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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The Law of Correspondences (12/21/11)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Historical Consciousness (3/13/11)

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

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

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

Ideology and Anti-nature (9/12/16)

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

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

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

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

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

An Idea whose Time Has Come? (10/26/14)

We can look back and see that the successful establishment and dissemination of Christianity as a major world religion first required the establishment of the Roman Empire, with its extensive network of roads and its political-economic organization—as well as the use of the Greek koine and Latin language throughout the sprawling realm. Because these crucial mundane factors were in place, the radically un-worldly message of Christianity was able to spread like a redemptive epidemic and to dramatically reorient Western values for about a thousand years.

Have globalization, air travel, 24-hour world news, and the ‘worldwide web’—a culmination of the worldly-materialistic phase that got rolling just prior to the ‘Renaissance’—similarly prepared the ground for yet another spiritual movement that will meaningfully link all human cultures for the first time?

Possibly. One might even go so far as to say ‘probably.’ If the frenetic, ruthlessly competitive predation of the planet’s limited resources continues at its present rate, it won’t be long before a bad situation worsens and exhausting wars and disasters devour humanity. The present course of events and policies must collide with the solid wall that is waiting ahead before a new course can be charted and then followed by the ‘remnants.’ A non-catastrophic scenario, whereby humanity sensibly ‘wakes up’ to its imperiled situation before it’s too late, and voluntarily submits to austerities and relatively draconian measures in order to circumvent that wall, is almost guaranteed not to arise, given the blind determination of the cunning ‘engineers’ who have commandeered the train we’re all on.

Genuine quality (of philosophical thought, of artistic excellence, of moral reasoning and action, of spiritual attainment) is almost invariably produced by human beings that are not boorish, loutish, or representative of ‘mass-mindedness.’ In other words, the coarse ‘mass mind’ (and the collective, quantitative terms and values the masses live by and through) seldom creates or authentically responds to true quality—whether it is understood spiritually, ethically, artistically, or politically.[1] By and large, the architects and exploiters of the present scheme of things know little or nothing of such quality—or, if they do, that mere knowledge is wholly insufficient, on its own, to transform them into courageous, self-sacrificing critics and opponents of the current lowbrow culture. All too often, these delinquent trustees of humanity’s future simply ‘milk’ the system for all it’s worth in order to enhance their own personal wealth, power, pleasure, comfort, etc.

Thus it will, of necessity, typically be a spiritual-philosophical-poetical-political-scientific elite that is responsible for whatever there is of the highest quality and the most enduring cultural value to humanity. It never springs up, as if by magic, out of the mass or from mass-mindedness—any more than sonnets and haiku issue from the mouths of kine and swine. What does all this mean to the ordinary, ‘well-educated’ American or European reader? Alas, it means nothing—or next to nothing.

And yet I will no doubt be denounced as an ‘elitist snob’ for holding such a position—for having bucked my egalitarian indoctrination and finally unearthed the sobering truth about the necessary combination of (fateful) genius and exceptional conditions that is required to produce cultural ideas and works of the highest and noblest rank. Interestingly, those who would dismiss my claim have no difficulty acknowledging the fact that the most precious diamonds are only produced under conditions of excruciating heat and pressure. This is just another instance of how anti-meritocratic, leveling ideals have possessed and deformed the minds of the many—and ‘many of the few,’ at that. But then, materialism (our prevailing metaphysical standpoint) has a natural propensity for leveling, and thereby discrediting, all such qualitative hierarchies—by reducing everything to mere stuff.

I bring up these uncomfortable points not in order to settle a score with naïve idealists (i.e., persons who still entertain untenable notions about the ultimate power of natural human goodness, rational self-restraint, and wisdom), but only to call into question the idea that a spiritual renewal (as it is presently conceived) aims to make life on earth more materially pleasurable and desirable. I ask you, the reader, simply to step back a bit from your busy personal affairs and absorbing commitments for an hour or two—and to look deep within the murky well of your heart and ask yourself: If there is any inherent purpose or higher meaning to human existence, is it likely that it consists in the single-minded pursuit of material goods and pleasures? Can that be all that we are here for?

And if ‘yes’ turns out to be the best or the only answer you can come up with—and you believe that armed competition for these limited goods and pleasures is indeed what our brief and fitful lives are all about—then how are we, as a species, any different from mere beasts, aside from the fact that our greater cleverness has permitted us to carry predation to inconceivable, ultimately self-annihilating lengths? The sky is the limit and enough is never enough. And if this is indeed the way of things—then it follows that life on earth have never been anything but a chamber of horrors for the great majority of human animals who have to struggle incessantly in order merely to survive. And, naturally, if this is indeed the stark and implacable ‘way of things,’ you would be an idiot to slacken off and risk losing your hard-won place or rank in the predatory pack, right? Apparently, a lot hinges on how we answer this question for ourselves—the question of what human life is really all about. Somewhere, deep inside each one of us, the answer we have settled upon is lurking—like a wolf or an angel (or a mixture of both)—behind every one of our thoughts, actions, and decisions. To hear people talk, one would think that philosophy is nothing but an esoteric and feckless pursuit engaged in by eggheads and impractical dreamers. But what could be clearer than the fact that there is nothing so intimately urgent or so far-reaching in its impact upon our lives as the answers we have consciously or unconsciously settled upon—answers, that is, to a handful of basic ethical questions, only one of which I have raised here.

