The Way We Are – Allen Wheelis


In a maze and lost, we follow now this lead, now another, veer this way and that through corridors of anguish, boredom, and-oh, so rarely!-joy. What are we up to? Where are we going? To what purpose? Occasionally we glimpse a phantom vision, gone in a flicker. We search for an informing principle, a truth that will teach us how to live, will define our task, enable us to transcend our folly and cruelty, to use ourselves up in a way that counts.

The way to live should issue from our nature, from what it is we believe ourselves most deeply to be. We tend to assume that we know what we are, that our nature is obvious, given to us by direct observation of others and of ourselves: Just look around the world and look into your own heart and you will know the human condition. It’s not so. What it is to be a human being is not clear at all, but deeply shrouded. Because, in the evolution from animal life to human life, along with the gain in knowledge and awareness, we have gained also the ability to deceive ourselves. We arrange not to know our nature, not to see what we are up to. Our self-deceptions are so dense, piled on so thick, like layers of paint on a canvas already painted, layer after layer, laid on from school and pulpit and lectern and TV and Internet, that it is all but impossible to break through, to get a clear view of what we really are.

Behind our loudly professed values of freedom, justice, and equality lies a propensity to violence far stronger and far deeper than is known to any of us, even the most cynical. It is all but invincible, invades even the bedroom, corrupts what we call love. We indulge in vast hypocrisies, flagrant and subtle, to conceal from ourselves this destructiveness. We are in fact largely the opposite of what we think we are.

And as we deceive ourselves, we deceive also others. Self-awareness comes into being in the midst of struggles for power and is immediately put to use. One defends oneself, or seeks advantage, by misrepresenting oneself. One doesn’t think about it; it happens instantly, automatically, inalienably. It is not possible to abstain. One cannot be oneself. To be human is to be false. Awareness is inseparable from misrepresentation. The soul of self-awareness is deception.

Revealing myself, I remain hidden. As the real self is exposed, it becomes false, the now-real self retreating in shadow behind the newly false. Honesty cannot know itself; aware of telling the truth, I lie. The pure heart, blind to its own purity, sees only outward; the reflective heart is devious. Unaware of weeping, I show you a moment of authentic grief; be quick, it’s gone in a flash. As I feel the tears on my face, knowing how they may alter your reaction, grief is mediated, is being staged. I am brokenhearted. Truly. Truly? Yes, but am making sure that you know it-while arranging somehow not myself to know I’m doing it. The reality to which that “truly” refers is a slippery item. “Say everything that comes to mind,” the analyst says to the analysand, “nothing must remain hidden”; but the first association scurries for cover as the second is being staged by the third, and the bottom of that barrel can never be scraped. Below the deepest uncovering one yet deeper is possible. Dirt is endless. Fur and feces and bones, and ever deeper, but no bedrock. Authenticity is fugitive in self-referential systems; awareness builds layer by layer while reality flees forward. I must take myself as an object of study, must use. my friends and my patients only as checks and limits. He who studies others will find much of interest but not the human condition. The most important things about human life we come upon from within and can know only from within.

I am obsessed with death; and this obsession, I am convinced, is not a private terror but the unchanging backdrop to the stage of our existence. We block it from view with contrived sets that we call reality, and though we know those sets to be fake we labor endlessly to make them look real. And as we go about those actions on that stage which accord with those sets, we come finally to believe they are real. The backdrop behind them is forgotten.

These are the two essential categories: that unchanging backdrop, the raw nature of existence, unadorned, unmediated, overwhelming us with dread, the way things are; and that changing succession of stage sets which we put up in front of the backdrop, blocking it from view, the schemes of things, the systems of meanings within which we live. The backdrop is a constant, too awful and too fearful to be endured; the sets change over the course of history, though they may seem fixed over the course of a lifetime. The set, as in a play, is the arrangement in which we live, the scheme of things.

Psychoanalysis attends to those distortions of mind that have come about as a result of mishap and mistreatment in childhood. It attempts the correction of these distortions by means of understanding. Not just analysts and analysands, but all of us, simply by being members of a culture permeated with the promise of psychology, share in the belief that such is possible. And as we, acting on this belief, go about the process of analyzing the miseries visited upon us by the preceding generation, it comes insidiously to seem that all misery is of this kind, not destiny but mishap, that therefore if people generally were free of neuroses we would no longer torment ourselves and our families, nor would tyrants torment their subjects (nor themselves even want to be tyrants), and that human life would then be happy and secure. Thus psychology slides into place as the modern ideology, the heir to religion. It is the scheme of things in which we live.

None of this, however, is of concern to me. The subject of my inquiry lies beyond psychology. It is the human condition itself. I want to know what is possible for man and what is precluded to man on the basis of that psychology which must be ascribed to him in order for him to be a man at all. Not the misery consequent to chance and mistreatment, which in principle may be remediable, but the misery that would remain, irremediable, simply by virtue of being a human being. That is my subject. What is the minimum penalty for being a conscious and self-conscious creature living simultaneously in an eternal symbolic world of our own construction and in the natural world in which, looking straight ahead, we see our oncoming death? Indeed, what suffering that we might wish to consider as avoidable or treatable must we conclude issues, not from mistreatment, but from this condition? And, further, what portion of that mistreatment of man by man and of child by parent, all of which appears gratuitous, may prove to be the unavoidable outcome of conditions that define the human state itself?

All of the themes of my life are here drawn together and reexamined, and passages appear here that have appeared in earlier books of mine. Too late perhaps to come upon a new vision, but still possible perhaps to set forth-with greater clarity, concision, and bluntness-what I know of the ways of power and the ways of the heart.

Ways of Power


The Nature of Man

Only the first life fed on nonlife. Thereafter life feeds on life. Big fish eat little fish. Jaws develop fangs. Hawk falls on hare, bird takes worm; wings flutter in the teeth of the fox. Man eats hare, fish, fowl, lamb.

We are both predator and victim. We kill those who have more to eat than we, or who threaten to take what we have-or who do not threaten but whom we so Imagine.

We kill to take the female or the territory of a rival. A rival is one who has a female or a territory we desire.

Property is a function of the willingness to fight. Titles are written in blood. Dusty deeds rest on old murders.

We are children of slime, our teeth break bone, suck marrow, we live on others; we devour their lives without ever seeing their faces. The magic of money and commerce keeps them far away, their screams unheard.

