Contemporary Culture Makers (5/23/11)

Making culture is not as easy as making pasta or making whoopee. It is an enterprise fraught with difficult choices and competing ‘pulls’ that continually threaten to ruin or mar our work. Making culture is not simply rehashing time-tested formulas with a fresh, new makeover. The genuinely developed (and therefore, more fully conscious) human being will be obliged to take an adversarial stance towards the present mass culture—pointing out its weaknesses; its shallowness; its enormous blind spots and its deforming imbalances. When the line between culture and mass entertainment becomes blurry—as it has here and now—our work becomes more difficult. Until not so long ago (before widespread democratization and the corresponding degradation and dilution of cultural education), the line between culture and cheap entertainment was clear and thick. One needed leisure and at least a general acquaintance with the natural sciences and mathematics, some philosophy—ancient and modern, canonical works of literature, religious doctrines, modern languages, and practical skills in order to be able to wrestle capably with salient cultural questions.

When the dominant cultural norms and values are thus utterly failing to produce balanced and healthy individuals who then serve as revered exemplars of salutary morals and spiritual values—and I challenge anyone to prove that such a healthy situation is in place today!—then something happens which should come as no surprise: the makers (or re-makers) of genuine, life-affirming and sanity-promoting culture become conspicuous ‘counter-culture’ figures—men and women who seem ‘untimely’ or ‘out of season’ from the standpoint of the prevalent value scheme.

But before we start picturing Jesus writhing on the cross, Socrates resignedly downing his cup of hemlock, and barbecued Bruno, let us consider the idea that, while it can certainly be beneficial to stir up public controversy and fierce, ongoing debates about values and ideals, it is always possible to keep this tumultuous and profoundly upsetting contest between enlightenment and ignorance, energy and inertia, courage and fearfulness within the private, microcosmic compass of the individual’s own exquisitely tormented soul (á la Emily Dickinson). So, instead of mocking and scorning ‘Sadducees’ or ‘Sophists’ out there in the agora, I might concentrate upon my own interior struggle to maintain moral probity, a philosophically enlightened and psychologically balanced attitude, despite the inner resistances I reliably come up against—resistances, of course, that bear an uncanny resemblance to those qualities I find it all too easy to attack and make a fuss over in the philistine, the Sophist, the infidel, or any other scapegoat who serves as a convenient ‘hook’ for the projection of my own shadow.

The essential idea we are considering here is not the self-appointed task of criticizing and haranguing against the general culture—even when it appears to be suffering from the most egregious displays of high-level corruption, general wrongheadedness and imbalance—but that of overcoming and liberating oneself from these inherited, ubiquitous mental pathogens and blinders in order to see, to speak, and to act in far more balanced and just manner. Only then have we earned the right or the inner poise to be able to speak ‘healingly’ instead of merely ‘feelingly,’ as those great destroyers, Nietzsche and Freud, did—to mention only two well-known examples. When great minds make wrong turns many lesser minds follow them down a slope to one side or the other, into blindness and error, but usually without the strength to make their way back up to the middle way from which they have fallen. The middle way is like a narrow ridge at the top of a mountain range—a ridge that drops off dramatically to either side, so that when we fall to one side or the other, the further we fall, the further away we get from those who have fallen down the other side, making it harder for us to hear them, see them, love them, and eventually—even to remember them. They—and all they stand for—comprise the projection of our unconscious.

The greatest minds, on the other hand, enjoy—or suffer—a somewhat ambiguous position vis-à-vis our ‘grasp’ and our easy understanding. The words and teachings of the greatest thinkers and sages seem deceptively easy for us to imbibe, but what we take from them, more often than not, is as different from what they are actually saying as a genuine VIEW from the top of the Empire State building is from the mere possession of the little metal effigy of the same famous skyscraper that is attached to our key chain. The living wisdom from the middle way—directly experienced only when we are perched upon that high, narrow and perilous ridge where mighty winds blow in from every direction—resonates with us wherever we are, but it originates only on that ridge, to continue with my metaphor. This is something of a paradox, of course, because if we have managed to position ourselves on that narrow, middle path, we have no need for such teachings—for we see and feel and know in our very bones all that such teachings can convey only indirectly, for they are diluted by being verbalized and conceptualized. With the greatest minds, direct experience is always primary; words are always secondary and peripheral.

