a Paulist Republican, she did not give up her sense of social justice for workers or oppressed people at all. As she insists this destruction of the “I” from without is the worst of spiritual calamities since it makes impossible the choice of willingly destroying the “I” from within. One must realize that for Simone Weil material social justice that did not alleviate the destruction of the “I” from without would be more than useless: it would be the greatest evil, and yet, without social justice, the vast majority of human kind was incapable of true action which is, in the mystical sense of living God, becoming “naught” for his sake.

And so what Weil offers is scandalous: total and willing annihilation into and for the love of God. She writes:

Redemptive suffering. If a human being who is in a state of perfection and who has, through grace, completely destroyed the ‘I’ in himself falls into that degree of affliction which corresponds for him to the destruction of the ‘I’ from the outside—we have the cross in its fullness. Affliction can no longer destroy the ‘I’ in him for the ‘I’ in him no longer exists, having completely disappeared and left the place to God. But affliction produces an effect which is equivalent, on the plane of perfection, to the exterior destruction of the ‘I.’ It produces the absence of God.

Once again, this is a strange statement, a stumbling block and a great scandal for those believers who want only the presence of God—not God’s absence, but the absence of God was considered by St. John of the Cross in his dark night of the soul, and by many other mystics, to be the ultimate crowning of one truly perfected into Christ. If we look at it bluntly, Weil is certainly no Joel Osteen, and this idea of redemptive suffering is impossible for many Christians to accept, especially evangelicals because they believe Christ did all the redeeming once and for all (But Paul himself claims that the mystical body of Christ—we, the followers of Christ—complete in our suffering what is “lacking” in the suffering of Christ. This means that redemption is not merely an historical act rounded off by Christ’s sacrifice, but is ongoing and that we, as the mystical body share in that reality).

Weil quotes Christ (who was quoting the psalms): “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

She continues:

What is this absence of God produced by extreme affliction within the perfected soul? What is the value which is attached to it and which is known as redemptive suffering?

Now here comes her strangest gambit of all (or in the top ten of her strange gambits):

Redemptive suffering is that by which evil really has fullness of being to the utmost extent of its capacity.

And going further into this “fullness of being;”

By redemptive suffering, God is present in extreme evil. For the absence of God is the mode of divine presence which corresponds to evil—absence which is felt. He who has not God within himself cannot feel his presence.

Now it seems that she is contradicting Augustine who said evil is null, and has no being, yet, lest, we grow hasty, here, Our Beautiful Simone Weil comes in for a landing firmly on Augustine:

It is the purity, the perfection, the plenitude, the abyss of evil. Whereas hell is a false abyss (CF, Thibon). Hell is superficial. Hell is a nothingness which has the pretention and gives the illusion of being.

Simone Weil’s “hell” sounds like my concept of conformity: hell is an illusion of being–appearance, semiotics, that which conforms to a construct but without true obedience. It is the death within life of Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, the people who are “eating and drinking, and buying and selling unto the last hour, and are caught unaware.” It is the true sickness unto death, a despair so total that one in the grips of it is not aware of it as despair. Simone continues:

Purely infernal destruction of the ‘I’ is quasi—infernal suffering. External destruction with which the soul associates itself through love is expiatory suffering. The bringing about the absence of God in a soul completely emptied of self through love is redemptive suffering.

The objection to this might be: how can you ever be sure what appears to be a choice is not really a compulsion? How can true obedience be differentiated from its exactitude and replication in conformity. This I believe: a hint that something is mere conformity rather than obedience is that it appears to cause no scandal, but is always “scandalized.” Satan does not smoke or drink or fornicate, and no one knows the law or holds others to the law more strictly than he (his name means the accuser, the prosecutor). What makes him Satan is that he cannot obey, cannot accept a God who would not be utterly subject to the law of condemnation and alive to mercy. Satan is quasi—incapable of being, not only of feeling the true presence of God, but of feeling God’s absence. Satan is twice fraudulent, at least if we follow Simone’s way of thinking.

Reading her words, we can well understand how she may have justified starving herself in solidarity with her suffering fellow Jews, how she may have seen her deliberate act of self-destruction not as a suicide but as a “Saving” of her life by losing it—by annihilating a self that was spared the catastrophic and total external destruction of ‘I’ by the Nazis. Yet this might be perceived as violating the law of Yacheim: life above all else.

