Waxing and Waning Masks (9/14)

I am passing through a lonely-isolated, but unusually fertile-productive phase. What I am realizing more pungently than ever is that while the ‘mask’ of affability and playfulness that I instinctively don when I am in social or interpersonal situations is reliably attractive and disarming to others, the philosopher-psychologist behind the mask tends to be unsettling, threatening, and generally vexing to them—and for reasons that are easy enough to understand. The shift from vanilla ice cream to variable concentrations of sulfuric acid can be tough on some ‘skins,’ just as the sudden transition from misty moonlight to merciless spotlight is tough on some eyes.

My present dilemma stems from the fact that I’m finding it harder and harder to don the soft mask of disarming nonchalance and amiability. Perhaps my vanity is beginning, at long last, to crack and give way to something sterner and less slavish. It is said that the aging Elizabeth I spent hours each morning applying a thick coating of gruel-like, egg-based make-up—and then dolling herself up in regal finery—before facing her court. If anyone of her ‘peers’ made the unforgivable mistake of barging in on the shriveled, pockmarked crone before she’d put on her public face, they were effectively banished from her affection thereafter. May the Lord protect us from all such ‘politic’ puerility!

As things heat up beneath my own waxen mask, it melts away of its own accord—a natural more than a voluntary process. It really comes down to this, does it not? If I gravitated more naturally and instinctively towards cool artifice and tepid sociability than to searing truths of the heart and mind, I wouldn’t be faced with this dilemma. One legitimately earns the power and privilege to unmask others only after he has dispensed, once and for all, with all of his own.

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Shopping and Stopping (3/12)

 

(This short statement, written four years ago, addresses the sense of exasperation I have periodically felt with the extensive, as opposed to intensive, quest for meaning and insight. I like to think, now, that the two orientations are being married in a quiet, prolonged ceremony in a private location):

In the past—and leading all the way up to the very recent past—the fact that my quest for spiritual illumination is very much a multi-pronged quest has perhaps hampered my progress as much as it has helped it along. How has this happened? Sometimes I see quite clearly that if I had devoted myself single-mindedly to one path, I would have accomplished more than I have by jumping around, as I have, between Gnosticism, Jungianism, Taoism, Advaita Vedanta, Sufism, and so forth. What I realize more clearly now is that if I had gone about my quest more intensively and somewhat less extensively, I would have more quickly penetrated to the core of things—a core shared, interestingly enough, by all (or most) of the paths I have dipped into and slipped out of over the years.

Such intensive penetration is doubly rewarding in that it leads beyond the letter to the spirit of any religion or path of higher understanding—and once we become established in that spiritually fertile place, all alternative paths open up to us and reveal themselves for what they truly are—and what they are not. Paradoxically, this sort of discriminating vision of the ‘insight quest’ cannot be attained so long as we hold back from going the full distance with any one teaching. In short, unless and until we break through the exoteric teachings, or husk, and into the esoteric core, we will not attain the depth of understanding that is required for such ‘objective’ assessments. It all leads back to the central idea that only intensive study and reflection are capable of bringing about the initiatory experience or psychic transformation that is the true goal here. All else tends to become dabbling, sampling, shopping, and mere flirtation.

Language and the Feminine (8/11)

Some time ago I came to believe that when human beings speak and write about ‘moral’ actions and phenomena, their words are more commonly employed to distort and cover up the truth than to convey or represent it faithfully. In most instances, these distortions and falsifications are not deliberately or even consciously perpetrated. What I want to propose is that our (usually) unconscious lying and oversimplifications have roots that reach deeper down into our psyches than is generally recognized. What I want to suggest is that the lies, distortions, and gross simplifications (which amount to the same thing as a kind of blurring or reduction of evidence), are inherited with the language itself, and not concocted afterwards. Ordinary language, at least when it comes to talking about our own and other persons’ moral behavior and motivations, is—to put it gently—wildly inaccurate, grossly misleading, superficial and stupid. While it is already in this corrupt and debased form as it is received and assimilated by us as children, with the passage of time most of us only become increasingly confined within this terribly defective and infantile way of seeing and describing ourselves (and others) to ourselves.

