String Theory (10/1/14)

‘Tightening the bowstring of my soul’: what do I mean by this? What, actually, is entailed? How do I go about it?

Is one end of the ‘string’ firmly and securely tied down—so that my task is to elevate or extend the other end as far and as tightly as I can? Does the string retain a set length—or does it vary in length from time to time? How does the length of the string affect or determine the quality of the sound it produces when ‘plucked’ at various degrees of tautness?

I intuit a link between tightening the bowstring and philosophical dialectics. Suppose we ‘plant’ (or harpoon) one end of our portable string firmly into a theme or topic—say, ‘justice’ or ‘eros’ or ‘Moby Dick’—and then we slowly and carefully begin to increase the tension of the string. Can we thereby make ‘justice’ and ‘eros’ and ‘Moby Dick’ sing—to reveal their full polyphonic potentials? Does the string—only after it has reached a certain level of tension—begin to vibrate in accordance with signals emanating from the ground source (‘justice,’ ‘eros,’ Moby Dick, etc.) in which it is planted?

Clearly, so long as there is a lot of slackness in the string, we won’t be affected or tugged upon when the ‘subject’ of our dialectical investigation begins to move. Like a hound on a very long (or very elastic) leash, it will go where it pleases and we’ll be left standing where we started from, with the other end in our hand. If, however, that connecting cord is tight and as capable of ‘carrying a tune’ as a violin string, a sensitive dialectician can detect the heartbeat and even the blood flow of the ‘catch’ at the other end.

I intuit yet another analogy—this one is between tightening the bowstring and cleaning a dirty mirror. The mirror is the intellect. Its ability to reflect that which is before it is greatly affected by the cleanliness of its surface. The intellect, which—like the mirror—is always present to the conscious thinker, may be enfeebled and greatly degraded in its reflective capacity by various petty preoccupations, distractions, and other impairments that can only be removed by the owner and master of that intellect. Others can provide cleaning tips and solutions but the actual work of scrubbing away all those pesky preoccupations and fitful distractions must ultimately be performed by the owner of the ‘mirror.’

To coordinate our two analogies, then: a slack string corresponds with a dirty mirror, while a taut, resonant string may be likened to a clean and accurately reflective mirror. The ‘work’ of tightening the string and keeping the mirror clean—on a daily basis—falls upon the shoulders of the individual thinker and to no one else. Others can exemplify taut and slack, long and short bowstrings—but we waste valuable time and opportunities if we spend all our time merely ranking ourselves against them. Others can display their shiny or grimy mirrors but they can do nothing to clean or besmirch our own—since only we are permitted direct access to the cleaning tools necessary for the job.

I find that there are naturally-occurring limits to my own dialectical ‘soundings’ of various themes and subjects of interest. These limits or natural bounds to my probing and soundings reflect my general character and capacities as a thinker. Another thinker might very well push his investigations further than I do, while yet another would not push them to the same depth that seems fitting and adequate for me. Many other perfectly capable and accomplished thinkers wouldn’t even bother to pursue the sorts of questions that have always interested me—precisely because such questions and themes do not speak to—or call—them.

Because, for me, philosophical and spiritual thinking is both absorbingly exciting and mentally nourishing, I have made the mistake, many times, of assuming that this particular brand of thinking is essentially and universally appealing—or should be if other persons only knew better. But the facts clearly do not support my assumption. Not only are most persons plainly indifferent to ‘philosophical and spiritual thinking’—a great number of them are passionately hostile towards such thinking—and for a number of more or less understandable reasons. I believe it was Homer who said ‘A little learning is a dangerous thing’—and this warning probably applies most appropriately to philosophical and religious ‘learning,’ if only because these comprehensive and ‘architectonic’ arenas of thought typically have a correspondingly large and far-reaching effect upon those who court and cultivate knowledge there. Unlike the serious study of ceramics or Haiku, even a ‘little learning’ of philosophy or religion can set one on a path of no return. Because genuine philosophy and authentic religion may justly be regarded as the repositories of the distilled wisdom (and folly!) of the human race, one big gulp from this cup can change everything for a person. It is precisely because of the level of concentration and condensation of human thought and experience in the greatest religious and philosophical works that they carry such a wallop. But—perhaps fortunately—most persons have only a shallow acquaintance with such works, preferring more accessible pleasures instead. After tightening their bowstrings to hit targets at the office all day, they are happy to slacken them when they have leisure time. And, of course, those who designed, tweaked, and benefit most from this system very much want to keep it that way.