Yet to this objection, one is left asking: what is life if it is merely motion without action? To choose willingly to be one with those suffering a complete loss of liberty and life is to act from within. Still, one might see in this act of self decreation, of willed destruction of the ‘I’ a latent and perhaps not so latent) sin of pride—as some have ventured with Cordelia, as with Emily Dickinson’s imperial despair, also, as with Othello’s insistence on falling on his own sword (which Eliot saw as exactly that—the deadly sin of pride, Othello unable to let anyone but himself punish him). We are left in the end with sainthood and true obedience as existing always under the mysterious signs of scandal and willfulness. This does not make much sense from a worldly stand point. In the traditions of mystics, no other way makes sense.

Here are some ways to explore these ideas more.

1. Consider how Ivan Illyich is dead while alive in his conformity, and is raised from the dead by dying into the affliction that takes his life. How from the standpoint of both Tolstoy and Simone Weil might destruction be salvation?

2. Considered what the misfit says about the Old Lady in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good man is Hard to Find”–“She would have been a good woman…if it had been there to shoot her every minute of her life.” How does this fit into the mystical schema of Simone Weil, of her sense of self-decreation. When the old lady calls the misfit “Son” and touches him, what sort of true union does she accomplish with “Evil” in the sense of Simone Weil and how can this be an act of salvation and grace?

3. Look at the poems of Emily Dickinson, especially those which speak of imperial despair, and of death within life, an ongoing cavalry. To what extent is Dickinson’s imperial affliction similar to Weil’s willed destruction of ‘I’? How do they differ?

4. How does Simone Weil’s concept of the absence of God fit into the transvaluation of all values in Christ’s teachings. In Emily Dickinson’s poems, in Tolstoy’s story, “The Three Hermits”

No system can endure perfection. All systems thrive on defining imperfections either by way of “sin,” “error” being inappropriate, being “unprofessional” or being “counter–revolutionary.” Such offenses are punished or censored when it is an “I,” reformed when it is a “we,” and revamped or improved upon when in relation to an “it.” The one act that cannot be forgiven by any system and must be punished either by death, exile, or expulsion is perfect and true obedience.

We would think all systems would welcome perfect obedience. I will qualify: perfect conformity to the outward tenets of the system will be tolerated, and even rewarded (though such perfection is frowned upon and often accused of arrogance, or meanness of spirit). Perfect obedience, both in an outward  obedience to the tenets of the system, and to an inward perfection of obedience to the system must be punished or converted into the dyslogistic terms of blasphemy, scandal, or treason. Why?

The “first” of all systems is arbitrary power. The hidden being and agenda of all systems is the power of the arbitrary: because I, we, or it said so. This power must be hidden behind vast terministic screens or order, protocol, standards, traditions, ritual, ceremony, rhetoric and various mechanisms of defense for the system. The more arbitrary the power, the greater the need for an outward semblance of order. It’s essence is arbitrary, and its substance is the outward mechanisms of systemic order, of “normative” being–one of us part of it, in step. The essence of all systems is arbitrary power. The substance of all systems is expressed through two mechanisms: conformity and venality.

In terms of conformity, one’s actions and being fit the overall tenets of the system. One is a “team player,” a “pillar of the community,” a “member in good standing,” a “law abiding citizen.” Much of modern and post-modernist literature is an attack upon these conformists of systemic order. Why? Because the misbehavior, decadence, and transgression of most modernist and post-modernist writers and artists is a competing system. It, too, advocates a consistent disordering, a consistent non-conformity, and, by doing so, it falsifies itself as a non-system, and creates its own version of team player, model citizen, and “one of us.” The free love of late sixties hippies was fairly humorless. It lacked venality. It was “pure” or, rather, conformist in its non-conformity. Everyone was “loose” and “free” in the same uptight way. This counter-cultural movement has succeeded in being normalized in the form of the lifestyle leftist. One could discuss this creature in much detail when thinking about the Beats, but for now: Conformity substantiates the system, gives it the day to day character. promotes its laws, tenets and traditions. It is properly conformed both to what is pleased by and what it is scandalized by. Let us run this through the tri-partite registers:

Dyslogistic: uptight, prudish, moralistic, square, nerdy, stuck up, kiss ass.
Neutral: conformed, law abiding, faithful, reasonable, up to standard.
Laudatory: Normal, a good guy, a team player, one of the boys, popular, cool.

