Economic and technological appearances to the contrary, American civilization is in its twilight phase, rapidly approaching a point of social and cultural bankruptcy. The gap between rich and poor has never been greater; our long-term ability to pay for basic social programs is increasingly in question; the level of ignorance and functional illiteracy in this country is so low as to render us something of an international joke; and the takeover of our spiritual life by McWorld—corporate/consumer values—is nearly complete.
As Marshall McLuhan once pointed out, if you could ask a fish what was the most obvious feature of its environment, probably the last thing it would say would be “water.” If you swim in it all the time, you just don’t notice it; this is how any culture functions. What is crucial, of course, is the nature of the water. In the case of the United States, the “water” is corporate consumerism.
If literature survives at all, it is as a retreat for those who refuse to assimilate to American mass culture.
When I say, then, that I am optimistic about contemporary “monastic” possibilities, it represents no more than an educated guess on my part, and maybe it is just wishful thinking; history remains a strange and unpredictable creature. But this much I do know: If we make no attempt to preserve the best in our culture, we can rest assured that the possibility of cultural renewal is pretty much ruled out.
The more individual the activity is, and the more out of the public eye, the more effective it is likely to be in the long run. Not that like-minded souls shouldn’t make connections, but the key is to keep these links informal.
Most of those who claim to oppose the world of corporate sci-tech consumerism will themselves become commodities, making the round of the talk shows and selling “soul” or “green earth” or “total health” as the latest commercial fad. Their ideas will become slogans on T-shirts; they will become the trendy spearheads of the latest form of “liberation,” soon to be forgotten for the next fad on the horizon.
Craftsmanship should apply to all of life, and since its core value is the work itself—the very opposite of the purpose of American corporate consumerism—those genuinely committed to the monastic option need to stay out of the public eye; to do their work quietly, and deliberately avoid media attention. Indeed, a Taoist rule of thumb might be that if the larger culture knows about it, then it’s not the real thing.
You and I can lead the “monastic” life, and we can start to do it right now. And don’t worry about being marginalized; this is good. As Don DeLillo says, in a culture such as ours, the writer, for example, is likely to be more significant for being marginal. “In the end,” he suggests, “writers will write not to be outlaw heroes of some underculture but mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals.” The same can be said of all monastic activities, and of the people who engage in them.