Ruminations on an Aphorism by William Blake (5/15)

Blake wrote: “He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.”

There is considerable psychological wisdom hidden within this statement but, as with all genuinely interesting aphorisms, one must dig and sift in order to unearth and suss out the deeper implications. Only the slapdash exegete would assume that Blake is simply advocating license—abandonment or surrender to our desires (so as to avoid breeding ‘pestilence’ within). This would amount to no more than a crudely Freudian way of misreading the aphorism—would it not?—as if lifting a repression and discharging our libido is the best (or most) we can do or hope for. Freud, let us remember, in Civilization and its Discontents, restated in psychoanalytic terms the un-astonishing claim—already implicit in Thucydides and in Hobbes, his rather less profound 17th century admirer and translator—that only the ‘thin veneer of (repressive) civilization’ prevents humanity from plunging or erupting into general chaos and barbarism. These moral codes, behavioral norms, laws, customs, and conventions constitute the fragile—and not altogether natural—bulwark that has continually been developed, expanded, and tweaked over the millennia to insert a crucial bit of ‘breathing space’ between humans and their troublesome ‘animal’ drives, passions, instincts, terrors, etc. Even a slight familiarity with Blake will make it obvious that he is not slyly or diabolically urging his reader to abandon himself to his desires without reflection—or rather, without imagination. Anyone who is acquainted with his prophetic poems knows that for Blake, imagination is everything. Or, if you prefer: Everything (that matters) is imagination. What on earth does such a statement mean—and how can it be of assistance to us here?

What Blake saw in his own momentous era—and what alarmed and vexed him most about what he saw—was that the ‘divine’ power of the imagination was rapidly succumbing to a mortal illness—an epidemic that was spreading like wildfire throughout England and the rest of the modern world. The divine imagination was being crushed by the unbridled dissemination of rational empiricism and reductive materialism. Blake repeatedly points to Bacon, Newton, and Locke as the evil progenitors of this baleful rational materialism—but, of course, plenty of other major and minor contributors to the ‘epidemic’ of reductive thinking were on board this locomotive that was hell-bent upon crushing and supplanting what Blake called ‘Jesus, the Imagination.’

Blake was certainly no typical, let alone, conventional (i.e. hypocritical) Christian by any stretch. But his sacralizing of the imagination—by equating it with the savior—must be seen as a lone poet’s attempt to stave off a veritable tsunami of profanation and vulgarization. We, living today, reside upon the sprawling desert plain that was laid waste by this devastating tsunami. The modern scientific revolution was stunningly and blindingly successful. Blake and everything he struggled for have been drowned out and extinguished by the ceaseless din of modern busy-ness and material consumption.

All this merely to say that no one waking up each morning to the spiritually and imaginatively barren wasteland of the contemporary dystopia is given a reprieve once he wakes up to the sobering truth of his—and everyone else’s—actual predicament vis-à-vis the decomposing culture. Once we have thoroughly acknowledged the hollowness and the sterility of the present ‘anti-culture’ we can no longer flee to our old habits and our new gadgets, to our consuming compulsions and our compulsive consumption—or at least not with a clean conscience. Our knowledge of what has been lost to the earth and to man will badger and bludgeon us unless and until we take serious steps to recover and resurrect our sleepwalking souls.

Those of us who have awakened from the collective somnambulism have resigned ourselves to the fact that, like Kalahari bushmen, we are in a desert and we must recover the lost art of hunting and gathering what we need in order to survive our long journey through this unfriendly desert. We know that the supermarkets, the air-conditioned dwellings, the electronic devices, and the popular entertainments that have sprung up all around us are merely desert mirages that make promises on which they will never deliver. They are set as traps by cynical agencies and instrumentalities that intend merely to induct us into the collective sleepwalkabout from which a handful of us have, almost by an act of grace, been upchucked.

Thus, our awakening from the nearly universal ‘dance of death’ in the parched and soulless desert has reverted us, unexpectedly, to an earlier, simpler stage of human experience—‘unaccommodated man,’ alone or with a small band of kinsmen, journeying towards distant mountains beyond the desert perimeter. But journeying with recovered knowledge and a mysteriously reliable inner compass that has come from God knows where.

The desire to make and to fulfill this journey is certainly one of those desires which, if not enacted, would breed pestilence—the devouring, enfeebling pestilence that would surely do me in. And for those whose desires aim only at the ‘mirages’ in the desert, Blake forged another splendid aphorism: The road of excess leads to the Palace of Wisdom. That road just takes longer—and there are many more tricky detours and dead ends along that way. To those who can hear, however, I would advise against it.

