Friday, November 07, 2008


In his column "Beyond Election Day" Bob Herbert talks about the Obama phrase “the fierce urgency of now” (

The phrase makes me nervous. It’s too vague to stand alone. It could easily be part of a rah-rah speech given to young Reds in Russia of 1917, to young S.A. members in Berlin of the early 1930s, to anti-war demonstrators trying to stop the Vietnam war in 1967, to SDS radicals trying to throw-over the whole ‘Establishment’ of ‘Amerika’, to early feminists of the Second Wave whose revolutionary sistern were trying to overthrow the whole male ‘Establishment’. Heady stuff this. People full of it shouldn’t be allowed access to heavy machinery (or, needless to say, weapons). But of course, so often they’re precisely the ones who want that access so very much, demanding it with a fierce urgency.

Vagueness is something We don’t need. I’m not simply talking about the greasy, dark innuendoes underlying some Rove-ian insinuation; Teddy Kennedy’s bloviating about ‘the dream’ is equally vague, and as treacherous in the long run.

And yet the phrase touches a wire in many of Us. As much as it’s unpleasant to stop thinking and to just start ‘doing’ straightaway, it’s exhilarating to be living life beyond the drear and blear of day-to-day ‘stuff’. And sometimes heavy machinery is all that can get the job done, or heavy weapons; although the ‘dozing under of huge swaths of American landscape in the ‘urban renewal’ craze or the galactic quantities of munitions expended in and over Vietnam serve as gaunt reminders of how little good such ‘exhilarating’ demonstrations of raw energy might actually accomplish.

Shakespeare, famously, asked for “a muse of fire”. Whether he was thinking of some nubile nymphic form that would gently blow upon his creative capacity, or a full-blown Biblical messenger bearing a hot coal to press against his creative soul, or whether he hoped to burn as the Mosaic bush, flaming yet never consumed …

Walter Pater sought to “burn with a hard, gem-like flame”, such as one lights under a Bunsen burner in a chem lab. It’s an informative ideal, revealing more about the speaker’s usual experience of living rather than about what it’s like to live habitually at some ‘higher’ level. Or … can one live as a matter of one’s ordinary regularity on the plane of the extraordinary? Can one so train or hone oneself that the extraordinary becomes the standard and ‘ordinary’, par for the course, level and quality of one’s living experience?

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., thrice wounded in the Civil War, said decades later that it was the great gift of his generation that in their youth their lives were “touched by fire”. I got the impression that somehow neither he nor many of his generation were able to keep that fire going after the shooting stopped and they returned ‘home’.

God save the young from the maudlin military nostalgia of oldsters who have not gotten a genuine ‘life’ since their days in uniform. I wonder if the kicker there is in that passive ‘touched by’: they required something – Ares Ferox et Atrox – to come and touch them; yet once touched, they seem not to have developed the skill to keep themselves in contact with the ‘fire’. Given once a proverbial fish, they did not succeed in learning how to fish for themselves, and the original morsel now long-consumed, they starve and remember what no longer is. They did not seek to keep contact.

But then again, William James said a little afterwards that he wished there could be found a “moral equivalent of war”, something that would enflame one’s spirit, without the actual flaming explosions – large and small – of real military combat. Perhaps the Civil War generation – most of it – couldn’t move on from a brutishly actual ‘fire’ to any sort of more refined ‘fire’, a higher fire, if you will.

Nor would it have seemed possible, in those days when already the sense of the Vertical and the Beyond were ruthlessly being rejected in favor of the materialism of a Flat, this-worldly ‘success’ and ‘dominance’ – scientific, cultural, racial, national . In such a ‘literal’ world, Flat to the point where the ‘real’ is limited to what can be quantified and marketed, then ‘fire’ can only mean the flame-y kind, leading to Holmes’s plaint: once the war’s gunfire subsides, the bhoys got nuthin’. Like the storied Texas high-school quarterbacks, their best years were behind them before they even hit 21.

That’s a hell of a way to go through the rest of your life.

Nor can any this-worldly, stuff-hallowing religion – as bereft as its baffled flocks – offer anything ‘fiery’ except the ‘fire’ to be visited upon all of those ‘others’ who don’t believe as they do.