Everyone eats but few kill. Technicians fell the lamb. Eating becomes a ceremony of innocence, tinkle of crystal, rustle of taffeta. Teeth are for beauty: straighten them, make them whiter, the smile more loving. Visit every restaurant in town, never pass the house of slaughter.

Leather shoes and belt, mink coat, alligator handbag, gloves of calf, lizard watchbands, peacock feathers-how we deck ourselves in the skins and scraps-yet never strike a blow, never cut a throat. We push away our own destructiveness, make it alien, become finally unaware, see only the destructiveness of others.

The tendency of civilization is not to eliminate destructiveness, nor even to diminish it, but to remove it. Tooth to hand to stone to blade to bullet to bomb–so man estranges himself from his victim. Our fate falls now from the touch of a finger in an underground bunker half a world away.

Those who create the images we think we live by stand most aloof from the destructiveness by which, equally, we live. Poet and philosopher sit to meat, speak of love, charity, rights of man, sacredness of life. Far away blood flows, cries rise in the night. We benefit from such order as our cities afford, but it’s the cop on the beat who pistol-whips the thug. We are beneficiaries of the affluent society-the museums, universities, theaters, libraries-of an armed and sovereign state; but it’s the soldier who fights the wars which that state, however mistakenly, considers necessary for its survival.

So it comes about that those who teach us what life is, or should be, who create our image of ourselves, find killing to be ugly, mean, and set about in their dismay to draw maps of human nature in which destruction has no primary place, to make songs, poems, world views, religions, which portray killing as unnecessary, a kind of waywardness or error into which we have fallen, from which, by these creations of theirs, we must be rescued. Such maps become new justifications for more extensive killings. Holocausts are in the name of peace, freedom, justice, truth.

We kill men who threaten our holy faiths-Sun God, Christ, white skin, tree enterprise-or
who do not threaten but whom we choose so to construe.

The anguish of the Circus Maximus reappears at but a greater distance in the Last Judgment. It reappears quite immediately-with a violence greater by far than that of the Circus-in the Holy Inquisition and the Thirty Years War.

We destroy and we create. Without destruction there is no creation. Let those who praise life know that they praise equally the destroying and the creating. Monuments of murder and spires of devotion rise side by side, reach up to heaven.

We come now to a time when our capacity to tear down dazzles our capacity to build.

Conscience is the mandate of the group installed in one beating heart, enforces murder and brotherhood with equal authority.

Hydrogen warheads sleep lightly in underground nests.

Evil flickers here, there, everywhere, a wildfire out of control. Put it out here, it flares there. Everywhere. It is also inside ourselves, has crept into the deepest reaches of our heart. There is no good man. We all are killers, we live on others. And when, rarely, we can bring ourselves to admit it, we say ruefully, piously, “Christ was right, we all are fallen, we all are sinners.”

Fallen? From what? Where was that state of grace from which we are supposed to have fallen?

The innocence we ascribe to the childhood of humanity is the innocence we have come to know only much later, east of Eden, the innocence possible to us within the knowledge of good and evil. Such innocence consists in following the rules that banish violence. Therefore, as we project such obedience backward, we picture a gentle Eden wherein the lion and the lamb lie down together. And right there we’ve got it dead wrong. The innocence of our prehistory, our Garden of Eden, is the innocence of unlimited violence, of acting according to nature. There were then no taboos to set limits, hence no good and no evil.

The boundary zone of our existence is a forbidden territory called the sacred. We know we are there by signs. Voices are lowered and hushed, we tread softly, look up respectfully, apprehensively. We are warned to keep away. Near the boundary itself we are taken over by fear and trembling. We are too close to God. Common sense tugs at our sleeve: Turn back! Beyond the limit is great power. Those who cross that limit are struck down. Some few, able to seize and control the thunderbolts, become gods.

The sacred is a minefield barring the way back. It lies between us and the freedom we have lost, the violence we so fear and so desire, the rush, the oneness of life, the fusion, the continuity, the not-knowing. The approach is posted with taboos. Gods patrol the border ceaselessly, drive us onward, warn us not to look back. We can never go home again. Nor can we ever forget or stop longing.

Before mankind was enlightened, the awful power beyond the natural limits, securely removed from the ability of man to reach or control or to manipulate, was invoked by our priests and medicine men to strengthen those moral and sexual limits that man, by his own will, is capable of violating. The giant lurking in the earth who shakes our house down, he or some other giant just like him, we are told, patrols also the sexual and moral boundaries. Watch out! God is everywhere. If you transgress He will punish you.

Now we are enlightened; and enlightenment, it transpires, draws in its train strange, perhaps sinister, implications. After the initial grand victories of reason come disturbing aftershocks. Natural limits have been divested of meaning. If famine sweeps the land, that’s bad luck, but it is not God punishing us or telling us something. It’s but the impersonal, meaningless operation of natural forces.

The awful and the terrifying beyond the natural limits, therefore, cannot be used to maintain the inviolability of moral and sexual limits. No longer can we lend to morality the authority of lightning, of earthquake, of tidal wave. The Enlightenment has washed us up on an alien shore: All of our limits are variables, all are within our control. We may draw them in closer or push them out farther. There is no God to establish any position; so every position is arbitrary. If we wish to designate something as sacred and inviolate, we are free do to so, and others are equally free to spit on it. If we wish to exterminate all the Jews. . . well, no big deal. It requires only systematic propaganda, an efficient bureaucracy, a well-developed heavy industry, and soon the transports will be rolling. If we wish to kill all of the people of Dresden . . . no need to go to Washington for that, or even to London; the decision can be taken at the Air Command Center.

And why not?With no authority beyond humanity, by what standard can we designate anything as absolutely wrong? Wrong beyond reach of reconsideration? Whatever the nature of the limit, beyond that limit lies power. And that further increment of power will increase the temptation to yet further violation for a yet further augmentation of power.

Free to choose how to live, the way we choose is meaningless; living in the certainty of meaning, we live a life that is imposed.
Constant fear gives birth to exploitation. Because we are afraid we seek refuge in strength. We create gods to protect us, to explain our condition, to guarantee our safety, to promise us eternal life. And these gods, it turns out, speak to us through men of power-through wizards, priests, princes, prelates, and kings. They formulate the taboos: impulse must be controlled, violence and random sexuality prohibited. Sin comes into being. And morality. And guilt, the danger from within. Heaven is created for those who observe the taboos, hell for those who violate them. Fear and weakness impel us to honor the taboos, to obey our leaders. It is now possible for the few to control the many. Work comes into being: steady, heavy labor day after day for an end which is not of our choosing, which serves no purpose in our life but which (we have been convinced) is required by the gods who (we have come to believe) will protect us. Servitude is invented.

