Monday, July 28, 2008

The Sea of Heartbreak
Godfrey Reggio and Phillip Glass have known for more than 20 years now that the human world is swallowing itself whole. The Third World, a giant boa constrictor striped in orange and red and green, is abandoning its young to the machine world where industry can be had for its own sake, minds can be numbed and molded into the mechanized global drumbeat of steel wheels and mathematical calisthenics. That’s what the film Powaqqatsi is about. The rare moments when the old is swallowed by the new and strange and we see the world shifting trying to obscure the emotive side of people who still go seriously about ritual practice. There is not so much joy as pure concentration in the eyes of people (what Hegel thought of as the surface of the soul) who still do their dances and their prayers in the midst of natural poverty. The concentration is against the lure of technology, the conquest of space and things by time: there is no more efficient way to dance, and sing or meditate than that which we have been taught by our fathers and grandfathers. Worship is anti-efficiency. And though these stories may be false to think of as natural (as Derrida has told us), the narration of it is nevertheless as honest as the eyes of a Bolivian school boy who knows only what he has seen and heard. These things take time and the space proper to the text which surrounds them (context). Our world depends on our mediation of it, and the media which we comprehend is saturating and ubiquitous: there is no alternative to modernity.
Reggio who spent 14 years of his life in silence as a young Catholic knows this it seems. We are being subsumed despite our best intentions and concentrations. When I sat on the green folding chairs in Prospect Park listening to the aging Philip Glass combine the tribal with the technic and the religious with the profane and the particular with the universal, I was mesmerized by the sounds and sights of human industry, of handiwork, of ecological systems we build with our hands into immense matrices of exchange and how in the midst of what become monstrous machine worlds of ill-conceived plans we still live carving out little niches from which we carry on the things we must carry. It’s quite a world out there.
I was stuck also by the way the film ended with the call to prayer of Sheikh Ahmed Dewidar. The thousands in the park fell into mute silence under his spell as he sang over and over again “Allah Akbar – God is Great.” It was hard not to tingle a little bit and wonder with immense sadness at how we have revolted against this confession. Gene and Amy were here with us enjoying the concerts of the city (they also joined us a bit in appreciating the way Johnny Cash made a way for the soul to sing in a desert place) and the next night when we made our way past the ground zero of the so-called war on terror Jennifer told me that she feels sad not just for all of our neighbors who died here 7 years ago – but the way we have turned the world into hell for so many children and fathers and mothers as a result. The weight of it is immense. Johnny Cash died not wanting it and I want it never again.


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