While Zooming in on Bloom, I Exhumed a Mirror in my Room? (11/5/12)

Yesterday I was reading about Montaigne and Bacon in a book (Where Shall Wisdom be Found?) by Harold Bloom.  When I read Mr. Bloom’s books I am often disconcerted and subtly annoyed by some quirk in his general attitude—something that I suspect to be hollow, inauthentic, fraudulent.  And yet, despite this acquired suspicion that I have watched grow over the years, I continue to find what he says quite provocative of good questions.

Before I begin to examine this issue of Bloom’s authenticity (as a thinker and as a person) I want to say that I find his self-appointed position as judge and arbiter of the principle writers and thinkers in the Western literary tradition to be particularly ludicrous, even if he has read (twice or thrice) more books than most of us will ever begin to read.  The sheer arrogance and flagrant intellectual immodesty implicit in presenting himself as a qualified judge of the order of rank of writers like Homer, Shakespeare, Dante, Cervantes, Tolstoy, etc.—rather than as a lover of literature who wants chiefly (and simply) to help other readers discover the excellences and the riches (as well as the defects and flaws) in these writers—annoys me when I step back and recognize what he’s up to.  Without question, my annoyance stems from my own susceptibility to making similarly sweeping judgments![1]

Nonetheless, it seems to me that when we arrogate the authority to make such broad judgments about the rank of a writer, if we are not ourselves more comprehensive in our intelligence and sounder in our understanding than those upon whom we are passing judgment, we scarcely deserve the right to be regarded as authorities.  After years of reading Bloom—and many of the writers he ranks and orders according to his own peculiar judgment and tastes—I find him to be, on the whole, a mere aspirant to a species of gravitas that he has not yet altogether earned.  His voracious reading (and his truly astounding knowledge drawn from other critics/analysts of writers) seems to have outstripped his inner digestion of the questions and the material that pours into his head and (just as quickly) out of his pen.  Plotinus’ assessment of Longinus—that he was by no means a genuine philosopher, just a talented writer—seems apt here.  Samuel Johnson—Bloom’s favorite literary critic and his model, in some ways—offers another worthwhile lesson here.  While Johnson was, so far as I can tell, more modest and psychologically circumspect than Mr. Bloom, the two of them appear to share the extraverted thinker’s confident belief in objective standards of judgment in literary matters.  Whether considered as refined commonsense or the consensus gentium—both follow in the line first laid down by Aristotle in his Poetics

If I find Bloom’s approach to great literature subtly exasperating—if he gets under my skin and bothers me—I say again: this is probably because what he is doing ‘hits close to home’ with me.  Some part of me—perhaps the part I naively consider to be the noblest or most worthy part—regards serious reading and study as ‘sacred’ means towards spiritual and psychological transformation.  Viewed from this perspective, reading primarily for pleasure or for the sake of amassing oodles of erudition is morally suspect.  I know this sounds severe and strict—if not patently puritanical—but, when analyzed, it appears to have its source in authentic spiritual ground.  When I see Bloom, the lesser light, cockily comparing and crowing the virtues and shortcomings of far greater literary luminaries than he will ever be—like some sportscaster haughtily and tendentiously commenting on a football game played by athletes, all of whom could make mincemeat of him on the actual playing field—I cringe a little bit.  Granted, these are his heroes.  This is a game—a world—in which we can only suppose that he would love to have been a principal, or even a second-string player—even if he could only be the field goal kicker.  Clearly these are his heroes.  But Clotho did not spin for Professor Bloom the thread of such a destiny.  With regard to the literary paragons that he most sincerely loves and honors, he must content himself with the respectable role of (loquacious) spokesman and advocate.  Dutifully and lovingly he immerses himself in their work, their worlds, like a vivacious voyeur, in order to learn as much as he can from and about them—through their works.  After many years, his immersion—like that of a ladies maid or a gentleman’s valet in a great English manor house—has gradually pared down the wall of formal, reverential distance between master and servant.  Bloom, while still instinctively acknowledging his fated role as servant to the ‘greats,’ nevertheless cannot resist the temptation of trumpeting his familiarity with them.  Of course, he does not—nay, cannot—display this touchy and problematic familiarity to them, for the great ones with whom he presumes such intimacy are all dead.  No, his intimate connections with the great dead are proudly broadcast (or whispered, as the occasion requires) to those who, likewise, are not to the manor born, persons who also want the wisdom and the wit of the ‘great ones’ to rub off on them, but who are less ‘well-connected’ than their knowledge-oozing tour guide, Professor Harold Bloom of Yale University. 

