East and West: Sober Reflections (4/11/14)

Ronald Schenk, in his terse reply to a question I posed by email (concerning Jung’s and Hillman’s ‘mistrust’ of the Indian psyche) said: ‘Jung and Hillman were both influenced by Indian thought, but both felt it was problematic for Westerners to identify with it, thereby creating a ‘shadow’ of factors that are part of the Western psyche but not included by the East.’

Now, I agree that there is some truth here, but I’m not quite sure it redounds to the credit of the Western psyche—which, on the whole, may be rather more insane and out of alignment with inner reality than the (traditional) Eastern one is.

The formative influences of Christianity, rational philosophy, humanism, republicanism, and the ‘rights of man’ have all contributed to the actual (or purported) sanctity of the individual in the West—while the more ‘collectivist’ East lags behind in its very different regard for the ‘autonomous’ individual. And while no one can deny that a goodly number of humane principles and morally enlightened practices have emerged (in the West) from this more respectful stance towards the individual, this same individualism is inseparably bound up with a slew of collective ills that now threaten to do us in—both culturally and with respect to our natural environment, which is rapidly being compromised and gobbled up by the reckless, unbridled collective appetites of devouring consumers. An honest analysis of the modern ‘individual’ in the West is more likely to reveal an amalgam of generally unfettered, irrational habits, cravings, and compulsions (that demand instant gratification) than the self-controlled, liberally educated, rationally reflective citizen enthusiastically idealized by the founders of modern democracies.

Since the mindless consumer appears to be the rather unpromising and depressing creature in which Western individualism has culminated—the rationally calculating, politically impotent, narrowly-educated conscript, serving a desire-propelled corporate-capitalist economy—we have reason to pause before deeming this a real advance over the more communitarian arrangement of the pre-modern scheme, where the energies, lusts, and personal ambitions of the ordinary human being were, for the most part, suppressed and subordinated to the comparatively restricted needs and the cohesiveness of the larger group—and to the cultural-political elites who lived off this collective labor and sacrifice. The unleashing and the aggressive stimulation of these energies, lusts, and personal ambitions in the modern West has led, unsurprisingly, to evident cultural decline and fragmentation, the evils of colonialism, obscene over-consumption and waste, the ominous ascendency of what Nietzsche famously dubbed ‘the Last Man’—a shallow, frothy, short-sighted creature who is obsessed with his own material and psychological comfort—and sees nothing wrong or ignoble about this.

It is my perception that the East—particularly Indian spiritual teachings, and to a slightly lesser extent, Chinese Taoism and Japanese Zen Buddhism—has something of vital, if not absolutely crucial, importance to offer us here in the West. This perception is founded upon two firm convictions that have come from years of experience, study, travel, and reflection:

  1. The present (and all but unchallenged) scheme in the West almost exclusively promotes personal/collective competition for (limited) material goods and for (personal) power within one’s sphere of (worldly) action.
  2. Unbridled self-interest is the principal source of evil and misery in the world—and the greatest obstacle to spiritual enlightenment and liberation. On a collective scale, aided by modern technology, it constitutes nothing less than a gargantuan pair of jaws, ceaselessly devouring human souls, natural resources, and the future of our own and other species.

It may be the case that from our ‘enlightened,’ ‘sophisticated,’ ‘liberated,’ point of view, the East seems ‘backwards’ and crude, but our forward-rushing, reckless momentum is hurtling all of us into a whole series of walls and barriers that a few of our more alert observers can clearly see directly ahead of us. If going ‘backwards’ is unthinkable—not even an option—then at least we might consider the value of slowing down, of tempering our acquisitiveness, of quieting our compulsive urges and habits, of separating ourselves from the mindless herd. There may be comfort in numbers, but that comfort will vanish as soon as those in the front begin colliding with the walls and are crushed to death by the stampeding skittish simpletons behind them—all those ‘liberated’ goats and sheep who lacked the courage to stray, alone, from the group, from which vantage point they might have clearly discerned the trouble looming ahead. Perhaps for some goats and sheep, mass suicide is preferable to solitary salvation or survival. Who knows what goes on—and doesn’t go on—in the minds of goats and sheep once they get up a full head of steam as a rutting, glutting group? We must leave them in ‘God’s’ hands. Since ‘He’ made them, they are His responsibility and we must not lose heart in dire ruminations about the outcome of the dismal stampede that is so clearly shaping up—clear to anyone with an honest pair of eyes, or even one BIG EYE. Our pity—or, conversely, our outrage and resentment—must be superseded and kept under strict watch, lest we become paralyzed on the sidelines—and miss our (slim) chance of being rescued from our own very different collision with a dead-end.