 

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Behind the Glass and Up the Stream (and ‘Sheathing the Sword’) (9/14)

I recognize that, for me, within the realm of personal feeling, or sentiment, a multitude of sins always lay coiled and ready to strike. There have been some recent flare-ups of personal animosity over fundamental differences (in priorities and in perspective) between me and several close, old friends. These little eruptions have helped me to see the value and importance of understanding and then ‘neutralizing’ all such sticky, turbid, and smoldering feelings. The aim here is pretty simple: to release these former friends from (imagined) duties and obligations they are usually in no position to fulfill. This ‘release form’ should, moreover, be generally distributed so that I am gradually purged of any further unwarranted hopes and expectations where others are concerned. Sad though I am to admit it, disappointed expectations have been the rule, and not the exception, in most of my past relationships, when it comes to the importance we severally attach to spiritual and intellectual principles. Experience has surely taught me that unless and until a person is truly ready to receive and to assimilate initiatory spiritual insights, these insights are wasted upon them. These principles will either make no appeal, or they will be misunderstood in such a way as to deform and debase the principles. This typically happens because the unprepared recipient tries to bring the truth down to his level rather than raise himself up to the truth.

At any event, I must try to avoid frittering away any more time lamenting the fact that I have pushed virtually all of my former or current friends to the limits of their ability (or willingness) to embrace and assimilate certain spiritual principles—and found their efforts less than impressive. Confessedly, there is more than a teaspoon of self-pity and fretful anxiety associated with this isolated corner into which I have, willy-nilly, been painted.

Along with the dismantlement and transcendence of personal-sentimental feelings comes my release from a veritable viper’s nest of interrelated evils and illusions. Principal among these foolish notions is that of ‘personal loyalty,’ which turns out, upon closer inspection, to be a handsome cloak underneath which I have discovered cringing fear of aloneness, bitter resentment, seething anger and indignation, and other less than noble sentiments. There is such a welter of murky, internal contradictions lodging beneath this deceptive cloak of ‘personal loyalty’ that I cannot help but encounter strong resistances as I struggle to open up and expose the restive menagerie uncomfortably encaged within the basement of my mind.

There is some ‘back-story’ that should perhaps be glanced at first. I didn’t always feel this estranged from and at odds with the larger society within which I have been embedded for more than half a century. And even after I began to dissent from the preposterous, artificial norms and the collective-consumerist values (and all the fabricated imperatives) that drive this zombie-like American political-economic life and mass culture, I was still able, for many years, to rely upon a dozen or more greatly valued allies to support and share my dissenting views and criticisms.

But since then, rather disquieting developments have occurred—both in the lifestyles and in the indisputable (as opposed to hypocritically professed) priorities of my former friends, as well as in my own consciousness. These changes have thrust an ever-deepening wedge between them and me. As I see it, they have made more and more compromises and concessions with a culture that I find increasingly malignant and spiritually imbecilic. We have sunk deep into Kali Yuga. Often it seemed to me—and probably to each of them, as well—that we were swimming in divergent directions. For years, I can honestly say that I have done my level best to preserve and maintain a living and breathing bridge of connection with these persons, despite the fact that I was saddened and shocked by what I saw happening. First, I saw their willing participation with, and later their self-serving exploitation of, a doomed system and a derailed culture that I vividly perceived as corrupt, pathologically imbalanced, spiritually barbaric, and founded upon all manner of lies, deception, and injustice. One after another of my friends and ‘allies’ were seduced and conscripted into this materialistic, egoistic, competitive, consciousness-deforming, dead-end game against which all of my deepest and most trustworthy instincts recoiled in disgust and dismay.

My efforts to recall them to their senses—to remind them of their own ‘better angels’—eventually became ludicrous in one case after another. If there was any embarrassment or shame on their part for having become derailed from their former, spiritually commendable bearings, this was short-lived, at best. Such fleeting moments of shame and embarrassment were certainly never strong enough to countermand their propensities towards fear, laziness, cupidity, and self-interest—and set them back upon the circumspect and upright path from which they’d strayed. Rather, these ubiquitous peccadilloes promptly re-plugged them all the more snugly back into the amoral, profit-driven system they had, let there be no mistake, chosen to serve—a system which, in most cases, rewarded them lavishly with high salaries and hollow prestige. When I began to sense that, instead of feeling gratitude for my earnest efforts to remind them of (nearly forgotten) spiritual and ethical principles that had once constituted the common bond between us, they were beginning to view me as a naïve, idealistic simpleton who lacked the will and intelligence needed to face reality, I knew in my heart that things had passed a point of no return.

