A Shaky Marriage (3/24/18)

From time to time I remember that the affairs and activities that we, as ordinary human beings, habitually and/or compulsively attend to constitute the principal blinders that prevent us from seeing those telltale symptoms which, if noticed and properly interpreted, would place us in a better position to glimpse “the big picture” in which we, along with everyone we know and don’t know, are embedded. In other words, virtually all we do almost every waking minute of every busy or dragging day is devote our attention to weak or potent distractions from the larger, encompassing reality. In the end, it makes only a negligible difference whether these distractions are generally pleasant or unpleasant, since what matters most is that they succeed diverting our attention away from the big picture. Why is this inclination – this compulsive drive – towards diversion so ferociously strong in human beings? Could it be the case that those rare, fleeting glimpses of the “big picture” that are granted to us – when our guard is down and we are mysteriously visited by such numinous visions – are so profoundly baffling and overwhelming that we cannot help but feel crushed or pulverized by them, even as we recognize the sublimity and majesty of such staggering peeks behind the thick, muffling layers of ignorance in which we are deeply enfolded?

It is precisely here – at the frontier where nature confronts mythos – where culture emerges. Culture’s fundamental function as a buffer or shield against raw reality can clearly be seen at this perilous frontier. Paradoxically, it is to the gradual evolution and refinement of culture (which is dependent on our capacity for language and conceptual thought) that we owe our ability to reflect – and it is this ability to reflect deeply upon our existential predicament vis-à-vis nature, or reality, that allows us to catch a fleeting-staggering glimpse of the big picture, from time to time. If culture is normally, or more or less exclusively, enlisted in the service of distracting us from the starkly sublime reality just beyond the secure horizons of our myths, religious beliefs, and ideological fantasies, philosophical inquiry is perhaps the sole activity enabled by culture that deliberately seeks to break the spells of distraction that impede our mental access to reality, just across the border. In this way, philosophy may be said to constitute a kind of (shaky, problematic) marriage between culture and nature.

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Attachment, Nietzsche, Spirit, Soul, and Ego (8/30/12)

The deeper and more tenacious our attachments to material, sensual, emotional, and ideological forms/experiences, the harder it will be, naturally, to surrender to the ‘evolutionary’ impulse of spirit, for this powerful impulse points in the opposite direction from those attachments. The attachments act like durable cords binding us to all manner of phenomena and experiences in the ‘three worlds’ (physical, emotional, intellectual), and the spirit points away from these familiar harbors. As incarnate human beings, we are perhaps naturally disposed to equate these attachments (and the kind of experience that these attachments immerse us in) with life itself. Consequently, surrendering to the spirit is almost inevitably experienced as a virtual death of the personality—the ego-personality that we have long assumed to be our authentic and substantial self or true identity. Surrender to the spirit ultimately reveals this assumption to be only a half-truth. It is only half-true because there appears to be a deeper, subtler root of selfhood that is not synonymous with egoity, or the sense of separate ‘I-consciousness.’ From the standpoint of the immaterial, spiritual self, the ego (and even the body, which in some respects is correlative with ego-consciousness) functions almost as a kind of ‘mask’—a kind of projected identity or actor on the stage of temporal and phenomenal affairs. From the standpoint of the silent, meditating spirit that disinterestedly beholds this long-running stage play (that we are cast in as long as we function as ‘normal’ human beings), the phenomenal world is little more than a ‘coagulated dream.’ It is a kind of movie or epic story that can sometimes be thoroughly captivating and absorbing, while at others times it appears to be futile, a kind of sham or trick, an ‘eternal recurrence of the same,’ as Nietzsche put it.