More than a hundred years ago, Nietzsche wrote:

The significance of language for the evolution of culture lies in this, that mankind set up in language a separate world beside the other world, a place it took to be so firmly set that, standing upon it, it could lift the rest of the world off its hinges and make itself master of it. To the extent that man has for long ages believed in the concepts and names of things as in aeternae veritates he has appropriated to himself that pride by which raised himself above the animal: he really thought that in language he possessed knowledge of the world…A great deal later—only now—it dawns on men that in their belief in language they have propagated a tremendous error. (Human, All too Human, sect. 11)

Nietzsche’s claim—about language constituting a ‘separate world’ set up beside the other (‘real’) world—is rather more sweeping and comprehensive in its scope than the problem I want to touch upon here, but I am in general agreement with him in his assessment of what happened during the ‘prehistory’ of our species.[1] Culture and reason depend, of course, upon language and the use of concepts, which mediate between man and nature—that ‘other world’ of which Nietzsche makes casual mention. Nietzsche shrewdly—and I believe fittingly—makes note of the pride that man claimed for himself when he raised himself ‘above the animal’ by means of language. Or, perhaps it was man’s belief that in language he had acquired a means by which he could master the ‘other world’—perhaps this questionable belief is the source of man’s overweening pride and his inflated sense of importance in the ‘cosmos.’ We will refrain, for the moment, from pursuing the question, ‘Can there even be an experienceable ‘cosmos’ without the preexistence of language and concepts, along with the myths and stories that are made possible by them?’

The point I want to raise here—one which follows Nietzsche’s bold initiative—is that in their use of this marvelous faculty, this verbal-conceptual faculty of language, our ancestors seem to have been inclined to widen and deepen the gap between man and nature (or ‘the animal’) rather than employ this equivocal faculty chiefly to establish and maintain a harmony between ourselves and nature. We, the descendants of these distant, course-plotting ancestors—armed and reinforced with scientific, instrumental, and technological powers that would have boggled the imaginations of our forebears—nevertheless continue down the same path of proud mastery and ruthless domination, rather than utilize these formidable powers in a campaign to restore balance between man and nature. Anyone who is not blind or mentally impaired sees and feels the conspicuous symptoms of this perilous imbalance—even young children—and yet, like programmed robots or demon-possessed puppets, we race faster and faster towards the cliff ahead.

Where do such dark, unconscious compulsions come from and why are we so powerless to resist them? Do animals—upon which we proudly look down from our superior heights—fall prey to these same epidemics of collective madness that are sweeping like a brushfire through human societies everywhere we turn our iPhone cameras? In their ‘ignorance,’ animals cannot choose but to obey and respect the unswerving and unforgiving order of nature—as it is imprinted in their guiding and controlling instincts—but man’s dogged, multi-generational crusade to commandeer nature (and natural, balance-inducing instincts and inclinations) by means of the distancing and controlling possibilities granted to him by language, reason, and artificial concepts may very well be bringing us and our children closer and closer to the brink of a systemic showdown (or meltdown). This could never have happened if even a portion of the will and intelligence that has been devoted to overpowering nature (both within ourselves and outside) had been dedicated, instead, to the maintenance of a respectful balance and harmony with nature as a whole—not simply those parts of her which served our short-sighted, immediate cravings. Blinded by our collective arrogance, we seem to have convinced ourselves that our species is bigger, smarter, and stronger than nature herself. We seem to believe that our marvelous ingenuity will get us through the rough times that almost certainly lie ahead. But intoxicated with pride and defiance, driven by the restless need to consume far more than we need, and made passive by cynicism, we race at an ever-accelerating pace towards our own collective ruin. Anticipating such a dismal and probably irreversible dénouement, it is difficult to suppress the horrible thought that, as a species, we were a dreadful mistake, a grotesque aberration, a lamentable waste and pissing away of potential. I used to experience outrage and disbelief when I contemplated these matters. Now I just feel sad, remorseful, and a bit ashamed for all of us.