I have presented here a general—but generally accurate—sketch of the trajectory that has landed me in the solitary space I now appear to occupy. I can see and talk to others in a perfectly natural and normal manner—as if nothing were amiss—but I never quite lose sight of the fact that I am talking and interacting with others from behind a wall of thick, clear Plexiglas. My quest for insight into myself and into the (far from straightforward) cultural world I inhabit has led to this awkward situation. If I had simply ‘adapted to’ and uncritically accepted the reigning assumptions and the appallingly shallow collective values of the society I live in, I wouldn’t be writing about this problem. If—instead of doubting and questioning these collective assumptions and values and exposing them for the gross lies and stupid, one-sided simplifications that they in fact are—I had just shut up and been thankful for having been born into such a (comparatively) prosperous and powerful empire, I would not have this thick ‘Plexiglas’ wall between my soul and those of the others. This is the double-edged, ambiguous reward enjoyed (or endured) by the sworn enemy of official lies, collective delusions, and gross, one-sided simplifications. I cannot say that I regret having taken this fateful path (if I ever had any real choice in the matter, to begin with), but—having followed it thus far—I cannot ignore or deny the essential severity and the nearly inhuman coldness to which its fated followers are frequently consigned. That Plexiglas has arisen, in part, to protect me from the maddening and mind-numbing gas that is being inhaled in ever-increasing doses by the flailing, flitting figures that I helplessly behold just on the other side of the glass wall. But this protective wall also cuts me off from the seamless, heartful embraces I once so humanly enjoyed with these poor, deranged ‘ghosts’ who, in earlier days, were so alive to me—as I, no doubt, was to them.

Now, I feel ‘in my bones’ that I have company here on the inside of the plexiglas wall—but I won’t really be in a very good position to meet these individuals and benefit from their coveted companionship unless and until I can pull myself away from this transparent wall. Only after I have wrested my attention away from these ghost-like figures from the past—relationships that are all but comatose to me now—only then will I truly be free to venture forth and explore this new, ‘inside territory.’ It is most certainly ‘peopled,’ even if its population is somewhat sparser than that of the region to which I am wistfully waving goodbye.

If I have not yet made the acquaintance of actual citizens of this newly entered region of peopled inner space, I can at least fantasize about them. I can speculate about what my future friends and companions will be like, can’t I? Because they will have struggled as strenuously against the current as I have, we will certainly have stories to swap about our similar ordeals—of swimming in the opposite direction from the other fish (who, as it turns out, were, all along, seeking the warm, tropical waters downstream, while we were seeking the icy, bracing source-waters upstream). I will never have to shout to my new companions, for they will be near me, mentally and experientially, and not always drifting (or vigorously swimming) out of earshot. I will be able to speak and respond honestly, frankly, and without ‘polite’ distortion to my new ‘kin’—a freedom I have never really enjoyed with the hypersensitive ‘downstreamers’ who simply cannot abide cold truths—and whose touchy, insecure egos require oodles of personal coddling, an indulgence for which I have lost much of my once abundant patience.

Sheathing the Sword 

My ‘plexiglas’ essay from two days ago (which has elicited signs of mild alarm from a few recipients) is—among other things—an example of the ‘separatio’ process in alchemy. Of course, the separating (but clear, translucent) wall of glass that divides me from those who are breathing the polluted, intoxicating air ‘outside’ is the projection or literalization of a dividing line within my soul. So long as this psychic split or inner division remains unconscious, it will continue to be projected. That’s the psychological rule. And, so long as it is projected, I will be subject to the sort of quasi-paranoid, ‘little me against the big bad world’ (or ‘us versus them’) fantasy scenario depicted in that essay.

So, what are the salient implications or inferences to be drawn from this potentially valuable insight? What lesson am I to learn from it? Actors say, ‘If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage!’ Likewise, these pictures I paint of my personal-biographical ‘drama’ invariably take their cue from a kind of unseen script that is etched like hieroglyphs into my soul. It is my psychological and spiritual responsibility to search deep inside myself for these hidden hieroglyphs that are the source and spring of my most fundamental thoughts and feelings about the world, its denizens, and my place in that world. They are, quite truly, the ‘seeds’ of my ego and my ‘world.’ Without direct access to—and knowledge of—this inwardly and outwardly steering script, I am at the mercy of its fate-deciding power, am I not?

The rather shocking—but at the same time, relieving—truth of the matter is that nothing that happens (or that fails to happen) on that dramatic stage of personal, dramatic events ultimately matters. All that really matters, in the end, is ‘seeing through’ those personal desires, fears, compulsions, and ideals that keep us bound to the drama—stuck in our roles—wrapped up in our personal investments in a world largely of our own, if unconscious, making.