A Table of Values and the Various Types of Regimes(12/22/11)

If it could be established (and compellingly argued) that certain ends are of an intrinsically nobler or more morally/spiritually elevated character than others, then we would at least have the rudiments of a value scheme to refer to in assessing the relative merits of an action, a desire, or the general character of an individual, an organization, a regime, or a society. Unless and until such criteria are established, generally endorsed, and genuinely embraced (by the foremost figures with the society) we are left with little else but a vitiating relativism, the unraveling of the social fabric, and cacophonous, shallow individualism—pretty much the cultural conditions under which we live today in the ‘United’ States, as any honest person with his eyes open can see.

Such hierarchically structured value schemes have a long and illustrious history—within all major world religions and philosophical systems worthy of the name—but under the leveling, anti-traditional floods of modern education, egalitarianism, and mass entertainment, these old systems have largely been neglected, razed, or buried, along with whatever authority and reverence they once commanded. In the present age of chaos, we see a situation where the ultimate arbiter in virtually all disputes is naked power—not reason, not charity, not justice, and certainly not the perennial wisdom traditionally founded upon the great chain of being.[1] Power is the only ‘value’ that still carries decisive weight, whether or not that power derives from money, military superiority, sexual allure, false advertisement—or a mixture of these. In his teaching on possible and actual regimes, or forms of political organization, Plato suggested the following types, descending from the best to the worst type of city-state: aristocracy (rule by the best and wisest citizens, not an aristocracy determined by birth); timocracy (rule by the lovers of honor); oligarchy (rule by the few rich); democracy (rule by the demos, or popular will); and finally, tyranny.

Now, the contemporary United States is a very complex and multi-faceted beast, and elements of each regime-type can be found at play here, in differing degrees. The ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement has its sights trained on the oligarchic (or corporate) sector—claiming that if this greedy 1% is exposed and its agenda dissolved, the ‘rest of us’ might have a fighting chance for a better life. Of course, there is some real value and substance to this young movement’s criticisms and concerns, but the actual predicament we are in is incalculably more complicated, multilayered, and subtle than this. The aims of this new movement derive from an outraged sense of justice, but there are other important questions to be wrestled with in addition to the commendable ones being raised by these enemies of corporate greed, injustice, and irresponsibility.

Unless and until a few capable persons of wisdom are able to convey to the masses a thoroughly graspable and compelling understanding of the systemic problems that afflict us, we are likely to remain helplessly awash in the symptoms of a disease for which there is no apparent cure. The masses are not obliged to undertake the heroic analytical-synthetic task of uncovering and fully comprehending the etiology of this systemic cancer that has progressively eaten away the very soul of Western culture. We are speaking here about a cancer that has metastasized and is rapidly spreading across the planet, chiefly through myopic globalization and its handmaiden, a debased and bastardized form of reason (pragmatism) that is capable only of pursuing means to arbitrary, material ends.

With the recovery of wisdom and the gradual—unavoidably disruptive—dismantlement of venal oligarchic power, humanity (and many other endangered species) will at last be able to breathe a sigh of relief. But wisdom must first come out of hiding. Wisdom—alone and unsupported by those who are able, if but faintly, to recognize this beacon upon the dark night sea—is certainly not sufficient to contain this cancer and to redress the systemic evils that presently prevail. Humanity’s fate hangs in the balance and it is humanity’s collective choice that will make the decisive difference in the end. The wise, without question, know this—and it is precisely the pessimism and diffidence of these diagnosticians and potential guides that induces them to remain hidden and quietly vigilant. Many of the un-wise know of the dire straits we are all in, as well, but a highly intoxicating cocktail of cynicism, hedonism, shallow individualism, and self-delusion block all possible attempts to reform their lives. And then there is that other species of the un-wise—religious fanatics who both see and welcome the apocalyptic scenario that is visibly mounting under the system’s diabolical influence. For these poor fools, the disease is perversely redefined as a remedy—or as the long-awaited fulfillment of an infantile, collective fantasy that places these self-righteous and risible believers at the privileged center of things! There is no reasoning with these extreme types—hard-boiled cynics and hard-core religious nut-jobs—for they are, in a real sense, possessed by unconscious drives, compulsions, fears, and other unhealthy factors over which they have little or no conscious control or leverage.

[1] The unparalleled dramatic rendering of the violent collision between these two ordering schemes—the traditional (hierarchical) and the modern (Machiavellian-pragmatic)—is to be found in King Lear.