Assuming we have successfully extricated our solitary souls from the mindless, ‘possessed and enthralled’ mass of self-styled ‘individuals’—and from those positive and negative attachments that prevent the transcendence of egocentricity—what next?

In the unlikely event that my critical assessment of Western ‘individualism’ (or at least its American version, which I have observed with anxious concern and care for many years) has escaped the reader, let me pronounce bluntly: ‘Individualism’ has been thoroughly and systematically debased into an empty concept—a vacuous label signifying nothing—all style and no substance—in this mass culture we presently inhabit. The actual courage, intellectual honesty, and discrimination that are the basic requirements for becoming an authentic individual are becoming harder and harder to find. The cultural soil here is simply too depleted, the air too toxic, and the rainfall too scarce to support more than a few wild and anomalous growths, here and there. And such anomalies typically have the good sense to stay well out of the crass (and, by turns, sentimental and cynical) public spotlight, so that few of us have heard of them. Wide public engagement and activity, while it may nurture mere talent—and even certain forms of genius—often spells doom for genuine individuality, which bears a resemblance to a snowflake exposed to the merciless glare of the afternoon sun. First, the glare effaces the intricate and subtle crystalline detail-work, before reducing it to a micro-puddle of featureless non-identity.

And yet, this stage—of the genuine, self-standing, critically discriminating individual—must be heroically achieved and moved through before being sacrificed in the ‘metamorphosis’ that leads to the Self—i.e., beyond confinement to the personal, individualized ego. There is no skipping over this lonely and usually excruciating baptism by fire and into the crucifixion experience of release from ‘I,’ ‘me,’ and ‘mine.’ It is harder for the bloated, inflated, puddin’-headed mass man to shrink into the modest, psychologically honest, thoroughly conscious individual (who is capable of slithering through the eye of the needle into the blissful serenity of the Self) than it is for a rich man to get into heaven. Both the mass man and the amasser of excessive personal wealth are facing in the wrong direction—in the exact opposite direction from the Self—which is to be found, if at all, in the silent, inner world, not in the noisy, fast-paced, mundane one.


Holding Hands (8/23/13)

I am at last facing the consequences of my insistent burrowing, deviating, unmasking, and inverting. As I distance myself more and more fatefully and irreversibly from the encircled hearth of normality, instead of feeling nostalgia and warm affection for the tired old stories being swapped and lovingly preserved by those who are gathered around the campfire, I feel more and more humbly-proudly alone, more and more firmly resolved never to scurry back to my forfeited seat within that enchanted circle.

The more intensely conscious we become of our actual existential predicament, the sharper and more penetrating will be our awareness of the inability of even our boon companions to muffle or silence our spiritual uncertainties and anxieties. Even if one or two of them can actually follow us into the enveloping murk that awaits anyone who ventures off from that cozy campfire flickering in the wilderness, what more can these ‘allies’ do but hold our trembling hand? I don’t mean, here, to dismiss altogether the value of having such hands to hold in the dark. I merely mean to take the honest measure of such alliances. Their ultimate powerlessness against that darkness should dispel any illusions that we cling to in this regard, for these illusions are no remedy against it.

The big, rough, but generally reliable ‘hands’ of normality have evolved over the millennia as a protection—not against the mysterious darkness, per se, for which there is no genuine antidote—but against acute consciousness of that darkness, that inscrutable mystery, that Medusa whose direct gaze turns heroes into stone (and the unheroic into hollowed-out zombies). The groping, too-familiar hands of normality that hold the many snugly within their incestuous grip—these hands are what the few are up against if it is desired above all else to be released from the shameful stupor that their stifling embrace induces. Those who would be free of the stupefying, deforming grip of the giant, warty hands of the normal are certainly not big enough or strong enough to compel the normal to release them. Rather, it is their very smallness and their uncommon lack of rigidity that enables them to slither through the tiny openings between the gargantuan fingers of the colossal hands of the normal.

What then? Do we not at once plummet to our deaths—or worse, into insanity? Isn’t this wish to wriggle free from the big stinky hands of the normal a kind of death wish? It certainly can be—and if one’s despair is so overwhelming that nothing but extinction will suffice, then that is always an option: eternal sleep for those who have abruptly awakened from the stuporous suffocating dream induced by the oafish, smelly hands of the normal. Such persons cannot bear to stay awake but they have too much inflexible pride to return to the stupefying dream.

But what happens to those of us who recklessly and defiantly choose to stay awake, as we unblinkingly strive to wriggle like slender snakes through the narrow chinks between those thick clumsy fingers? Once we manage, miraculously, to slither through these tiny passageways—uncertain as to what will befall us as we cross over into terra incognita, or the ab-normal—do we simply keep falling or can we survive out there in the darkness and the cold?

