The Birthright (1/24/17)

The better part of what the thinker-poet does consists, of course, in suitably matching his available stockpile of words, concepts, and metaphors with the more or less steady stream of nebulous seed-intuitions, moods, affects, and perspectives that mysteriously arise from “God knows where.” If truth be told, it is this cloud-like mysterium that actually assigns the terms and conditions of the relationship, and not the thinker-poet, who is a more or less obliging vessel, a capable servant, and a talented translator of an invisible, wordless text. Sticking with the image of the cloud (“the raincloud of knowable things”), the mind of the philosopher-poet provides the “dew point” that enables these vaporous possibilities to undergo condensation into fluid images and metaphors. It is precisely here that meaning is born.

To invoke a different extended metaphor to depict this ongoing oscillation between impregnation and delivery that lies at the core of the creative life: at first, the mind of the thinker-poet and the mysterium are juxtaposed like ovum and sperm. Following insemination, the developing “embryo” gestates within the watery womb of the philosopher-poet’s imagination. While there, this embryo recaps, figuratively speaking, the intermediate stages (“ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”) through which our primordial ancestors clawed and gnawed, slithered and groped, their crooked way to that self-reflexive angel-beast, the human being. When the moment of delivery arrives, there should be no confusion about what sort of creature has been born. Its past is lurking, ghostlike, within its present shape—a long and eventful past has been condensed and woven together in such promising, but fragile children. What you have just read is but a modest example of such a “condensation” – an enactment, if you will.

I have called attention to the seemingly privileged creature, the “thinker-poet” – as though he or she were singled out and specially entrusted with a sacred office: namely, to usher this precious, vital substance into the cultural arena—an arena that craves meaning just as hungrily as our bodies crave salt. But make no mistake: all of us, by virtue of our human status, are, without exception, charged with this sacred office and – if anything is deserving of the term – divine potential. It is our birthright as humans, regardless of the actual scope, depth, and quality of our daily engagement in the work of meaning-begetting. This charge or privilege is thrust upon us whether or not we lovingly and gratefully embrace it. But to deny this birthright may prove to be the greatest “sin” we can commit against ourselves and against the mysterium that has inexplicably permitted us, however fleetingly, to appear as individual, conscious creators.

All of us are endowed, from birth, with instincts that propel, roughly define, and guide much of our thought and behavior. When these innate drives and instincts suffer trauma or if they routinely overpower us, serious problems occur. Analogously, if our innate meaning-creating capacity remains dormant or becomes damaged and deformed by misuse or mis-education, our work will be greatly hampered. We know, intuitively, that a healthy human existence depends, to a large extent, upon awakened, functioning, balanced drives and instincts. I would further suggest that each of us – provided we’ve got a certain amount of experience and reflection under our belts – is equipped with all that is necessary to recognize and to follow his/her calling. Our calling or vocation is not necessarily the professional career path we follow to earn a living (although often enough they coincide), but neither are we talking here about mere hobbies or recreational activities we casually pursue in our spare time. Our calling or vocation (as this word is used in a religious context) may be said to serve as a kind of portal or gateway between the individual and the much larger whole of which he/she is a part. So we can see here that, rather than being something secondary or peripheral to our life or fate, our innate calling is every bit as essential to our psychic or spiritual well-being as food and shelter are to our physical well-being.

Moreover, while roughly distinguishable, these two arenas – the physical/external and the psychic/internal – are not separate, but constitute two sides of a single coin. Thus, problems or imbalances on one side of the coin invariably lead to problems and imbalances on the other. Sociopathy and depression appear to be the prevalent disorders today. Mightn’t both of these widespread maladies stem, in large part, from the failure of a significant portion of the population to have recognized and followed its innate calling? And, it will be asked, to what extent has our present culture – with its peculiar, lopsided aims and methods of “education” – actively contributed to this widespread psychological malaise? Does such an unnatural and psychologically pernicious system even deserve to be called a “culture”? Or is it not more accurate to call it a breeding ground for pathology – every bit as unhygienic for human souls as the mosquito-filled marshes, rat-infested slums, and unsanitary conditions of the past were for the defenseless bodies of our forebears? Have we rid ourselves of one set of unsanitary conditions only to replace them with another – on the plane of psyche?

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The Law of Correspondences (12/21/11)

If we hypothetically suppose this planet Earth to be God’s physical body—and the various kingdoms in nature to be His different bodily organs and levels of being—some curious possibilities leap to mind. If we conceive of our own species as the cerebral cortex of God’s brain, even more fascinating speculations erupt before us. The various countries and mass cultures (China, India, Europe, North and South American nations, Africa, and so forth) may be likened to more or less stabilized arenas of conscious experience for this God whose ‘brain’ function is largely provided by our species. Developing our analogy a bit further, let us say that, like our own mental life, God’s ‘brain’ naturally strives to maintain a general state of equilibrium or balanced tension between the contending ‘pulls’ and drives that animate and move it. Let us assume, for the sake of discussion, that the various competing ‘wills’ or tendencies are made manifest in the principal nations or cultural schemes now present upon the earth, God’s living body. If God is not altogether insensible to pleasure and pain—if, that is to say, ‘He-She’ is not the cold, abstract clock-maker or perpetual motion machine of the late 17th and 18th century philosophers—then the various cultural schemes provide God with quite a diverse array of fairly stabilized forms of qualified experience.