It is perhaps also worth noting that Nietzsche seems to have consistently believed that the spiritual dimension was itself merely an illusion or a lie fabricated by priests to manage and ‘pastor’ the ignorant and the resentful, and that there was no real possibility of transcending the phenomenal realm—the ‘realm of appearances’—except via death, which is not so much transcendence as extermination. Perhaps as a consequence of a profound religious crisis suffered as a young man, Nietzsche seems to have consciously and irreversibly rejected the idea of the spirit as a transcendent—but nevertheless real and truly experienceable—dimension.[1] Perhaps, as he came to see all things and all processes ultimately in terms of power, he gradually closed himself off from the possibility of making fundamental sense of experience in any other terms. This is most unfortunate when it comes to making some kind of sense of spirit, since the surrender to the spirit-impulse within us is, at the same time, a kind of relinquishment of all power claims within the stage play of phenomenal, ordinary human experience, as mystics and saints from all traditions have attested. Since power remained paramount for Nietzsche—both as a force or energy to be sought for its own sake and as a kind of heuristic or explanatory principle for making ultimate sense of everything—his philosophical legacy is a rhetorically brilliant, but one-sided assault upon the spirit, which, again, he regarded as no more than a hollow ideal, a delusion clung to by powerless (and/or manipulative) people.[2] Nietzsche’s philosophy is perhaps the most eloquent presentation of materialistic metaphysical assumptions—a worldview that reached its cultural zenith in the 19th Century. Former materialists from both the ancient and modern eras (Democritus, Leucippus, Epicurus, Lucretius, Hobbes, Bacon, Gassendi, d’Holbach, Marx, etc.) strike us as crude and fumbling ‘innocents’ compared to Nietzsche, who deliberately and almost ‘religiously’ struggled to close off every possible ‘escape route’ into the ‘nothingness’ of the sham spirit world.

A close and thorough study of Nietzsche’s spellbinding writings reveals that his is, by far, the most seductive and persuasive voice ever to speak out on behalf of the involutionary arc—the thrust into concrete, flesh-and-blood existence and into the agon of contending, embattled human egos.[3] The Iliad is probably his favorite depiction of the ‘noble’ game as it should be played—but I am now fairly certain that Nietzsche missed the whole point that Homer was trying to get across in that timeless story. Perhaps the closest likeness to Nietzsche that we find in Homer is to be found in book eleven of the Odyssey, when Odysseus visits the underworld and hears the words of Achilles’ shade:

Let me hear no smooth talk of death from you, Odysseus, light of councils. Better, I say, to break the sod as farm hand for some poor country man, on iron rations, than to lord it over all the exhausted dead.

No wonder Nietzsche constructed strong and elaborate defenses against the spirit. It seems likely that he suffered an actual encounter with it and it had the dual effect of inflating him and scaring the hell out of him—as seems to have been the case with a number of ‘inspired’ men and women, including none other than Carl Jung, who appears to have been slightly better prepared to navigate through the paralyzing and mentally destabilizing paradoxes that appear to accompany numinous experiences. As it turns out, these torturous paradoxes, which are often experienced as menacing and threatening factors when the initial ‘infection’ occurs, eventually metamorphose into antibodies or a kind of psychic auto-immune system that can protect us against…against what? Against ‘personal ego’ obliteration. Against insanity. Against crippling nihilism. The paradoxes, under favorable internal conditions, become the very seeds out of which soul, the ‘third’ factor, is born. Soul, of course, is the middle principle between spirit and concrete, literal consciousness (ego-consciousness). Its distinctive features are the image, the symbol, and the metaphor. As a kind of psychic platform or perspective situated between spirit and ego (or literal consciousness), it is a kind of hybrid that partakes of both spirit and matter. Hence the paradoxicality that is fundamental to soul and to ‘anima consciousness.’ It is an ‘as-if’ mode of consciousness, experience, and manner of interpreting events—a mode well known, of course, to authentic poets to mystics, alchemists, visionaries, and (more recently) to genuine archetypal psychologists. I will employ an ‘as-if’ formulation in an effort to illustrate Nietzsche’s little-reported horror of the spirit—a horror that seems to have compelled him to take an uncharacteristically dogmatic, defensive stand for ego (will to power) and for (a subtle but inevitably reductive form of) materialism as an ultimate explanatory principle.

We might say that the impact of unadulterated spirit upon the typical human ego is analogous to the encounter between a particle of matter and a particle of anti-matter, or between a positively charged ion and a negatively charged one. In the encounter between matter and anti-matter, both are obliterated—at least, according to current theory. A kind of neutralization occurs—and in the case of the ego, this experience is horrifyingly deflationary, from one angle, while from another, it is liberating, releasing, and indescribably pleasant.[4]

What seems to make the crucial difference between a salutary and a lamentable outcome in this encounter is which ‘factor’ the experiencer is most allied with, consciously. If he is identified chiefly with the ego the experience will more likely be crushing and annihilating (because the spirit exposes the utter puniness and frightening fragility of the ego and all that it is attached to), and if he identifies wholly with the spirit, he will almost certainly suffer a dangerous inflation. Neither of these outcomes is desirable or psychologically healthy. If, on the other hand, there is some soul development, there is a good chance that the disturbing and ‘animating’ experience can be assimilated imaginatively or metaphorically, and not merely literally or pneumatically.