Now them Kathliks – on their good days anyhow – now they knew about Otherness with a capital-O. They knew; or at least their religion preserved in its capacious memory, the experiences of those who did indeed find the non-consuming fire, and lived in its hot glow.

Not that such achievement (as much as Gift of the Spirit as an achievement), is akin to some gauzy, sepia-golden Hallmark TV movie. It’s more like getting your propeller aircraft up into the jetstream; even as the stream zooms you along, you have to pay even more attention to your controls (if you let the nose fall you could get pushed relentlessly into a spin). Genuine spirituality is not for the faint of heart – yet all are born ‘equal’ in that regard, to the extent that they are willing to extend themselves. Nor is there any need to reach out one’s hand and “touch the face of God”; you can feel His stream all around you, pushing as much as holding you up – and anyway, your hands are full keeping the craft in trim.

You don’t need an actual wooden ship to be a Master and Commander. No need to stay ‘literal’ – it only Flattens and coarsens your world. And your life.

Nor do you need the “three-personed God” to “batter” your heart, to “break, blow, and burn” to make you “new”. Keeping your trim in the stream is more than enough of a task. Anyway, the breaking and burning are kind of excessive, histrionic almost, and genuine maturity doesn’t need such excess to find and conduct itself. Even at those refined altitudes where there is no ‘ordinary’ anymore. Where everything is “touched”, transformed, by the non-consuming fire. Where thus the ‘day to day’ falls away; not because you’re always out doing huge and heroic and ‘great’ things, but because no matter what you do, it is lit by a fire that is unquenchable. (Did you think only the devil gets to play with unquenchable fire?)

So, yes, you can be a ‘top gun’ without getting folks and friends killed or buzzing ‘civilians’ and scaring the livestock and poultry and house pets with sonic booms.

And so, yes, there’s a way you can be mature, and sustain commitments and responsibilities, yet not drown in the swamp of the ‘ordinary’ and the ‘day-to-day’. Hell, them Kathliks been sittin’ on the recipe for two thousand years. Sittin’ on it wayyy too much with their fat fannies, if you ask me.

The youth of the Sixties didn’t quite get it right either. Anytime-sex or revolution, either way it’s a ‘fire’ that consumes a lot more than it builds. And it’s a high that fades pretty damn quick. As the Romans noted, ‘post coitus omnis animal triste’; after sex, all animals are sad.

So Obama is playing with fire here, with this “fierce urgency of now”.

But it’s famously one of the distinctive achievements of humankind that we can indeed harness fire. So it’s not like I’m proposing that he back off the ‘fire’ stuff. But between the fire in a steel-mill’s furnaces and a Southern California monster brush-fire there is a world of difference. We need far more of the former and far less of the latter.

I’ve said in previous Posts, and I’ll say it again: for Us here today, the adventure of being a Citizen, and of Peopling this Republic and the servants We have electorally hired to administer it, is most surely the ‘great thing’ We can – and must – do. And it’s an adventure. And if you think it isn’t, then imagine what it’s going to be like telling the lobbyists and the Malefactors of Great Wealth and the assorted “tax-fattened hyenas” (a justly favorite phrase of columnist Howie Carr) who have set up their tables within the sacred groves of the Beltway that ‘business as usual’ is gone now, and that it’s time to “ask what you can do for your country” again. You think that’s going to be easy? You think the exorcism now required is going to be a piece of cake? They’re not gonna go gently, in case you haven’t been keeping up with your horror movies or your Bible and you think Obama is going to be some ‘real life’ Harry Potter and just wave the old wand. He won’t be, and he can’t be.

Our adventure, Our ‘fire’ lies at hand now. And Our greatest challenge is not to avoid getting burned, but to master the fire that does not consume but rather warms and quickens. It’s George the First’s “thousand points of light”, taken to a level that no Bush – certainly – has ever imagined possible. Or ever imagined was ‘real’.

The time to make the doughnuts is passed. Time to clean out the stables. Time to rebuild Our half-wrecked nation.

Touch the fire.

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