At the most basic level of mental functioning, we encounter the pleasure-pain polarity. When an organism experiences pain—sharp or chronic pain—brain functions, the aim of which is to deaden or offset the pain, are automatically triggered. Some of these are neurological or electro-chemical in nature (e.g., endorphins) while others are of a more distinctly psychological character (soothing illusions that help to blunt and weaken our fears and anxieties).

Invoking a now obsolete (but once eminently respectable) idea that may still be encountered in pre-modern, traditional metaphysical systems, let us assume that analogies or correspondences can be found to exist at all levels of the totality (the ‘great chain of being’) that stretches all the way from the Supreme Godhead to the remotest atom in the outermost reaches of the universe. For our purposes, we will concern ourselves here with three of these levels—that of the Supreme deity, the great cultural-national entities, and the individual human being.

I have already proposed a correspondence between the human species and the brain of a deity whose body is the planet upon which we reside. The notion of functional ‘organs,’ or qualified centers of activity, is a key idea in this ancient doctrine of analogies or correspondences found throughout the whole. Man viewed as ‘microcosm’ (‘made in God’s image’) means viewing him as a miniaturized, functional replica of the universe itself—the macrocosm, or whole. Accordingly, the human being duplicates in miniature the essential structure of the whole that is animated and ruled over by God. Not only does this structural-organizational correspondence suggest a kind of kinship or inter-relationship with God, but it also implies a connection between what we do, suffer, accomplish, or fail to accomplish, on the one hand, and what God does, suffers, accomplishes or fails to accomplish, on the other. Our fates would appear to be subtly intertwined. There may be lapses—of consciousness, of memory, of will and love and resolve—but there are no gaps, no vacuum, no unbridgeable abysses.

Between the levels of the individual human being and the Supreme Godhead we find the national-cultural level—where again we can find analogous ‘organs’ or discernible centers of qualified activity. In this vein, we might liken the military establishment of a country to its muscular system, its academic institutions and intelligentsia to its brain and nervous system. Every developed culture that has ever existed has been endowed with something analogous to these functional organs and organ systems—brain, heart and circulatory system, stomach and intestines, lungs, reproductive organs, musculature, skeletal system, etc.—and these functions are served, ideally, by individual human beings who are naturally or temperamentally suited for these functions. When a sufficient number of qualified individuals is not present to fill the minimal requirements of that cultural-societal organ, eventually there is system failure. As with organ failure in the individual human body, the life of the entire organism can be threatened when any one of its vital components ceases to function.

Knowledge of this universal situation appears to have been possessed by wise men and women of the past, from a variety of otherwise unrelated cultures, but—along with the ‘Great Chain of Being’ idea and the law of correspondences—it seems to have swiftly passed into oblivion in the largely anti-traditional modern West. Practically no one born (and educated) within the past 75 years, here in the U.S., has ever been exposed to these ideas since they have long been regarded as little more than quaint relics from a benighted past. The words ‘arrogance’ and ‘ignorance’ rhyme for a reason—they’re bedfellows. At any event, an inquisitive person these days will be obliged to look far beyond the main menu or authorized worldview (presented to us by our modern educational curricula) if he or she is hunting for knowledge of these ‘archaic’ ideas. Such wisdom has fallen into disfavor as it has been decisively superseded by modern ‘know-how.’ Modern know-how does not appear to be even remotely concerned with ‘wisdom,’ as the ancients understood the word. The modern mentality tends to be convinced that such wisdom—if it ever genuinely existed—has little or no relevance to our present situation. Such wisdom had relevance to a worldview and to a ‘childlike’ stage of humanity that no longer exist on this planet—at least in the ‘developed’ modern West. And while we can all feel the occasional twinge of nostalgia for our own childhood days, no respectable adult would ever give up his/her modern conveniences, gadgets, rights, liberties, and powers in exchange for a return to the childlike ‘simplicity’ our ancestors were consigned to (due, as we now realize, to their lamentable lack of know-how). I may be caricaturing the modern outlook a bit, but I believe I have sketched the general outlines with some justice.

One of the notable features of the modern, as opposed to the ancient, universe is its ‘mechanical’ character. We hear on the Discovery Channel and in Nova programs that contemporary astronomers and cosmologists understand the universe in terms of ‘energy,’ ‘anti-matter,’ ‘wormholes,’ ‘string theory,’ and multiple dimensions, rather than in the blunt mechanistic terms that began with Descartes and continued through Newton up to Einstein and Heisenberg, when the old mechanical models were replaced by more mathematically and imaginatively sophisticated ones. But the truth of the matter is that these meta-mechanical theories are the playthings and darlings of an elite few, not part and parcel of the commonly shared modern mentality. In order to be comprehended, intellectually, such theories require mathematical formulas and complex computations that are by no means broadly accessible or self-evident. But, regardless of how we view and interpret the motions of celestial bodies, the way things work down here in our terrestrial world—the world we wake up to each morning, are gainfully employed in, and call ‘home’—is as machine-like as it has ever been on earth—perhaps even more so.