[1] An account by Ida Overbeck, the wife of Nietzsche’s close friend, Franz Overbeck, is helpful here. He was on the most intimate terms with both husband and wife and was often a guest in their home: “I had told Nietzsche earlier that the Christian religion could not give me solace and fulfillment and that I had in me the thought and feeling of carrying in everything the fate of all mankind. I dared to say it: the idea of God contained too little reality for me. Deeply moved, he answered: ‘You are saying this only to come to my aid; never give up this idea! You have it unconsciously; for as I know you and find you, including now, one great thought dominates your life. This great thought is the idea of God.’ He swallowed painfully. His features were completely contorted with emotion, until they then took on a stony calm. ‘I have given him up, I want to make something new, I will not and must not go back. I will perish from my passions, they will cast me back and forth; I am constantly falling apart, but I do not care.’ These are his own words from the fall of 1882!” (Conversations with Nietzsche; Sander Gilman, editor, p. 145)

[2] Nietzsche employs the word ‘spirit’ frequently, but with this term he seems to be referring to spiritedness, what the Greeks call ‘thumos.’

[3] However, it cannot, in all fairness, be said that he lived as he wrote, since—plagued with chronic health problems—he was forced to live the life of a virtual ascetic, moving solitarily from one boarding house to another in northern Italy and southern France, after retiring (for health reasons) at the age of 35 from his professorship at the University of Basel. Lonely, sickly, unmarried, and surviving on a modest pension, Nietzsche’s life was lived, especially throughout his last years before his mental collapse at the age of forty-five, in his head.

[4] Not to be flippant, but merely for the sake of illustration: the comparison with an organism seems apt here. The ‘neutralization’ corresponds with the climactic discharge of pent-up sexual force, which is accompanied by a burst of pleasure and a feeling of great contentment. Horror and/or delight may come a short time afterwards when it is learned that pregnancy resulted from the deed and henceforth one’s life will no longer be one’s own! Something roughly analogous occurs when we are impregnated by the (holy) spirit. But then, Nietzsche and Freud would have insisted that Joseph was the real father (in one famous case of questionable insemination).

Ignorance and Arrogance (8/13/14)

Haven’t we all noticed a strong correlation between ignorance and excessive (or unearned) confidence, presumptuousness and self-assurance, in a person’s supposed wisdom about life?  To be perfectly clear, I am not talking here about technical knowledge. As far as toaster ovens or Louisiana divorce laws are concerned, a moderately clever person can know pretty much all one needs to know about such subjects. I’m talking about general wisdom—say, about how geopolitics and the global economy work, or even murkier arenas, such as the mysteries of human nature and human spirituality. I suppose at my age I shouldn’t be, but I continue to be shocked and surprised by the presumptuousness and the arrogance of semi-educated, persons who have little experience outside their narrow cultural horizons. I hasten to add that any skill I have in recognizing the more carefully disguised forms of this practically ubiquitous presumptuousness I owe to years of unpleasant ‘recognitions’ and revelations of my own arrogant presumptuousness!

I live in Houston. With all the cars and the nearby oil refineries, the air quality here is about as bad as it gets in the U.S. The air pollution in Beijing and Jakarta may be worse, but the point I want to make is that when you grow up in a city that has serious air pollution you just take it for granted. It’s normal. You don’t notice it until you go away to the Andes in Patagonia or to a remote Pacific island where there are no cars or refineries—and then you come back home to polluted Houston. A similar situation applies to arrogance and ignorance. When you, yourself, are quite arrogant and ignorant, and the vast majority of your fellow citizens are ignorant and arrogant, too—arrogance and ignorance are normal. And unless we are confronted with particularly egregious and conspicuous examples of ignorance—say, with George W. Bush or Sarah Palin—or outrageous examples of arrogance—say, with Dick Cheney or Donald Trump—we simply go about our business as if nothing were amiss.

But be forewarned. There is comfort in numbers and, no matter how tough we happen to be, being alone—being left alone—tends to be uncomfortable. As long as we are all arrogant and ignorant together, things are quite tolerable, even if this collective arrogance and ignorance is actually hastening our collective demise. On the other hand, as soon as we begin to acknowledge our own arrogance and ignorance we place our happiness and well-being at grave risk, even though this is the honorable and correct thing to do.