What this means in terms of my ‘Plexiglas’ fantasy is that so far as my spiritual liberation is concerned, I am thrown back upon my own (uninvolved, already blissful and unbounded) spirit if I genuinely yearn for nothing so much as release from the seductive snare of the world—any world. What this also means, of course, is that the ‘old,’ ‘disappointing’ figures outside the Plexiglas wall are no more capable of blocking and impairing my liberation than my ‘new,’ imagined allies and companions are capable of bringing about my release. The keys to my release are—and always have been—hidden in the core of the Self. If I cannot see and recognize these keys it is only because I have allowed myself to become thoroughly distracted and misled by persons, books, events, and preoccupations that are situated ‘out there’ onstage. The keys are found only when my attention is withdrawn from that noisy stage and its absorbing activity—and returned to the silence of its very source. This cycle—this oscillation between busy stage and still silence, or between Paul the human ego and the impersonal, detached awareness that views Paul (and all other egos) as no more than a kind of animated fiction—recurs again and again.

 

Truthfulness and Friendship (8/13)

We take a very dangerous risk as soon as we commit ourselves to viewing those who are ‘near and dear’ to us without the rose-colored glasses that we have been looking through for so long.[1] The shock of seeing our intimates without bias and nakedly—dispensing with the buffering illusions that have helped to mitigate these naked truths—is especially disturbing to persons who espouse lofty moral standards and principles. It is particularly difficult for such high-minded moral idealists to recover from the shock of realizing just how manic, whiny, deceitful, deluded, vulgar, credulous, shallow, ruttish, spineless, bigoted, negative, wounded, hypocritical, paranoid, sociopathic, etc.—in other words, how ordinary and unexceptional—their friends and loved ones are just behind the mask or beneath the polished surface. The reason the shock is so walloping is because it confronts the high-minded, lofty-principled person with a frightful dilemma. Since it is excruciatingly difficult, if not impossible, for the moral idealist to love where he cannot simultaneously admire, he suddenly finds himself pinioned between a rock and a hard place. Dare he compromise his high and exacting standards and (God forbid!!) accept these exposed persons as they are? But it he lowers his standards in order to retain his ‘warm’ and pleasant affiliation with these others, what does that say about him? Should he behave as a thoroughly frank and forthright moralist and declare to his friends and companions what he sees—and doesn’t see—in them? Or, should he prudently and politely refrain from such ‘judgmental’ and wounding criticisms—out of a suspicion that such criticisms are almost guaranteed simply to erode friendship while leading to no positive transformation on our friend’s part? It seems that something’s got to give.

[1] Or, for that matter, without the condemning and distorting lens of some unforgiving prejudice or blackening memory, but that’s another kettle of fish.

Sunlight and Lasers (12/11)

The obvious benefit we derive from focusing our attention exclusively upon an isolated object of sensory or intellectual perception is that we are thereby able to form a ‘clear and distinct’ concept of the content—a concept that would be much fuzzier if we mentally glanced at it while it was still insufficiently differentiated from its background or context. The disadvantage entailed in this particularized, narrowly concentrated way of seeing should be just as obvious: by isolating and setting the content apart from the ‘ground’ out of which it emerges, we not only isolate it, but we often unconsciously distort and misjudge the content, as well. This occurs simply because of the underlying interrelatedness of all particular contents. We might encounter a similar problem if we tried, for instance, to understand or make sense of a bodily organ that has been surgically removed from a body, or a series of notes from a melody or symphony. A complete or adequate understanding of the severed spleen or kidney requires that we see the single organ within the context of the whole organism of which it was a functioning part. Of course, the moment it is surgically removed two things happen: it stops functioning and, unless a donor’s organ is ready to take its place, the organism, itself, will soon expire.

For similar reasons, isolated words and ideas—taken out of the context in which they are meaningfully and vitally embedded—are frequently, if not inevitably, distorted and deformed. Or rather I should say that our understanding of them becomes distorted and deformed—so that we lose the power (and the suitable perspective) to judge and evaluate them properly. In a sense, we unintentionally murder and maim every mental content that we segregate or isolate from the ‘organic’ whole out of which these contents are born and within which they acquire their sense or meaning. Segregation is by no means a thing of the past. It is alive and kicking in the modern mind—imposing barriers and obstacles of every sort to mental integration and to the free interplay of dissociated psychic contents.

Here, perhaps, we have stumbled upon an inherent imperfection of the human intellect—or, at least the sort that has been shaped by a ‘modern’ education. Its tendency, when functioning as a faculty of analytic or discursive understanding, is to dissect and chop up the living, organic whole of (unmolested, ‘innocent’) life-experience into more or less bite-size pieces that can fit comfortably into the limited jaws that open up and lead down into the mental digestive tract.

