Truth: Literal and Fluid (10/12/09)

I would argue that what we call ‘the truth’—along with the commonly encountered belief that we can arrive at some final and definitive answer to the question “What is ultimately real?”—are meaningless and unattainable because, given the inherent imperfections and inadequacies of the human intellect, the answer would make about as much sense to us as quantum physics makes even to the most gifted and talented baboon or poodle.  What our experience—in both its nakedly immediate and carefully sifted forms—reveals to us is a vast and multilayered process that is in a state of continual flux, wherein all values, convictions, and relationships are ceaselessly being renegotiated below the more or less stable surface of our lives.  At any moment, the most that any of us can perceive—even the wisest, those with the most comprehensive consciousness and the profoundest self-awareness—is an infinitesimally small portion of this all-inclusive, fluid whole.  And if we bother to take the time and exert the effort to articulate our limited vision of things in a grand system or a philosophical theory, we will soon find, to our surprise and consternation, that things have already moved on to a distinctly new phase.  We realize with a sigh of despair that we saw only a tiny sliver of the whole.  To make things even more dubious, our honesty bids us admit that we perceived that tiny portion through the distorting, restrictive lens of our imperfect theory, and that our theory should be regarded as little more than a feeble ‘action sketch’ of a moving animal that converts like Proteus into one form after another.

A practically ubiquitous defense against the daunting epistemological and metaphysical implications of the unstable, blinkered condition in which we actually live is the psychologically disreputable stance known as literalism.  Literalism is the (usually unconscious) habit of artificially ‘freezing’ our fluid experience into a generally manageable cluster of static chunks.  Then, to further stabilize these frozen chunks of deceptively familiar experience, we systematically ignore everything concerning these manageable chunks that might arouse misgivings about the subtle acts of falsification we are continually, if unwittingly, committing.  A proven and reliable method of suppressing any doubts and misgivings we may have (about the legitimacy and adequacy of our understanding of things) is to relentlessly repeat our habitual, routine rituals with those manageable chunks of our pitifully limited experience.  This method, when perfected, has a hypnotic effect upon us, so that we remain convinced that our tiny sliver of the whole of possible experience is a perfectly adequate microcosm or substitute for that unknown, inexperienced whole.  Epistemologically speaking, you might say that we are ‘the self-deluding species.’

It should be noted that literalizing—this virtually universal intellectual vice of radically delimiting and then mentally freezing manageable slivers of the living whole of potential experience—is an intellectual operation, only in part, and much more decisively an affectively charged one.  The dominant affect, of course, is fear.  Fear of instability, mutability, insecurity, uncontrollability, uncertainty, etc.  Roughly speaking, fear freezes, but desire thaws.  Desire, therefore, entails risk because, at some level, it must allow life, thought, and passion to advance in their own way, and they may move (or gallop) into conditions or situations that are heedless of our preferences and which disturb our comfort levels.  Therefore, fear serves as a counterweight against urgent desire.  It dampens and suppresses it, lest the fragile and brittle clamp of control is shattered by a sudden burst of explosive desire.  Fear, along with the habits of thought and feeling that it undergirds, is perhaps the principal binding agent holding society together in a more or less stable but motley mass.  The desire for freedom—of the heart, of the spirit, of the desires, of voice and behavior—is nurtured always at the risk of our being ostracized or shunned by the security-preoccupied mass, for the heat of deep and genuine (as opposed to tepid and programmed) desire is threatening to the thick ‘ice sheet’ that holds the fitful mass in place, as it inches along like a glacier.  The melting of such glaciers, incidentally, is not something that anyone in his right mind would wish for—and for obvious reasons.

 

Self-knowledge and Self-control (2/23/20)

Many wake up regularly to some turbid emotional state or nebulous, lurking mood. It is the unsettling ones that vie for our attention, especially when their causes are mysterious and unknown to us. When I am able to represent my mood or emotional state to myself in apt words or mental images, there is an accompanying sense of relief—even if it’s only momentary. Somehow, the mental act of reflecting on the emotion and finding expressive form for it leaves me feeling slightly less trapped or bound by it. (Perhaps for this very reason, many persons are reluctant to reflect in this way upon their joyful, exuberant moods, lest they lose their magical, uplifting power when we ‘step back,’ coolly, from them.)

It seems that in the very process of finding language to represent and express these otherwise mute, murky moods and mysterious emotions, I am able to avoid two errors I committed more frequently in the past. One error was to simply and unreflectively act out the emotion—to become its ‘meat puppet’ or unconscious plaything. The other mistake was to passively succumb to the emotion, to mope and squirm, to become more or less paralyzed or inundated by it. In both cases I would fail to do what I now make every attempt to do: come to conscious terms with the mood or affect by means of creative-interpretive engagement.

I’m trying to become something of a horse-whisperer—or a dog-, cat-, snake-, bat-, termite-whisperer—with my emotions since, in some ways, they are akin to live animal-souls. Who will disagree when I say that our desires, fears, hopes, and other passions move us into and through life? And, conversely, when our passions and desires die or sink into a kind of hibernation or a depressed condition, life and our relationships with others often lose much of their former vitality or attractiveness. Whatever power or freedom we achieve in our lives and choices depends to a large extent, then, upon our learning how to unveil and represent ourselves to ourselves—and secondarily, to those with whom we are significantly related.

When we feel trapped and reduced to a miserable state of impotence by our poorly understood, but tremendously forceful, moods and emotions, we are far more likely to do unintentional harm to ourselves and to those we love. Powerful passions—like jealousy, anger, terror, pride, melancholy, and sexual hunger, when raised to a high pitch of intensity—quickly and decisively overwhelm and enslave a weak, undisciplined, or deluded mind. Likewise, manic, depressive, and paranoid moods overtake and diabolically possess a mind that helplessly identifies with the mood instead of doing everything in its limited power to break that spell of identification by willfully stepping back from the otherwise engulfing mood.

