a review of
The Scarlet Q: Anarchy, Religion, and the Cult of Science, Michael Ziesing, Lysander Spooner Publishers, 1990, Willimantic CT, 140 pp., $7.50.
The writings collected in this book are the fruit of Ziesing’s ten year association with the anarchist journal Instead of a Magazine. Like the tone of the running, often somersaulting, dialogue which that publication consistently maintained, these essays are written with a combination of surface tension and lightness of touch which makes them challenging yet readily accessible.
For Ziesing, anarchy is a philosophy of “infinite confrontation” where “we are absolutely bound to confront ourselves.” It is an inward as well as an outward journey which crosses, crisscrosses and then re-crosses the borders and boundaries which have been imposed, superimposed and frequently self-imposed on the mind as well as on the map. And because it is experiential, it also partakes of the emotional inconsistencies, the intellectual contradictions and the spiritual compromises which are woven into the fabric of human existence.
Ziesing is not afraid of having loose ends. He realizes they too are integral in holding life together. “Anarchy is not something to hide behind,” he writes, as a reflection of how he has lived. Ziesing is looking, but not for “The Truth.” As his work demonstrates, he has set his sights higher than that.
In the first half of the book Ziesing takes up how religion and science relate to anarchist thought. In a sense, he plays the devil’s advocate by proposing that some of the Christian heresies, such as those embodied in antinomian sects like the Ranters and Gnostics, can be viewed from an anarchist perspective as role models. He contends that religions, and those philosophies which shade into religion, Christianity, Taoism, Buddhism and Zen, need not be necessarily authoritarian, and by ignoring these religiously-based groups and communities, anarchists are overlooking a valuable source of inspiration and practical information.
Within this context he disputes the traditional outlook, exemplified by 19th century anarchists Mikhail Bakunin and Johann Most, which holds atheism to be the only stance consistent with anarchist principles while simultaneously adhering to a faith in the necessarily liberating nature of reason.
Ziesing takes his turn excoriating irrational faith in reason and science with an indignation similar in spirit to the attacks Bakunin and Most launched against religion. And, no wonder. For Bakunin and Most it was, to borrow Francisco de Goya’s formulation, the sleep of reason which produced monsters, but today it is the dreams of reason which have turned into our waking nightmares.
Jesus Without A Navel
One facet of this change which Ziesing mentions without drawing out its full implications is that reason too can be viewed as a heretical offshoot of Christianity, albeit a more successful one. That the scientific mentality culminated from the habits of mind inculcated by theological disputation is a lineage science has sought to deny since it would mean that reason is not the opposite of the irrational but simply another of its manifestations. However, unlike those paintings which show Jesus without a navel, reason has been unable to expunge all traces of the umbilical cord through which it was nourished as it gestated within the womb of Christianity.
Ziesing’s meditation on Taoism enables him to revise his view of science and suggest it is not preordained that science itself must necessarily develop along authoritarian lines. Elucidating the connections between Taoist practice and anarchism, Ziesing notes that the first Taoists can be considered to have been some of the earliest scientists because they sought to understand the unity of nature, and the reality which was masked by appearances. Thus, does he bring reason and science back into the circle of inclusion.
There is an interesting dynamic which runs through these essays. Ziesing, as I have noted, upholds the primacy of lived experience and the subject reality which develops from it. At one point, he approvingly cites William James’ pragmatic theory of truth, interpreting it as, “If it works, adds meaning to my life, makes me feel better, then it is true.” His approach is echoed in William Blake’s assertion that people must develop their own world views or end up being trapped in one created for them. Blake was considered insane for insisting the earth was flat, a perception grounded in his direct relationship to it. By refusing to concede there was a disparity between his direct apprehension of the world and the way things really are, he undercut the power of the priesthoodwinkers and experts who clamor to mediate perception.
Counterpoised to this is the Taoist recognition of a deeper reality beneath the fleeting panoply that is a fundamental axiom of science. Playing off against each other, these two contrasting strains resonate through Ziesing’s writings. His words stretch like a skin across the shell of a conundrum. Yet, for Ziesing, the Taoist appeal is not simply theoretical. Later in the book, in a piece called “The Well Dressed Anarchist,” Ziesing recounts an encounter which took place at the 1986 anarchist gathering in Chicago.
Anarchist Uniform of the Day
He was wearing some hand-me-down clothes which were, nonetheless, nicer than the usual anarchist uniform of the day and, “A person who I met a few months before when I was wearing different clothes (and also had a beard) came up to me and did a ‘people like you’ number on me.” When the person realized that Ziesing was the same “‘outsider’ he had met and even corresponded with earlier, he did manage an apology.” As is recorded in the Tao Te Ching: “Knowing others is wisdom/ Knowing the self is enlightenment.”
In the rest of the book, some dozen essays, Ziesing travels from Northern Ireland, where there is “one machine-gun-toting security force member for every 50 people,” to the gravesite of a friend who died behind the bars of Somers Maximum Security Prison with the cause of death listed on the certificate as “under investigation,” and from the sense of alienation a “middle aged anarchist” sometimes feels in a movement made up primarily of younger people, to the ecstatic dance floor of a hard-core punk concert where, “I am old enough to be most of these people’s father.”
These are travel pieces, but the destination is not as important as getting there. None of these essays claim to present the final word on their subject. None would want to. The three about Ireland, for example, offer no historic overview, no list of dates, no political background. “An American Anarchist in Ireland” begins simply, “We took the train from Dublin to Dundalk.” And why Dundalk? Because it was Sunday and pubs in Northern Ireland are closed on Sunday whereas Dundalk was the last stop in the Republic and, “We were interested in being in a place where the pubs were open.”
In “Bird Without Wings,” tenderness and outrage combine in a tribute to a man who Ziesing learned to know as “a poet, an artist, a practical jokester” after he had met him as a convicted felon. A man who “died suddenly and without warning at the age of 35 in a cage.” With nearly a million human beings buried alive behind bars in the U.S., Ziesing asks, “Who cries for our loss?” But even more, “Who knows that it is a loss?” Ziesing knows that answers are elusive, which is why he has tried to live the questions.
Available from: Lysander Spooner, P.O. Box 76, Singletown CA 96088; add $1.50 postage.