ENLIGHTENMENT BLACKOUT

by Ralph Dumain

        Motto to the Songs of Innocence & of Experience

 The Good are attracted by Mens perceptions
 And Think not for themselves
 Till Experience teaches them to catch
 And to cage the Fairies & Elves

 And then the Knave begins to snarl
 And the Hypocrite to howl
 And all his good Friends shew their private ends
 And the Eagle is known from the Owl

         — William Blake

To whom it may concern: know that I know.

1.  I’m going to relate my experience of the power blackout, but that blackout is only the superficial aspect of what I experienced over a 24-hour period.

2.  On my way to New York, I meditated on the profound implications of dealing with the kind of people I have to deal with, and ultimately the pattern became clarified, as if everything I had experienced over half a century converged on a single instant.

3.  This also says something about the relationship between the intellectual and the world of power and the diseased personalities this society produces, and what it means to survive when one is inclined to tell people the truth about their weaknesses in place of cultivating the skill to manipulate them.  Also, how the weaknesses of individuals in association piggyback off one another.

4.  Another aspect of this relationship: some other people want what you’ve got, but they can’t figure out its secret.  What they’ve got, which is not intellectual, is power or access to it.  It’s their resources you need, which they will only contribute a small portion of while torturing you in the process. 

5.  When I first met Jim Murray, he told me he was looking for me.  A bit later he said: “Welcome to New York, where socialism is who you know.”  At the moment I lacked the specific experience to be able to gloss this curious quip, but after some time I figured out what he meant.  And some years later, I learned that the word “socialism” could be substituted by other terms, with the same implications.  In 1997, after the last straw was broken in my dealings with academics, I learned that this adage also applies when the word “reality” is plugged in.

6.  One must understand what middle class leftism means in this country.  It is a vocation, an avocation, or living dangerously.  It could be yet another form of specialization, or a hobby, or a subculture, or a religious cult.  One might as well be a Shriner as worship in the Church of the Left.  In fact, “the Church of the Left” was Jim’s phrase.  This is what he was trying to extricate himself from when he first greeted me with such unexpected exuberance.

7.  I barely arrived in New York when the power blackout hit.  Of all things this had to happen at this moment.  It obliterated the possibility of accomplishing a single thing I came to New York to do.  This incident juiced up my racing thought processes while my material environment was powered off.

When my cell phone went dead, the only thing for me to do was to wander the streets of my old stomping grounds on the Upper West Side.  I could not browse any of the bookstores, now closed.  All I could do was to buy a bottle of water every few blocks where I could find one.

However, on the street I ran into someone I know and borrowed his cell phone, which was still working, to call DC.  I also informed him of Jim’s death.  His display of concern was reasonably well-performed.  Given that he is so detached from his own pain, I could hardly claim he slighted mine.

For information on the blackout, all I had to go on at first was hearsay on the street.  When someone outside my hotel told me with a twinkle in his eye that the whole Northeast was blacked out, I thought he was pulling my leg just to scare me.  I queried occasional people on the street.  Eventually, I came across a parked car on Broadway blasting the news, and got a better picture, but without any indication of how long the blackout would last.

So I walked back to the hotel where I was to be parked for the night, but I was not in the mood to climb several flights of stairs to a hot room with nothing to do.  So I chatted with some of my fellow guests, basically fastening onto three lovely Hispanic ladies from Miami—a mother and her two daughters.  There was a free supply of bottled water in the lobby.

As the prospect of sunset appeared on the horizon, I had to figure out what to do with myself besides think.  Reading Kenzaburo Oe now was out of the question.    So I said to the ladies: I guess I should listen to music in the dark.  So I climbed the stairs to my room.  As I had lost 30 pounds to date this summer, it was a very easy thing to do without hurting my joints. 

So I switched what I was carrying with what I wanted to have with me the rest of the evening, and trotted back downstairs.  My CD player was the answer, plus a towel to wipe off the gallons of sweat pouring off me in this 90-plus degree weather.  I began with St. Germain’s Tourist and started swinging my hips down the street.  At this point, I just had to laugh about everything, as personal helplessness had graduated to cosmic helplessness.

Some stores were still doing business, without any price-gouging.  By the time I started looking, there was not a flashlight to be bought in the neighborhood.  And I didn’t even bother listening to the radio.  Instead, I bopped down the street listening to music, laughing.

