The Source of Each Other's Completion: The Bank Teller and Other Essays on the Politics of Meaning

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The Source of Each Other's Completion: The Bank Teller and Other Essays on the Politics of Meaning

Stephen Mo Hanan is a New York-based actor, author and playwright whose essays have appeared often in this magazine.

It's difficult to imagine an example of cognitive dissonance more extreme than reading The Bank Teller, Peter Gabel's collection of essays, while sweating on a Stairmaster at a midtown Manhattan health club. Nevertheless, my eagerness to connect with the remarkable spirit and penetrating mind evident in this book kept me glued to it in unlikely places. I read it at the gym, on the bus, on a bench in Central Park, and since Gabel's aim is nothing less than to characterize and diagnose the culture in which we live, every one of these locations served to confirm and amplify his observations. Rarely have I read a book from which I could raise my eyes so consistently, not to rest them, but to observe my surroundings and see the author's meanings so clearly reflected.

It will come as no surprise to readers of TIKKUN that Peter Gabel articulates a vision of the world far more comprehensive and deep than what passes for political commentary in the mainstream press. In fact, the term "political" is inadequate to Gabel's ultimate purpose, which is not so much about apportioning places at the table as about improving the quality of the meal. All but one of the book's essays originally appeared in this magazine, and together they comprise a carefully reasoned, passionately argued case for the global project which underlies TIKKUN's very existence--namely, the Politics of Meaning.

Some years ago, when Michael Lerner began to attract media attention for his too-brief association with the fledgling Clinton White House, I heard Daniel Schorr on NPR deliver an unusually fatuous denunciation of anyone who paid "too much attention to the Politics of Meaning and not enough to the meaning of politics." This glib gag was intended, I suppose, to dismiss those starry-eyed idealists who hoped the new administration would reach beyond the cynical status quo with which the media were prepared to deal. For me, Schorr's remark was an unfortunate symptom of his (and the media's) poverty of imagination. The consequences of such poverty, which limit and tarnish the prosperity the Clinton Era has witnessed, are among the chief themes of Gabel's writing. Not only does he presume to ask, "What shall it profit a culture to gain a global economy and lose its own soul?" but he dares to propose alternatives. He dares to imagine what healing looks like.

What it looks like is community, the complete and authentic presence of individual human beings, one to another, inspiring each other with the courage to take the risk of being, in Gabel's memorable phrase, "the source of each other's completion." The obstacle to this transformation, as Gabel sees it, is fear: fear of humiliation, fear that by extending ourselves to another in the manner that we so deeply desire, we will meet with the kind of scorn Daniel Schorr heaped on Michael Lerner, the contempt with which many a broken heart fends off the threat of yet another wound. Gabel is well aware that we can just as easily be the source of each other's negation, and he sees with a clarity all too rare that the supreme choice confronting every human being, and humanity as a whole in our social evolution, is which of the two we shall be.

This is the stuff of philosophy and religion, not what we usually think of as politics, but The Bank Teller's greatest achievement is its demonstration of how these two spheres are really one. Gabel is an unashamed veteran of Sixties idealism and social critiques, and one might say that from the simple formula "the personal is political" he has evolved this mighty book as an oak from an acorn. There are roots in the thought of many others (among them Marcuse and Laing are evident and acknowledged), but the foliage, whether branching into examinations of affirmative action, jurisprudence, electoral politics, the Gulf War, or a Maalox commercial, is distinctly Gabel's own. …