If I find Bloom’s vaguely impertinent familiarity with Homer, Plato, Dante, Shakespeare, and other extraordinary architects and builders of Western culture creepily distasteful—it is not his ambition to grasp the meaning and significance of their work that irks me.  It is the presumption and arrogance implicit in his ceaseless judging, comparing, exalting, and dismissing.  Clearly he is infatuated with his publicly recognized (and energetically courted) standing as America’s ‘best living literary critic.’  He relishes the roles of culture maven and popish pedagogue.  He loves to voice his indignation over the hijacking of university English departments by resentful feminists and politicized minorities who want nothing less than to tear down the figures he has worked so hard to restore (to their rightful dignity), and to replace them with relative mediocrities like Alice Walker and Amy Tan.  And while I can certainly recognize the value in his speaking out against the politically motivated leveling of the playing field in an arena where I, too, believe only the noblest and profoundest creators deserve pride of place and lofty stature, I wonder if Professor Bloom isn’t a bit naïve about American anti-aristocratic sentiments, which I believe to be constitutional to the American character—and well-nigh ineradicable.  All his pontificating and his righteous indignation ultimately make him look pompous and buffoonish, I’m afraid, since he’s an American speaking to Americans on behalf of a value scheme that is fundamentally anti-American at some deep level (insofar as it is implicitly hierarchical).  Sound familiar?  I should stop now before being hoisted by my own petard. 

I was going to say something about my growing uncomfortableness with what I would call ‘intellectual hedonism’—a charge one might justifiably level against Bloom—but I will hold off.  In Bloom I find a convenient ‘mirror’ or reflected image of some of my own weaknesses, blind spots, and obsessions as a writer and thinker.  Instead of stopping here with a couple of stabs at the portly Bloom, I would do well to reflect more deeply upon the lessons buried in this matter.       


[1] Just last week I found myself writing in my journal: “Shakespeare is to Dante what Hamlet is to Polonius.”  Preposterous and unforgivable.

On Integration (3/14/16)

What is packed into the Jungian idea of integration of the personality? The word “integer” means “one,” so we are probably safe in assuming that a kind of one-ness or wholeness of the personality is implicitly sought after. Elsewhere, Jung talks about the dissociability of the psyche, referring to the multiple centers of gravity – or complexes – from which consciousness can be mounted. In pathological cases, this dissociability of the psyche can lead to a splintering of consciousness – or “multiple personality disorder.” Because a “solid,” strong, “healthy” ego acts as a protective counterforce against psychic dis-integration, Jung is reluctant to disparage, let alone demonize, the ego after the manner of certain religious schools – East and West. At the same time, he is thoroughly aware of the dangers to which the inflated (or conversely, impotent and depressed) ego is vulnerable.

Because consciousness is enriched and clarified through a process of differentiation (from the unconscious matrix that gives birth to it) and because integration of the personality is a consciously undertaken activity, we may safely assume that the unity aimed at is not a monstrosity cobbled or glommed together from a bunch of heterogeneous psychic elements into a makeshift monolith, but something quite different indeed. Whether a vertical-hierarchical or a horizontal-pluralistic schema evolves out of the integration work – or a mixture of both – the elements that are being integrated will need to be more or less meaningfully interrelated in such a way that they may be said to “converse” with each other – to throw their near or distant neighbor-elements into a distinctive light, as it were, and have the same varied illumination directed upon themselves.

This idea can be imaginatively illustrated by the example of the horoscope. Each planet, constellation, house, and aspect (angular relationships and conjunctions between planets) constitutes an element of significance in the overall picture provided by the horoscope. The interrelationships between all these elements – and the progression of the planets through the zodiac in the course of time – provide a dynamic, qualitative portrait of the whole personality, viewed as a “microcosmic” embodiment of archetypal energies in manifestation. The Enneagram; the classical doctrine of the four humors or temperaments (choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic, melancholic); Jung’s typology (four psychological functions, two attitude types): these are other schemas or typologies that persons have turned to in their attempts to understand their own and others’ personalities in a schematic fashion.

