I have seen and witnessed with others, how much development activity there has been in my town; forests cut down, new buildings erected, new roads paved, more business premises put up; the urban jungle expanded, so much that were you to have been away for a few years, you would find it unrecognizable. We debate into the goodness or backwardness thereof, in agreement or disagreement. Most of us have been involved in tending the machines carrying out the development activity in one way or another through our employments or our manner of money spending. It is has after all been argued that it is out of necessity that we must act so, else risk our town’s economic prosperity and attractiveness.
Largely, we have spoken in awe about the speed at which our town has been reshaped. But while we have preoccupied ourselves in taking note of this activity that has besieged our town, we have cared less about what has happened within us in that period. Has there been such activity, of such grandiosity or extraordinary, in our characters, or nature, for the better, so that had someone met us after a long while they would have found us unrecognizable?
To a larger extent, we profess to each other that we have changed, progressed even. But like the town, we have mostly changed our outer garment – what we drive, wear, or live in – and left our inner selves intact. It is the way in which we have learned to live, our outer garments being the means and the end of progress. We could very well befit a worrisome description as a people who prefer appearance to substance. Looks can be deceiving, and so, we have taken it upon ourselves to appear. Our character and nature, largely unattended, engulfed and disguised by weeds of appearance.
Few individuals then, on meeting me after a long time have found me unrecognizable in character or nature and on my part, I have been awed only by a few. Pleasantries, have usually given way to preoccupations with the change in our outer garments, or else a perturbing silence. Scant, we have been about our inside development, for we have lacked a nourishment for each other that can only come from well cultivated characters. We have lurked behind screens to partake in the fronts of others and responded with our own. Our conversations, by etiquette are mainly about these outer garments. What is most visible yet most remote have come to define us. Our conversing has become more and more about such fronting and so has our politicking, journalism, religion, education, news, show and make business.
As a town folk, Thoreau may have us believe that we come off as cheap. “We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other […] and give each other a new taste of that old musty cheese that we are. We have had to agree on a certain set of rules, called etiquette and politeness, to make this frequent meeting tolerable and that we need not come to open war […] we live thick and are in each other’s way, and stumble over one another, and I think that we thus lose some respect for one another.” (Walden) The seeing irrespective of interval then, is just a seeing of the garments we don, the faces, or properly, the masking of our characters and our nature. Whence it is easy to become wary of each other when we recognize that we have become actors. When we conversate of experiences most foreign to us. When we recognize, or mirror in each other facades; pretences that we have transcended our older selves, while in reality we have only concealed them. As the tale goes, we front the appearance of emperors in new clothes, while in reality we are emperors in the nude. We are too preoccupied to neither notice a lad pointing at a poet amongst us, nor see his poetic inclinations. Given the sort of town folk we are, we are likely to enlist him to one or another role that we would think fit for him.
It may beg the question: why are we so captivated by scripted actions – movies and films – yet find it unsettling when our living takes their appearance. Would it be the case that as an audience, we can veil ourselves from reality, allowing ourselves to be drawn in, to see as though an actor is not following a script but going about life as circumstances befall him, but that as actors, we are too aware of our real circumstances and that our attempt to act gives an appearance that reality were not so? Or is it the case that we cannot empathise with the suspension of freedom – the going out of one’s own reality – in acting, but experience it far too strongly so that we detest it?
Acting, the kind that we prefer, is delivered through a medium that filters out the history and reality of the actors. This mode of delivery enables us to take acting as a reality and history of the actor as it is the only thing we are given access to, whence it is easy to empathise with them. Were we to have access to the behind the scenes of a film, it may not be as captivating. Were we to have the actual reality and history of actors, we might end up being sympathetic to them, whence their work might be repelling, like watching a drunk thinking of himself sober and trying to act so. So it is on screens that we must also front appearances, for it is through them that we can filter out our reality and history, whence to our audience, our acting appears authentic, and an appearance of change in our nature and character, for the better is made believable.