The deeply depressing insight that has emerged like a black moth from the cocoon of these dark reflections is that with the emergence of language (and the advantages that its use afforded mankind), greed and the hankering after power still remain the primary driving forces behind human civilization, established religious institutions, and much of culture itself. While my acknowledgement of this practically indisputable fact about our species is by no means novel, it never ceases to threaten me with a kind of despair and paralysis of the will when I ponder too deeply on these things.

[1] Of course, our ‘prehistory’ is very much alive and kicking in the present—just a few ‘inches’ below the thin topsoil of our ‘civilized’ ego-consciousness. As is evident from any newspaper or local broadcast news report in any large American city, this ‘savage prehistory’ is not only to be found in the bloody thoughts, aggressive impulses, and violent actions of the ‘primitives’ of New Guinea and the Brazilian rainforests or long ago, hidden within the primeval mists of forgotten time.

On the Crooked Path that Full Lives Trace (8/10-Buenos Aires)

I have written much in the past about detachment, but precious little about the other pole—involvement. I must confess that, for me, involvement occasionally feels a bit like grueling anthropological fieldwork or laborious experimental research. Something that is not undertaken for its own sake, but for the sake of knowledge—and the sort of knowledge that I personally prize the most, it seems, is that knowledge distilled slowly in leisured hours of quiet reflection. In actual immersion (say, as Malinowski immersed himself into the daily lives of the Trobriand islanders), I suffer from the vexing stresses and strains of inner disorientation, surging affects that powerfully draw me to—or repel me from—other persons in a compelling way; anxiety about what I’m getting into and where it is all leading; fear of committing injustices against others who are, likewise, becoming involved with me; and just the general vulnerability that comes with being exposed.

From one angle, being involved with another person means being committed to living out a fantasy or mythic narrative with that person—either provisionally and tentatively (with one foot in, one foot out) or unswervingly and doggedly (both feet, head, heart, savings account, and privates on the table). To be doggedly and unswervingly committed to any involvement—to an idea, a spouse, one’s children, one’s title, office, or country—may begin to resemble madness at some point, precisely because such commitment is typically, though invisibly, supported by a willful blindness to all those complicating factors and corrosive questions that threaten to expose not so much the worthlessness of the commitment itself, but its arbitrariness, fragility, and one-sidedness. What the doggedly committed person is loath to admit is that his commitment is ultimately founded upon nothing stronger than his own little will. To be sure, there is something conventionally heroic about this sort of commitment—and the dauntless upholder of his commitments draws much strength and inner reinforcement from this reflected consciousness of his stout-hearted heroism.

But what happens to the original fantasy or mythic narrative into which our committed man stepped into long ago—and in which he is still glutinously ensconced? Doesn’t the increasingly inflexible and rigid determination to ‘make it work’ year after year after year somehow begin to taint or to squeeze out all the freshness, spontaneity, and animation that lured him into the involvement in the first place? Has the single-mindedness of the commitment itself somehow become a secret enemy or rival to the actual day-to-day involvement—choking the life out of it? How could such a paradoxical thing have happened? How does the heroic will to preserve an involvement or relationship, at all costs, become so much of a preoccupation that the real needs and actual qualities of the person or program with whom we’re ensconced are all but forgotten about? These situations such as I am sketching here, which are as common as the rain, tend only to further degrade over time because our psyches, our hearts and our minds, our bodies and our imaginations, secretly rebel against such inflexible and sterile conditions, as we all know. This insurrection from within ferments and gathers momentum. Everyone is familiar with that one button that must not be pushed or that one question that cannot be raised—lest the dam break once again and chaos is unleashed. Interestingly, these are precisely the buttons or questions that plunge directly into the life that is being blocked out and forcibly ignored in order to keep the whole precarious house of cards upright.