In all typologies certain qualities or characteristics will be dominant, or stressed, in each individual case while others will be correspondingly deemphasized – less present in the mix. In Jung’s teaching on integration of the personality, it is noted that the latent or undifferentiated psychic factors/functions will not be properly developed without conscious effort (and/or suffering) on our part. Thus, the strict and rigorous rational thinker type will not uncommonly suffer from a poorly differentiated feeling function – since, so far as he’s concerned, feeling preferences and aversions have no legitimate place in strict rational analysis, and so are best downplayed or suppressed altogether.

The lesson we are to take from this is that integration is not concerned merely with psychic factors and functions that are already conscious and/or developed to some extent, but with potentials that lie beneath the threshold of consciousness. These can only be accessed and brought to life by “diving in” and plunging down into the unlit depths where these potentials await us. Anything less than this ongoing effort to round out one’s inner and outer life experience leaves us subject to an incomplete, lopsided development. It is precisely for this reason that our modern mania for narrow specialization (and the narrow education that goes with it) is a potent barbarizing influence – a powerful enemy to roundedness and a sower of cultural fragmentation. But of course the rulers of the modern economy do not want rounded, or whole human beings. They want “fragments” who have been reduced to obedient, anxious functionaries and desire-driven consumers in a soulless but entertainment-hungry form of modern serfdom.

When I was a kid growing up in Shreveport, Louisiana in the 1960s, “integration” meant only one thing: the ending of long-entrenched racial “segregation.” This was to be brought about by the government-enforced inclusion of black citizens into sociopolitical and economic arenas to which they had previously been denied access.

Suddenly, there were (mostly poor) black kids being bused from their neighborhoods and all-black schools to our (white) neighborhoods and schools. Even as kids, new to the world and lacking anything like a nuanced or even remotely accurate historical understanding of what was going on and what had gone before, most of us could sense that something momentous and fateful was underway with the dismantlement of segregation. Only idealistic nincompoops would have expected the deeper, collective psychological fears, prejudices, and ignorance (on both sides of the color spectrum) to evaporate quickly or easily just because of the new legislation, but things would never be the same after the legal walls were lowered and removed.

I bring up this socio-historical-political instance of integration in order to compare and contrast it with the psychological-spiritual idea of integration that I’ve been treating, thus far. Just as psychological integration entails the bringing “up” into the light of consciousness previously repressed or neglected functions, affects, and potentials, something similar began with desegregation’s “lifting up” of previously disenfranchised and “feared” black persons into the spotty half-light of mainstream American life. And just as the lifting of repressions in the individual psyche brings disturbing shadow contents into consciousness – where they must be owned instead of being habitually and conveniently projected upon the reviled and detested “other” (scapegoats) – there was a good deal of rioting and social unrest in the wake of desegregation. (We have seen analogous turmoil in the Middle East over the past decade, as politically oppressed segments within autocratic regimes have rebelled against the old order.)

With these ideas in mind, let us consider the various pros and cons of employing a hierarchical paradigm for structuring and organizing both psychic factors, on the one hand, and various groups within a given society, on the other. The contrast with this hierarchical scheme would be a pluralistic one. I would suggest that, when employing – or implementing – a hierarchical scheme in the political realm, it makes all the difference in the world what arch-principle or “good” reigns supreme at the summit of the hierarchy. Is it the enhancement and consolidation of the personal power and authority of a single individual (autocracy)? Is it the concentration of wealth in a few hands (plutocracy-oligarchy)? Is it the attainment of (usually military) honor and renown by the “well-born” (timocracy/aristocracy)? Is it the even distribution of power among the people, or demos (democracy)? Is it rule by the wisest and best (Plato’s ideal Republic)?

