What God’s Death Means for Us (6/10)

God is dead: for me this signifies a general condition wherein supreme, transcendent value and meaning are no longer simply and automatically given by the culture in which we are born; value and meaning are no longer felt or believed to be inherent in the fabric of the universe, in the ground of existence—implanted in our own souls.  For a growing number of us, life’s much-depleted meaning and the philistine, hedonistic, and self-serving values by which we orient our lives are being ineffectually projected onto the opaque text of nature—under such divinely ‘unsponsored’ conditions—as well as onto ‘Society’ and the ‘State.’  If we look at what is being unconsciously projected upon godless nature and the equally godless State/Society, what we see is an unholy mix of inherited, incoherent fragments drawn from various modern ideologies, marketing campaigns, and popular science, TV shows, and sophist-gurus eager to exploit the current cultural crisis.  With such worthless currency dominating the ‘meaning markets,’ it should come as no surprise that a vital, culturally and spiritually nourished life has become harder and harder to attain.  The projected fictions are not authentically born from the imaginative labor and spiritual courage of the majority of men and woman today.  En masse, we have degenerated into restless consumers of dried-up, second-hand meanings that we unconsciously swallow and then regurgitate in the form of unexamined assumptions about the meaning and value of existence as such.  Many smart and decent persons avoid questioning the inferior goods in which we are awash simply because they have no clue where to begin—or because, as yet, they lack the audacity (or the spiritual desperation) required to challenge a lamentable status quo that seems to be passively resigned to by virtually everyone.  Little wonder that there are so many currently running TV series about the Walking Dead and blood-sucking vampires.  These shows mirror the times we live in.

Now, this murky state of widespread spiritual decay and disintegration is disquieting enough, but the unpleasantness only worsens for those who press on further—at least, initially.  I am referring to the existential bleakness one is often left wallowing in after the charade has been seen through.  After this unmasking, instead of being able to say to ourselves, ‘Well, now—I will no longer stick my head in the sand and I must begin at once to try and learn how to live—nay, to thrive—in a godless, uncertain universe where meaning and purpose are not simply given,’ we find that such stoical, sober-minded postures seldom genuinely succeed in delivering us over to any reliable form of inner well-being—and persons who make such bogus claims are either outright liars or they are the hapless victims of self-deception.

We may have advanced from being innocently contented ‘babes’ to stalwart, sober-minded, spiritual ‘adults,’ but we soon find that we are just as meaning-starved as we ever were, only now we know it and we feel our hunger for soul-nourishment pinching us as never before.  Many of us come to find that we are actually hard-wired with such a yearning—a hunger that now is suspicious of every counterfeit item that is shoved onto our plates by those well-intentioned (or otherwise) persons around us.  Our conscience—our intellectual conscience—forbids us the luxury of eating at others’ tables.  We have learned too much about the dangerous or superfluous ingredients in such fare.  In our famished condition, we must—like reformed Tantaluses—learn to ignore the mocking offers of ungraspable and inedible ‘junk food’ of the soul that bends toward our lips.  We are faced with an urgent and by no means simple dilemma: on the one hand we recognize that if our souls are to be nourished, that nourishment must be harvested from the thin and often infertile soil of our unexplored and untapped spirits—and, on the other, that our lack of faith and confidence in the power of our lone spirits to redeem and reanimate existence is our principle enemy.  To have so enormous a burden lowered onto one’s frail shoulders can certainly be overwhelming.  It is the crisis that calls forth all of a man’s hidden resources.  He will either rise up from the ashes of his life and the godless world, or he will progressively ebb away into the dead sea of nothingness that surrounds and buffets him with its lapping waves.  There is no turning back, however, once our present cultural-spiritual situation has been seen through into its lightless and chilly depths.

On the Toughness of our Recent Forebears (6/09)

I have been reviewing two old BBC series from the 1970s side by side this past week—Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man.  I come away from them with the disconcerting suspicion that, as denizens of the contemporary American scene, many of us are rather like pampered and sheltered children.  These series—especially The Ascent of Man—underscore the fact that the long road this species has traveled before arriving here has been as terrible in its agonizing hardships and its catastrophic derailments as it has been wondrously heroic in its spectacular leaps forward.  What I cannot help being impressed by as I watch these sweeping historical surveys is the sheer amount of work and self-sacrifice that was demanded of our ancestors simply to survive—let alone, thrive—in a tolerably dignified and humane manner.