Our recent ‘mastery’ of large swaths of the natural world has been accompanied, perhaps paradoxically and unexpectedly, by our becoming more distantly removed from that very same natural world, with its very different natural rhythms, seasons, patterns, proportions, and lessons. We have constructed new artificial environments for ourselves—environments that are more conformable to our physical and psychological desires, cravings, and comfort levels. All of these ‘mixed blessings’ have been won at considerable cost, however, to our ‘primitive’ or ‘instinctual’ natures, which were once finely attuned to the natural environments and conditions from which we have been, for the most part, liberated.

The ‘archaic’ and abandoned principle of analogies and correspondences of traditional metaphysics more commonly employed organic, not mechanical, metaphors and models—which makes sense when we pause to consider that more often than not nature herself provided the material for philosophical and mythical speculation—not artificial objects and processes. Roughly speaking, organic metaphors implicate man in nature while mechanical ones place him at some remove from her, just as our mechanical tools and implements (I am thinking of the lever, the plow, the axe, the steam engine, the gun) give us power over her, often remotely—from a safe distance. To gain power over a thing, a set of circumstances, an animal, or a person, radically alters the terms of our relationship with that thing, person, etc. As long as there is a situation of harmonious or balanced co-existence—and not one of mere domination—man may be said to be ‘folded’ or ‘woven’ into his relationships, embedded in his context or environment. Prometheus’ gift of fire (and language, technology, etc.) to man mythically symbolizes the momentous transition undergone by our primitive ancestors—that fateful step in the direction of a power-and-domination stance towards nature, and away from the ‘snugly embedded’ condition that necessarily preceded the emergence of language and technological power.

Only a complete dunderhead (who has no inkling of what material conditions on this planet were like for everyone until just a few hundred years ago) will deny that the power (and destructive impact) that we humans have over nature is a million or a trillion times greater than our ancestors had. Could it be possible that every step forward we have taken in the direction of increased power of this sort has, at the same time, been a collective step away from our former state of implication or embeddedness in the very nature which we have sought to dominate? And if these two are not precisely symmetrical or directly proportional, I don’t think any silver-tongued devil can persuasively argue that the one has kept pace with the other.

What intrigues me most, of course, about this whole complex issue is the connection between power and distance, what we may call ‘remote control.’ I intuitively suspect that under normal circumstances, we are only able to attain power over something from which we have distanced ourselves—to some extent or another. This does not apply simply to our power relations with objects, situations, and other persons—but to aspects of our own natures, as well. I cannot have power over my sexual drives and impulses unless and until some other part of me—the part that ‘wills’ or ‘controls’—has differentiated itself from that drive or impulse. As long as ‘I’ am enslaved to (or psychically embedded in) that drive, it has the upper hand. The same may be said about the feelings of my own heart. Likewise, for the emotions and thoughts of another person I seek to influence or gain power over. In order to manipulate their emotions and thoughts, mustn’t I first attain a kind of distance or detachment from those emotions and thoughts I seek to manipulate?

This might help to explain why some of us are disposed to feel warm affection towards those persons who ‘wear their hearts on their sleeves.’ We instinctively trust their ‘good nature’ simply because we can see that they are completely identified with—or merged with—their emotions, passions, and feelings. There is no ‘distance’—no cool ‘breathing space’—between the person and his/her true feelings. They are naked, exposed. All that we might wish to know is there on display. Their ability to pose a serious threat to us is limited since we can see who and what we’re dealing with and can take any necessary precautions. We can only be manipulated and overpowered by persons who are capable of deceiving us about their true feelings and thoughts. All that free psychic space between their cool egos and the warm thoughts/emotions with which the ‘naïve’ and ‘innocent’ person is completely identified—what is this space if it is not the play room and staging area for all manner of ploys and schemes that serve the interests of the detached, exploitative strategist. Iago is one of the most insidious and effective exemplars of this form of emotionally detached strategizing and manipulation.

But if power can be gained from distance and detachment, what is lost in the bargain?

