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. It is his avowed purpose, hallowed in the prophetic tradition, to advocate unstintingly for the wholeness of life, the wholeness of every person and of all people together. For without this wholeness, there can be no authenticity, only the shadow of false selves (Plato and the cave come to mind) counterfeiting a world in which no one really feels they belong.
Consequently, and as with all philosophy worthy of the name, the aim of The Bank Teller is less to articulate a particular dogmatic truth than to inspire readers to see and think for themselves. Liberals of conventional stripe will be as challenged by this book as their conservative counterparts, because Gabel's analysis of the failure of modern liberalism hinges on the questioning of materialistic assumptions about the nature of society (and, indeed, of reality) that are taken for granted in almost all political discourse. Gabel's political ideal owes more to Deuteronomy and Isaiah than to Rousseau and Marx; he is imagining a theocracy without priests, a theocracy whose god is love, in which the worth of individuals is derived not from respect for their egos (and thus their rival jockeying for accorded "rights") but from reverence for the animating spirit which dwells within and among them. That which links us is what ennobles us. The perception that this spirit is not only universal but good and worthy of trust frees Gabel to step outside the interlocking hierarchies of our time and replace them with a kind of holy anarchy, the doctrinal love child of Norman O. Brown's exuberant freedom and Paul Goodman's mutual aid.
This is apparent from the very first essay, which gives the book its title and states its major themes. Invoking the image of a row of tellers in a typical American bank, Gabel proceeds to examine their psychological situation in microscopic detail: the suppression of spontaneity, the enacting of roles, the pervasive imposition of "acceptable" behavior, the ensuing artificiality and stress, and, finally, the "collective experience that simultaneously divides a group of people by an infinite distance and unites them in the false communion of being-other-than-themselves together." To know intuitively what's wrong with this way of doing things, one has but to imagine its opposite, a jazz combo or chamber-music ensemble, in which every participant is connected by closely paid, spontaneously flowing attention, each individual contribution gaining its force from its effective melding with the contributions of the others. Children at play present a simpler enactment of the same thing, and one might say that for Gabel, hierarchy is the school-yard bully, sabotaging the fun by domination, intimidation, and fear, precipitating what Gabel calls "the collective flight that holds everyone's alienation in place."
That this model of deadly social order can be met with elsewhere than a bank is patently obvious, and its institutional quality is symbolized for Gabel by the flow chart, that graven image of structured authority which keeps everybody in line, providing a form of security and comfort on the one hand while, on the other, stifling initiative and dissent. People who want the Ten Commandments displayed prominently in classrooms are simply clamoring for a flow chart with Old Testament teeth. But behind this adamant corporate Jehovah is nothing (Nobodaddy, in Blake's word) because, as Gabel observes, the bank "consists of nothing more than a group of people in a room." Everything else, from the dress codes to the deferential smiles to the money itself, is just a symbol, albeit a symbol on which many a livelihood depends. It is rather like the story of the Emperor's New Clothes, except, in the economy of global consumerism, what we are told to pretend not to see isn't a naked monarch but an approaching iceberg.
Essay Two, "The Meaning of the Holocaust," makes this tragically clear. Without in any way diminishing the horror of this monstrous failure of connection, Gabel shows how such a thing is comprehensible, even inevitable, given a set of social premises not terribly different from those that prevail in the bank. There is simply no depth of evil to which a society cannot sink once it abandons love as its governing principle. And the test of love's authenticity is that in its presence nobody gets harmed. Therefore, "the imaginary community that purports to satisfy our ... need for connectedness and recognition" always reveals its duplicity by having to generate an unworthy class of non-members (Jews, Palestinians, Bosnians, Hutus, welfare cheats, immigrants, infidels, gays, rednecks) to outwardly personify the "haunting inner demon" of personal alienation. As Laotze says, "I find good people good, and I find bad people good if I am good (i.e., whole) enough." The greatness of Gabel's heart reminds us how pointless it is to "blame" the perpetrators of crimes, however egregious, when the source of the evil lies "in the spiritual evolution of being itself, and in the as yet incomplete struggle of Being to know itself as Love that realizes itself through the affirmation of the other."
In other words we are, to varying degrees and in the aggregate, blind, and in our blindness we injure ourselves and our world. The injuries are so painful that we seek to punish those we deem responsible, but when the punishment fails to assuage the pain, we assume it was not sufficiently severe. So the cycle of blame and retaliation continues, unrelieved and unrelieving, as history and today's newspaper bear witness. The Politics of Meaning is both redemptive and radical because it assures us that the cycle can be broken. It recognizes that everybody's inner demons are different, but the consequences of ignoring them are remarkably similar. It asks us, from the sanctuary of our Wholeness, to examine with unflinching perseverance the symptoms and causes of alienation wherever they manifest themselves.