In order to escape the dyslogistic register of conformity, in order to reach the laudatory heights so to speak of being normal, a good guy, a team player, popular, cool, one must practice certain forms of venality–minor transgressions either of behavior, character, appearance, or attitude that deflect the charge of being uptight, too lofty, or a goody- two shoes, ass sucking dickwad. To this end, venality has great use in any system. This is the role the “Sarge” plays in all war movies. The commanding officer is a dickwad, a 90 day wonder, a by the book monster of conformity. The Sarge is a good soldier, but he is also a good guy–deep down inside. He’s tough, and all Marine, but he knows how to throw down a beer and get in the trenches with his men. His venality never compromises his duty. He is looked upon as maverick, a loner, but a maverick and a loner in true service to his God, his country, or his men. The greatest example of this creature is Henry V when he rallies the troops. This is the Elizabethan ideal: a truly great king must have a touch of “hal” of the gutter in him to rule his people. He must not be extreme either in vice or in virtue (Henry VI) but must  be a balanced force that serves the highest ideals. He must have the common touch in order to represent God on earth. When God comes down to earth, he must be all things to all people: the king/beggar and the beggar/king. He must be faithful to the dignity of rule, and commanding when command is necessary, but he must also be able to tell a joke, dance a jig, and court the lady Katherine in a saucy and flirtatious manner. This is “venality” as virtue–not as habit, not as order of being, not as a pure form, but as useful exception to the status quo. If you ever listen to people praise a boss, you will hear echoes of this type in all their praise. “Tough but fair” is one those forms. Venality in this sense honors the spirit, while giving an occasional tweak to the letter of the law. This is what we usually mean by a natural born leader. He or she is not a hero in the truest sense, (heroes are grotesque to the degree that the norm cannot claim them) unless he or she is, at one point, cast out of the village and then returns reformed, and with a new strength to add to the system (in this sense Henry V is heroic) Often, he or she is the protector of heroes, the one the hero serves gladly, and also, oddly enough, the protector of lovable scoundrels (provided they are not too “pure” in their venality: see Falstaff).

Venality: Let’s run the register on this.

Dyslogistic: corrupt, disreputable, inferior, a fuck up, a loser, a slacker, a miscreant, a low life, a bum, .
Neutral: minor yet habitual offender, dysfunctional, non-conformist, inappropriate.
Laudatory: a great and lovable scoundrel, a courtly or admired outlaw, a gentleman thief, a lovable drunk, irrepressible, unique, lively, a force of nature, and larger than life.

Venality may either be punished or censored, but never without protest. When Falstaff was reported by Shakespeare to be dead in the opening of Henry V, it is said that the Queen insisted Sir John be raised from the dead and given his own play (not a very good one). Pure venality is one of the forms of disobedience both in the private and public realms. Because it is often comic, and often does the system a service by reflecting its laws by way of breaking them, and depicting a character who is full of vigor though inferior to the common man in moral stature (these scoundrels have charm instead of a conscience) it is far more tolerated than perfect obedience in the private and public realms. I terms of the perfectly disobedient, the system is often strengthened rather than weakened. It is a substantiation of the essential power of the first: the arbitrary, the wild, the power of life itself. I its laudatory aspect, depending on who is viewing their behavior the following figures fit the bill: The wife of Bath, Falstaff, the highwayman, WC. Fields, Bob Hope in his aspect as lovable coward, Larry David, George from Seinfeld.

The lovable scoundrel is best when alone. When he or she has a spouse or children, a tension grows and the effect can be bitter sweet such as the ineffectual, charming, but failed Irish fathers in both A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Angela’s Ashes.