The proliferation of tools and of the things that are built with tools, and the proliferation of myths and of the fears that are formulated and expressed by myths, comprise culture. Henceforth man lives, not in nature, but in culture.

In our nostalgia for the major freedoms of animal life we remember a Golden Age, a Garden, a time before sin. The sacred does not beckon to us from up ahead, urging us forward toward higher spiritual realms. The sacred lies behind us. It blocks the way back to the freedom of our prehuman past. The sacred and the forbidden are one.
There is, however, a hook attached to this remarkable progression from animal to man, and we should-in the midst of our self-congratulation-have a look at it.

The violence that individuals have given up in the course of becoming orderly and moral has not been eliminated. It is passed on; it is handed upward. It collects at the top, in the White House, Number Ten Downing Street, the Reichstag, the Kremlin. The morality of individuals has led to community, to group solidarity, to orderliness, thereby making possible larger and larger sovereign collectives. And these collectives seize for themselves all of that power, all of that ruthlessness, that savagery, that the constituent individuals have, in their move to morality, to decency, themselves forsworn. These sovereign entities, however, have forsworn nothing, have not themselves become moral. Such was never their intention, though they are loud in lip service to that notion. And the savagery that these collectives, these super-beasts in their super-jungle, are able to inflict on each other and on their moral constituents is so much more destructive than anything that could be done by individuals-regard the German dead at the Falaise Gap, thousands and thousands of bodies, heads, limbs, viscera; the beach at Iwo Jima after the battle, nothing moving amid all those dead but the remorseless and now-red tide; Stalingrad at night, the frozen bodies in the empty silent streets, everything still except for the rustle of rats; the vast armada of planes over Berlin, the relentless thunder of bombs, the endless explosions, fires; the boiling cloud over Hiroshima stretching slowly up, up, up, reaching finally six miles into the clear early morning sky–so much more destructive than anything that could possibly be done by individuals, that we may permit ourselves some nostalgia for the untrammleled violence of our prehuman past.

The Scheme of Things

Animals live within the limits of their lives as biologically given, within circumstances that are environmentally given. There is no separation of self from environment, therefore no sense of self. There is no knowledge of death, no watching of one’s fateful progression, no history, no vision of one’s actual condition, hence no need to transcend that condition. Needs are immediate; when they are met the animal is content. There are no transcendent needs.

The moment approaches. Perhaps a million years in duration, still but a moment in the long journey. Consciousness enlarges to include one’s oncoming and inevitable death. One becomes aware of one’s self as distinct from one’s surroundings, knows one’s actual condition, moving through time, growing older, doomed. The animal is becoming human. This is the Fall. Culture is about to begin.

The immediate horror man perceives is his own death, but beyond that he begins to see the entire life process as carnage, as eating and being eaten. A terrible screaming pervades the universe. Man is the first to hear it. This is the vision we cannot accept. It drives toward madness or despair.

What does Christianity do with this vision? It does not deny it; it makes it acceptable. What Christianity does for the true believer is give him strength to bear it. Redeems it. That’s the word! The scheme of things redeems the way things are.

But what is redemption? It must be an interpretation. The scheme of things interprets the way things are as necessary to something grand. The scheme of things, therefore, is both a diagram of the something grand and an interpretation of the way things are as an essential step on the way to the something grand. The life process thereupon becomes less horrible and more bearable because it serves, however obscurely, a glorious end. One’s individual life is redeemed when it is in the service of the something grand.

The beginning of the redemption of life is the beginning of culture. All culture is redemption. The history of culture is the history of the changing forms by which a short and brutish life has been redeemed. The culture of a people, writes T. S. Eliot, is the incarnation of its religion. “Any religion, while it lasts, provides the framework for a culture, and protects the mass of humanity from boredom and despair.”

Man searches for a scheme of things larger than his own life, with greater authority, to which he may belong. The hunger from which this search issues is profound and inalienable. If he can find such a scheme and make his life “mean” something in it, that is, contribute to it, make a difference, he will have ferried something of his mortal self across the gulf of death to become a part of something that will live on. The doomed life must leave a residue of value. The carrier and guarantor of this value is a man-made scheme of things perceived as reality and presumed to be eternal.

What can one say of the way things are? That the constructions of mind are not coextensive with existence, that there is something” out there,” a universe independent of man, there before we arrived and to be there after we have disappeared. It affects us and we it. It and we are in continual contact and interaction, and we know it not. We cannot bear to know. An angel, detached and immortal, could know; we, mired in mortality, are at risk. Interest deflects our knowing. Our lives depend on its being other than it is. In the midst of the way things are we know only the scheme of things in which we live.

The scheme of things is a system of order. Beginning as our view of the world, it finally becomes our world. We live within the space defined by its coordinates. It is self evidently true, is accepted so naturally and automatically that one is not aware of an act of acceptance having taken place. It comes with our mother’s milk, is chanted in school, proclaimed from the White House, insinuated by television, validated at Harvard. Like the air we breathe, the scheme of things disappears, becomes simply reality, becomes, as far as we can tell, the way things are. It is the lie necessary to life. The world as it exists beyond that scheme becomes vague, irrelevant, largely unperceived, finally nonexistent.

As soon as the scheme of things is questioned, it has lost its capacity to redeem. “What, then,” Camus writes, “is that incalculable feeling that deprives the mind of the sleep necessary to life? A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But . . . in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger.”

As man emerged from the condition of animal, there must have been a period of transition during which the carriers of the process could not have known what was happening to them or even that a change was taking place. Now in retrospect we can see it as an expansion of awareness which brought into being freedom and choice. The knowing mind begins to know itself and to perceive, along with the freedom to do this or that, a horror about which it has no freedom at all. As soon as we become able, floating down the river of life, really to see the remarkable scenery and to enjoy the newly acquired freedom to move this way or that in the current, at just that moment we hear the roar of the cataract ahead. This is the human condition. Amid the luscious fruits we see the coiled asp. We become, at one stroke, gods and food for worms.

