What a ‘Real Man’ Looks for in a Partner (3/11)

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche writes:

Everything about woman is a riddle, and everything about woman has one solution: that is pregnancy. Man is for woman a means: the end is always the child. But what is woman for man? A real man wants two things: danger and play. Therefore he wants woman as the most dangerous plaything. Man should be educated for war, and woman for the recreation of the warrior; all else is folly. The warrior does not like all-too-sweet fruit; therefore he likes woman: even the sweetest woman is bitter. Woman understands children better than man does, but man is more childlike than woman. In a real man a child is hidden—and wants to play. Go to it, women, discover the child in man! Let woman be a plaything, pure and fine, like a gem, irradiated by the virtues of a world that has not yet arrived. Let the radiance of a star shine through your love! Let your hope be: May I give birth to the overman! The happiness of man is: I will. The happiness of woman is: he wills. ‘Behold, just now the world became perfect!’—thus thinks every woman when she obeys out of entire love. And woman must obey and find a depth for her surface. Surface is the disposition of woman: a mobile, stormy film over shallow water. Man’s disposition, however, is deep; his river roars in subterranean caves: woman feels his strength but does not comprehend it. (“On Little Old and Young Women”)

I have chosen this famous passage to serve as a kind of foil, or backdrop, against which I will attempt to set down my own very different notion of what ‘woman’ can be for man (at least for this man)—besides a ‘shallow’ plaything into which he gleefully ejaculates his warrior sperm. If Nietzsche’s outrageous but reliably fascinating conceits cannot help but resonate powerfully with many readers—just as Freud’s would shortly after Nietzsche’s death—it is precisely because he gives voice to erotic and aggressive instincts that two thousand years of Christianity (hypocritical or otherwise) struggled, for the most part in vain, to domesticate or to sublimate. Nietzsche—despite all his ‘surface’ concern with high culture and ‘spiritual’ aristocracy—frequently pulls back the ‘veneer of civilization’ in order to allow the most uncivil and barbaric human impulses a chance to speak out ‘eloquently’ on their own behalf. Up to a point, this campaign (on Nietzsche’s and Freud’s part) was genuinely therapeutic—insofar as it exposed and implicitly inveighed against the hypocrisy and cant that were practically synonymous with 19th century European ‘morality.’ I can only hope that the passage from Zarathustra and my brief commentary on the importance of Nietzsche as a truth-sayer (albeit, unpleasant truths) help us to see that a way forward has been cleared for new possibilities in the relations between the sexes.

*****

If I know, going into an intimate relationship with a woman, that she is incapable of following me where I go in my thinking—and that she cannot reflect ‘me’ at those depths or those outer reaches; if I know, or strongly suspect, that she can be no more than a soothing, temporary distraction from my loneliness, and not a true and equal partner in the full sense of the word—then don’t I have an ethical obligation to ‘take a pass’ when such doors open up for me?

Dignity and spiritual maturity are closely linked, I would argue. It seems that unless a person has—after the manner of an ‘existential adult’—taken the measure of human life (without the excessive protection of thick, insulating buffers) and survived the ordeal, he or she is still something of an innocent child. Now, while children certainly may be lovable and even worthy of our admiration, they usually have not been sufficiently prepared to withstand the sort of test I am referring to. Therefore, they are not yet in a position to prove their dignity, their mettle.

I think that a suitable companion for a ‘real man,’ as Nietzsche puts it, is a woman who has not only suffered deeply, but who has sufficiently reflected upon her sufferings so as to prove her mettle to herself—and to more or less the same extent that he has done so. Then, the playing field is even. There will be no glaring disparity between the power, insight, and experience of the two partners. It is a fact: it is difficult for a man to love deeply and unreservedly where his ‘partner’ is unacquainted with the protracted sort of torments and inner battles that have defined and oriented his own life. Women who have no feel (or calling) for these questions and inner problems—and an innate ability to wrestle with them—can only be soothing distractions or pleasant oases where he temporarily rests and recovers from the seriousness and the strains of his work in the desert. But such women (and men, for that matter) cannot share in that respectable work.