The anti-hero is a fairly recent invention, though he or she is latent in the figures of Hamlet, of Milton’s Satan, as well as coming to full bloom in the Byronic hero: against the teeth of fate, self-sufficient, well aware that the system, all systems except his own council and code and sometimes, not even that, are worthy of his scorn, his cynicism, and, at best, he or she pays mere lip service to the conventions under which he or she comes into being: potent, not at all venial, and blessed with a certain dry or cynical wit. To a degree, the anti-hero does not fit the category of the purely venial. If he drinks, has loose sex, refuses to play by the straight and narrow, his protest has a certain moral force. Only his code keeps him from being an arbitrary power, and it is in the figure of this anti-hero that most modernist and post modernist figures are cast. The original hipster “knows what’s up.” He’s Philip Marlowe. He’s Neal Cassidy. He’s tough and tender, when on good behavior, but bad assed and not likely to stick around for kids and cookies. This is a strange figure who becomes dominant in literature as people start to question the hypocrisy and validity of the systems they are in. Batman is part of this tradition. The existentialist shares in this myth. In a manner of speaking he or she is the closest thing we have to the one who is perfectly obedient to a system both inwardly and outwardly–but it is his  or her own system of self sufficiency. He has now achieved normative status and is imitated by the sort of “professionals” who pride themselves on coolness under pressure: unemotional, detached, competent, enemies of red tape–no bullshit. In war movies, this anti-hero is the only higher officer the “Sarge” is likely to respect, and he is very close to Henry V except he does not consider the power of state worth a damn. He, like Satan, is almost god-like in his talent and competency. And he is an accuser. His chief mode of accusation is a sort of “dropping out,” from whatever the system offers he finds the flaw in every system, yet keeps cool about it. You won’t find him at protest rallies. Dylan plays this anti-hero to the hilt, especially when he chooses to absent himself from the role of political folk singer, and takes on more of the Beat attitude of being “aware.” In a sense the anti-hero is a moralist who sees all of conventional reality as a scam. He or she has a strange charisma tied into both sex and death–a creature of the night, a wanderer. It should be remembered that Satan wanders the earth–a roaming, and discontented spirit. We are talking here of Satan in his aspect as fallen angel rather than demon. The anti-hero is not pure evil since his code makes him an enemy of malice for its own sake. He or she is not likely to be married except that loss is usually part of what creates the anti-hero: lost love, the death of wife or wife and children, the early loss of parents, a false loss of reputation so that he is exiled from the system even as he moves through it, and often saves it from being completely swallowed up by its own corruption and ineptitude. He does not believe, yet he is faithful to his code, even at the cost of his life. In more romantic form he is vulnerable to dark mates–wounded creatures like himself. At times he is yoked to the pure–the other side of the anima. He does not protect the weak so much as keep the powerful honest and in check.

Socrates, Jesus Christ, and Billy Budd are all figures of perfect obedience that destroys the system–the rarest of all types. Like the anti-hero, the one who is perfectly obedient he has some odd and inexplicable authority, a way of being, and very often is depicted as having authority even over the random forces of nature. He does not rebel against the system, but “purifies,” embodies, and destroys it by being obedient to its highest principles both inwardly and outwardly. Not out of scorn so much as conviction he forces the whole of the system to seem dyslogistic. He has power even over “the first”–the power of the arbitrary in so far as that arbitrary power which relies on being hidden, loses all its hiding places, and comes at him with the full force and brutality under the mask of the law. By doing so, it exposes itself for what it is, for law, put at the service of “because I, we or it said so,” is no match for a man who is law fulfilled, the law beyond law. When he is killed, all the rivers of the system are re-routed. Things “change” until we “same” the changes under the mechanisms of venality and conformity. This figure is a living rebuke to both conformity and venality. IN his presence, all that is not perfect reforms or seeks his death, and in his death, all is reconstituted. Conformity seeks to belong. Obedience seeks to love, to honor, to fulfill. A church member in good standing conforms, but a saint obeys. Figures we will study who completely destroy or re-route systems they are born into by their very being: Socrates, Jesus Christ, St. John of the cross, and the literary figure, Billy Budd.