Changes that come about glacially in the transformation of species are reenacted in a flash in the lives of individuals. Thus we may catch a glimpse, each in his own past, of that moment which recapitulates the birth of man, the beginning of that exaltation and anguish which has become for us the condition of life, the air we breathe.

I remember a spring night in a school auditorium, during the rehearsal of a play. I am thirteen. I am weary of the farce, weary of the silliness of the cast, of our endless horseplay, mindlessness. A scene in which I have no part is being rehearsed; I stand in an open door at the rear of the dark and empty hall. A storm is under way. The door is on the lee of the building, and I step out under the overhang. The rain swirls and beats. Lightning reveals a familiar schoolyard in a ghostly light. I feel a sudden poignancy. Images strike my mind. The wind is the scream of a lost spirit, searching the earth and finding no good, recalling old bereavements, lashing the land with tears. Consciousness leaves my body, moves out in time and space. I undergo an expanding awareness of self, of separateness, of time flowing through me, bearing me on, knowing I have a chance, the one chance all of us have, the chance of a life, knowing a time will come when nothing lies ahead and everything lies behind, and hoping I can then look back and feel it well spent. How, in the light of fixed stars, should one live?

So begins the hunger for meaning.
Should ever any scheme of things acquire absolute authority it would exclude from awareness anything beyond its limits. Nothing then could contend with it and no change could occur. It and the society it organized would be static and immortal. Each individual by allegiance to that scheme would share in that immortality. The dread of death would be overcome.

No scheme of things has ever achieved such authority, though some schemes have endured for millennia. Change is unstoppable; for no scheme of things has ever convinced everyone. All schemes involve limitation and denial. They are man-made. They reach out into the way things are, the realm of the existing, and make order. Then claim to be eternal.

A scheme of things is a plan for salvation. How well it works will depend upon its scope and authority. If it is small, even great achievement in it service will do little to dispel death. We seek the largest possible scheme, not in a hunger for truth, but in a hunger for meaning. The more comprehensive the scheme, the greater its promise of banishing dread. If we can make our lives mean something in a cosmic scheme we will live in the certainty of immortality. The very great success of Christianity for a thousand years follows upon its having been of universal scope, including and accounting for everything, assigning to all things a proper place; offering to every man,whether prince or beggar, savant or fool, the privilege of working in the Lord’s vineyard; and upon its being accepted as true throughout the Western world.

As a ruling scheme of things is modified by inroads from outlying existence, it loses authority, is less able to banish dread; its adherents fall away. Eventually it fades, exists only in history, becomes quaint or primitive, becomes, finally, a myth. Our myths were once blueprints of reality. The Church, as defender of the regnant scheme of things, was right to stop Galileo; activities such as his import into the social order new orientations which will eventually destroy that order.

When the ruling scheme of things comes to seem untrue or unimportant, one’s efforts within it become meaningless. One’s whole life becomes meaningless. The Heavenly City falls into ruins. The avenue to immortality ends on an abyss. One is cast back on his individual life, stares ahead through a transparence of days to death, which stands at the end. One enters a state of dread.

Life then is borne forward on waves of cynicism and despair. One seeks distraction, death-defying games perhaps which invoke the specter from which one flinches. By surviving the heightened risk one may achieve briefly the illusion of mastery. But not for long. Within the confines of a single life death is unmasterable.

Sometimes the distraction is less desperate and may contain creative possibilities. What began as a distraction from the loss of meaning and the dread of death may come itself to have meaning and to protect against dread. The distraction, that is, becomes a new scheme of things. A committed chess player may finally lose awareness that life contains anything other than chess. A new defense against the Ruy Lopez may be monument enough.

In such a recovery one may move to a scheme of things larger than the one that has crumbled; the crumbling itself may then be seen in a perspective that makes it meaningful, perhaps even inevitable. So the Marxists of the thirties become the Freudians of the forties, and politics is subsumed under psychology. A. A. Brill was able to comprehend the rash of strikes during the Depression as rebellious sons acting out their defiance of fathers.

For a thousand years Christianity was for the Western world the scheme of things organizing man’s worldview. It stood at the apex of a hierarchy within which were included all other schemes, fraternal, artistic, scholastic, political. That world order is now irretrievably lost.

I come back to Eliot’s dictum that culture is the incarnation of religion. If that is true-and I believe it’s true – a culture cannot forever survive the loss of its religion; for the lesser schemes of things which that culture will still be able to offer will, whatever their merits, lack that element of the sacred which previously had derived from religion, and without which no one of the lesser schemes will be able to achieve the unification of the whole.

Science, like religion, is a scheme of things hierarchically ordered, including many subordinate schemes. The compelling paradigm of one age may, like phlogiston, be but a quaint superstition for the next, without disturbing the overriding rational-scientific scheme of things of which the varying paradigms are subordinate schemes. But science has never, not even in its greatest ascendancy, claimed such cosmic scope as Christianity. Some of the joys and sorrows of man’s condition have not, within science, found a place or an accounting. Most particularly now do they find no place; for the rational-scientific scheme of things is itself on the decline. Fewer people now see it as coextensive with reality. More and more frequently people look away from science, or around its edges, in search of some new vision, some new scheme of things with which to order their lives.

For most of the duration of life on earth, power was the ability to rend, to tear, to seize, to pin down, to destroy, to gobble up. Significant power in human affairs now, in essence unchanged, is in the form of money, property, position, acclaim, possessions, influence.

The guises of power are so various, so dissembled, that power ceases to be recognized as such. We would have it that human life is discontinuous with life in the tide pools, in the jungle, that mind or spirit, something far removed from power, has come to be the essence of human life. We delude ourselves. The holders of great power may be physically frail, gentle in manner, tender in sentiment, Christian by profession, may wear but a loincloth; but power is power, and its nature is to grab hold, to seize possession, to overwhelm. Whatever appears in human life that seems unrelated to power, or even-like love, like charity, like self-sacrifice-contrary to it, is, if it endures, but another mask of power.

Observe the single free-floating cell. It moves about, this way and that, exploring, seeking. What does it want? It wants to seize the nutrient environment, take it in, grow bigger, stronger. It has heard God’s voice: Be fruitful and multiply.