The Middle Way (8/11/10-Buenos Aires)

Too much of the detached observer in the mix (of one’s personality) can result in excessive spirituality, a kind of anemic and castrated ghostliness, and a diminished sense of animal vitality. Excessive immersion in the economic, political, and sensual realms over-excites the animal drives and instincts, thus dulling or altogether drowning out the spirit and thus limiting one’s freedom from compulsive needs and appetites. To be neither too disengaged from nor too absorbed in ‘the world, the flesh, and the devil’ appears to be the optimal way for us—if wholeness and wisdom are desired above ascetic purity and imperturbable spiritual ‘altitude,’ on the one hand, or worldly power and a steady supply of sensual delights, on the other. This is the way of soul, or anima—as distinct from the ways of mere transcendence and full-on, animal-instinctual immersion. Of course, all three ‘paths’ lie (more or less) open to us all the time. It is a question, ultimately, of innate inclination, cultural influences, enthusiasm, habituation, and (perhaps) discipline. Because the middle way of soul-making, unlike the other two paths, is a struggle on two fronts—since it shares a border with spirit and with body, or matter—it may demand more from its votaries than the other two. The man of fiercely focused will can follow the path of spirituality with favorable success and the man of fiercely powerful drives and instincts will soon enough find his way deep into the pleasures and pains of the world. But the journeyman along the middle way of soul requires the disciplined will and ruthless honesty of the spiritual man, as well as the passionate and erotic endowments of the sensual, worldly man. (He is the marriage of Hermann Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund.) Most importantly, he must be endowed with an exceptional imagination and disciplined powers of creative fantasy—for these are the true and trusty makers of soul.

A Bard’s-eye View of Plato, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, and what’s at the Bottom of Things (5/3/16)

In my view, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, and Jung—each in his own, more or less adequate manner—came closer to the essence of things concerning the foundational elements of human consciousness and ‘truth’ than Plato and Aristotle did. By claiming instincts (and/or their psychic reflections, archetypes) as the foundational factors of human consciousness, they departed from the comparatively static (Uranian, Parmenidean, celestial) paradigm suggested by Platonic ‘Ideas’ and Aristotelian ‘substance.’ In Plato, these ‘primordial’ ideas or FORMS bear a closer resemblance to the elements and axioms of geometry than they do to the dynamic, polaristic, and ever-transforming instinctual/archetypal factors we see in various guises in the aforementioned modern philosopher/psychologists.[1]

Where the foundations of human consciousness are dynamic—and their interrelationships are fluid and ever-transformative, like the variables at play in a weather system—it ‘stands to reason’ that the abstract concepts derived from, and in reference to, this ever-transforming array of determinants and conditions will necessarily be provisional, tentative, and ultimately imperfect (incomplete, insofar as they are fixed in form). In superimposing self-consistent, axiological-mathematical schemes onto this protean matrix—whether it is Pythagoras, Plato, Descartes, Newton, or Einstein—an idealized, rationalized (and ‘de-natured’) framework or grid is being illegitimately foisted upon a fundamentally irrational datum. All the aforementioned modern thinker/psychologists saw through these rational-conceptual presuppositions and projected schemes. They peered into the magma-like, molten core (below the ‘crust’ and ‘mantle’). All four of them rightly understood that, being derivative and secondary, the rational (as faculty, function, system, schema) could only serve as a limited/limiting formulator and conveyor of these deeper, more mysterious factors at work ‘below deck,’ in the engine room of human consciousness. In Schopenhauer and Freud, a species of Stoic pessimism emerged as a posture in response to this profoundly unsettling realization; however, neither of them opted to disparage reason on that account, but continued to endorse its cultivation and wise employment as our chief bulwark against ever-encroaching barbarism—the rending of the ‘thin veneer of civilization.’ (“Where id was, there ego shall be.”—Freud)

In Nietzsche—who, in certain crucial respects, was perhaps more the artist-psychologist-poet than the rational philosopher—we find a somewhat different attitude towards the dynamic-creative-destructive ground of life and consciousness. The deity (or mythic mask) Nietzsche associated with the matrix of life and consciousness was Dionysus—but a Dionysus that was alchemically (or shotgun?) wedded to measure-bestowing Apollo. As with the patron-deity of ancient Greek tragedy, Nietzsche’s Dionysus was associated with a chastening and sobering ‘tragic-pessimism’ that held out the prospect of deepening and ennobling those exceptional souls capable of withstanding such a vision. With this crucial move, Nietzsche opens up the prospect of psychological (and perhaps, to a limited extent, spiritual) transformation under the artfully managed and expressed creative tension native to the Dionysian perspective or experience.