Like little Jeffrey Dahmers, our compulsive, compartmentalized, predatory modern intellects are drawn to ideas that promise to lift us out of our lonely isolation and to heal our inner fragmentation. But all we know how to do with them as soon as we get one through the door of our smelly apartment and onto the couch is to bludgeon them from behind with our blunt tools and crude devices—and then proceed to cut them up into dead parts that we can completely control. We toss these dead parts into our vats of corrosive analysis so that only the bony remnants of the once living and breathing forms are left behind as souvenirs—a skull, a hand, a formerly strong shoulder. Perhaps a heart or a phallus can be preserved in the deep-freeze of our own ice-vault souls. Such atrocities are born out of the tormented helplessness of minds that want to overcome their intolerable sense of vulnerability by trying to get down to the mysterious mechanisms lurking beneath the deceptive, concealing ‘skin’ of their prey. As a boy, Jeffrey Dahmer started by killing, flaying, and dissecting animals before ‘advancing’ to human victims. His motives, as it turns out, were not entirely violent and destructive, for he would usually engage in sex with his male pick-ups before killing and dismembering them. Parts (and not whole persons) were simply easier for such a deeply disturbed and disintegrated soul to deal with—which means, of course, to control. The abominable fantasies that ultimately overpowered Jeffrey Dahmer’s tainted mind—and with such force and urgency that he felt compelled to act them out—bear more than a faint family resemblance to modern man’s ‘acceptable’ and conventionally ‘commendable’ fantasies of domination and control over nature (and over human affairs) by means of reductive analytical methods and instrumental reason. Dahmer is just a pathetic and monstrous caricature of our Baconian-Faustian fantasies of domination and control by means of ‘special knowledge’ of how things work. And let’s not kid ourselves. Aren’t we interested in how thing work largely, if not solely, in order to gain practical advantages from them—as opposed to knowledge for its own sake? There is no disinterestedness here.

Bacon reputedly spoke of placing Nature ‘on the rack’ and torturing her to obtain her secrets—a grisly image for the modern experimental science of which he and Descartes are the architects and founders. Nietzsche, their even more radical heir and updater (cf. Laurence Lampert’s Nietzsche and Modern Times: A Study of Bacon, Descartes, and Nietzsche), frequently uses the metaphor of vivisection in speaking of his approach to knowledge of human nature.

And aren’t we moderns just as compelled to act out our fantasies of possession, control, and domination as the ill-fated Dahmer was—even if ours enjoy popular sanction, while his only turn our stomachs? But when we are compelled to act out our dreams and fantasies, haven’t we long since forfeited the liberty to contemplate or reflect, critically and disinterestedly, upon them? Isn’t it this apparent lack of reflection—on the grand scale of societal behavior and ‘collective consciousness’—that bestows upon the fateful flow of contemporary events a deterministic stamp, as if they must happen since there is no one who can stop them? But, of course, when such automatic and unreflective compulsions become so widespread and normal that to dissent or step back is to risk raising more than the eyebrows of our ‘normal’ kinsmen, a strange thing occurs to us. All sorts of actions which former ages would have regarded as ‘criminal,’ suicidal,’ ‘blasphemous,’ and diabolical are rendered almost invisible to the blind perpetrators of these crimes of collective destruction and desecration—precisely because they have become as routinized and ‘banal’ as gassing Jews became for a number of years at Auschwitz and Dachau. As soon as such practices become ‘normal’ and routine, their inner core of sickness and pathology becomes practically invisible and inaudible—so that it costs more and more of an effort to reflect upon these behaviors rather than to simply give into them.

*****

Do such reflections cast a permanent pall of pessimism upon any philosophical enterprises that seek knowledge of the whole? Are such enterprises condemned to failure or shipwreck before they ever set sail—precisely because of these inherent imperfections of the human intellect? Maybe not. What if we were to learn that what we moderns have been taught to assume about the intellect is only a small part of the full story? What if we were to discover that the sort of reasoning and analyzing that educated persons employ (for their almost exclusively practical and utilitarian purposes) is actually a rather restrictive and extremely scaled-down form of thinking—a mode of thinking that our not-so-distant philosophical forebears would roll their eyes at in bemused disbelief? And why? Precisely because of the extremely limited arena or field of operations within which it can effectively function. Our philosophical forebears—with their more capacious, multifaceted, and multidimensional minds—would perhaps regard us as little more than intellectual ‘plebeians’ and ‘sensualists’ (with jaws that do not open very wide), practical problem-solvers, ‘a sturdy and industrious race of machinists, and bridge-builders to the future, people with tough work to do,’ as Nietzsche observed.[1] So much has been edited out of the formerly grand ‘picture’ of life—and of what can legitimately and confidently be contemplated about life. The sunlight of our forebears’ minds has been gradually and methodically altered so that today our mental light appears in the form of a laser beam: unidirectional, pinpointing, intense, and useless for most tasks, questions, concerns, and needs pertaining to the whole man. Lasers are far better suited for permanently altering situations and conditions than illuminating them.