I will amend my first statement: no system can endure perfect obedience, and no system can endure pure venality. I define pure venality in the figure of Falstaff. One could look at certain of the scenes in Henry the 4th, parts one and two which show the purity of Falstaff’s venality. Here, I do not mean venial sins in the usual sense, but rather, venial to the degree that the one committing them does not seek to overthrow or destroy the system. He merely seeks whatever advantages it affords. He is pure exception and must be censored if the state is not to lose all its gravitas. He, like the purely obedient, exposes the arbitrary power for what it is. Being a pure fool, he colors every scene in the motley garb of the fool. He is, himself, arbitrary–as feckless and uncontrolled as the wind, save for his cunning, and ability to charm. Looking at Falstaff, one sees that even a man who seeks to usurp the crown by bloody civil strife is more worthy of praise than one who thinks and proves life is a joke, and only the next opportunity to get drunk, have a wench, and steal a tasty capon. Falstaff’s counterfeit speech is one of the greatest prosecutions against nobility and gravitas ever concocted. It places life, raw life, life as it breathes and moves about the world as the highest value, and pitches its tent in the purely aleatory. This characters undoing is not truly his lack of gravitas (for this would make him only a fool, and useful as a defining principle of the gravitas within the system) His chief sin is that he stands naked and unashamed–not as innocence, but as cosmic fart joke. He loves, but love does not reform him. He sins, but never in the service of any power save his belly. His ambition is to remain fully alive. This creature cannot usually be killed, for to kill him would implicate us all as being, at ground zero, a cosmic fart joke. He must be silenced, exiled, divorced from the rule. If possible, we ridicule him, but he is beyond the power of ridicule for he cannot fathom gravitas or dignity as anything other than fabricated structures he will pay lip service to if those structures produce a good meal. His spirit is the only one who would neither kill Christ, nor convert to him. If we study the trickster archetype in its fullness, we may see the anti-hero, the perfectly obedient, and the perfectly disobedient as concrete manifestations of the limits of all systems:  deconstructing wanderers among the odd boundaries between life/death. Neither Christ, the anti-hero, or Falstaff exist in the true realm of the tragic. They are comic, if we use all the connotations of that word.

Let us run the register once more:
Dyslogistic view of comedy: making a joke of even the most sacred things, a travesty.
Neutral: showing the incongruity and corruption of systems.
Laudatory: transcending all law and rising from death or some state close to death to the triumph of life.

The original meaning of comedy was eventual triumph even when triumph seemed impossible: an outcome that was happy or that did not result in the tragic fall of hubris because, at its heart, was the shameless, the full spirited. In this sense Dante called his epic poem the Comedy. In the figure of Christ, we see death, then Christ rising as a new body. In the figure of the anti-hero, some early trauma or loss becomes a figurative “death” from which the anti-hero is reborn and emerges into the anti-hero. In Falstaff, we see a literary character, who is “raised” from the dead to frolic once more and marry. In comedy, man becomes like the paper bag in Williams’ poem that is run over by a car only to continue its dance in the wind. Comedy in this sense is the critical deconstruction of all consequence. Comedy in this form is the rebuttal to the necessity and inevitability that drives all tragic systems. It is Beckett’s “I can’t go, I must go on.” It is the man falling in a cartoon who quickly draws himself a parachute, and lands safely. It is the bumbling idiot who somehow, by the purity of his ineptitude, ends up winning the day or the girl. It is, in this sense, dangerous to all systems, in so far as it exposes all laws as arbitrary It carries on in the midst of futility with a sort of absurd faith in its own process and routines. It is, in a sense, the fun house mirror to all systemic being. All comedy deals with the eternal duet between order and disorder.  All comics speak for the poor even when they scorn and deride them for, at the bottom of most comedy is the comedy of the aleatory system: all men are one in the aleatory: they eat, they shit, they die, and death makes them hungry so that they rise to eat and shit and die again. I’ll leave you with this poem by Williams, and you decide whether the man in the hat at the end of the poem is foolish, pure of heart, or both:

The Poor

It’s the anarchy of poverty
delights me, the old
yellow wooden house indented
among the new brick tenements

Or a cast iron balcony
with panels showing oak branches
in full leaf. It fits
the dress of the children.

reflecting every stage and
custom of necessity–
Chimneys, roofs, fences of
wood and metal in an unfenced

age and enclosing next to
nothing at all: the old man
in a sweater and soft black
hat who sweeps the sidewalk–

his own ten feet of it
in a wind that fitfully
turning his corner has
overwhelmed the entire city.

We may think the old man’s efforts are absurd, but, if we consider death, the inevitable event of every system’s collapse, we find common ground with him. In all this “anarchy” the longing to value, to maintain,  to  order is fierce, what Stevens called “a rage to order.” To step outside this rage, to order and examine it, is the beginning and the end of philosophy. After all, in standing outside the rage to order, and examining it, are we not also sweeping our ten feet of sidewalk in a raging maelstrom?