Something roughly analogous pertains to the hierarchical ordering of various psychic factors and propensities within the soul, does it not? When, for instance, the pursuit of sensual pleasure is elevated into the arch-principal reigning over the hierarchical scheme, then reason and will are assured of being conscripted into the service of hedonism, will they not? Or, into the service of moneymaking – or of fame and social prominence – if these are elevated to the governing principle of the “hierarchy of values”?

Anyone who has studied the Republic will recall how Plato quite effectively plays with this analogy – or parallel – between the individual soul and “the city” or regime. Plato – wisely and astutely, in my opinion – suggests that the two are thoroughly interrelated or interdependent, so that a whole bunch of disordered, sick human souls necessarily results in a disordered, sick regime or polity. And vice versa: if a warped and disordered government were imposed on a bunch of otherwise decent and healthy human souls, it wouldn’t take long before many of those souls were deformed, warped, and sickened by the bad regime. Microcosms and microcosms would appear to be two sides of a single coin. 

Now, Plato was conjecturing about these matters on a radically smallerscale than we Americans think in terms of, when it comes to national politics.  A nation-state with the size and population (and diversity) of the U.S. would’ve been preposterous for Plato and Aristotle, his pupil – who also thought and wrote about these deep questions. For them, the political realm meant the polis – what we would call a “city-state.” Athens, Sparta, Corinth, and Thebes were ancient Greek city-states – as were Venice, Florence, and Pisa during the Renaissance. In terms of population, we’re talking around 200,000 tops, with a much smaller segment of ruling elites. Even during the heyday of Athenian democracy, it is estimated that no more than 30,000 landowning males ruled.

Usually, these regimes, both ancient and modern, were oligarchic-aristocratic, so that a few wealthy and wellborn families ruled over a mass population of peasants and artisans. In Athens, where democracy – or rule by the people – was adopted, it met with mixed success. Foolish, but popularly supported, campaigns and policies undertaken during the Peloponnesian war led to the exhaustion and eventual collapse of Athenian democracy – but not before it managed to sentence Socrates, perhaps its best and noblest son, to death. Unsurprisingly, Plato and Aristotle were not big fans of democracy – and probably for reasons that anyone who is currently alarmed by Donald Trump (and the people who support him) can easily understand. Demagogues are a naturally-occurring type during chaotic periods in a democratic polity.

Roughly speaking, hierarchy is to pluralism what order is to anarchy or chaos. Sometimes anarchy and a big dose of chaos are precisely what are needed – despite the messiness and destruction they usually bring in their wake – in order to dissolve obsolete institutions and entrenched tyrannical power. Hierarchy can – and, alas, all too frequently does – lead to oppression, rigid stratification, and segregation (along some lines or another: race, wealth, breeding, family connections, etc.). On the other hand, sometimes the discipline and orderliness that come with an “enlightened” hierarchical scheme (meritocracy) is what is needed to prevent sociopolitical disintegration – as can be seen with Confucianism and ancient China.

When I reflect upon the integration of thepersonality, I do not envision a static, finished, or “perfected” scheme. Nor do I see the sort of rational consistency that we rightly expect from a resolved logical or mathematical problem. Nevertheless I do recognize a kind of artfully-naturally attained order prevailing over chaos, wholeness over fragmentation and one-sidedness. The order I see may perhaps best be described as analogical rather than logical – since the elements that are being brought into meaningful alignment are not situated on the same level (as with the variables or elements in a coherent mathematical or logical scheme) but on multiple planes simultaneously. Different terms and conditions, laws and governing principles, are in evidence from one plane or level of consciousness to the next – so a monistic accounting or descriptive scheme is practically assured of being reductive in one way or another.

Thus, in the psyche of the integrated personality we see a plurality of levels or arenas of experience – and not a monolithic system or abstract unity in terms of which all contents or phenomena can be adequately and justly interpreted. And while this pluralistic model helps us to avoid the deformations, distortions, and gross simplifications that typically result from abstract, unitary schemes and crude reductions (say, to genes, neurochemistry, the sex drive, will to power, linguistic forms, ideology, etc.), it is not utterly incompatible with a hierarchical ordering principle that responds to or addresses qualitative differences between contents. No doubt, my long acquaintance with Platonic philosophizing has planted in me a respect for this hierarchical-qualitative principle of organization – the basis for the “Great Chain of Being” idea that was so influential throughout Western intellectual history until the late 17th Century, when it began to be decisively upstaged by the modern scientific worldview, which eschews teleology or ‘final causes’.