Which brings me back to the Stairmaster. There are any number of reasons that an urban health club can symbolize themes that course through The Bank Teller. For one, it illustrates how contemporary life mitigates against wholeness, creating unnecessarily separate categories of mind and body. It is a place often rife with nonencounters, where people who obviously recognize each other pretend they don't in order to avoid making contact. But in this particular instance I want to focus on the banks of TV monitors displayed at health clubs for the diversion of those toiling away on running and climbing machines. Gabel writes about Oliver Stone's film JFK as an example of the ongoing social tension between alienation and its opposite, which he labels "desire." He observes that the public colluded in the hasty conviction of Oswald not because of some organized media conspiracy but because of our unconscious
attach[ment] to the status quo, to our legitimating myths of community, and to denying our own alienation and pain. The interest we share with the mainstream media and with government and corporate elites is to maintain ... the alienated structures of power and social identity that protect us from having to risk emerging from our sealed cubicles and allowing our fragile longing for true community to become a public force.... No matter who killed Kennedy, it was the conflict between the opening-up of desire that he represented and the need of the alienated forces around him to shut this desire down that brought about his death.... To win the struggle between desire and alienation ... people [must] break through the gauzy images of everything being fine except the lone nuts...
As I raise my eyes to ponder this, there are three TV screens before me. On the right I see a paid ad for Rick Lazio's New York senatorial campaign. A gauzy image of a perfect husband and father declares that this candidate does not stoop to "negative ads," and ends with stark white letters on a black background proclaiming, "Hillary Clinton. You Just Can't Trust Her." On the center screen a news program shows long lines of irate motorists demonstrating in London over the fuel shortage while, in the provinces, British hospitals face complete energy shutdowns. This is followed immediately by a commercial for scented oil plugins to lend any room in the house "that fresh, clean feeling." Either of these two ironies is Orwellian enough, but their juxtaposition makes me wonder whether such blatantly distorted public discourse must inevitably push people deeper into "our sealed cubicles," or possibly have a salutary reverse effect. Then the screen on the left pulls me into the most elaborate and depressing paradox of all.
On CNN's Talkback Live show, the perky moderator is listening to both sides in the dispute between advertisers and actors that led to the Screen Actors Guild commercial strike. The issue is that advertisers do not want to give actors a share in the income generated by commercials in the new cable and Internet markets. A professor of advertising at the university level explains on management's behalf that the average commercial costs $300,000 to make and acceding to the union's demands will drive costs beyond the reach of many advertisers, thus depriving American consumers of exposure to potentially useful products and driving their favorite programs off the air. The president of SAG explains that an actor who does a commercial for, say, Pepsi cannot advertise a rival soft drink as well, and therefore must maximize his Pepsi earnings in order to support his family and make his car payments. He demonstrates the importance of the actors' contribution by pointing to the difficulty advertisers have had, since the strike began, getting non-union actors to emote convincingly. Richard Dreyfuss explains that only a handful of actors earn the fortunes reported in the media, and the vast majority need to do commercials to survive. An audience member responds, "Those guys make more money for one movie than I'll ever see in my lifetime." Someone else calls in to say, "Let them get as much as they can, it's the American way."
No solution is reached, as of course none can be, because no one is questioning the absurd context which renders the situation devoid of meaning, as Gabel understands the word. How the small-time actors feel about the gulf that separates them from megastars who make megabucks is not discussed. How the advertisers feel about the moronic situations they devise to sell products is not discussed. How the audience feels about the cynicism, acrimony, and hypocrisy being paraded before them is not discussed. How the production and distribution of life's necessities, or the promotion of people's creative energies, could be organized in a non-adversarial manner is certainly not discussed. Nor is the extent to which these omissions deprive us of an accurate understanding of what we are doing here in the first place.
To understand this point, we need only contemplate any assemblage of human beings anywhere at all: on a bus, in a park, at a soccer game, a movie, wherever. It is indisputably true that every single person you see (yourself included) was at some point in their existence a helpless infant, inarticulate, nearly immobile, utterly incapable of surviving on its own. And it is equally true that every single one of these persons (yourself included) will at some point cease to breathe, vanish completely from view, and survive as no more than a memory (inorganic facsimiles notwithstanding) in the mental regions of other people who will undergo the same fate. The truths--our interdependence and impermanence--are far more self-evident than that we are all created equal (in fact it is largely from them that our equality derives) but hardly anyone pays them any attention whatsoever. Were we to do so (as all the world's religious traditions ask us to) the goals to which nationalist zealotry and consumerist industrialism bend us would seem grotesquely trivial. The issues debated during the last presidential election (not to mention the last impeachment) would inspire a vast shaking of heads and clucking of tongues.