It comes about in time, in our remote evolutionary past, that a number of such cells associate themselves into a community. Something new. Are not these several cells hampered in their competition with other cells by virtue of, as it were, holding hands? Why, yes, very likely. And whenever so hampered, they perish. But it comes about eventually, by chance. that some such association is not hampered but advantaged, finds itself the possessor of superior strength, greater than the summation of its constituent strengths, whereupon the association endures. The will to power of the individual cell is surrendered to the whole. The will of the individual cell comes to be not power but cooperation, faithful service in its subordinate place and function in the life of the organism. It has become servant to the will to power of the whole.

To gain power is to gain respect; it is also-equally, inevitably-to be hated. He who is afraid to be hated is handicapped in his pursuit of power, for with each gain in power will come an increase in hatred. The greater the fear of this hatred, the greater the obstacle to the pursuit of power. One continues on a course of increasing power until fear calls a halt.

Prudence requires that our hatred of the powerful be hidden, while our respect is manifest, often ostentatious. As every king must know, however, the hatred, though invisible, is always present. Uneasy lies the head. . . etc.

Naked power is quicksilver, lost in a flash-a bank robber on the run, hand on his gun, shot down at the next corner. So power rushes to form, which endows power with legitimacy, defines the processes whereby it is acquired, exercised, delegated, transferred. Hiding behind form, power acquires stability. Form is a structure of power but claims legitimacy as a map of reality. Reality is flux, while power, always trying to preserve itself, insists on the permanence of forms; so form falls ever more at variance with the changing reality it claims faithfully to reflect. Power clings to form even after form’s claim to truth has become manifest travesty. The emperor has no clothes.

We are not suited to be free. We are suited still, as when we were children, to live under the protection of, and within the limits set by, loving parents. As adults we strive to continue this arrangement, with kings and gods slipping into the place of parents.

Always we are of two minds about power. Because we are insecure, we need someone above us, more powerful than we, to whom we can turn for protection and guidance. So great is this need that it shapes our perception: we see our wise men as wiser than they are, our kings as more kingly, our priests as more holy. Being themselves but human, and having the same needs as we, they, too, are driven to look upward, to find someone or something more powerful than they. So we have gods. We kneel, we pray to an Almighty.

At the same time we distrust all power, know that it may not protect but exploit, may use us for its own ends. So we are poised for rebellion. When the wind veers, we
will turn upon our leaders, tear them apart. The bodies of Mussolini and his mistress, strung up by the heels, swing from the lamppost in Milan.

Neurosis is inhibition and anxiety. And what is normality? The freedom to love and to work. So we say. But is there not something disingenuous about this jaunty loftiness? What are we hiding? Normality is the free pursuit of power-curbed, in deference to prevailing morality, only enough to maintain appearances and to keep us out of trouble.

The child grabs for power in whatever ways spontaneously suggest themselves to him, and in so doing encounters disapproval, punishment, loss of love-so bringing it about that the mere inclination toward forbidden behaviors causes fear, counsels caution. Eventually the parental prohibitions, installed as conscience, operate from within, honored as duty, enforced by guilt, elevated as right and as good.

Morality is fear that has been transformed into conscience. The morality that is observed, as distinct from the morality that is but professed, measures the freedom that individuals have surrendered to the collective in return for security.

The will to power impels the rush of life; morality and fear constitute the barrier; the outcome in behavior is a compromise.

If the barrier is massive, the inhibition or deflection of drive may be so great that no trace of power will stain the goal in view. But however masked or attenuated or denied, hunger for power is the source-for the selfless, the anchorite, the martyr, and the saint, no less than for the man on horseback.

We say we want freedom and justice, and surely we do; but when the tyrant is overthrown and the palace ransacked, the triumphant leaders of the revolution proceed to consolidate that power which was, all along, the unavowed aim ulterior to freedom and justice.
Parts serve the whole. The organism grows larger and more powerful by virtue of finding better and better ways to exploit its constituents. Slaves may be made to man the oars and drive the galley, but it requires the constant attention of a slave master cracking the whip. But if the slaves can be converted to a faith in the ship and its mission, then no slave master will be needed-he will now be free to help with the cannon-while the ship slices forward ever faster, with more power, more dangerous to its enemies.

There is no alternative to power, no other position-not Christianity nor the Golden Rule nor brotherly love nor nonviolence; not self-sacrifice nor the turning of the other cheek. For all these various abnegations of power by parts of a whole are, unwittingly, in the service of increased power to the whole; and the morality created by such renunciations is used by the aggregate to increase the power with which it then pursues more power.

Good and evil come into existence as defined by power, and are shaped to protect power. They filter down from rulers, magistrates, educators, from bishops, priests, and Sunday school teachers to parents, who shape the conscience of children, imprint the limits, instill the guilt.

Order and safety are maintained; citizens need not bear arms; violence is proscribed, banished beyond borders. And so it comes about that the modern state is thought to be a moral state, even a Christian state, the source and the defender of morality, of civilization, of high culture. But the morality that is here, rightly, ascribed to the state is internal, the lawfulness of cells within an organism. In its conduct with other states, and with those barbarians beyond its borders, the state is a killer. And utterly self-righteous in its exterminations. The state claiming morality is like a murderer claiming innocence by pointing out that his hands and feet moved lawfully during the performance of the crime.

The state does not intend itself to become moral; it requires morality of its subjects as the necessary basis of its own amoral power, of its continued ability to conduct international brigandage abroad and the torture of political prisoners at home.

The unselfishness of individuals empowers the selfishness of states. The selflessness of patriots becomes the arrogance of nations. Morality constricts and diminishes the life of the individual as it strengthens and enlarges the life of the collective.

The cohesiveness of the group, achieved by the morality and lawfulness of its constituents, enables the group to become larger and stronger. The morality of the individual thus has survival value for the amoral collective and, insofar as the safety of the individual depends upon the power of the collective, also for the individual.

But the group can never, as a group, govern itself, cannot organize and exploit its potential power. For this, leaders are required, leaders with a vision of how the group may become even stronger. And such leaders can appear only if certain individuals within the morally organized collective are themselves immoral, break the rules in pursuit of personal power. So the greatest chance of survival falls, paradoxically, to that collective which has achieved solidarity by morality and, at the same time, contains within itself a leaven of opportunists who will exploit that morality for personal power.

