Contemporary Man (8/26/15)

I know that in the past I have frequently spoken of the malignant forces within modern culture as though these evils were threatening us primarily from without—like a viral contagion or dangerous microbes in our drinking water—but I am aware of the fact that the real frontline of this battle against rampant nihilism and spiritual bankruptcy lies within all of us. I am conscious of the fact that when I attack these malignant and barbaric forces in modern ‘anti-culture’ I am merely drawing attention to symptoms and manifestations of collective and individual inner factors that are rooted in our beleaguered, malnourished souls. To be sure, these symptoms are contagious, but we are far less likely to succumb to infection if we take adequate precautions.

Unfortunately, the ‘malady’ of modern culture is so widespread—so pandemic, if you like—that most of us are infected long before we objectively recognize our illness for what it is, and thus, long before we have learned about any adequate measures of prevention. But our situation is actually more complicated than this.

It may in fact be the case that culture, as such—any culture anywhereso long as it remains a thoroughly unexamined and un-critiqued gift or acquisition, poses a mortal threat to our well-being and our true fulfillment as human beings. It may, for instance, be the case that even the most sound and sane cultural inheritance functions like a sturdy set of ‘training wheels’ that help a youngster get up and rolling on a bike. The aim, of course, is to assist the cyclist to ride independently on his bike—to ‘internalize’ the training wheels, as it were. Or perhaps we might think of our initial cultural inheritance as scaffolding that surrounds a prospective building, lending shape and dimensionality to the individual ‘work in progress’ that acquires distinctive form and substance within that provisional and eventually outgrown and dispensable frame. We might also compare our cultural endowment with a local diet that offers a particular array of nutrients necessary for human survival. As we digest these foodstuffs they are transformed, as it were, into vitality and into the very substance of our bodies.

But—continuing with this ‘diet’ metaphor—some cultures are ‘rounded’ and rich in their spiritual, intellectual, moral, and aesthetic nutritional content and others somewhat less so. Some cultural diets—again, figuratively speaking—are heavily weighted with ‘proteins’ but light on ‘fiber.’ Some suffer from a specific ‘vitamin deficiency’ or from an excess of ‘fats’ or ‘refined sugars.’

I would argue that, as a species, we are undergoing a tumultuous, radical transformation that is probably unprecedented in our brief history as culture-dependent creatures. This cataclysmic change we are collectively undergoing has exposed the lamentable inadequacy of all our present cultural knowledge and resources to respond to the challenges that we (and our descendents) will be facing for a long time to come. Part of the tumult or ‘shake-up’ produced by this world-historical revolution directly pertains to the status of culture as such. Today, not only leisured, well-educated, and reflective individuals, but also ordinary persons all over the globe acknowledge the precarious relativity of culture and all the products of culture (including religious dogma, moral and political theories, metaphysical doctrines, etc.) These narrowly and shabbily educated persons didn’t arrive at this momentous and potentially destabilizing insight through earnest and painstaking study of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Freud, and Jung—or through any sustained effort at deep reflection. This idea—this profoundly flimsy assessment of culture, all cultures, as relative and not absolutely binding or inherently authoritative—is now the common property of the majority of semi-educated men and women (and even precocious, untested but energetically texting teenagers) throughout the West—and now with growing numbers of persons in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, where traditional cultures are steadily losing ground to the relentless, leveling waves of modern consumerism and moral-cultural relativism. There are plenty of fanatics and militant dogmatists still out there—and some of them love to stir up trouble whenever they can for the Godless, flaccid ‘nihilists’ they suppose the rest of us to be. But here, as elsewhere, the exception merely proves the rule.

So, how—it will be asked—are we responding (or reacting) to this recently acquired insight into the relativity and ‘fictional’ status of cultural forms? We might be roughly divided into two different camps: 1) Those who—because they can neither understand nor adequately meet the severe challenges involved in having the rug pulled out from under their ‘world’—decide, in effect, to ‘eat, drink, and be merry,’ rather than live in a state of disquieting uncertainty and mental disorientation. 2) Those who feel called from within to come to terms—albeit provisional and pragmatic ones—with the fact that the tectonic plates of culture are continually shifting under our feet.

From one angle, the rather fluid and indeterminate state of cultural (and inter-cultural) factors is a natural and necessary compensation for the static, orthodox Medieval-Christian cosmos that prevailed without serious opposition for centuries in Europe. And while there is certainly much to admire about that holistic, hierarchical scheme that oriented religious, political, social, and moral affairs, there is no getting around the fact that as educated and adventurous minds and spirits acquired new knowledge about (previously unexplored) lands and cultures, about the natural world, about human nature and the body, serious challenges to the traditional static order of things were bound to arise.

