Sunday, October 26, 2008

Simple Twists of Fate

. . . or why is it that the offices of J. Edgar Hoover, HUAC and the Roman Inquisition seem to follow such similar patterns. There is some power structure, and some relation to that power structure which gets understood as orthodoxy. And then there are some very clever practitioners at some distance who, largely because of their cleverness, excite the paranoid suspicion of the orthodox, who move ruthlessly to destroy the clever ones.

As usual, I know nothing or very little of the history of these things, but perhaps enough - as with physics, say - to offer a kind of explanation or ordering of my own. The pattern is familiar enough in my own life's experience, so that it seems to matter little whether I am projecting my own observations large, or the larger observations onto my own teapot domain. We all know - in my case it was the new high school principal, in yours it might be Cheney, say - the pattern of small-mindedness upsetting literacy.

What I really want to understand is how things meant by language change and evolve, and how those changes can represent such real and actual threats to power structures. And why it is that there always seem to be shameful sexual practices behind the paranoid prosecutions, and that these sexual practices always get projected outward onto the persecuted.

Maybe these are minor subtexts which have been and deserve to be discounted by history and historians, but the occasion for these musings on my part now is my reading of a minor history of the order of priests which founded the school I once headed. The priests involved with that school lived in orbit around the school's founder and his vaguely libertine, but certainly intellectual, apostasy, vis-a-vis the orders more central obedient membership. I seem to recall that spies were periodically sent.

I looked only askance at such things, not really wanting to know very much about the politics of the school's history, and only wanting to evaluate the stories, pro and con, about the school's still then living founder as I formed my own opinion: at the least he shared my canniness about candid self-exposure and we hit it off very well. I enjoyed drinking, which combined well with his apparent obsession with it, as evidenced by the empty bottles left for his/my secretary to remove each morning right next to his feminine high-heeled pumps. I think he was a rather short man.

More recently, I have become aware that many other things apparent only at the periphery of my vision were likely more toward the scandalous truth lately revealed by the Church more generally. It may even be that I should be proud of the affirmative act of closing the school, more than or at least as much as I feel responsibility for my failure to keep it open. If I was only directly aware of those things within my purview, that is because it was properly a survival technique in the face of extreme fiscal duress, all under my charge. And I operated without benefit of any understanding of the wider economic climate in which I was trying to preserve an already virtually defunct institution.

Youth does contain unmeasured boldness, and had I then the broader sense I now suffer, I surely would never have accepted the responsibilities offered me.

The school was premised on the idea that a certain very small subset of the student population was capable to learn at a rate and level of sophistication which made their attendance at common schools problematic, if not outright abusive. These children were denoted "gifted", which was not a politically impossible premise on which to found a school during the days leading up to Sputnik's launch. That denotation also provided cover for the otherwise unsavory thoughts and practices of the school's freethinking founder. Perhaps there was even a beatnik mood to indulge freethinking, and provide its very own precincts, safe from the susceptibilities of the more common children, nuns, priests and other mentors.

Over its brief history, the school never could decide its identity along the continuum from Great Books essentialism to Summerhill progressivism, but we did consider ourselves freethinkers all, and peculiarly licensed to lure, entice, cajole, discipline and even encourage our charges to enter the heady space of the open mind. I think at the end we held out the enlightenment promise of liberation both secular and divine from the cloddish weight of ignorance.

The particular instrument for entrance was the IQ test, administered without conflict of interest, or at least without inward conflict of conscience, by the school's founder himself, which it actually took me some time after taking over the school to understand or even really know about. I'm very slow that way!

Now for a while, the IQ test basked in the same kind of pristine sanctity as other sorts of measuring tools; the slide rule, the microscope and such. It was meant to provide a way to identify those children, presented to us perhaps by ego-boundary challenged parents, or best by parents who wondered if their child's reaction to schooling more typically administered might be an indication of the system's, rather than the child's, inadequacies. It was meant to cut through other proxies for intelligence including gender, teacher-toadiness, wealth and good looks, for some examples, to discover the secret unschooled quality of mind which would guarantee entrance to our fine and liberal institution.