An old book gives a peculiar narrative of a spiritual teacher, supposedly. One who by all means would have been considered a vagabond: uneducated, illiterate, a loiterer and homeless. The sort of person you may feel entitled to ignore or curse out had you encountered them. Someone who appeared to have cultivated his character and nature so much that, to this day, we have not had enough of trying to understand what he was about. Perhaps the worst actor of all time; lacking in the way of pretense, and as uneducated, illiterate and homeless barely fitting any societal role. A true poet some might say, so original in nature and character that he could and can only be considered a disruptor, in the full sense of the word.
A poet, impotent at dealing with his dearest experience, is bound to become an actor. To one degree or another, an actor has to assume whatever role befalls, or is assigned him. He is all show without substance. He is always on the lookout for a role, always ready to be something other than himself. A poet, on the other hand, is always searching for his essence, always trying to bring to surface something from within himself, even though it be disruptive. As a town of actors that we are, we are embroiled in an incessant business of assuming and playing roles. Just like work, acting involves dealing with frustration stemming from acting itself. That is, frustration rooted in the fact that acting requires the actor to be something that he is not; if not preventing him from being himself.
There are disruptors in our town. Everyone is. Except that our disruptiveness has mostly been outwardly. And even on that end, we have fallen short of both history and dreams. Even though we have surpassed the Egyptians in technological prowess, or so we think, we are yet to pile stones in a manner that would surpass the ingenuity and originality expressed in the pyramids. Not that such an end would necessarily be worthwhile. Thoreau in Walden suggested that it is an insane ambition for a nation or a town for that matter, to perpetuate its memory by the amount of hammered stone it leaves. For him, “one piece of good sense would be more memorable than a monument as high as the moon.” “As for the Pyramids” he wrote, “there is nothing to wonder at in them so much as the fact that so many men could be found degraded enough to spend their lives constructing a tomb for some ambitious booby, whom it would have been wiser and manlier to have drowned in the Nile, and then given his body to the dogs.” Have we degraded ourselves thus by preoccupying ourselves with this incessant activity of reshaping our town for the purpose of business?
According to Graeber, our impotence at realizing the dreams of science fiction or changing the course of history has not been due to a lack of technological poets but due to a harnessing of their work mainly to the effectiveness of existing societal tools and practices (The Utopia of rules: On technology, stupidity, and the secret joys of bureaucracy). Graeber feels that there has been a profound shift from technologies associated with the possibility of alternative futures to those that further labor discipline and social control, in addition to a derailing of technological fruition by a pervasiveness of meaningless work. His occupational role in academia, he bemoans, is devoted more and more to grant applications, proposal writing, and so on, and less and less to creative, ground breaking work.
Given the opportunity, I want to live in a town where everyone had the chance to become more and more of themselves, and themselves alone, so that they were uniquely fulfilled in their own way, and had I met them, I would be struck by their uniqueness so much that I would let them out of sight not, before I had learned something about what they were. I would rather meet the devil himself than a dozen angelic persons, encyclopedic and obsequious. From the devil, at least, I can expect a test of my character, from which I may learn if I have been true to my calling. I would prefer the originality of little kids to the enculturation and conformity of noble men. If a poet is that person who describes and deals with things near to his heart, his most private experiences, I would prefer to live in a town of poets. The obvious question to ourselves as a town folk then might be this: how prepared are we to have a poet in our midst, if our concern for each other is this incessant business and a strangulation of the creative, genius, poetic mind?
I have seen the lengths the common folk will go to make it not their duty to talk about, leave alone take action on, the things that press us the most. We are acquiesced to being what has been determined of us or in the pursuit of designated roles, giving life the appearance of a duty of putting up with self imposed difficulties and insanities. So a many spend the best part of their lives setting and keeping in place the very things that sap life from them. Common wisdom has it that actions speak louder than words, yet it ignores the fact that inaction is itself an action, and at times, the loudest of all. So the many ignore the speech of a vagabond and deeply despise him for his apparent laziness, or for his reliance on us for his upkeep, if we are upto it, or so we think, in spite of the fact that the means by which most of us live are dishonest, and more disreputable. It must however also be from a recognition that we have given up on such ambitions for a life genuine, simple and of integrity, in which one dares to have freedom as his companion. Nonetheless, the man who contributes nothing towards what makes life burdensome for others is despised, and the one who does is adored, rewarded and decorated.