Here are a few ways you can further explore these ideas.
 
1. Read Christ’s teaching in the Gospels that add these qualifications to the commandments: “It is said thou shalt not murder, but I tell thee, if thou art even angry at your brother, you have already murdered him in your heart. And it is written: thou shalt not commit adultery, but I tell thee if you so much as look at another with lust, you have already committed adultery in your heart.” Write a story in which the main character thinks murderous and adulterous thoughts all day, while performing many acts of kindness and public good works. Have fun with it. Consider the difference between inner and outer man.

2. According to behavioralists, there is no inner man. Deed and process is everything, and motivation is not taken into account except in terms of basic drives.. Modified behavior is enough if the behavior is dysfunctional. What do you think? Is there such a thing as the private self. Can it be said to exist as a reality?

3. According to 12 step thinking addictions and pathologies can be healed only by first admitting that we have no control over these forces and they are making our lives unmanageable. The next step is “surrendering one’s will to a higher power as one knows it.” This higher power need not be God; it could be anything. To what extent do people gain normalcy by “surrendering” to a system? How do these concepts differ? How do they relate?

Conformity is motivated by a need for communal belonging or acceptance, or to deflect the worse pains and consequences of failing to be accepted by one’s desired group. Based on the anxiety of expulsion, punishment and ostracism, or disapproval and towards the enjoyment of privilege and status. When failing to conform, or when losing face, the resulting wounded pride or shame may lead to acts of disobedience, or to acts of slinking off for comfort in groups that suffer the same fate. May also lead to a temporary “mystical” epiphany that displays the hysterical shadow of the conformist self. A species of adolescent narcissism continued into one’s dotage, and, if, not so much willed as merely assumed: beyond the possibility of true action. Literary figures associated with true conformity as I define it: Ivan Illyich and the husband of Anna in Anna Karenina. George in A Doll’s House. Ivan’s final illness is an act of grace. He dies out of the conformist self, truly desires to be something more than an appearance.

True obedience is motivated by a genuine love and admiration and passion for the principles and traditions, and innovations beyond all hope of gain or status, and even to the point of appearing to be the opposite of what one is: disobedient, prideful, and contrary. The self in spiritual or moral crisis, beyond what others may think. Not so much non-conformist, but, rather searching for what Martin Buber called total self giving. In a sense any sincere attempt to live the Shema. Based on love and true integrity to the core values and source of one’s being. Figures in literature who fit this bill: Levin and Anna in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Cordelia in King Lear. Obedience does not rules out sin or error. It rules out the possibility of sin and error as utilitarian ends to acceptance. “Don’t get caught” does not exist for the obedient. It is the aphorism of the conformist.

In short: Conformity is preservation of appearances and reputation. Obedience is preservation of the spirit, and core values of the spirit beyond reputation or appearances.

Obedience is pre-moral to the degree that it seeks the origins of action based on principle and truth. Being pre-moral, it involves agon or birth pain. The obedient are capable of action in so far as they either test the moral fabric of their time not out of being contrary, but out of being passionate, or live its true spirit. They suffer, and what they suffer is detachment from the world of appearances and approval. Saints go through such persecution–very often from the church or faith that later perceives them as saints. It is not enough for the obedient to conform, and for this reason, they are capable of great mercy towards sinners, and those who are outcast. They are also the few who can challenge power without seeking to eat of the poisoned apple of power.

Even when conforming to “anti-establishment”-ism it is done with an agenda. If consciously “non-conformist” it revels in its “daring” and “evil.” If consciously conservative, it seeks always the “proper” image, and may be the first to persecute saints. Unlike the sinner, the conformist is not inept or even wounded–at least not visibly. Conformists are the gate keepers of both the establishment and anti-establishment orders. They are the successful bureaucrats of what is proper or properly improper. They are whores of the appropriate. Their goal is the power of the arbitrary, and for this very reason, that they allow no one (except themselves) to act in an arbitrary manner, but hold all accountable to whatever law serves their ends. Their shadow is strong and will often undo them. Terrified of scandal they will run from it until they run right into it. They hold the line. For them judgment is always paramount. They are incapable of true action, and are both somehow servile and untrustworthy at once. Of all the types Jesus Christ railed against, this is what he found reprehensible in the spiritual leaders of his age: this preference for conformity rather than obedience. He took a measure of them when he said: “Do what they say, for what they say comes from God, but do not do what they do, for they lay heavy burdens on others they, themselves, are unwilling to carry.”

