Beware of Melting Ice Sheets (10/09)

Would I be an unforgivable party pooper and killjoy were I to suggest that what we often casually refer to as ‘truths’ are largely meaningless and devoid of substantial content—due to the inherent imperfections and inadequacies of the human intellect? And, supposing we could arrive at a final and definitive answer to the question—What is ultimately real?—isn’t it like that the answer would make about as much sense to many of us as quantum physics makes to even the most gifted and talented baboons and poodles? What our experience—both in its nakedly immediate and carefully sifted forms—reveals to us is a vastly complicated and multilayered process that is in a state of continual flux, wherein all values, convictions, perspectives, and relationships are ceaselessly being renegotiated below the more or less stable (masking) surface of our lives. At any moment, the most that any of us can perceive—even the wisest, those with the most comprehensive, polycentric consciousness and the profoundest self-awareness—is an infinitesimally small portion of this all-inclusive, fluid totality. And if we make the serious effort to articulate our limited vision of things in some kind of system or coherent philosophical theory, won’t we find, probably to our surprise and consternation, that things have already moved on to a distinctly new phase (in our understanding of things)? We realize with a sigh of despair that we saw only a tiny sliver of the whole, after all. To make things even more dubious, our honesty obliges us to 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 crude ‘action sketch’ of a moving animal that converts like Proteus into one form after another.

An almost universally employed 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 tidy cluster of generally manageable, 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 lamentably limited experience. This method, when perfected, has a hypnotic effect upon us, so that we remain convinced that our tiny sliver of the entirety 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-flattering species.’

It should be noted that literalizing—this virtually universal intellectual practice 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, in most cases, is fear. Fear of instability, mutability, insecurity, uncontrollability, uncertainty, etc. Fear freezes, but desire thaws. Desire, therefore, entails risk because it allows life, thought, and passion to advance in their own way, and they may move (or gallop) into conditions or situations that seem to be impolitely heedless of our preferences, ceaselessly tampering with our comfort level settings. Therefore, fear fights against desire. It suppresses it, lest the fragile and brittle clamp of control is shattered by a sudden eruption of urgent 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 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 mass man, for the heat of deep and genuine (as opposed to tepid and programmed) desire always poses a threat to the thick ‘ice sheet’ that carries the ‘mass mind’ ahead, inch by inch, 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.

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2 thoughts on “Beware of Melting Ice Sheets (10/09)

  1. Hello Paul, I apologize , I only just a bit ago saw you had left me a message. I have read parts of some of your blogs. This one , in particular, “Beware of the Melting Ice Sheets” has intrigued me. However I became confused inside your metaphor, specifically of the last part of it beginning with “the desire for freedom- of the heart, the spirit, of the desires, of voice and behaviors- then you end it by saying …”not something that anyone in their right mind would wish for -and for obvious reasons,” Pls clarify your meaning for this, if you would be so kind.

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    1. Jo, I am contrasting the sort of burning desire for inner liberation with the tepid, but far more commonly encountered desire to conform with group norms–and that as soon as we display a strong desire for liberation it sets us at odds with the unconscious will of the group (the ice sheet). On the other hand, the melting of the ice sheet leads to a meltdown of civil order and ‘chaos is come again.’

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