As soon as we become identified with a mood or passion, we consign ourselves to mental and emotional slavery. Nevertheless, such enslavement does not always leave us feeling deflated or reduced. Passions—like all polaristic phenomena—have light and dark, positive and negative, modes. Like large magnetic fields, passion-spectrums have what may be thought of as attractive and deflective poles, and the greater the magnitude or intensity of the passion, the greater will be our need for managing and moderating our relationship with the passion. Relationship (which is always between two distinct things or forces) is different from identification, where the weaker force is absorbed or swallowed up by the stronger force. Persons who know—or care—nothing about moderating and wisely tempering their conscious relationship with their passions and desires frequently regard those who earnestly guard against ensnarement by the positive and negative poles of the emotions as ‘cold’ or ‘detached’—somehow less than ‘fully human.’ The free soul certainly responds to charged emotional situations and events quite differently than do these unfortunate slaves of passion.

Strong passions and moods, fears and desires, naturally produce biases that steer and color our thinking. Like the nearby magnetic field that moves iron filings into specific patterns on the paper, our conscious thoughts invisibly conform with the general bias of the fear, desire, hope, etc.—to buttress and intellectually reinforce the ‘picture’ projected by the prejudicial passion. If there is any ‘rule for the direction of the mind’ that bears repeating, again and again, lest we forget it, it is this one: the ‘rational’ arguments we make, along with the evidence we select to support our arguments, are almost invariably determined, from below, by the bias of our passions which, as often as not, are taken for granted as axiomatic and beyond dispute.

Obviously, insofar as we are committed to a larger, more comprehensive vision and understanding of things—an understanding that is not completely subservient to our unexamined, governing desires, fears, hopes, delusions, etc.—we must be willing and able to investigate and identify all those influencing background passions and desires. Together, these constitute the ‘colored lens’ through which we behold the world and conceive of our place in that world.

Some Reflections on Oedipus Tyrannus (12/14/17)

mama  I don’t know if this somber and weighty mood I’m experiencing today is an aftershock following my re-reading of Oedipus Tyrannus, but, given the wallop this ancient text always delivers, how can there not be a connection? The tragedy is sublimely humbling to the human – insofar as Oedipus’s predicament in the play represents the ego’s inevitable fate: to always be attempting to avoid what it suspects to be its horrible destiny; but the more it runs, the tighter become the coils that bind it to that fate. That fate is not so much death as it is something far more crushing, mocking, diminishing—something that springs from the buried, unexamined links between our most unacceptable, ‘shameful’ desires and our most paralyzing terrors. Moreover, it entails a painfully conscious recognition and digestion of one’s ultimate and utter insignificance vis-à-vis the Gods and nature.

Before this realization sinks in, we see a marked impetuosity and managerial mania in the character of Oedipus. Sophocles succeeds – at least with this reader – in punching the wind out of the belly, leaving one writhing helplessly on the ground. Even so clever and beloved a savior of the city (of Thebes, by answering the riddle of the Sphinx) as Oedipus cannot extricate himself from the ever-tightening coils of Pythia’s prophecy (named after the Python-serpent slain by Apollo). As ‘tyrannos,’ he is the self-made, self-authorized ruler of the Thebans. He seized or claimed this authority after demonstrating his superiority – and yet the conditions that enable and legitimize his rise (by killing his father, Laius, and marrying his mother, Jocasta the queen) are the very fulfillment of his curse. The fact that the abominable acts and his investiture as ruler are two sides of the same coin is crucial: those who are first (citizens) will be last (the most fallen).

No one, it seems, who registers the full weight and impact of these sobering, chastening truths about our ultimate irrelevance and insignificance as separate egos, could ever again—with a clear conscience or robust enthusiasm—chase after empty honors, exotic pleasures and luxuries, or any of the countless distractions and diversions available to man – but would gratefully make do with enough. What does a thoroughgoing digestion of this overwhelming insight into the puniness of even the most proud and prominent specimens of humanity – the Pharaohs, the heroes, the Caesars, the holy Roman emperors, the Napoleons – lead to? Doesn’t it make it impossible to go back to the cramped old anthropocentric perspective, where such childlike hero-worship is still possible? It is in this sense that Oedipus Tyrannus is unmistakably a religious work of the highest order – if one of the chief functions of religion is to reveal to man his actual place in the grand scheme of things – and to make him feel it. Does such a humbling and purging realization necessarily or invariably crush or permanently cripple us – so that we are thereafter consigned to a pessimistic paralysis, unable to work up any further enthusiasm for existence?

I would say it all depends on how much resilient strength of soul there is to begin with. Certainly there are plenty of spirits that are broken by gentler impacts than the one considered here – persons whose will to press on through life is extinguished under lighter weights than this. But for other, few in number, this is precisely what is called for in order to balance and temper their oversized spirits properly. No doubt, it is fortunate for most of us that our minds – unlike that of the relentlessly probing Oedipus – have an instinctive awareness of where to shrink back and stop asking questions the answers to which we are scarcely strong and brave enough to withstand. Perhaps this helps to account for why Oedipus Tyrannus won only second and not first place the year it competed in the drama festival at Athens! Its true impact, while powerfully sensed, failed nonetheless to be fully acknowledged even by perhaps the most spiritually resilient audiences ever to fill a theater.

It would be foolhardy not to frankly acknowledge the double-edged or equivocal character of this initiatory vision – this staggering insight into human insignificance, blindness, and fragility. The peculiar light that floods the mind during such momentous initiatory experiences cannot help but have a destabilizing effect upon our familiar bearings. From the standpoint of our established understanding of things, the inrush of light, rather than merely illuminating and valorizing that understanding, exposes its grave limitations and gaping inadequacies. Some “victims” of this flood of penetrating-exposing light (from the unconscious?) never really recover from the shattering ordeal. Like a literal tsunami that sweeps over a coastal town, the flood of light dissolves and washes away all those once trusted, once-stable structures. “Madness” is one name for such fateful encounters with this transgressive and irrational light (or is it a kind of darkness?) from beyond the usually secure perimeter of the human, all too human.

This exposing, disruptive light – and I am proposing that Sophocles’ play has artfully embedded within it a spark or scintilla of this equivocal light – both reveals and, in a sense, magnifies what is already there in the character of those it penetrates like an X-ray. What does Oedipus’ self-blinding tell us about his fundamental character? By ensuring thereafter that he could never again look upon those his actions, however unintentional, had wronged or desecrated, his blinding suggests that he still adhered to notions of taboo (against father-slaying and mother-laying) that, for another character might have been rendered null and void by the very light that throws the human conventional domain into dwarfish irrelevance. It is precisely this property of the equivocal, transcendent light – its inherently transgressive character, “beyond good and evil” – that makes it so potentially undermining of salutary, civilizing human laws and institutions – including the incest taboo and religious proscriptions against parricide and matricide.