James Hillman, on the other hand, revives a “polytheistic” or polycentric approach to the psyche – where the various levels or arenas of psychic experience are viewed as archetypal styles – spheres of divine influence invisibly ruled over by the various Gods, who are, in turn, personifications of these archetypal energies. While Hillman’s polytheistic approach is by no means dismissive of qualitative distinctions, it mutes hierarchical features, emphasizing the interdependence of all the archetypal forms (or “Gods”) above all other essential characteristics.

Regardless of whether or not a hierarchical order of rank (respecting the various levels or arenas of psychic experience) orients our thinking about integration of the personality, the important thing to bear in mind here is the matter of meaning. Logical rigor and consistency apply to formal and methodological matters, while analogical thinking pertains to meaningful correspondences that are discernible between disparate phenomena, different levels or arenas of experience. It is these strings (of inner meaning) that hold the discrete “pearls” of seemingly unconnected experiences, persons, and modes psychically together. The string (of invisible, hidden correspondences) passes, unseen, through the center of these “separate” pearls, linking them into a “necklace” or chain.

As far as the psychological functions are concerned, the intuition is the best suited by nature for discerning these invisible correspondences – just as it is best equipped by nature to grasp the inner meaning of symbols. The contribution made by thinking and feeling is, therefore, supplemental and evaluative, since it is the intuition which sees directly into the archetypal core of phenomena – whether it happens to be a work of art (say, a play by Shakespeare), of nature (e.g., Goethe’s ‘Urpflanze’), or a divine form (say, the theophanic mystery of the Trinity or the Crucifixion.).

On the Mind and Freedom (9/16/15)

Paul's Bench

Those familiar with my writings on the subject know that when it comes to mind and/or the ego—like Jung, Hillman, Buddhists, Sufis, and Taoists before me—I follow a middle way. Whether because of incapacity, incomprehension, or temperamental incompatibility I eschew those two extremes: Nietzschean-Randian (of the ‘Ayn’ sort) heroic-Promethean egotism and Eastern-style, yogic campaigns to exterminate the mind/ego. So, assuming a kind of enlightened or properly negotiated truce with the mind is a necessary precondition for the radical transformation of consciousness that culminates in mental liberation, what is the role played by the ego-will (which, we are told, is but the reflection of the light of pure, impersonal awareness in the mercurial mirror of the mental body)?

I sometimes see those ‘spiritual seekers’ who would do away with the mind as dwarfish, low voltage Ahabs, who famously said, “Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun…

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On Texture and the Bounds of Philosophy (1/4/16)

Inwardly, I sense a growing inclination to move in a fresh direction with my writing and my thinking.  But, in keeping with the tenor of an aphorism I wrote the other day on my way to the gym[1], I see this move as a vertical rather than a lateral one.  One way of envisioning this vertical (ascent or descent—or rather, both at once: synoptic altitude and essential deepening) move is to view it as a synthesizing process.  What calls for synthesis, as I see it, are the several, more or less self-contained (though not unrelated) arenas of serious thought and creativity to which I have devoted my best efforts these past ten years or so. 

In saying this I surely don’t mean systematizing my thought—or attempting to distill it into some overarching imperative or supraordinate principle like ‘the Good in itself’ or ‘the will to power.’ I am instinctively leery of all such unnatural and easily misused guises behind which monism or monotheism can usually be found skulking.  For me, the loftiest, liveliest, and deepest philosophical thinking is fundamentally dramaturgical (or dialectical)—and drama, whether high or low, depends on and springs from vitalpsychic tension.  A ‘philosopher’ who has gradually, incrementally, and ineluctably come to loathe—or certainly mistrust—abstractions??  Do such mavericks and anomalous turncoats actually exist?  Nietzsche, as in so many other ways, preceded (and plotted a course for) me here.     