The exploratory activity and innovations (in theology, literature, philosophy, political theory, economics, technology, manners and morals, etc.) of the Renaissance and the 16th-17th centuries gave birth to the relativistic, materialistic modern ‘system’ into which contemporary humanity has been, for the most part, thoroughly conscripted. Questions have only led to further questions—undermining hallowed pieties and weakening institutions along the way—throwing defenseless individuals back upon their scanty spiritual and moral resources to fend for themselves in this ongoing cultural earthquake that I’ve been sketching.

It might be argued that, in certain respects, our insecure, fluidic modern world presents us with a far more honest picture of nature and of our actual existential situation than would ever have been possible in the seemingly innocent, childlike, harmonious-hierarchical, pre-modern world that Dante depicts so beautifully and so self-assuredly in the Divine Comedy. Everything and everyone had its/his/her properly assigned and immovable place in that world. That world, I think we can all agree, has long since evaporated. And while I certainly would not recommend a restoration of the medieval order of things as a remedy to our modern ills (as ISIS is perversely attempting to do—albeit with the incongruous but indispensable assistance of modern weaponry, internet banking, YouTube, and cell phone communications), I regard such persons who scornfully say ‘good riddance’ to everything pre-modern (without first thoroughly understanding what those epochs contributed to the development of Western culture) as nitwits and dolts. I would not wish to return to the third through fifth grades, although I am thoroughly convinced that it would have been a serious mistake to skip over them—and certainly not (or not mostly) because of the classroom knowledge I would have missed out on, but because of all those valuable associations, life lessons, and formative experiences that happened to me between grades 3 and 5.

The ‘world’ of even the most discerning and perspicacious fifth-grader tends to be rather more innocent, sheltered, and carefree than the ‘world’ of a newly-minted college graduate—simply because of where these two are positioned, time-wise, on the linear path from cradle to grave. Are we not likewise inclined to suppose that even the most sophisticated and penetrating minds of medieval Christendom were somewhat childlike and innocent compared to the unexceptional but moderately sensitive product of today’s frayed and rapidly decomposing leftovers of a once-living culture—just as most of the infantrymen who survived the trenches of WWI rapidly became more existentially ‘evolved’ than the effete, brandy-sipping, distant generals who were orchestrating their ordeals by fire (and mustard gas) from afar?

Only in this restricted sense do I advance my suggestion that we moderns are afforded a more brutally honest picture of our actual spiritual predicament, as a species, than our more myth-ensconced forebears. Like the soldiers in the rat-and-corpse-infested trenches, we moderns are routinely exposed to many psychic pathogens and insecurities from which our medieval forebears were shielded by ignorance and innocence (i.e., an intact faith). It’s not that horrible and unimaginably painful events did not happen to them. Of course they did. But they happened within an intrinsically meaningful—and not an absurd or meaningless (‘existential’)—universe. Nietzsche famously referred to the cardinal event that separates the mental world inhabited by our not so distant forebears from the one we inhabit as ‘the death of God.’

Spiritually responsible persons (who, alone, are brutally honest with themselves) have always recognized that no other person—living, dead, or to ‘come again’—can magically redeem their souls. The soul achieves in its own salvation or liberation chiefly by liberating itself from any lingering hopes or expectations that something or someone outside of it can ultimately make or prevent its redemption. And, of course, this sweeping relinquishment applies to cultural, philosophical, religious, moral, and aesthetic forms and formulas, as well. These become the stick with which we stir the fire and which is eventually consumed by that fire.


Food for Thought (II) (2/10/14)

Genuine humility is born from the sustained, sobering acknowledgement of just how unappreciated and unrecognized (by the majority of us) even the most marvelous and uncanny human accomplishments are. Napoleon was wiser, perhaps, than he realized when he said, Glory is fleeting but obscurity lasts forever. What percentage or portion of mankind—over the centuries—has properly and adequately grasped the sublime audacity and sagacity of Socrates, Sophocles, Lao Tzu, Buddha, Ibn al-‘Arabi? How many—again, collectively speaking—have fallen under the irreversible spell of Shakespeare’s over-rich verse, Dostoyevsky’s unsettling prose, Bach’s supernal melodies and harmonies? When the works and deeds of such provocative and, at the same time, reliably nourishing sages, thinkers, statesmen, poets, and artists are generally ignored and passed over so that the present-day spotlight of media attention can be perversely hogged by these stunted and broken spiritual pygmies of our own day and age, where the active blind misleads the passive blind—we behold a miserable state of affairs for all concerned!