Advertisements

Ego Development and Instinctual Man (4/10-Salta, Argentina)

There are certain obvious parallels between love, eros, the ‘Dionysian,’ on the one side, and power, logos, the ‘Apollonian,’ on the other. The features of ‘measured distance’ and of the principium individuationis which are associated with the Apollonian also turn out to be distinctive features of ego-consciousness—which is heroically acquired by the gradual differentiation of the young person from a primal state of identification with the mother. Thus, the experience of being a separated self begins and continues throughout the course of one’s life. The merging with a partner in the erotic transports of romantic love and the sense of being absorbed and contained by the group (the tribe, the nation, the corporation, Dallas Cowboy and Dave Matthews fans, etc.) are culturally recognized, momentary interruptions or suspensions of this state of distance or dis-identification that is basic to ego-consciousness. In such moments of erotic or collective absorption, there is often an expansive feeling that accompanies the melting away of the usually solid walls that hem in the ego. We might speak of the connection between such experiences and the ‘mother’ archetype, or the ‘Gods’ Eros and Dionysus.

The emergence of ego-consciousness depends at the outset, therefore, upon disturbing the initial state of physical, emotional, and psychic identification of the child with the mother. Later, the gradual strengthening and ‘coagulation’ of the ego involves the focusing of the conscious will and the development of our individual powers and talents. In heightening and polishing these personal powers and talents we may gain distinction within our society and obtain encouraging rewards. If, on the other hand, we allow these talents and capacities to “fust in us unused,” we run the risk of blending into the dull and featureless background of the undistinguished. The admiration and envy evoked in others by the ego that rises by its own efforts high above the lumpen masses can serve as strong incentives to those strenuous exertions that are required to hold onto one’s privileges and one’s social cachet. The acquisition of this elating and invigorating sense of power and esteem within our social and/or historical setting can become the supreme goal to which the individual ego consecrates his/her best energies and efforts. The maintenance and enlargement of his sense of power and importance have, by this point, become the unchallenged priorities of his life. He is their unquestioning, obedient servant. In remaining their servant and in continuing to make of himself the best doctor, lawyer, football- or guitar-player he can be, he serves the general culture, which rewards him, perhaps, with a handsome salary and trophies of various sizes, forms, and dress sizes. He becomes a model or index of what other egos can accomplish if they, too, are willing to make the necessary but acceptable sacrifices.

But what are those sacrifices? What might the comparatively undistinguished and undifferentiated ‘mass man’ enjoy in more plenteous abundance and reliability than the former type—the ‘achiever’ whose higher profile personal status imposes greater pressures and constraints— if, that is, the special powers of thought and/or action upon which his status is founded are not to slacken and be outstripped by the competition? Doesn’t the less differentiated ego frequently enjoy a closer, more enfolding connection with that womb or matrix of instinctual drives and energies from which the more acutely self-conscious ego has strenuously differentiated itself? There would seem, then, to be a noteworthy trade-off entailed in the intensification, focusing, and articulation of ego-consciousness—and what gets traded away, to some greater or lesser degree, is that anchoredness in the natural and self-regulating instincts that we all start off with as tit-sucking, buggar-munching, bed-wetting, poop-smearing, drooling, muling, puking little ‘human animals.’ The more complex and highly differentiated the consciousness, the greater the risk of losing one’s rootedness in the simple, natural instincts and in one’s sense of being securely grounded in his/her (or anybody else’s) body. A kind of self-alienation or dissociation from the root of one’s animal self—from the heart and the belly, as it were—can occur.

We can recognize analogies between the development of ego-consciousness, on the one hand, and art and agriculture, on the other. The as-yet uncivilized, infant psyche may be likened to a tract of earth. This plot of earth can be gradually transformed into a productive farm, but first, it must be cleared of trees and boulders. Only then can the land be profitably worked.  Before that, it is merely nature—and this corresponds to the ‘raw’ human being prior to his being provided with a language, cultural imprinting, moral instruction and an education to equip him to be a contributing member of his society. Because a productive farm is more than mere nature, it does not create itself, but depends upon the art of agri-culture for its genesis. Nevertheless, it is always rooted in—and dependent upon—nature in order to produce its fruit and grains, just as the productive ego is always rooted in its raw, natural instincts, which may be said to motorize and empower it. When these instinctual energies are weakened, damaged, or blocked, the ego suffers much as a crop suffers from drought, blight, or impoverished soil. Although the farm is rooted in and dependent upon nature as it is given, like every art, agriculture itself has something that is not merely natural or spontaneously given by nature—any more than the Mona Lisa or a Ford Taurus is spontaneously given by nature. The raw materials are given by nature, but the design and execution of these ‘works’ depend on culture. The connection between the words ‘art’ and ‘artificial’ is not an accidental or insignificant one. The most complex, comprehensive, and marvelous specimens of human consciousness depend partly upon natural endowments (which, like the bodies and genes we are born with, may either be enviable or lamentable), but the rest—perhaps the lion’s share—depends upon what use we make of our natural inheritance. This, perhaps more than any other factor, is what differentiates one person from the next.[1]