Is it even possible for a serious philosopher to dispense with grand abstractions?  Aren’t they precisely the (large denomination) banknotes the philosopher conducts his business with?  Aren’t grand(iose) topics like ‘justice,’ ‘truth,’ ‘the Good in itself,’ ‘the will,’ ‘substance,’ ‘mind,’ ‘matter,’ and other such gargantuan concepts the essential ingredients with which the philosopher ‘goes to work’ each day?  And what are such bloated and baggy monstrosities if they are not (hollow) abstractions? 

Well, of course they can be little more than empty, pretentious labels for what is in fact mere wind, flatus vocis, hot air, mere mental web-spinning.  But, if we look closer we see that the exemplary philosophers—like Socrates, Plato, Bacon, and Nietzsche, to mention a few luminaries—were never content with such hollow, verbal-conceptual ciphers and counterfeits, but demanded much, much more from themselves, as well as from their most promising pupils and most careful readers.  Contrary to popular prejudices and shallow misconceptions, these and other authentic philosophers have nothing good to say about those ‘pseudo-philosophers’ and impatient thinkers who are always trying to leap over or beyond a fruitful (if occasionally torturous) marriage of the disciplined, well-versed intellect to that elusive and slippery strumpet, the multifarious, mercurial truth.  Such spurious ‘leaps,’ evasions, and circumventions are all too frequently accomplished by means of puffed-up, vacuous abstractions.  When Emerson said ‘Cut these words and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive,’ wasn’t he expressing this categorical condemnation of anemic abstractions by genuine philosophers?

Why does ‘Mistress Truth’ simultaneously spark and spook pseudo-philosopher/psychologists and squeamish pretenders? Mightn’t her apocryphal character as a slithery slut (who nevertheless has a mind—and pudenda—of her own) both baffle and tickle the wills of impotent poseurs who vainly set off to woo and ‘top’ her? And if there is some truth to Truth’s notoriety for ‘lightness,’ wouldn’t this be enough to scare away any possessive fool who imagines he can stop her from slipping into a rival’s bed as soon as she’s seen and sampled what’s he’s got between his…ears?  No, I suspect it is only authentic philosophers who raise and ponder such questions—and the last thing they would call such questions is abstract!         

****

Even a brute or a self-respecting chimpanzee, if given a choice between supple Egyptian cotton fabric or a sheet of prickly burlap, would probably select the cloth with the finer texture.  Strangely enough, many a homo sapiens, if given the same option, would take the coarse burlap—not believing themselves worthy of the superior cloth.

Here we come upon one of the most fundamental (if perhaps least discussed and explored) criteria to which the philosopher defers in his/her work-play as a creative-destructive thinker: texture.  The texture of thoughts, feelings, and speech pertains primarily to the degree of subtlety or coarseness of that thought, feeling, or speech.  Quality, as with my textile analogy, lies ever in the direction of the subtle—and away from the gross, bulky, or coarse—in large part because of the greater elasticity and nuance that accompany subtilization.  This law or principle applies on all planes: material-practical, ethereal, emotional, intellectual-rational, imaginative-intuitive, religious. 

In the realm of consciousness, ‘spiritualization’ is enabled by progressively moving from a lower to a higher frequency, while consciousness may be said to undergo a kind of concretization and literalization as it moves to lower and ever lower frequencies.  When someone consumes an excessive amount of alcohol or swallows sleeping pills, brain activity is nudged towards the lower, slower end of the mental vibratory range and the person feels torpid, sluggish, and mentally muffled.  Thinking and feeling, judging and maneuvering, all become clumsier and cruder under such ‘reduced’ terms and conditions. 

The subtilization of the texture of consciousness (or cognition) is a governing aim and defining practice for the dedicated philosopher, psychologist, artist, saint, statesman, etc.  Nevertheless, this drive to raise the frequency of consciousness is coupled with a parallel, but very different drive to expand the horizons of awareness, sensitivity, perception, and compassion.  If this counter-balancing drive towards expansion is not a prominent feature of the philosopher’s mental activity, he is likely to be more susceptible to the seductions of some snug and cozy cul-de-sac of specialization.  When a thinker succumbs to some narrowly circumscribed area of specialization, his prospects as a philosopher are quickly and quietly strangled to death.  The true philosopher is, by definition, a comprehensive thinker.  Wisdom entails breadth as well as depth and detail.  