The genuine humility that I refer to is bound up, let us at once confess, with a ‘healthy’ dose of shame. For it is only after we recognize how seriously derailed from the narrow path of wisdom we have collectively become—only then is the awakening of authentic modesty and humility possible. First we must register this deep and disturbing sense of shame for having allowed ourselves to be duped and misled by the clever, puffed-up ‘fragments’ who have thoroughly filled the power-and-wisdom-vacuum that was produced after the lamentable eclipse of former luminaries by Lilliputian levelers of every persuasion: anti-traditional, anti-hierarchical, anti-theological, scientistic, etc. And in our fit of purgative shame we must upchuck all the toxins and all the indigestible cultural-spiritual junk food that we’ve been gorging ourselves on for as long as we can remember. Regrettably, the manufacturers and distributors of this cultural-spiritual crapola are all too often the brightest stars in the murky firmament of our defunct cosmos. Many of us, for lack of any superior alternatives, navigate by these unreliable star-charts.

More often than not, these inflated, disproportionately revered, lavishly rewarded ‘diversionists’ to whom our heads collectively swivel—like a vast sea of electronically-linked prairie-dogs—are, themselves, no more than opportunistic and deluded spiritual casualties of the blighted culture—and certainly not its wise physicians and qualified repairmen. It is precisely in their role as melodramatized caricatures and pathologized purveyors of the symptoms of decay that they capture and hold our attention. In a culture of obscene excess, more is always better. More volume. More hyperbole. More gruesome violence. More tits and ass. More outlandishness. It is the only way to get two and a half minutes of the prairie-dogs’ rapt attention. If one’s writing, one’s music, one’s cinematic performance, etc., does not have something profoundly pathologized or lurid about it, it simply will not capture and hold the public’s interest these days. In such a feverish and intemperate climate of cultural decline, spiritual health and the philosophical life must needs appear boring, puny, quaint, bland, and otherwise utterly uninviting. The volume (of moral-conventional outrageousness) continues to be raised through the roof in order to break through the thick, numbing layers of jadedness, ennui, and overstimulation.

Therefore, in our shame we violently vomit and poop out this vile, viscous, and virulent ooze from every last stinky nook and cranny of our psyche’s GI tract! Almost immediately we begin to enjoy the benefits of our voided belly and bowels. We find ourselves miraculously re-sensitized to hearty, healthy, wholesome fare. All that pepper and sugar and curry and salt had previously drowned out the last trace of natural taste in the copious quantities of intellectual-aesthetic snack food that we fed on. These spices and additives had spoiled our digestion and left us spiritually emaciated—but, like bawling Biafran babies, with bloated bellies!

But behold how I have stooped, how I have lowered myself—in my tawdry display of alliteration and vulgar buffoonery—simply in order to garner the fleeting attention of an intelligent contemporary reader! Shame on me! Shame on me!

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.

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.

Writing on Water (10/3/17)

Like gardens, our intellects need practically constant attention if they are to remain robust, elegantly organized, and relatively free of troublesome “weeds” and “pests.” The depth and precision sought by the devoted thinker, in speech and writing, face continual threat by incoming tides of leveling and stupefying generalities… by vision-blurring banks of mental fog. The swiftly rising floodwaters of hurricane Harvey destroyed countless irreplaceable paintings, photographs, multi-generational heirlooms, personal records, unsaved computer data, and family homes that startled evacuees were unable to save and protect here in Houston last month. Something on a much smaller scale, but cumulatively and ultimately just as individually destructive, is continually underway with regard to those irreplaceable insights and penetrating realizations that take shape in our minds after they’ve blown in like exotic seeds from God knows where.

And like the devoted caretakers of quiet, charming gardens that are tucked away in the middle of a noisy, frenetic city—or beside a watering hole in a vast, inhospitable desert—we “constant gardeners” work primarily with seed-ideas that are threatened with extinction by the intellectual equivalent of Monsanto Corporation. The comparison with Monsanto is closer than most of us probably imagine. Not only does this powerful corporation produce hegemonic forms of GM wheat and corn and employ “terminator technology” to give us “sterile seeds.” It was Monsanto that came up with that notorious herbicide, “Agent Orange.” If it seems like it has the bases covered, I would suggest that Monsanto is just the ugly tip of a gigantic dirty iceberg.

