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What does independence look like?

Anne Dalke's picture
I'm doing this hard thing this semester, living in a country where I know neither the language or anyone here. Such an arrangement leaves plenty of space for interior reflection--and has little provision for reality checks, for the balance of the social that has always kept me this side of sanity.

I've just finished reading a Paul Bowles novel, Up Above the World, where one Central American visitor has made for himself “an eternally empty schedule in which he would enjoy the maximum liberty to make sudden decisions,” and where several others say they “just move around where we please, when we please. It’s the only way to do it.…The whole point is to be free. Not to have to make reservations ahead of time...” Making no reservations ahead of time—not deliberately anticipating my own wants and needs, much less holding myself responsible to the needs or wants of others—is for me both the draw and the draw-back of this semester’s experiment. I’ve been thinking today largely about the latter, about the social dimensions of mental health—that is, about the role that being a meaningful participant in some communal project has in my own well-being.

Bowles’ novel is a version of Heart of Darkness, set in Central America; it is filled with accounts of characters “trapped in the solitary chambers of existence,” “clinging mollusk-like to the underside of consciousness until someone comes and touches” them. This “inner world of torment” finds its Conradian compliment in the “monstrous hairy darkness” of the Central American jungle: “the possibility of being seized and paralyzed” by one’s “own nightmare that clicked and pulsed out there from its black insect heart.” Like Conrad, Bowles uses the less settled regions of the world as symbols for the dark interior of the “civilized mind.” The gringo encounters, in Africa, in Central America, “the obscene reality of self”:

"The purpose of the fiesta came to her. It was not meant to celebrate the glory of God...Instead, it was a night of collective fear, when everyone agreed to be frightened." I’ve been watching quite a fiesta myself lately. Today is September 15, the anniversary of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua’s achieving independence from Spain in 1821. It’s made a sharp contrast, for me, to last week’s musings in the U.S. about September 11.The celebration here has been a wild one: the streets have been full since yesterday afternoon with an astonishing variety of expressive forms, from very precise marching bands--one of them playing “The Marine Hymn”(?!)--to groups of young men running through the streets w/ torches. (I keep waiting for a collision between the marchers and the runners, the rule-followers and the rule-breakers…) The festivities picked up again @ 6 this morning, with fireworks and music and much shouting….

On a nearby site on Serendip, one of those reflecting on the ramifications of 9/11, Mark Lord has just called for a serious effort to imagine better: “we are very, very poorly equipped to imagine worlds that are even slightly different than the ones we create for ourselves.” I have a slightly different take on this: that the U.S. government has done a pretty good (=awfully successful) job of fanning the flames of our worse imaginings, the fears which make us most vulnerable.

Remember Roosevelt’s “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”? Reading over Mark’s posting, it occurs to me that the U.S. has a government now that not only does not try to minimize the fear we feel, but actually has worked quite hard to augment it—and that we have ourselves not only allowed, but encouraged, the fanning of those passions. Adous Huxley argued decades ago that it exhilarates us to have these feelings: “we cannot preserve our soul’s health without occasional orgasms of hatred, self-love, and group-frenzy….”

Watching the frenzy here, remembering the frenzy @ home, I wonder—mightn’t we find other ways to make meaning (and make common cause) in our lives, than trying to escape from our (inter)dependence by declaring our independence from one another?


admin's picture

I found myself thinking about, to borrow from JFK, what Guatemalans need from you. Is your role there to be a consumer of their culture only, and to contribute your dollars to their economy (an important means of assistance!)? Is the role of being a consumer in itself alienating? empowering? I would suggest that Conrad's work, and maybe Bowles, is coming from a perspective of consumerism, what the individual needs from the environment, without the balance of interactivity. Love, Ann