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.

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