So, returning to the difficulties involved in making culture: if spiritual culture in its most salutary forms consists in utterances made from this precarious place of balance between descending valleys of error, excess, and psychological one-sidedness, the we might reasonably ask—‘When, if ever, has there been a broadly distributed or widely shared spiritual-ethical culture on this planet?’ But then, surely the relatively small number of men and women who have managed to climb up to that high ridge from either slope (where all of us seem to begin our journey) have recognized this fact and pondered its meaning. Because they have (repeatedly) had to overcome the resistances, the attachments, the cherished hatreds and personal battles, etc., that keep most of us glued to our SLOPE, they are all-too-aware of how useless mere words and teaching are except as pointers of the way. They know firsthand of the sacrifices—of comfort, of companionship, of the sense of security, and the diversion afforded by our affiliation with the ‘people of the slope’—that are demanded of anyone who would stand steadfastly in the center.

The utterances of the great spirits poised in the center of this tension of the various pairs of opposites are metaphoric shells still faintly trembling with the paradoxical energy that spontaneously gave them shape and animation—only to abandon them shortly after these shells were formed. The poised, tension-bearing, great spirits are psychic cartographers of the first order. Their ‘exhaust’—their sweat—their flayed skins—are bits of the map, the full extent of which is never known because it can never be finished. Or, so I have heard.

Consequences of the Split in Western Consciousness (4/1/11)

The splitting of God and Satan, along with our psyches, into good and evil opposites—where good is ‘upper’ and lit up and ‘evil’ is lower and dark—has led to a distortion and psychological falsification of both sides of this psychological equation. A small minority of men and women today are moving into position to undergo a momentous transformation—the transition from being more or less exclusively ‘moral’ in their fundamental orientation to being ‘psychological.’ The long ‘moral’ phase (roughly coincident with Christianity as the prevailing worldview in the West) has been characterized by an ongoing battle between the radically differentiated ‘spiritual’ and the ‘animal’ aspects of our shared human nature. The newly emerging ‘psychological’ phase will concern itself with soul and soul-making. Soul, as middle principle between spirit and matter, is created out of a provisional truce and the suspension of the hostilities between spirit and matter (or body) and an ongoing effort to bring them into a more or less fruitful and harmonious relation. The dramatic and painful split into warring opposites seems, in retrospect, to have been a necessary phase through which an evolving humanity had to pass—in order to differentiate and focus the light of ego-consciousness. (cf. Cornford on the discovery of the pairs of opposites by the ancient Greeks, and the Indian/Chinese parallels—not to mention the dual symbol of the Fishes in Pisces, the ruling astrological sign of the aeon.) The pressures imposed upon the fragile and slowly maturing ego were formidable, especially when a person struggled to take on as much responsibility as possible for his/her actions, thoughts, feelings, impulses, and choices. Those who left these matters to fate, to their masters, or to God, experienced far less inner stress and tension—then as now—but their ego-consciousness was correspondingly dimmer and weaker, as a consequence.


Cloaks and Daggers (7/1/11)

I am put off a bit—as well, perhaps, I should be—by the gaminess of a great philosopher like Plato, even if I confess to finding much pleasure in unlocking the secrets and hidden insights buried in—or inferable from—the dialogues. I mention Plato, but I might just as well have mentioned Heraclitus or Lao-tzu, Shakespeare or Bacon, Spinoza or Nietzsche, Montaigne or Joyce. All of them were expert gamesmen in their writing. Should Jung—and perhaps even Hillman—be included in this elite class of artful purveyors of recondite truths and unpopular insights?

