The Prisoner:

An excerpt from the epistolary work,
Letters from Paris

by Rob Couteau

Published in:
Cadillac Cicatrix
, winter 2008. (CA: Carmel Valley)


To Robert S[-], a researcher specializing in primate behavior; Stanford, California

Bellport, NY 11713

October 10, 2001

Dear Robert,

You asked about the local reaction to September 11.

This is a small, seemingly idyllic town. Remember the TV series, The Prisoner, starring Patrick McGoohan?* The protagonist inhabited a similar setting: a quaint perfectly proportionate utopian village. Yet, in its utopian splendor–which left no room for the richness of disorder and dissent–there roosted a dystopian horror. One of banal perfection, of soulless predictability, which drove the prisoner mad. The series chronicled his attempt to escape from this “perfection.”

When I’m asked about Bellport, I reply that it’s a concentration camp shaped like a dollhouse.

I’m accustomed to big cities that host innumerable cafés and a variegated nightlife. But there’s only one café here, which closes at 9 p.m. (and at 7 p.m. in the winter!). And this café is a refuge. For the other prisoners–the youth of Bellport–gather there.

These are discontented teenagers, and I find their discontent appealing. Whenever I go there–with my scribbled over manuscripts and books–they gather round. Since I’m unlike the other villagers, they trust me. (Perhaps, I’m the only adult who regards them with respect.)

What makes me optimistic about the future is that they know which way the wind blows. They’re aware of the corruption that rules the politicians, corporations, and power structures.

Yet these kids are nonexistent as far as the major media is concerned. The mainstream media doesn’t want us to realize things are changing or that there are voices of dissent. Or that there are Americans who are more informed than the average American is supposed to be.

When this catastrophe occurred, I went to the café to see how they were taking it. The sadness in the air was palpable. I recalled the Kennedy assassination: how everything halted; how we were united in deep rapport, through this tragedy.

Many here have experienced personal loss as a result of 9/11. My sister teaches a class that has three boys who lost fathers who were firemen. And we lost a cousin, who left behind twin daughters (only two years old).

I visited the café for days after that, and I spoke with the locals who gathered there. This is a peculiar town, with too many flags flying all over, and right-wingers who wear their patriotism on their lapels. Yet, while listening to their conversations, I’d occasionally interject a remark, and I was surprised because nothing I said shocked them.

For example, I’d say: “These are the chickens coming home to roost. Our own experts in terror, mayhem, and chaos–the CIA–organized and directed the terrorists in their fight against the Russians. Afterward, they dumped them somewhere along the way. Now, they’re returning to haunt us.”

And these men–who looked like Republicans down to their fingernails–agreed with everything I said. Instead of tarring and feathering me, they nodded their heads and supplemented my analysis with their own relevant observations.

They also realized which way the wind blew.

A silver lining often shines in an otherwise somber cloud. I don’t know how bright or silvery this particular lining may be. But in our country, we’ve reached a pitiful state of depoliticization in which we’re supposed to go about our business, pay our bills, and live like apolitical God-fearing members of the Prisoner Community, never considering the harsh realities that exist elsewhere in the world. With this disaster, however, that can no longer continue.

The Middle East is ruled by brutal, iron-fisted dictators. There’s an extreme divide between the ultrarich and those suffering from abject poverty. No one approaches the disenfranchised with any lucky cards, opportunities, or possibilities. So, is it any wonder that they’re manipulated by such terrorists and sinister beasts?

The fact that the West has consistently ignored these impoverished citizens and has sided with the oppressors and monsters is beginning to dawn even upon us, the apolitical Americans.

Recently, there was a Canadian feminist who provoked a storm of controversy, because she said the U.S. has a bloodthirsty foreign policy. Although her timing was in bad taste, she was perfectly correct in her conclusion. Over the years, America has participated in assassination, terror, and genocide. It’s no secret: it’s part of the official CIA record. The only mystery is why so many accept, ignore, or remain disinterested in these horrific acts.

 

My initial reaction was: this marks the end of an era. It’s the beginning of a new chapter in history. Public space will no longer be managed in the same way. We’ll no longer be allowed to remain anonymous. As in 1984, there’ll be a monitor on every street.

Here, it’s already occurred. Surveillance cameras are sprouting everywhere. This reminds me of a story by Ray Bradbury, in which a man is arrested for walking on the street at night. Because in the future, no one does that. It’s a future of stay-at-home couch potatoes.

As an adolescent, I read Bradbury’s stories with enthusiasm. I assumed he was making a critique of totalitarianism in America. (It was the 1970s, when Tricky Dick was president, and many feared such trends.) But when I interviewed him twenty years later, he denied that totalitarian strains even exist in America: “No. Of course not. Never have been. We’re a free society; we’ve got television. We have radio. We have newspapers.”*

Yet, I doubt the future will be any bleaker than the past. The conservative tendencies of yesteryear–the disciplinarian schools; the mind-numbing cultural biases–are dying. And look at fathers today. In our generation, there are fathers who are real mentors to their children. In many Western families, these are the first authentic fathers that have appeared in a long time. Fathers have stepped down from the trees and have begun to act human.

