23 June 2018

Memories of a duck hawk

Nine years ago I started this blog specifically as a Peace Corps journal named Matt’s Existential Musings, and it’s kept me company in various forms throughout the years long after I left Peace Corps. Going back and reading my first entries from the MEM days, some of them strike me as painfully naïve. I’m not entirely sure that the ‘me’ of nine years ago would recognise the Matt Cooper writing these reflections now. Of course, there are some threads of commonality and some repeated themes that run through my writing even from then to the present time; and these have been refined and honed with deeper reading and learning, but more importantly through experience.

Anglican hatchery; German flight

When I started off out of college, I was primarily influenced by the works of liberal, latitudinarian Anglican and Episcopalian divines like Charles Gore and Frederick Denison Maurice who contributed to Social Gospel Protestantism. This was a result of having studied religion under Dr Gary Dorrien in college. After Dorrien left Kalamazoo for Columbia, I transferred to the philosophy department and began studying continental philosophy under Dr Chris Latiolais. The thinkers that I latched onto most heavily during this time were, of course, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx, although my senior thesis was essentially a Hegelian / Marxist defence of the communitarian ideas of Dr Michael Sandel, whose work on justice continued to be influential on me after college.

Again, I look back now and I view my collegiate work as hopelessly naïve, incomplete, one-sided, detached from lived reality in a way which makes that same work’s fixation on lived realities seem all the more ironic and existentially-pathetic. But the same drive, the same desire to understand justice at a deeper level than that offered by the ubiquitous Lockean liberalism that makes up so much of American political discourse – that has never left me. Part of the reason I ended up joining Peace Corps was to make real those values which I had given voice to – but life hits you harder than you first expect.

A strong Eastern wind

Studying at Kalamazoo College, I took full advantage of the study abroad programme they offered there. The Chinese language very quickly became a passion of mine, thanks to the now semi-retired Dr Madeline Chu, though I had taken an interest in Chinese history since my high school area studies class on the subject, and also through the novels of Pearl S Buck and RH van Gulik. I decided to take a year abroad in Beijing, studying at Capital Normal University.

Once there, through Dr An Yanming, I encountered the philosophical traditions of Buddhism, the Zhuzi Baijia and – most importantly – Confucius. The ideas of Confucius as presented to me in the Analects appealed deeply to me – here was a man for whom justice (yi 義) in its full depth, was everything, and for whom the question of justice could not be detached from its social moorings – particularly ritual (li 禮). Only through ritual could justice be attained, with the final flower of that justice being love (ren 仁). Even though I understood that Confucianism and the Social Gospel Christianity in which I’d been brought up were two very different worldviews and religions, I couldn’t help but be impressed by their similarities and potential synergies. In one way or another, I have been approaching and grappling with these synergies throughout my entire intellectual life.

It pains me somewhat to own that for all its advantages, Kalamazoo College was only of limited help to me in pursuing these synergies. Even though the study abroad programme was truly a blessing and even though my professors did encourage me to take full advantage of it, when I came back it became clear that there was no space for Eastern philosophy to be had on campus. I had to go back to the religion department if I wanted to continue studying Confucianism and Buddhism with any degree of seriousness (which I did). I have never, however, stopped taking Confucius seriously on his own merits rather than filtering him through the lens of the German-idealist canon.

By the Silk Road back to a green England

Again, when I left college I sought after some form of real-life service, and I found it in AmeriCorps and Peace Corps. It was in preparation for Peace Corps that I first discovered the Orthodox Church – in fact, the same church in which I would become a member after coming back from China the third time: Saint Mary’s in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. I also picked up a thin old cloth-bound volume at the Providence Athenæum, by a man who would come to be one of my foremost intellectual influences in life ever since. The book was The Russian Revolution. The man was Nikolai Berdyaev. His religious, personalist approach to the continental tradition of philosophy blew my mind: it was only on reading him that I came to understand Marxism as a religious heresy; through him and only through him, my rarefied undergraduate Marxism was transformed into something more clearly, self-awarely and cogently Christian again, something more human. He impressed me with the importance of the creative impulse even in considerations of the grand scale. He started me on the long and arduous process of holding my philosophical convictions up to life as a whole and seeing if they worked – a process I’m still on, by the way. Poets began having importance for me, too. Particularly the Qazaq Muslim poet Abai Qunanbaiuly, whose open and creative spirit in the Book of Words seemed to rhyme with what Berdyaev was saying philosophically.

