1. Like singers, we must first develop our individual ‘voices’ before we are fully entitled to trust them—and if we do not develop them, we are condemned to entrust others to speak for us—or worse, through us.
2. For the generality, adaptation, or conformity with established norms, is perhaps the surest path to securing one’s allotted portion of happiness and success. In a minority, however, it poses the subtlest possible threat to authentic fulfillment—and almost invariably results in a betrayal of one’s ‘higher’ possibilities. These two very different types never cease to misunderstand and misjudge one another, and yet they spring from the same soil—often from within the same family or household.
3. One acquires rights (say, to become a spokesman for a tribe, a nation, or an age) only after the discharging of weighty responsibilities. Before one can ascend to the commanding heights of cultural leadership, he must first have digested and then surmounted the distinctive spiritual challenges and peculiar problems posed by his age. This is precisely what frees him and equips him to lead, for how in the world can he truly point beyond—let alone, move beyond—that which continues to fetter and invisibly gnaw at him? Like Oedipus, he must first master the Sphinx’s challenge before he can claim the throne of Thebes. And even then, as we recall from that ancient story, his own and the city’s troubles were far from being permanently resolved upon his accession to the throne. He was merely allowed, after his ‘coronation,’ to be temporarily oblivious to the fate that was being fulfilled through his unwitting enactment of the abomination he sought to avoid by leaving ‘home’ in the first place. As we know, he left the wrong home, and if he’d stayed put, he would have been spared much torment—but then he would have missed his fate! And perhaps it is only in the fulfillment of our fate that we matter, one way or the other, to the world. The world: what is that but a ‘stage where each man plays his part?’
4. In a largely polarized (or, dare I say schizoid?) society, the authentic individual is necessarily denied the plentiful advantages and protections afforded by a loyal affiliation with one or the other side. Consequently—like Turgenev after he published Fathers and Children—he is likely to become the perceived enemy of both the right and the left. Thucydides describes how, during the radicalization of the right and the left during the civil uprisings accompanying the Peloponnesian War, a moderate was regarded as a coward by the left and as a traitor by the right. For the authentic individual, the inducements to hypocritical self-disguise are always just as seductive as the dangers of alienation and loneliness are close.
5. For some time, now, I have been aware of a realm of astounding and exquisite beauty just beyond my easy reach—a realm in which, alas, I am not yet able to immerse myself ‘at will’. I am learning that access to this blissful realm depends upon the cultivation of a sustained interior quietness, an almost perfect gentleness that permits no throbbing thoughts or vulgar voices to disturb the peace. Although this fragile and precious sense of beauty is nearly as impossible to hold in one’s hand as the snowflake that instantly melts into nothing merely from contact with the blood-warmed skin, it seems that there are a few things I can do to prolong its all too brief half-life in my soul. The most important thing I can do, once I have managed to descend into this realm of beauty, is gently to deflect the approaching thought-wisps that would have me follow them into some ‘curious’ rabbit hole or another. This delicate beauty and the ‘white noise’ of mundane and conceptual thinking appear to be inimical to one other. In the death of one, the other comes to life—and vice versa.
6. Nietzsche’s outrageous campaign to vilify and to discredit (specifically Christian) morality without first having genuinely explored the path of transcendent centeredness—the only path that truly lies ‘beyond good and evil’—is an abomination. To be sure, it is a rhetorically mesmerizing abomination, but an abomination all the same! It is a malformed, aborted fetus smartly dressed in costly finery and hooked up with electrodes that mysteriously enable its arms and lips to move while a demon ventiloquizes through it. Machiavelli and Mephistopheles are like Mr. Rogers and Captain Kangaroo when set beside that mighty, matter-bound angel of darkness who employed the delicately-wired Nietzsche for its wretched-exultant mouthpiece. But God A’Mighty! What a writer! I would be a liar and a hypocrite if I didn’t confess that I find Nietzsche’s peerless prose infinitely more stimulating, artful, and exhilarating than all other philosopher’s combined—if we leave Plato, Schopenhauer and large slabs of (Francis) Bacon off the list.
