Poore Richard's Really Poore Almanack

The last two years worth of “hometown newspaper” columns from Dahlonega, Georgia
that led to Richard Van Ingram being banned from the only news and opinion organ in the county.

The Death of a Myth and Birth of the Lie
February 2006

And I don't know where I am now
Or where I'm gonna go
I just keep going round and round on the circle line
Like some demented kinda commuter
Trying to avoid paying for my ticket
I'm a lost soul
I read about myself in the newspapers
I'm a pig
I'm a thug
I've got nowhere to go but down
Pete Townsend
From "English Boy"

Hunter Thompson once wrote that the "myth of the road" was dead – the belief someone could hit the pavement in search of themselves, the American Dream, wisdom, adventure, pure and wild and high insanity. God. Yes, even the Beat Writers, the people most closely associated in contemporary times with the myth, have passed on into that mystery where the road runs in one direction, namely Away From Here. Names like Kerouac, Ginsburg, Burroughs no longer have earthly addresses; and, besides that, they wouldn’t be getting much mail these days anyway.

We are far too moral for the folks who tried to walk the path of myth – it’s a crooked path that leads through the flesh tearing thorns of life, it leads unto temptations, it baptizes in filth and degradation and misery; in the end, it sets one firmly and face to face with the Devil who, it just so happens, looks just like oneself.

The path is narrow enough, hellish enough, but we all know about the "crooked way" and them that follow it – it is the way of sin, the way of craziness, and to walk it a person has to step out of line and follow the motive that killed the cat: curiosity.

Curiosity is not the commodity of the day. We spend a nice sum of money each year, evidently, for the public school system to wring curiosity right out of a child. Yes, there are teachers resisting this who still insist on encouraging such quaint "virtues" as curiosity, but we are replacing them with computers and standardized tests; very soon, a child will never even have to know how to ask a question – she will just memorize the answers. And for that a teacher is a superfluity.

Curiosity is a poison – it leads to doubt; it leads to a search; it leads to experimentation; it leads to experience. Yes, it could lead to self-destruction; but it can also lead to that strange state of being called "heroism" in which the afflicted manages to stand out from the crowd and radiate an example that will only anger and depress those without the desire to improve.

A person without curiosity and without need for adventures or appreciation for adventurers is someone who lacks a direction of his own. Such people lack even the capacity to imagine a direction other than the one they are provided and can hardly even imagine that they’re being given directions – or if it does occur to them to notice, they either accept it as inevitable and unavoidable, "the way things have always been," or, accepting it, they fantasize, one day, they will be the one to hand out orders.

And the people who hand out directions hand out the directions that have always been handed out; they do not question the rightness of the rules, their justice; whether they might be improved or not – that would require curiosity, audacity, imagination, artistic ability, genuine experience, and the last thing we want are these terrible things infecting our citizens.

All directions by authorities are moral by definition. In our age, rules are moral, all of them, even if they are inconsistent. "Give an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay" we tell the worker. "The sole object of business is to make money and workers are the highest expense – minimize labor’s pay if you want to maximize profits" – that’s the one we tell management. Of course, this situation gives birth to a lie: we’re all in this together, workers and managers, and everyone is financially getting what they deserve.

But it’s OK, we’re all comfortable with this because we’ve had the curiosity pressed out of us; to question the situation would mean stepping out of line and up a crooked trail that leads only to immoral questions, family trouble, black marks on your permanent record, discontent with what one has been blessed to receive, pessimism, the advent of Armageddon – in short, sin.

It will also lead to unemployment and unemployability. You don’t play by the rules (surprise, surprise, surprise), you don’t benefit from the system that the rules exist to support.

But that’s an example of a fairly minor lie. Our society seems held together by more than one, by more than one set of entirely inconsistent pair of rules – which are moral, too, remember. "You must trust your leaders, they will always do the right thing" versus "You’re in power now, and if doing the wrong thing gets the job done, feel free to go at it that way." "Quality is our goal in all things" versus "Mass production is our way." "Everyone has a right to life" versus "No one has a right to insurance, food, shelter, clothing, or an education and a job." "Love thy neighbor as thyself" versus "If you think real hard you can come up with all sorts of reasons why people you don’t like aren’t your neighbor."

And so on.

To follow the mythic route means begging for trouble. But it also means suppressing any real fear of trouble that might gnaw at your soul, waking or sleeping. Why? The poison is in you and is causing you to look around and see that the rules might make no sense and those enforcing them may not really know what they are doing. "Normalcy" may look as false and badly rigged as a game of Three Card Monte run by a sloppy con artist with ten felony convictions; he walks around with a ratty folder bearing his court records and proudly shows them off if you ask. A person who develops such cynicism needs to be caught and reeducated before they flee, looking for Something Better.

Yet, many take to the road anyway – or, at least, they used to. Our morality has put a high, barbed wire fence around the entrance; we have guards in machine gun nests; we have roaming rabid boars, wild-eyed and mad for flesh; we have minefields to disengage legs from bodies.

Mainly, we don’t encourage people to read beyond the level of grasping the alphabet, skimming a newspaper, and sitting in slack-jawed awe in front of a contract. We absolutely don’t educate our people to look at art or try to understand it beyond memorizing the Right Answer, which is: "If I like it, it’s good; if I don’t, it’s not." American Idol and Fear Factor are about as close as most Americans voluntarily get to art.