A lot of vituperative noise—some of it extraordinarily eloquent—was made by dissenting thinkers and outraged poets of the 18th and 19th centuries while the intellectual ‘laser beam’ was being focused and perfected. That noisy (but eloquent and persuasive) reaction has simmered down in more recent times—so that the new but still appallingly narrow and delimited ‘instrumental’ reason rules without serious opposition. And like the self-serving sycophants and courtiers who flatter a delusional and insecure prince, the pompous technocrats and greedy custodians of this debased form of reason have almost unanimously conspired to slander and demean the nobler and more sunlike form of reason of earlier times. A laser—and the secret of its construction—are powerful weapons that can be restricted to the possession of a few ambitious ‘overlords’ who arbitrarily change the game to suit their plans and purposes—rather as religious authority was abused in the most shameful days of the Church’s long history. Sunlight—because it is natural and elemental and because, when unobstructed, it shines down upon all below it—cannot be commandeered and manipulated like a restricted supply of lasers. Nevertheless, artificial canopies and cloud covers can be produced that block out the sun—while teaching men and women to be fearful of the sun’s ‘dangerous’ radiation. Something like this has been deliberately engineered and orchestrated within our educational institutions, so that innocent minds are, in effect, given the options either to conform to the greed-stoked, anti-traditional, anti-philosophical, technocratic scheme—or be cast out into the swamp of insignificance without the necessary credentials and authorization to enter and compete in the game. With such an arbitrarily limited menu of opportunities, it should come as little surprise that the number of ‘sunlike’ thinkers has dwindled nearly to the point of extinction, while handsomely paid soldiers in the armies led by laser-wielders have grown to staggering numbers. It is no longer merely a war for the limited goods and resources on the planet—it is a war bent upon marginalizing and, if push comes to shove, silencing or exterminating, those of us who recognize what a swindle is being perpetrated in the name of ‘progress.’ No ‘ignoble lie’ in man’s history has been more despicable or more fraught with perilous possibilities. No stakes are higher than those wagered on the outcome of this global enterprise into which so many unwitting contributors are conscripted. Only the few—the very few—who have successfully managed to avert their minds, souls, and wills from the incoming path of this tsunami of soulless and trivial materialism can see it for what it is. Everyone else—like flotsam and jetsam—is being carried along by the overwhelming collective wave. Most of these poor deluded conscripts foolishly believe that they are swimming by their own power, steering themselves towards the fulfillment of their own hopes and dreams—scarcely ever suspecting that they are the helpless dupes of what one might with justice call ‘black magicians’ working remotely in the shadows. But who will read this and not privately (or publicly) declare that I am the crazy one for thinking such things?

[1] Beyond Good and Evil, sect. 14

On Intellectual Hedonism (3/15)

Perhaps after having invested months of care and doting attention to a half-dozen or so translations and various commentaries on Dante’s Commedia, I have earned the right to make a few tentative criticisms of Dante scholarship as a complex, ongoing enterprise.

I will begin by expressing my gratitude and heartfelt appreciation for the contributions made by serious scholars and commentators—reference materials, insightful textual analyses, and historical-biographical studies that help to open up this difficult text to the modern reader. Without their conscientious efforts, Dante’s great poem would have been practically opaque and impenetrable to me. With this level or realm of scholarly knowledge and information I have no quarrel—only heartfelt gratitude.

My direct acquaintance with the (albeit translated) works of Dante reveals an extraordinary mind that is vast and subtle, profound and superbly artful.   The same claims, alas, cannot be made for the majority of the Dantisti, the professional and amateur scholars who, over the centuries, have devoted themselves to unlocking and exploring this justly revered text. At times, when I am reading Hollander’s or Durling’s impeccably detailed and well-researched notes on a minor figure from the Inferno or on a much-disputed tercet from the Purgatorio, I get the queasy feeling that I am listening to treble-voiced Lilliputians ‘holding forth’ about Gulliver, whom they believe they have managed to tie down and bind with oodles and oodles of twine. All too often, the sense of who Dante genuinely was and of what he has bequeathed to the world in his great poem is flattened out and watered down by these diligent scholarly laborers—reduced, that is, to the modest, bite-sized terms that they and their fellow Dantisti can more or less comfortably fit into their encyclopedic, information-processing noggins. Again, I am not trying here to disparage the service these scholars are providing—as far as that service extends. I merely wish to suggest that perhaps only a mind as subtle and comprehensive as Dante’s is in a position to fully appreciate what he’s accomplished and how he pulled this off.