The express concerns of the founders of modern empirical science were bound up with the mastery of nature and her mysterious processes—with a view to increasing man’s comfort, ease, security, longevity, and dominion. Certainly Bacon and Descartes perceived themselves as genuine benefactors to humanity, and there is no reason to suspect that their intentions were not essentially charitable, even if neither was altogether immune to the love of fame. Perhaps they had no way of anticipating the darker forces that modern technology would unleash upon a species that so eagerly embraced the theoretical and practical science they jointly gave birth to, albeit with substantial contributions from the scientists who came after them. Did they overestimate humanity’s present capacity for wisely and moderately wielding the staggering power that would be unleashed by the new science of nature? If we and our immediate (modern) forebears have been reckless and irresponsible custodians and stewards of the gifts bequeathed by these benefactors, we can scarcely blame them and hold them responsible for the misuse of the power they delivered into our hands. We have sat back and watched as avarice and short-sighted goals have blinded us to the nobler and more just uses to which the world’s resources might have been put. We and our forebears—both the leaders and the led—have been tested and we have failed, if only because things could have been handled so much more ‘humanely’ and fairly. Instead, a slender minority has greedily profited, to obscene lengths, while many live in poverty and in dismal conditions—all of which might have been avoided, or greatly reduced, if our baser instincts had been subordinated to the greater good. It is as if we came into a great inheritance or won the lottery and, instead of distributing this wealth to those most in need, we squandered it all on frivolities for ourselves and our few close friends.

If the power and control over the physical world has become possible—as suggested earlier—by our having detached and distanced ourselves from nature, something analogous appears to have been happening all along with regard to the psyche. In removing ourselves from the natural environment—in learning to see it as mere ‘matter in motion’ or mere resources to be exploited arbitrarily for selfish ends—we have alienated ourselves from the natural world, its creatures, its once mysterious and wonder-inspiring powers. We huddle together in large, densely packed cities. We stay ‘in touch’ with the larger (human) world by means of electronic gadgets, huge and tiny screens. Our knowledge of reality tends either to be vague, fuzzy and pitifully general or absurdly precise and detailed, but also pathetically narrow and limited. This latter form of ‘knowledge’ is usually connected to our job or occupation. The contrast between these two types of ‘knowledge’ is like that between a faint, diffuse, unstable glow and a thin laser beam. Neither form of knowledge would have cut ice in the pre-modern world. The first would be counted as sterile ignorance and the second would merely draw awkward laughter, for it would make no sense at all to the bewildered beholder.

Historical Consciousness (3/13/11)

Jung teaches us that whatever is unconscious is projected. Santayana tells us, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ A related idea: to the extent that we know nothing of human experience in any other terms than those of our immediate socio-cultural environment, we are helplessly and forcibly carried along by this confluence of social and ideological currents. There are islands in the stream upon which we can climb and survey the passing flotsam of present-bound persons who know nothing besides the continual, relentless flow of current events. These ‘islands’ are the comparatively stable and secure mental standpoints provided by genuine historical consciousness and understanding. What makes such historical consciousness comparatively stable and secure is due to the fact that such knowledge is rooted or grounded within the context or gestalt that any historical epoch comprises.

The 18th century German historical thinker, Johann Gottfried Herder, developed the notion of Einfühlen—the idea of ‘feeling oneself into’ another culture or into a previous historical epoch. Of primary value here are the faculties of imagination and of empathy—for it is chiefly through the imaginative translation of ourselves into an alien worldview that we are able to breathe life, color, and a sense of concreteness into the experience. Such an experience moves far beyond reading a brief account of, say, Roman history from a high school textbook or learning about present-day Balinese by reading the Lonely Planet Guide or an anthropological study of Balinese culture. We cannot physically revisit the ancient Romans or Sumerians, as we might visit the Balinese or the Peruvian Indians, where cultures very different from our own are being lived out every day. There are levels of immersion that we can reach through the study of ruins, works of art in museums, Greek and Roman literature, poetry, historical works, and philosophy. We can learn ancient Greek and Latin in order to take our immersion a step further. But unless our imaginations are thoroughly excited and deeply captivated by all this material, we will only scratch the surface of a potentially transformative encounter with ‘the other.’

But it is chiefly through the development of the historical sense and/or an ‘insider’ understanding of several different cultural worldviews that we equip ourselves to perceive and to grasp our time and our own culture with any genuine comprehensiveness and critical understanding. Without these hard-won helps, our job becomes a hundred times more difficult. The most effective way to loosen up the cultural blinders we inherit at birth (along with our genes—so we have nature and nurture both at work here) is to try, imaginatively, to put on other sets of blinders and look at life through them. I have used the metaphor of blinders in place of a specific cultural worldview—such as the one we are exposed to here in this country, and which most of us uncritically internalize long before knowing what has happened. I use the image of blinders because every cultural worldview tends to block out or highly color much more of life and reality than it lets in without bias—but every culture has a different set of filters, blocking out and letting in different aspects of reality. All of them share the common trait, however, of providing a selective framework that interposes itself between the perceiving, culturally-shaped person and the larger reality into which we have all been mysteriously inserted at birth and from which we will presumably be snatched at death. This larger reality includes, but extends beyond, culture—all cultures—in every direction: up, down, in, out, past and to come. The ancient Greeks called this larger and pre-cultural reality physis, or ‘nature.’ But perceiving nature without the distorting, selective ‘lens’ of culture is a tricky—if not altogether impossible—business, as we post-critical, epistemologically savvy moderns have come to realize—late in the day, as it were.