Are we getting close, here, to the reasons why religion has been regularly and systematically tamed by those, ever a minority, who astutely recognized just how dangerous and destructive it can be in undiluted, uncompromising doses? By selectively emphasizing only (or mostly) its civically and morally edifying powers and potentials, these teachers, poets, philosophers, and prophets labored to transmute a potentially lethal and maddening substance into one of civilized humanity’s principal supports and comforts! No small feat. Was Carl Jung, who surely knew, firsthand, of the equivocal power of religion – with its rootedness in the archetypes – one such artful, philanthropic tamer of (explosive-corrosive-animating-electrifying) religious materials? Was he attempting, with the other hand, to recover its lost or watered-down power to turn our lives upside down? While reading Jung, we cannot fail to notice the indisputable sense of awe with which he confronts the mystery of the unconscious. And, for him, the unconscious was the true source of “religious” or numinous experience, as it has forever been for all genuine initiates and “victims” of that transcendent-transgressive light.

Contrast Jung’s reverential, respectful stance towards the numinous with the comparatively dismissive, cavalier, or patently hostile attitude towards religion that we see in Voltaire and most Enlightenment philosophes (including our Founding Fathers, as “deists” and diehard rationalists), and it is difficult to imagine that the latter had any feel or natural susceptibility for the numinous core of religion. For them, it was simply superstition and delusions—which, to be fair, it certainly can be for those who lack openness to the numinous. Nevertheless, it was recognized that religion—because of its ‘irrational,’ spellbinding appeal and its power to override commonsense as a compass and guide for some persons—had to be controlled through the spread of “rational enlightenment,” which was to supersede and supplant religion by exposing its roots in childlike or primitive beliefs. Thus, the separation of Church (which is not synonymous with “religion,” as I am treating it here) and State was a relatively superficial or peripheral matter.

A far more significant campaign against genuine religious (transcendent-numinous) experience sprang from the general elevation or exaltation of (scientific/pragmatic) rationality to an authoritative status that had never before been dared by our ancestors. (Something akin to this was underway in the Athenian Enlightenment—with the rise of ‘atheistic,’ tradition-eroding, skeptical Sophists—when Sophocles wrote Oedipus Tyrannus, partly as a warning to his fellow Greeks, as Bernard Knox argues in his excellent study, Oedipus of Thebes.) Thus a rather narrowly defined (but materially transformative and momentous) form of human rationality was raised, by design and via “modern education,” to a position of unprecedented authority over human affairs. Religion was implicitly demoted in dignity and authority in this “transvaluative” campaign conducted by proud, “enlightened” men on both sides of the Atlantic. It would take some time – after the intoxicating “high” of this myth of progress by means of pragmatic reasoning began to wear off, following a couple of world wars – before a sizable number of reflective persons began to realize that modern rationality had no bottom or grounding to it – and that it was essentially just instrumental, a mere method. Moreover, there was no natural aim or teleology to it, unlike ancient (ontological-speculative) reason.

Sorting as a Mode of Thinking (5/23/17—Cajabamba, Peru)

The analytical thinker approaches most situations, problems, and experiences in much the same way that one might approach a giant ball of knotted and confused, multicolored threads, with the objective of untangling and carefully separating the various colors. Everything is present—right there in front of you—before you begin the work of differentiating and separating. But it is a massa confusa—a veritable chaos that invites patient organization into cosmos. The confusion of the initial state will not sort itself out if we leave it be—but it will allow us to disentangle the knotted and intertwined threads if we go about our work carefully and patiently—like mental spiders. As soon as we attempt to rush things or we lose our patience, we run the risk of severing important threads or merely adding to the confusion by pulling and tightening knots instead of loosening them.

Persons who have not taken the trouble to learn how to think their way into and out of these labyrinthine situations (that constitute the great bulk of everyday human experience, when viewed with a high-powered, critical lens) are routinely being devoured by some Minotaur or another. Those, on the other hand, who are both courageous and patient enjoy the kind assistance of Ariadne. Brute strength is never enough, by itself, to unravel the riddles of the psyche. We psychologists cannot suppress a laugh at that mighty conqueror, Alexander, who brazenly hacked at the Gordian knot. Few historical anecdotes better convey the decline of Greek subtlety that accompanied the rise of ‘barbaric’ Macedonian imperialism.

Knot-work, like ‘wu-wei,’ tempers and restrains the aggressive and fiery impulses—allowing things, persons, and situations to open up before us at their own deliberate pace—in their own measured time. Weaving and unweaving, tying and untying, saying and unsaying, making and unmaking: what knowledge must we first master before such Janus-faced virtues and abilities can be earned? Those who categorically disparage analytical thinking—and they are legion—should perhaps not be trusted with our ‘valuables,’ for they know not their true worth.

It is not difficult to track down the various and sundry sources of such sweeping condemnation of discriminative thinking. ‘Sour grapes’ of one sort or another can almost always be found hanging just out of easy reach of such condemners. Perhaps they yearned for those mature and tasty grapes but lacked the patience and earnestness needed to obtain them and, in a fit of exasperation, deemed them ‘sour’ and of no worth to anyone but a fool! Or perhaps they were the unfortunate victims of a malicious critical thinker whose numerous scalpel and stiletto incisions left them scarred, their minds irremediably prejudiced against all sharp-edged implements—which, as we know, can heal, as well as hurt, depending on whose hands wield the blade.

 

 

A Note concerning Moral Integrity (11/9/17)

In the struggle to live a life of moral and psychological integrity, we undertake the greatest and noblest challenge posed to us – beyond that, even, of mere survival and the protection of our loved ones. It is no secret that the face that we present to the world and the actual medley of contradictions, weaknesses, dangerous proclivities, and uncertainties that lurk behind our concealing mask seldom coincide. So great are the social pressures and inducements to hide these disturbing and problematic features of our inner selves that we are practically compelled to be (white or outright) liars and hypocrites – persons living double lives. Thus, one must really cherish honesty above all other virtues before it is possible to make serious headway against peer pressure and collective opinion. If we value social success and broad acceptance by others more than honesty and transparency/authenticity, we will inevitably feel compelled to conceal those irksome and unsightly features and facts about ourselves that are likely to provoke disapproval or social ostracism. If we wish to protect those close to us from truths that are likely to jeopardize their trust, admiration, and love for us, we may resort to deceit and disguise in order to preserve the status quo.