I point to a ‘Goliath’ that the intrepid, solitary thinker – slingshot in hand – is up against today. I do this in order to broaden the scope of the problems faced by thinkers who seek to protect and conserve the lingering fragments and organs of a culture that is rapidly succumbing to inner collapse, as it is steadily and insidiously supplanted by an apparently unstoppable, inhuman technological-corporatist system. Like a retrovirus, this irresistible rational-technocratic system exploits human bodies and souls both to replicate itself and to achieve its unswerving goal of global domination. No single group of human beings actually controls or steers the course of this runaway virus, despite popular conspiracy theories and despite the fact that there are highly-placed financial, governmental, and media managers who are indispensable for the continuing assimilation of mankind and the world’s natural resources into its inhuman service. It runs by its own momentum at this point and according to its own inexorable logic. Virtually all of us are its consciously or unconsciously complicit servants and the “beneficiaries” of its soulless gifts. We have literally paid with our souls.

As this epidemic spreads its toxic, dehumanizing tentacles across this scarred and feverish planet, it becomes harder and harder for me to personally justify the tending of a pleasant, tidy, and walled-in Epicurean garden – where, like a man listening to Mozart on a gramophone during an earthquake, I sequester myself with a handful of kindred spirits and a big bottle of red wine. Such an intramural retreat cannot help but appear absurdly out of place and ridiculously incongruous with the grim reality clamoring for attention just beyond those garden walls. How can one justify doting over the care and upkeep of pansies and orchids when redwoods are being sawed down all around the perimeter of our sheltered garden? If this Goliath cannot be brought down even by a pelting barrage of well aimed stones slung by a whole tribe of Davids, is that a good enough reason for withdrawing from the battlefield and into my garden to play the lyre? Or to fiddle?

But I confess to being overwhelmed shortly after I begin, yet again, to take stock of the general situation within our presently collapsing culture. And even if the external state of affairs – despite the routine outburst of irrational slaughters of “innocent” victims by some unhinged madman, such as occurred in Las Vegas two nights ago – seems relatively calm and “contained,” I and others are all too sensitively aware of the black cauldron of chaos boiling and bubbling below this deceptive surface – a pot that will boil over across the surface before long.

Surely an enormous contributor to the sense of frustration – almost paralyzing at times – that I feel these days stems from the fact that, while 98.6% of the population carries on with their generally routine, “paint-by-number” existences as if there were no active volcano poised to erupt from under our giant “game board,” the slender minority that is making a stink about the sulfuric gases seeping up from below are generally dismissed as lunatics, paranoids, religious nut jobs, etc., and ignored. And while such unfortunate and mentally unstable persons are plainly in evidence, there still remains an even smaller segment of us who manage – or attempt to manage – to “keep our heads about us” in the full awareness of the iceberg waiting directly ahead while the crew and passengers are whooping it up in the main ballroom of the “unsinkable” ship.

After the Holocaust there were writers, as I recall, who declared that it was not possible, perhaps not even permissible, to write about such an unspeakable atrocity. The sheer scale of the evil that had been unleashed in the death camps mocked even the most capacious moral and intellectual concepts and categories. Such a staggeringly diabolical but undeniable horror could only be met with dumb silence and awe. Even to begin discussing the Holocaust suggested a bungling kind of arrogance, as if this inconceivable horror – consciously planned, orchestrated, and carried out by humans against other humans – was, after all, too deep to be fathomed and, therefore, somehow beyond forgiveness. How can one’s complicity in such an abomination be forgiven when the extermination camp workers and overseers, like Adolf Eichmann, claimed – as outrageous as it sounds –simply to have been following orders?

Of course, in raising these questions I am not attempting here to absolve or excuse Nazis or present day US citizens of any wrongdoing for their ‘conscious or unconscious’ complicity in diabolical schemes and systems that – when carefully and honestly examined by a person of even average intelligence – will be recognized as a principal source of horrific injustice, human suffering, and the accelerating collapse of civil, moral, and political institutions that stand, precariously, between us and pandemonium.

I am trying here to give the reader a rough idea of how and why I, as a thinker and writer, regularly feel overwhelmed by what I take to be my proper task or calling. Unlike David before Goliath – who, let us remember, was a man, a big man, to be sure, but a human nonetheless – I lack anywhere near David’s youthful self-assurance before my inhuman (or subhuman) foe. David, at least, had those for whom he was fighting on his side in the battle against the Philistines. And unfortunately, most of the persons I know and love – whether they realize it or not – are standing behind Goliath, and placing bets on him!

And yet, I dare anyone to call me “paranoid.” Call me Cassandra, yes, but don’t question my sanity before taking a good hard look at the extent of your embeddedness in an extended poker game that cannot go on forever. And the pot continues to get bigger and bigger.