Some voice inside me cries out ‘Why not simply say what you mean to say as clearly and plainly as you can?’ All gaminess would come to a screeching halt if such plain-speaking had been adopted from the start. There would be far fewer places to hide today if the greatest truth-finders had also been the plainest of truth-sayers. But of course if Nietzsche (and others who have voiced much the same idea) was onto something when he spoke of the ‘true but deadly’ ideas of the genuine philosophers, we can begin to understand why Plato (and according to Seth Benardete, the great epic poets and tragedians before him) wrote in a less than completely candid manner—and why his principal alter ego, Socrates, is ‘ironic’ much of the time. Philosophy can die out, perhaps, as some have claimed, if it is not properly sheltered from those—always in the majority—who prefer soothing fictions to ‘deadly truths’ and disturbing insights. But we truth-seekers have a moral obligation—imposed by our intellectual consciences and our psychological courage—not to stop at the gamy surface, but to allow the barbs and daggers hidden within these outwardly delightful and playful works to sting and to pierce our sensitized innards. Only thus will we earn the right to meet our spiritual kin—our (usually) long-dead ancestors who are writing specifically to us—their scattered, scant progeny—across the centuries.

Depth-seekers and Depth-shunners (7/25/17—Quito)

When a marriage, a friendship, a political alliance, or a professional career is simply not working, despite our best efforts, do we not acquire permission to withdraw—permission that may entail a measure of free moral choice on our part but is not ultimately founded or dependent upon our voluntary choice? Where does this extra-moral permission—or should we not, perhaps, call it an imperative or a mandate—come from? And if this permission, this mandate, this imperative comes from some source or region that lies beyond or deeper than our conscious will and reason—say, from some instinctual or pre-conscious level—how much freedom is involved in the act of withdrawal? What we are describing here is a situation where one’s former investment (of desire, interest, love, trust, enthusiasm, hope, etc.) has dried up at its very source. Next, we cannot resist asking: Did we freely create or generate that desire, interest, love, etc., in the first place—and did we just as freely command or orchestrate their evaporation and extinction—or weren’t all of these rising and falling affects secretly and invisibly set into motion and then doused by unseen agencies well out of our reach and, therefore, beyond our control?

But what percentage of men and women living today have learned how to rely chiefly upon this invisible and more mysterious background out of which emerge those most compelling—if unheeded—inducements, commands, warnings, and interdictions? What portion of humanity attends, first and foremost, to these cues and clues from below, from beyond the foreground consciousness that enjoys so much more power and authority over the multitude? Why is this the case and how did it come to be this way? Why does this foreground consciousness and its stock, collective contents so commonly and so effectively muffle or drown out altogether the much older and much more thoroughly ‘road-tested’ voice from the depths—the voice, if you like, of the ancestral spirits?

If we take a close, scrutinizing look at the comparative minority, now as ever, who do in fact heed these ‘cues and clues’ (from what Jung called the ‘unconscious’), what do we observe? What, if anything, sets them apart from the majority who live, as it were, closer to the surface of consciousness rather than in and from the depths? Moreover, how might we characterize relations between these two segments of humanity? Are we justified in speaking of the depth-plumbing minority as the ‘elders’ of our species? Does their attunement—their at-one-ment—with these profounder and older strata of our shared history place them in the position of pioneers, guides, and scouts for humanity—or should we perhaps regard them as atavisms, retrograde relics from a generally barbaric and backwards past?

It must be admitted that this relative minority of depth-seekers are more conservative (and I certainly do not mean ‘right wing Republican’ by this) than the majority who instinctively avoid the quieter and darker depths. The depth-seekers may even be characterized as ‘archaic’ in some respects since the strata of the psyche into which their conscious roots descend have an ‘immemorial’ or archetypal quality about them. And yet, it would be going too far to describe them as ‘primitive,’ outmoded, or backwards. Au contraire. Like seasoned and venerable old elephants, whales, tortoises, and condors that have savored and suffered life to the full, the minority of human depth-dwellers of all ages and climes have something timeless about them. As such, they are emblematic of their kind—their type or species—like living, breathing, suffering, and delighting symbols. At once particular and universal, mortal and undying, actual and imaginal, part and whole.