The courage required to act with independence in the face of the contemptible crowd of unworthy and inferior judges must not be poisoned by hatred or filled with blinding hostility, for this is likely to lead to misanthropic bitterness and tormenting alienation. The proper attitude of the brave and honest soul towards the fickle, distracted multitude is that of a wise and wary parent towards unruly children – or that of a traveler towards a pack of hounds encountered on the road. Self-command is the key here. The unruly children and the pack of dogs are always looking for any sign of fear or weakness in us – some affect or blind spot that can be provoked and exploited to knock us off balance.

Talent, Conscience, and Discipline (2/20/13)

Having learned that I can do certain things that not everyone can do so well or so naturally, I feel obliged to exercise those talents and abilities, do I not? The very idea of wasting or neglecting such ‘God-given’ talents is morally abhorrent to me—and not merely in my own case, but as far as all of us are concerned. Along with our gifts comes a kind of conscience that spurs us towards the opening up and full development of those gifts. I might add that this conscience (with spurs) operates independently from the social, financial, and other extrinsic encouragements to realize these talents and abilities. In many cases we must summons the will and determination to give priority to our highest (or most spiritually-psychologically fulfilling) capacities while others—our parents, teachers, counselors, recruiters, peers, etc.—pressure us to settle for the exercise of some lesser (or less challenging and less genuinely fulfilling) talent. It is certainly proper, here, to speak of such gifts and talents as a person’s ‘calling.’ To neglect or miss one’s calling, or proper vocation, is, in effect, to betray one’s life and inborn purpose. Since this is no trivial matter, it makes perfect psychological sense that this powerful—and perhaps ineradicable—conscience is essentially bound up with our most distinctive and demanding innate talents and gifts. Even if a person is highly successful, say, in the business world or in a law career, but has won that success and those financial rewards by ignoring and suppressing his deeper calling to be a musician, writer, pastor, or painter, he will find little true comfort and satisfaction with his wealth and social success—because of the self-betrayal that they are built upon and attempt, with mixed success, to cover up.

In many—perhaps most—cases, a person’s natural talents comfortably and smoothly match up with jobs and opportunities that are amply provided by society and the actual economy. For such persons, the happy marriage between calling and active fulfillment is not all that difficult to pull off. A broad and complex economy offers many opportunities for such match-ups between talent and fulfillment. But not all talents and gifts can be nurtured and supported properly by readily available positions within even a booming and diversified economy. Sometimes, our talents and gifts—those crucial, innate capacities and predispositions that constitute our true calling—are extremely difficult or impossible to match up with professional (or paying) careers in our midst, except for a tiny handful of extraordinary specimens or prodigies. What is such a person to do? If he or she is thus prevented from earning a living wage by the development and exercise of his/her crucial talent or gift, then what?

This is where the first test of our loyalty to our given talents—our true calling—is confronted. We’ll call this the economic test. This test arises whenever a person finds it difficult or impossible to pursue and practice his/her calling for a living wage. In such circumstances, something will have to suffer—unless the person is financially supported by patronage of some sort. Either economic privations or the pangs of conscience (for neglecting one’s calling) will have to be endured. To the extent that we are spiritually fulfilled by the development and exercise of our talents (say, as a poet, a philosopher, a glassblower, an opera singer, painter, Kabuki actor, etc.), we will be able to tolerate or even overlook the ‘reduced’ economic circumstances to which we are thus consigned.

The second big challenge we shall call the social-conventional test—for here we are up against the pressure to neglect our ‘impractical’ talents in order to pursue the more common and easily accessible rewards available to those who conform to prevailing norms and conventions. The more uncommon and individual (i.e., ‘unconventional’) our deepest talents are, the more their full development will set us apart from the norms, tastes, values, and easy apprehension of the generality. Collective consciousness—the so-called ‘public mind’—tends to be insensitive or oblivious to the bold innovations, the subtle distinctions and other ‘demanding’ features of truly individual thought, feeling, and expression—preferring bland generalities and flattened, familiar commonplaces that are effortlessly imbibed. Therefore, anyone who seriously devotes his best energies and care to the development of his own individual ‘voice’ and expressive style must be prepared to weather the indifference, and often the muted contempt, of the ‘distracted multitude.’ Unfortunately, the distracted multitude frequently includes many of those near and dear to us. They may not intend any harm, but their incapacity or unwillingness to properly appreciate the ‘exotic’ fruits of our calling sets them apart from us just as surely as our exacting conscience sets us apart from them. Hence, a kind of loneliness not infrequently accompanies the development of our genuinely individual gifts.

Of course, the pain of such loneliness tends to be most acute for those whose hopes for the approving response of others are strongest and most urgently pressing—but who have yet to fully develop their gifts. Once these are fully matured, they tend to be sufficiently rewarding so as to partially neutralize or counteract the pain of being misunderstood or under-appreciated. When our gifts—our calling—are are fully awakened and operative, they carry and support our inner lives so capably that the need for such external props and encouragements diminishes almost to nothing.

On Nietzsche’s Captivating Rhetoric (1/31/18)

When a writer regularly employs such flagrantly attention-getting language – the sorts of stylistic and button-pushing literary tactics that virtually anyone who can read will often find irresistible – we have to wonder what kind of audience he is trying to reach with such pyrotechnical prose, and what he wants to do with them once he’s got their attention. Nietzsche, despite his “aristocratic,” anti-democratic views and values, is incongruously popular, from all I can tell. He appears to be more widely read and enjoyed (regardless of whether he is being properly understood) than most other philosophers. Plato often wrote beautifully and lucidly, but despite his enormous influence, it would be stretching things to say that he is popularly read, even when selections from the Apology, the Symposium, and the Republic are required reading in most prep schools and honors programs. The same may be said of Aristotle, Machiavelli, Bacon, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, and that other truly great stylist, Schopenhauer.