If a man feels a drive to distinguish himself through some art or virtue in order, primarily, to satisfy his vanity or to stuff his pockets with far more money than he requires for a secure existence, then we say that he prostitutes his genuine gifts in the service of his baser appetites and drives. He may nonetheless still be a great musician or scientist, and insofar as he is an exceptional musician or scientist he may rightly be said to contribute something to culture by means of his own individuation. In short, he serves two very different ends, both of which may be said to be larger than himself: the culture and his oversized, uncontrolled appetites for fame and wealth. These two very different ‘pulls’—one from above, as it were, and the other from below—can and often do coexist in one exceptional soul, who is the ‘dwarfed’ servant caught in the middle.

[1] One might be tempted to assume that because the man of distinction devotes himself to an art or vocation which sets him apart (in a variety of senses) from his fellows, he is actually serving something other than himself, while the undistinguished, comparatively artless and passive man is actually more true to his nature, and therefore is more of an authentic individual. But this would be a questionable assumption, since our collective, naturally-given psychic endowment is no more personal or individually developed by the mass man than is the cultural or technical arena within which the accomplished individual makes his/her distinctive contribution. Both ‘types’ are confronted with impersonal and collective contents/factors. The distinguished ego may be said, however, to have a more active, transformative relationship with those factors, while the other type generally assumes a more passive or merely adaptive posture towards them.

Stepping Back and Rejection (8/10-Buenos Aires)

Can the temporary withdrawal of my animating attention from a friend or lover justly be compared to ‘pushing’ them away? From the subjective point of view, there is merely the sense of stepping back, or momentarily suspending my active engagement with the other person. If he or she repeatedly interprets my stepping back as an act of rejection after I have attempted to explain what I’m doing, what might this tell me about the person? What prompts them to interpret my provisional withdrawal (from personal involvement) as rejection? For me, momentarily stepping back from cozy, personal intimacy and attachment to a cool ‘arm’s length’ is quite a different matter than pushing the other person away, even if I can easily appreciate how he or she might misconstrue my intentions.

Without intending here to reduce personal engagement to mere make-believe or posturing, there is nevertheless more than a faint resemblance between such engaged participation, on the one hand, and a serious actor’s imaginative, passionate investment in his theatrical role, on the other. When I am being (or acting as) an affectionate and caring lover or loyal friend, I often have the sense that I inhabit that role in an authentic or sincere manner. I am invested in the role—and because my friend perceives and trusts in the sincerity of my investment, he, in turn, is encouraged to remain invested. It is an arrangement based upon good faith. Because I play a variety of very different roles for a number of persons (and with a sincere investment of myself, I might add), I have gradually learned to recognize subtle distinctions between myself in those roles and out of them. Speaking in terms of Jungian psychology, these are distinctions between my personae and my individuality, which is ‘situated’ at a somewhat deeper level.

When I momentarily step back or consciously withdraw from my roles, what am I doing and why am I doing it? The sum of these actively played roles constitutes the ‘theater of operations’ of my social and interpersonal life. To withdraw—as I do from time to time—from all of them is, in effect, to strike the set of the big play that I am normally involved in at a personal level. At the very least, it is like hitting ‘pause’ on a movie I’m watching—a movie I also happen to be in—so that I can assess things like a film director or a playwright. I may be assessing my own or another character’s performance. Or, I might be pausing to reflect upon the ensemble effect of all the performances. Or, I might be attempting to anticipate where everything is headed in the present scene, act, or in the entire comedy itself. Or is it a tragedy? A tragi-comedy? A picaresque novel? A farce? A mystery play? A myth-in-progress? Can I, by stepping back in this way, significantly alter or improve my own performance or those of others, by giving them new questions and challenges to work with? Can I redirect the course of scenes or alter the trajectory or interpretation of the whole production? Can I change its very form (from tragedy to comedy) or its accent and mood?

Without attempting here to address these very intriguing questions, I will simply observe that when I am sincerely invested in my roles, my ‘hands are tied’ rather more snugly and tightly than when I have stepped offstage and into the audience, or into the director’s chair, or the playwright’s garret.

