I am tickled beyond measure by Rob Brezsny’s “Secrets of Pronoia” [November 2005]. He has scratched an itch somewhere deep in my subconscious.
I am what you might call an “underground artist.” I came of age during the great global renaissance of the midsixties and early seventies. Last year, however, I was feeling dismayed. There I was, in the prime of my life at forty-nine, watching what seemed like a bad science-fiction novel unfold in the news. I seemed to have slipped into an alternate universe where the corporations had taken over and installed a perpetual adolescent to run the empire. What ever happened to the renaissance?
Then it hit me. I’ve always wanted to be a revolutionary artist, to show people the cracks in the facade, to topple the icons. And isn’t President Bush providing the perfect backdrop for this drama of mine? After all, what could be better for the cause of revolutionary art than to have lawyers and accountants running the entertainment industry and the media?
Today the corporations ravage the world like the doomed dinosaurs they are. Tomorrow the next renaissance will grow and thrive atop their bones. Ah, sweet drama!
I loved Rob Brezsny’s concept of “sacred eavesdropping,” a meditative practice in which we move our attention away from ourselves and observe others with compassionate objectivity.
I’m not a meditator, but I do something similar when I draw. As I follow the curves, lines, and edges of my subject, the images flow from my eyes to my hands, bypassing my brain’s judgment. Anything I draw, through the process of drawing it, becomes beautiful and awe-inspiring. It could be a piece of trash, or the wrinkled skin of an old woman. When I draw it, I am taken away from my own constructions, and I realize that we are all one, all blessed.
I have occasionally read and enjoyed Rob Brezsny’s astrology column over the years. His writing is poetic, thought-provoking, and insightful. “Secrets of Pronoia” was a delightful meditation on the positive, life-affirming events that occur all around us while we are focused on a few upsetting circumstances.
I agree with Brezsny that the universe is a “prodigious miracle created for your amusement and illumination.” It is this very point of view, in fact, that convinces me astrology is inherently limiting and superstitious, a giving away of one’s personal power. I find the universe too full of possibilities for transformation, love, and healing to consign my life’s course, even in part, to the relative positions of fiery gas balls and cold, barren moons.
So why do I enjoy Brezsny’s astrology column? Because he fills the empty vessel of astrology with wonder, beauty, and intelligent observations.
Rob Brezsny’s “Secrets of Pronoia” is witty, subtle, and cunning in the tradition of the Sufi mystics or that revolutionary mystic, Jesus. Radical humor can topple empires. There’s one more step, however, that we “divine freedom fighters” need to take: liberating what Brezsny calls the “benevolent conspiracy of unknown people who are tirelessly creating hundreds of useful things you like and need.”
This includes the child slavery that taints one-third of all chocolate. It includes the Chinese girls who work seventeen-to-twenty-hour days, 359 days a year. It includes the three thousand children sold as slaves each day. If the things we like and need come to us only through money, is the conspiracy benevolent? And who is the “Chief Architect”? We can’t fall into the trap of thanking God for our wealth, as if it were at her command that the world serves us.
Rob Brezsny waxes wistfully poetic on how we all wake up in a temperature-controlled shelter, with a bed both comfortable and soft, under warm blankets, with electric power at our fingertips. He assumes I have a functioning bathroom with “convenient devices” and running water, that I have at my disposal a closet full of well-fitting clothes and a kitchen full of appetizing food.
Millions of people right here in the U.S. have neither house nor bed, no electricity, no running water, no clothes except what they wear. Any discussion that ignores this fact is purely academic.
I am almost offended by Brezsny’s suggestion that we thank our adversaries for the lessons they teach us. A fine idea in the abstract, but when those adversaries are responsible for the deaths of our loved ones, it is hard to imagine their destructive acts as “riddles” for my amusement.
“Life is a vast and intricate conspiracy designed to keep us well supplied with blessings,” Brezsny writes. What does he say to people whose lives are not well supplied with anything? It is difficult, at best, for the cold, sick, hungry, and poor to “act as if the universe is a prodigious miracle” created just for them.
Rob Brezsny responds:
I’m grateful The Sun gave its readers a taste of my book Pronoia Is the Antidote to Paranoia, but it’s important to note that the magazine’s excerpts comprised a tiny fraction of the total text. It took me 296 pages to unfold the full complexity of my ideas about pronoia, and there’s not enough room here to address the questions Stephen Harris and Tereza Coraggio raise with the depth they deserve. Still, I’ll attempt the beginning of a response.