Conformity is at all times visible. Obedience is seldom visible, but may be intuited by those who, like the obedient, wish to move beyond mere appearances.

My goals for teaching: to help students move from conformist, or conforming non-conformist to minds capable of true action within the realm of the obedient. To that end:

1. To know what mechanisms, and traditions, and limitations move them and make them creatures of mere motion, and to either test, amend, or move beyond these mechanisms to some fuller sense of true action.

2. To test all actions, all hope with a full knowledge of their imperfections, to show mercy and understanding for the imperfections of others, and to clearly delineate for themselves what they perceive to be the beautiful and the good.

3. To help my students be fearless about being troubled, uncertain, restless, and to make these states of being more than merely the hormonal or socially driven rites of youth. To make a lifelong commitment to what Martin Buber called answering relational being with one’s whole being.

4. To understand my own mechanisms and limitations and to amend, or improve where I can, and to be aware when amendment or improvement is not immediately possible.

When I was ten or so, a large flock of starlings, and assorted brown-headed cowbirds used to come visit a deserted lot near my house every fall. I liked nothing better than to run among them, and listen to the collective soughing swoop of their wings as they lit out for the trees. It was best if the sky was full of brooding cumuli. It was best if the wind was trying to rip the brown leaves from the pin oaks.

I don’t know why this made me feel so happy. When those birds no longer showed up the next year, it was a short but real grief that overcame me, and I would go to the lot in order to feel my grief more keenly. Since the birds were no longer present, my grief over their absence sufficed.

Wildness–to spin, to run amuck, to go shouting into the sea…all this unbridled sense of motion–has something to do with obedience. In the world beyond mere social order, obedience takes the place of conformity. There is a cycle of seasons, a rising and ooze of sap, a motion of tides, a curl of carrot leaf and wave, and all this grand motion obeys. It is not disobedient. Disobedience only exists where the laws have already built the scaffold of conformity from which preachers admonish and on which sinners hang.

A year or two later, I had found an old, slightly water logged copy of King Lear, and I read it with much confusion but with far more delight in its loud cacophony of sounds. I liked saying the words aloud in a very pretentious voice:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once
That make ingrateful man!

The birds came back, and instead of running among them, I shouted this speech of mad Lear as loudly as I could. They scattered! The second time I did it, they scattered less. On the third try, they just kept grazing on the seeds and grasses and ignored me. The birds understood the first and second delivery as a threat not much different than running among them. But, by my third performance, they knew it was no real threat–just some crazy kid in a field shouting. Still, I realized the sounds in this language obeyed some real violence–the violence of wind, and storm, and anger. The words were not imitating nature They were not mimicking a large mammal rushing at a flock, but they contained some of the same energy and violence as that force. Rather than holding the mirror up to nature, they were using some of the mechanisms the dynamics of cacophony. If I had delivered them in a whisper, not one bird would have flown away.

As far as the difference between conformity and obedience goes, we can submit that Cordelia obeys, whereas the Regan and Goneril conform. Obedience in the realm of the social construct can cause us to be misunderstood, even censored. To obey the organic truth underlying principles is much more dangerous than conforming to their outward resemblance. Many great writers pay a price, not for being disobedient, but for being obedient to some necessity beyond mere conforming. To be a non-conformist in this sense means to obey the deeper truth and risk being mistaken as a rebel. Nothing is more perverse to the status quo than true obedience. Goodness does not need the status quo. Evil and mediocrity insist upon it.

Some of the worst conformists I know practice a sort of intentional disobedience. They have no more idea of the underlying principles of the laws they break than the conformist who never thinks of going against the status quo. They break laws for the sake of breaking laws. They, too, like the conformists, are incapable of knowing anything but the letter of the law. In their case, they hate the letter, but do not know the spirit. A saint is always a scandal, always a destructive force in relation to the status quo because a saint obeys in such a true sense that he or she is liberated from the status quo. The saint cannot be tamed by law. Law exists because saints are in short supply.