Of course, in practice many dolts and pretty children were admitted too, and the school's collection of teachers included the dread indoctrinators alongside the most gifted openers of minds. There would always be a tension between the Aristotelean pronouncers of essential and quintessential truths and the proto-post-modernists who could and would believe most anything short of true religion and other superstitions. And because we were bound by our mission to admit any measurably qualified students regardless of their ability to pay, the school was systemically bankrupt. This in the lead-up financial meltdowns of the 80's when I, foolish dolt, thought I could make sense of things - such youthful folly dwarfs what I attempt here.

So anyhow, it warms somehow the more perverse parts of my shrunken heart to find that this order of Priests may congenitally, as it were from the beginning, be prone to sloppy practices and by them to excuse sordid undertakings in the guise of bringing enlightenment to the unwashed. The order may attempt to excuse itself as being embedded in a Church during its darkest days of Inquisition and power over Galilean Truth, somehow finding it's shortcomings inevitable within a culture it had to sneak around in as the only way toward flourish. Hell, I had the very same excuses ready to hand, although I'm pretty sure I drew my lines more clearly than had many of my institutional forbears.

Back in this sordid past of the Church, in ways now known to be congruent with its more recent past, it was always more imperative (!!) to protect the institution than its charges. So sins of priests were construed as peccadilloes. Reassignments were made. The innocents (the molested children) were not considered spiritually far enough along to suffer either guilt or harm, since in any case they were not considered morally capable of culpability. The grave risk of harm was to the soul of the priest, and by him to the body politic of the greater Church.

I think it accurate that tortures and eventual murders administered by the broader Inquisition were always justified as in defense of the soul which had been betrayed by its fleshy owner and his benighted mind. The screams and howls, in other words, emanated from that part which needed destroying, and never from the essential soul in dire need of salvation. So, just as the needs of the flesh are denied existence by the simple expedient of being ignored among priests, the failings of the flesh are also denied existence by that same expedient - act as well as innocent participants.

How telling that the inheritor of authority for this very self-same Inquisition (with whom I so recently confessed falling in love, alack!) is now our Pope. How interesting that abortion, which rescues so many and so much is now the main - at least in the arena of politics - preoccupation of a Church so bent on locating the soul and defending it.

This is what I want to reconcile. Well, perhaps you can already tell that there will be no reconcilliation, any more than there can be with any of life's paradoxes and antinomies. So, to be honest, I think this is what I want to expose and terminate. Paradoxes, ironies, and antinomies need to be embraced and celebrated, I declare, because it is the actual scintillating opposition between and among impossible otherness which is the very ground of this thing called life, which it is my (and your) mission to preserve.

But it is surely ironic that the same church which discarded, and likely still does, the souls of innocents as needing no protection when fouled by the very fathers pledged to nurture and protect them now wants to protect those radically unformed souls in utero, when so evidently their best protection would be to torture the flesh right off them before they even quicken. And how ironic that it is the very sin of their creation (because otherwise these fetuses would be wanted) which forces these souls' owners to face a life of likely torture.

Well, I guess now that I come to think about it, perhaps the Church is being entirely consistent!

I was surprised to learn (I said I'm slow) that among Galileo's sins was the notion of atomic (versus smooth and continuous) structure to matter, and that such secondary qualities as color might inhere more in the knower than the known. These are matters also of teasing out the soul from its substrate, and I guess the Church finds itself without choice given its prior commitment to incarnation, transubstantiation and the rest.

So, my particular blasphemy (will I be ordered to appear?) is to call this the moment in history where the Church's body needs to be tortured from its endangered soul, since it is clear to me at least that the Jesus we can know would not condone its (the Church's) self-defense against the interests of those children it has harmed.

Which means, I think, that recent exposures do more than harm the Church's balance sheet. Come to think of it, the same thing is happening with the J. Edgar Hoover legacies. These homophobic, sexophobic containers of inner filth are actually facing their final come-uppance, now that the soul is found not so much in us as about us.

This is the story of Galileo's atoms too. These turn out not to have any perceptible existence without at the same time releasing something of their secondary qualities. The soul in utero, in other words, is no more possible than earthly containment of immortality.

So, there can be no irony in torture. But positions black and white must always be ironic. The Church has become an ironic institution, at odds certainly with itself, if not with its very history and origins, which are sordid indeed. The cool thing is that we all do contain the seeds of our own undoings, typically at the very moment of our certainties.

Now, I shall have to bone up on the meaning of irony! Back to reading that very telling tale . . .


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