It’s this impressive blend of extraordinary industriousness, resiliency, and practical resourcefulness—evident in the often brutal and uncertain daily existences of ordinary persons throughout Western history—that makes for such a contrast with the easy, cushioned lives so many of us simply expect for ourselves and for our children.  My aim here is certainly not to blame or to rail against contemporary persons for adopting habits and harboring expectations that cannot help but appear extravagant and indulgent when measured against previous norms and standards—since this exceptionally prosperous and free existence is the only life that many of us living today will ever know.  Because many of us have enjoyed these freedoms and material benefits throughout our lives, we have become poorly fitted, in countless ways, for the sorts of burdens and responsibilities that our forefathers took upon their minds and backs without complaint or hesitation.  On the whole, their lives were tougher, less frivolous, less comfortable, and less materially free than ours.  If our forebears were granted a glimpse at the unearned freedom and material comforts many of us take for granted, at our marvelous gadgets and amusements, at our troubling aversion to inconvenience and weighty sacrifice, mightn’t they turn away in sadness and scorn?

Certainly a crucial component of their readiness to make such weighty sacrifices—and to endure hardships that few of us could withstand without crumbling or cracking up—was their staunch belief that their labors were as much for the benefit of posterity as for themselves and their own kin.  Am I wrong in assuming that few of us today agonize over the question of what we might bequeath of value to posterity?  Many of us seem to have trouble thinking beyond next week or our next paycheck.  And if we do bother at all to reflect upon what sort of legacy we are leaving for our own grandchildren and great-grandchildren, we are likely to be stricken with a sense of shame, helplessness, and regret over the current era’s collective short-sighted selfishness and frivolity.  Because so many of us have been spared the labor, the harsh discipline, and the weighty responsibilities our forgotten ancestors shouldered, we lack a proper appreciation for how—and at what cost—our relatively free and pampered lives were made possible, upon what enormous sacrifices they have been painstakingly and selflessly erected.

If, collectively, we do not display the same fortitude and resourcefulness that our forefathers showed, it is certainly not because we are genetically inferior or constitutionally impaired.  Our bodies and our brains are perfectly equipped, by nature, to face the reality that our forebears often had no choice but to wrestle with.  It is our culture and our modern educations that have become increasingly bankrupt, anemic, and superficial.  Even the ablest physical bodies and minds weaken and wither without a healthy diet and regular exercise.  They soften and degenerate without exposure to hardship and trials of strength.  They become enervated and spoiled if they take the easy road—the main road down which a growing number of us are careening, in fact.

Ironically, the very ease and comfort that many of us have come to expect is the principal obstacle standing between us and an authentic, fully-fledged existence—the sort of existence that is more likely to be forged in response to protracted trials and weighty responsibilities.  Culturally and psychologically, like little Icaruses, we have risen (into thin air) on inherited wings, not earned ones.  The imaginative creation and maintenance of such wings lies, for the most part, beyond our cramped and narrow range of understanding.  We see much the same problem with our ‘user-friendly’ technological devices. The inner workings of these ubiquitous devices elude our understanding and transcend our practical ability to reconstruct or repair them—our cars, household appliances, laptop computers, TVs, iPhones, etc.  Analogously, we appear to have missed those necessary, preparatory-initiatory stages in the long process of cultural and material evolution that has culminated in—and may very possibly terminate with—our present stage.

Isn’t it the case, in fact, that a growing number of us are becoming anxiously aware of the wobbliness of our present condition—and of our general unfitness for re-visiting and re-embracing those trials and hardships which made all of this comfort, freedom, and (resultant) ignorance/immaturity possible in the first place?  So far, we have been able to shift most of the physical burdens onto the hardier shoulders of ‘developing nations’ who, for the moment, are willing to sweat and toil for low wages in order that we may remain comfortable and amused consumers.  For the moment, many of these peoples inhabit sufficiently rich and vital traditional cultures, enabling them to withstand these trying ordeals with patience and hope (mostly for their children’s prospects).  But how long before such innocent traditional cultures suffer lethal infection by decadent modern trends such as hedonism, consumerism, relativism, and nihilism?  Clearly, these difficult and painful questions contribute to the general malaise so widespread and so grossly misunderstood today throughout the modern world.