Rather than telling students not to rhyme or have meter, rather than telling students to write free verse, ask them: what do you think are some of the reasons people rhyme and employ meter. If you work hard at this, you might get:

1. Because it’s fun, and like magic–like a spell (spells, nursery rhyme, any manner of conjuring)
2. Because rhyme and meter takes human speech out of its ordinary ruts (ceremony, or the love of pattern)
3. Because it is a great device for remembering (the reason for rhymed adages and proverbs)
4. Because it can order strong emotions and passions so that they are portable and inversal (Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”).

Then you can ask what might be some of the reasons a poem does not rhyme or have a regular meter:

1. Because the poet wishes to explore subjects beyond the mere sonic semblance of rhyme and meter–in their organic movements so to speak from one thought to another, without struggling to shape thought to a regular pattern.
2. Because the poet wishes to explore the very “normality, and strangeness” of regular speech patterns, of people just thinking or speaking. In short, not a lack of pattern, not randomness, but the complexity of irregular rhythm.
3. Because the printing press was invented, and prose became the dominant force, and the mimetic need for rhyme and regular meter was no longer so urgent.
4. Because free verse can step outside prevailing patterns and enter the stream of consciousness in which the writing is seemingly of the moment, without poetic conceits of rhyme and meter.

All these are legitimate reasons why one might choose either to write in rhyme and meter or free verse. You can also mention other mimetic devices beyond rhyme and meter that free verse has maintained, but in lesser volume: alliteration, anaphora, rhythmic listing, enumeration, hyperbole, metaphor, understatement, over statement. Once you parse out why one might choose one over the other, you can eliminate conventions and get at underlying principles.

Both metered/ rhymed verse and free verse must have a sense of rhythm yet an occasional relief from pattern in order to be effective. Variety is intrinsic to free verse. In rhymed and metered verse, variety is the exception to the rule that keeps the rule honest. In free verse, any prolonged pattern is the exception that keeps the free verse honest (or endangers it). But both conventions rely on variety and pattern. It’s a matter of emphasis (one places pattern above variety, the other variety over pattern), but both variety and pattern show up. Bad rhyme sounds sing-songy. Bad free verse seems to have no real pulse or sense of ceremony. It may as well be prose (and not very good prose). This does not rule out the flat as a value. Intentional flatness, maintained as the law of a poem, is a rhythm of sorts. If it is intentional, then you ask: what is the purpose of the flatness? Some poets are masters of flatness–of that which is so seemingly mundane that its whole poetic effect relies on denying the usual “poetic” effects of poetry: haiku, imagism, objectivism, deadpan, all rely on not seeming to try at too hard to be poetic. But this is not a universal law. It is a convention. It as much a convention as rhyme and meter. It is not the spirit; it is the letter of a certain convention.

So a teacher must avoid teaching conventions as universal laws. If not, the student will become as blind as the teacher and adhere to a rule without ever considering why it is a rule. By the same token, a teacher who insists the students experiment and go hog-wild is also in danger of limiting the student to the letter, and not the spirit. Novelty for its own sake does not an original poem make. It might provide temporary relief from convention, but, when it is made a convention in its own right, it ceases to have value as anything more than a convention: “Hello, I am rebel. I do nothing conventional, and I don’t like anyone who does things conventionally. That, my dear, is my convention. Love me!” God, help us.

All conventions must be tested. All diversions must be tested. If I ran after those birds a hundred times, they would have scattered on the next run. Why? Because a large body moving at them with arms waving is certainly a threat. If they ignore me, they will run the risk of ignoring the dog or cat who comes and eats them. But a boy yelling King Lear is absent some of the exact mechanisms of a predator. We must teach our students to reinvent the wheel over and over again, to go back to origins and test them. Most importantly, a teacher must question his or herself. Do I like this poem because it is good, or because it affirms my ideas? Do I dislike this poem because it is bad, or because it is not my kind of good? Ethics in this sense are much more rare than rules of thumb. Rules of thumb were invented for those who have no intrinsic sense of ethics.

I want students to be obedient–fiercely obedient. I don’t want them to conform. When a true Cordelia enters my classroom, I know because, initially, I am annoyed. Such a creature refutes my laziness. When a conformist enters my class room either as a kiss-ass or as a professional nay-sayer I feel sad. How can I teach someone who conforms, but who can never obey? It is like a child who sees a field of birds, and does not run among them or even feel tempted. Someone has taught that child not to be a child. Someone has killed King Lear.