It would be left to Jung, however, to gather and recombine all these crucial pieces of a puzzle into his teaching of individuation, or the conscious path of wholeness. This path, of course, is only open to those persons, never large in number, for whom the reality of the psyche is as indisputable and compelling as the reality of the body and the features of the external world. For, unless and until the psyche and its archetypal contents become an imaginal reality for the person, there can be no meaningful or transformative individuation process—an ongoing dialectical relationship between ego and unconscious, with the latter invisibly but ineluctably leading the way. The ‘psychological faith’ required (on the part of the ego) to maintain this gradual but profoundly transformative process is not something that the ego can manufacture by fiat, but is born only from the metanoia or ‘about-face’ initiation. This crisis (of having ‘the world turned inside-out’) can be endured only by one who has at least provisionally established a psychic standpoint or center of gravity at a depth or level below the ego. As Lao Tzu says, ‘A path is formed by walking (on it).’ So, this psychic platform necessary for the (sane) survival of the ‘falling apart’ experience of the familiar ego standpoint is gradually formed by means of inwardly guided imaginative activity, otherwise known as ‘soul-making.’

If the general aim of the Platonic philosophical-moral education was to get the mind and will of the candidate to conform to the eternal-changeless Idea of the Good – and thereby rise above the mutable realm of generation and decay – the modern philosopher-psychologists present a rather different general aim of the philosophical, or individuation, process. Here – at least with Jung and in a more qualified sense, with Nietzsche – the aim is to manifest and actualize dynamic potentials inherent in the collective unconscious – one aspect of which is will – and to go about this work of manifestation on the physical plane and in the cultural arena. In the ancient (Platonic, as opposed to Sophistic) program, vision took precedence over action (will), but in the modern one, action, or pragmatics (in accordance with an unfolding, dynamic vision), assumes priority over merely contemplative apprehension. If, in the ancient scheme, humanity may have best been likened to mere servants or custodians of the “divine plan” or blueprint, in the modern one we are invited to become like little creator-Gods whose work consists in translating the text into living form.

[1] As a kind of spiritual ‘grandfather’ figure for all four of the modern thinkers, Goethe should almost certainly be mentioned here.

Two Wisdoms (5/14/15)

I wonder if the bulk of my written thoughts and ‘spiritual reflections’ aren’t best targeted to those readers who have already consciously begun questioning and loosening those attachments that bind us to the world, to our bodies, to our intimates, and to our personal plans for the future. For those persons, however, who are still very earnestly following the path of investment (in the world and in their CVs) my words are more likely to fall upon indifferent or perhaps even hostile ears, are they not?

This question is not so much about the chronological age of the reader-listener as it is about his/her spiritual ripeness or maturity level—his or her readiness for moksha. There are, for example, plenty of aging, ‘retired’ Americans who have expensive vacations and other elaborately involved plans on their ‘bucket lists’—and the fact that the lion’s share of their disposable attention and wealth is earmarked for such ‘outer adventures’ may be an indication of how unready they are to truly embark upon the austere path of letting go.

Are there, then, two very different—one might even say polarized or fundamentally divergent—wisdoms: one for investors and another for divestors? There would appear to be confirmation of this on the level of the biological organism—inasmuch as our bodies typically attain their greatest degree of vitality and vigor during the first half of life—and then undergo a gradual (or abrupt, as the case may be) decline in the second half. In addition to this general vitality and vigor, we typically see our sexual, social, and acquisitive desires operating at peak levels from adolescence through our forties—and these powerful desires certainly play a crucial role in immersing us (physically, emotionally, and intellectually) in the world of human affairs and relationships. If and when these drives begin to lose much of their former force and vehemence, we find ourselves in a far more favorable position to extricate ourselves—mentally and physically—from habits and patterns that, until now, have kept us firmly attached to the world and to various persons to a degree that presently seems constrictive. Thus, the opportunity for greater freedom stems, in part, from the relaxation or waning of desires and compulsions that we formerly felt little alternative but to serve and obey. While firmly in the grip of those desires, yearnings, and compulsions, we probably supposed that freedom consisted in the satisfaction or fulfillment of those plans and desires—in the gratification of those compulsive itches and hankerings. Now that the batteries that powered these motors have been exhausted of much of their former juice, we find ourselves, perhaps for the first time, in a position to radically revise our notion of freedom. It occurs to us that rather than continuing to pursue objects, experiences, and pleasures with less and less natural, spontaneous vigor—and which yield ever-diminishing returns on our strained investments—we might be wise to dispense altogether with these (draining and generally disappointing) pursuits and habitual desires. Instead of (pathetically and desperately) trying to suck the last bits of sweetness from the nearly emptied sugar bowl, which is how we have erstwhile regarded the ‘world,’ we are at last in a position to try something completely new: to deliberately and voluntarily withdraw our groping-sucking lips and fingers from the sugar bowl and see what happens!

