The Art of Individuation (2/15/11)

The discipline of the individuation process must be taken up day after day because, like athletic practice or musical performance, it is an activity and an art. Passivity only makes us rusty (or fuzzy) individuals, guitarists, and pole-vaulters. A path is formed by walking on it, as the Taoist says, but just as surely that path ends when we stop moving.[1] And when we stop and take up a new path in a new direction the former one soon becomes carpeted with weeds and wild grass. Our individuality becomes liberated by blazing and following our own path, but at the same time our lives are bound in dutiful service to the path that we have opened. Who else is going to tend to it—or should, for that matter? The manifestation and the experience of our inimitable, unique self is consubstantial with our path.   Because our path reflects and ‘dialogues with’ the surrounding world, it becomes our world only as we bring as much of the outside into us as we can assimilate and ‘digest.’

Shakespeare brings the wit and joviality of humanity into himself and then gives birth to Falstaff. He brings grace and modesty into himself and he gives us Desdemona and Cordelia. He takes in sententiousness and hollow prolixity and gives us Polonius and Paroles. He divines uncompromising existential probity and transforms it in the crucible of his imagination into Hamlet. He ingests evil and metabolizes it into Iago and Edmund. I take the works of Shakespeare into myself and see through their artful and entertaining surface into the process of imaginative transfiguration of ‘world’ into ‘soul stuff.’ It is amusing to hear his biographers tell us, over and over again, that we know next to nothing about the actual man, William Shakespeare, since there are so few recorded facts about his life. This is the mark of the literalist. He simply cannot see what is right in front of him because he is looking for something entirely different, and much less important, than that something which is right in front of him—the meaning-making process (and product) of the supreme poet, or maker. They search wildly through dark pantries and cupboards for the flour, salt, sugar, and eggs instead of beholding and enjoying the cake that has been assembled from these ingredients and baked to perfection by the poet. They will learn much more about cooking on their own by attending to the cake than by searching out the ingredients blended and baked by the genius. Ingredients are always easier to come by than is the art that instinctively knows how to make the highest use of them.

In the careful examination of our own or another person’s life it is perhaps far less fruitful and illuminating to focus upon the biographical ingredients—or raw materials—than it is to concentrate upon the artful use to which these (often commonly-occurring and widely available) ingredients have been put in the making of that life by the person we are studying—or by that person’s genius, his or her daimon, muse, or tutelary spirit. We do better to concentrate our attention on the growth and development of the subject’s distinctive, guiding vision and his understanding of the whole (and of his place in that whole), rather than upon the mundane details of his early upbringing, his teachers and his friendships, and other matters of personal concern. No one will deny that such personal factors and formative conditions play a shaping role in the life and work of our subject, but the more imaginative and genuinely creative he is, the less strictly determining will be these literal, biographical influences. The less powerful the guiding light of individual genius, the more thoroughly shaped and determined that life will be by collective and biographical factors.

For the true genius, such biographical ingredients will often be of little value in and of themselves, however obliged we all are to come to terms with our personal histories. The great artist is distinguished from the generality precisely in his or her ability to create a second—and significantly more interesting, subtle, and enduring—world (of words, images, melodies, deeds) that transcends the crude factual, biographical realm in which most of us remain snugly and more or less contentedly embedded. This transcendence through artful means and the transformative processes of an imaginative nature is not a mere escape from the ‘real’ or factual world of raw ingredients—a misjudgment frequently made by non-artists who have little or no direct experience with this disciplined work of the imagination and with the speculative mind which sees into, through, and beyond the brute facts and biographical data. The artist, rather than escaping from the given, literal world of common experience, selects his material (or ingredients) from that common world and then organizes, distills, and imaginatively transforms that material in order to make meaning, or soul, out of it.