Such reflections point to a welter of paradoxes respecting the multifaceted, elusive notion of freedom, depending on whether one is a denizen of the depths, the shoals, or from some place in between. The archetypal legacy or inheritance passed down from the primeval past may be likened to a deep, broad river. The waters of this mighty river are gathered from throughout the vast territory surrounding it. The river stretches from its headwaters to the delta where it merges with the sea.

For the minority of depth delvers—employing our river analogy—freedom means adaptation to, and acceptance of, the currents within the rising and falling river. At times, it is both wise and joyfully revitalizing to surrender to the current that follows a course or line of least resistance through the vast surrounding territory. At other times, it is salutary and strengthening to swim upstream—against the current—to revisit past scenes and atmospheres with new eyes and perspectives. What distinguishes the freedom of the depth-seekers is graceful movement or navigation within the all-embracing stream of life. The freedom of the depth-shunners, however, is of a very different sort, indeed.

The depth-shunners are as needful of hydration as their distant kin, the depth-seekers, but rather than immerse themselves, trustingly, into the stream of life, they prefer to dwell along its shallow banks where they can fetch what they need without having to swim—or even get wet. This, in a nutshell, is their notion of freedom. In stark contrast to the freedom I described earlier, the bank-dwellers’ freedom is freedom from immersion in the flowing stream of archetypally-informed-and-animated experience. Levees and ramparts along the river help to protect and insulate them from rising waters, while irrigation channels and hydroelectric dams allow them to exploit the river for countless benefits. Thus, because of these artificial means, the depth-shunners are able to live and move about in relative security and comfort farther and farther away from the river itself. Larger and larger tracts of the desert surrounding the river are steadily settled and inhabited by these depth-dreaders who have never seen, let alone swam in, the distant river that supports them and everyone they know via aqueducts and pipelines.

Whole generations of desert-dwelling descendants of depth-shunners come and go with only a few persons undertaking the long pilgrimage to the river to behold the shared source upon which all depend. As the centuries pass, fewer and fewer of those pilgrims are able to sufficiently overcome their fears—fostered and fueled by stories passed down through generations of depth-shunners—to leap into the magnificent river when they at last reach its distant banks. But one or two from each generation do take the plunge—and then learn how to swim and to navigate the river’s currents. Later, these same depth-seekers send emissaries to challenge and discredit the superstitions and false beliefs of those teeming, timid desert-dwellers who are ignorant and fearful of the very source upon which their thin, dry lives depend.

Friendship and Our Individual Natures (5/3/13)

Earlier, I read an account by Franz Overbeck where it was noted that virtually all of Nietzsche’s friendships were lop-sided—where he projected far more significance and assumed that there was far more intimacy than the other parties did. Overbeck proposes Nietzsche’s pungent and irrefragable differentness from all other human beings as the likely source of this disparity of friendly love and affection. As ‘hunger is the best sauce,’ Nietzsche’s loneliness must certainly have been a great flavor enhancer—functioning like a walloping dose of MSG in his links with some comparatively insipid souls, judging from their letters and accounts. The recollection by Overbeck triggered personal feelings of estrangement (from others)—feelings that are never far from the surface in me. The more I grow into myself—the admittedly strange (and strangely driven, strangely oriented) human being that I appear to be, the more differentiated from those around me I progressively become. It is perhaps true that I could make greater efforts to accommodate myself to others, to look for things in common, and perhaps such efforts would be rewarded with a greater degree of solidarity and kinship with others. But, aaagh!! To speak truthfully: something has been holding me back from such efforts—and, for the moment, at least—I trust whatever it is that’s holding me back. (I am reminded of Socrates’ daimon here: it never told him to do this or that—only what not to do.)