An Apology for Mind (9/14/15)

A recurring point of difference between me and a number of the other members of the Advaita Facebook group I belong to is that while we all cherish peace, I believe that true peace can only come with (or by means of) understanding, and it would seem that some of the members have a profound aversion to the mind, as such, and to philosophical thinking. I no longer experience mind in such hostile or dismissive terms. I would go so far as to say that—far from vilifying or demonizing it—I often experience the mind as a crucial ally in this psycho-spiritual transformation that is underway. This is not to say that I fail to see how the (badly educated, ceaselessly restless, and utterly undisciplined) mind could easily become a formidable obstacle to one’s peace and to the attainment of enlightened understanding. But the categorical dismissal or rejection of the mind by such ‘victims’ of the restless, untamed mind’s ‘mischief’ and disturbing machinations seems both foolish and inadvisable. I am all too thoroughly aware of what it means—and of how horrible it feels—to be the tormented plaything of the undisciplined, reckless mind. And I also know the blissful peace into which we are delivered when the mind is quiescent. But I am not so rash as to declare that the mind should therefore be forcibly suppressed or eschewed on that account. Such insalubrious and risky campaigns are undertaken by unripe souls who have not been sufficiently patient and modest to learn about the mind in order that they may make profitable use of this valuable but delicate instrument. To rashly embark upon such a sacrificium intellectus is as foolhardy (and ultimately as doomed to failure) as self-castration by someone who has not learned how to properly manage and express his erotic drives and impulses. It is like starving and mortifying the flesh because one does not know how to live moderately and sanely in—or with—his body. No, when I hear persons declaring that I think too much and that I should dispense with the mind altogether, I suspect that person has simply not yet learned to manage and moderate his own (pesky) mental equipment.

With Nisargadatta himself—or Ramana Maharshi—we are dealing with a whole different kettle of fish. In their cases—and with Krishnamurti, as well, so far as I can tell—there was genuine liberation from the sort of mental ensnarement we find in the vast majority of their admirers and followers. And this liberation—I would argue, insistently—was certainly not won by pretending that the mind is merely an inconvenient mirage or illusion, but by experientially proving that it was not the end-all and be-all. This can only be accomplished by a kind of showdown or contest with the (magical) power of the mind—a contest that culminates in a kind of truce or terms of mutual cooperation—a non-aggression pact, if you like.

Of course, in order for such a showdown to occur in the first place, something in or about the seeker that is not merely mind must stand apart from mind—so that it can be faced. Unless and until this momentous event occurs, the seeker is unconsciously or helplessly merged with (or subsumed by) mind. This condition of identification or merger with the mind may, by turns, be pleasant or unpleasant, beneficial or deleterious in its practical consequences, exhilarating or exasperating—but to be merged or identified with mind is not at all the same thing as having a relationship with mind. Identification refers to ONE confused thing or state. Relationship, on the other hand, implies TWO differentiated things or standpoints. Those who recommend the extinction or rejection of mind before first differentiating themselves from the mental vehicle simply cannot KNOW what they are talking about. More pointedly, they have not yet earned the right (as Nisargadatta and Ramana Maharshi did) to recommend putting the mind aside, since they don’t know the first thing about how that actually happens. The caterpillar, stilled lodged in the cocoon, cannot FLY outside the cocoon until functional wings have been formed through metamorphosis. Those seekers after liberation who fail to recognize and rightly employ the transformative powers of the disciplined mind remain wingless spiritual caterpillars.

As I am beginning to see it, Advaita—the non-dual condition of oneness—can only be attained by first differentiating and consciously sorting out that which we first encounter as undifferentiated ‘prima materia’—the raw psyche, as it were. I see many Western devotees to Eastern doctrines speaking and acting as if this protracted, laborsome process of subtle differentiation can simply be leapt or skipped over on their merry, blissful, loving way to Advaita! And of course it makes sense that the mischievous mind is continually mocking and jeering at such preposterous ambitions precisely because its crucial role, or function (as persnickety distinction-drawer and subtle differentiator), is studiously ignored by the over-eager ‘leaper-over.’ It is largely because of these generally neglected (and often haughtily dismissed) matters of mind—and of the critical role the mind can and should play in our inner clarification—that I find 99% of what comes out of the mouths and flowing pens of American and European ‘New Agers’ to be a mixture of poppycock, froth, and blather! There is no such thing as cheaply-won, enduring peace.

If some toes have been stepped on here, there is nevertheless a silver lining here if you look carefully: After toes have been mercilessly stepped on by life (and chiding philosophers)—for years—they gradually begin to flatten into something like webbed feet which, as it happens, are far more useful than standard-issue feet when it comes to subsurface swimming through the mercurial realm of the psyche. Eventually we must leave behind the solid, unyielding dogmas of our spiritual childhood, upon which our old feet and our unmolested toes were wont to amble and gambol, and plunge into the molten realm where boundaries become less visible, more subtle and ambiguous—and where fins, gills, and webbed limbs are better put to use.