It doesn’t require a whole lot of effort for me to recognize the ‘observer’ within myself that is always hiding somewhere in the mix—simply looking on from an uninvolved stance in the background. Whenever I ‘step back’ it is always in the direction of this detached observer. While the observer, itself, does not judge the persons, situations, and events that fill the stage of my personal and cultural experience, it nevertheless provides the necessary psychological perspective from which I can optimally evaluate and reflect upon these persons and events. The ‘observer’ is simply my label for that standpoint from which Life’s characters and events readily reveal their ‘fictional’ or metaphorical basis. It is the clear cold light that pierces through the fleshy surface of phenomena into the skeletal structure that lends them shape and support. It seems that without this skeletal structure to prop it up, life would collapse like an unbaked cake. Our experience would quickly be reduced to something like gelatinous protoplasm. This skeletal system that lends organic form, symmetry, and supporting infrastructure to the animated surface of human experience is just another metaphor for the archetypal dimension. By itself, the archetypal scheme is little more than an elusive or invisible provider of structure—but when it works in concert with the spatio-temporal particulars that contribute body and appearance to the mix, we begin to have Life as we typically experience it. When I move out from the observer standpoint in the center, I am moving towards Life…towards immersion in experience, into a felt and involved connection with other persons, creatures, things. When my consciousness recedes or withdraws from surface events and persons, I am withdrawing into the detached observer, from which standpoint Life is viewed as something like a coagulated dream—a dream, that is, which the observer knows full well to be a dream, and populated with figures that the observer knows to be momentary, mortal manifestations of psychic factors—psychic images and seeds.

All of us, whether we are aware of the fact or not, have access to this perspective of the observer —considered here as the detached standpoint from which life’s absorbing and enchanting surface is exposed for what it truly is: a kind of magical theater which appears not only to be plainly and factually present, but also ineffable and impenetrably opaque, at the same time. Utterly ordinary and magical, perfectly familiar and spellbinding, stubbornly lawful and boundlessly open-ended, possessable and erotically elusive, intelligible and baffling: it is all of these at once. From the observer perspective we are momentarily enabled to see through these seeming paradoxes, unriddling the complex psychic processes behind them. Cold, detached spirit is subtler than soul and can therefore ‘see through’ psyche. Psyche is subtler than ego (the ‘freezer’ into literal forms) and is therefore able to manipulate and shape it into various forms, as the sculptor shapes clay.

If many of us instinctively dread an encounter with the observer within us, certainly it is because it functions as the sobering unmasker of Life’s enchanting allure. If this alluring dream is all that a man has to sustain his enthusiasm for existence—if it is all that he has to bolster his will to plod onward with his life—then a stark unmasking will certainly be traumatic and devastating, will it not? It initiates this vastation simply by seeing through the surface of Life, first into its hidden structural and organizing factors (archetypes) and then into the spontaneously creative and self-regulating activity of the psyche itself. Spontaneous fantasy activity overflows into established channels that are carved out by the primordial archetypal dominants. This generates the enthralling (or, as the case may be, dull and unpromising) story into which we are mysteriously inserted as we exit the birth canal. We may become key players and conspicuous participants while we are here or we may remain modest bystanders, depending on a variety of factors, only some of which we have a measure of control over.

When those to whom we have opened up our minds, hearts (and other private organs) cut off all communication with us, and we don’t feel we deserve such mistreatment, it is easy—very tempting—to feel bitterness towards our rejecter. Their rejection—because we have been so open and generous towards them with our love, our trust, and our time—can feel like a damning indictment against our essential selves. Such wounding and life-scarring rejections can come from anyone who really matters to us—parents, siblings, friends, teachers, lovers, mates, students, children—and the more the person matters to us, the more torturous and tormenting the wound. If we are not careful we will allow the bitterness we feel towards our rejecters to turn into hatred for them. This hatred that is spawned from our hurt and embitterment will then cast a hostile, black shadow over the offender. We will come up with dozens of reasons why they were unworthy of our time, love, and attention before. We will focus only upon their weaknesses and defects—real or imaginary—and exaggerate them so that our rejecter is, in effect, demonized. Clearly these negative, mentally suffocating effects of rejection and counter-rejection should be dealt with and overcome at all costs.

The principal difference between ‘pulling back’ a bit (or a lot) in order to get some perspective—and rejecting someone—should now be easier to see. The person who simply pulls back also eventually comes back to renewed participation while the rejecter does not, perhaps cannot. As long as one or both persons in a relationship continue merely to pull back from time to time, the connection between them is allowed to breathe and thereby to be preserved. If one of them goes so far as to reject the other, the actual relationship is severed. If we have been rejected, we are unable to advance or repair things with our rejecter, for there is no longer a bridge between us. The other person will no longer accept our entreaties. We are compelled by circumstances to wait until our rejecter has a realization that it is preferable to work through the problem (that led to severed relations) rather than to ignore or abandon the problem. It is my responsibility, I feel, to follow through with those processes of growth and transformation that occur in any serious, long-term relationship—between parents and children, friends, husbands and wives, and so forth. But I can only do my half of that work. The other person must carry his or her half.

