The Place of Alienation in the American Political Consciousness

I seem to be looking for meaning everywhere I turn. But meaning I cannot find today.

Looking for meaning ought to point to something, a thing that corresponds to it. It’s a temptation to try to find some object that we might call “the meaning.” But there is no such object. This temptation — to find the meaning — needs to be cured.

Baffled, I look and wonder about our state of affairs — why we are the way we are, today’s American — and find not a single hint of an answer anywhere. Nothing is predictable. Nothing is obvious. Perhaps, as mathematicians might suggest, the deterministic nature of our system — capitalism flag waving as democracy — does not allow for predictability.

The world is perpetually in flux, yet Americans operate as if it’s static. We speak boldly about Morality and Utility, but these extract demands from our propensity for pleasure — oral, visual, sexual (not so much sensual, which would then move us towards aesthetics and a re-engagement with philosophies concerning Beauty, which would be too much to think about, too complex).

We are very much alone and plugged in — iPads, iPhones, computers, social networks. We are solitary — the self in perpetual solitude. Our experiences, like no other time in history, are profoundly solitary. In solitude we have intense experiences and can, for a short time, transcend the very real flux, the natural course of Being, existence.

Americans are then always in contradictions — solitary experiences that momentarily transcend the flux that is always present. Ironic — we are in a constant state of Irony. The prodigal child of irony is Alienation, a ongoing theme, for instance, in our American Literature that begins with Emerson to Hawthorne and Melville to Henry James and William Faulkner and Wallace Stevens to Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy. Alienation gives us a form of rooted rootlessness, security in insecurity, an sense of alienation that has been historically a confirmation of community.

Alienation, rather then any ideology, is the construct of politics in America today. Alienation presupposes the always ongoing struggle to find the meaning that alludes us. There is no meaning — it’s the temptation we follow.

The rhetoric of politicians, keenly orchestrated to appeal to media, exploits the temptation to find the object that will give us the meaning. No one is telling the truth, though. The only truth is that our masquerading democracy seeks exploitation to survive, using Divine Providence — the false notion that we are the Chosen — to embellish our tendency for denial of what we see — or don’t see.

We signed up and followed Obama’s Change Rhetoric, only to find out that change meant more of the same: a rounding up of the Bush-era foreign and domestic policies and greater intimacy with Wall Street, passed down to us by Reagan. We’ve been lead, with our acceptance, down the wrong path. And the alternative, the crazy, Ahab-like Newt of destruction and the indifferent and the callous and blindly ambitious Romney, who made his fortune on destruction, promise a profound exploitation of resources.

In The Ship chapter of Moby-Dick, Melville tells us that, “For all men tragically great are made so through a certain morbidness. Be sure of this, O young ambition, all mortal greatness is but disease.” What we chase is profoundly irrelevant, says Melville.Moby-Dick

We long for men that promise the meaning; we chase after their ambition, as poor Ishmael did when he stepped onto the Pequod and said, “this ship is for us.” But the Pequod is not a democracy; in its appeal to be considered the meaning, what we find, as a microcosm of American culture, in 1851 and 2011, is a totalitarian regime disguised as a democracy fully grounded in self-reliance. And nothing could be further form the truth, which is where we find ourselves today in America — far from any sense of truth.

In the end, now, as did Ishmael, we are orphaned, floating in a sea, only the sharks do not have “padlocks on their mouths.”

Men Over 55: Facing Uncanny Realities

Men over 55 are a strange lot. Now that 50 is said to be the new 40, and we’re all to believe that somehow the inevitable is magically being thwarted by exercise, diet and viagra, men are in a kind of limbo, looking back to what was and forward to what is fast approaching, only to realize what will never be. Men over 55 live in a kind of fog, fluctuating between wonderment and bleakness, surprised by how little we know and confused by the reversal of our dominant and submissive roles. Men over 55 men are confused about who to be. The world makes little sense to us.

I am a susceptible 57, which is closer to 60, and the difference between 55 and 57, psychologically and intellectually, is that you learn that any romantic notions you had when you were 50 or 55 are just that, convoluted ways of lying to yourself. I’ve learned that 57 is the male’s age of reality: the very real sense that you’ve lived and that there’s less time, not more, comes crashing in and you have to wonder, what have I done and what am I going to do with what’s left of me? Is there room for more fantasy? Because fantasy, after all, is essential; it’s how we experience the material world, our imagined selves waving at windmills. Without fantasy, there is no reality. Fantasy enables our sense of limitations. Only at 57, there’s less fantasy, more of a sense of how things are.