The quest to become an accomplished expert in some particular art, science, or sub-discipline—areas of specialization—typically poses a threat to the holistic, comprehensive thinking that befits the philosopher.  On the other hand, the philosopher is no mere polymath—a clever bloke who, like a ‘jack of all trades, master of none,’ knows just a little about everything.  Rather, he is more likely to know just enough from the various branching, ramified arts and sciences to grasp something of their distinctive essence.  This must then be meaningfully assimilated into an organic, living vision of the whole, or totality—an unattainable target that is never reached but constantly aimed at.  The philosopher is not the equivalent of an award-winning contestant on ‘Jeopardy’ or some other ‘trivial pursuit’ quiz show.  He looks upon mavens and specialists, experts and connoisseurs, with a mixture of good-humored indulgence and muzzled contempt—only because the present age so commonly mistakes context-less information for sound knowledge, data-mongerers for men of wisdom, technocrats for sages.  The philosopher knows better.  He knows differently.

So, if we factor earlier critical observations concerning bloated, frothy abstractions—the hollow counterfeits or simulacra of authentically achieved breadth and capaciousness—into our present remarks concerning myopic specialization, we begin to glimpse the balancing act in which the genuine philosopher is continuously engaged.  It is precisely from this harmonization or vital equilibrium between comprehensiveness and sharpness of vision that the coveted texture of genuine philosophical thinking is gradually achieved.  These constitute the warp and the woof of the rich weave of philosophical insight.  In an image I have used elsewhere, the mind of the philosopher—when functioning at its height—is like a zoom lens that can maneuver between a synoptic, birds-eye view of the whole panoramic sweep and an microscopically detailed view of a gnat’s innards—with no loss of detail at any point in between! 

Obviously such maneuverability is an ideal that is impossible to attain except for fleeting moments here and there by the most extraordinary and select minds.  And what will such ‘wooers of wisdom’ tell us about these fleeting, overwhelming moments of unearthly insight—if they are honest?  Will they not admit that, though they have labored tirelessly in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding, the light that makes such moments of blinding illumination possible comes from ‘God knows where?’ The mere suggestion that it is only neuro-chemical reactions occurring in soulless brains randomly selected through countless mutations is not only ridiculous—but somehow profoundly insulting to the orienting light itself!

*****

There is no getting around the aesthetic dimension (or aspect) of texture and quality, those reliable signposts that assure the genuine philosopher that he is moving, mentally, in the proper direction—in his daily-resumed quest for insight into the ‘nature of things.’  Certainly, an aesthetic response entails feeling—and the deeper the insight that is being glimpsed or digested, the profounder the feeling response is likely to be.  The beauty and power of philosophical insights almost always produce feelings of pleasure in the mind or soul of the speculative thinker. 

Of course, this species of mental delight is of a different order than the more familiar sensual, sentimental, and personal pleasures sought and enjoyed by the multitude.  How are the pleasures of philosophical thought and speculation essentially different from these more commonly-occurring pleasures?  Perhaps the chief difference lies in the peculiar fact that there is something markedly impersonal—and even de-personalizing—about them.  For those who are new to the de-personalizing pleasures of serious philosophical or dialectical thinking and ‘insighting,’ the experience can be as unsettling as it is thrilling—like skydiving, spelunking, or deep-sea diving are for the first time.  There is certainly a sense of exhilaration—and of awe—that accompanies the ‘high’ (of the ‘higher cogitations’) of the philosopher in his privileged moments of illumination. Thus, the terms ‘pleasant’ and ‘pleasurable’ fail to do justice to the experience, which always has something sublime about it.  It is the sublime element in these moments of transcendent-immanent insight that accounts for two additional features of interest surrounding deep philosophical experience: 1) We see here the implicit connection between serious philosophizing and authentic religious, or spiritual, experience, and 2) we see that all such experiences have something cold or chilling about them.