On Tolstoy, Art, and the Spirit (11/06)

Tolstoy’s preposterously perverse (and delightfully hilarious) claim that Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe was a finer work of literature than Shakespeare’s King Lear has (since its declaration in his 1897 essay, “What is Art?”) provoked more sound and fury than insight into its elusive meaning.  Tolstoy’s seemingly unjust belittlement of Shakespeare’s genius (and his elevation of Stowe’s moralistic novel to such exalted status) has been attributed to the Count’s envy of the bard, or to his stubborn preference for ‘moral’ art over what he took to be Shakespeare’s reluctance to cast definitive moral judgment upon his characters.  And while there is no doubt a measure of truth in such attempts to account for Tolstoy’s outlandish and peculiar remark, I’m not sure they satisfactorily resolve this mysterious matter.

It should first be recalled that in his later years, Tolstoy’s practical and philosophical asceticism was carried to such an extreme that he effectively renounced his entire previous literary output—arguably, the work of one of the supreme artists in the history of world literature.  Few novelists have given the world such rich offerings as came from the prolific pen of this great lover—and keen observer—of humanity.  If anyone can be said to have understood and to have appreciated the enormous value of art for life—from the inside out, so to speak—Tolstoy did, as Shakespeare had before him.

If we can provisionally allow that the marvelous creations of literary genius come to us from the province of the soul, or imagination—and the peculiarly anti-worldly virtues of asceticism come from the austere and purified spirit, then perhaps we place ourselves in a better position to understand Tolstoy’s gripe with Shakespeare—as well as his near-rejection of his own imaginative creations—from a slightly subtler psychological perspective than those typically entertained.

I would suggest that what we are up against in Tolstoy’s implicit disparagement of the imagination (or, more precisely, an imagination that is not ultimately beholden to his unconventional version ‘Christian’ morality) is the perhaps unavoidable tension between spirit, as such, and soul, regarded here as the reflective and imaginative mediatrix between spirit and body.  This creative tension (when regarded from the perspective of spirit) arises because the imagination, by its very nature, seduces the spirit out of its detached, isolated unity, bringing it down from its imageless altitude and purity—back into ‘the world, the flesh, and the devil,’ as it were—the tragicomedy of the human-all-too-human.  Tolstoy’s asceticism, like all genuine forms of asceticism, aspired chiefly to transcendence, to complete and pure renunciation of all binding (and blinding) selfish attachments.  My suspicion is that the most stubbornly tenacious attachment of all for Tolstoy was his attachment to his work as an imaginative artist.  (We should be eternally grateful for the ‘lapses,’ in his old age, from this austere suspension of his literary work—when his genius got the better of him, and, as a result, we have an extraordinary novella like the splendid Hadji Murat to delight in.)  It would seem that in spite of his unquestionably sincere efforts to transcend his former self he was, to the very end, an artist through and through.  The swipe he makes at Shakespeare is perhaps best taken as the index of his frustration over being unable altogether to change his own spots.

It is worth noting that in Shakespeare’s final play, Prospero throws his book of spells and magic incantations into the sea after striking the ‘magical isle’ stage set he has previously conjured.  But then Shakespeare, too, seems to have been unable entirely to sever his long and vitalizing connection with the London theater, as we know from his subsequent collaborations.

Perhaps the deepest hindrance that stood in the way of Tolstoy’s efforts to become thoroughly ‘spiritualized’ or ‘transcended’ rested in his ultimate inability to decisively move ‘beyond good and evil’—as Nietzsche may very possibly have done, if only in episodic, discontinuous spurts of ecstasy.  Tolstoy’s thoroughly humane and compassionate nature, and not merely his infinitely fertile imagination, prevented him, ironically, from abstracting his mind and attention completely into the realm of cold, pure spirit, where all attachments must first be incinerated before entrance is permitted.


Could it be True? Are Pleasure and Pain Correlative? (8/21/10—Buenos Aires)

Might it be a ‘psychological law’ that the sum of (subjectively experienced) pleasure over the course of a human life more or less exactly equals the sum of its opposite—pain, or displeasure—so that the two ultimately balance—or cancel each other out?  Can a persuasive case be made for the claim that the two are, in psychological fact, correlative?  What if it were true that our prospect of enjoying the most pleasurable life possible is always secretly being checked by an inescapable law—a law declaring that we can never exit the game of life as indisputable winners, but only in a kind of tie or stalemate?  If it were true that we could never finally and completely be ‘in the black’ since our ‘books’ are always being balanced—profits continually being matched by losses—what would be the wisest way of navigating through such a game of ‘poker’ where, after the final hand is dealt, nobody walks off with the pot?