Socrates seems (from Plato’s “artfully” recorded dialogues with him as the central figure) to have tailored his speeches to the particular qualities of the person he was addressing. Nietzsche says he selects his proper reader through his technique of scaring away all but his rightful audience, but he seems to have underestimated his charm – or overestimated his power to “scare” away the wrong or unready readers.

Means of Conveyance (9/11/13)

The ‘conveyor belt’ image that I have employed in a number of essays stands for many things. At the cultural or societal level it stands for collective habits that have either been passed down or inherited as customary practices from our forebears (like monogamy, going to church on Sunday, taking summer vacations, etc.) or they are relatively new (like using cell phones and ‘texting,’ mandatory auto- and health-insurance, internet shopping, etc.) and are ‘sold’ to us by corporations via their marketing-government-lobbying arms. To the extent that these collective habits are established—and have begun to function like ‘second nature’ for large numbers of us—they operate like conveyor belts that carry and direct our energy and attention down clearly-defined, thoroughly rationalized channels. What I mean by ‘rationalized’ is simply that every effort is continually being made to keep these channels clear and conveniently accessible so that the maximum number of persons can be conveyed through them with a minimal amount of obstruction, discomfort, or conscious criticism of the means of conveyance itself. The whole point of stepping onto a conveyor belt is to get from point A to point B without having to walk there oneself.

At the personal (or individual) level, conveyor belts are just as commonly encountered as on the collective level. These individual habits or patterns of thought and behavior that have become ‘second nature’ can be found at work in our daily routines, in our friendships and our marriages, in the way (and the things) we eat, the way we dress and drive and drink and grasp for things just beyond our reach. Laziness and the desire for a sense of security join hands in most of us to form a joint barricade against self-examination where our established habits are concerned. Any attempts to become critically conscious or aware of these automatically (and therefore, smoothly) functioning habits of thought, feeling, and behavior meet with resistance insofar as they are instinctively conservative and self-protective.

Our habits—collective and idiosyncratic—thus strongly influence the course and trajectory of our lives from behind a thick, muffling curtain of unconsciousness. Allied with, and supported by, our naturally-occurring laziness and our longing for stability and a sense of security, these unconscious collective and personal habits are constantly nudging, routing, and coercing our attention, our energy, and our desires down their familiar, accustomed pathways. And, as suggested, they accomplish this not openly and in plain sight, but from the unlit recesses beneath the threshold of our often unreflective and dimly illuminated conscious minds. All we see—all we are comfortable seeing—are the ‘grounding’ effects of these obscurely prompted, mystery-cloaked habits and compulsions, the roots of which remain snugly buried within our almost infantile longing for the warm soft familiar nipple of soothing-oozing security.

Of course the most fundamental conveyor belts of all—the ones that operate at even deeper levels than the collective cultural habits and formal patterns I’ve been discussing—are the archetypes and instincts themselves. It may be the case, as Jung has suggested, that the archetypes—as distinct from their more or less explicit cultural and symbolic formulations—remain permanently unconscious, so that we are never ‘in a position,’ epistemologically, to ‘objectify’ or step outside of them. In other words, it is probably safe to assume that our consciousness is always being structured and guided by some archetypal perspective/fantasy or another—or a combination thereof. If Jung and the archetypal psychologists are correct in their hypothetical picture of our natural-psychological predicament, then we are confronted here with ‘conveyor belts’ from which we may never depart, for they are the true ground and matrix of the psyche itself. To step off these archetypal conveyor belts, then, is to leap out of the psyche, which seems about as absurd as the prospect of leaping out of our bodies.

An interesting question to pose at this juncture is: are we more free or less free—spiritually and psychologically—when we consciously acknowledge the hidden sovereignty of these thoroughly unconscious archetypal determinants? Don’t we enjoy a fuller experience of freedom when we remain ignorant of, or deny, the existence of these subterranean determinants? But then, if Jung’s hypothesis is actually correct, our ignorance or our willful denial of them founds our experience of freedom upon a lie or delusion. This certainly throws the authenticity or legitimacy of our experience of freedom into serious doubt—even if the feeling of freedom is indisputable.

But what if the experience of freedom is never an absolute or permanent experience? What if it is always relative to other states—say, the state of mind (or the state of affairs) we are just leaving? Can we not imagine departing from an entire arena of more or less familiar, routine experiences—and entering into an altogether new and unexplained arena of experiences? For the sake of illustration, let us imagine a married man who is living in London in the 19th century. He and his wife have three adolescent children. He has a high-profile job in the government. And he is a closet homosexual. He meets and falls in love with a younger man and before long, his secret becomes known. The press gets hold of the story and a scandal erupts. Within a few weeks he suffers public humiliation, is fired in disgrace from his high government post, and his wife leaves him for the paramour she has been involved with for years on the sly. He and his lover move to Corfu and live happily in seclusion for the following ten years.

This compact storyline or series of events provides us with a tidy little gold mine of possible angles of approach to the multifaceted question of freedom. Some persons, for instance, will be inclined to say that our protagonist (let’s call him ‘Oscar’) was about as free as he could ever be prior to the scandal, at which point everything fell to pieces. From this perspective, Oscar’s freedom was located in his comfortable, honorable ‘fit’ with the social, political, moral, economic, sexual, and familial values and norms of 19th century London. The disruption and rapid dissolution of this outward conformity catapulted him from the familiar orbit of this free and ‘adjusted’ existence—and it was all due to his foolish surrender to an unnatural inclination in himself—this ‘perverted’ homosexual tendency that he had successfully (and wisely) kept firmly under repressive control for decades. It was precisely this repression of his ‘unnatural’ sexual tendencies that made his free, but thoroughly conventional life possible. By keeping this tiger of homoeroticism caged up and malnourished, the well-fed, domesticated and obedient stallion rose quickly to prominence in society. It might even be argued that the smoldering, repressed yearnings—locked up in that cage below the threshold of Oscar’s consciousness—actually contributed a kind of volcanic, geothermal thrust to his ambitious pursuits in the London social and political arenas.