7. On Ideology. The very word ideology stands, in my mind, for a kind of spiritual-intellectual barbarity, since even the most delicately fleshed-out ideologies finally have as little to do with true philosophical understanding as Stalin had to do with the liberation of ordinary Soviet citizens from fear and oppression. Ideologies, as they are known to us in modern times, are concerned almost exclusively with power—with its concentration in the hands of a few official arbiters and executors, with its authoritative sway over all free inquiry, doubt, and dissent of the mind. In short, ideology sullies everything it touches, intellectually and morally, and it has no right to advertise itself as founded upon genuine philosophical principles. Like all defunct and obsolete religious dogmas, ideology is founded upon promises it cannot fulfill and promulgated by those who seek to lord it over the minds of the simple, the superstitious, and the easily led—which turn out, perhaps unsurprisingly, to be the majority of human beings, now as ever. Ideology is to authentic philosophical thinking what literalistic, rigid Christian or Islamic dogmatism is to truly religious experience—that is to say, its pathetic counterfeit. And the purveyors and peddlers of such counterfeit to the innocent and undefended? Are they more deserving of our pity and patience, or of our contempt and public derision?
8. On subtlety. To what end, or ends, do I seek to subtilize my thinking? If I have embarked upon a campaign to pulverize the boulders of my generalizations with the pickaxes and rock hammers of my critical faculties, what purposes are being served? Is the shift away from comparative crudities towards more refined and delicate textures of thought and feeling sufficient reward unto itself, or is this refinement of the tools and standards a means to further ends? What might those ends be?
9. Optimist and Pessimist: Emerson and Twain. One possible way of distinguishing the optimist from the pessimist: when contemplating and assessing human prospects, the former takes his bearings from the exceptional and remarkable specimens of humanity, while the latter cannot ever quite forget the rule—the typically poor, fearful, uneducated ‘mass man’ who is always the more representative specimen in terms of sheer numbers and statistical averages. Emerson appears to have been among the former sort, at the beginning of his literary career—while that other fellow, “the American,” Samuel Clemens, was clearly in the latter camp at the end of his career. Perhaps one could say the same about Jefferson and Adams?
10. All men generalize. But Blake tells us that to generalize is to be an idiot. Therefore, all men are idiots, including—at least in this one instance—Mr. Blake himself, when he generalizes about generalizing.
11. The difference between a person who merely ‘respects’ the norms and prescriptions of his received moral system and the man who lives ethically in accordance with moral insights distilled from his own thoroughly digested experience is akin to the difference between a person who merely likes to have music on in the background and one who can play an instrument proficiently; between someone who reads a book on yoga—looking at the pictures of the asanas—and one who actually performs the stretches.
12. I must be registering some fairly profound personal insights. How can I tell? Instead of feeling excited about my ‘dis-coveries,’ my ego is feeling anxious and a bit under the weather. It is clearly threatened by these admissions.
13. What matters most: It seems to me that what we are able to make of what we are given (in terms of health, material advantages, education, social class, talents, and so forth) is what actually dignifies and redeems our existence—certainly not what we are born with or into. Isn’t this what decides the critical difference between mediocrity and nobility in a human life? From this perspective, heroic self-sacrifice is required even (or especially) from those born with the most magnificent and promising natural endowments. While the crucial importance of struggle and self-discipline should be apparent in the case of someone who is born into adverse or straitened circumstances, we often see a tendency among those born to good fortune to exert less effort, perhaps because they naïvely assume that they deserve their good fortune. Such ‘blessed fools’ may easily be tempted to privately enjoy their good fortune to excess rather than to fight that temptation and submit to the discipline and self-sacrifice that will transform them into capable servants and enrichers of the general good.
14. What collective opinions and sentiments lack in vividness, depth, nuance, complexity and exquisite evanescence (the hallmark of all rarefied aesthetic, moral, or intellectual experience) is more than made up for in the breadth of their appeal, the length of their reach, and the reliability of their resonance among the ‘distracted multitude.’ The consciousness of ‘the collective man’ tends to be poorly differentiated, stuffed with crude generalities, brute facts, and garden variety sentiments—except, perhaps, within some narrowly defined area of personal enthusiasm (say, for 1940s noir films, Glenn Miller tunes, or for macramé) or where a highly-specialized skill has been developed in one’s otherwise unchallenging and uninspiring line of work. Carefully observe what happens when some persons are presented with an inimitably ‘individual’ idea, sentiment, or action. Perhaps they are bowled over in excessively reverential amazement and perplexity at this wondrous piece of enchantment. Or, which is more often the case, they will instinctively want to strangle it to death with their callused, bare, dirty hands—if they could only get those thick, clumsy fingers of theirs around its slippery and slender neck. In the first instance, it hints at what they might—under ideal (or possibly even supernatural) circumstances—have become. In the second, it portends everything that is threatening and subversive, so far as their unthinking, stubborn loyalty to the lumpen collective is concerned. In both cases, it rather startlingly reveals to them what they are not: fully-fledged individuals.
15. Performing evil and unjust actions is despicable enough when we are acting alone, but when they are performed while we are being carried along by the blind force of an armed mob, they are even more despicable, due to the exponentially greater amount of cowardice involved.