The answer to this question will certainly turn out to be markedly different for each of us.  According to this hypothetical model, for those persons who are powerfully drawn to intense or king-size pleasures, intense or supersized wallops of pain will be the acceptable price paid for the privilege of enjoying such pleasures.  For those, on the other hand, who eschew extremes of any sort, a more moderate approach is embraced wherein prudent measures are taken to avoid being dislodged from one’s peakless and troughless, lukewarm bomb shelter in the flatline region of the midrange.

But since pleasure and pain are more accurately regarded as subjective in nature, rather than as objectively quantifiable experiences, these two—the ‘large dose’ and the ‘small dose’ types—actually tend to melt into and out of each other.  How does such a surprising situation arise?  Those who become habituated to big-game, high-impact pleasures and pains tend to become progressively desensitized to both, developing thick calluses, as it were, around their ardent souls and their greedy senses, so that their response gradually becomes blunted and dull.  ‘Raising the volume’ on either side of the pleasure-pain polarity only tends to thicken the callused skin between stimulus and response, so that one of two results typically occurs.  Desensitization continues from binge to binge until our ‘pleasure junkie’ begins to feel less and less of what he used to.  Or, he ‘purges,’ swearing off both extremes in a desperate bid to restore his lost sensitivity to pleasure as such.

At the other end, the stubbornly stoical man of the tepid and flavorless mid-zone who has deliberately hardened himself against both pleasure and pain faces a very different situation.  In armoring himself against pleasure and pain he inadvertently cuts himself off from two great motivators and instructors: pleasure is a great lure into experience and pain is a valuable early warning system.  He becomes the prisoner, as it were, of a very restricted range of psychological and/or sensory experiences.  As with our foregoing example of the over-exposed man who gradually acquires a thick, insulating ‘epidermis’ that eventually cuts him off from life, the underexposed, stoical type may develop an interiorized form of desensitization (apatheia) that leads to more or less the same problematic outcome: willful estrangement or alienation from the business of life itself.  When this alienation from pleasurable and painful springs of life reaches an advanced stage, the laws of psychological compensation kick reliably into gear and deliver to our ‘stuck’ stoic an extra powerful kick in the rear.  Thus, an extreme jolt—of seductive, irresistible pleasure and/or blood-and-spirit-stirring pain—is nature’s and the psyche’s way of returning such ‘disengaged’ types to the large, nourishing breasts of Life, where they are compelled to open their thin, chapped lips and suck for all they’re worth.

Thinking outside the Gap (8/11/10—Buenos Aires)

Sky Gods and Father Gods are perhaps more comfortably associated with spirit, the unobserved Observer, and with the transcendent realm of Death beyond this visible, tangible world.  Earth divinities and Mother Goddesses, on the other hand, are more readily linked with Nature, the Observed, with cycles and processes of Life in its immanence.  Sr. Yang and Sra. Yin.  We Westerners worshipped one of those Father-Sky Gods for a long, long, long, long time.  He has pulled back a bit—or, did we push him?  At any (cosmic) event, neither He nor any She appears to be strongly felt or generally recognized today (by anyone with his or her eyes and ears really open).  We are all waiting for Godot or Godette to make His or Her divine presence felt, but I suspect that a dozen or two more generations of our kind will inhabit and then perish from the Earth before the first faint waves of that awaited Presence lap tentatively against our thirsty shores.

There is nevertheless much work of preparation to be undertaken before that fateful arrival.  We do not want our great (multiplied by a factor of 12) grandchildren to be caught with their pants down or their thumbs up their butts when those first divine ripples (or nipples) reach our thirsty shores.

Nietzsche’s (sane) ‘Madman’ ran into the marketplace declaring that ‘God is dead’—to deaf ears and mocking tongues—but perhaps He merely retreated into the vacuum of space that Newton and Co. mapped out for Him.  He-She is not entirely persona divina non grata with us, after all.  If He-She can play Hide and Seek with us, we can certainly play Hide and Seek with Herm.  This may very well be the one exceptional case of co-dependency that we do not want to allow those well-meaning little psychotherapists to ‘cure.’  It would appear that we do, in fact, need each other in a symbiotic way—

Gods and Goddesses—Gods and Humans—Sky and Earth—Men and Women—Gods and God (Pagans and Jews)—Jews and Christians—Heaven and Hell—God and Rome—Rome and the Clergy—the Clergy and the Laity—Men and Boys—Faith and Reason—Man and Nature—Gogo and Didi—Rock and Roll—Here and Now—Now or Never.