I remember being profoundly shaken by the spiritual teachings of Ramana Maharshi when, at the tender age of nineteen, I discovered the little ‘purple bible’ at an occult bookstore here in Houston. The ideas of Advaita deeply resonated with me but the trajectory and potent momentum of my psychic energy, my desires, and my attention were directed outward into things and forms—towards friendships, future plans, the development of my musical and intellectual potentials, travel, and (mostly) romantic-erotic passion. Even if the idea of the path of return to the Self—the path of voluntary renunciation of my attachments, desires, and plans—powerfully appealed to my (timeless and bodiless) intuition, my personality (the body-mind complex) was not at all ripe for putting such ideas into practice. Something in the core of my being attested to the ultimate truth of the teachings of Ramana Maharshi—despite the fact that my strong personal will and the bent of my actions pointed in the opposite direction—towards the world, the enhancement and assertion of my ego, towards personal attachments and enmities. Nevertheless, I seem in retrospect to have resigned myself to this deep internal divergence between the ego-will and the silent, imperturbable centeredness of the Self. I had the good (spiritual) sense not to deny the real existence or the primacy of the impersonal Self that constituted the ground and source of the mind, the ego, and the world—all of which would eventually vanish while it, alone, would remain.

A Dream and Some Reflections on Shakespeare (9/8/14)

Dream: Someone with whom I was acquainted was illicitly accessing and using a company elevator to enter a workplace where (presumably) he was working without authorization. As he entered the elevator I parted company with him and walked up the street. (Was I on Centenary Blvd. at Rutherford, across from the campus main entrance?) I noticed a white vehicle parked on the street—it could have been a station wagon or a regular sedan with a very large trunk. I’m not sure if I actually saw the young female owner of the vehicle before I opened the trunk—but I knew, while I was exploring its contents, she was the owner and that she would be returning anytime. There was no moment of stressful wrestling with my conscience before my curiosity prompted me to open the trunk (or rear hatch) and begin exploring the contents of the vehicle. My initial intention was not to steal anything, but simply to look, and if I found something I wanted, I guess I thought that I would stick around and make an offer—if I thought that far ahead. So, what was I finding? Books (boxes full of them), some vinyl record albums, and large Hershey chocolate bars. The books were, on the whole, the sort I like, or have read in the past: multiple copies of works by Nietzsche and Hermann Hesse among them. The albums—some of which were very old and apparently in excellent shape—were mostly classical music, from what I could tell. And then there were the large chocolate bars. The thought did cross my mind that I could take off with the two or three books I had selected (to awkwardly purchase from her when she returned?) and no one would be the wiser—but at this point I spotted the woman—the owner of the car and its contents—walking on the other side of the street. More importantly, she had seen me! In fact, she was watching me, warily and alarmedly, and I suspected at once that she had seen me rummaging through her stuff in her white vehicle with its trunk open. Goofily (and obviously ashamed of having opened her trunk and unauthorizedly explored its contents to see if there was anything there to my liking), I made a poorly received, unsuccessful effort to communicate to her (from across the street) the idea that I was an honest bloke and that I wanted to purchase a few of the things I had unlawfully ‘happened upon’ in her vehicle. I wanted to allay her distress and somehow quell her suspicions about me being a menacing person or a thief—but I could clearly see that she was keeping her distance. Then it occurred to me that she may have called the police and that she would let them deal with me. At that moment, just before I woke up—anxious from the dream—it dawned on me that even if I stuck around and tried to explain my actions, I was still culpable (for having opened the trunk and explored its contents) and that I would be at the mercy of the woman and/or the police. Sizing up the situation, my impulse was to flee—but at that moment I woke up.