And perhaps there is no need to invoke ‘daimonic’ influences here—although I would not rule them out. Perhaps it is enough to chalk this reticence up to ‘dog smarts’ in my case. Lord knows I have devoted an enormous amount of energy and attention, care and concern, to my numerous friendships throughout the past—but, alas, with slender dividends to show for all that I have invested.  Do I want too much from persons who, for one reason or another, cannot or will not deliver? Is my pride too swollen for me to condescend any further in order to prop up relationships with persons who can scarcely hold up their end? Have I merely had the misfortune of being thrown together with singularly unsuitable candidates for true friendship with me? I don’t think so. I am fairly sure that a proper candidate for the sort of friendship I have always hungered for is going to be as hard to come by as I am. Pride and arrogance have nothing to do with what I just wrote. Rather, it has everything to do with consciousness of difference—of what is ineradicably and irrepressibly individual about me. When something just is, there is little room for compromise or for concessions. Compromises and concessions apply to things and conditions that are negotiable, mutable, relative, and not yet essential, as the dark depths of my individuality seems to be. We are fortunate if we come to know and to express our individual, inimitable nature—but we are also stuck with what we uncover, are we not?

Horror Vacui (10/9/13)

Lurking within the handful of reliably terrifying thoughts that periodically sneak up from behind and have their way with us is the harrowing suspicion that we lack reality in some substantive, metaphysical sense. I point here to an insidious, paralyzing suspicion that our dotingly tended and cultivated personalities are founded not upon some transcendent, undying essence but upon fanciful fictions and our frangible physical frames. Such a creature more closely resembles a wave on the ocean or a dispersible breeze blowing through a forest, if that wave or breeze could somehow be endowed with reflexive consciousness. Perhaps only a minority of us will be possessed and then reduced to quivering jelly by this crushing, annihilating thought—but once it is thoroughly digested, our lives will never be the same thereafter.

As with any profoundly moving experience, a bundle of quite different responses are possible. One person may never fully recover from this thought which, of course, does not strike us as a mere ‘thought experiment’ or an armchair speculation, but as a momentous, potentially traumatizing, realization. It is an abrupt and shocking glimpse into the baffling vacuousness and vexing vapidity of 99 per cent of everyday, mundane experience. If one can become too intoxicated (with ideals, blinding passions, tyrannical desires, inescapable attachments, etc.), mightn’t one’s life suffer derailment from an excess of sobriety, as well? If one person is maimed and crippled by this sobering thought, another person will be moved to immerse himself as unreservedly and unreflectively into his actual, everyday life and relationships as he can. This psychological ordeal—this anticipation of the nullification of the personal self—will, in such cases, incite a frenzied assertion and aggrandizement of that imperiled self—even if that ‘walking shadow’ is now inwardly known to be little more than a second-rate actor strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage. This frenetic abandonment to busy-ness and action will, of course, constitute a kind of manic defense against the stumping nullity and insubstantiality that have been glimpsed in the abyss. The exuberance of the personal life—the enormity of one’s investment in his projects, involvements, and duties—will be roughly equivalent to the intensity of the horror vacui suffered by the person.

And yet another person will suffer neither from a catatonic collapse and withdrawal nor from a manic defense—but will be prompted to imaginatively cultivate a fresh new set of bearings that enables him, gradually, to avoid either of these two questionable turns. The new perspective that is gradually composed is that of the soul. The soul-perspective is distinguished from the ego-perspective by its capacity to approach all things, persons, and events imaginally or metaphorically—and not only literally or concretistically, as the ego is wont to do. It is this capacity for ‘seeing through’ and beyond literalism that safeguards the soul-perspective against the very real psychic maladies of paralysis and of manic defense. Thus, it is only the reified or hypostatized personal ego that is paralyzed—or driven to a kind of madness (of reckless immersion and flight from reflection)—by this startling vision of the transpersonal core. From the soul-perspective—which is fluid, imaginative, and not entirely ‘human’—this vision, so devastating to the limited/limiting ego, is the doorway into a subtler and deeper dimension than the one normally inhabited by that ego. To say it again: as soul waxes, ego wanes.