I returned to the hotel lobby, found my ladies.  By that time I finished off just about all the little snacks I had brought from home.  I had no interest in eating a real meal.  As I write this in my notebook, I have not eaten a meal since very early yesterday morning.  (I’ll return to this point later on.)

The ladies and I learned of a supermarket on Amsterdam Avenue which was still open at night for all to buy what they need including candles and matches.   It was dark outside by now.

But people were out on the street.  There were un-uniformed individuals—possibly civilians—directing traffic at various street corners before the police arrived to do so.  A lot of people were lined up outside bars doing their business on the street.

New Yorkers are wonderful.

One store owner gave me one of his small burning candles and a book of matches for free.  But I continued on to the supermarket.  The store workers had to guide people indoors with flashlights, after letting them in individually.  Customers were allowed to buy two candles apiece, plus whatever other groceries and other items they wanted. 

The only suitable candles were Jewish Yahrzeit candles—which you light in memory of your dead loved ones.  I did not consider any symbolic significance of this purchase until several hours later.  My sole consideration at this moment was that these little white candles in their individual glass containers marked with Hebrew letters burned very bright and long.

There wasn’t much more for me to do once it was pitch-black but for me to return yet again to my hotel near Central Park. Before I had left on this last occasion, I stood outside and pondered aloud: I wonder if we’ll see stars in Manhattan tonight—and laughed.

But this time I sat in the lobby with my bundles and switched between grooving to the music and finally to the radio for news—the mayor’s announcement and the prospects for the return of power—occasionally blabbing out loud the most significant news to the ladies nearby. 

After one such news report, I returned to St. Germain’s delicious sampling of John Lee Hooker: “. . . that ain’t right . . . that ain’t right”, swinging my head from left to right and back again and again, allowing myself to feel real music for the first time in nearly four weeks.  Mm mm mmmm.

Some people marched up the stairs to retire to their rooms with flashlights or candles.  Others planted themselves in the lobby, some of these intent on spending the night there. 

I lost track of time, but I remained seated in the lobby for a long time.  The radio chat did not include the time, so I didn’t know where I was by the clock.

After I don’t know how long, I finally decided to climb up to my room, accompanying a group of young folks with flashlights up to my floor.  One of the kids assisted me all the way to my room, and inside, until I could light a candle.

It was hot but not too hot sans air conditioning but with the windows open.  I wasn’t sleepy.  I had enough adrenalin circulating to keep myself going all night.

8.  William Blake was always my role model and consolation in times of trouble.  Religious people understand him the least, his mysticism notwithstanding.   The whole point of religion is for people to be fascinated by knowledge they resist.  Blake, you see, had the deepest insight into the hidden motivations of human beings, virtually without parallel in history, and knew what it was to survive brutality, keeping intact his confidence to understand without being understood.  He never wavered in his joyous confidence in his work, which is to say, his mind.  (“We eat little we drink less / This Earth breeds not our happiness")

9.  I had several hours to think in the dark considering everything from a variety of angles.  This I did.

But then, when I listened to music again, another world opened up.  Minnie Riperton’s “Living on the Edge of a Dream” turned me around.  Suddenly I was freed from all fear, screaming joyously into the universe.  My imagination supplemented what I heard with my own mental orchestration, as if John Coltrane and the female vocals were now blending into one performance.  So, with my CD player playing and earphones on my head I danced around for hours in my hotel bedroom, occasionally colliding with the walls in the dark.  If you could hear what I hear, see what I see, know what I know, imagine what I imagine . . . .

10.  It was obvious that we would not get power back before dawn.  I’m pretty sure I stayed up till around 6 am, and I don’t think I caught more than an hour of sleep.  I do remember when the lights flashed on: the newspaper would be able to record the time; I could not.  I went back to bed if not to sleep, and I don’t think I joined the world until 7:30.  In any event, I finally had the chance to recharge my cell phone.

I had not slept for most of 24 hours, had not eaten an actual meal for 24 hours, but aside from some discomfort—maybe congestion or something—I was raring to go, except that I must have hurt my Achilles tendon, perhaps by jaunting up the stairs, as now I could barely walk.   The electricity was back, but I still could not shower, yet I had to rejoin the world and make some arrangements.