Are we then to make no commitments at all? Are we to avoid becoming involved because such commitments and involvements ultimately must be broken (or at least dramatically disturbed and radically transformed, from time to time) in order to let life enter through the windows and doors of our too, too solid marriages, friendships, duties, obligations, and other commitments? Of course not. To avoid involvement in this way—as matter of principle or fixed habit—is to miss out altogether on life, on our one chance to take all the chances we need to drink our fill from a full and overflowing cup. Sure, some persons’ drinking capacity is greater than others. There are those who never gulp, but only sip at life. This wine is intoxicating (and sobering at the same time!)—let there be no doubt about that—but with regular bouts of toping one becomes better at coping with those states of drunken-sobering immersion—say, in a pair of enchanting eyes, or with the thrills and responsibilities of command over the fates of others, or with the ecstasies and the horrors of exploration of the interior world of the psyche.

The principal danger involved in involvement, then, is the threat of being swallowed up by events, by our faithful attachments and commitments—while the (opposite) danger of excessive detachment (or un-involvement) lies in its rendering us utterly unfit for the rigors, the shocks, the tedium, and the ordinary demands of daily life in the world. The dangers and drawbacks of plunging, without a map or compass, into life are perhaps ultimately no greater than those of timidly withdrawing from involvement every time things get a little messy. The truth of the matter is that an involved life is bound to get messy from time to time. In fact, it is probably fair to admit at the outset that life is normally and reliably messy most of the time—and this ‘trying’ condition is only intermittently relieved by brief respites of order, peace, and stability for anyone who is more than superficially engaged with life and with those he or she loves.

We may, with some justice, be likened to that anthropomorphic deity conceived by our ancestors from the Levant, thousands of years ago. Are we not thrust into the role of ‘little creators’ moving across the ‘waters of chaos’—the often complicated mess into which we are born and which, while we are here, we strive with mixed success to mold and to sculpt into beautiful and orderly, if ephemeral, shapes? The mess may happen to center itself in our kids, our marriages, our professional careers, or our own psyches. We dive in. We are bitten and kissed, cuffed and caressed. We get seduced by lovely and treacherous mermaids, kidnapped and then abandoned by princes from picaresque tales. We step back and climb out of the bubbling soup and watch other happy or tormented ‘victims’ bobbing and writhing about with the carrots, potatoes, and chunks of meat. We observe how things might be different—better—more meaningful and beautiful—if certain adjustments were made to the seasoning or the cooking time or the placement of the lid upon the soup kettle. Eventually, we can no longer endure perching ourselves idly above the stove—up on the condiment and cookbook shelf with all our valuable hints and suggestions. We brace ourselves. We hold our nose and…we jump back in.

The image that is becoming sharper and more complete, perhaps, is that of a life which seasonally alternates between two different poles of emphasis—now, towards active involvement, then towards withdrawal and reflective reassessment. Everything in our lives—our marriages, our professional careers, our friendships, our spiritual lives, our relationships with our children and our parents, the living and the dead—is thus regarded as an ongoing ‘work in progress.’ Nothing within the realm of the living is ever completely finished. Nothing ever attains complete perfection. All is evolving, dissolving, transforming, coagulating, cooking, rotting, and being reborn. People, things, and events are moving where invisible currents, dreams, and impulses are taking them. Nevertheless, the transformations of the relationships, activities, and pursuits that we are involved in do not evolve in a merely mechanical or deterministic manner, but with emotional and imaginative investment on our parts.

