We don’t deserve Zozobra.
Through accident, ego, artifice, multiple cultural thefts and genuine art-party-fueled abandon, Santa Fe is home to probably the most basic, pagan, ritualistic event in the United States. Yet it is more ritualistic than ritual.
No doubt many individuals achieve some catharsis each year through the burning of their “gloom,” but for an event so public in its display, there is nothing collectively transformative about our participation.
I’m not much for ritual, to be honest, but a friend recently mentioned that this column came to mind as he was rereading Heinrich Zimmer’s The King and the Corpse. If Zane’s World may be summed up, he explained, it’s as an ongoing diatribe regarding our failure to achieve cultural and community transformation, something Zimmer describes as a repeated theme of parables and folktales.
No one likes to be pigeonholed, but my friend is right, of course.
Nothing has honed this fixation more in recent months than the national health care debate. It is beyond disheartening that we, as Americans, can indisputably desire and need something so much, yet allow meaningful change to be trampled by the bland arguments of our representatives and the influence of those who profit from our malaise. It’s an act of collective mental illness to vote for resounding change and then, as the pundits tell us is happening, swing radically away from enabling said change.
This is no less discernible a dilemma on the local level. Certainly the consequence of our vote and voice is more immediate, but our failure to embrace effective transformation is more tangible in our daily lives. Effective infill is hampered by absurd parking requirements. Economic development is undermined by petty power politics. Santa Fe County’s Land Use Department’s left hand opposes variances for development of the progressive Galisteo Basin Preserve even as its right hand develops a sustainable development code that aims to mandate the preserve’s plans (more on that issue in January). At the heart of all these issues is a fervent and fearful codependency with the status quo.
As Zimmer puts it in his introduction, titled “A Dilettante Among Symbols,” when we resist transformation because of our attachment to established systems, “[w]e forfeit our proper humility and open-mindedness before the unknown…And we attempt, instead, to classify…under heads and categories already known.”
He continues: “The method—or, rather, habit—of reducing the unfamiliar to the well-known is an old, old way to intellectual frustration. Sterilizing dogmatism is the result, tightly enwrapped in a mental self-satisfaction, a secure conviction of superiority.”
If any sentence has more aptly described what passes for political debate in this country (and community dialogue in Santa Fe), I don’t know of it.
On a local level, certainly we all can sympathize with the sense that some of the changes we have seen in the community have resulted in loss: the river, neighborhood cohesion, our once-quaint village. But how have we enacted—in the name of our memory of the past—a
resistance to strategies designed to recapture that loss?
“Such rigidities,” Zimmer writes, “can only bind us to what we already know and are…By such stern and constant faiths we cut ourselves off from the infinitudes of inspiration.”
Zimmer uses the fable of Abu Kasem’s slippers. The story is set in Baghdad (the setting of another situation we seem unable to change) and involves a wealthy, yet miserly merchant who is attached to his gruesomely dilapidated shoes. When asked why he does not find himself a fine new pair, he answers: “I have been considering the matter for many years; but they are really not so worn that I cannot use them.” Apply the metaphor of your choice here: health care, military spending, Santa Fe zoning laws, etc.
When we consign ourselves to Kasem’s lot—our resistance to change for the sake of resistance, under the guise of fearing the cost (which is not necessarily monetary)—we accept a ride in a dangerous carriage, all the while pretending that nothing is wrong.
Zimmer’s take: “There is nothing for it but to resign oneself, like Goethe’s Egmont, ‘to hold fast the reins and to steer the wheels clear, now to the left, now to the right, here from a stone, there from a precipice.’”
Our politics and policies are convoluted and often hurtful. We long for transformation but we fear its outcome. Part of the reason for our paralysis is our inability to delightfully engage in collective transformation. Not even with the most blatant of public ceremonies—the burning of Zozobra—can we leave the field freed of our fears and ready to embrace the new after symbolically burning the old. But if the pretense of change and transformation is so rewarding—electing Obama, burning one’s gloom—imagine the thrill of actually engaging in it.
What can one do to make this happen?
Zimmer again: “He can whisper, ‘Change your shoes.’ And therewith we have only to look and see of what our slippers have been made.”