My wife has two lovely aprons for wear while cooking. I do not.
In consequence, my wife has many lovely, unstained clothes. I do not.
Why don’t I wear an apron when I am preparing food? This is a question I have pondered many times. Am I careless? Forgetful? Slow? The true answer, like most true answers, is at once simpler and more complex—I do not wear an apron because I am preparing food, and not cooking, and the difference between these things is precisely an apron.
Every time my wife dons an apron, it is a ritual—a small gesture of connection that links her to generations of human beings who have expressed the love to which God calls all of us through the feeding of their families, their friends, and their communities. As she steps into the unfurled apron, she steps into what, in the technical terms of Feminine Essentialism, we would call a function—a rôle that subsumes the ego in the expression of a divine archetype. We might say of the apron and the function it expresses that, just as Thomas Mann wrote of the notion of the “self” in antiquity, it is “open behind; it receive[s] much from the past and by repeating it [gives] it presentness again.” (Mann, p. 424) By that presentness, the actualized person lives wholly in the moment of eternity. In the apron, my wife is a cook, and the action is a meditation and a oneness.
Apronless, I do not cook, but simply prepare food as a kind of unavoidable interruption from whatever it is I am actually doing. I am never a cook, but only a father, writer, repairman, conversationalist, or whatever else the moment demands, who happens to have stolen into the kitchen for a transient moment to fix something. Predictably, my food is never as good as my wife’s, even when I bring all of my technical skill to bear. More importantly, even when filling, it is never fulfilling. I have gained nothing by the act of preparing food except having food to eat.
I watch my wife put on her aprons with close attention. The attention I give to the news is much more distant, and yet I can’t avoid catching a headline on the internet or a soundbite in passing on the radio. So it is that I hear of men and women campaigning to be president, and I notice that none of them, for all the teams of handlers and years of preparation and millions of dollars that go into a presidential campaign, has bothered to dress the part. Kings and pharaohs, no less than housewives, once had their rituals in act and dress by which they stepped out of themselves and into the function of ruler—a ritual by which they gave up themselves in order to become the state (as Louis XIV so memorably expressed it).
Those who seek to be our rulers, however, do not do this. In their own minds, I am sure they imagine that they might seem common—as though the regalia of an empress might somehow suggest that they were full of themselves. The irony, of course, is that the regalia represented a self-emptying. It is our candidates—our would-be rulers—who remain full of themselves by remaining in the suits that denote their assumed, quotidian function as businesspeople. We should hardly be surprised when a candidate dressed for a boardroom tells us they can fix the country by running it more like a business.
This, of course, is a gross confusion of the functions of merchantry and statecraft. Yet it might just be a serviceable attitude if they expressed the function of a merchant with fidelity, but they do not, for the truth is that they express no function at all. They are creatures of petty ego who, rather than seeking to identify themselves with a rôle, scheme to identify a rôle with themselves. Candidate X does not dream that Candidate X might become the president, but that the president might become Candidate X.
They do this for the admittedly understandable reason that it is all they have ever seen done. While the Decline of the Ages is an axiom of Traditional thought, that decline is not limited to one path of expression. As Miss Alice Lucy Trent so clearly perceived, the decline of our world-age need not have meant the collapse of what is termed “the Eclipse” (2010, 104ff). The collapse of our society has come about, in substantial part, from an end of mythic identification—a closing of the functions that were once open behind that has left our egos to wander the world on the authority of their own names only, like so many bereft, impoverished actors without costumes. That closure has been a long time in coming, but it has been sealed in the past hundred years or more by a series of fateful moral choices, by which those who held responsibility for the governance of our society at every level abandoned it, twisting the institutions and traditions safeguarded to them into instruments of their own egoic will. A betrayed society has thus learned to put confidence in no one and trust in nothing, and to banish sacredness from the Earth.
If anyone doubts that this is so, let her consider her loyalties. As recently as the 1950s, it was expected that most people would hold strong loyalties to the communities in which they were raised, being loyal citizens of the state and active members of community associations. It was expected that most people would be loyal employees of their companies also, working decades for the same firm, often the very one that had given them their initial break out of school or training. Today, things work differently. It is expected that the ordinary working adult will relocate several times, severing her links to the community in which she grew up and inhibiting her formation of new ties even in the communities she comes to. As this relocation becomes increasingly multinational, it challenges even the bonds of citizenship, and people are increasingly disaffected by, and disassociated from, their own countries. To the frequent international traveler or multinational businessman, the peculiarities of nations and the distinctiveness of local governments are just so many more layers of red tape.
Is it, then, that these old loyalties to the community and the state have been compensated in their loss by an increase in loyalties along economic lines? Not at all. At the same time that workers have become more and more expected to abandon their communities at the bidding of their employers, they have become increasingly expected to regularly abandon their employers, or to be abandoned by them. Company changes, and even whole career changes, are now almost as commonplace as relocations. Without broaching an even more controversial subject, I might invite the reader to consider whether contemporary divorce statistics bear some affinity to these phenomena as well.
It is in this climate of constant suspicion and scheming for the benefit of the narrowly-conceived “self” that our politicians present themselves in suits. If they meant to embody the function of many merchants past—living above the shops they stewarded, taking on employees as apprentices to groom for greater things one day, or even just, in the manner of degenerate mid-century capitalism, thinking forward to retiring their workers with a livable pension and a gold watch—we might get by. But these are not really merchants hoping to become president and bring their skills to the rôle; they are just individuals popping into the corridors of power as a kind of detour from something else they are doing. They are not even aspiring to be rulers; they are simply preparing means to do their will.
And so we, almost unavoidably, resist them. Active mistrust of, and resistance to, our governments has become almost the definition of ‘responsible citizenship’ for millions of people—a process witnessed with ever-increasing intensity in the United States since 2001. If it is objected that most governments now give their citizens ample cause to mistrust and resist them, this only lends an additional layer of tragedy to the scene.
We are caught in a Chinese finger trap. As anyone who has played with one knows, the harder someone tries to pull her fingers out of the trap, the more firmly stuck they become. In the same way, the abusive order of our society stokes disloyalty and prompts resistance. The more we resist, however—the more the bonds of loyalty dissolve—the more we accelerate the very processes of atomization and self-interest that underlie the abusiveness of our societal order. There is only one way to escape from a Chinese finger trap, and that is by bringing one’s fingers together, not at all unlike bringing one’s hands together behind one’s back to tie a pair of apron strings.
Mann, Thomas. Essays of Three Decades. Translated by H.T. Lowe-Porter. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1948.
Trent, Alice Lucy. The Feminine Universe. The Golden Order Press. (1997) 2010.