Innocence (1/8/16)

The impulse or compulsive desire to defile and shatter innocence—such as we glimpse in Angelo’s behavior towards Isabella in Measure for Measure or Hamlet’s behavior towards Ophelia: where on earth does this come from? There are all kinds of innocence: sexual, moral, cultural, technological, political, psychological, spiritual, philosophical—to name some of the more conspicuous varieties. To what extent is innocence synonymous with ignorance? With unripeness or immaturity? With deludedness and unconsciousness?

If innocence does indeed share a lot of DNA with these acknowledged defects, lacks, weaknesses, and shortcomings, then why do so many of us warm up to it when we encounter it—say, in children, in a lover, in pleasant simpletons, and in pets? Aside from the ‘cuteness’ factor in innocence, isn’t there something inherently disarming about it for most of us? May it be claimed that innocence suggests a form of harmlessness—of vulnerability, even—qualities that, in most decent human beings, elicit warm feelings of affection, compassion, and even protectiveness?

I suspect that this disarming and heartwarming quality of innocence is present only when the innocent one happens also to be modest and incapable of posing any real threat to us. But when we reflect upon the close connection between innocence and ignorance we remember that not all innocent persons—including, of course, young persons—are modest and incapable of doing harm, either to themselves or others.

It is precisely this strong (if not always apparent) link with ignorance and inexperience, is it not, that makes innocence such an ambiguous or problematic attribute? We can see that ignorance and immaturity are not normally associated with modesty, let alone circumspection. ‘Spirited’ or turbo-charged innocence—say, of the idealistic political zealot or the spuming religious fanatic—is rarely ‘cute,’ ‘disarming,’ or pleasantly endearing. But perhaps it will be objected that I have strained and stretched the concept of innocence to such an extent that I have deformed it into some entirely debased or bastardized version of itself. Or have I?

Could it be true that innocence, like the beauty of a nubile maid, has an all too brief ‘shelf life’—and after its expiration date has passed, it swiftly declines into less and ever less pleasing forms? Why is it so often the case that ‘cute’ or endearing displays of innocence—after they’ve been repeatedly, or rather, cloyingly served up to us—become as annoying and tiresome as, before, they were appealing and captivating when we have had our fill of them? Perhaps it’s the case—for mature souls—that innocence is optimally appreciated in economical, and by no means prodigious, doses. And when the mature soul gets a more walloping dose than he or she can politely stomach, what usually happens? Doesn’t the slightly caustic quip—Grow the fuck up, you pesky little whippersnapper!—creep temptingly to the tongue? Possibly, but the mature soul remembers its own (perhaps abrupt or hurried) passage through and beyond such cutesy innocence, and so remains patiently silent.

What, then, excites the cruelty of Hamlet towards the innocent-obedient Ophelia—or the sadistic advances of Angelo towards the ‘pure’ and righteous Isabella? Could it be an eruption of hatred and disgust with ignorant innocence itself—an eruption occasioned by their own battered and shattered innocence? No doubt, Hamlet’s superior intelligence, nobility, honesty, and imagination provide us with much more to work with, here, than Angelo does, who is a mental-moral pygmy when set beside Hamlet (even if both of them show disquieting signs of misogyny). With Hamlet, the ‘occasions’ or detonators for the traumatic dis-illusionment he suffers are plainly evident. The murder of his father by his treacherous, lecherous ‘adulterate beast’ of an uncle, who has seduced Gertrude, his mother, is the most conspicuous blow he receives, but his crushing disappointment with Ophelia—precisely because of her innocence and lack of spiritual-psychological independence—deserves every bit as much critical attention here. There are other—lesser—disappointments, as with his false-hearted ‘friends,’ Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who deceive and betray him at the behest of cunning Claudius. In the psychological avalanche triggered by these domestic and conjugal-romantic upsets, Hamlet is, in effect, catapulted into a full-blown spiritual-existential crisis of monumental (one might even say archetypal) proportions, insofar as it is proleptic and emblematic—anticipating similar existential crises to come. And in order for this extraordinary work of dramatic-psychological genius to have been produced, Shakespeare, the poet-dramatist, must have suffered an analogous crisis—which is perhaps peerlessly depicted in this groundbreaking text.