The general indifference and aversion to philosophy seems merely to be an indication that most of us are dimly aware of just how disturbing and disruptive its probing questions are. We are frightened by these questions because we half-consciously recognize their power—once they’ve gotten under our skin and infected our minds—to dissolve all the treasured poppycock, sentimentality, and cant upon which our actual lives are solidly erected. And how many of us are ever prepared to be plunged into the sea of uncertainty and insecurity that a few well-aimed questions will unleash within us?

 

[1] My claim has nothing to do with one’s socio-economic status, origins, or formal education. Individuals who are both responsive to quality and capable of producing works, deeds, and thoughts of superior quality are inwardly compelled to find what they require from their environment—‘by hook or by crook’—in order to realize their ‘qualitative’ potentials. Perhaps in the majority of cases, it is the privations—the lack of educational, monetary, social, and other forms of SUPPORT—that call forth and bring fully to life the potentials for excellence that have been innate in these exceptional souls—from the start.

Glimpses (6/27/13)

That drive to discover and then to abide in some inviolable ‘palace of truth’—a drive that certainly had its way with my mind and soul for many years—was gradually whittled down to a trickle of intermittent ejaculations after my grudging recognition that such a palace appears only in fairy tales, but not in reality, or at least not in the reality I have precariously and gradually come to inhabit. And when the target of one’s restless yearnings is seen to be a phantasm or, worse, an elaborate deception willed into (fictional) existence out of the yearning itself, then honesty counsels us to temper rather than inflame and nurture that drive.

It was by such a circuitous course that I arrived at a more pluralistic—or polytheistic—view of that most elusive of mirages, the Truth. At bottom, it may very well be ‘true’ that eventually all roads lead to some privileged center that is synonymous with Truth (deserving of a capital T) in some thoroughly comprehensive or complete sense. But, in all honesty, from where I am presently situated on my journey, my understanding is infused more with the sense of polycentricity, variety, and complexity than with unity, simplicity, or oneness. I am not saying that oneness is not implied, but as of now, such implied, ultimate unity registers far more faintly to my mind than the image of multiple inner galaxies, each with its own abundant supply of distinctive solar systems, composed, in turn, of various planets—all of which dwarf in size and complexity the individual creatures (or features) found thereupon.

I have spontaneously employed a cosmic analogy to express my point here. In the enormity of its scale, this cosmic image underscores the puniness and the restrictedness of the individual human ego’s field of vision, or range of experience. Always keeping this image of the puniness and restrictedness of the ego’s range of experience clearly in mind helps me to maintain my salutary mistrust of convenient ‘unitary models’ and all simple, self-consistent schemes. As far as I can see, all such models and schemes ultimately do more to hamper and slacken my thinking (and the questioning behind such thinking) than to invigorate and push that thought as far as it can go. It may be different for other thinkers, but for this one, the seductions of oneness and of all-embracing unity are a bit like the pull of a so-called ‘mother-complex’—a hankering to return to mother’s breast—or even to climb back up into her warm and watery belly. Of course, we could just as easily invoke the ‘father complex’ here, insofar as it stands for the urge to submit, in complete, selfless obedience, to the will of the All-Seeing Nobodaddy. At any event, nothing so successfully collapses or ‘shorts’ the electrical tension that is the sine qua non for soaring (or deep-delving) thought than such pat unities and crude simplifications.

I would suggest that a glimpse of authentic unity is possible only after we have courageously weathered and withstood this profound electrical tension—and emerged, as it were, on the other side of the charged field. Note that such glimpses are fleeting—even if the ‘mark’ they leave behind is as indelible as a tattoo. If I may be permitted to employ an erotic metaphor, such a ‘mark’ is like the memory of a supremely satisfying consummation of love with an ardently pursued partner—after many struggles and frustrations have been endured.

By way of contrast, the crude and spurious unities resorted to by the impatient, the careless, the shallow, and the negligent are like a doorbell or telephone ringing just as we are about to achieve our ‘climax.’ They ruin everything!

Contemporary Culture Makers (5/23/11)

Making culture is not as easy as making pasta or making whoopee. It is an enterprise fraught with difficult choices and competing ‘pulls’ that continually threaten to ruin or mar our work. Making culture is not simply rehashing time-tested formulas with a fresh, new makeover. The genuinely developed (and therefore, more fully conscious) human being will be obliged to take an adversarial stance towards the present mass culture—pointing out its weaknesses; its shallowness; its enormous blind spots and its deforming imbalances. When the line between culture and mass entertainment becomes blurry—as it has here and now—our work becomes more difficult. Until not so long ago (before widespread democratization and the corresponding degradation and dilution of cultural education), the line between culture and cheap entertainment was clear and thick. One needed leisure and at least a general acquaintance with the natural sciences and mathematics, some philosophy—ancient and modern, canonical works of literature, religious doctrines, modern languages, and practical skills in order to be able to wrestle capably with salient cultural questions.