He who wants power must be prepared to live flexibly between respecting rules and violating rules. Never must he break rules so flagrantly as to be flung out of the hierarchy; for the outcast will remain powerless. Since power can be gained only within the hierarchy, it is imperative that he remain in good standing with that part of the structure above him. Yet never must he observe the rules so respectfully as to miss the chance to seize unmerited advancement, to climb over, and perhaps dislodge, someone above him on the ladder.
Nothing within the state impedes the pursuit of power by the state. Empires expand. Anyone of them, were it able, would encompass the world. They go as far as they can, stop only where the lines of communication and supply are stretched too thin, where the conduits of power can no longer deliver effective force.

In the individual, however, morality is a brake and may at any point set a limit. A truly Christian position calls for the abnegation of power, requires one to give all he has to the poor, to be meek, to love his enemy, to turn the other cheek. A measure of the instinctual force of the drive for power is given by the rarity with which such an ethic has in fact been practiced.

The other internal obstacle is fear. One can go quite far in the acquisition of instrumental power without struggling with another human being and hence without encountering fear, power growing as a function of one’s skill in becoming a good pianist, carpenter, bookkeeper, or surgeon.  But a point is reached eventually beyond which any further gain can be achieved only in struggle with another person, in defeating or besting or outmaneuvering someone. In such contest one is vulnerable, there is no sure win. One may show one’s self a fool, may be humiliated. Fear may become so intense that one’s life comes to be structured around it. Whoever arranges for himself an isolated life (a writer, an artist, a forest-fire watcher, a drawbridge keeper) or a vocation with builtin advantages over the people with whom one deals (a psychoanalyst, an anesthesiologist) is likely to be one who feels keenly the danger of pursuing power through interpersonal struggle.

The hurdy-gurdy plays, and around and around they go, the charioteer, the legionnaire, the cuirassier, up and down, sailing around, the president, the foreign minister, the chiefs of staff, varnished faces frozen in arrogance and disdain, the bombardier, the cavalryman, the machine gunner, around and around, as the band plays on.

When the oppressed take up arms and rebel, they do so in the name of principles that assert basic human rights and so constitute an insurgent morality which justifies the overthrow of the existing order. The existing order has a morality of its own, an establishment morality, which holds that the security and welfare of each individual are contingent on the state, that the state therefore is owed allegiance, that its laws must be obeyed, its leaders respected. It labels the leaders of the rebellion as traitors, criminals, fanatics, and will crush them if it can. As rebels confront government troops, so insurgent morality confronts establishment morality. If government troops prevail, the insurgent morality is discredited, disappears. If the rebels are victorious, the establishment morality is discredited, succeeded by the insurgent morality.

In the latter event the insurgent morality comes to be allied with power, becomes the new establishment morality, ancillary to the safeguarding and expansion of power. In this new role it sanctifies power, reassures the now newly oppressed that their oppression is in the nature of things, perhaps ordained by divine will, that no protest is indicated but rather patience and cooperation, that all must make sacrifices, that the leaders act for the welfare of all, that laws must be obeyed.

Thus a morality which began as protest against power becomes the servant of power. The insurgent morality in its insurgency declares that power is corrupt and tends to corrupt everyone and everything allied to it; and when the revolution succeeds, it proves the truth of its indictment by corrupting first those exalted principles under whose banners it rode to power, along with the warriors who bore them.

The merry-go-round spins, and around and around they go, the missileman, the submariner, the minister of propaganda, up and down, around and around, while the band plays on.

Those persons who arrive at the intermediate ranges of power have clean hands, white lace cuffs. They are doctors, jurists, writers, scientists, artists, editors, professors, poets. They delegate to others the bloodier, the more immediately cruel and exploitative aspects of power. Thereby they create a space around themselves in which can flourish the gentler sentiments: love, empathy, pity, even self-sacrifice. These gentler sentiments then gradually generate a morality which condemns the unfettered will to power.

People of this sequestered moral group increasingly criticize those more distant agencies which execute the will of the state, thereby becoming estranged from the source of their own security and their affluence. Power becomes alien to them. They see it as brutal, abhorrent. They say the state is immoral-which it is. Increasingly they use their influence to restrict the state in its exercise of power over its constituents and over other states.

Thus an enclave of the privileged, who have distanced themselves from the bloody hands to which they owe their privileged state, articulates a morality that would manacle those hands.

A powerful society can afford, may even support and defend, such an enclave of the morally fastidious. But if the message of this minority should persuade the whole, the whole would find itself in peril. For force, as John Keegan has remarked, provides the ultimate constraint whereby all settled societies protect themselves against the enemies of order within and without. Those persons with the knowledge and will to use force stand close to the center of any society’s power structure; power holders who lack such will or knowledge will find themselves driven from that center. Mercenaries will fight alongside citizen soldiers; but if there are no citizen soldiers, if all citizens maintain clean hands and all dirty work is delegated to mercenaries, then not for long will mercenaries be content to fight for wages. Wielding the force, they will proceed to take the power. Force, like a heat-seeking missile, finds out those who lack the will to use it.


When the mountain men came down out of the Rockies in the nineteenth century and took up life in the village, there was a period in which, if community constraints proved too onerous, they could pack back into the mountains and resume their isolated and independent existences. The present-day citizen of Denver or Butte or Taos has lost this option, is no longer capable of wilderness survival, and is held, moreover, by ties to the union or the grange, to the American Legion or the Rotary Club, and by Social Security, whence will come his pension.

The aggregate is not satisfied, however, to have its component parts stick together only because they could not survive on their own. Such allegiance is halfhearted. (“We have a terrible president, the country is on a disastrous course, but I guess we have to rally behind him. We have no choice.”) The aggregate wants to generate patriotic fervor, to bring it about that individuals lose sight of their separate lives, lose awareness of their ubiquitous conflict with the state, that their identification with the state expunge the purview of individual life with its joys and sorrows, its hopes, its ideals, and particularly its ability to criticize the state in terms of reason, of common sense, and of the discrepancy between the announced aims of the state and the actions the state is undertaking. The unison of Sieg Heil by the packed and disciplined masses at Nuremburg, that is what the state wants; or the faith of Nikolai Rostov, who in holy warlike exaltation charges forward alone, an embodiment of the Russian spirit, against the massed French forces at Austerlitz. Think not of what your country can do for you, said President Kennedy, but of what you can do for your country.