I bring Hamlet into this essay on the problematic character of innocence because this play—perhaps as profoundly as any rivaling work of literature—is implicitly and explicitly preoccupied with the problem of lost innocence.[1] When this unmasking of the truth about ourselves and about our actual existential predicament is unveiled in this initiatory crisis of awakening, the ‘victim’ simultaneously perceives the thick web of lies and deceits in which virtually everyone he knows—or is likely to know—is snugly and (usually) unconsciously ensnared. Something of this order of magnitude ‘happens’ to Hamlet—and after he digests it, by Act V, he is a changed man. Instead of hysterically and antically ‘acting out’ his disordered, chaotic passions (as he does while in the throes of his ordeal before going to England), he displays a surprising degree of poise and mature understanding of his own (and perhaps our) existential situation.[2]

Clearly, I am no stranger to these ambivalent feelings about innocence—nor to those ‘traumatic,’ destiny-forging disappointments and dis-coveries that expose the dark underbelly of childlike, unconscious innocence. Does this make me hate innocence so intensely that I wish to attack and destroy it wherever I see it? No. Or rather, not anymore. When those ‘betrayals’ and ‘exposés,’ those terrible revelations and stark unmaskings, occurred—starting in my early teens—before I had learned what I would need to learn before, like an anaconda, I could both swallow and digest these massive, squirming and kicking ‘life lessons’ that were bigger than I was—I often felt as ‘mad’ as Hamlet—as bitterly outraged and impatient with puffed-up simpletons, craven cowards, and shallow hypocrites as the ‘melancholy Dane’ was. Perhaps I am now entering my own ‘fifth act’—learning to let the natural course of life go where it will, without rebuke or interference from me. Does this mean that I am ‘going slack’ inside? Au contraire.

[1] In a similarly profound, but more mythical, manner, Oedipus the King was also concerned with this loss of innocence/ignorance—which is essentially the process of coming to honest and ‘dis-illusioned’ consciousness of oneself.

[2] Something analogous happens to—or inside—Lear after his ‘storm’ scene on the heath.

Ideology and Anti-nature (9/12/16)

If the ideological scheme – or prevailing worldview – into which we were born, indoctrinated, and gradually conscripted is radically out of alignment with the more deeply rooted structural features of the ancestral unconscious from which our psyches were born, then one thing is certain: adaptation to and conformity with these less than natural, craftily engineered ideological imperatives runs afoul of our inherited natures and courts individual and collective catastrophe. Only an equally determined and relentless insurrection against this booby-trapped indoctrination affords some of us a slender chance of forging a thick life, as opposed to the mythically anemic and psychologically threadbare existence we see among “the sleepwalkers.” But for such self-liberation to get off the ground – or off the “drawing board” – we must first earn a clearer understanding of that against which our life is in revolt.

What this understanding consists in – and how it is arrived at – are perhaps my chief concerns as I near the tender age of sixty. To be plain: I have not been lazy or fainthearted all these years; rather, I have devoted my best energies to serious study, reflection, discussion, and “journaling” (as a vital and necessary aid to digestion). I have never been a namby-pamby greenhorn in whose heart the fire of rebellion waits to be kindled, for the process of uprooting and peeling away my own malignant, crippling ideological indoctrination (on a variety of fronts: religious; philosophical; political-national; moral; cultural; etc.) has long been underway. It has advanced side-by-side with the deepening and the subtilization of my understanding – both of the psyche and the forms (of thought, feeling, belief, valuation, etc.) – that makes a measure of such self-liberation possible.

A life that would be free must first come to frank and no-nonsense terms with the mental manacles by which it is bound. Since – like the prisoners in Plato’s allegory of the cave – most of us are not only content with, and possibly even proud of, our state of imprisonment, but oblivious to it – we mistake slavery for freedom, or at least for the acceptable norm. What is it inside some of us that instinctively “smells a rat” in all such norms, regardless of which “culture cave” these norms preside over? Isn’t it the nearly universal acceptance or endorsement of these general norms that arouses our suspicion and mistrust?

What, more specifically, provokes this ineradicable uneasiness and caution where such norms and collective assumptions are concerned? Aware of their anchoring and compelling power over the multitude, I soberly acknowledge the order-imposing power and the steadying influence of these blunt, categorical “rules of thumb” upon the skittish herd. We, too, like less philosophically-minded elites, typically prefer stable socio-political conditions (at least in our own backyard). It is probably safe to say that if cynical oligarchical elites did not promulgate some “noble lie” or pious fraud, around which the people, now as ever, could huddle – as around a magnetic field – the people would clamor for such an order-imposing and stabilizing fabrication. The people will always need and greatly prefer empty generalities to dense, subtle, and dangerously substantial truths – which cause them to fret and scatter – and what are these empty, puffed up generalities if they are not the same noble lies I just referred to?

The chief difference between the philosopher and the cynic is that the former sort cherishes social harmony and stability so that he may be left in peace and quiet to ply his unpopular passion (hoping that his influence upon thinking men and women will promote the common good), while the cynical profiteer sees in the same conditions the most favorable opportunities for fleecing the sheep. Lao-tzu and Plato, both from the first lot, had the temerity to counsel those from the second bunch – but Lao-tzu only as he departed, once and for all, from the palace gates. Plato chose instead, to employ a form of esoteric writing that both hinted at and concealed the radical political conservatism (or muted pessimism?) he actually espoused.