I had a flurry of associated thoughts right after I woke up—while the dream was still fresh in my mind. The first thing I thought of was my recent ‘feud’ with J. S. (philosophy-spirituality versus modern empirical science personified). Next, I had the peculiar thought: No wonder William Shakespeare prudently kept a low profile (in his social milieu) and drew scant attention to his personality. I recalled the historically attested fact that those who did know and speak of him knew him as a pleasant and unassuming fellow. Then I thought of Demi P. pulling back from me with a look of shock and suspicion, thirty years ago, telling me, with more than a hint of horror in her voice that startled even me—‘You are a voyeur of people’s souls!’ Next, I recalled Nietzsche’s observation that Shakespeare must have had a wicked soul—and also remembering that when I read that remark for the first time I thought to myself, ‘Herr Nietzsche, it takes one to know one!’ Lastly, I thought about M. P.’s recent refusal (or conspicuous neglect) to call me back after she said she would, despite my repeated effort to re-connect with her after a long, but by no means hostile, silence—and that it’s always me who takes the initiative.

At that point, I began to reflect, generally, upon the pros and cons of ‘donning the polite and benign mask’ in my dealings with others. Those who manage, like D. P. (and perhaps M. P.) to see through that mask probably feel deeply violated and/or exploited—by my probing curiosity more than by my lust or by my cruelty—and tend, like the frightened car-owner whose trunk had been opened and its contents explored without her knowledge or consent, to ‘pull away’ in understandable dismay.

This dream seems, among other things, to suggest the deep question ‘Why do we wear masks and what are the dangers or the unpleasant liabilities (‘collateral damage’?) of unmasking? It seems fitting that my thoughts turned at once to Shakespeare after waking from this dream—since Shakespeare may have been the most sublimely accomplished master of masking and unmasking who ever put quill to parchment. The obvious employment of masks is seen, of course, in his use of fictional characters to convey profound truths about unmasked human nature—at all levels, under all typical and extreme circumstances, in all sorts of persons from all stations in life. Because these are fictions enacted upon the stage, we—the audience or readers of the plays—are provided with a conventional means of distancing ourselves to some extent from the dramatic events, so as not to be literally implicated in what is being enacted there. But at the same time, because the uncanny lifelikeness of the dramatic poet’s characters and situations is so compelling and so imaginatively absorbing, we can scarcely avoid being ‘taken in’ by these characters and deeply affected by their words and deeds. In the process, aspects of our own innermost, hidden human nature are shaken up and thereby unmasked for us. When Shakespeare has Hamlet say ‘the play’s the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king,’ he is just as rightfully referring to us, generally. In watching or reading these works, our complex responses to what we see occurring therein constitute the telltale signs and symptoms of our actual consciousness (or ‘conscience,’ in Elizabethan usage). The plays hold the mirror up to (our human) nature, allowing us—if we dare—to glimpse what ‘shadows and substance’ we are made of. And typically, of course, this happens without our knowing it. In other words, although we know something has happened—and that we have been moved and shaken—we usually are not aware of what has been finessed out of hiding, out of the shadows, by Shakespeare’s staggering array of unmasking mirrors. In the end, the plays ‘read’ us—rather than the reverse.   These extraordinary plays, like the sea, are bigger, deeper, livelier, subtler, far more powerful and penetrating than we are.

It dawned on me, some time ago, that the psyche is not in me—rather ‘I’ am in the psyche. It comprehends and contains ‘me,’ not the other way around. I now recognize that despite his forgivable philosophical-spiritual shortcomings and his occasional overstatement of the case, Harold Bloom was fundamentally correct about Shakespeare in his controversial book, The Invention of the Human: Shakespeare’s consciousness is not just different from ours. It includes and greatly transcends our far more limited, biased, ‘specialized,’ parochial, gender-identified, historically-culturally blinkered—and comparatively barbaric—consciousness.

This is what makes an extended acquaintance with Shakespeare’s mysteriously unnerving (but ultimately benign and potentially redemptive) wisdom so fatefully ‘consciousness-altering’ for thousands and thousands of readers and playgoers around the world who have come under the spell of these works. A deep and ever-renewed acquaintance with the plays can safely be relied upon to show us many things about our souls and our natures that we never suspected were there to begin with. The effect of this unmasking is extremely exciting and harrowing—incredibly consoling as well as damning—liberating and reducing—at one and the same time. In a word, the prolonged exposure to the poetically masked workings of this most sublime of imaginations is transformative. Like the fabled alchemist, the imagination of Shakespeare transforms common and even despised objects, persons, and conditions into something precious, subtly luminous, and even sacred.