Philosophy? Forget it. Religion is enough, especially the kind where you say the magic formulae and don’t have to take a lot of personal responsibility for what you believe. Say what "God Says"; then anyone who disagrees with what you say can be accused of disagreeing with God, not you.

Consequently, most never see or try to understand the historical record of those terrible hellions who went on the road, physically or spiritually. They got tired of riding the train on its polished circular steel rail of rules, hopped off, and decided the dangerous trail into the unknown darkness was better than the well-lit, well-known, sleep inducing stations society had planned for them to visit repeatedly.

For most of these people, this was caused by an intense crisis of some sort and the choice to step out of line was followed by more turmoil. For many, their lives became tumultuous for reasons our 21st century moral perfection frowns upon – yes, there was drug use and abuse and problems with "sanity" for many and the writings of someone like a Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a Lord Byron, a Thomas Wolfe, a William S. Burroughs, a Charles Bukowski, a Hunter S. Thompson cannot be fully appreciated without making truce with these aspects of their existence.

But the first lesson to be learned on the outlaw trail is that one must develop the skill of tolerance if one is to see the value of and learn from those who went before. Everyone who even associates with outlaws has already committed grave sin, has at least one foot off the train pointed away from the monotonous circle toward change and questions and wonder and doubt; you already don’t fit in with most people and The Master Plan Which Has No Need For Your Input with which most are comfortable. You may as well be tolerant – you’ve no reason to feel superior to anyone else who stepped out of line before you.

But not everyone on the road is or was guilty of the sin of extreme drink and drug. Albert Camus, existentialist and atheist, was an existentialist and atheist because he loved the True and the Good while the "believers" of his time and place demonstrated they valued safety, lies, and injustice. William Faulkner was about as far up the outcast trail as a person could be, guilty of lacking the racial prejudices of his community and bearing witness to the struggle of being a human. Kathe Kollwitz was guilty of hating war and loving the lives of children and the poor. The last sane act of Friederich Nietzsche, for all his talk of the coming of the Overman and destruction of Christian "slave morality," was to stop a man from mercilessly beating a horse in the streets of Turin.

The mark of the outlaw can be found in all periods of history, at all levels where people went their own way and usually paid the price one way or another. So controversial were they, that the Bishop of Paris, banned the study of St. Thomas Aquinas’ works not long after Thomas’ death. As Umberto Eco once said, the Catholic Church, naming St. Thomas their official philosopher, was a little like a town naming its biggest arsonist fire chief.

St. Augustine, wrestling with the flesh and with the meaning of the Christ literally divorced himself from the world. The world, for him, only had meaning inasmuch as it revealed something of the Word and pointed away from itself to the Word.

The Epistle of St. James is a document that draws a sharp line between what is demanded of a follower of "The Way" and "the world," and what is expected is not "normal," comfortable-with-bowing-down-to-authority-and-money, behavior.

And, for the Christian, the archetypal outlaw is not Satan, but God deciding to do things no one would have expected, not playing by the rules: God the Son becomes a man, gives the example Himself of how to live The Law (which society always eventually replaces with following "rules" – rules are easier to memorize). He repeats and demonstrates the lessons of the great Jewish sages accenting the necessity of love in all things, and then, in payment for His troubles, allows Himself to be murdered in obedience to God the Father – to leave the final lesson, that one must serve the Good despite the consequences, whether there is any "positive payoff" or not, whether it leads to a life of ease or one of misery.

Not the idea most have of "salvation," but the one the Outlaw God seems to have left for us to ponder. To be freed from the real life of sin, which is a life lived unconsciously, as irrationally as a sleepwalker or a blacked out drunk – to be freed from that Hell and to choose to fully live as humans, we must awaken to our vocation to live authentically, rationally, with a sincere love. And love, for the ancients, was a strange thing – Plato called it a "divine madness." One in love appears insane to those whose hearts are cool.

"Intellectum valde ama," said St. Augustine: "Love the intellect intensely." At the core of our soul, in the tiny spark of our intellect we will find a reflection of the Divine Fire if we look, if we turn away from the brightly-lit world and go into the darkness where a small, live coal shines best and shows the way.

Yes, there have been many outside Christianity who followed the same trail or who, in fact, blazed it, each in their own unique way. My mind ranges from Socrates and the Stoics to the Prophets, back to Abraham and the sages of the East such as Zoroaster, and the great saints of the Far East and the pre-European Americas.

But we don’t like the crooked road and the dark unknown and the dis-ease that inevitably results when we do something unpopular and dangerous that may even make us poor, ruin our credit, or get us killed – or cause us to spend inordinate amounts of time worrying about the meaning and rightness of things no one cares about. But that’s OK. That’s why we have rules and regularity and that’s why the train runs on time here. That’s why there are four angels with flaming swords standing at the entrance to the road – to seal off that myth there’s a better state of being we should seek out. No need for us to worry. It’s not as if we’re going anywhere we aren’t supposed to go.





Richard Van Ingram
Copyright © 2007, All Rights Reserved