What we learn is that the sheer enormity of the hands of the normal produces a gravitational field beyond which we are prevented from drifting. Although we have been freed up from the suffocating grip of the hands of the normal, we are nonetheless bound within an orbital path that encircles the hands. Everyone we have known or loved is still snugly enclosed within the tight grasp of those enormous hands. A gap now exists between us and them that cannot be closed without wreaking havoc for those below. The very real darkness we carry is to their false light what a particle of antimatter is to an ordinary atom. We must henceforth maintain a ‘polite’ distance from one another. Just the right distance and there is the spark born of creative tension. If we get too close, we cancel each other out in a puff of smoke.

Once we are in orbit around the hands that hold our fellows securely in place, the game has decisively changed for us. Our position in orbit affords us a clear, synoptic view, both of the hands of the normal and of the myriad constellations that twinkle in the remote reaches of the vast surrounding darkness. Such vision is our partial compensation for the isolation we are now consigned to after slithering like snakes through the narrow gaps between the colossal fingers of the gargantuan hands of the normal.

From time to time—as lonely satellites—we pick up cryptic transmissions from the distant reaches of the ineffable cosmos enveloping us—and we work diligently and solitarily, like a Kepler or a Heraclitus, to decode them.



A Word about Ancient Athenians (12/13/17)

There is much profit in our study of the rise and fall of classical Greek – or Athenian – culture and imperial power. The Greeks were, in many ways, emblematic of “the human as such” – both individually and communally – and their chief artists and philosophers seem, uncannily, to have been cognizant of their paradigmatic-archetypal character as events were unfolding. Witness Thucydides’ remarks about his own History of the Peloponnesian War:

The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the understanding of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content. In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time. (I, 22)

Cleisthenes (b. 570 B.C.E.), a born aristocrat, recognized that without the backing, or at least the compliance, of “the people” (the demos), the old, traditional aristocracy was doomed. The democratic reforms – giving those who had hitherto been excluded from policy-making a real stake in political-cultural affairs – were absolutely crucial to the astonishing victories against the gigantic and hegemonic Persian Empire, which led, in turn, to the growth of the Athenian commercial-naval-political empire.

The unleashing and canalization of all that untapped power and talent in the common people made all of this possible, and after Pericles’ death during the plague at Athens (in the middle of the expansionist war against Sparta), the mad scramble to fill the power vacuum on the part of unwise, demagogic flatterers of the people led eventually to the disintegration and defeat of the empire (with the disastrous Sicilian expedition).

In more recent times, we can see an analogous pattern played out with the weakening of aristocratic privilege and power – after the French Revolution – and the rise of empowered commoners via the Industrial Revolution and modern capitalism-consumerism. The power and talent that were needed to produce the economically obsessed, technocratic world we live in today were excited and liberated by thinkers and reformers who, for the most part, challenged aristocratic institutions and privileges. These thinkers and reformers (Machiavelli, Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Marx, etc.) seem, in retrospect, to have been far more concerned with material and mundane issues than with spiritual and (traditionally) moral questions. The lures of power (individual/national) and personal freedom (usually understood in political and economic terms) were employed – either deliberately or automatically – to appeal to those commoners whose formerly frustrated/religiously prohibited ambitions and desires could provide the propulsive force needed to build the consumerist (consuming) world we now inhabit. This is the only world that most of us have ever known or will ever know. This sort of society depends, for its continued survival, upon the arousal, mobilization, and conscription of the collective desires and cravings of the more or less compliant and obedient masses.

After the devastating and exhausting defeats suffered by the reckless, over-reaching Athenians during the long war against the Spartans, things would never be the same. After Socrates – who had been sharply critical of his fellow Athenians for their follies and injustices – had been snuffed out by the very democracy that had tolerated him for 70 years, a chastened Athens was gradually transformed into the renowned cradle of arts and learning for which we remember her after all these centuries. But this renown was earned by courageous and profoundly reflective minds – figures like Aeschylus, Sophocles, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, and others – who, rather than allowing themselves to become dizzily intoxicated and thrown off balance by the enormous power surge that was produced during Athens’ democratic-imperial rise, chose the path of wisdom and virtue rather than the path of excess and worldly gain that most others chose. Who is our Sophocles? Our Socrates? Who, on our televisions and in our universities, sounds even remotely similar to Thucydides or Plato? Do we not, instead, see only Alcibiades, Cleon, Callicles, and Thrasymachus?


The Whirlpool (10/17/13)

The sense of isolation—of being alienated from others, from one’s (declining, disintegrating) culture and (atomized) society—is by no means the same thing as solitude, per se. In a state of isolation we become painfully, pointedly aware of our smallness and insignificance vis-à-vis the larger world around us—along with the staggering expanses of time before and after us. There may also be an irksome sense of the disproportion between the generally positive assessment we hold of our own worth and the general estimation ‘the world’ holds of us, so far as we can tell. Or, one may be badgered by the crushing suspicion that the world’s indifference and disregard for us is an accurate and just indicator of our actual worth to that world. Either way, such feelings of isolation from one’s own kind can lead to a crippling sense of frustration and futility, while solitude can actually be liberating, unfettering, expansive.