There is, therefore, a constant struggle between the individual and the state. For the state to gain power, individuals must lose power. The state would like to eat up all individual power, all independence, discretion, freedom, autonomy. The individual opposes this demand, insists that the state not take any more. In times of danger to the state, however, individuals can be persuaded to relinquish additional bits of freedom, since the security of the individual rests ultimately with the security of the state. In a crisis we vote war credits and military conscription. And the state, knowing this, is always tempted to create crises that will justify arrogating to itself additional increments of the independence of its components.

In this continuing struggle, the last century has witnessed a decisive shift in favor of the state. The Fascist and Communist movements since 1917 managed to appropriate vastly more power than citizens had ever in the past been willing to give up. The values of art, of individual conscience, of personal preference and belief, all presumably secure within the private realm, have in our times been confiscated by the state.
Ways of the Heart


When life has meaning, desire is held to its proper place-“proper” being the shape and scope and authority allowed to it by the interlocking structure of values that constitutes the meaning of life. When life is without meaning, desire is a wildfire out of control.

To express desire is to empower the other and disadvantage one’s self. Catastrophic if unilateral, exalting when lovers do it together.

But why would they, even together, choose surrender? choose weakness over strength? They seem to want to get weaker and weaker, want their legs to give way with love, want to swoon together, fall into each other, totally disappear in each other. They want to die as individuals in the fusion, to be reborn on the other side, a love death followed by magical rebirth. Over and over. And if it is never actually achieved, desire ensures that we keep on trying.
We sit in silence, facing each other across a small round table inlaid, in abstract geometric design, with pieces of colored leather in dark muted tones. A gardenia floats in a shallow black lacquer dish, the heavy scent rising between us. She looks into my eyes, she stares, unblinking. Her mouth trembles. Her expression changes from longing to adoration to desperate desire.

She does not know me. I do not know her. Desire deceives. We never know the real other out there, know only that other as reshaped by our desire. We take our fantasy, go looking for a suitable place to lodge it, reshaping reality with longing, stumbling through our years, seeking out stand-ins with whom we can act out again the old script, hoping this time for a happy ending, believing all the while that we are into something new.

And in the rain of conflicts to come, I remind myself, my papier-mache angel will turn into a witch or a drab.

Yet this passion for a falsified other may be the only thing in life really worthwhile. Without it one lives in a world of dailiness, of hearth love, the ordinary love of husband and wife, of parent and child, of friends. Such love may be constant, caring, loyal, may protect against loneliness and despair, provide the only security possible in a world of hazard, all these good things, and it may be, if we were wise, we would settle for it, renouncing that fever in the blood. But it does not transcend, does not lift us up and out, does not take us to the other side. The assumption that it is always desirable to see the world as it is may be in error. The undistorted and hence unexalted life may not be worth living.

Desire is endless and unappeasable, is most intense where most forbidden, and is never far from despair.


Problems of right and wrong originate right there, with those breasts. We are pretty clear about theft, murder, the beating of children, the torture of animals. It is in the quagmire of sex, in the love and the caring that may or may nor spring up around it, the promises we make, the betrayals that follow those promises, the evasions we practice, the lies we tell-here, here is the agony of conscience, the confusion, the hunger for a god to tell us what is right and what is wrong.

But maybe the answer is right before me. Drop all this sophistry. You know what’s right. Do it. The answer stares you in the face: obey the rules. The obvious rules, the simple, in-your-face rules. Have we not always known that we can’t have everything? Accept the boundaries, live within their limits and restrictions, and the problem of morality will have been solved.

But even the obvious must be examined. Is it sound? If this solution should come to be generally adopted, what consequences would follow?

The man who is serious and conscientious about rule observing is the perfectly moral man. Upright. Open. Nothing to hide. You know what he stands for, good as his word, you can count on him. He gets to work on time, never calls in sick, is prudent with his assets, exact in contractual obligations, never shades figures on his tax return. No one would know if he took a few discreet liberties here and there, but he would know. He respects the rules, endows them with authority. No one has to keep an eye on him. A careful and prudent man, temperate, always looking more toward the rules he must be careful to obey than toward the ever-changing world with its shifting dangers and opportunities. He never flirts with a pretty woman, mindful that the slightest step in that direction might lead to adultery.

What sort of world would it be if everybody were like that? Would it be an improvement on the world we have? Might it be heaven?

Certainly it would be different. We would have no more Clintons for sure, nor Kennedys, nor Roosevelts.

It might be that no one I really love would be there.

It would be a static society-or, rather, one striving to be static, but slipping progressively out of touch with the changes taking place, unstoppably, around it and within it. And as that discrepancy increased, the efforts of the group to save itself, and its rules, by arresting change would become more rigid, more desperate, more punitive. A Grand Inquisitor would preside over the Tribunal, sentence miscreants to the pyre.

Does not all creativity originate in boundary violation, in breaking through to realms outside the old limits? The stupid and the cautious tend to obey the rules: the stupid because they fail to recognize how easily the rules may be subverted with impunity, the cautious because they fear the group’s ability to punish.

The intelligent and the bold tend to violate the rules: seeing the loopholes, the endless opportunities for evasion and concealment, and perceiving, further, how far the change-resistant rules have lagged behind a changing social reality, how benighted therefore some of these rules have come to be, still asserting, as they do, a horse-and-buggy morality in an age of superhighways, they take liberties-so easily they may not even notice.

The completely moral life-that is, the meticulous observance of all of the rules-leads, for both the individual and the group, to a rigidity that falls increasingly at odds with a changing world. Yet boundary violations, if reckless-recklessness measurable, usually, only after the act and its consequences-destroy the individual and destroy the social order. The individual becomes an outlaw, the group becomes a mob.

Well, then, how much? What is the rule to guide us in the judicious breaking of rules? What is a wise measure of violation?

“Pain is not the main thing,” she says, “not the worst thing. It’s not even very important. Worse is to play it safe, never to risk everything for the one big thing that comes only once, that looms, for a moment only, and then is gone. Once and once only. There’s just a moment when we can go for it, leap, spend it all; or be prudent, hang back, listen to the cautious voices around us, and see that one big thing disappear forever.”

The one big thing, that’s the issue, to go for it or not. That one big thing-“costing not less than everything”-big enough maybe to justify a crime, our one chance to climb up and out of meaninglessness.

Time is running out and I cannot see-but I dread what lies beyond.

Am I really struggling toward a moral decision? Or am I scrambling for a credible begging of the question? What a fallible calculus this is, even to the most disinterested and I am the most interested of all.

