It’s ridiculous to feel envy over those I, objectively, wouldn’t want to emulate. And yet, it comes again, that longing, an inexplicable lust for the banal, the apparent ease with which those for whom “meaning” is a pointless exercise, a question best considered (if at all) in old age when there is nothing more pressing than the arrival of pre-macerated dinner in the retirement home.
They always seem so content, energetically running to their cars in the morning, driving fast to work while thumbing hand-held screens, buying food on their lunch breaks, chatting in the spaces between looking busy, driving home, eating dinner, watching television, sleeping in nice beds. Waiting for Friday, when all the world opens up to them, clubs and bars and restaurants prepared for their arrivals to help them unwind, to un-work themselves. Saturdays with family or friends at parks or in backyards or at beaches, Sundays late-slept, calm and quiet, with short trips to the dry-cleaners and to the grocery stores. Patterned, manageable and managed lives, plastic cards meaning money, computers revealing bank balances with more than three numbers before the decimal, hundreds of shows and shops and services willing to entertain and provide for these heroic folks, the good folk, the middle-class workers.
I’m exhausted, so it’s hard to remember that it’s all fantasy. Also, I’m a bit grumpy, as the gods disappeared.
Arbeit Macht Frei…from Gods.
As I said, I’m exhausted from work. Ten days straight without a day off has rather wrecked my soul. I got no lunch breaks during this time, either, except one during a 12-hour shift–I threatened to quit over if I didn’t get, like some spoiled child throwing a tantrum in front of a toy aisle, stomping his feet and saying, “but it’s the law!” A rather difficult employment proven by the others who’ve suffered worse: my friend and kitchen manager went to the hospital after an anxiety attack left him shaking uncontrollably in a corner of the kitchen. In the last few weeks, three other cooks, several servers, and a general manager all quit–sometimes the threat of poverty is less than a person’s ability to endure poor working conditions.
[Were the owner more of a liberal, he would have understood this. Liberals make better capitalists. It’s said the most insidious slave-owners were the ones who were nice to their slaves, as they masked their oppression with kindness. ]
I’ve noticed a few things from this last spate of too-much work. The most profound? The gods fucking disappeared. I’d stare at my altar, dumbly. And then would start apologizing, and then worrying–had I lost their attention? Had I fucked up? Had I said or done something wrong? And, the absolute worst, by day 9–were they ever there at all? Maybe the Naturalist/Humanists were right–I was just making this up, hearing things, misinterpreting stimuli, anthropomorphizing material phenomena. Prayers, offerings, meditations–nope. All gone.
Where the fuck were they? And where the fuck was I?
Funny that I’d lost them and then began to doubt I’d ever actually seen them precisely after having given almost everything of myself in exchange for something, deployed all my senses and my physical actions in the service of another; that is, entered waged servitude to the point of near annihilation of what-is-me that I would then start to wonder if the gods really exist.
The first day off after that 10-day stint was the Solstice. Those of you who’ve been reading my Writings for the Wheel of the Year will note an absence–there was nothing of me that could enter the Other. Each of those previous pieces were preceded by several days of rhapsodic mystical states, the Other interweaving itself into This so that those days felt much like what is described by those who’ve claimed to have visited Faerie.
But no. Nothing, except empty, relentless rage bordering on despair, unclear what the fuck had happened. I heard my lover’s constant reminders to me that I was just burnt out, tired. “Of course you can’t feel anything,” he said. “You’re exhausted.” But in that state, all re-assurances feel false, mere attempts to make one feel better.
Lying awake the other night, sleepless (it fascinates me, likewise, that I’m only ever insomniac when I’m working too much), after two staggered days off, my mind is all tumult. I’d just finished talking to my lover. He’d said something odd. It was odd for him, too. “I don’t know what this means,” he’d said. “Cernunnos just told me to tell you: wait.”
“Wait for what?” I’d asked.
“I have no clue. I was hoping you knew.“
One learns pretty quickly to take all divine messages from others cautiously. If a god’s got something to say to me, I usually figure they’ll say it in person, because they do. Of course, Cernunnos isn’t “my” god, and I know my lover is as cautious of this stuff as I am.
So, lying awake, wanting sleep, I’m thinking on that word. The most I can come up with is that I should be patient with myself, but I’ve no idea why He’s telling me that. Still, it’s good advice regardless, particularly in my frantic, ungrounded, work-wrecked state.
Just before sleep, someone starts telling me stuff. Lots of stuff. Visions, instructions, strange phrases which, when unlocked, suddenly fit several mysteries I’d began to try to understand last year together.
“The demands of work compel you to consume, the justifications of work require you to consume.”
And then a quick tableaux of cannibalistic images which I found awfully disturbing.
Capitalism Breeds Disenchantment
I was reminded of these words when I saw this today, an essay from last year which combines much of the thinking of several Marxist and anarchist writers:
As technologies and methods advanced, workers in all industries became able to produce much more value in a shorter amount of time. You’d think this would lead to shorter workdays.