Speaking for myself—and drawing from my own experiences in these turbid and chilly waters—I recognize a crucial link between these crippling feelings of isolation and a condition of deafness with regard to the soul. If, in my solitude, I become related to psyche—if I have managed to attain the ‘soul-perspective’—I do not suffer from painful feelings of isolation or a paralyzing sense of existential alienation from my core. But neither can I boast of feeling some warm, fuzzy sense of open-hearted affiliation with my fellow humans during such ‘soulful’ moments or hours. Rather, I am deeply content in—and supportively grounded by—my solitude. This sense of liberation is due, in large part, to the process of deliteralization that accompanies this shift from (isolated) ego-consciousness to the soul-perspective, which perceives everyone and everything primarily in an ‘as-if’ manner—in terms of metaphor or image and not in reductively material, personalistic, or literal terms.

In fact, I recognize a crucial distinction between the sense of affiliation that humans feel with each other (at a visceral-instinctual level) and this very different sense of affiliation, or relatedness, with soul. The first sort of affiliation or connectedness—the visceral-instinctual sort—has a distinctively collective character and it appeals to us as members of a species—a species replete with drives and instincts that link us to a primeval past and to the other animals. The second sort of affiliation—the soulful, imaginal kind—places the differentiated individual in accord with the archetypal realm, the realm of the hidden (or retreated) gods and daimones. No doubt, the reason this contrast (between the two sorts of affiliation) is so stark during this era is precisely because the gods have been forgotten by humanity—in accordance with the humanistic standpoint, where ‘man is the measure of all things.’ In their neglect, they have withdrawn, as Hölderlin told us.

But the gods have not, on that account, been obliterated. Man’s present hubris may be immense but we are still powerless against the gods we have forgotten in our Faustian campaign to usurp the powers once vouchsafed solely to those gods. No doubt, all this talk about gods and man assuredly sounds archaic, if not a bit dotty, to modern ears. The mysterious and awesome power of the divine and daimonic agencies has been usurped by modern man—stolen from hallowed, ancient precincts. Modern man has been ‘allowed’ to gallop with this stolen power—rather as Phaeton was reluctantly allowed by his divine father, Helios, to steer the chariot of the sun across the sky—and with comparably inauspicious consequences. In arrogating these godlike powers for himself, man has at the same time unwittingly assumed godlike responsibilities—responsibilities for which he presently lacks the wisdom and self-restraint to discharge. His misuse of the almost godlike powers over the natural world has led to a dangerous disturbance of the former order and balance of human affairs. Everyone with a light on in his head sees this—everyone is fretting or freaking about the ‘apocalyptic’ myth that is being played out relentlessly and compulsively in these ‘end times’—but almost no one has anything worthwhile or persuasive to say about how to ‘rein in’ the forces of greedy predation that have been unleashed by our god-like inflation, our hubris. Perhaps there is nothing substantive that can be said or done at this point.

The epidemic proportions of this humanistic or anthropocentric contagion make it nearly impossible to find ‘uninfected’ individuals who have managed, miraculously, to elude conscription into the pathological, collective campaign to possess and consume as much tasty, intoxicating, soothing, or titillating matter as possible before death irrevocably snuffs out one’s brief candle. Who has learned to say ‘no’—and to live ‘no’—against this vast, devouring whirlpool that awaits all of us as we pop out of our mothers’ bellies into the swirling, technocratic-diabolical maelstrom of the modern world? One must be a fish with a spectacularly powerful tail fin in order to avoid being carried over the side of that compelling, beckoning eddy into which one after another of our friends and loved ones have been swallowed, never to be seen or heard from ever again—in their original, uninfected state.

And because they have numbers on their side, they—the insatiably power-hungry officer-elite with their army of anxious, myopically obedient conscripts—are in a position to decide what ‘sanity’ consists in, what it looks and feels like, and so forth. As leaders of this plodding, plundering army of unreflective, mis-educated, fearful and compliant dupes, the generals decide the meaning and value of words, just as they arbitrarily decide interest rates, the value of currency, what legislation gets pushed through Congress, who gets a shot at the presidency, and the interpretation of the law.

Such ‘fanciful’ musings provide us with a means of deepening our initial sketch of isolation—of adding more shadow to that sketch, so as to render it more poignant for readers out there who are still capable of swimming against the current that leads always towards the whirlpool. Anyone who has succeeded—against all the odds—in resisting infection is in danger of being classified and treated as a paranoid—as a crank or misanthrope, at the very least—by the battalions who subscribe to the deforming table of values and standards authored by their cynical-avaricious overlords.