Seeds and Soil (4/11)

We shall begin with the assumption that on the archetypal plane (whereunto we make our voyage by means of the mercurial imagination) the infinite possibilities for various forms of human consciousness already exist like seeds. Depending on which seeds germinate within the ‘soil’ provided by our actual lives—and how well those plants thrive there as a result of our efforts at cultivation—our life paths will acquire their distinctive trajectories and qualities.

What I presuppose here should present no difficulties for anyone who is acquainted with Jung’s ideas about archetypes and the relations between the ego and the unconscious. I would like, however, to play around a bit with these two critical variables—the archetypal seeds and the actual cultural-historical soil—in order to explore the relationship between them.

In Jung’s ‘Answer to Job’ and in Edinger’s The New God-Image (which further explores and elaborates upon Jung’s key ideas in Job) we are presented with the hypothesis—drawn from the findings of depth psychology—that the ‘God-image’ has undergone a series of momentous transformations in the past and that here in the West, it is on the verge of transformation once again.

Those extraordinarily comprehensive individuals (such as Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, Socrates, and various other sages and prophetic visionaries) who imaginatively/spiritually encounter and then present a new image for deity are, as Jung observes, not uncommonly regarded as heretics and dangerous revolutionaries by their contemporaries. Jesus was crucified along with two criminals, Jung would have us remember, and Socrates was sentenced to death for impiety and for corrupting the young—even though both of these figures were moral paragons, according to the reports of those who knew them. Trail-blazing visionaries and ground-breaking prophets (all of whom displayed exceptional courage in remaining faithful to their visions and in refusing to capitulate to the general will and conventional narrow-mindedness) experienced a deeply conflicted relationship with the cultural-historical ‘soil’ in which they were planted—as a matter of necessity. If they weren’t martyred at an early age for their disturbingly unconventional ideas and heresies, they were inwardly banished, even under the most favorable outer circumstances, to that distinctive solitariness that stems from being oriented by stars that are invisible and unrecognizable to eyes that are riveted to earthly affairs.

With these prefatory observations in mind, let us consider the ‘soil’—the cultural-historical conditions—that any and all ‘seeds’ will have to contend with today. Seeds are mobile (like the spirit, they ‘bloweth where they listeth’) while the soil tends to stay put. But since most (seed-bearing) fruits fall close to the tree, we ordinarily find a sympathetic or congenial relationship between seed and soil (and climate, for that matter). If the ‘parent’ throve in that soil and climate, its seed is likely to fare well also, if conditions don’t change dramatically from generation to generation.

The extraordinary growths—Socrates, Buddha, Jesus, and the like—resemble seeds ‘blown in from far away.’ They are anomalies, prodigies, flukes—from the standpoint of the local variety of fruits and vegetables sprouting up around them in vulgar profusion. Nevertheless, they have little choice, it would seem, but to exploit and extract every last nutrient their peculiarly oriented souls can assimilate from the soil of ‘Athens’ and ‘Jerusalem’—although they will inevitably find such soil deficient or depleted. Their ‘eros’ will reach out and yearn for a kind of sustenance and companionship that simply cannot be found where they are planted. Frustrated eros or libido is forced back upon its own source, deflected by the disappointments and the lack of nutrition afforded by the local culture. From one angle, it is out of this frustration and disappointment with the best that our native soils have to offer that we are compelled to test the limits of the humanly experienceable, the humanly intelligible—the possible ways of being in the world.

Because these strange seeds (which have ‘blown in’ from God knows where) have, under the big fat smelly thumb of necessity, assimilated and incorporated all the (scant) nutrients that the soil of ‘Athens’ or ‘Jerusalem’ has to offer, they share a common heritage with those who are, more properly speaking, native flora and fauna. It is this shared, local heritage that provides the possibility of a bridge between the spiritual ‘resident alien’ and his fellows, who are more comfortably immured within the cultural ‘caves’ of Athens and Jerusalem. The strength and the size of the bridge between the anomalous alien and his more complacent compatriots will depend, of course, on how fully the stranger has incorporated and consciously assimilated all that the city and its past have to offer—and then seen beyond it. His overflowing eros will have compelled him to look beyond these assimilated religious, mythical, and traditional forms and customs—and to see beyond them is, of course, to see through them into their archetypal roots.

