I’ve been struck this morning by apparently earnest statements online about surviving 2017, as if it were an entity with a particular quality that those of us still living have escaped. In the Age of Trump, this poetic conceit takes on a great deal more solidity for many. In part, I just want to scream, “Oh for fuck’s sake, do grow up!”
That we reckon years where we do is entirely a social construction. 2017 was not out to get you. 2018 is not your friend. But, I’m sympathetic to the desire to get on good terms with Time, which in my mind ultimately gets down to Rumi’s advice to “make peace with your Father.”
Most all of us like to imagine we’re from somewhere else. It’s no fun to be merely a child of history, the current end product of one damn thing after another. Indeed, there is shame in it, even though the popularly held reasons for that shame have changed.
Way back, Alexander Hamilton prickled at the charge that he was a bastard, a mere child of fleshly passions, not even consecrated by wedlock. He used to trace his own lineage back through married parents to a family of Scottish nobles, and in so doing to establish the virtue within his own blood.
We, likewise, prickle at the thought of noble blood, unaware that within it lies the simple and respectable idea that the aristocracy were those people who were doing good with their earthly existence, as opposed to simply eating and sleeping, shitting, fucking and dying off to be replaced by progeny certain to be devoted to the same mundane and immoral cycle.
These days, the idea of virtue – the moral charge of the imagination – is reversed, so that those peasants sweating their way through a weary life become the heroes… the more peasant the better. These days, Hamilton’s bastard status would be to his honor, a means for him to dissociate himself from the privilege of the ruling class. Indeed, in the America that emerged during his time and flowered following his death, Hamilton’s bastardry and subsequent rise followed the model of virtuous self-making.
By the standards of the time, he embodied the self-made man, though by the standards of today he’d be reckoned just another child of White Privilege. After all, his great intelligence and will to work would have done him no good on the Caribbean isles of his youth if he were one of the thousands of African slaves expending their lives on the sugar plantations that were the focus of European colonization and commerce.
Fortunately, Lin-Manuel Noriega is far from Scottish in both name and appearance. I don’t really want to get into dissecting his DNA, because the point is not some strange idea of genetic identity. The point is how we assign an idea of virtue that redeems history in our minds, reconciling us with the flesh that gives us life. Reconciling us with Time, and even more deeply hoping to reconcile Time with our better angels.
What, in fact, are New Year’s Resolutions but resolutions to reform the world for the better by means of the instruments of ourselves? At their most desperate, these amount to a sort of plea deal we seek to make within an imaginary judicial system: I’ll be good if you will.
Historians of religion might recognize in this the ancient dream of the Afterlife, reached by a life of moral rectitude – and as that proved historically impossible, at least by some cathartic act of psychic conversion that cleansed the soul of the ways of the world and prepared it for Judgment in nearly alien terms. As Claudius puts it:
In the corrupted currents of this world
Offense’s gilded hand may shove by justice,
And oft ’tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law. But ’tis not so above.
There is no shuffling. There the action lies
In his true nature, and we ourselves compelled,
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults,
To give in evidence.
Similarly, the dreamiest among us enter the New Year as if it were Heaven… Heaven being that perfect place that never has to undergo the indignity of manifesting on Earth. But even these dreamers will find themselves planetbound come September.
So, let’s remember what we already know, and drop all the bullshit. By that I mean to say I do hereby co-authorize you to be responsible for what you know IN REAL LIFE and stop worrying about your membership in the Church of the Ultimate Good. Some restrictions do apply. Never forget, the Devil is in the details, so focus on the little things. That way, when you finally meet the Devil – and you will meet him – at least you can speak enough of the same language to have a sensible conversation.