Should I then disqualify myself, put it in the hands of a wise man?

I distrust wise men.

Anyway I know I could control the outcome by knowing the leanings of the wise man in whose hands I would place it. (You see? I am a wise man myself.)

Should I leave it to God? I don’t believe in God. There is no escape from arbitrariness. In the hands of the most interested party lies the full responsibility for a disinterested decision.

May God have mercy on those whose fate is in my hands.

Her voice is dark, liquid, mysterious. She speaks slowly, with long pauses, searching for the right emphasis, the exact inflection. Sometimes her eyes lay hold of mine with an imploring pull, as if grasping my hand, asking me to find something between the words. At times she abandons English altogether and there then pours over me a lyrical torrent, her full lips dancing on the cascading words. I watch her mouth, the glimpse of tongue.

“What were you saying?” I will ask finally.

“I was telling you how much I love you. How much . . . and all the different ways . . . and since you don’t understand what I’m saying I’m not shy. You’d be shocked, amore, and I ashamed. . . but there it is, I can’t help myself.”

Her skin has a faint lemony smell. My own skin tingles, the hair rises on my arms. My mind swarms with a carnality become sublime, the smooth sweet flesh, so close, so close, the wispy hair near her ear that moves with her breathing, the remorseless, unplumbed eyes.
How to live?

Who knows the question knows not how.
Who knows not the question cannot tell.

Who knows the question lives in conflict, makes choices, sees that each choice obliterates its opposite, and has learned that the needs of the individual and the needs of others contend and intersect in ways so complex and confusing that no sure answer is possible.

Who knows not the question is mute. The birds in flight cannot instruct us, nor the shy deer, nor the cobra poised to strike. They know how, know so unreflectively they cannot tell. We can’t go back.
But the question that cannot be answered cannot, either, be shelved. We cannot stop living until we have learned how. The train is moving. No itinerary, no briefing, no classes for beginners. We’re on our way. Our first improvisation is our one chance to do it right.


I am a believer who knows that all meaning is illusion, yet am driven ceaselessly to seek it, achieving thereby the worst of both worlds, retaining neither the stoicism of the one who stands unmoving in the blistering desert, nor the hope of the one who stumbles on after the shimmering blue water.

We affirm a continuing deathless passion, but it is not the same. It has lost its wildness and voracity, has become a passion remembered, a passion respected, a passion manque.

There can be no contract in loving. What comes is a blessing, one is not entitled to it, can lay no claim when it is lost, one gives as one can.

Maybe the right way to fall in love is to accept at the outset that it won’t last. Accept, not in the sense of resigning one’s self to a sad inevitability, but in the sense of celebrating a process that unavoidably entails the ending of a passion that presently appears as life’s supreme value.

Looking at her, I should not feel the ache of future loss, but an unmixed celebration of what I now have. I should accept change not because I cannot anyway prevent it, but because it is life itself. Love and the end of love, like life and death, must be praised as one.

The danger in striving for permanence is not that one will fail, but that one may in some stifled measure succeed, thereby preserving a fading relationship behind a mask of love that falls increasingly at variance with the withering face behind it. Yearning for permanence is failure of nerve, cowardice in face of the risks and opportunities of living.

I am as if brain-damaged. Life has distanced itself, is taking place behind a veil; and sometimes, surrounded by books, I realize I don’t want to read, and, wrenched by longing, that I don’t want music, and it will seem to me that I am reaching into myself for a silence beyond the absence of sound, for a stolen preview perhaps of that stillness that lies on the other side.

Falling in love is a madness. No treatment is required, indeed none is effective. It is self-limited in time, recovery is certain and spontaneous. In the aftermath, however, one may find oneself joined for life to a partner one would not in any normal state have chosen.

The disorder generally runs a benign course. But it is a madness. One loses contact with reality, clutches jealously to one’s breast something one believes to be a treasure while everyone else sees plainly it is but an ordinary loaf of bread.

The opportunity to love is ever-present. No one, in his loneliness, need ever say, “I wish I had someone to love.” That someone is right there. The trouble is she has become real, while only the still-imaginary inspires us to love.

We say we want love, and surely we do, but we want it to flow toward us, a great wave splashing over us, bountifully; we are not so eager that it flow outward, away from us to others who might need it more than we.

We live by attachment, not by reason. There is no value without caring, and caring is loving. That’s the point: one’s own life has value only because one cares for others. And one cares without a reason! Without reflection, without the weighing of profit and loss. The caring that justifies everything else is itself without justification. It is a leap.

Attachments grow in the dark, like roots. Silently, invisibly, they extend themselves in heart-soil, anchoring us in the world. To go on living then is not elective; we cannot depart this life, we are held by invincible tendrils.

After arriving at the peak of sexual desirability we begin a long process of decline. Imperceptible for a few years, but then beyond overlooking. We are becoming less lovable. There’s no stopping it short of dying young. And if we live long enough-proceed far enough into ugliness and decay-we are not lovable at all. Whatever attention still comes our way flows from duty, however well camouflaged as caring.

Concurrently, as we grow older, we become less and less able to love others, and if we live long enough we become incapable of loving at all, our concern reaching then no further than our pains and malfunctions. Irritably aware of the diminishment of love coming toward us, we tend not to notice that we, equally, are giving less to others. To grow old gracefully one must accept, without protest or dismay, the diminishment of incoming love. More, one must anticipate it, always positioning oneself to receive less than that which is voluntarily offered.

Never ask or plead or sue for love. The time for wooing is over, this is the time for farewell.

Two things I know for sure about love: no one ever gets enough, and you can’t get more by asking. To the beggar for money a few real coins may fall, but the beggar for love is a fool. Into his upturned hat, along with the humiliation, will fall only scraps of guilt and duty falsely labeled as love. The only way to get more love is to give more love. The only way to get more love is to give more love.

Beware! Wooing may be hidden. Too much giving, too much attentiveness, too many presents, may be but the mask for asking. You’ve had your turn; now get out of the way. Make room for others.

Who can map the vast terrain of love? The sublime heights, the dismal swamps. There are no certified experts, anyone may try his hand. What do I know about love? What varieties have fallen to me? What has been meant when a woman has said to me, I love you?


2 responses to “The Way We Are – Allen Wheelis

  1. I feel as if this is sth what I had written. It couldn’t have been said better than this. i have connected to this text on so many levels and have cried a few times.

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