The naturally conservative adherents to these forms and customs cling to them with all the confidence and innocent certainty of children who have learned to trust and to depend entirely upon what their protective parents have unfailingly provided them with. Like contented and trusting children, these invested locals do not—and perhaps cannot—understand anything of what the stranger normally experiences every day on the other side of this bridge. His regular, ongoing experience of their sincere and understandable incomprehension when he speaks in his own ‘parabolic language’ about his very different needs, longings, and experiences has taught him to expect only a feeble and usually distorted response to his honest and genuine reports.

If he makes the mistake of turning away in disgust or contempt from the cultural education available to him—in the soil in which he has been dropped—the bridge between his inner experience and that of his compatriots will be narrower, frailer, and less able to bear any weight.[1] The greater his mastery and understanding of the traditional culture and the unconscious assumptions (the ‘myths’) that his fellows live by, the easier it will be for him to make fruitful use of the very furniture of their hearts and minds in the introduction of his own very different views and values. By framing his ideas in terms that are—on the face of it—familiar, and therefore accessible, to his listeners, he will not appear to be as antinomian and as disturbingly heterodox as he truly is. His views will, at the very least, seem paradoxical and puzzling, however, since they carry within them the seeds of subversion of the status quo. Anyone who tries to argue that Socrates and Jesus were not subversive and radically revolutionary spirits who challenged the very foundations of orthodox religious and moral values does not know them very well. We only see them today as ‘heroes’ and ‘saviors’ because we ignore and fail to understand what they actually taught—how they lived, why they were put to death, and by whom. We invoke their names all the time. We think we teach them in our ‘Sunday schools,’ pulpits, and university lecture halls, but scarcely anyone lives as they did. Such spirits are unique and defy imitation.

[1] cf. Nietzsche’s ‘camel’ stage in ‘The Three Metamorphoses of the Spirit’

Black Pill (9/11)

This sense of languor and diminished enthusiasm (for virtually all pursuits other than quiet reflection and the patient study of psychologically illuminating texts) persists and I continue to feel isolated by the saturnine thoughts and sentiments that grow out of the soil of this low, shaded valley. In harvesting and harboring these black and moist psychic spawn, I often have the somewhat shameful feeling that I am offering sanctuary to contagious vermin, rabid dogs and venomous serpents which few are prepared to handle without posing serious risks to themselves. Isn’t this one half of any piece of spiritual wisdom worthy of the name? By this I mean merely to dispel any illusions about psychological insight constituting an unalloyed good or blessing. Like the pharmakon[1], all genuine wisdom entails within itself both a remedy and a poison—depending on who receives it, the size of the dose vis-à-vis the capacity of the recipient to absorb and assimilate it. I have received a large dose of ‘unconscious blackness’ and my ‘system’—my psychic digestive tract—is obliged to assimilate this blackness. The energy and attention required for this process of assimilation or integration are by no means trivial, and because my energy and attention are not unlimited, other areas of my life are necessarily suffering from ‘budget cutbacks.’ The greater my progress in swallowing and consciously absorbing this big, black and bitter pill, the likelier it will be that I recover interest and enthusiasm for the neglected areas of my life. My guess is that if I lacked the freedom and the leisure and the educational advantages that support and assist this lengthy phase of conscious digestion and assimilation, my chances for success would be significantly lowered. On the other hand, by focusing so exclusively and single-mindedly upon this solitary inner work, I necessarily deprive myself of certain comforts and pressure-relievers that most other persons can freely make use of. I am keeping the ‘vessel’ closed so that little or no leakage can occur.

The naïve hopes and consoling fictions that we cling to as instinctively as the infant clings to the mother’s soft and nourishing breast, function like an array of protective shields and dampeners that filter or block out altogether the stark, unforgiving light of genuine knowledge of our precarious existential condition. In providing this buffering function, our illusory hopes, dreams, and ideals at once reinforce and hamper us. They strengthen us insofar as they help us to maintain our ‘good spirits,’ our confidence in ourselves and in those we trust. But by distracting us from the harsh realities that lurk just beyond the inflated bubbles of our benign belief systems, they weaken us. Those moral virtues (our ‘muscles’) and those wits which would otherwise be regularly and strenuously exercised (to their very limits) by an honest confrontation with our actual existential situation go soft inside us, so that, by and by, the light of truth becomes our unacknowledged enemy.