Over 55 means that a man is looking at his life through a prism that blurs certain things, but makes others — like the end of things — more acute. Carpe diem takes on new meaning.

Now I sit to pee — not stand. I did start this around the time I turned 50, though, because I figured that I should let gravity help all the way — a prostate is a prostate, something quite vulnerable in a man. Oh, did you hear? Stan has prostate cancer. Prostate and cancer are the most frightening of bedfellows, as breast cancer is for women. Only we men never talk about it and proceed silently into the abyss. Fantasies about manhood die slowly.

At 40, prostate exams began for me, but by the time I turned 50, unstressing the prostate became critical. Testosterone, the fuel of fantasies, becomes an agressor. Over 50, testosterone, once so dear to our souls, turns on us. I realized this when I had my first colonoscopy, that harrowing experience of probing the rectum and colon to detect inflammed tissue, ulcers, and abornormal growths. In other words, the procedure that determines how well you’ve handled processed foods and stress — children, marriage, work, the world coming apart, the ups and downs of the economy, McDonald’s food, one too many beers and too many cigars, and the realization that you have no control over anything. The prostate is not keen on uphevel.

The colonoscopy (women 50 and over also have these) is stressful. It begins with a taxing prep: a strong laxative that forces you on the toilet for most of the night before the procedure. I thought that the prostate exams I’ve had for ten years — basically the doctor asking me to assume the position so that he could do to me what everyone else had been doing to me for years — was it as far as humiliation. But when I saw the pinky size width of the three foot tube with a camera on its end — an eye to probe my inner most secrets? — that was to travel through my intestines, well, I knew I’d reached a new understanding of humility. I knew that I’d reached a new sense of what it means to be a man past a certain age. And I knew, from that day forward, that a man’s life is about everything below the waste — prostate, colon, penis; they all begin to falter and with them goes any exaggerated sense of manliness. Fantasies are effectively killed off at this point. Pragmatism reigns supreme. It’s about survival from here on out.  I take a heaping tablespoon of Green Vibrance, organic and freeze dried grass juices, a superfood, in a tall glass of water — my natural answer to viagra dreams.  With a healthy diet, it works wonders.  And I take a teaspoon of Norwegian Cold Liver Oil to get my Omega 3 fatty acids.

The family medical practice I go to has no male doctors (the only male MD has moved on), so my new prostate examiner is a woman MD. My first ever physical performed by a female was when I entered the Navy. Twelve or so young men in white underwear stood in a line. As the female Naval officer walked by, she checked us out. “Turn your head and cough, please.” When she walked behind us, accompanied by 2 nurses, we assumed the position. I didn’t know it then, but this was a life-lesson, a scene to be repeated over and over throughout my life. I don’t mind that a woman examines me, after all, plenty of male MD’s examine women. My mother’s generation had only men doctors. The tides have turned, and this is fine by me. A prostate is a prostate — who cares? I like the more submissive role we men have to assume.

But I do care that I have to check the unexpected hair popping from the edges of my ear lobes — a challenge to shaving. I do care that I have to manicure my nose hair that apparently grows at alarming rates. And recently, weird eyebrow hairs twist and turn and curl into exaggerated lengths, which then I crop. I’m losing the hair on my head, but new hairs are popping up in the strangest of places. It must mean that with age there’s less strength to push the hair up through the head, so what’s left grows in weaker extremities. Submission means acquiescing to deterioration, I suppose. When I’m but a corps I’ll be nothing but hair, the final joke.

I have to spend longer hours in the bathroom before an uncompromising mirror. But when I glance at my wife next to me, she actually looks better, as most women over 50 do — healthy, energetic, sexy. College kids, young men and young women, take second looks. No such luck for us old men, los viejos in a new America where we find that we’re not as important as we used to be. We’re more vulnerable, more pragmatic, adjusting reluctantly to our new locations in the world that is slowly balancing our roles, slowly enabling us into more convincing understandings of our sensitivities. We’re less dominant and more confused.