But the 8-hour workday is too profitable for big business, not because of the amount of work people get done in eight hours (the average office worker gets less than three hours of actual work done in 8 hours) but because it makes for such a purchase-happy public. Keeping free time scarce means people pay a lot more for convenience, gratification, and any other relief they can buy. It keeps them watching television, and its commercials. It keeps them unambitious outside of work.
We’ve been led into a culture that has been engineered to leave us tired, hungry for indulgence, willing to pay a lot for convenience and entertainment, and most importantly, vaguely dissatisfied with our lives so that we continue wanting things we don’t have. We buy so much because it always seems like something is still missing.
This explains it pretty well, I think, but I’ll elaborate from my own situation. As I said, those ten days of relentless work left me fucking wrecked. I’m hardly known for my flexibility, but I haven’t been able to turn my head to look behind myself without experiencing pain. I wisely bought myself new shoes a month ago, so my back isn’t as wrecked as it would have been otherwise, but I ate rather little as cooking for ten hours at work and then cooking a significant one-hour meal at home just after seemed an abomination.
But that’s merely the physical aspects of such exhaustion, or the easily described ones. The relentless agitation, the short-nerves, the quickness with which I’d become frustrated at some minor and otherwise easily surmounted inconvenience all seemed to shred my personality. The creeping despair wasn’t quite helpful, either, particularly as I’m about to move to Seattle and such nomadic relocations require some degree of wild optimism and reckless magic to succeed.
An interesting addition to this traumatized physical state, though, was what happened when I got a paycheck the on the final day of that stint. To call myself austere and stingy is an understatement–all my personal affects excluding books and my altar can fit into a rucksack–but I found myself, incomprehensibly, standing in a store looking for things to buy.
Fatigue got the better of me, fortunately, and I left with a only a 12 dollar shirt, a 3 dollar beer, and stuff for dinner. But I had money, and something almost primal, automatic, or not-me had led me there to a temple of the Market, ready to give obeisance, to pour out some life blood upon its altars.
Alchemy and the Transmutation of Labor
One works to survive, yes? Capitalism dictates that you exchange your time (and physical work and mental attention) for money which can then be used, like enchanted tokens, to compel others to give you their time or their work. Without such enchanted tokens, you cannot eat or drink or have a home or a bed or really anything else. And all of those things you eat have been grown and shipped and maybe prepared by others like you. They’ve put their labor, their mental and physical force and effort into those things you consume, transmuting stalks of wheat into flour, flour into bread, bread into sandwiches. It’s all a kind of alchemy, so common and base that we forget how much of what we consume contains the essence of others.
That alchemy has been going on since work first began, but the manipulation of that human magick has not always been so thorough. The owner of the restaurant where I worked does no work of his own. He does not create, transmute, shape or form the products which are exchanged for money. But it is for him that all the work is ultimately done, all the magical arts of human labor his to reap. Between producer and consumer stands a petty tyrant, an owner who derives from all that exchange an excess–profit–and so each side loses something. Those who purchase hand over more tokenized symbols of their labor than what they actually get in return; those who create are given less of that mana than what their patrons gave.
This is basic economics–no serious Capitalist would deny this process, thought they’d certainly present myriad justifications for this alignment and perhaps object to the alchemical language. But what is barely measured in our sciences, and why alchemical and magickal language is useful here, is what else is exchanged and lost.
Why, precisely, did I find myself at the end of such travail doubting the existence of the gods? I can imagine some suggesting mere pseudo-spiritual explanations (I didn’t take time to “ground,” for instance), and perhaps a few psychological theories (mental fatigue leading to self-doubt, etc), but they don’t seem accurately to account for such spiritual crisis (and never minding that most psychologies would posit the gods being all “in my head” from the start).
Expand this for a moment. Why are western industrialized societies generally hostile to notions of magic, gods, spirits and other elements of Pagan ideologies? Certainly, there’s a market for the fantastic–fictionalized accounts of mages, ghosts, dragons and boy wizards do quite well in Capitalist countries. But they’re products, commodified and experienced within the context of markets and exchange (even if you, like me, pirate most of your films). The notion that such things are actually real, though, is not just rare, but highly ridiculed, particularly by the majority of the “mundane.”
I grew up very poor and learned to get by on much less than most. I’m brilliantly thrifty. But it’s hardly a virtue, or as Oscar Wilde said:
Sometimes the poor are praised for being thrifty. But to recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting. It is like advising a man who is starving to eat less.
My thrift has, however, meant that I’m able to survive on less work than most who don’t possess that same unfortunate skill. Of the last 15 years, I’ve only worked full-time for five of them. Poverty is bewildering and exhausting and I don’t recommend it, but I’m one of the fortunate poor who used that time to cultivate the rest of my being.