Moreover, the true artist—insofar as he/she is genuine—does not do this chiefly for fame, wealth, or for any other ulterior motive, although the world may choose to ‘reward’ (or tempt) him with these secondary goods that it has to offer. He will make art, meaning, and soul because he must—because she is driven to do so. Once he has tasted of this rare fruit that he, like a gifted horticulturist, has learned over time to cultivate, everything changes. She can never go back to the way things were before—the way, alas, that things always are for many of us most of the time—quotidian, mechanical, repetitive, drab, and ghostlike. The world of mundane preoccupations, the flood of merely titillating, inflaming, and generally distracting information from every direction, the Sisyphean see-saw of hunger and satiety, lust and discharge, excitement and boredom, getting our affairs in order while we wait, stoically or fretfully, for death with the television on—all of this, when compared to those precious moments of genuine creativity strewn here and there throughout his day, cannot but seem like the most God-forsaken, barren desert to the true artist who has diligently followed his muse into a place where water flows and green things grow.


[1] Even balancing our lives involves a continuous kind of movement—a subtle shifting this way and that in order to maintain the desired equilibrium of rivaling pushes and pulls. Even to stay ‘centered,’ then, in a state of relative stillness and quiet requires such delicate and artful movement.

Magister Ludi (7/29/14)

I wonder to what extent my enjoyment of thinking is not, at bottom, a thinly-disguised craving for mental drama. It is this dramatic clash or creative conflict between philosophical or theoretical perspectives that I find so irresistibly captivating about speculative thought. Simply to grasp Spinoza’s or Bacon’s or Schopenhauer’s basic philosophical aims and orientation (or worldview) is of rather less interest to me than to watch these philosophers ‘duke it out’ in the ring—or better still, having a philosopher duke it out with a poet or a saint: Nietzsche contra Wagner and Plato, Plato thrashes Homer, Machiavelli pummels St. Paul! These interdisciplinary battles are especially fascinating to me. These are clashes of titans and their battlefield becomes the interior of my soul—which grows and deepens and gains subtlety in the smoking aftermath of each subsequent pitched battle.

There is a considerable amount of legwork involved, of course. Each one of the assembled combatants must be carefully tended to before they are ‘set loose’ upon each other. This entails a good deal of study, writing, and reflection on my part—the accumulation and assimilation of knowledge and organizing insights. These will be put to the ultimate test within the battlefield of my mind. These various philosophical, religious, mythical, and ethical perspectives are naturally competitive and hegemonic. The rivaling mental standpoints and value systems do not require must assistance or prompting from me in order to fight. As they are naturally disposed to seek sovereignty over all possible rivals, I need merely bring them together like the host and sponsor of a Balinese cockfight.

Does this confession of the ‘game-like’ character of my love for mental drama cheapen or vulgarize my quest for knowledge and philosophical insight—by linking this quest to a form of ‘sporting activity’? Perhaps my confession helps to remove any falsely arrogated grandeur or pomposity from an old and venerable enterprise whose ‘key players’ have seldom been renowned for the modesty of their aims and ambitions. Au contraire! All too frequently we encounter excessive pride and an exaggerated sense of self-importance in the Magister Ludi.

The Birthright (1/24/17)

The better part of what the thinker-poet does consists, of course, in suitably matching his available inventory 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 assigns the terms and conditions of the relationship, and not the thinker-poet, who is little more than an obliging vessel, a capable servant, and a talented translator of a kind of text without words. Sticking with the image of the cloud (“the raincloud of knowable things”), the mind of the philosopher-poet achieves the “dew point,” enabling these vaporous possibilities to undergo condensation into fluid images and metaphors. It is precisely here that meaning is born.

To employ a different extended metaphor to depict this ongoing oscillation between impregnation and delivery that is always 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 hidden 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 a cultural 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, endowed 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-creation. 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 regularly overpower us, problems ensue. Analogously, if our innate meaning-creating capacity remains dormant or becomes damaged and deformed by misuse or mis-education, serious problems arise. 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 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 disease – every bit as unhygienic for human souls as the mosquito-filled marshes, rat-infested slums, and unsanitary conditions of the past were for the 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?