So, what are we ‘oddballs’ to do once we become painfully conscious of the fact that our resistance to this epidemic contagion has not only set us apart from the infected—but set us ‘at odds’ with them, as well—at least from their point of view?


Comfortable, anchoring family ties—and conversely: onerous, emotionally-draining and erotically disappointing spousal and family relations, which are nonetheless still binding—constitute perhaps the greatest collective barrier to the sort of solitary, disinterested inquiry into this widespread contagion that has infected modern humanity—and which will inevitably evoke its nemesis. Binding ties of sentiment, erotic dependency, duty, financial obligations and peer pressure (to conform to the collective norms of a doomed and spiritually deforming consumerism) all consign otherwise strong and capable men and women to a kind of indentured servitude—a modernized, technologically sophisticated feudal arrangement where a new breed of ‘serfs’ are ruled over by contemporary robber barons and unfeeling oligarchs. The masses—as ever—can only be expected to follow where they are led (by the most seductive demagogue or the largest carrot), so no hope for a remedy may be expected from that quarter.

But what am I doing fantasizing about a ‘remedy’ when scarcely anyone these days is actually prepared to acknowledge the severity and the scope of the sickness that has beset our modern nations? First things first. It seems to me that unless and until the scope and the seriousness of the contagion is first acknowledged by a critical mass of capable men and women throughout all ranks of the ailing culture, there is little cause for hope that humanity will light its own path beyond the crisis it is presently embroiled in. The crisis will eventually run its course—one way or the other—either by exhaustion (of the very species hitherto required to keep the destructive program running) or through a sudden, catastrophic collapse of the precarious global system that presently provides a platform for the running of the program. But for anyone who still clings to the vain hope that these worst-case scenarios can be averted by means of human wisdom and collective self-restraint, the prognosis looks grim—at least from our present standpoint.

I have repeatedly used the metaphor of an epidemic contagion in speaking about the sickness from which the vast majority of modern persons (in the West) suffer, but this illness is actually more akin to a genetic predisposition to alcoholism or to drug addiction than it is to an influenza epidemic. So long as the genetically vulnerable person stays away from alcohol or drugs, he can be reasonably expected to carry on a stable life. But once he becomes ‘hooked,’ the dangers become very real. What constitutes the drugs and alcohol in our analogy with modernity? They are legion, but perhaps they can be symbolically compressed into the coveted ease and comfort that are seductively held out as the rewards won through compliant submission to the ruling economic system—an economic system that has now commandeered all aspects of the ‘culture,’ bending them under its all-powerful yoke: political life, education, mental and medical treatment, news, the arts and entertainment, and even religion.

Homo sapiens has steadily devolved into homo economicus. The power and influence of this economic worldview—complete with its virtually unchallenged array of normative values—is ubiquitous. It penetrates into every nook and cranny of our hijacked, eviscerated culture. And once the culture in all of its various departments has been hijacked into the service of financial and economic interests, the minds of men and women—from the ‘brightest and the best’ to the humblest and dimmest—are as easily lured into slavery as Chinese peasants (and not just peasants) were lured into opium addiction by our not so distant capitalist-entrepreneur American ancestors. The comparison is apt. If anyone bothers to take a close look at the ‘orchestrated’ financial crises that occurred in Southeast Asian nations (Malaysia, Indonesia, South Korea, Thailand) during the late 1990s and the almost identically structured/orchestrated crisis of 2008 in the U.S., it becomes evident that our pathologically acquisitive Wall Street wizards typically engineer a ‘trial run’ somewhere abroad before implementing more or less the same ruthless gambit here upon gullible American citizens—who, like the Asian taxpayers, wind up paying the heaviest costs while the pilfering profiteers at the top of the pyramid make off with astronomical winnings, pay negligible fines for their gross malfeasance, and (astoundingly!) remain in charge of all the financial institutions, the treasury, and the Federal Reserve.

Once ‘addicted,’ however, the ordinary person finds it almost impossible to extricate himself from the sticky tentacles of the modern economy, the infantilizing modern workplace, and (increasingly) from inescapable debt. Precisely because such addicts feel powerless to challenge or to opt out of this system that effectively owns them, they are apt to ‘make do’ with the unfree situation—to quietly conform to ‘terms and conditions’ that a self-respecting free spirit would find intolerable and contemptible. His way towards this ‘resigned’ state of accommodation is smoothed and generously lubricated by the apparent fact that virtually everyone he knows is in more or less the same boat as he is! Now if the ‘system’—the way of life—to which these addicts and comfort-loving conscripts were succumbing was genuinely believed to be dignifying, morally ennobling, or imaginatively enriching, then perhaps such servitude would possess greater justification in the addicts’ minds. But when all the propagandistic poppycock and the false promises are peeled away and the unvarnished truth stares us in the face, we are obliged to admit that there is little that is dignified or inherently noble about the naked pursuit of lucre, sybaritic ease and comfort—and these are precisely those ‘genetically predisposing factors’ that made the risk of addiction dangerous in the first place.