For those who understand freedom and human fulfillment in these terms, Oscar’s ‘surrender’ to his homosexual inclinations was an unmitigated disaster and should have been avoided at all costs. For those very different persons, however, who are thoroughly convinced from experience that there are few greater crimes that we can commit than to be untrue to our innermost selves—our deepest natures—Oscar was relatively unfree while he was repressing his homosexuality, and that he began to take courageous steps in the direction of authentic freedom only when he stopped ‘living a lie.’ From this very different perspective, Oscar’s homosexual yearnings were not ‘unnatural’ even if they were not statistically the norm or conventionally sanctioned. Moreover, from this perspective, the mere fact that some collective norm happens to be conventional does not make it true, valid, just, binding, let alone natural. For these persons, Oscar ultimately enhanced, rather than diminished, his existence by following his deeper nature in opposition to conventional norms and prohibitions. And more importantly—in connection with our present theme—he thereby entered into a freer existence by divorcing himself from the complex ‘tissue of lies’ upon which his former life was founded.

I am learning—rather late in my life—that constantly raising and relentlessly following the philosophical and psychological questions that I have devoted most of my free time to is rather more uncommon, statistically, than felonious criminality, genocidal slaughter of humans by other humans, pedophilia, human trafficking. Apparently, this peculiar way of life is a good deal less common than homosexuality. What has come quite ‘naturally’ to me since I was a child—and which has been conscientiously cultivated and strengthened almost entirely by my own unceasing labors—appears to be something of an anomaly, like a rare disease, among by fellows. I’m not suggesting for moment that there is not a fairly large number of persons, now as ever, who read and study serious writings—and who raise tough questions about themselves and about nature and about this strange species, homo sapiens—persons who love nothing more than getting down to the bottom of things. I am quite aware of the fact that such probers and plumbers exist in significant numbers throughout the globe, and the last thing I want to do here is to sound condescending, as if I’m trying to set myself apart not only from ‘everyday folks,’ but even from those ‘exceptions’ who subscribe to Socrates’ dictum that ‘an unexamined life is not worth living.’

In an uncharacteristic (but splendidly timed) display of prudence, let it be known that I am perfectly content to ‘lump myself in’ with these exceptions. It would be considered preposterous for me to push my exceptionalism any further than this. Let me be content, therefore, to speak up—hesitantly and warily—on behalf of this entire, exceptional class of serious, bravely dedicated questioners, probers, experimenters, soarers and divers who love nothing more than asking and trying to answer tough, deep, disturbing questions about society, about ourselves and our history, about the origins and aims of culture, and so on. For those of us who are born for this sort of life of enquiry, everything else, every other sort of pursuit, immediately loses its appeal and its power to charm as soon as we hit pay dirt.

On Part Three of Beyond Good and Evil (“The Religious Character”) (9/16/13)

In part three of Beyond Good and Evil (‘The Religious Character’) it is as if Nietzsche has implicitly assumed that a kind of dome covers humanity. That dome, like the hemispherical ceiling of a planetarium, is solid and impenetrable. Moreover, the various constellations of the zodiac, along with the other noteworthy individual stars and galaxies, which are projected onto the dome, correspond to the various mythologies, religious principles, metaphysical systems, and moral doctrines that have been created solely by great geniuses who—though superior and exceptional specimens—were, nonetheless, irrefragably and inescapably human. Culture, then, and those principle works of art and thought that lend both structure and ‘luminous’ orientation to human lives everywhere and at all times, are solely human inventions. As with Darwinism, there is no need to introduce extraneous teleological or superfluous metaphysical principles (i.e., ‘God’) into Nietzsche’s genealogical scheme in order to account for man’s cultural evolution. There is no need—no justification—for bringing such intangible or supernatural factors into the equation. Naturalism suffices. And perhaps a little bit of ‘naturalistic’ human psychology.

Because we humans tend to be painfully conscious of our mortality—and because our hopes and our imaginative longings often reach quite far beyond our actual, limited conditions as frail, ephemeral creatures (even when we’re not fully conscious of these hopes and longings)—it should come as little surprise that, from early on, our ancestors have been concocting all manner of (benevolent and malevolent) immortal figures who have a significant impact upon our lives—and whose power we neglect at our peril. Nietzsche recognized that this imaginary relationship between the unreal Gods and very real mortals makes very good sense from both the individual, personal standpoint, as well as from the social/political standpoint. For the individual, this imaginary relationship with the divine, supernatural dimension provides a context and a kind of playground for those transcendent yearnings that mortals are often afflicted with when they remember they must die. What a marvelously effective and time-tested pressure valve these imaginary heavens and hells provide whenever we need to let off steam! On the other hand, this same valve can be closed off when pressure is precisely what is required to jolt us out of our indolence and make us serious about our ‘salvation.’

For millennia, the artful manipulation and exploitation of these supernatural longings and anxieties by crafty priests and opportunistic rulers has greatly contributed to social-political stability. A ruler who tampers with established theology (or who used to, since this is quickly becoming a thing of the past in the West) and customs—from Akhenaton to Henry VIII, from Mao to Stalin—had better possess despotic powers if he is to succeed in implementing such disruptive reforms. A leader whose actual or supposed religious sympathies diverge from those of the mass population (as when rumors spread about Obama being a Muslim) will be up against fierce, and often unconscious, prejudice in the generality. Mitt Romney’s good looks and his anti-Obama polemics were not quite enough to offset the ‘Mormon’ factor and enable him to inch out ahead of Obama’s good looks and his slippery-silver tongue. John F. Kennedy’s (epidermal) Catholicism tugged against his good looks and silver tongue, making it necessary for his wealthy father to buy Chicago’s deciding votes. But, I digress.

As with other ‘naturalistic’ thinkers—both ancient and modern—Nietzsche, in explaining the ‘religious character’ in exclusively human, all-too-human terms, effectively explains away transcendent or superhuman factors altogether. In the final section of Part Three Nietzsche makes it quite clear that as soon as religion—in this case, Christianity—succeeds in becoming sovereign (as opposed to remaining a subordinate means of marginalizing and thwarting the canaille and providing the proper breeding conditions for higher human specimens), culture is debased into a ‘sublime abortion.’ In its successful campaign to preserve and protect the great mass of ‘failures’ and ‘degenerates,’ two thousand years of Christianity has bred…

…the European of today, a herd animal, something well-meaning, sickly, and mediocre.

