On the Judicious Use of Terror (6/26/18)

Even if I have many deep resistances to a number of his diagnoses and proposals concerning modern man, Nietzsche can always be relied upon to poison the comfort zones and block access to the many escape routes in which so many of us continue to seek refuge. Those readers who follow him are often ushered into a vulnerable condition of existential exposure from which it can be difficult or impossible to exit after we have had as much as we can take of this “nihilism.”

Nietzsche’s subtly corrosive prose spoke seductively to that skeptical part of my soul that has always been inclined by nature to regard all human-cultural narratives, myths, religions, philosophies, and moral systems as arrant fictions. Moreover, the primary purpose behind these elaborate fabrications is not to communicate or reveal the natural truth – or stark reality – of our existential plight, but to insulate us from this terrible and potentially crushing truth. After suffering through this “unmasking” of myth and culture – and seeing through them so that their function as protective shields against the hard, cold, merciless truth was plainly exposed – the skeptical/cynical part of my soul initially exulted in what seemed like a vindication and confirmation of suspicions it had been harboring for years. This initial feeling of exultation was strengthened by the fact that these dark suspicions had been so persistently and forcefully repressed by the other side of my soul. This other side refused to believe that the actual universe – beyond the “cave walls” of my culture, of any culture – was utterly devoid of any metaphysical or teleological foundations that were capable of endowing our human existence with a higher moral meaning and purpose.

If Nietzsche was correct – if his violent and irreverent unmasking of religion and morality, meaning and “Being,” exposed the awful truth of our existential predicament as a species – I would be obliged by my intellectual conscience to systematically uproot and dismantle every last inherited myth and lie that has been planted in my mind since boyhood. Since virtually everyone I know, every song I sing, every book I read and every movie I watch is infested with these lies and cave-assumptions, I would also have to learn how to insulate my newly purged mind from this constant flood of delusions with the same ferocity previously devoted to insulating myself from these very truths that the skeptical part of my soul had sniffed out, early on.

Little wonder, then, that I felt so alone, so divided, and so alienated – for years – from everyone and everything that had hitherto been so comfortingly familiar, reassuring, and grounding. The skeptic in me had won out, at long last, over the innocent idealist, and my “world” had been turned upside-down. What had been discredited and destroyed in this upheaval had been so foundational to my former worldview and my sense of who I was that, for the first time, I began to wonder if there wasn’t something eerily inhuman about the new perspective that was emerging from out of the rubble of my former worldview and identity.

Eventually, after a few painful years of being aligned almost exclusively with the hardheaded, uncompromising skeptic in my soul, I began to balance out a little bit. Unlike Nietzsche, who seems to have remained steadfastly uncompromising till the bitter end of his thinking career, I found it necessary – let’s say for the sake of mental health, which trumped my concern for rational-logical consistency – to ambivalently oscillate back and forth between these two very different standpoints within myself: the myth-friendly part and the no-nonsense skeptic/nihilist. I would not go so far as to say that I “relativized” the skeptic simply out of fear and anxiety, but in large part because I recognized that I had primal doubts about the adequacy and ultimate accuracy of the radically skeptical perspective.

This accommodation to my softer “human, all too human” side helped to relax – but not to eliminate – the enormous tension that had built up since the collapse of my former bearings and beliefs. While I would remain divided within myself for years to come, this “healthy” compromise probably prevented me from going mad or from turning into a complete misanthrope, a very real danger at the time. This concession to the fragile, needy – or in Nietzsche’s terms, “herd-like” and “decadent” – human ego on the part of the hard-boiled, mythless skeptic/cynic could not, by itself, heal the rift in my psyche. But it could buy me some time to recharge after the depressive, disorienting upheaval—time to gather my wits and other resources for the difficult work that lay ahead. That work is now underway.

A large part of this inner work involves my attempt to answer the following questions: Do we, as a conscious, culture-dependent species, absolutely require the belief in divine or superhuman support and sponsorship in order to thrive, and does the “death of God” also mean the fall of man into savagery and brutal barbarism? Given what we have learned about ourselves as a species – from history, from mythology and literature, from science and modern psychology – is it likely that our better angels (if they indeed exist) will prevail in the ongoing showdown with the darker and more bestial parts of our natural inheritance? Are modern technology and the power it has unleashed more likely to bring enduring comfort and relief to our plight—or to hasten our self-extermination in a conflagration of feverish competition over limited resources?