The sense of this creative participation in our own lives becomes vivid and exciting, I would argue, only when we have learned how to allow for this natural alternation or oscillation between active involvement and contemplative un-involvement, between immersion and reflection. If we get stuck on either side of the alternating current, our creative potentials will begin to decline and wither. Too far to one side and we become crippled and ghostlike ‘onlookers’ as life speeds past us like a bullet train. Too far to the other side and life sweeps us along like flotsam from one day to the next without our really being aware of anything other than the fact that we were busy or bored or distracted by this, that, or the other. Sometimes, these two lopsided, ‘stuck’ types meet each other and have the powerful but misleading impression that the other embodies the compensating solution to his/her imbalanced condition. It’s the familiar old ‘opposites attract’ idea. This is misleading because they are both only half right. In fact, it is as if each of them is on one side of a huge pane of glass such as we see in prisons, where visitors speak with the inmates. Only here, both persons are in their own prison on either side of the glass pane, for they are stuck, one in unconscious immersion in the ceaseless flux of meaningless events, the other looking down from the lonely heights to a boiling and bubbling battlefield of competing, needy, desirable, demanding, and frightening possibilities that one dare not dip one’s toe into.

The path to the fully lived life is invariably a crooked one that zigzags back and forth between immersion and withdrawal, spring and winter, light and shadow. Of course, such a life is broken open, drained, and replenished again and again in a long series of little and large deaths and rebirths. It is a perplexing and inconsistent life when viewed from an orthodox or even ‘commonsense’ perspective because in following its inner laws and promptings, its movements are never quite calculable or predictable—like the plot of an exceptionally good film or novel. In surrendering to the embrace of the great alternation, it breaks a million rules as it heals and re-heals its ever-dying self. It is the doer and the undoer of its life, the maker and the destroyer of the rungs on its ladders of ascent and descent. It devours everything of substance that it can cram into its soul, only to give it all back to the world with its own distinctive scent or perfume added thereunto. Thus, it never dies, for it becomes fuel in the fire of the continuing incarnation of that Dreamer whose very dream is the world.

Game Theory: Leaders and Dealers (12/11)

If we liken the present cultural-political situation to a game—a game, as it turns out, where the acquisition and wielding of power (over others) is the generally acknowledged objective—we can see a division into two familiar groups: the few and the many. Generally speaking, for those among ‘the few’ it is ‘every man for himself,’ while for the many, the aim is quite different: each ‘unit,’ rather than seeking to arrogate and amass power for itself (or its own)—as with the few—strives to dissolve itself in the herd, or mass, enabling this enormous group to function like a single-minded beast, an army with a more or less unified will that is under the command of a powerful leader from among the few. It might be a Pompey or it might be a Julius Caesar that the mobilized mob follows and obeys—but the power of the tyrant depends, of course, upon the size and heft of his herd of devoted servants and followers. Since power is what all players in the game are either directly or indirectly after, everyone is exploiting everyone else as a means to that end, even where appearances seem to suggest the contrary. When the isolated herd member relinquishes his/her ‘individual’ power in order to merge seamlessly into the mass, we must wonder if there ever was very much ‘individuality’ or autonomous will there to begin with. The little member of the mob doesn’t see himself giving up any power or sovereignty whatsoever as this droplet merges with the surging sea of fellow Democrats, Republicans, Tea Partiers, Christians, Muslims, Jews, or what have you. Au contraire! Paradoxically, he experiences an enhancement of power, of personal significance, of value, and importance in the very act of surrendering his actual (seedlike, scarcely germinated) individual will to the much larger and more powerful herd.

But herds without a shepherd (or pastor, the Greek word for ‘shepherd’) are dangerous, unpredictable, skittish, and—most importantly—a regrettable waste of a precious resource to anyone who knows how to exploit the situation for all it’s worth.

What are the hidden—or less conspicuous—opportunities available in an anti-hierarchical age of (democratic) chaos and confusion such as ours? For, let there be no mistake: all the million and one rules, regulations, protocols, authorized procedures, official (and back-) channels of today are no more than ramshackle, makeshift, stopgap measures to temporarily delay the collapse of an overheated, overstressed, undernourished monstrosity of a system that is being eaten away both from the inside and from the outside.