Wisdom consists primarily in gaining access to the unsettling (and potentially crushing) truths concerning our actual, as opposed to supposed, situation—and then developing the moral and spiritual stamina required to withstand this sustained realization. As soon as we glimpse the truth about our vulnerability and acknowledge the extent of our deludedness we are faced with the most important spiritual decision of our lives. Everything else, up to this point, has been child’s play—a mere distraction from the loneliness and gravity of this decision. The decision is whether we will retreat back to the childlike consolations and soothing lies that have always comforted and consoled the multitude, or will we turn from that safe but childish course of action and move onward, alone, into the darkness?

The thinnest and frailest part of wisdom—we learn soon enough—is the ‘intellectual’ component, that part which can be distilled into clever maxims or pithy aphorisms. Even the profoundest of such gnomic utterances (such as those of Heraclitus, Patanjali, and Lao Tzu) are but shoddy and makeshift ‘surface readings’ compared to the ineffable states of pregnant distress suffered or endured by the solitary delver into that subtext hiding miles below the reach of our fear-tempering remedies and formulas, our diverting works of serious and comic art, our ‘ennobling’ moral doctrines and our abstract philosophy!

To say it again—and yet again: the attainment and weathering of such dark wisdom ultimately has rather less to do with intellect or mind than it does with the heart and one’s spiritual fortitude—a man or woman’s capacity for standing alone and unarmed before…what shall we say?—the honest, but merciless truth? The opaque reality waiting like a massive pus buildup just beneath the un-lanced surface boil of our acquired concepts and assumptions? God? Aren’t all of these names and depictions equally meaningful here? Or, if you prefer, equally meaningless? I just know what it feels like when my casements are loosened and a blast of ‘wind’ slips through the little crack that has opened before me. Were the window opened any further ‘I’ would be frozen and ‘blown away.’ Out here, like a puny, stammering Lear on the heath—in the cold—alone with IT—I am most honestly and nakedly myself: dwarfish, insignificant, soon to melt and dissolve into nothingness, speaking as an imperfect witness before this stumping mystery that has granted me a smattering of brief and discontinuous glimpses before it swallows me whole.

[1] The ancient Greek word “pharmakon” is paradoxical and can be translated as “drug,” which means both “remedy” and “poison”. In “Plato’s Pharmacy”, Derrida traces the meanings assigned to “pharmakon” in Plato’s dialogues: remedy, poison (either the cure or the illness or its cause), philter, drug, recipe, charm, medicine, substance, spell, artificial color, and paint. Derrida notes: «This pharmakon, this “medicine”, this philter, which acts as both remedy and poison, already introduces itself into the body of the discourse with all its ambivalence».

 

Veritas and Verdun (2/11)

Although it certainly can feel liberating, inaccurate knowledge is actually quite limiting. For many of us, it is owing to our mild delusions and our false beliefs that life seems so congenial and welcoming to us. Would it be preposterous to claim that roughly ninety-eight point six percent of our beliefs are either shallow generalizations and consoling inanities—or that they so grossly simplify and soften reality as to bear little resemblance to the complex, multileveled truth of things? The 1.4 % that is not froth and poppycock is usually pummeled into us by crushing disappointments, grave personal illnesses, profound (but fleeting) moments of honest reflection, and other generally disquieting experiences that we would assiduously avoid if we could. If we did not have this thick, insulating layer of consoling untruths armoring us against the merciless X-rays of truth, it is quite likely that many of us would quickly perish of despair and demoralization.

And yet it is the flint-hearted, small-minded fool who rails and wags his chiding finger at his fellow humans for behaving, in certain respects, like deluded and spineless children. In the back of our minds many of us are more than faintly suspicious that life, at bottom, is probably a cheat, and yet a goodly number of us still keep pressing ahead against the biting wind, bearing our fardels, making big and little sacrifices for others that may or may not be appreciated with gratitude—or even noticed. Do we not routinely lie to ourselves and to others in well-intentioned defiance of the probable truth? Should we not be commended—instead of condemned—for our charitable, half-feigned blindness?

On the whole, humans appear to be a little bit like infantrymen at the notorious battle of Verdun, running en masse into blinding clouds of mustard gas and into the pelting rain of the Gatling guns, knowing full well that the war and the politicians behind it serve virtually none of the aims they profess to serve. As they run, merged in their hearts and minds by the steely bonds of desperate sympathy—not only with one another, but also with the mirroring enemy across the way, wantonly shooting at them—they realize that Verdun is simply a more concentrated, muddier-bloodier version of life itself, with a rat-and-corpse-filled trench dug here and there to provide a momentary stay against the inevitable rendezvous with the patiently awaiting truth.

