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The Appeal of Incarnation

ncarnation is a perverse topic for me. If I pick it up, I am sure it will only rot in my fingers, spirit turned to dreck before my reductive eye. Leaving the question of my good will aside, however, I am fascinated by what the idea of incarnation does to people, how this notion returns and returns again. Is it a bad penny? It seems that we are driven to find meaning in the flesh when we can no longer find pleasure in it. This is perfectly understandable when it comes to illness but, as Susan Sontag has shown, the meaning of illness does not lie at a moral level–we get sick according to the rules of biology and chemistry, not according to those of the church. Talk of spiritual maladies can almost lead one to pine for the long lost days of Cartesian dualism.

However, the truth is that Cartesian dualism never caught on as fully among the public as it did among philosophers. Its only real use has been to suggest what happens to the essences of people when they die, so we don’t have to mess with their rotting “accidentals.” Which makes disposing of a person’s corpse in the West not half the moral dilemma that it is in other cultures, such as among the Berawan of Borneo, some of whom reportedly consume the fluids from the decaying bodies of relatives to ensure that the corpse has thoroughly decayed and the soul is free to enter the land of the dead. And yet, we still frequently choose to preserve our corpses, apparently in a Pascalian wager should the angels blast their horns, announce the end of time, and proceed with the physical resurrection of humanity. We wouldn’t want to be caught at the end of time not looking our best.

There have been many mad destinies written in stars for the elect. In America, we have our own history of “manifest destiny” to contend with which provided just as happy an excuse for genocide as did the belief in the master race. But these ideologies are, I believe, precisely excuses and not necessarily the reasons for the massacres of Indians or the systematic murdering of the Jews. Everybody knows they’re wrong. My own difficulties are with something more personal and less propagandistic, but also more widespread, this notion of “mission.” I am worried that these missions only serve to help us ignore the suffering of others by giving misery the appearance of being temporary, or natural, or necessary. It seems comical, however, to speak of mission as being a problem in our era, when the common assumption is that there is no mission, that the only goal left for people these days is too acquire more stuff, to keep the free market marketing. This notion too is propaganda, a glib attempt to link individuals’ personal lives with the ambitions of politicians.

One of these incarnations in the flesh takes a negative form, a sort of anti-mission, but one that people believe they have fallen prey to as if by a foreordained power, that is, alcoholism. We have been sold alcoholism and the larger notion (I shy away from referring to it as an idea) of the “addictive personality” as if the two of them were quite literal demons perched on our shoulders, from which only a spiritual quest can rescue us. The twelve-step programs and the necessity of believing in something “greater than yourself” are prime examples of this mixing of very physical problems with spiritual solutions. In the case of alcoholism, however, it is the alcoholism that is treated as the incarnation, with attempts to prove that it has a genetic basis, that whole populations are predisposed from birth by their DNA to dangerous drinking, or that it is part of a generally addictive personality which is doomed to extinguish itself through one excess or another. The genetic argument, as always, seems particularly persuasive because it is so neat, so apparently mechanistic. Certainly the argument implies no guilt; how can Native Americans be blamed if it is in their genes? And yet, this argument suggests that Indians need our protection, that these unfortunates (but it would be so easy to slip and call them “inferiors”) need a guiding hand to keep them from the bottle. It would almost seem to be part of our manifest destiny.

While I was attending high school, we had the usual crew of well-meaning types troop through our classes explaining to these incredulous teens what the signs of alcoholism were. “A single blackout,” they told us, “is all it takes to confirm that you’re an alcoholic.” The sign of the true calling–a single blackout and one’s life plan is made clear. Why, the notion positively sent teens binge-drinking in droves just to see if they were of the elect. But much more obscenely (how could I honestly argue against warning teens to avoid blackouts?), these people told us that beer bellies were the results of malnutrition, no different from the protruding belly of a starving infant in Africa. The image, in trying to be grotesque, is only grotesquely inappropriate. It is obvious even to the most oblivious fourteen-year-old that the caloric intake of a beer-swilling American is powers greater than that of a starving Somalian. Its use only demonstrates the profound lack of sympathy towards human suffering which is a central element of incarnational thinking. I’ve found it hard to believe in such physical signs since; they serve too neat an indexical role. The fact is that the discussion of alcoholism frequently abandons its concern with the actual behavioral problems in a peculiar attempt to place alcoholism at a higher level, as something more invidious than a true disease which we can isolate and treat. The argument seems to be that we cannot treat alcoholism because we cannot treat it. You are an alcoholic all your life: you bear the stigmata. Your only course is to embark on a spiritual quest for atonement culminating in seeking forgiveness from others. An interesting treatment–should we dispatch cancer patients from chemotherapy so they might go begging for forgiveness?