Earning (2/2/16)

When a person has devoted a good deal of care and effort to the cultivation of his/her thinking or feeling function and that function has been brought to a high level of excellence, such excellence cannot justly be criticized or dismissed by someone who has done little or no work upon his own psychological functions. Many persons who are inspired to cultivate their intellects or their feelings do NOT do so chiefly in order to gain the applause of their peers and the admiration of their less ‘cultivated’ brethren and sistren, but this does not mean that they are undeserving of somewhat greater respect than someone who starts off with the same amount of ‘investment capital,’ so to speak and—instead of putting it to fruitful use, squanders it on frivolous pleasures and trifling entertainments until he has bankrupted himself.

Do we not come perilously close, here, to suggesting that there are implicit standards of attainment in the operation and deployment of thinking and feeling—standards that might be invoked as criterial grounds for some kind of hierarchy or meritocracy? Should it come as a surprise that such speculations often meet with popular hostility in a democratic regime that is continually ‘lowering the bar’ and ‘leveling the playing field’ (intellectually, educationally, politically, ethically, spiritually, etc.) in order to flatter itself and to avoid seeing this ‘mediocracy’ for what it truly is? Such exacting standards constitute a direct affront to the ‘mass man’—an unflattering, unforgiving mirror in which all that is there and, perhaps more importantly, all that is not there stands nakedly exposed. We can certainly be forgiven (that is, by ourselves, which is what matters above all) for not doing or becoming more than we are capable of doing or becoming. Miracles and prodigies are not to be expected. But a feeling of profound regret is a perfectly natural response, I would argue, for those persons who are honest and courageous enough to acknowledge how much spiritual, moral, creative, and intellectual potential they have allowed to ‘fust in them, unused’—in choosing to ‘go with the flow’ (of a muddy and often stinky river) instead of strenuously swimming ‘against the current’ towards the clearer, livelier source-waters, upstream from the sluggish, swampish delta.

Moreover, when we reflect upon earning, it can take on a different character, depending on whether what we are earning is intended chiefly for the personal profit of the separate self or for the more enlightened purpose of loosening the hold that such self-interest has upon our soul. Shakespeare wrote plays that were, for the most part, popularly successful at the Globe Theatre, of which he was part-owner. His professional and financial success as a playwright and business owner allowed him to retire comfortably to Stratford after his long and distinguished career. Would anyone be so churlish, myopic, and reductive to suggest that it was only—or even mostly—for these personal/material motivations that Shakespeare wrote plays like Hamlet and King Lear? While there is no need to categorically deny any or all self-interested elements found within the complex concatenation of motivations at work within even the most ‘selfless’ saints and philanthropists, we can readily see the relative prominence or insignificance such self-interested motives play in a person’s psychic economy by carefully observing their actions, words, reactions, etc.

Nowadays, I resist the temptation to judge selfishness primarily as a symptom of a morally debased or vicious soul. Instead, I find it makes wiser sense to regard selfishness as an almost necessary, if preliminary and comparatively immature, stage of moral-psychological development or unfoldment. It is simply something that is to be experienced, properly appreciated, and gradually outgrown—even if vestiges of that selfishness, that flare up from time to time, will always remain part of us. My suspicion is that self-interestedness can neither be completely eradicated nor leapt over, but must be accepted and ‘come to terms with’—rather as we come to terms with the fact that we have BODIES that make pressing demands upon us and which eventually decompose and die.

Socrates, early on, recognized the crucial difference between arguing simply for the sake of winning and analytical inquiry aimed at deepening the understanding of all persons involved—where everyone, potentially at least, comes out a winner. The first—self-serving and extremely limited—technique was called eristics (from ‘Eris,’ the goddess of strife), while the second was called dialectics.

With this idea in mind—the diametrical contrast between strife-sowing, competitive eristics and therapeutic, soul-making dialectics—we have a fresh angle from which to approach the often hidden connections between thinking and feeling. Socrates aptly described himself as a ‘midwife’ of ideas. What he meant, it seems, is that in his carefully directed question-and-answer dialogues with his listeners, he was able to ‘bring to birth’ thoughts and formulated beliefs/opinions (doxa) that had erstwhile existed only as ‘fetal’ or ‘embryonic’ possibilities lurking in the unlit, unexamined psyches of those he questioned. Sometimes the ‘offspring’ born from such ‘obstetrics’ would be healthy and noble (as with Glaucon), while some would be ugly, deformed, or undernourished (Callicles, Meno). But one thing is fairly certain: unless and until these hidden, inner possibilities are lured out of seclusion in the ‘background’ of the psyche, there is little or no chance of applying therapeia to them. So long as these contents remain latent or unformulated—they continue to have an enormous, if unrecognized and ‘mysterious,’ influence upon us, but we can do little or nothing to challenge or override that influence. Now, when these mysterious influences (or ‘invisible angels’) are benign, many persons are content not to ‘look a gift horse in the mouth,’ so to speak—but will simply ‘get out of the way’ and let these inner guides ‘do their thing.’ But when they are more like imps, mischief-makers, satyrs, and devils, a very different situation often obtains. Then, the ‘victim’ of his troublesome inner figures is given every incentive to turn within and face the (menacing) music to which he is otherwise condemned to dance out the rest of his days.