Plato and all serious critics of democracy—before and after him—seem to have been right about one thing, at least. When the energies and desires of the many are unleashed and allowed to significantly influence the course of political life, political dialogue, and societal values, it is simply a matter of time before the vulgar tastes, the slack moral and intellectual virtues, and the pedestrian aims of the multitude become not only dominant but normative—prescriptive for the culture as a whole. Democratization—notwithstanding all the tradition-based evils and injustices that it has helped to abolish from human life—has played a contributing role in the systemic crisis that we are exploring here. Modern science and technology comprise another necessary component of the destructive scheme of contemporary consumerism with its profit-driven economic directives. While no one in his right mind will dispute the enormous contribution that modern science and technology have made to human welfare—the costs may turn out, in the end, to outweigh the benefits—if they provide us with the power to destroy ourselves before we have a chance to attain the moral wisdom that might reduce the likelihood of a collective, catastrophic meltdown.

These two principal factors—the democratic debasement or vulgarization of moral/political culture and the enormous growth of material power with no concomitant enhancement of wisdom or responsibility—go a long way to account for the grim global predicament we find ourselves in. The illegitimate (and as Plato foresaw, disaster-courting) elevation of economic profiteering to the arch-principle governing all aspects of life would not be possible without the other two.

For things to continue in a business as usual manner along the present course—with current population levels—is not a viable option. And yet there seems to be no organized, rationally responsible, politically effective movement or tribunal that is presently capable of challenging, let alone reversing, the status quo. My own critiques of mass democracy, of scientism and technological utopianism, of consumerism and unregulated capitalism are impotent and ineffective—even against many ‘friends’ who hollowly protest that they share my sense of concern over the imminent crisis while continuing to immoderately serve and exploit the system itself. I am categorically and passionately opposed to the use of violence and intimidation as means of bringing about remedial change or enlightenment. The barbarities of the French Revolutionaries long ago demonstrated the absurdity of employing terror in the service of moral and political reform. Does this mean that, given the stubborn, perennial facts about human weakness, human unreflectiveness, and human corruptibility, there are no rational options (which don’t involve terror) that can be implemented before it is too late and things spin out of control, so that chaos comes again?


Our Ailing Culture (1/19/11)

Perhaps one’s search for grand human beings is doomed from the get-go in a technocratic culture, ruled as it is by single-minded experts and uni-dimensional specialists. At best, I seem to encounter highly functional ‘operatives’ within a system of fragment-persons—men and women who are not even equipped with a language for the spiritual, psychological, and cultural deficits from which they suffer in the dark. At best, they sense that something is terribly amiss in the very form of life we are collectively living today, but there is scarcely anyone talking about this cultural derailment in the desert in terms that are readily graspable by most of us. And if they do, they usually do so in terms of looming economic or environmental disasters. These are by no means trivial matters but they are peripheral and superficial compared to the sickness at the core of our ailing culture. It is the white elephant in the middle of the room that no one talks about—and not so much out of a sense of politeness or decorum, but because there are no articulate terms generally available to us as contemporary Americans. They have not been provided by our cultural upbringing. It is like a missing organ—and not a single kidney or an appendix, mind you, but a heart or stomach. We are, most of us, on an artificial life support system of some sort or another—culturally speaking—and thereby unable to experience a fully human life. Like the chickens we buy cut up and deboned at the supermarket, the petty and pernicious poppycock that fills our minds has to a great extent been artificially and unnaturally mass-produced under the most unwholesome (psychological and spiritual) conditions in tiny, cramped cells where no light enters—and the smell (again, psychologically speaking) is awful enough to make one want to retch.

Just seeing through this bogus scheme into its barbarizing core transforms a person into a kind of unwelcome anomaly or an accursed Cassandra—if he or she can actually digest and successfully assimilate the insights thus acquired. Life can never be the same after the veil has been lifted from the dehumanizing process that underlies the present scheme of things in our deforming mass culture. Because so few persons possess the spiritual resources required to withstand the walloping shock of such an unveiling—let alone the patience and considerable learning required to digest it and register the grim and sinister implications—the few persons ‘in the know’ are both alone with their dangerous knowledge and extremely hampered in their ability to communicate their distressing insights. They are hampered by the resistances that are naturally thrown up by those they would seek to inform—resistances which bear a strong resemblance to the reluctance most young children have to swallowing vile-tasting medicine or to being confined to a quiet room with a book on a perfectly beautiful day. We are hampered not only by the fact that our ‘medicinal’ knowledge is unwelcome to the popular palate, but also by the fact that we have qualms of conscience about being alarm-bell sounders and distress-bringers.