16. The question I must ask those who regard themselves as my friend: How much of you is part of the dragon I am attempting slay within myself and how much is part of the sword?
17. I have the impression—rather, the conviction—that in the process of psychological development or maturation, no stage can be skipped or leapt over. Moreover, this applies, I would argue, not only to individual human beings, but to nations and entire cultures, as well. When such leaping and skipping does occur, an unstable situation inevitably emerges, since the concrete slab below the hurriedly assembled house was not allowed sufficient time to dry and to harden properly.
18. One would search in vain throughout the annals of history to locate evidence of human communities that were both as busy and as lazy—at one and the same time—as we moderns are.
19.While living in Colorado, many years ago, I met an elderly, educated woman who shared with me the following thoughts. What she said to me was certainly controversial, but authentic insights seemed, now and then, to fly like sparks from her startling, shared reflections. Here is the gist of what she said: “Real women are not faithful, ultimately, to particular MEN—for they recognize their primary allegiance to nature as a whole. With her, when it comes down to a choice between a man and nature, nature always prevails in the end. Nature may appear (momentarily) in the guise of a specific man, but let not that man be deceived! It is what lies behind him—and not him—that crucially matters to her. With men, the situation is reversed. Whether knowing or not, he first allegiance is with spirit, not with nature—and hence, not with woman as such. And while it is true, and even greatly to be desired, that a kind of harmony can be struck between these naturally divergent creatures, man and woman—a complete surrender to the other entails a form of violence to the one who thus surrenders. Nevertheless, we may legitimately ask: what is the real value of a committed relationship if one is not thoroughly transformed by it? And may not transformation be thought of as a kind of ‘violence’ to the part of us that undergoes this transformation? Ask the caterpillar, lodged within its cocoon, how it feels about the metamorphosis it is undergoing. Sure, a lovely butterfly will soon grace the breeze with the beauty of its delicately colored wings, but what remains of the caterpillar that sacrificed itself for that brief and gorgeous flight?”
20. Only with great difficulty is the righteous man able to temper or suppress his spontaneous feelings of contempt for the cowardly, dishonest persons with whom he is obliged to interact. These almost irrepressible feelings of contempt are bound up, of course, with his hatred of his own fearfulness, his weakness, and his all too obliging tongue that is prepared to flatter others in order to win or to retain their favor.
21. Serious writers (this one, at least) are—first and foremost—talking to themselves and struggling to impress and to stretch themselves when they write. Initially, the reader is almost always an afterthought—and perhaps should be. So far as I can tell, there is no way for serious writing to avoid or to leap over its ultimately confessional character, even when that writing is about someone else. Obviously, the more closely the writing approaches a genuine rendering of the author’s mind and soul in the moment of writing, the clearer or more transparent this confessional activity becomes. Plato said that ‘the eyes are the windows of the soul’—but eyes can be averted—or crossed. They can blink nervously and they be slammed shut. All these pertain to writing, as well—yet another ‘window into the soul.’
22. Notice how, in the morning, as we emerge from slumber and slip undeviatingly into our routine, it is as if our ordinary waking consciousness is ‘booting up’ and being configured like a computer that has been switched on. Before the ‘operating system’ engages, there is that fleeting moment when infinity and chaos prevail over time and order—indeterminacy over the established, familiar patterns of our ego-consciousness. If we are alert in such ‘in-between’ moments—before we’ve ‘put our face on’—we may possibly witness the coming together, once again, of that fictional creature that we in fact (or fiction?) are. The sheer weight of ‘personal’ history and the compelling momentum of fifty-year old habits converge into an unspoken edict: ‘the show must go on!’ Little wonder, then, if many of us encounter fierce obstacles when we make a valiant attempt to meditate in the morning! This is what we’re up against.
23. Dogmatic religious and philosophical systems are, in the end, little more than the death masks—or, at the very best, the plaster body casts—of their dearly departed founders. The fanatical adherent who lives (and dies) by the letter of such doctrines is like the madman who believes that he can be magically transformed or redeemed by pressing his own face into the mask of a corpse, or by sleeping in a vacated sarcophagus.