I washed out of Peace Corps; partly a victim of my own bad habits, and partly a victim of bureaucratic CYA on Peace Corps’s part. I’ve got enough distance on it now where I can keep from beating myself up about it, and where I can acknowledge both my own failures and points at which the American government could have done more to help me succeed. Still – failure kicked my arse hard, sent me into a downward spiral. Reading Kurt Vonnegut helped. I didn’t do much intellectual work at all in the years to follow, even though I went back to school and took a few courses in œconomics and mathematics. I continued to delve into the moralistic Anglicanism of yore: I read William Laud and Richard Hooker and Hugh Latimer and Samuel Johnson and Ken Leach. I continued to be shaped by Gore and Maurice. I became an admirer of Newman and Pusey and the Oxford Movement. It was a beautiful socialism I wanted, a socialism fragrant with red roses and incense, a workers’ and families’ movement that bowed only before Christ the True King, and which would leave no man or woman behind, no matter how unfortunate – and sweep them all up into a glorious Renaissance polyphony of praise and thanksgiving to the Creator of All. I confess: that’s still a winged vision that I cherish.

Rebel without a class

My faith in that socialism would be deeply shaken by graduate school. I was still very much a do-gooder at heart, and I longed to be in a place where other do-gooders planned to do their good. And that place, as it turned out, was the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. (Yes, they encourage you to spell it all out that way on your résumé. I should have known then what I was getting into.)

I made close friends with the international students – the Chinese students, yes, of course, first and foremost, because I spoke Mandarin. But I also got close to Korean, Japanese, Indonesian, Bengali, Senegalese, Kirghiz and Nepalese folk in Pittsburgh – mostly grad students like myself and, to top it off, mostly fish out of water themselves. But for the most part I was withdrawn into my own shell. I studied hard. I began reading George Grant, John Ruskin, Wang Hui, Jiang Qing and Peter Viereck, and my socialism began taking a hard consciously-conservative turn. I began to distrust the élites with whom I went to school, not least because I couldn’t start to tell with most of them where the self-promotion ended and where the actual work began. My rebellion was unconscious at first, and only became conscious when I started to realise that I was basically training to become my own public relations agent. I threw myself instead into the academic side of things – like a crazy man, I undertook both a capstone project and a senior thesis (even though GSPIA only required one of the two from me). The senior thesis marked a kind of distributist turn: I wanted to turn political and social power back to the neighbourhoods, back to the black communities that the ‘big planners’ and ‘urban renewal’ types had taken so much from, and I wanted them to do it using public, common spaces.

Problem was, I was turning out to be a ‘big planner’ myself. I couldn’t help it. I had an inkling of it while I was there, but the school was essentially designed to crank out three types of people: spooks, sophisters and superintending fussbudgets. I certainly wasn’t going to be a hitman for the CIA; I’d be damned before I became a promoter of laisser-faire and ‘markets cure all’. And as for the fussbudgets, well… I almost became one. It was only Viereck and his suspicions of the bourgeois bureaucracy who largely held me back from it. As grad school ended, I had a pregnant girlfriend on an expired student visa and no medical insurance. I did the only decent thing: I married her, and I followed her back.

The perpendicularised expatriate

So, there I was. In the birthplace of Lü Bu.

Teaching English to the students of farmers, living in a Soviet-era brutalist apartment complex on the edge of the Gobi Desert in hands-down the strangest boom town I’ve ever experienced, fuelled by a heady mix of rare earths processing and consumer electronics. Listen: it was a place that, like Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, had come unstuck in time.

Sinicised ethnic Mongolians from Yuan-era families answered to English names in my classroom as they followed the soap-operatic lives of Korean comic-book characters in their textbooks. Cafeteria-quality pizza and fried chicken were served at fancy cafés with red curtains and lacquer tables, but the good food was served at the street stalls run by people from every other possible part of China. Brand spanking-new hospitals built like skyscrapers dispensed prescriptions for traditional Chinese herbs which, as often as not, worked better than the ‘scientific’ Western remedies. My daughter was happy, bless her. My wife wasn’t, bless her too. We survived mostly because we didn’t drink the damn tap water. I still get otorhinolaryngological infections from my bout with pneumonia there. But China changed me. It’s probably better to say that life changed me, because it kicked my arse. No wonder I turned into a metalhead.

China was a different country where the politics and the philosophies and the assumptions that I’d been raised with didn’t seem to apply in the same ways. I suddenly found myself with this very odd, very fierce conviction that China was screwing up, but she should be allowed to screw up in her own way. She shouldn’t have to take dictation from us, we clueless Americans and expats, who didn’t know up from down or left from right, but had still managed to delude ourselves that we knew best. Partly because I myself was so disoriented, and partly because I’m a contrarian and wanted to show myself off as clever, I began defending all of my egalitarian convictions in the language of reactionary high tradition; and my distrust of democratic liberalism with all the revolutionary stridency of Mao Zedong. How was all that supposed to work? Damn if I knew.