Finally, I limped out into the sunshine.  I decided to take my breakfast at my favorite little Cuban restaurant in the neighborhood, Café con Leche.  Jim and I loved to eat there.  Today was unusual: the place was packed.

And now that I’ve had my spinach omelet and plantains, paid my check, and finished writing this down, I’m gone.

YAHRZEIT

11.  I didn’t like the idea of candle smoke, and once I was settled, I blew out the candle and spent most of the night in the dark—listening to music and dancing as I have described—though I relit the candle once or twice.  After some hours I finally began to reflect on the fact that this was a Yahrzeit candle—a memorial for a deceased loved one—burning at the very moment I was contemplating the violation of the very basis of the work Jim and I had done all these years.  However, this is not to idealize Jim.  In fact, it was my ruthless objectivity he most admired and craved.  In all living human beings there is a discrepancy between their inner conceptions of who they are and their effective tangible relationships with the outside world.  As Jim’s fatal flaw was different from my own, I spotted his, about which I will say little, except that it was a product of his personal history and the very class origins against which he rebelled.  He loved all my insights while stubbornly disregarding them in practice. 

But it was this transparency and objectivity that gave him something he could not get from the other people around him, even while enthusiastically engaging so many of them on a personal level as I never could have, given my austere disengagement from other people’s pathologies.

Jim had a different characterization of what this was all about.  From time to time he would say to me: “But Ralph, you’re the idealist.  I’ve never met anyone like you.   I’m actually much more cynical than you’ll ever be.  You have such high expectations of humanity and always get angry when you are disappointed.  But I expect nothing.”

Jim’s orientation gave him tremendous flexibility in relating to all kinds of people, up to the point of maintaining friendships with people he neither trusted nor respected.  As I admonished him repeatedly, I considered this a personal weakness, a lack of self-discipline and an inability to maintain proper boundaries.  I’ve learned also much more about how people’s weaknesses feed off one another.  What we shared uniquely between us notwithstanding our differences—the inner perspective of our work opposed to our external relationship with the world—was the source of our mental strength, but it’s also what sank us both.

To gloss what I have just written, you must understand that academia is utterly useless.  The left is even more useless.

12.  Jim’s favorite saying was: people always act in character.  This is true of me as it was of him, and his last week on earth bears this out.  In one of the last three phone conversations we had in the days before his death—he in New York, I in DC—Jim had become so weak he had lost his will, though not his stubbornness.  He said to me: “Ralph, I’m so dependent on you.  I’m isolated here.  I realize I have no friends in New York.”  This was not so.  Some of his most important friends in New York were his most recent, including people helping to take care of him.  As usual, Jim acted in character: he completely ignored my insistent admonition that he get himself to the closest hospital emergency room immediately, and in a subsequent communication protested against my scolding him for taking risks with his life, twisting my words into a justification for doing just the opposite.  I was enraged as always with his self-destructive behavior.

13.  Jim’s last phone call to me was Saturday night, July 19, as I sat outside a café near the Library of Congress.  His speech was so slow and so weak as if he barely had the strength to talk.  Yet he insisted that he was doing much better.  I could think of nothing to say, except to remind him I wasn’t going to repeat my advice but he knows what it is.  I was too exasperated to argue.  I just sat there and listened to him eke out his final words to me.

He did not respond to my phone message on Sunday.  I should have been more persistent; I should have nagged him relentlessly in hopes of chipping away at his stubbornness.  But, acting in character, I threw up my hands, having reached an impasse.

Jim was found in a coma Monday morning, rushed to the hospital, and died that evening.

14.  As I write this, I am in my hotel bed, trying to ease the pain of my inflamed Achilles tendon.  This is all that can be said for public consumption.  Yet many will resist this account, as their whole lives are dedicated to the rejection of truths which defy the institutions they rely upon, upon which they depend psychologically as well as materially,  through which they live and breathe.

But I know, and I want you to know that I know.  I’m not fooled for a minute.  There’s a sweetness in this beyond what you can imagine.

1:45 pm EDT
Friday 15 August 2003

Transcribed & edited 6 September 2003
Edited & uploaded 21 July 2004

©2003, 2004 Ralph Dumain. All rights reserved. Republication in any form forbidden.

In memoriam: Jim Murray, Director, The C.L.R. James Institute, April 10, 1949 - July 21, 2003


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Uploaded 21 July 2004

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