Before succumbing to his own alcoholism, Jack Kerouac traveled to my part of the world, western Washington State, within sight of Mt. Baker and the Cascades, looking for an incarnation, an experience which makes up much of Desolation Angels. With both Catholicism and Buddhism spurring him on, Kerouac came close to writing the sacred texts of modern incarnational thinking, inspiring people who would shrink at the thought of opening a New Age book on angel studies. As he says, “I only know one thing: everybody in the world is an angel. . . . you can be an Indian woman squatting in the gutter crazy . . . you can even be a nasty intellectual in the capitals of Europe but I see the big sad invisible wings on all the shoulders and I feel bad they’re invisible and of no earthly use and never were and all we’re doing is fighting to our deaths.” The coercive, evangelizing quality of his thinking is scarcely hidden here: the narrator suffers for a humanity ignorant of the possibility of a salvational grace. Kerouac claims to see what neither the crazy Indian nor the nasty intellectual can. While his descriptions of women are notorious, Kerouac’s dharma bum, a Charley Chaplin figure with a monk’s rosary tucked into his watch pocket, presents another distinct problem.

The image of the dharma bum seductively combines two strains of American thought–the biblical conception of the wandering, visionary holy man with the populist tendency to sentimentalize the hobo and the bum. In this we see the debt Kerouac owes to Thoreau, for whom a walk was a crusade to free the Holy Land from the Infidels. Yet the more we sentimentalize the poor, equating their condition as fallen angels with that of the rest of humanity (including nasty intellectuals), the less their degrading circumstances seem individual humiliations than a sort of spiritual paradigm of the natural state of humanity.

Desolation Angels contains the minimum of required elements for an incarnation: distress followed by the revelation that gives the elect a mission. The narrator, Jack Duluoz, retires to the mountain, suffers in loneliness, has a vision of the Void, and returns to humanity with a message about the angelic attributes of man. A journey that starts with wandering becomes a forced march towards a definite, spiritual goal. Yet something in this genre of self-dramatizing testimonial inclines toward the brutal and the militaristic. As all the inessential qualities are stripped away and a narrative reveals itself first to the one who experiences the incarnation then to the audience of his story, the flesh gives way to the not-flesh. Within the world of incarnation, all misery either evaporates or turns toward the goal, there can be no unaccounted-for unhappiness. The misery that exists, then, is purposeful: it inclines one towards revelations. The more miserable one is, the more glorious the revelation, so that angels’ wings will poke out of the hardened chrysalises of winos. It is an apparent inversion of the social order: those that are lowest will be the most high. But this is only an appearance. The problem is that after the revelation there are all these leftover husks, all this flesh from which the meaning has flown off to heaven.

The political issues bound up in the separation of mind from body are questions of freedom. While mind and body are considered separate, we are free to think of mind in whatever way we wish. As they say in philosophy, any statement we make about mind in such conditions is incorrigible, it cannot be proven wrong or corrected by another. But once mind gets bound up in body, rather than try to come up with reasonable statements, we continue to make absurd propositions as if these too could not be proven wrong. It might be difficult to prove a man is not an angel, but it would be far more difficult to prove that he is one.

But what are these missions that are instilled in the flesh? How is it that anyone could believe they have a destiny? In Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, Clarisse, who is falling out of love with her husband, has the sudden insight “that the ecstatic thirst for love that had driven her out of her mind to such a degree could have been nothing other than an incarnation, that is, she knew, a manifestation in the flesh of something not of the flesh: a meaning, a mission, a destiny, such as is written in the stars for the elect.” In a work that is so concerned with the serious use of half-baked ideas, where Clarisse is forever on the verge of betraying her husband with the protagonist, it is impossible to read this passage as a hymn to the word made flesh. Incarnation, if anything, is vanity made flesh. It would seem natural for a fiction writer such as Musil to believe in some form of fate. A writer who handles made-up characters has to have a sense that they are driven to do what they do, that they could not just pick up and choose another life. Such a writer is likely to believe that the inner life of a character will make itself apparent in the flesh, that the face will embody diffidence, the hands grief or pride, the shoulders an approval of hard work. A writer has a need to discuss these matters as if they were tied up in the events of a person’s life, to argue that we are not merely the pawns of accident and chance but that our spirits work through our bodies to fulfill our lot. Yet, I don’t think anybody really believes in fate these days; Musil certainly didn’t.

