Meta-narratives and some Suggestions Concerning Higher Education (6/7/12)

I have been watching Genesis: a Living Conversation (hosted by Bill Moyers). It is a panel discussion composed of artists, writers, scholars, priests, pastors, and rabbis. One thing that interests me greatly about the series of discussions is the relationship between these Biblical stories, on the one hand, and the way the panel members’ minds have been shaped by the stories, on the other. It seems fairly evident that most of them live (and function as moral agents) within the ‘world’ generated by the Genesis stories, which perhaps shouldn’t be all that surprising. Their efforts—and, ostensibly, the aim of the program—are to suss out the deeper meanings and paradoxes within these marvelous and enduring stories, to enrich and enliven the viewer’s understanding of, and appreciation for, this revered (and sometimes reviled) work of ancient religious speculation.

Nevertheless, despite their generally impressive and clarifying efforts to unearth the deeper meanings and implications buried within these stories, there is little or no effort devoted to the problem of psychological embeddedness in (and, to that extent, unconscious governance by) such meta-narratives. Of course, that is not the explicit purpose of these provocative discussions. The distinguished thinkers, scholars, and clerics are searching for ways to make the Genesis stories relevant and applicable to ‘the here and now.’ Thus, the stories are mined for clues that can help believers find meaning and orientation in their actual daily lives in this world. The stories provide structure, values, and a kind of eschatological promise (of redemption and salvation) for those who are in search of such things. Not to be in search of such things is implicitly held to be somehow less than fully human, since mere animals are not troubled by such questions and concerns, while most of us, at some point or another, are.

If my own aim is to (at least partially) liberate my mind—or my mental vision—from unconscious governance by the narratives that are ingredient to my culture, I must first know what these value-and-assumption-laden narratives are. Study of foundational texts (The Bible, the Iliad and Odyssey, Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Ethics, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s plays, Bacon’s Novum Organon, Descartes’ Discourse on the Method, Machiavelli’s Il Principe, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, etc.) better acquaints me with the furniture of my own mind, since it has been filled with disjointed, bastardized, and decontextualized progeny of these seminal works. The ‘watered-down’ versions of these ‘canonical’ works take the form of inherited beliefs, automatic feeling responses, and deep-seated prejudices, imprinted upon my soul and regularly reinforced by my ongoing mental assimilation, or conscription, into modern Western culture. They constitute the ideological ‘water supply’ that we have been drinking and swimming in (and peeing into) since we were children.

By revisiting the original source-works, we place ourselves in a somewhat better position to perceive these inherited structures, values, assumptions, and goals in a more sharply defined way. Only by deepening our understanding of these inherited stories and the values they promote and discourage do we enable ourselves to engage in a critical dialogue with them. My own drive to critically engage with these inherited cultural factors and unconscious determinants certainly does not arise from a desire to smash them like idols or to pooh-pooh them—any more than I would refuse to acknowledge my ancestors or eschew distant Sicilian relatives (if I should meet them), simply because I have difficulty understanding them in their own language (or because they have ties with the Mafia). I am driven by the earnest desire to know as much as I can about how I came to be who and what I am (insofar as I am a product of historical and cultural ‘determinants’) before I expire. I do not believe that I am entirely a culturally- and historically-determined creature, although this is by no means a simple or easy thing to disprove.

At any event, there appears to be some ‘place’ or perspective that I have intermittent, limited access to—a psychological perspective that looks upon all narratives (all mythic and religious and foundational cultural materials) as essentially fictional and provisional readings of an ultimately mysterious reality that will always elude our full understanding. In other words, all our narratives, our religious doctrines and scriptures, seem ultimately to point to an opaque, transcendent dimension to which even the most splendid and well-furnished human minds appear to be denied full access. Our stories and our philosophies, as useful and as precious as they are as navigational maps and evaluative aids, can never be more than approximations, rough sketches, parables, and analogies—all pointing, as I said, to a transcendent realm that nevertheless reaches its invisible fingers deep into the lives and psyches of all of us.

Those persons living today who actually know—and can more or less accurately trace—the genealogy of the principle ideas and values that they live by are surely in the minority, while those who ape and unreflectively act out these inherited narratives (mimesis) comprise the great majority, throughout the Western world. Elsewhere, I have employed the image of a river delta as a metaphor for the present stage or phase of modern Western culture. Here the river flattens out and becomes shallower. Instead of the clear, briskly flowing current found upstream near the source-waters, the delta is muddy, often choked with silt, and sluggish—as stagnant, spiritually, as a malarial marsh, in places. To seriously study the Bible, the writings of the ancient Greeks, medieval philosophy and spirituality, the Renaissance and the Reformation, and so forth, is in effect to swim upstream from the sultry, silty, and shallow delta—to retrace the route followed by our forebears, whose scattered legacy still pulses, faintly, within our muddy-marshy-mellow minds. Who knows? Perhaps, as we approach the source springs of this historical river (that has carried us and everyone we know to some point or another) we will then have our first genuine opportunity to mentally extricate ourselves from the watery medium altogether. Perhaps, then, we might climb high up into the mountain range where the source waters of the river make their first descent. There, from high above perhaps we may be in a position to survey in a glance the whole serpentine course of that river on its long journey to the sea, where the cycle of evaporation and precipitation goes on perpetually! And if we have reached the summit of the mountain and look down its other side we see another, completely different river heading in the opposite direction—fed by the water that happens to fall on the Eastern slope, and heading towards an ocean with a different name.

Alas, many of us are so complacently at home with our shallowness, our sketchiness, and our slack sluggishness that we are quick to regard those who are not like us in these respects as ‘too serious’ or even ‘fanatical’ when their thinking and their feeling is rich, substantive, disciplined, and not flimsy and flaccid like ours. Such persons throw an unflattering light upon our smug, effete, muddy existences in the sleepy, sensual, sultry delta. Their example makes us self-conscious about our narrowly personalistic or bloatedly sentimental feelings—along with our muddled thinking. They make us feel strangely ashamed of our indifference towards what lies upstream in the river we’re nearing the end of.

*****

Another way of accounting for this shallow, muddy ‘delta-state’ of modern Western culture is to observe the unwieldy confluence (and uneasy coexistence) of many heterogeneous and seemingly incommensurable, cultural/ethnic worldviews. We have seen what this has led to in the U.S.—outer diversity without much depth, an often grudging tolerance of differences that are only superficially understood or appreciated. One consequence of this has been a bland and slapdash cultural melting pot—this bogus leveling of differences that is aimed at producing an odor of civility that is sufficiently inoffensive to allow us to navigate through the unmarked socio-political minefields that we tread upon each day as we come into contact with persons from very different backgrounds and stations of life than our own. Genuine culture (and its cultivation) requires very serious and often difficult effort, exploration, study, reflection, development, and transformation. Cultural education is certainly not sterile, toothless, or flavorless; nor is it always politely inoffensive. And the work involved in seeing into, through, and beyond one’s cultural inheritance—the work of the poet, the philosopher, and the depth psychologist—is perhaps even more demanding and dangerous—and certainly more lonely, for these ‘types’ are attempting to see beyond all narratives, all cultural plot-lines and authoritative systems of weight and measures.

This timid, squeamish indolence with respect to the generally demanding work of cultural development and self-examination is widespread—and appears, unfortunately, to constitute the standard or norm for American attitudes. A distinction should be maintained between the acquisition of broad culture, on the one hand, and attaining excellence in some narrow or specialized field where one is materially rewarded for such efforts—say, as an expert in antique Shaker furniture or British rock and roll of the late 1960s.

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