On Edinger’s “The New God-Image” (4/4/11)

I will begin this entry by confessing that the Edward Edinger book (The New God-Image) is stirring up powerful feelings ‘below deck.’ I am currently re-reading the middle chapter on ‘The Paradoxical God,’ in which the problematic coexistence of good and evil—or light and dark elements—is attributed to God, along with unconsciousness! These ideas strain even the most fertile imagination and test one’s spiritual courage as few ideas can. They are beyond our ‘Christianized’ ken, while at the same time, the attitude we assume towards these perplexing questions would seem to have profound implications for us, psychologically. And even if we ignore or pay grudging respect to these questions—or never adequately register them so that we can, in turn, be infected or stung by their disturbing power—they will still be there lurking like cancer cells in the unconscious. Of course, as long as they are lurking murkily in the unconscious their power to darken and cripple our journey through life is only that much greater because, in that case, they’re operating ‘behind our back.’ Perhaps most of us will never arrive at the point (of conscious appreciation of these profound religious riddles) ever to recognize what has been eating away, like a corrosive acid, at our insides.

But if, like Jacob, we wrestle with ‘God’—if, that is to say, we surrender to these searing questions which implicate us not only in God’s coming-to-be-conscious, but in the dangerous work of harmoniously reconciling cosmic good and evil—we may emerge with a serious limp, but also as walking and talking contributors to the founding of the way ahead. For me—because of what I now so strongly suspect—opting out of the wrestling match is no longer a viable option.

So where does my own anxiety and inner turmoil come from when I read from Edinger and from the uncharacteristically direct passages from Jung’s letters, where he seems to be very much out on a limb by himself—making connections, speculating, creating a new way to imagine deity?

Part of the anxiety stems from the central notion that God is not ‘perfect’ (nor as capable of looking out for us, like a good Daddy, as many of us were brought up to believe since childhood), but should perhaps be regarded as a ‘work in progress.’ To seriously entertain this notion—which, for me, means getting inside of it and inhabiting it like one might dwell inside a myth or story—is to suffer the most intense deprivation of metaphysical comfort conceivable, for it injects the God-image with a stronger dose of chaotic indeterminacy than of stabilizing cosmos. To be sure, Jung is willing to concede a latent meaning behind this work in progress, which is certainly preferable to a stance wherein no such latent meaning suffuses our experience of existence. But because of where present-day humanity is situated, historically and psychologically, the consolation offered by this idea of latent meaning gradually becoming manifest over the next few centuries is not quite consolation of the deepest and most gratifying sort. If the integration of the ‘Cosmic’ shadow—or the reconciliation of the split halves of good (love) and evil (naked will to power)—does actually take place over the next few troubled and disaster-marked centuries, none of us alive today (who are supposed to draw consolation from this possibility) will be around to enjoy the benefits of such a ‘healed’ split. As for the rest: well, they are left to feed like scavengers upon the rotting corpse of the dead ‘God-image.’

Another cause for inner unrest lies in the (psychological) fact that in pursuing the questions and themes of absorbing interest to me since I was young, I have—nolens volens—become conscripted into this unfinishable project that, as Jung rightly said, consists of ‘endless approximations.’ And as I have noted many times before, the deeper into this work I descend, the more alone I feel since few are seized and caught by this strange and strangely consuming task. How many authentic practitioners of alchemy were there? Because I have the compelling sense that this work and this path are my fate—and therefore cannot be forsaken or abandoned without inviting terrible guilt (the guilt of having betrayed or neglected one’s calling)—I naturally want for my life and my work to contribute something of substantial value to others after I’m gone. And yet, what I have to offer is so very different from the more solid and readily acknowledged contributions made by those talented and creative persons who serve men as they are now. I do not seem to be serving man as he now is—do I? And it’s doubtful that I ever will. My inner sights seem to be trained upon the way ahead—the way beyond the fragmented, decomposing culture I have already diagnosed and painfully come to terms with over the years.