Writers and rebels, earnest young activists, starry-eyed romantics and unrequited lovers all have one thing in common: They yearn. Yearning, untempered by reason and humor, is pathological, the author of many unnecessary tragedies and many lonely, painful lives. But reason, and even humor, untempered by yearning is empty and often cruel, the stuff of a heartless and oppressive existence. Yearning is pain, but its absence is not pleasure; it’s absence is soullessness.
The early 20th century German sociologist Max Weber wrote much about the rationalization of society, its evolutionary force, its greater efficiencies, but also the trap that it sets for us. It is, Weber said, an iron cage, from which we cannot escape. Like the people caught in the cogs of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, or the savage trapped in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, or McMurphy lobotomized as he flew over Ken Kesey’s cuckoo’s nest, the machine of society eats us alive.
But these all emphasize how that oppressive force is imposed from without, at most glancingly alluding to the way in which it is accepted from within. The Frankfurt School of Sociology, synthesizing Weber, Marx and Freud, and perhaps a touch of Sartre as well, into something richer and more insightful than any of their paradigms were on their own, came closest to focusing on this dynamic, on this internalization of the seductively oppressive machine which envelopes us. But, if anything, they erred by underestimating its real benefits, and the difficulty of preserving those benefits while minimizing its spiritual costs.
The machine is neither bad nor good in and of itself. It is a robust producer of wealth, in ways that evaporate if that machine is dismantled. But without spiritual and emotional yearning to give that machine its soul, the comfort it offers is the comfort of a living death.
Long before authors and philosophers shined their light on the machine which encompasses us, they shined their light on the poetry of our existence. Humanity’s first epic stories, indeed, our first philosophies, were epic poems, with loving and angry gods favoring and disfavoring our struggling heroes, magic and monsters enchanting and challenging them, glory or horrible failure always in the balance, neither certain, either one possible.
The Hercules we’ve forgotten in our Disneyfied distillation of world folklore and mythology was a violent hot-head who murdered his entire family in a fit of divinely-imposed rage and died in horrible agony by donning a poisoned cloak. And yet he was one of the greatest heroes of Greek mythology. Heroes before the machine weren’t sanitized human beings who we loved because we wrote them without flaws, but rather were yearning human beings trapped in the passions of existence, who we loved despite their flaws.
This classical humanism, celebrating the complex beauty of human existence, was reborn in the Renaissance, after Europe’s Medieval excursion into a world imaginarily reduced to saints and sinners, nobles and peasants, chivalrous knights and infidel villains. Shakespeare knew that all the world’s a stage, and we but actors upon it. He knew that we were just spirits, and that our cloud-capped towers, gorgeous palaces, and solemn temples all appear and disappear in a dance of our creation and time’s destruction.
Of course, in every time and place there is, in reality, a bit of both forces at work, the forces of repression and the forces of liberation, the former sometimes co-opting the latter’s name (as in our own current time and place). There are always those engaged in the dance of consciousness and aspiration, and always those engaged in the implicit opposition to it. But a time and place, a culture, is defined by the balance among these two, by which is more honored and which is more reviled.
The real project of modernity, the real goal of progress, is not to honor one and revile the other, but rather to appreciate the value of each, and the best ways to articulate the two. Strange as it may sound, repression isn’t all bad and poetry isn’t all good, but, though we don’t understand that, we still manage to err on the side of too much repression and too little poetry.
I contrast “repression” with “poetry” rather than “liberty” because liberty, real liberty, is a function of a blend of repression and poetry, not the complete absence of either. I am not now using the word “liberty” in the narrow political sense born of the late 18th century Enlightenment era political revolutions, but rather in the sense of the liberation of the human spirit from the shackles that we impose on it. Ironically, that narrowly defined political “liberty” has evolved into an ideology which stands largely in opposition to that more profound spiritual liberation, a vehicle of spiritual repression rather than of spiritual liberation, negating what should and could be the ultimate goal of our existence, insisting on the contraction of human consciousness and the dominance of extreme individualism rather than the ever-increasing realization of our humanity.
But that subtler, deeper liberation of the human spirit, something accomplished not just in mutual isolation, nor just in concert, but rather a bit of both, requires both the repression of mutually imposed discipline and responsibility, and the poetry of passionate yearning and a tolerant appreciation of one another’s humanity.
Though our prevalent ideology rhetorically dismisses repression as an unmitigated evil, it actually embraces it in practice as an unmitigated good, for we live in a time and place that smirks at the poetry of life, and believes only in the machine. There are those who think they oppose the machine by opposing the government, but the two are far from synonymous, government sometimes counterbalancing other parts of the machine in ways which reduce its oppressiveness. There are those who think they oppose the machine by opposing corporate capitalism, but those two, as well, are far from synonymous, corporate capitalism being a vital part of the drama of life, and the government we invoke to oppose it really not all that poetic itself.
And there are those who think they oppose the machine by belonging to enterprises, often nonprofits, that work toward reform, but, unless their minds liberate themselves from the machine as well, unless they appreciate the value of yearning and the poetry of life, they, too, are trying to change the machine by being the machine, and the changes, though they may be beneficial, will not be revolutionary.
But to the extent that all of these sectors do comprise aspects of the machine, that does not mean that our duty is to oppose them. Our duty, rather, is to make them all more subservient to our souls, to our poetry, to our spiritual and emotional yearnings. We do not cure the machine by being the machine; we do not humanize one part merely by championing an equally dehumanized counterpart. And to do that, to champion more poetry to invigorate and humanize the machine on which we depend and which we should not strive to discard or dismantle, we need to be conscious of the ways in which our current algorithms, our current methodologies, serve efficiency at the expense of imagination, and, by doing so, actually reduce efficiency in the process.
The poetry of life isn’t just a necessary component of our humanity; it’s also a contributing factor to our efficiency and effectiveness. Weber’s iron cage of rationality presupposed that ever-increasing rationality, in the sense of an ever-more machine-like existence, is an unstoppable evolutionary force because it produces ever-increasing efficiency, but we’ve seen much evidence that there is a point of diminishing returns, a point at which more liberation of human imaginations yields more productive outcomes, and too much regimentation diminishes rather than increases the full realization of even our narrow economic potential, let alone our human potential more broadly conceived.
We waste our valuable human resources, our valuable consciousness, by assigning only those who satisfy our check lists of qualifications to the tasks to which those checklists apply, and relegating those who are less well regimented to the margins of society, where their often extraordinary potential is simply wasted, and their lives unfulfilled. Businesses and nonprofits, enterprises of all sorts, need to look beyond their checklists, need to look beyond the machine of which they are a part, and consider the less easily reducible qualities that some could bring to their endeavors. The gains in productivity and creativity would be enormous.
The poetry of life is a value too little considered, too poorly understood, too infrequently invoked and cultivated. It cannot replace the machine, for poetry does not put food on the table. But the machine cannot replace it, for mere economic production does not satisfy the yearnings of the heart and soul. Nor does economic production achieve maximum efficiency when the poetry of our lives is completely disregarded, for that poetry, that imaginative, yearning, passionate aspect of who and what we are, is a creative force, one which has practical implications and benefits when harnessed to that purpose.
We do not exist merely to exist. Our consciousness allows us to pursue purpose, and that purpose can and should be more than mere prosperity, mere political liberty, mere participation in the rationalized mechanisms of our collective existence. The growth of our consciousness, of our compassion, of our wisdom, and of our ability to take care of one another and offer one another opportunities to yearn meaningfully and functionally, to sustain ourselves both materially and emotionally, to discover the full depth and breadth of our humanity, is something truly worth living for.