24. In approaching the writings of those revered thinkers and artists who are deserving of our serious interest and disciplined efforts, we should ask, ‘From what place or point of vantage do these teachings make sense?’ and ‘Of what breadths and depths of experience are these writings a more or less faithful description or account?’ Behind the concepts, arguments, metaphors, and imagery—behind the constructed ‘world’ into which these pieces are carefully assembled and welded—there is an implied beholding ‘eye’ positioned ‘somewhere’ in the interior. The writings are clues that the writer has left behind—providing a kind of trail that leads to this ‘eye-womb’ and indicating where he was situated when his teachings were born. Let us not dawdle or set up camp somewhere along the way and begin selling souvenirs and tee shirts before we actually complete the journey by following the trail to its final destination. And once we’ve arrived and savored (or satisfactorily appreciated) the view afforded through the eye of its first or most renowned beholder—what then? Now, do we become park rangers, tour guides, or vendors of picture postcards? Or, do we move on and do some exploring and some cartography, ourselves? Why on earth would we throw up our hands in despair of ever coming upon virgin territory, believing that no more discoveries of this sort remain to be made? How tiny and flat the known world must then seem!
25. Big ideas and BIG MOUTHS: When we protest that a person’s preoccupation with big ideas is merely a compensation for the puniness of his actual status in the world, are we implying that the value of these ideas must also be artificially inflated and therefore practically worthless because of their questionable legitimacy as compensations? (Such charges, incidentally, have been leveled against Plato and Nietzsche, to name only two philosophers). If, on the other hand, a person’s ‘big ideas’ enjoy big success by mass cultural standards, does that suffice to substantiate the intrinsic value and importance of his ideas? Could it be true that big ideas are, in a sense, akin to inflated stocks or large denomination bills of paper currency? In themselves, such stock certificates and large bills may scarcely be worth the paper they’re printed on, but they are accorded real and substantial purchasing power through unanimous agreement by those who stand to gain or lose a great deal were such inflated stocks and ‘fiat money’ exposed for what they truly are: worthless currency whose buying power depends entirely upon everybody ‘playing along’ and refusing to raise disquieting questions about what’s keeping the whole masquerade afloat. Is there a difference between ‘big, inflated, collective ideas’ and ‘subtle, modest, deflating’ ones? Are these not, in fact, continually at war in the mind of the serious thinker who would rather be poor and honest rather than wealthy with false currency?
26. There would appear to be a correlation between the easy gratification of instinctual drives and a dulling of self-awareness. We can see how this works in reverse, as well, by the fact that many people relax (or lose altogether) their accustomed inhibitions when they’re inebriated or high on drugs. If the principal incentives towards sharpened and deepened self-awareness are provided by disturbances and unpleasant interruptions of the easy and regular gratification of our basic instinctual drives and needs, then doesn’t it seem to follow that when these needs are routinely being met—or they are so weak as to cause us little trouble—we will have fewer spurs and inducements to peer more deeply into ourselves? Is the person who attains full maturity and deep self-awareness without encountering much pain and frustration along the uphill way merely a chimera?
27. Janus: Solitude, or aloofness from society: this is very much a two-faced creature. We can abuse our solitude in order to elude a confrontation with our shadows and demons…or we can make good use of that solitude by untangling ourselves from distracting outer involvements that hinder that very confrontation.
28. Seasoned surfers know and accept the fact that every once in awhile the waves are mighty and splendid (although the accompanying risks and dangers will be greater) but that more often than not the waves are merely ‘so-so.’ And without a challenging wave to paddle out to, the day will be pretty humdrum. A huge wave to an unqualified surfer is simply a colossal accident waiting to happen, a disaster that most non-surfers have the good sense to avoid like the plague—even if they love watching both big successes and grand disasters.
29. Receiving and processing. When I record an acoustic guitar, I record it without any special equalization or compression. I record the guitar ‘flat’ in order to get the full spectrum of frequencies. Then, after I’ve got a good recording at an optimal level of signal-to-noise, I can begin to ‘process’ the recorded guitar part in order to accentuate those frequencies that show off the instrument well—and attenuate any frequencies that are not desirable or which obscure the ‘choice’ part. Analogously, I prefer to refrain from any heavy-handed initial use of the intellect when I am attempting to register deeper states of awareness—and then later devote some articulate thought to the material.
30. Idleness and psychology: Nietzsche speaks on a number of occasions about idleness as a ‘vice’ of the psychologist. I suspect he is referring to the intermittent but wholehearted withdrawal from the busy realm of action, from trivial or draining personal relationships, and any other onerous involvements—if, that is, one genuinely seeks the profoundest sort of knowledge and experience of the psyche: the subtextual dimension. The charges of ‘idleness’ only stick when they are hurled by an actor from the stage—from the theatrics of immersion in our social, familial, and professional roles—and onto another ‘conscripted’ actor. And it is only because such actors are so blindly immersed in their scripted roles that they are forever failing to see the fruitful industriousness of those quiet, ‘idle,’ authentic psychologists.