And yet wars are fought, villages razed, mountains and jungles denuded, and human dignity brought low over just these goals and just these issues. In the Socratic world the unexamined life may have been not worth living; in our own era it is lethal, and must become ever more so as the Western crisis of meaning pumps psychological fuel into our destructive machinery. But this state of affairs, however perilous, is not the chief source of Gabel's prophetic fervor. Unrepentant Sixties survivor that he is, he seeks ever to remind us that redemption beckons as surely as doom repels, that, worldwide, millions of a generation still very much alive once united in the shared imagining of human enterprise benevolently transformed, and that the spirit behind that vision is neither nostalgic nor naive, but the same power that moves the very cycles of nature, life and history, and makes consciousness the unfolding miracle that it is.
This, of course, is the fundamental difference between the Politics of Meaning and all the previous utopian movements that have stained the landscape of history with blood and slaughter. Gabel perpetually reminds us that we cannot legitimately claim to have God on our side unless we acknowledge that God is on everybody's side. Far too often in human affairs the search for higher ground has meant the destruction of common ground. Not so in The Bank Teller. Here, for example, is Gabel on a faction viewed by most liberals as utterly worthless:
the creationists have been able to touch that dimension of people's ordinary experience that sees life in all its forms as expressive of some indwelling and miraculous beauty and goodness, and that knows with a certain intuition that this indwelling presence must be at the heart of any true knowledge of the world. However absurd the strict content of their views may be ... there is something correct and admirable in their refusal to accept the hegemony of science as a privileged source of truth.... It is the apparent inability of liberals and the Left to address the deepest questions of reality and existence that is partly responsible for the appeal of right-wing movements who do address them, although often in profoundly distorted and destructive forms.
It is precisely this willingness to see the psychological unity in human experience despite its adversarial and even cruel manifestations that makes reading The Bank Teller such a positive joy. For all its scrupulous observation of the injustice entrenched in so many contemporary institutions, this is a hopeful book. And the power of its hope was demonstrated to me with a synchronicity full of the miraculous beauty its author would surely appreciate. I return again to the Stairmaster, where I had just finished reading a passage calling for "a new politics aimed at eliciting and fostering the desire for mutual recognition, that seeks to thaw out the mutual ... fear of humiliation by finding ... ways of both creating and spreading the experience of I-and-Thou as well as confidence in the reality of this experience."
What should appear on the TV monitor ahead of me but CNN's live coverage of the popular uprising in Yugoslavia, the nonviolent overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic by a people who had discovered, in their thousands, a desire for mutual recognition that melted even the armed troops of dictatorial power. As I watched in amazement, the citizens of Belgrade entered and took over the State News Agency television station. I felt as if I were witnessing the storming of the Bastille, except that instead of being held inside the fortress, today's prisoners are on the outside, shackled by images and words. And as I was pondering this irony of the media age, CNN interrupted the transmission for a moment of paid propaganda extolling the noble social aspirations of America's pharmaceutical companies! The web of our life, as Shakespeare noticed, is of a mingled yarn.
The Sufi tradition tells the story that, once upon a time, a great prophet warned the human race that presently all the world's water would change its character, after which any water that was not specially collected prior to the fateful day would drive people mad. One lone man heeded the warning, collecting all the water he could and securing it in private. On the appointed day, water everywhere ceased to flow, and, when it resumed, all who drank of it altered their behavior drastically. Their method of thinking and speaking made no sense to the lone holdout, and his attempts to communicate with them were useless, since they had all forgotten about the way they used to live, and found his utterances incomprehensible.
The man continued to drink his hoarded water for a while, but eventually his isolation became unbearable. He drank the water of the altered world and fell into the same madness as his fellows, forgetting that there had ever been an alternative; he was welcomed by all as a madman who had miraculously regained his senses. I used to view this simply as a commentary on the pernicious effect of social convention and herd mentality. But there is a deeper level to the story, for it also speaks to the inherent need for community, without which even wisdom is sterile. The implication is that between exile with integrity and fellowship with delusion there is nothing to choose. The completion for which we long is indeed within ourselves, but we can actualize it only by offering it to each other with open hearts.
To those of us whose memory of more visionary times makes contemporary culture seem insanely aberrant, to anyone of any age who draws a similar conclusion from the promptings of an inner knowing that springs not from nostalgia but intuition and the conviction that humanity's common destiny must and will surpass the shabby conventions of our own time, The Bank Teller is more than a wakeup call, more than a manifesto. Peter Gabel would restore to all of us the water of sanity itself.