Cardio-Braino-Drano (6/26/10—Asunción)

Nietzsche’s writings will not make us wise, but they show us what we must overcome if we would become wise.  As a self-styled ‘complementary man,’ his task was primarily concerned with bringing to light (or out of the mists of the unconscious) many of those neglected and often despised features of the collective western soul which had long been repressed, neglected, despised, and denied.  The institutions or agencies of repression and studied ignorance were as various as asceticism and utilitarianism, Christianism and scientific skepticism, romanticism and egalitarianism.  Nietzsche’s heroic labor (like that of Hercules cleaning the stables of king Augeus) was, in a manner of speaking, to unclog the blocked passageways between the ‘hemispheres’ and the ‘ventricles’ of the western brain and heart—passageways that had for centuries been assiduously and energetically jammed and sealed up (and often from both ends!) by those who could see or accept only one side or the other.  This work of ‘creative destruction’ or divinely diabolical roto-rooter plumbing by Nietzsche will, in the ripeness of time, prove deserving of humanity’s collective gratitude.

But there are important limitations to his work and his legacy—as valuable as that legacy is within its broad bounds.  Nietzsche, himself—perhaps ‘touched’ with the megalomania that occasionally erupts as an unhealthy compensation against misunderstood or shunned genius—seems to have supposed that he was as much a founder and creator of a new culture and future for man as he was a diagnostician and destroyer of the moribund and dysfunctional one he was fated to inhabit.  In this supposition he seems, quite probably, to have gone astray.  Perhaps ironically, those very virtues he would need to forge in order to carry out his fatefully appointed task of destruction appear to have rendered him unfit—or at least insufficiently equipped—for the rather different task of creating and founding a culture.  Those figures with whom we are familiar who did perform such creative, founding, and/or consolidating work include names like Homer, ‘Moses,’ Plato, Aristotle, Jesus, Paul, Augustine, Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Bacon, Descartes, and (perhaps) Hegel.

Aphorisms, Invitations, and Provocations (I)

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.


A Proposed Analogy between Modern Science and the Modern Ego

The steadily plodding campaign of ordinary science—namely, to account for as much of the sensible world as possible in its own admirably rigorous terms—bears an unmistakable resemblance to the ordinary human ego’s ongoing effort to ‘make sense’ of its experience in its own distinctive and often narrowly delimiting terms. In both instances, the results ultimately prove to be reductive, leading to an inadequate—and often thoroughly misleading—interpretation of the evidence that is presented to them. The sense-making schemes of empirical science and ego-psychology can perhaps best be illustrated by a parable that involves a tribe of persons who have always been confined to an island in the middle of the ocean. The islanders are struggling to arrive at a general picture of the larger world beyond the shores of which none of them have never departed. They base this cumulative, evolving worldview on the evidence that happens by chance to land upon their beaches: various items of clothing and scraps of furniture from ships that ran into trouble nearby, plants and animals carried there by powerful currents produced by storms, etc. As long as the islanders remain confined to their island, this is what they are restricted to in the way of evidence from the mysterious world beyond the waves.

Only those who have mastered and then ventured beyond the rigorously regulated criteria and methods afforded by empirical science are truly in a position to embrace new arenas of knowledge and experience in terms suitable to these very different contexts. Only then do we properly begin to appreciate the very real constraints built into the scientific worldview. We may learn, for instance, of science’s glaring ineptitude in dealing with basic problems and questions that are central to ethics, poetry, history, philosophy, religion, and psychology. All of these important arenas of thought are suffused with qualitative judgments, distinctions, and nuances that are verboten where science is concerned, insofar as it is strictly quantitative in its methods and bearings. In practice, however, advocates for the scientific standpoint frequently have something to say about ethics, history, philosophy, psychology, and so forth.  Typically, such judgments and assessments are not particularly illuminating, at least when compared to what these very different arenas—which have their own terminology, methods, qualitative criteria, and virtues—say in their own terms about their own subject matter. The scientist might very well be respectfully consulted, now and then, by the historian, the psychologist, the poet, and perhaps even the priest, but to allow him to apply his very different methods and aims within their arts and disciplines would constitute a gross dereliction of duty or responsibility on their end.