Though my book extols some of the few blessings that come to us through money, I also make it clear that most of the countless miracles that occur don’t involve money or consumer goods — as I learned while I was living below the poverty level for nineteen years. One of the great gifts of the annual Burning Man festival, which I describe in the book, is that virtually no money changes hands there. For a week, more than thirty thousand people celebrate a culture untainted by commerce.
If Harris reads my book, he’ll find ample evidence that my vision of pronoia isn’t a delusional orgy of Pollyanna fantasies invoked to repress the harsh facts about the world. Here’s a snippet: “The earth is in the midst of the greatest mass extinction since the dinosaurs died off 65 million years ago. Half of all species could be exterminated by 2100. The U.S. is the biggest arms dealer in the world, selling billions of dollars of weaponry, much of it to nondemocratic regimes and armies whose soldiers commit human-rights abuses. Over 8o million Americans live on incomes estimated by the U.S. Department of Labor to be below a ‘comfortable adequacy.’ ”
I’m not suggesting that everything is always sweet and wonderful for everyone, but rather that we’d be smart to aggressively identify all the ways the world is teeming with beauty and joy and mystery as well. To do so would counterbalance the hordes of cynical storytellers in the media and entertainment industries who relentlessly assure us that life on earth is a dismal hell. Urging people to appreciate blessings they take for granted isn’t tantamount to advising them to pretend there’s no suffering in the world.
At the core of pronoia is the exhortation to be a wrathful insurrectionary as well as an exuberant lover of life. As I write in the book’s opening: “We can’t let the ruling fools of the dying world sustain their curses. We have to rise up and fight their insane logic; defy, resist, and prevent their tragic magic; unleash our sacred rage.”
Sybil Smith’s essay “The Narrow Door” [November 2005] illustrates an unfortunate deficit in this country’s sex education.
I had little appreciation for the diversity of women’s genitalia until relatively recently. As a monogamous male in his fifties, I’d hardly had the opportunity to make comparisons. (The skin magazines of my youth generally neglected this portion of the female anatomy.)
Since my wife has entered menopause, however, her libido has disappeared, and rather than initiate an affair, I have taken advantage of the proliferation of Internet porn. Though the pornography business seems filled with stupidity, misogyny, repressed aggression, coercion, and various other awful human traits, it does make available thousands of photos of women’s genitalia in all their natural diversity.
Sybil Smith stated that “there was nothing beautiful about these organs.” To men, though, even those with declining sex drives such as myself, vulvas are endlessly interesting. Like faces, some are attractive to me, others less so. As the saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Preferences as to pubic hair, pigmentation, and so on are as varied as individuals.
I believe a great service would be rendered if we made thousands of photographs of vulvas (and, to be fair, an equal number of photographs of penises) available to adolescents. As Eve Ensler writes in her play The Vagina Monologues, the only way that abuse of women can be eliminated is by admitting that half of humanity has one, and the sooner we all recognize it, the better. Removal of the mystery and taboo can only aid in bringing greater equality between the sexes.
Diane Lefer’s interview with Hector Aristizábal [“The Blessing Is Next to the Wound,” October 2005] brought tears to my eyes. I have sometimes looked back on my thirty-five years as a social worker, working with suffering people in the ghettos of Newark, New Jersey, and thought, Did I waste my life? Aristizábal reminds me that being a compassionate witness and doing what one can is worthwhile, whether the effort is seen or not.
Another reason the interview made me cry is that it’s the first piece in The Sun I have been able to read for the past year. During that time I have had several eye surgeries, the last of which has finally allowed me to read and drive a car again. Come to think of it, I weep at the sight of the mountains behind my house, a pine needle, my wife’s wondrous face, the gray hairs in my eyebrows, and the explosion of colors in my tea-box drawer. Suffering can indeed be a teacher of appreciation.
I loved Anna Kaufman Moon’s Sunbeams photograph in the October 2005 issue, of the man leaning on a tombstone (his?) inscribed with the words, “I just came here to laugh.” I have carefully torn this photo from the magazine and posted it above my desk at home to remind me, on a daily basis, of the importance of having a good sense of humor — even about death! I can’t help thinking what a healthier, happier place this world would be if all of us felt we came here just to laugh.