In defense of these modern-day Dante scholars, it must at once be admitted that, as moderns, they inhabit a very different cultural-spiritual context (or worldview) than Dante woke up to each morning of his sublimely thoughtful, thoroughly engaged life. The modern mind enters Dante’s poem, with its very different—and now obsolete—cultural-spiritual context, like a fidgety hand fits into an expertly tailored glove. As a necessary consequence of this fact, we modern students of Dante’s poem are at an enormous disadvantage—the very real conditions of which must be taken thoroughly into account if we aim, in our reading, to establish a functional bridge between Dante’s ‘world’ and our own very different one. Otherwise, all we will be confronting there will be an impenetrable, archaic relic from an earlier, strange stage of our cultural history. As such, this relic—regardless of how interesting or curious it happens to be as a mere fossil from the past—will remain dumb to us or as stumpingly ambiguous as the murky mutterings of a writhing, spittle-spewing priestess at Delphi. For those who are content with this arrangement—to stand on one bank of a river while Dante’s world remains fixed in place on the other bank, with no real bridge in between—then what I am suggesting here about a deeper way of reading Dante will make little appeal. For what I want is to be able to cross that river and get to Dante—or conversely, to have Dante’s transcultural, supra-historical insights stretch across that river (of elapsed time) to my imaginatively receptive soul. Such bridging, while it may be significantly assisted by fine scholarship, transcends merely academic or scholarly aims and concerns.

Reading Dante along with copious notes and commentary has helped me to better understand what sort of reader I am no longer content to be. This gradual realization—a transforming attitude towards reading that is still being negotiated—coincides with my changing attitude towards all intellectual activity, per se. I no longer view intellectual activity for its own sake (or the self-delighting play of the intellect) as ‘above suspicion.’ In fact, I am more inclined than ever before to classify such intellectual playfulness (and the pleasure it yields) as a species of highbrow entertainment. I have not become quite so austere that I am ready to dispense with all forms of entertainment on principle, but neither do I fail to recognize that a ‘susceptible’ fellow like me can easily overindulge such playfulness. It may turn out to be true that the highest—or, if you prefer, the deepest—perspective of which I am capable is imbued with a ‘divine levity.’ Such a perspective would be devoid of the grim sternness that shuns playfulness and light-hearted nonchalance. It is my strong suspicion that true centeredness transcends both undesirable extremes: frothy-frivolous, puerile levity and dense, somber, senex-gravity. Centeredness, I reckon, is beyond all such states, attitudes, moods, and postures. Because it comprehends and transcends all stances, it is—as it were—a non-stance.

But let us be honest: A person whose life is fanatically devoted to the quest for exquisite intellectual and aesthetic pleasures is every bit as much a ‘hedonist’ as the person whose chief love is for sensual pleasures—say, of a gastronomic, bibulous, or erogenous sort. We see here a distinction merely of grade or subtlety, but not of kind, since the attainment of a pleasure-state (of one type or another) is the shared, defining goal of all hedonistic pursuits. It is true, of course, that rare and exquisite pleasures require some degree of care and cultivation—and this entails a measure of effort and application on the part of the devoted hedonist. Nevertheless, such effort is deemed an acceptable price to pay for the refined and subtle delights for which only the connoisseur or cognoscente is eligible. There is usually a considerable bit of vanity or self-congratulatory snootiness mixed in with the hedonism in such cases—so that the pleasure-seeker experiences a delight bonus (in whatever he happens to be pursuing for pleasure) in the pleasant acknowledgement of his superiority over all those ‘beneath him’) who have not yet attained his choosy and exacting standards!

Crocodile Peers (9/14)

With every passing day, humanity can be seen moving at an accelerating pace towards a wide variety of potentially catastrophic scenarios and debacles. Modern science and technology have endowed our acquisitive, benighted species with the diabolical means to bring about our own destruction without, at the same time, moving us one inch closer to the ‘angelic’ wisdom we would need in order to save ourselves from ourselves. While it is probably true that a numerically insignificant enlightened minority exists—persons who could be trusted to make wise and responsible use of power if it were somehow miraculously delegated to them—its political power and influence is effectively reduced to a delicate aria feebly chanted in the middle of a GM auto plant or a Chinese sweatshop. As a species, we’ve perhaps always been on the highway to our own self-created hell—only now it’s an eight-lane, one-way turnpike and, instead of walking or running, we’re riding at full throttle in vehicles that most of us will still be paying off when we collectively drive over the rim of the abyss waiting patiently ahead of us.

What can one do in the face of collective madness? If an opportunity to arrest and then reverse this mounting stampede towards meltdown and disaster ever truly existed, I suspect it was foolishly ignored and missed long ago—before things got globally out of hand and attained the momentum and force of Biblical floodwaters. It makes one wonder: isn’t the passionate, sporadic political activism on the part of pre-conscripted young college kids and cantankerous old leftist cranks a laudable—but perhaps, foredoomed—gesture, given the advanced state of this collective madness? One recalls the morally brave but pragmatically juvenile stand-off between the kid and the tank in Tiananmen Square, years ago—or the ochre-robed Buddhist monk setting himself on fire in the middle of a Saigon street to protest the war.