Even when we know that collective spiritual and cultural conditions are only likely to worsen without the willing embrace of such unpleasant medicine by a sizable—perhaps decisive—portion of society, and that such a recovery is unlikely even under the most favorable conditions, it is not surprising that some of us throw up our hands and ask ‘What’s the use?’ The cure may turn out to be more painful than simply allowing the disease to proceed unchecked to its ‘whimper’ end. We may, in fact, be in a situation where the only way to save the patient is through a draconian amputation of a gangrenous limb—but in order to succeed, the amputee must endure his ordeal without anesthesia. The pain itself may be a necessary evil on the road to recovery, while at the same time constituting a trial or hurdle that few can surmount. Every cell in my body tells me, however, that there is no painless or peaceful path to the healing of this profound sickness from which our culture suffers (and I daresay that’s not just my Catholic background talking). It has lost its connection with reality and in the process, all of us have become weakened, reduced, imbalanced, and deprived of weight, of gravity. As Nietzsche saw, over a hundred years ago, we have become decadent, fragile, easily overcome, evanescent, a kind of embarrassing disgrace from the ‘virile’ standpoint of our more valiant ancestors, whose many sacrifices and privations for our sake—for posterity—are mocked by our pampered frailty.

Origins of the Inner World (2/5/11)

In section 16 of the second essay of Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche opens up an interesting path in his speculations about origins of the human ‘soul’ or the ‘inner world’ (as an experienceable topos). He locates these momentous origins in the all-decisive, general crisis that faced our distant ancestors when, after leaving behind their nomadic, hunter-gatherer way of life in the wilderness, they were obliged to settle into fixed communities. When this radical change of context occurred, many of their former drives and instincts were denied the unobstructed and regular discharge allowed to them ‘in the wild.’ Thus, these aggressive instinctual drives and affective energies, which had previously been directed outwards, were forcibly turned inwards, producing incalculable distress and frustration for these semi-animals from whom we are distantly but directly descended. Only the severest restrictions and punishments (against the unencumbered discharge of these rapacious, wildly aggressive, and antisocial drives/impulses) were capable of gradually taming and domesticating these early ancestors of ours—whose very ‘souls’ and self-consciousness (as opposed to the merely unreflective surrender to the regulating natural instincts) were in their earliest stage of formation.

The agonizing torment, frustration, and confusion associated with this violently enforced reversal of the flow of libido or instinctual energy makes it easier to understand why we still—thousands of years later—chafe under the constraints and checks imposed upon our aggressive, erotic, and other natural instincts as we bend grudgingly or dutifully to the yoke of civilization—‘and its discontents.’ Nietzsche anticipates much of Freud, of course, in linking repression and the civilizing process.

It is interesting to compare Nietzsche’s notion of the origins of self-consciousness and the soul with Jung’s ideas about introversion and extraversion. Nietzsche and Freud seem to be saying that until the forcible (harsh, strict) repressions of stabilized city life began, man—who was still more like an instinct-governed animal than the self-aware, semi-domesticated human we all know and love—lacked ego-consciousness and was, in effect, a natural extravert. There was, as yet, no recognized ‘breathing space,’ psychologically speaking, between him and his outer, natural environment. We witness something of this condition in human infants, who recapitulate, briefly, this ancestral ‘participation mystique’ (as Levy-Bruhl called it). It is assumed that he was completely immersed, and not yet capable of abstracting or differentiating himself (as an independent subject) from this general mix—this psycho-sensory soup—in which he was immersed like a roughly peeled potato or a chunk of deer meat.

Jung’s descriptions of the introverted attitude make note, again and again, of its tendency to abstract from the outer object—to withdraw libido (psychic energy) back into the subject. When the conscious attitude is introverted like this, Jung tells us that it is psychologically compensated or counterbalanced by unconscious extraversion, which is prone to over-valuing the object. If the introverted attitude is habitually pushed to the extreme, there is a danger of alienating oneself, of becoming isolated within subjective awareness, cut off from life. The unconscious extraversion, functioning almost like a homeostatic corrector of this lopsidedness, will then typically over-charge external objects, persons, or situations with (positive or negative) significance for the introvert and pull his attention outwards, forcing him to deal with the object in one way or another.

