The Weight of History (4/24/13)

Perhaps more than any nation that has emerged on this planet, America has gone to greater lengths to sever its connection(s) with the past—with tradition and with memory. This diminished awareness of historical influences and factors—factors that exercise a conspicuous determining power over other nations (that are more thoroughly rooted in the traditions and values carried over from the past) has endowed many native-born Americans with special advantages, to be sure, but it seems also to have exacted a high price, culturally. It seems that our collective exemption from many of the historical and traditional fetters that other nations of the world take for granted has subtly contributed to our collective barbarization, our world-renowned and ridiculed ignorance (about the world beyond our walled borders) and our cultural philistinism and uncouthness. Of course, many Americans cannot (or will not) see this barbarity and this deplorable shallowness for what they are—largely because they lack the knowledge and experience required to make these very serious defects and educational shortcomings objectively evident to themselves. Few Americans, relatively speaking, ever venture out of the protective, insulating bubble of ignorance, half-truths, and self-perpetuating delusions that are continually being recycled by our shallow, intellectually insulting mass media and our culturally bankrupt educational institutions. Traveling extensively outside of the United States—and really getting to know and to trust foreigners who come from very different backgrounds than ours—so that we can learn from them just how different we are as Americans: this sort of educational traveling is comparatively rare among us. We are, as Mark Twain said, ‘Innocents Abroad.’

The dearth of meaningful historical-cultural rootedness in the United States has led to a collective condition wherein there is very little ballast in our ‘ship.’ Either as a consequence or as a cause (or both simultaneously), we tend to be absorbed in thoughts about our future (what we aim to do, what we want to happen, etc.) or in what amounts to a context-less present. Because the past, for us, is often little more than our picayune personal past, our historical context tends to have exclusively personal (or familial) horizons. Certainly this must hamper the sense of continuity and connectedness to the larger, more inclusive past, which remains largely unknown to most of us. And even when our educations expose us to this larger cultural-social-political past, the result is often pretty threadbare and unimpressive, when it is not deliberately distorted for present propagandistic purposes. We are usually presented with a slew of names, dates, and other bits of discrete information that are not at all meaningfully situated within a complex gestalt or context that we imaginatively and intuitively grasp.

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I cannot fail to notice a superficial parallel between America’s (more or less foundational and constitutional) suspicion/aversion towards the traditional past, on the one hand, and, on the other, Ramana Maharshi’s implicit repudiation of history (as part of the not-self). All of this suggests another link (explored by James Hillman) between ‘spirit,’ the puer archetype, and the transcendence of time. From the standpoint of these constellated, linked perspectives, history is implicitly regarded as a kind of weight (or a noose) around the neck of the spirit that would be free, detached from all limited and confining forms. When I invoked the word ‘ballast,’ earlier, this same weight was viewed in a favorable, salutary light. Rather than constituting simply an impediment or obstacle to our freedom, this ballast was understood to contribute to our freedom—serving as a check against the ship’s utter helplessness against the force of shifting winds and ocean currents. Without this weight there is no inertial power to resist these potent environmental forces and factors. And without some way of resisting or counteracting these forces, it becomes difficult to speak meaningfully of freedom. To be unhindered merely so that one can be blown around by whatever trend, fashion, gust (or passion) stirs up: this is scarcely a worthwhile goal to aim for, no?

Therefore, if history—in the form of stabilizing traditions and anchoring customs—helps us to ‘stay on course’ with our lives by adding heft and weight to our personalities as a protection against flightiness or fatuousness, then perhaps we should be very careful before dismissing or neglecting it. We do not resolve problems or liberate ourselves from difficulties simply by denying that they are real or that they exist. We resolve them only by encountering them and reckoning with them, right? Have I been convinced, after studying and chewing on Ramana Maharshi’s writings all these years, that he successfully and satisfactorily resolved all the principal problems facing man, as such—or does he not appear simply to have cut the Gordian knot instead of deftly untying it, as it was presumably meant to be dealt with? I am of two minds about Ramana Maharshi on this issue. Usually I find him to be the most radical and demanding ‘teacher’ I have ever encountered—and that his writings set the bar higher than anything else I have ever come across. But every once in awhile I become a bit suspicious—that Ramana Maharshi and the other great yogis and mystics have simply retreated from the battle that being a finite and incarnate human necessarily and inescapably entails.[1] When viewed from this more skeptical perspective, the mystics and sages no longer command my highest respect and admiration, for they seem to have attained their coveted liberation by turning defiantly away from this inescapable, necessary battle rather than truly coming to terms with it. It seems to me that genuinely coming to terms with these persistent, relentless realities (that come with having a body, with having problematic relationships with other persons who demand, in some way or another, be dealt with, etc.) means acknowledging not only their real existence, but their right to real existence. To do this would not necessarily require one to jettison altogether the teachings of the mystics and the ‘detached’ sages, but it would certainly challenge their claims to absolute or comprehensive validity.

For Ramana Maharshi, since the body and the world are regarded as projections from the mind (or that the screen, the movie, the light, the film, and the projector are, all together, the One Eternal Self), there is no real split, and therefore no real problem to be solved. But for anyone who implicitly believes in the independent reality of matter (and the body)—and that may very well be the great majority of human beings, now as ever, since ‘commonsense’ thoroughly supports it—Ramana Maharshi’s position, while intriguing, is nonetheless untenable. Too much compelling evidence stands stubbornly and defiantly in the way of our adopting so outrageous a position. Of course, in those relatively rare moments when I am actually able to see ‘reality’ after the fashion of my radical, subversive teacher, Ramana Maharshi, I remember all over again just how singularly correct his assessment is. But—to hold onto that perspective—genuinely and not merely as an ‘intellectual position’: that is the challenge.

[1] Of course, they would argue that it is precisely this finitude of the not-self—or personal ego—that has been ‘seen through’ and transcended—making all such pursuits illusory.

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