Because science has been so spectacularly successful in its spirited campaigns within the modern world—because it has so dramatically transformed the world and the way we make sense of things—it should come as no surprise that the scientific worldview has been allowed to trespass like an interloper and poach in arenas where it really had no right to meddle. We have learned—albeit, late in the game—that science[1] promised a good deal more than it could legitimately deliver. Or, perhaps it brought so many additional problems and perils with its evident benefits, we simply got more, as a species, than we bargained for. We have learned that science’s methods can be as ham-fisted outside of its proper sphere as it is subtle and masterful within it properly delimited horizons.

All of these critical observations may, with some caution, be applied to the ordinary ego insofar as it ventures beyond its delimited sphere of vitally important functions within the larger totality of the psyche. We can observe how some scientists (and many science enthusiasts) are dazzled by the brilliance of the focused light that the scientific method directs upon nature. Not infrequently—like many dogmatic Christians, Muslims, and Jews—such enthusiasts begin to believe that their limited understanding is boundless in its explanatory power and reach. The conviction of such dogmatists—the strength of their confidence in the adequacy of their limited methodology and criteria to offer an account of the whole that is both rationally consistent and comprehensive[2]—seduces and wins over the weaker minds of those persons who desperately need something of this sort to believe in, just as we see in religious flocks led by a charismatic pastor of staunch conviction and a voice of authority.

Likewise, the ego—when it has fallen in love with its supposed brilliance—is akin to a young child who receives a marvelous new toy to play with. Like the spellbound toddler, the ego cannot focus on anything other than this brilliant light that it brings to every conversation near the water fountain at the office or on a date with a new prospect. Not until the child has become bored with the toy will he be free to pay proper critical attention to the more substantive and serious affairs going on in the world around him. Likewise, only after the sobered-up egoist has grown weary of the droning sound of his own voice will he be in a position to attend properly to the far more interesting questions and concerns that have been drowned out by his incessant babbling.

Of course, this is not—nor should it be—an overnight change in a person’s life. Because the shift from a narrowly egocentric standpoint to a more, let us say, depersonalized one is such a momentous reorientation, it entails a lot of retooling and readjustment, much of it distressful and confusing. It is a bit like moving, alone, to a new country, adopting a new culture and a new language. It is not something readily embraced or effortlessly managed by even the most adaptive persons. At any event, the ‘call’ to the deeper, unfamiliar, and uncharted realm begins to be registered by the ego long before the actual ‘move’ takes place. Naturally, these ‘visitations’ from the new arena of experience have a generally disturbing effect upon the personal ego’s trust and confidence in its old foundations. Even when these visions of what is possible are exciting, exhilarating, and welcome to the ego, they are nonetheless still disturbing because they necessarily challenge and deeply conflict with many of the ground assumptions and beliefs upon which the ego’s worldview has been founded. This is why earthquake and flood metaphors are frequently invoked to illustrate the effect of these irruptions of unconscious contents into consciousness.

Unsurprisingly, the ego will often rally to its own defense after such ‘incursions from below.’ These upsurges from the unconscious can be inflating or dramatically deflating, depending on the manner and degree to which the ego identifies with these archetypal contents. The long-term goal, of course, is for the ego to come to meaningful terms with these contents, but that goal is still a long way off. At first there must simply be a confrontation or collision between the two diametrically opposed standpoints—that of the walled-in little ego and the much larger and less focused unconscious material. Because the ego is inevitably dwarfed by the unconscious contents (which take the form of dreams and visions, overpowering moods and mysterious affects, stupendous insights and inspiration for which no words are adequate, etc.) these experiences are almost invariably interpreted as having a ‘religious’ or numinous character.

[1] Or perhaps I should say scientism, the unreflective idolatry of science as a method of apprehending ‘the truth’ about things. An excellent treatment of scientism can be found in Huston Smith’s timely little book, Why Religion Matters—especially pp. 59-78. See also: Understanding the Present by Bryan Appleyard.

[2] And this includes, of course, their implicit dismissal of—or silence about—those questions and topics that are beyond the reach of their cherished explanatory tools and models.