To put it differently: What is the obvious option open to someone seated at a table where a deck of cards is being shuffled, and where there is no designated dealer? Rare is that man who will attempt to argue that no game is preferable to some game—and the bold and inspired dealer who ‘steps up’ seizes the opportunity to introduce a new game. And if he wants his successor to continue with this newly introduced game—building upon it and adding interesting twists to deepen and enrich it—he had better not fail to get things started off on a solid, favorable footing. The game must be both challenging and satisfying to players of all levels of skill and ability. This is a tall order to fill, is it not? Such a game must make an appeal to all imaginations—finding each player ‘where he lives’—and at the same time provide him or her with one or more paths that lead onwards to new and uncharted territory. In such a game, if a player gets stuck, it would not be the game’s fault, but due to a failure of imagination or spirit on the part of the player. Such a game would not be linear (i.e., with a final ending) or circular (repeating itself without change for eternity) in its essential structure and trajectory, but a mixture of both at once. Hence, it would resemble that mysterious form encountered in nature: the spiral.

Such a game-changer and divinely appointed dealer would be a pastor for pastors, would he not—a shepherd and messenger for the few? Only such a shepherd and messenger would be able to present an alternative to the few that would unquestionably appear to be preferable to fleecing and exploiting the many, always their default position. Only such a shepherd would possess the gift for introducing the kinds of goals that make all the other goals and pursuits pale in comparison, for the new goals would expose the tiresomeness and tawdriness, the barrenness and the Sisyphean futility of the ‘default’ game, with its banal and demeaning objectives and prizes. Such game-changers have appeared from time to time in our shared human past and some of us know who they were. A peculiar, fluttering sound is audible to a handful of persons today—the sound of cards being shuffled.

Morality as Motor and Boredom Allayer (12/15)

As we mentally undress ordinary moralized human consciousness—peeling away one fig leaf after another—stripping our way down to the naked, raw and trembling flesh, as it were—we approach that murky ‘no man’s land’ where nature appears to merge with something that is not altogether nature. There may very well be a glove fashioned from the supplest and sheerest fabric, skillfully tailored to fit as snugly upon a particular hand as is artfully conceivable—and there may very well be silky-sophisticated, elegant moral doctrines, forged from the subtlest and most rarefied conceptual material, craftily engineered to moderate and canalize the ebb and flow of instinctual energies, drives, needs, and affects so that nature wears moral artifice like that hand wears the glove. But the glove may be removed from that hand and the hand will retain its original shape. Can our snugly-fitting moral conditioning be removed from the ‘nature’ it stamps without leaving its seal deeply imprinted upon our souls, our minds, our affects? Or could it be true that whatever shape our soul acquires is owing to the ‘retaining wall’ provided by this crucial exoskeleton, our moral indoctrination? Remove that and we may be faced with the protoplasmic, oozing jellyfish that remains after our elaborately sculpted outer shell has been removed. But this shape-bestowing shell turns out, upon careful inspection, to be more than just a mask and a suit of armor that simultaneously hides and lends a recognizable structure to our otherwise featureless, indistinct innards—our factory-installed drives and instincts. What if, to put it differently, personal style and distinction has rather less to do with what’s under the hood than it does with what we artfully work up for presentation—and not only presentation for others—but for ourselves, as well? Who never feels the need to impress himself (as much as others) with his ‘presentations’? And presentation is nothing if not a means of stimulating and then holding one’s interest, correct? Of avoiding the tiresome repetition of past presentations? Might not morality be one of our chief weapons against boredom, if only because it always provides us with something to do or to improve; a means for judging and competing against others—if only in our heads—and, therefore, perhaps a carefully disguised expression of the will to power? Nietzsche seems to have understood this much about morality: it not only motorizes or propels most human action—anytime moral criteria are brought into play in one’s evaluations of self, others, events, etc.—but it orients most of it, as well. By this reckoning, take away moral incentives and deterrents and the ordinary human existence is left with very little to do, it would seem.