The people who made the most sense to me were the ordinary people. My in-laws. My students and their parents. My co-teachers, especially Vivian, whom I’ve mentioned before. China was upside-down, jumbled-up, mish-mashing its most venerable of traditions with the crassest and most gaudy possible approach to development. And yet somehow the people I worked and interacted with at the face-to-face level were sane; they were human, even in the face of these things that should not be. How? Dare I say it? Was this beauty? Was this… hope?

It may seem strange, then, but it really makes a kind of sense to me, that somehow Berdyaev should come back to me in China, smiling wryly beneath his moustache and bringing under his arm copies of Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, War, Progress and the End of History and On Spiritual Unity. Vladimir Solovyov and Aleksei Khomyakov soon joined my list of philosophical influences, and all because of what I beheld in Baotou. Somehow the apophatic spiritual politics of the Slavophils and the apocalyptically-inflected Platonism of Solovyov were able to speak wisdom to me about this perpendicularised public sphere, this orchestrated chaos that was my life – but it was a wisdom that wasn’t their own. And that was how I sought out and found Mitrophan Chin in Boston, who introduced me to Fr Sergiy Voronin at the Russian Embassy in Beijing and… well…

The Heavy Anglo-Orthodox was born out of the chaos. Queue the theme of Lü Bu.

Old faith in the old capital

I moved schools, largely for personal reasons. I became a schoolteacher at a public middle school in Luoyang. My wife was happier: we were within daily reach of her parents, and they helped us so much in raising Ellie I can’t possibly thank them enough. (The elder Chinese wisdom of the multi-generational household is old, and wisdom, for a reason – though I have to admit, at the time I was more than a bit of a freeloader.)

I was left quite a bit to my own devices in following the dictates of my conscience and adapting myself to the faith that had suddenly visited me. Mostly, those dictates involved watching terrible B-movies and playing Smash Bros. with my next-door neighbour and best friend in Luoyang. I got good at playing several characters, but was still most comfortable with Marth. I took on a prayer rule. I fasted. And I read Russian Orthodox authors. Saint Filaret of Moscow; Saint John of Kronstadt; Konstantin Pobedonostsev. I became an insufferable traddie for a little while, and annoyed everyone with the fasting rules I tried so hard to keep. It was not the best of foundations to build on, but I tried my hardest to build on it with what tools I had to hand.

For the time being, I was philosophically stagnant. Philosophy wouldn’t save me; I had to put it aside. I didn’t cease being interested in œconomic or political questions, though – I read some works by Fr Sergey Bulgakov, and also some by my father’s old friend and colleague, the late Dr Jaroslav Vaněk, about the heterodox political œconomy of Yugoslavia, and came away with a newfound interest in gæopolitics wherein I found myself more and more often taking the side of the victims of empire and the resisters of neoliberalism, wherever they happened to be. A rather ironic position to be in, for a Henan nüxu 河南女婿 living in a city of peonies, the very heart of what was for much of human history the most powerful empire in the world. But neoliberal – Henan is not. My father-in-law is a businessman and entrepreneur, but (as I came to learn during my time living with him) he’s got opinions which occasionally range well to the left of my own on questions of œconomy and gæopolitics.

My son Albert was born in Henan, same as his sister Ellie. I got to see him and hold him for a couple of weeks before I had to return to the United States, which I did in advance of my wife.

Homeward bound

I returned home in the middle of 2015 and began looking for work. This would begin one of my long stretches of unemployment where it was pressed firmly home to me, just how little I’d learnt from graduate school these seemingly all-important lessons about being a self-promoter. (I’m not one.) I attended Saint Mary’s Antiochian, and befriended several people there – one of whom hooked me up with an internship at a policy research group: the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council; later I would get a job at EAB, which is how I ended up in the Twin Cities. I gush about Arabic hospitality, but I really could stand to gush quite a bit more than I do. It is really only owing to the efforts of the wonderful, caring people who worship at Saint Mary’s Antiochian – particularly Fr Elie Estephan and his contacts in the legal world – that my wife is living with me in the United States now, and that we are once again a united family. To him and to the Saint Mary’s family as they prayed for me and supported me both spiritually and materially, I truly owe a lifelong debt.

Intellectually, I sustained myself on history: the history of agrarian movements in Eastern Europe; the history of third-party politics at home. Movements of language, cultures and peoples fascinated me. I became consciously interested in the people living in the margins, at the crossroads, on the borders, between the cracks. The crucified peoples of the world. It became a desire of mine to stand with them and to share their suffering, in however small a degree. I got my wish. Not in the way I would have hoped, but I got it all the same. I was fired. Some bare six months after my family had come here.