But like Dante, the pilgrim—who also had to undergo a thorough purgation and trial by fire before he could rightfully enter the gates of Paradiso—the ‘initiate’ into the Shakespearean process of imaginative transfiguration must first serve an unspecified (but unavoidable) stretch of time in the infernal and purging regions of murky, molten, magma-passion, where his very corporeality is toasted and roasted until it slithers from the liberated spirit like the meat from barbecued spare-ribs.

We know that Shakespeare was possessed of a seemingly infinite—but uncannily disciplined, orderly, and accurate—imagination. Over the years, I have become convinced that the imagination that generates my dreams—or at least the ‘special’ ones—is often comparable in scope, depth, suggestiveness, and precision to Shakespeare’s. Of course, I claim no conscious responsibility or personal credit for this enormous and enormously intelligent imagination—no more than I can, in good conscience, take credit for the muse or daimon ‘who’ inspires the better instances of my philosophical speculation and essay-writing. As I am but an obedient ‘scribe’ when it comes to my ‘serious’ contemplative-speculative writing, so I am merely an (often clueless, but thoroughly appreciative) audience member in the theater of dreams delivered nightly during my ‘off hours.’

I usually have a ‘sense’ when a dream is particularly pregnant with significance, and the dream from which I awakened this morning was accompanied by such a presentiment of fullness and ominousness. Moreover, those personal associations I mentioned earlier—the links suggested (by the dream) to several ‘disturbed’ relations with friends, past and present—offer a kind of gateway into the dream, or so it would appear.

The idea of unmasking as a kind of violation of the sacred bond of friendship—a transgression of the unwritten laws of mutual protection, care, and affection—is certainly at work here. The illicit invasion of privacy and the selfish perusal and appropriation of what is uncovered (or dis-covered) is also evident in the dream. And when I was found out—in the dream—I hovered uneasily between an honest and courageous acknowledgement of what I had done and what my intentions were, on the one hand, and a self-protective, guilty retreat from the scene, on the other.

The idea here, it seems to me, is that if and when we go poking and prodding around in another person’s private zone, we are under a strict moral obligation to behave in a respectful, compassionate manner—like Shakespeare seems to have done, even with a number of his less prepossessing characters. The episode with the car full of books, records, and chocolate bars was framed, or introduced, by the unauthorized entry into a workplace by an acquaintance of mine. This sort of doubling technique (like parallel plots in a Shakespeare play) reinforces the main theme while creatively ‘complicating’ it.

Lately I have been writing essays that exhort the reader to moral-psychological courage—and in doing so I have rather baldly displayed my contemptuous disapproval of all forms of moral cowardice and dishonesty. My psyche, always smarter and more comprehensive in its vision than I am, has—like a good Shakespeare play—held an unforgiving but faithful mirror up to some deeply-rooted pillar of my ‘Faustian’ personality. I am not in the habit of regarding myself as Faustian, but the figure sprang to mind here because of his greedy, reckless quest for elusive and generally forbidden knowledge. It is precisely this daimonic drive to deepen and expand his knowledge—no matter how dangerous that knowledge might turn out to be—that makes Faust an interesting subject for Goethe’s genius to play with. Faust exchanges (or believes he exchanges) his very soul for access to this knowledge that is barred from ordinary mortals. The fact that he is willing to bargain away his soul for this knowledge makes it fairly clear that Faust is a man possessed by his curiosity—rather than one who has it under some kind of moral or ethical control. As I stood there, across the street from the woman whose privacy I had contemptuously ignored and whose goods I ransacked, I suddenly felt unequal to my deed, like Nietzsche’s ‘pale criminal.’ Instead of feeling royally ‘above it all’ and exempt from the laws and standards of respectful, civil behavior, I was suddenly acutely aware of the violation I had committed. And I felt scared and ashamed. Moreover, as I contemplated trying to explain myself to her—and to the police—in order to show that I had intended no harm and no theft—and that I was perfectly willing to pay a fair price for the two or three books I had taken from her car—I realized just how whacky and outrageous such an ‘explanation’ would sound to any ‘sane’ person. That’s when I felt the strong impulse to ‘split the scene,’ as they say.

Another prominent theme in my recent writing (to my scientist friend, J.), interestingly enough, has been science’s pernicious amorality—its congenital blindness when it comes to ethical, political, religious, and other ‘non-material’ and ‘non-quantifiable’ matters—which, as it turns out, comprise the lion’s share of what impacts human life where it counts. But was my amoral, transgressive investigation and appropriation of the car’s private contents any more defensible than J.’s ‘complicity’ in the technocratic, systematic investigation and appropriation of material resources for the power and profit of the few who fund and chiefly exploit those projects? Once again the mirror rises before me—thanks to the dream.