In the last few centuries, there’s been a liberalizing trend. Ultimately, this cannot be reversed. Islamic fundamentalism represents a final but futile offensive against this progressive tendency.

 

Stephen Hawking recently said there’s a vast gap between the “back brain,” with its base desires and murderous instincts, and the advances of the “front brain,” exemplified by rapid technological progress. He claimed that ethics hasn’t advanced to the same level as technology.

I don’t believe this is entirely true. There have been significant advances in consciousness. (Whether Western science acknowledges them is a separate problem.)

The real danger is the one posed by our world religions. For they rarely have anything to do with authentic spiritual experience. Instead, they’re related to the base desires of the back brain. And the symbolism lurking behind many contemporary events reflects the dangers of these organizations.

Several days after September 11, these lines from Blake resonated in my mind: “Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion.”* Indeed, religions turn the world into a whorehouse. And not the romantic version of a “best little whorehouse in Texas” kind of whorehouse. But instead a sad, lonesome, desolate sort of brothel.

Bear in mind: when I speak of organized religion, I’m not referring to a direct, gnostic experience. For example, when you follow your creative spirit and lunch with your baboons, or when I paint a ray of light as it dances on the rosy breast of a young maiden, this represents an authentic spiritual encounter (wonder). But when your students attempt to organize this wondrous event into an eating-lunch-with-baboons cult, it results in a meaningless organized “religion.” It’s merely society’s attempt to create something that only an individual, dipping his toes directly into the eternal life stream, can experience.

Ego-consciousness is finite, limited, ephemeral. We can go only where our bodies take us; our physical form is a fixed point that we call the ego. It defines our limitations in three-dimensional space and time.

Yet when we truly enter into life, we touch something beyond these limits.

It’s a mistake, however, to categorize this experience of wonder any further. When confronted by evangelicalism, fanaticism, or just plain preachin’, I quote the old Jewish proverb: “The man who speaks the most of God is furthest away from him, just as the man who speaks the least of God is closest to him.” Or as Lao Tsu remarks,  “The Tao that is spoken is not the true Tao.” (I don’t believe in a personal God, but I’m open to Lao Tsu’s notion of an energetic “way.”)

If there’s a lesson the world’s religions can teach us, it’s that we embody something powerful–even godlike–and therefore quite dangerous.

If there’s anything divine in life, then surely we partake of it. But in this dualistic world, we also partake of evil: of satanic lust for power. That, too, is a lesson the fundamentalists–who remain in spiritual kindergarten–have yet to comprehend.

For instead of taking responsibility for the godlike evil within them, they project it outward–and obsess about evil in others. They even encourage this unconscious projection. And that’s where the trouble begins.

But if we consciously confront our inherent duality, we no longer require leaders or scapegoats. Rather, we search for what renders us truly alive: a creative act that leads to full participation in life. (Then we can approach death in peace, knowing that we gave to life that which it demands.)

 

Americans continue to harbor the dream of creating a utopia. But how can this occur when the world is shrouded in an atmosphere of misery, pain, suffering, injustice? It’s like ancient Rome, where a third of the population remained enslaved. One cannot have that many slaves without encountering at every twist and turn an enslaved ethic, an enslaved value system, an enslaved morality–an enslaved heart, mind, and soul hovering behind every nonenslaved heart, mind, and soul.

There’s a great sadness in the world today. It’s felt everywhere. Much of it stems from this enslavement.*

We must yearn for utopia. How else can we alter the painful nature of existence if we don’t dream of changing it? Yet this change cannot be truly utopian unless it’s all-inclusive. It can’t be merely material, either. It must include real values–creative values. And this is possible only if it’s coupled with economic opportunity. But today, such opportunities exist for just a few.

Perhaps, these insights will eventually dawn on the collective consciousness.

RC

____________________
* The Prisoner, a popular British television series from the 1960s.

* From RC’s interview with Ray Bradbury, “The Romance of Places,” Conversations with Ray Bradbury, ed. Steven L. Aggelis (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2004), p. 128. The piece is also featured in Collected Couteau.

* From “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” by William Blake.

* “The slave and his psychology flooded ancient Italy, and every Roman became inwardly a slave. […] The explosive spread of Christianity […] was a sudden reaction that set the soul of the lowest slave on a par with that of the divine Caesar. Similar though perhaps less momentous processes of psychological compensation have repeatedly occurred in the history of the world. Whenever some social or psychological monstrosity is created, a compensation comes along in defiance of all legislation and all expectation.” Carl Jung, Civilization in Transition, trans. R.F.C. Hull (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978), p. 121, para. 249-250. “The fact that an incredibly large proportion of the people languished in the black misery of slavery is no doubt one of the main causes of the singular melancholy that reigned all through the time of the Caesars.” Carl Jung, Symbols of Transformation, trans. R.F.C. Hull (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), p. 71, ft. 59.



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