He accuses the Christian cultural leadership—over the past two millennia—of having been stupid and cowardly. These were:

people who were not high and hard enough to give human beings artistic form; people who were not strong or far-sighted enough, who lacked the sublime self-discipline to give free reign to the foreground law of ruin and failure by the thousands; people who were not noble enough to see the abysmally different orders of rank and chasms in rank between different people. (sect. 62)

And for this awful crime committed against ‘higher’ human possibilities, Nietzsche shouts: ‘Christianity has been the most disastrous form of arrogance so far.’ What in the world is going on here? Nietzsche is certainly not being cryptic or ‘tricky’ here. He cannot be accused of resorting to ‘esoteric writing’ in such blatant declarations of his own personal preferences and his standards of what ‘health’ looks like with respect to human culture. But, to spell things out even more explicitly, so as to dispel any lingering, unresolved doubts about what he is saying here, let us begin with his endorsement of treating human beings as a potter might treat clay, or as a sculptor might employ stone in order to impose artistic form upon them. Upon us. (But, let us remember, it was Christianity and not Nietzsche’s Anti-Christianity that constituted the most disastrous form of arrogance so far!) This basic notion of man as moldable clay accords with his description of humans earlier in this same section (62) as ‘the still undetermined animals.’ All but the rarest and most unlikely exceptions among us (since exceptions so often come to ruin) are merely programmable animals without a determinate (and therefore truly knowable, clearly discernible) nature. Most of us are just conscious enough to be aware that we are destined to struggle and eventually to die. Thus, in our anxiety and our natural credulity (when facing the awesome authority of the past and its ‘legacy’) we almost invariably succumb to the sort of imprinting or programming that Nietzsche and many others understand acculturation to consist in—and nothing besides. A human being without cultural imprinting would be all nature and no art.

Technically speaking such a creature is not fully human at all. He is feral, a savage. He may be possessed of (or by) instincts and drives that are hardwired into him, but lacking language and culture to canalize these raw energies and impulses, the (truly unfinished) creature’s existence is decidedly worse than that of an animal’s. Such an existence would be chaotic and anarchic. At least the animal can rely on the regulatory function of its instincts. Civilized human life, on the other hand, depends to a decisive extent upon the disruption and often upon the artful repression of these instincts and drives. They must be re-directed down new, socio-politically acceptable courses. They must be hammered (or coaxed) into new shapes and down new pathways. One of the principal functions of religion, as Nietzsche and many others have understood it, is to instill and to inwardly enforce an elaborate system of (albeit illusory) rewards and punishments—the aim of which is to keep wayward and impetuous little unfinished human animals on track. And by ‘on track’ we mean out of the wilderness of overpowering lusts, rages, and other uncivil drives and affects that may have served our proto-human ancestors well enough out on the savannah, but can only lead to mischief nowadays—unless, of course, we happen to be serving our nation overseas, fighting heathen, Huns, and towel-heads who need a good thrashing if they are to stay on the track we lay down for them.

But the problematic upshot of this momentous game-changing transformation from wild animal to obedient modern consumer is that, for Nietzsche, we might very well have lost as much as we gained in the bargain by becoming so thoroughly domesticated. Like Freud, in his excellent, late essay, Civilization and its Discontents, Nietzsche worries over the damage unleashed upon the ‘animal’ in all of us by the severe constraints that civilization (and especially religion) inflicts upon our erotic, aggressive, and other vital—and vitalizing—instincts. One would be an arrant fool to categorically dismiss such claims. Few Western persons living today have a very good idea—or rather, experience—of the sort of repressions and constraints that were commonplace in 19th century European cultural and social life. One would have to ‘do time’ as a female in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan for a few years in order to get a rough idea of the sort of mentality Nietzsche and Freud were calling into question—and with Nietzsche, this concern seems to have been confined, for the most part, to men.

Having made this preliminary—and admittedly sketchy—effort to contextualize Nietzsche’s ‘naturalistic’ understanding of man’s religious need and his notion of culture as an elaborate system of ‘necessary illusions’ or arbitrary fictions, let us probe further. Nietzsche makes it clear elsewhere in BGE that he sees genuine philosophers as the authors and creators of these collective values—these necessary fictions. Figures like Plato, St. Paul, Confucius, Hammurabi, and Moses are the ‘commanders and legislators’ of entire cultures or durable worldviews. It is such figures who stamp their own image upon the mass of clay—that indeterminate creature, man—and, in doing so, provide us with distinctive goals and hallowed trajectories. They provide us with ‘serious games’ that have awesome implications and consequences. It should come as no surprise that Nietzsche ever so tacitly regards himself as one such commander and legislator, even though he rather furtively and unconvincingly tries to conceal himself behind the mask of herald of the ‘philosophers of the future’—those who will eventually take such Herculean responsibility upon their shoulders. Astonishingly, it would appear that Nietzsche’s notorious megalomania actually had limits beyond which he deemed it prudent not to transgress. Although he spells it out for anyone who bothers to put all the pieces together, he never has quite the temerity to come out and say precisely and plainly what he means: I, Friedrich Nietzsche, have come here to redirect humanity’s path into the future in accordance with my own superior will and intelligence!

Given his special gifts, along with the apparent fact that he acknowledges nothing of genuine value or ‘transcendent’ significance beyond that dome—the outermost limits of which are established by the most clever and seductive human commanders and legislators—it makes a certain kind of sense that Nietzsche would see himself and his calling as fatefully bound up with this sort of cultural renewal and regeneration. As Plato and Socrates had done before him, he would assume the role of ‘physician’ and undertake a thoroughgoing diagnosis of an ailing patient: Western/Christian culture. He would tirelessly dig and delve into the unconscious assumptions and unexamined collective values that were at the root of the devastating illness. ‘Nihilism,’ ‘Decadence,’ ‘Pessimism,’ ‘Pity,’ ‘Slave Morality,’ ‘Egalitarianism,’ ‘Socialism’—these are but the most conspicuous of the names and forms of the degenerative disease that has eaten away the once-vigorous heart of Western culture. At bottom, it is a war between nature and anti-nature, or vigor and sickness, as Nietzsche passionately conceives of the struggle that is perhaps in its final throes. Life itself is under siege—at least where man is concerned—because it is no longer being revered and served by our decadent, effeminate culture. In fact, we wrongly and suicidally misuse culture as a means of escape from life, as Nietzsche sees it. It does not function as a means of courageously engaging with life, as certain pagans used to do, in accordance with their nobler cultures.