When the dominant cultural norms and values are thus utterly failing to produce balanced and healthy individuals who then serve as revered exemplars of salutary morals and spiritual values—and I challenge anyone to prove that such a healthy situation is in place today!—then something happens which should come as no surprise: the makers (or re-makers) of genuine, life-affirming and sanity-promoting culture become conspicuous ‘counter-culture’ figures—men and women who seem ‘untimely’ or ‘out of season’ from the standpoint of the prevalent value scheme.

But before we start picturing Jesus writhing on the cross, Socrates resignedly downing his cup of hemlock, and barbecued Bruno, let us consider the idea that, while it can certainly be beneficial to stir up public controversy and fierce, ongoing debates about values and ideals, it is always possible to keep this tumultuous and profoundly upsetting contest between enlightenment and ignorance, energy and inertia, courage and fearfulness within the private, microcosmic compass of the individual’s own exquisitely tormented soul (á la Emily Dickinson). So, instead of mocking and scorning ‘Sadducees’ or ‘Sophists’ out there in the agora, I might concentrate upon my own interior struggle to maintain moral probity, a philosophically enlightened and psychologically balanced attitude, despite the inner resistances I reliably come up against—resistances, of course, that bear an uncanny resemblance to those qualities I find it all too easy to attack and make a fuss over in the philistine, the Sophist, the infidel, or any other scapegoat who serves as a convenient ‘hook’ for the projection of my own shadow.

The essential idea we are considering here is not the self-appointed task of criticizing and haranguing against the general culture—even when it appears to be suffering from the most egregious displays of high-level corruption, general wrongheadedness and imbalance—but that of overcoming and liberating oneself from these inherited, ubiquitous mental pathogens and blinders in order to see, to speak, and to act in far more balanced and just manner. Only then have we earned the right or the inner poise to be able to speak ‘healingly’ instead of merely ‘feelingly,’ as those great destroyers, Nietzsche and Freud, did—to mention only two well-known examples. When great minds make wrong turns many lesser minds follow them down a slope to one side or the other, into blindness and error, but usually without the strength to make their way back up to the middle way from which they have fallen. The middle way is like a narrow ridge at the top of a mountain range—a ridge that drops off dramatically to either side, so that when we fall to one side or the other, the further we fall, the further away we get from those who have fallen down the other side, making it harder for us to hear them, see them, love them, and eventually—even to remember them. They—and all they stand for—comprise the projection of our unconscious.

The greatest minds, on the other hand, enjoy—or suffer—a somewhat ambiguous position vis-à-vis our ‘grasp’ and our easy understanding. The words and teachings of the greatest thinkers and sages seem deceptively easy for us to imbibe, but what we take from them, more often than not, is as different from what they are actually saying as a genuine VIEW from the top of the Empire State building is from the mere possession of the little metal effigy of the same famous skyscraper that is attached to our key chain. The living wisdom from the middle way—directly experienced only when we are perched upon that high, narrow and perilous ridge where mighty winds blow in from every direction—resonates with us wherever we are, but it originates only on that ridge, to continue with my metaphor. This is something of a paradox, of course, because if we have managed to position ourselves on that narrow, middle path, we have no need for such teachings—for we see and feel and know in our very bones all that such teachings can convey only indirectly, for they are diluted by being verbalized and conceptualized. With the greatest minds, direct experience is always primary; words are always secondary and peripheral.

So, returning to the difficulties involved in making culture: if spiritual culture in its most salutary forms consists in utterances made from this precarious place of balance between descending valleys of error, excess, and psychological one-sidedness, the we might reasonably ask—‘When, if ever, has there been a broadly distributed or widely shared spiritual-ethical culture on this planet?’ But then, surely the relatively small number of men and women who have managed to climb up to that high ridge from either slope (where all of us seem to begin our journey) have recognized this fact and pondered its meaning. Because they have (repeatedly) had to overcome the resistances, the attachments, the cherished hatreds and personal battles, etc., that keep most of us glued to our SLOPE, they are all-too-aware of how useless mere words and teaching are except as pointers of the way. They know firsthand of the sacrifices—of comfort, of companionship, of the sense of security, and the diversion afforded by our affiliation with the ‘people of the slope’—that are demanded of anyone who would stand steadfastly in the center.

The utterances of the great spirits poised in the center of this tension of the various pairs of opposites are metaphoric shells still faintly trembling with the paradoxical energy that spontaneously gave them shape and animation—only to abandon them shortly after these shells were formed. The poised, tension-bearing, great spirits are psychic cartographers of the first order. Their ‘exhaust’—their sweat—their flayed skins—are bits of the map, the full extent of which is never known because it can never be finished. Or, so I have heard.