Displaced Religious Feeling and Sex Magic (4/16/13)

Perhaps in no other department of culture is the contrast between my former apathy and my present enthusiasm so pronounced as in the arena of religious thought and experience. My early exposure to religion could not have been more off-putting or calculated to deflect my serious interest—so formulaic, sterile, and uninviting were the actual doctrines and injunctions that I had forcibly imposed upon me as a young Catholic in the American south of the 1960s. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I cannot recall a single exemplar of this generally trumped up, inwardly vapid and judgmental dogma who favorably impressed me as a personality. In other words, no one I knew personally or that I could point to was able to bring all these rules and regulations, sacraments and rituals, convincingly and meaningfully to life for me. It is this acquired distaste for what went, categorically, by the name of ‘religion’ that I have had to gradually chip away at in order to re-approach religious thought and experience with a relatively unprejudiced mind. Only now—late in my life—am I beginning to understand what all the fuss was about. Now, religious thought and experience certainly rivals philosophy and depth psychology as a bountiful treasure trove of splendid insights, noble values, and astonishing perspectives. But oh, what a rough and unpromising ‘start’ I got off to!

Nevertheless, despite these inauspicious beginnings—as far as my cultural encounter with the religion of my boyhood was concerned—I think it would be fair to say that I have always had a religious nature. In saying this, I may be saying merely that I am ‘human,’ since Jung concluded that ‘Human beings have an in-built religious need.’ It seems that my own religious needs—which were perhaps more philosophical and ‘metaphysical’ than moral in their essential character—found a good measure of satisfaction in Eastern religious thought and in esoteric studies (chiefly in the writings of Alan Watts, Alice Bailey, and Annie Besant). Although I outgrew the ‘occult’ writings within a few years—and my discovery of Jung seems to have brought me back to earth and to cultural history, which would expose the dryness and the (to me) excessively abstract character of occultism—my interest in religious thought and experience continued to be nourished by my regular forays into Taoist, Indian, and Sufic philosophy/meditation.

If reading Jung, Chuang-tzu, Emerson, Joseph Campbell, Nietzsche, and Ramana Maharshi could be relied upon to keep my intellect nourished with spiritually and culturally provocative ideas—so that my religious needs were being vicariously tended to through such reading and related conversation with a handful of likeminded companions, what about religious feeling? How—if at all—were my religious feeling needs being met? Membership in some kind of religious congregation was simply out of the question—given my peculiar temperament and my acquired suspicion of all (large) ‘group activities’—and I tended to look down on conventionally religious persons with scarcely muted contempt. I was no doubt guilty of bunching all such conventional believers together into one lumpen mass and assuming that their so-called ‘religious’ experience amounted to no more than passive, unreflective, intellectually threadbare conformity—for the sake, primarily, of congenial social affiliation. And while this unflattering assessment may very well apply to the majority of church attendees, now as ever, there are probably a fair number of souls among them (even at these ghastly and spiritually abominable megachurches!) who are there for all the right reasons, even if they are being spoon-fed junk food of the spirit.

But—to get to my point: I now suspect that my religious feeling needs were met—in part, and in a highly unorthodox way—through my ‘romantic-erotic’ involvements with a series of more or less obliging women. At the bottom of all this activity there was a revved-up yearning for ‘ecstatic’ or profound emotional experiences and sexual intimacy of an extraordinary sort. I remember wanting nothing so much as to merge or melt into my lover, body and soul—to transcend my ‘existential aloneness’ or my entrapment within my own skin—or, more precisely speaking, my ego. Of course, some crude, buck-toothed, smelly, distant cousin of this transcendent, ecstatic bliss occurred from time to time (just as junkies get completely blissed-out when they shoot heroin into their veins), so it seemed only natural to continue down this path (of sex magic?) because of the profound ‘high’ these encounters sporadically delivered. Of course, such ecstatic conditions can be difficult to maintain for any length of time with a regular partner. The prosaic, mundane ‘world’ soon begins to obtrude upon the ‘magic’ and the poetical-ecstatic eroticism, and before long I would be looking around for a new piece of sublime flesh with whom to play this most exciting and dangerous game. I seem, at long last, to have outgrown that reckless, self-serving, and emotionally damaging counterfeit of religious feeling, but I am probably like a reformed alcoholic inasmuch as I will always be susceptible to falling off the wagon and winding up back in the love-gutter unless I am especially careful, cautious, and—most importantly—suspicious.