Unemployment sucks. Even for someone like me, who understands all the pitfalls of our meritocratic mythology and of Lockean contractarianism, being unemployed feels like a failure of manhood. The literature which could best give voice to my pain was proletarian and immigrant: the novels of Carpatho-Rusin immigrant Thomas Bell, who understood all too well the slow dehumanisation that takes place for the unemployed. The consciousness of being an object of pity. It was through this unemployment period that I came to sympathise far more strongly and in a far more visceral way with the plight of workers. Before, in my Marxist phase, I had considered them only in abstraction. Now I was among them, one of them. Material conditions suddenly mattered a great deal more; when you don’t have money, worrying about anything else seems like a luxury. The working-class Rusins who had come here from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a people truly marginalised and between the cracks, had understood this. They found strength in their faith, but they still organised and fought. And suffered. And died. And those who lived, and were literate, wrote through their suffering. In this writing I found consolation, and a will to fight.

The Platonic machinist

I’m still processing from my year of reading Plato, which began when I was still employed at EAB. Actually, I began reading Plato in part because I felt it necessary to understand the historical reasons behind the rise of a certain political figure. But I found that Plato wasn’t necessarily as interested in history as he was in the same questions that drove Confucius: what is justice? What is the Good? What do these things look like (and act like) in the human being? And he had a way of approaching the question which shook all my certainties and made me feel completely, philosophically inadequate to the task.

I also found that the Plato who wrote and left his Dialogues was a very different Plato than the Plato of the public imagination. The Plato of the public imagination is a great abstracter, a kind of proto-Gnostic – someone more concerned with the realm of the ideal than with the demands of life here and now. But the Plato of the Dialogues was very much this-earthly; he was very much concerned with how we are to behave in the here-and-now, with how we justify ourselves and our actions, with how we deceive ourselves with various approximations of the truth which are not actually the truth. For Plato the Forms are not their own end, but a practical exercise which we use to approach and measure ourselves against the Good. He used a gæometric exercise – that is, he used Forms – to convince Meno’s slave that what he thought he knew wasn’t actually true, and to prompt Meno’s slave to figure out for himself (or rather, to ‘remember’) how to reason for himself toward the truth. Though Plato may have been an élitist, his emphasis on knowing led me to a new appreciation for manual labour. There is no shame in it when I became an hourly wage-earning machine operator here.

I didn’t abandon interest in history, though. In our current gæopolitical mess, I found I had to become interested in China’s Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods, in which Chinese thinkers had to grapple with the behaviours and problems of states in an environment of international anarchy. It’s not surprising, given my reading of Jiang Qing, that I would turn to the Gongyang Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals; what did surprise me was how realist it was, in spite of (or maybe because of) its eschatological fixations. It charted a kind of grand-historical ‘fall from grace’, and it drew careful distinctions between what was laudable, what was acceptable, what was possible and what was outright wrong. Only suddenly, at the end, are we treated to a kind of flashing eschatological hope – the arrival of the qilin, a prefiguration of the intrusion of Christ into history.

Dong Zhongshu, the great interpreter of the Gongyang Commentary and the father of an entire philological-hermeneutic tradition that would include He Xiu, Gong Zizhen, Wei Yuan, Lin Zexu, Kang Youwei and Jiang Qing, became another great philosophical influence on me. He took the philosophy of Confucius, and – applying it to history, seeing the outworkings of Tian in the historical records – transmogrified it into an intense, demanding form of personalism, a witness to the Heavenly personality of persons, a personalism which had definite political ramifications. This again brought me back to the personalism of Berdyaev.

The unlikely places

Alien Qazaqs were my dear friends;
Chaotic China my sanity;
Wise Greeks my cloud of unknowing;
New England Arab refugees my anchor;
Stateless Rusins my consolation.

Hatched east of the Mississippi,
Migrant to the seaboard,
My whole life I looked east.
Further and further thence I flew in my search,
Only to roost on the western bank.

I think I’ve done a fairly good run-down here, of where I’ve been the past nine years – and, incidentally, drawn up a decent list of my more important intellectual influences and guiding spirits along the way: Plato, Confucius, Dong Zhongshu, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, John Ruskin, Karl Marx, Aleksei Khomyakov, Abai Qunanbayuli, Vladimir Solovyov, Nikolai Berdyaev, George Grant, Wang Hui and Jiang Qing. Gathering up all the fragments, perhaps there is a pattern to be seen there. Or perhaps not. Even if there isn’t a pattern (or rather, better to say, there is a pattern but it is for God’s eyes and not for mine except in the fullness of time), what I’ve seen of life, even the ugliest and hardest parts of it, is still beautiful and still to be cherished.

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