Nietzsche’s style of discussing this prehistoric shift—this watershed experience of our ancestors that set us precariously upon the road we are still on—is not quite so value-free or as purged of his own personal biases as Jung’s more even-handed treatment of mankind’s slow, painful, and jarring emergence from primitive participation mystique into ego-consciousness, self-awareness, and self-responsibility. Nietzsche, bless his (tough and tender?) little heart, can almost never resist the temptation to inject an extra measure of drama—nay, melodrama—into his colorful accounts of man’s developmental history (his genealogy), while Jung, who strove usually to maintain more of a ‘scientific’ or neutral posture towards this same material, generally avoided this sort of narrative as a writer. Nietzsche may be more absorbing and entertaining, but Jung does greater justice to the psychological phenomena, I would argue. Nietzsche writes:

All instincts which are not discharged outwardly turn inwards—this is what I call the internalization of man: with it there now evolves in man what will later be called his ‘soul.’ The whole inner world, originally stretched thinly as though between two layers of skin, was expanded and extended itself and gained depth, breadth and height in proportion to the degree that the external discharge of man’s instincts was obstructed. Those terrible bulwarks with which state organizations protected themselves against the old instincts of freedom—punishments are a primary instance of this kind of bulwark—had the result that all those instincts of the wild, free, roving man were turned backwards, against man himself.

This view of the birth pangs accompanying man’s emergence from the womb of nature (and from his unconscious immersion in nature—wherein he relied wholly upon his instincts to guide and regulate his life) seems to accord well with much of what Jung tells us about the need to withdraw or abstract a certain amount of disposable psychic energy from the object in order to extend and deepen our subjective standpoint, or ego-consciousness. Implicit in what Nietzsche has written—and in Jung’s observations, as well—is the idea that unless and until there is a problem (some significant barrier to the natural flow or discharge of instinctual force and affective energy), there is no real need or occasion for the continuing development and elaboration of ego-consciousness, of soul. More problems lead, according to this logic, to deeper and more extensive consciousness.

A cluster of links between consciousness, as such, and ‘dis-ease,’ illness, self-division, and torment can readily be found in Nietzsche’s writings on this topic, while the ‘unconscious’ expresser or joyful discharger of his drives and instincts (‘enmity, cruelty, joy in persecuting, in attacking, in change, in destruction’) is generally regarded by him as ‘healthy’ and free, if a bit more naïve, dangerous, and stupid than his repressed brother. This corresponds, in a certain sense, with Jung’s observation that ‘Too much civilization makes man a sick animal, while too little makes him a barbarian.’ If we make the fairly inviting association between the instinctually unobstructed human and the ‘master’ type—and if we correlate the ‘impotent’ sort whose thwarted drives are turned inwards to the ‘slave’ type—then we are led to suspect that Nietzsche, despite his evident attempts to be as impartial as he can be, favors the master type, if only because of his happy, life-affirming character, as opposed to the resentful, hateful, timid nature of the slave type.

Jung, by way of contrast, seems to avoid such a bias—or, if anything, he leans a bit in the opposite direction from Nietzsche, recognizing how lopsidedly extraverted the contemporary attitude is, and therefore soberly pleading for more reflection as a check against its extremes. Jung sees the interdependence of introversion and extraversion (like yin and yang), while acknowledging the problematic tensions and conflicts that inevitably arise between them.

Both, however, appear to be in agreement as far as the awakener or activator of differentiated ego-consciousness is concerned. It was an enormous crisis—the radically different demands and requirements of civic life (the early ‘state’) violently imposed upon antisocial, and therefore potentially destructive drives and instincts—that was the fons et origo of consciousness. Moreover, it is problems—impediments and disruptions of the smooth flow of libido or instinctual energy—that still, to this day, impose the need for a conscious response. Without difficulties and obstacles we would just be like puppies frolicking 24/7 in the Garden of Eden.

The other animals face difficulties and obstacles, of course, but if their unconscious, automatically functioning instincts are insufficiently equipped to guide them through or around the difficulty, the animal is out of luck, for there are no other resources to turn to. They cannot locate solutions to most of their problems on the Internet or at the mall, like we can. Human beings, in addition to their inheritance of animal instincts and drives, also have language, learning, technology, and culture, which provide assistance for life under civilized conditions—beyond the ‘state of nature.’ Of course there are trade-offs, as we all know, that come with civilization. We cannot remain puppies and piglets who just follow their alternately playful and savage instinctual promptings. We forfeit these freedoms (or, to be more precise, we have them forcibly taken away, at an early age, like the testicles of a neutered dog) in exchange for the boons and security afforded by civilized life—such as it is. And just as with spayed cocker spaniels, it is difficult, if not altogether impossible, to get ‘our balls back and happily re-attached’ after we have become so thoroughly domesticated that we are dependent upon those social and civil benefits which can be obtained only by undergoing the required rite of passage, wherein a good deal more than mere foreskin is carved off.

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.


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.