But for those who haven’t, or have kids or college debt or what have you, particularly if they didn’t learn to do okay on little, it should be unsurprising that all the fruits of their full-time labor have gone to sustain themselves, to fill that ache of lost-self, and, worst of all, that massive deprivation of time hasn’t given them much space to develop the practice of listening to the Other. I just did 10 days of work without break–they’ve (and maybe you) have been laboring under 5 days of weekly work relentlessly for decades.
If it was hard for me, who’ve had mind-shattering visions of the gods and really disorienting experiences with spirits and magic, to feel anything of the Other at all after a relatively short stint of giving up all of myself to work-for-others, it must likewise be an epic difficulty for them. Besides, a ready magic is available to most who obey the rules, work as they’re supposed to. They get money, alchemical tokens, a base but effective (and affective) magic which requires little more discipline than budgeting.
There are a host of other reasons why the state of modernity is one of Disenchantment, but they are all connected to Capitalism and its machinery, Industrialization. Remember–at the beginning, factory owners compelled workers to give 14 to 15 hours a day in order to get paid enough to purchase their means of survival. And remember, other means of survival were no longer open to those workers, as the land had been enclosed around them, they’d been forced off ancestral homes and farms and barred from raising or hunting food anywhere except the market.
Eventually, Anarchist and Socialist worker movements cut down those hours to 8, compelled governments to pass laws about overtime and lunch breaks (which, by the way, don’t matter if you work for most small restaurants, not because of the law but the impossibility of getting agencies to actually do something about it). But even 40 hours isn’t just 40 hours–time spent getting to work, getting home for work, preparing for work, unwinding from work, looking for work, worrying about work—there’s no full accounting of such time, or what else is spent at work.
It’s certainly possible to break out of such draining circumstances even while still working so much. Some have better jobs than others, job which tire less or give more time off, work which is closer to home or fosters better personal development. But such work is for the privileged few, and arguments that we can make all full-time jobs this way are deceitful and cruel–giving a janitor yoga classes or meditation retreats only makes the work more endurable, not better.
That is, assuming the system we start out with and then making minor modifications to it to help with the spiritual, mental, and emotional health of those suffering under the system is vile particularly because it mirrors the kind slave owner and, worse, makes it so that the worker is less able to understand the nature of their suffering. This is why we should reject all Liberal and Progressive arguments, Pagan or otherwise, that suggest that the system just needs gentle tweaking and better focus. Again, Oscar Wilde:
Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.
They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor.
But this is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible. And the altruistic virtues have really prevented the carrying out of this aim. Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so, in the present state of things…, the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good…
The problem is precisely the system itself, its perpetuation of the extraction of human time (physical, mental, social, emotional, and spiritual attention) in return for minor compensation so that some can become wealthy by cannibalizing others. The small employer and the multinational company both do the same thing. The only difference is how efficiently they exploit the life of others.
What Remains To Be Done
I’d say that the gods seemed to have returned, but that’s not quite true. They didn’t go anywhere, there was just too little of me left to hear them.
I was fortunate enough to have had really intense experiences before this apparent absence, journals full of accounts and a body of public writing to consult towards that end. Even as I doubted their existence, I had a year’s worth of words reminding me they’d been there, or at least I’d been convinced they were.
Also, I’ve the benefit of a kind lover and his encouragement. And I’d also read a post from Dver which helped me considerably through this rather epic (apparent absence). It, and one she posted today both are probably the best advice I could imagine or recommend for anyone who goes through what I just went through.
But there’s something else here. There’s so much that fucking keeps us from the gods that it’s a bit overwhelming, but what keeps others from even beginning to explore these realms should be of even more interest to us. Not only is it easily understandable that someone utterly ground into servitude through work and accompanying debt has little time to build the awareness to see the gods, it’s also quite comprehensible that they’d call us crazy. If all you know is the material, all you are able to understand of magic is the exchange of coin for consumption, some freak telling you that there’s a whole other world of existence is only rubbing salt in your wounds. By day ten of that work, if a child had told me she’d just seen a faerie and asked me to “come see,” I’m not certain I wouldn’t have told her to “fuck off.”
And I like faeries, and I think little kids are cool.
Re-enchanting the world is an act of liberation, a radical act of liberating ourselves from a world of un-meaning, but we’ll fail if we don’t take others with us. Several people have asked me for something practical to do about all this. And I’ll recommend the most practical thing I can think of, so simple that it’s unbearably difficult. Abolish Capitalism. And no, you can’t do it alone, nor can I. Again, that’s why we need to take others with us, even (and especially) non-Pagans.
Want people to see gods? Give them a chance to hear themselves and each other. Crash this system in every way possible. Steal your time back, and steal others’ back for them. Make unreasonable demands and don’t back down when a kind-hearted man or woman tells you to “be reasonable,” particularly if they’re holding a gun or your paycheck.