And the reason this damning truth about modern culture is not more widely known is simple enough to understand: virtually everyone is so infected with the disease of modern culture—the disease is so far advanced for us, collectively—that sickness has become normal. Our disease is like the stench of urine that goes unnoticed by persons who live in a park latrine that never gets cleaned. When this is all you smell, rancidity and acridity become odorless because they no longer stand out. Then one day you are miraculously released from this giant outhouse. You go for a lovely hike, high up in the nearby alpine forest. You breathe in crisp, clean, invigorating mountain air. When you are called back to the park latrine—say, because of your attachment to loved ones who cannot leave the toilet, or because collecting admission fees from visitors to the urinal is your only source of income—the full reeking impact of the stench assails you with its revolting unpleasantness and unhealthiness. How have you managed to breathe this foul air for years—day in and day out—and never notice that something was terribly amiss?

Cases of natural resistance to this viral contagion (of modern ‘sickness’) are so rare—so anomalous—that we have few salutary models to measure our illness against. Our souls are dead long before our bodies expire—and most of us never suspect a thing.

On the Judicious Use of Terror (6/26/18)

Even if I have many deep resistances to a number of his diagnoses and proposals concerning modern man, Nietzsche can always be relied upon to poison the comfort zones and block access to the many escape routes in which so many of us continue to seek refuge. Those readers who follow him are often ushered into a vulnerable condition of existential exposure from which it can be difficult or impossible to exit after we have had as much as we can take of this “nihilism.”

Nietzsche’s subtly corrosive prose spoke seductively to that skeptical part of my soul that has always been inclined by nature to regard all human-cultural narratives, myths, religions, philosophies, and moral systems as arrant fictions. Moreover, the primary purpose behind these elaborate fabrications is not to communicate or reveal the natural truth – or stark reality – of our existential plight, but to insulate us from this terrible and potentially crushing truth. After suffering through this “unmasking” of myth and culture – and seeing through them so that their function as protective shields against the hard, cold, merciless truth was plainly exposed – the skeptical/cynical part of my soul initially exulted in what seemed like a vindication and confirmation of suspicions it had been harboring for years. This initial feeling of exultation was strengthened by the fact that these dark suspicions had been so persistently and forcefully repressed by the other side of my soul. This other side refused to believe that the actual universe – beyond the “cave walls” of my culture, of any culture – was utterly devoid of any metaphysical or teleological foundations that were capable of endowing our human existence with a higher moral meaning and purpose.

If Nietzsche was correct – if his violent and irreverent unmasking of religion and morality, meaning and “Being,” exposed the awful truth of our existential predicament as a species – I would be obliged by my intellectual conscience to systematically uproot and dismantle every last inherited myth and lie that has been planted in my mind since boyhood. Since virtually everyone I know, every song I sing, every book I read and every movie I watch is infested with these lies and cave-assumptions, I would also have to learn how to insulate my newly purged mind from this constant flood of delusions with the same ferocity previously devoted to insulating myself from these very truths that the skeptical part of my soul had sniffed out, early on.

Little wonder, then, that I felt so alone, so divided, and so alienated – for years – from everyone and everything that had hitherto been so comfortingly familiar, reassuring, and grounding. The skeptic in me had won out, at long last, over the innocent idealist, and my “world” had been turned upside-down. What had been discredited and destroyed in this upheaval had been so foundational to my former worldview and my sense of who I was that, for the first time, I began to wonder if there wasn’t something eerily inhuman about the new perspective that was emerging from out of the rubble of my former worldview and identity.

Eventually, after a few painful years of being aligned almost exclusively with the hardheaded, uncompromising skeptic in my soul, I began to balance out a little bit. Unlike Nietzsche, who seems to have remained steadfastly uncompromising till the bitter end of his thinking career, I found it necessary – let’s say for the sake of mental health, which trumped my concern for rational-logical consistency – to ambivalently oscillate back and forth between these two very different standpoints within myself: the myth-friendly part and the no-nonsense skeptic/nihilist. I would not go so far as to say that I “relativized” the skeptic simply out of fear and anxiety, but in large part because I recognized that I had primal doubts about the adequacy and ultimate accuracy of the radically skeptical perspective.

This accommodation to my softer “human, all too human” side helped to relax – but not to eliminate – the enormous tension that had built up since the collapse of my former bearings and beliefs. While I would remain divided within myself for years to come, this “healthy” compromise probably prevented me from going mad or from turning into a complete misanthrope, a very real danger at the time. This concession to the fragile, needy – or in Nietzsche’s terms, “herd-like” and “decadent” – human ego on the part of the hard-boiled, mythless skeptic/cynic could not, by itself, heal the rift in my psyche. But it could buy me some time to recharge after the depressive, disorienting upheaval—time to gather my wits and other resources for the difficult work that lay ahead. That work is now underway.

A large part of this inner work involves my attempt to answer the following questions: Do we, as a conscious, culture-dependent species, absolutely require the belief in divine or superhuman support and sponsorship in order to thrive, and does the “death of God” also mean the fall of man into savagery and brutal barbarism? Given what we have learned about ourselves as a species – from history, from mythology and literature, from science and modern psychology – is it likely that our better angels (if they indeed exist) will prevail in the ongoing showdown with the darker and more bestial parts of our natural inheritance? Are modern technology and the power it has unleashed more likely to bring enduring comfort and relief to our plight—or to hasten our self-extermination in a conflagration of feverish competition over limited resources?

So, where do I stand (or swim!) on this question of belief? The simple but honest answer is that I stand in awe before the majesty and mystery of existence. I stand in wonder before the bottomless depths of the psyche. I stand in humble respect before the profound questions and the imaginative responses raised and offered by our great, long-suffering human ancestors – the shamans and the mystics, the poets and philosophers, the saints and the scientists, who have left us with so much to reflect upon and digest. I see myself as a modest servant and grateful participant in this always urgent, unresting quest for answers – followed by the search for balance after the answers we receive have disturbed and threatened to “undo” us. It’s only natural for human beings to go crazy or succumb to despair when they’ve remained terrified for a long, long time. Courage is perhaps our most precious commodity – when it is alloyed with wisdom – and those of us who find the courage needed to confront the terrors of existence must not hoard our courage in proud isolation, but share it with those who need it as much or more than we do.