This coldness—to put it bluntly—is due to the presence of spirit when such experiences blow through us, and the spirit has traditionally (and rightfully) been likened to a cold, all-penetrating, electrically-charged wind (pneuma).  Here we also see the necessary connection to de-personalization, since the all-pervasive, utterly impersonal spirit exposes and re-values everything merely ‘human’ and ‘personal’ about us (and everyone else, for that matter).  Few are able to withstand so stark, clinical, and dispassionate a vision of their own and others’ insignificance, nescience, and creaturely helplessness. All our frailties, delusions, and blind spots are mercilessly exposed in such exhilarating, chilling—and immensely daring!—moments of game-changing honesty with ourselves.

Bearing these thoughts in mind, it should now be plainly evident that spiritual and moral courage play as large a role in the philosopher’s bracing encounters with the illusion-shattering spirit as keen powers of intellect do—if not a larger one.  Keen powers of driven intellect may very well deliver the aspiring philosopher or psychologist to the brink or verge of discovery—but they cannot make him leap from that lonely cliff into the transfiguring mystery that sprawls before him—and within him.  The courage that is required for such a leap is not the foolhardy rashness of the wild teenager but the sober, stoical courage of mature experience. It is bravery that has been gradually forged and distilled after many inoculating encounters with the clarifying, illusion-scattering spirit.  Such repeatedly suffered blasts have gradually stripped away the fatuous and innocent human hopes for a way around or beyond precisely this ‘face to face’ encounter with one’s personal irrelevance and ‘momentariness.’  This is the high price exacted from those—always few in number—who would give up their very lives to be granted a glimpse or two of what’s really going on behind the curtain

Supposing…just supposing…that you, reading now, have been arrested by these words, charged with these outrageous allegations, sentenced by these sentences, and sufficiently convicted to have been carried over the aforementioned brink and into the abyss where neither being nor non-being have any further significance or meaning.  What value can words, concepts, or images possibly have now?  Aren’t even the sturdiest and most durable life jackets and ‘flotation devices’ worthless against that truly universal solvent, spirit?  What about texture now?  What about quality?  How do they hold up against the freezing, freeing, flaying blasts of spirit-wind?  They don’t.  All bets are off where odds and evens, sixes and sevens, merge and converge.

If we paddle back upstream a ways, we may be able to learn what happened to those valued indicators and orienters, texture and quality.  Texture and quality pertain to materials—physical, mental, imaginal—but lose all relevance in the chilly, dimensionless realm of pure, formless awareness—about which nothing (meaningful or binding) can be said.  The subtlest, most rarefied expressions of texture and quality are found in soul—that mercurial middle principle that bridges spirit and matter, or Father and Mother.  Anthropos—‘man’—the child of this archetypal union, is the embodier and carrier of soul or imagination, par excellence.  The highest exemplars of soul and of the Anthropos are the philosopher, the saint, and the poet—and each of them is a jealous guardian of quality.  For the philosopher, it is the quality or texture of the contemplative vision that is most sacred of all.  For the saint, it is the quality of love or compassion.  For the artist-poet, it is the quality of beautiful forms and meanings. 

Soul, though subtler than matter, is nevertheless concerned with forms (imaginal forms)—and is thereby superseded by spirit, which utterly transcends all forms, all conditions, all change, time, and space.  Man partakes of all three—and each of us in varying proportions at any given time.  All forms are transitory and, therefore, unreal when contrasted with simple matter and pure spirit, which are eternal, changeless, unborn.  All that is born must die—and all that can be seen and felt and cherished must, soon enough, be sacrificed and forgotten.  But something there is behind ‘you,’ behind ‘me’—that is both one and the same source of ‘you’ and of ‘me’—but happily indifferent to the imagined concerns, attachments, plans, longings, and torments that move us like isolated pawns across the chessboard of life. 

There is perhaps no more befitting mood than the bittersweet, elegiac one when writing to the human person about its own reabsorption, once and for all, back into the source that dreamed it up in the first place: ‘bitter,’ for all the obvious reasons; ‘sweet,’ because such musings place us clearly in mind of just how terribly privileged we are simply to be witness to all this—if only for the sudden blink of an eye.


[1] Senex and Puer: The new does not so much lie ahead or elsewhere as deeper into that which is always already present.  Thus, the new is timeless.  May this not also be said of the old?

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.