Certainly, we make a good show of turning our politicians into mythic heroes; all the time we previously put into examining ram’s entrails we now spend on the characters of our would-be leaders. We’ve read Aristotle; we’d like to believe that character is destiny. It’s another form of incarnation, the spirit revealed in acts. And it seems intimately connected with our ideas of morality, that you can judge unequivocally what a person is by what he has done and you need only know the least amount of facts to make your judgment–any act will do since they all reveal the same character. Yet all of this was well-parodied a few years back in Gary Hart’s presidential campaign which it may help to compare to Bill Clinton’s own problems with sex. In Hart’s case, it seemed to be his destiny to be brought low by his own actions. All anybody apparently needed to know about Gary Hart was that he had dared the media to follow him up on his sex life then was next seen clutching a woman other than his wife. Ironically, such hubris was enough to condemn him, while Clinton, who never asked anyone to investigate him, was quite able to separate his political fate from his sexual proclivities. In Gary Hart’s campaign, we saw fate made so literal, obvious, and stupid it mocked itself. In Clinton’s presidency, however, we saw rather the frustration of those furies (who believe in such things as fate) before the mass of the public who never felt their wills defied. To this public, it’s not so much that Bill Clinton is a fallible human being, much less a mythic hero; he’s simply a rising stock indicator. If he has any mythic presence, it is only on the level of the lucky rabbit’s foot.

In Australia, the artist Christian Waller is most famous for the metaphysical engravings in her 1932 book The Great Breath. Typical of her times, she viewed Aboriginal Australians as inferior to the white colonists, but she couched this in the rhetoric of metaphysical evolution as voiced by Madame Blavatsky and George Russell, creating a story in which Australia served as the new Atlantis. In The Great Breath, seven art-deco designs present the “Great Work[:] the Evolution of the Human Race.” Here, human flesh had evolved through five races of mankind towards its present peak, the Aryan, which race has now come to Australia to continue its transcendence, transforming into the new man. Happily, migration to Australia ensured the Northern Europeans that they would have as little contact with inferior races as possible, and on this island enclave the project of building the new man could progress unabated. The only thing for Aboriginal Australians to do (as well as the rest of mankind) was to die out quietly as had their previous brethren, the Neanderthals.

How could anyone take the engravings of this visionary artist seriously? As it turns out, she was only mythologizing the current state of things. The White Australia Policy enacted in the first years of the century sought to eliminate immigration by non-Europeans and deport many of those already living on the continent. In his A Short History of Australia, Manning Clark cites the Bulletin as stating that Australia “proposed to show the world for the first time since the days of the primeval ape a whole continent under one flag, one people, and one government.” And if the relevance to today’s politics is unclear, I need only mention that in October 1998 Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party, made infamous by her anti-Asian and anti-Aboriginal remarks advocating a return to some form of the White Australia Policy, gained fifteen percent of the national vote, enough to earn them a seat in the senate. Locally, the One Nation party did even better, gaining eleven seats in Queensland’s government, leaving us to fear the arrival of a new mythographer of the cause.

One Nation is a sad reminder that the meaning found in the flesh often has to do with generation, with bloodline, and race, a meaning Hitler brought with him when he came to power the year after the publication of The Great Breath. Even the White Australia Policy looks insignificant in comparison to the industrial purification of the bloodline in Europe. But to argue that incarnational thinking immediately leads to genocide would be incorrect. Rather, during and after the fact, it has produced myths to justify exploitation and genocide and seeks to displace the history of physical degradation with a history of spiritual evolution.

Perhaps we need the urbane cynicism of one of those nasty intellectuals, a Robert Musil, to fan away rather than to bottle and sell such puffs of air as “angels” and “political fate.” There is a saying: if you see someone coming towards you with your best interests in mind, run away as fast you can. How much more true this is of the divine.