How does a fellow, such as myself, who stands face to face against this collective stampede, take stock of his options? I no longer suppose there to be a clear line of demarcation between the general will of the American professional or middle class, on the one hand, and the profit-driven, country-invading, war-stoking, environment-destroying corporate agenda. And, for anyone with his eyes open, it is evident that the U.S. Congress and the major media have, for the most part, been reduced to treacherous whores and servants of the multinational corporations. Since most members of the elite and upper middle classes are privileged material/social/political beneficiaries of this corporate-run scheme, their vested interests strongly dissuade them from biting the hand that feeds them (and which provides the necessary means to equip their kids with a real, if costly, private education rather than the free lobotomy they would practically be assured of otherwise). And since it is the more or less prosperous and educated upper and ruling class that actually has some real—or at least potential—influence over politics here in the U.S., the failure to exercise this influence to work towards greater justice, peace, and environmental responsibility in the world speaks volumes. The 75-80% who constitute the mass population have been so effectively dumbed-down by abominable multiple-choice, ‘trivial pursuit’ educational system; so thoroughly propagandized with every possible variety of emotionally-charged sensationalism and misinformation; and so completely castrated and marginalized politically that we should look for little that is restorative or enlightened from that (populous) corner. Therefore, I agree with the historian, John Lukacs, who places any hope of an enlightened, systematic revolution squarely upon the padded shoulders of the booboisie. But from the way things appear to be going, my guess is that the polar ice caps will melt before the 20% takes on their ‘captains’ in the 1% (to whom they are presently enfoeffed and beholden) and begin to dismantle the ‘death machine’ that, for the moment, continues to line the pockets of all interested parties.

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The diabolical stratagem of blaming racial minorities, the poor, and the uneducated for most of the (domestic and economic) problems in the U.S. has proven to be an effective means by which many acquisitive middle class persons (and now, under the spell of Trump’s demagogic ‘agent ORANGE,’ many blue collar and less circumspect persons) have their attention diverted from far more insidious and malignant (global, geopolitical, and environmental) problems—problems for which, as the political class, they are ultimately far more accountable than the politically marginalized and disenfranchised. The growing number of ‘have-nots’ provide easy targets for the ‘shadow projections’ and the contempt of the willfully ignorant members of the comfort-and-security-obsessed middle class, whose crippling anxieties and (psychologically compensatory?) delusions of importance are always on the lookout for those over whom they can exult in their (presumed) moral/intellectual and (actual) material preeminence. The fact that much of this racism, entitlement, and social snobbery is politely repressed and remains consciously unacknowledged (largely because these different groups are seldom obliged to have regular interactions with each other on equal terms) does not make these commonplace iniquities any less reprehensible. It’s all pretty pathetic and morally despicable when the naked greed, hypocrisy, and cowardice behind this righteous posturing and name-calling is exposed and seen for what it truly is: a socially destructive ‘us versus them’ dynamic that keeps everybody’s eyes off the macrocosmic problems that are going to do us in far more quickly and effectively as a consequence of our misplaced, collective attention.

Contra Rousseau (2/14)

The ‘general will’ is never the enlightened will. Therefore, any state founded upon the general will is ultimately bound to founder. Fortunately, no such states have ever actually existed—and if one ever did arise it would last no longer than a frat party crashed by uninvited, mischief-making ‘outsiders.’ In fact, the ‘general will’ is a phrase without meaning—like a signifier that points fecklessly to no actual, existing thing. We can indulge in a science fiction fantasy and say that immediately following an attack upon the earth by alien invaders, there may very well be a kind of forced or makeshift uniformity of the will of mankind—but within a few days, or even hours, people all over the place would be taking sides with the enemy against—in more than a few cases—even their own family members.

It is one thing to say that a state exists because of general forbearance and another thing altogether to say that it exists because of the general will. The former tends towards passivity and inertia—and therefore constitutes no more than an appearance of stability. The latter, however, tends towards volatility and seething activity and is therefore typically quite unstable and immoderate. Humans have always generally preferred merely apparent and torpid stability (and the false sense of security that it breeds) to actual, will-infused instability (and the chaotic disorientation that it spawns).

There is a third course—just as there is a third guna[1] (namely, sattva—or serene, detached harmony) distinct from rajas (restless, impulsive activity) and tamas (dense, weighty inertia)—but it has absolutely nothing to do with politics and mass behavior.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gu%E1%B9%87a