Perhaps then, it is the misanthrope who is in fact the blindest caitiff of them all. He is blind because he fails to see that his fellow humans are actually, if only half-consciously, transforming their ‘existential’ anxiety into energetic, if slightly frenzied, participation in the rigged game of civilized life—of live human theater—the collectively created and fretfully maintained alternative to that sinkhole of savagery and barbarism from out of which this fascinating species has managed somehow, over many millennia, to lift itself—and back into which we catastrophically slid a number of times in the last century. And the misanthrope is a coward if only because he uses his hatred of man to justify his contemptuous non-participation on the great stage.

But—to if we are truly to be fair—even the misanthrope deserves a measure of our sympathy and our indulgent ear. His hatred for man most probably began as an honorable hatred of the lies and falsehoods that he and his fellows were obliged to imbibe in order to keep the ‘game’ afloat. The innocent mistake he made was equating the lies with the carriers of the lies—the stories with the storytellers. Having seen through the game, all he could see was the players’ flight from actual life, or stern reality (as Nietzsche saw romanticism, Christianism, Platonism, pessimism, socialism, and just about every other ‘-ism’). His misanthropy was rooted in a failure to fully appreciate the necessary, buffering role played by language and culture. In one respect, culture is the sane and prudent adoption of a measured stance towards irrational reality as a means of more safely and adroitly navigating through the uncertain seas of life. As civilized, culture-dependent natural creatures, we stand (or wobble!) at a ‘fictional remove’ from the brute facts of life (thanks, primarily, to language and concepts, the building blocks of that sheltered, second realm of culture that we inhabit). This is our ‘cave’ (in the Platonic sense), of course. But, of course, when we are in a cave it is difficult to recognize it as such.

In most cases, a misanthrope is born from a traumatic and usually prolonged encounter with the overwhelming, undiluted existential truth of things, lurking like lethal nuclear fallout just beyond our protective cultural walls. The unfortunate misanthrope either forgot or stubbornly and proudly refused to wear his protective goggles and lead-lined cloak while out on the range where the gamma rays play. His overexposure to radiation has left him weakened and not a little bit confused. Beneath his troublesome antipathy for his fellow mortals—an antipathy born, in part, from their not having been subjected to the same traumatic exposure he has only barely survived—he secretly fears that he may be a radioactive danger or contaminant to them. So, part of his motivation—an incongruous one, because it clashes with his consciously embraced misanthropy—for remaining aloof and marginalized from his own kind springs from a desire not to infect or disturb the peace of others with the larger dose of corrosive truth that is now an integral part of his very make-up. He always feels a bit ugly and dangerous to others—down deep—and so he keeps his distance. He can love, he finds, but only from afar, it would seem.

On the Path of Wholeness (10/15)

It is supremely doubtful that there has ever been a time and place wherein a decisive portion of the general population was educated for wholeness or rounded personality development. But in an age such as ours—an age of specialization such as perhaps never could have existed before now—the opportunities and incentives to undertake such a rounded education of all of one’s different potentials and capacities are harder and harder to come by. The sorts of human beings that are being produced by the typically narrow and shallow form of instruction that reigns supreme today are usually quite disappointing—even if they are extraordinarily adept or skilled in the performance of one or maybe two specialized functions. Such ‘fragments’ are a far cry from the ‘whole person’ envisioned in our philosophical ideal. In fact, the candidate or aspirant for such wholeness must energetically and circumspectfully resist the million and one actual incentives to ‘specialize’ that beset him during the course of his life. For as soon as the lopsidedness and hypertrophy of the dominant (and dominating) function or skill set is established (and lucratively rewarded) it becomes much, much harder to go back and start over in a more rounded, ‘holistic’ manner—a path that respects all of those capacities and potentials which, when actualized and interrelated, help to give birth to a whole person. The ‘world’—as it presently exists—is solidly and almost unanimously against us in our choice of, and commitment to, wholeness.

My intuition, which is generally trustworthy in its pronouncements, is telling me that wholeness, when it is attained, emerges from a combination of lifting repressions (or clearing away blockages in the psyche) and a kind of dialectic between the various complexes, drives, yearnings, and faculties that, together, make up the complex personality as a whole.

This dialectical process (which, from one angle, aims at a kind of homeostasis or self-regulated condition) is by no means exclusively internal, but pertains, as well, to the individual’s interactions with the outside world. With such a complex array of factors involved, it should be evident that there is seldom a dull moment in the life the whole person. A staggering number of adjustments, balancing acts, compensations, warning signals, unpredictable complications occur during an ordinary day, regardless of how far below the threshold of consciousness they occur.