So, where do I stand (or swim!) on this question of belief? The simple but honest answer is that I stand in awe before the majesty and mystery of existence. I stand in wonder before the bottomless depths of the psyche. I stand in humble respect before the profound questions and the imaginative responses raised and offered by our great, long-suffering human ancestors – the shamans and the mystics, the poets and philosophers, the saints and the scientists, who have left us with so much to reflect upon and digest. I see myself as a modest servant and grateful participant in this always urgent, unresting quest for answers – followed by the search for balance after the answers we receive have disturbed and threatened to “undo” us. It’s only natural for human beings to go crazy or succumb to despair when they’ve remained terrified for a long, long time. Courage is perhaps our most precious commodity – when it is alloyed with wisdom – and those of us who find the courage needed to confront the terrors of existence must not hoard our courage in proud isolation, but share it with those who need it as much or more than we do.

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Success and Failure Turned Inside Out (5/10/13)

‘Success,’ as it is insufficiently or wrongly understood—and demotically esteemed by contemporary Americans—typically spells failure for the genuine philosopher, to put it bluntly. It is perhaps the most seductive—and destiny-aborting—obstacle standing in the path of the philosopher’s rightful development, since it elevates that which is essentially and qualitatively lower while implicitly demoting (through neglect) that which is inherently higher, nobler. Consequently, the authentic success—or coming to maturity—of the philosopher is all but invisible to the ordinary citizen today. The philosopher, in extricating him- or her-self from the inverted, counterfeit values and norms of today, has developed into an anomalous creature. Within the depths of his soul, he is at odds with the established order of things in the corrupted and debased ‘anti-culture’ of the present time, and yet he knows better than to squander his precious time and energy on an exhausting, protracted direct confrontation with that established order. He watches, sometimes cheerfully and composedly, but more often mournfully and helplessly, as one after another of his former companions are successively swallowed up by the ever-expanding swamp of ‘no-nos’ for the philosopher: wealth, notoriety, comfortable self-satisfaction, conjugal and familial engorgement, onerous duties that allow for no leisure, that most precious possession of the philosopher.

For all his scintillating brilliance and psychological penetration, I sometimes wonder if Nietzsche allowed this profoundly disturbing truth to fully sink in. Of course, he was very much the anomalous creature as I have described here. He was a genuine philosopher who had seen through and beyond his own time and place—at least to a considerable extent. Early on, he appears to have glimpsed what Plato perhaps more fully grasped many centuries ago—namely, that philosophical initiation entails a metanoia, or conversion experience, whereby the ‘world’ is turned inside out as the mind itself is turned outside-in.

Here I am speaking about this ‘inversion’ as if I’m some kind of authority—as if I’ve already got it licked—but the honest truth is that I am still digesting the experience and will continue to do so, no doubt, for years to come, like a python with a small elephant lodged in its gut. Nevertheless, I have learned something of great importance from my own metanoia. I see how it has put me ‘out of phase’ with the broadcast frequency that is propping up the ‘continually running TV show’ that is audibly and visibly underway in my culture. This, more than anything, renders me (and other ‘ghosts’) invisible and inaudible to those in my midst. Of course I have a persona—or masked ‘stand in’ for myself—that vibrates in sync with the regular broadcast signal—my ‘TV personality,’ if you like. And I am certainly aware of that crucial frequency difference that distinguishes the real (invisible) Paul from his projected image on the busy studio stage set.

The upshot? Virtually all that the majority of my fellow cast members ever see—ever hear—is Paul the persona: the mask, the spokesperson, the performer. My soul is invisible and inaudible to all mere actors. Maybe one or two of them can smell me. But, as for them: I can see and hear their souls—if, that is, they have bothered to step offstage from time to time and cultivate soul. I can see and hear their souls because it takes one to know one.

But what is this about ‘cultivating’ soul? Well, I hate to be the older kid on the playground who poops on the lie about Santa Claus and the tooth fairy, but if a person hasn’t done some work—and I mean some serious work—reflecting upon and digesting and imaginatively cooking his/her ‘stage experiences,’ there isn’t likely to be anything but a hole or, at best, an undifferentiated ‘stem cell’ where his/her soul is supposed to be. This observation is sure to vex and disturb those innocent Christians who ‘believe’ that it is enough merely to ‘believe’ that a soul is automatically issued at birth (or baptism) and that it is guaranteed an eternal life span. Such ‘believers’ are not for me and I am not the man for them.

If I may be permitted another word about soul—for those who have dared to follow me this far: soul is the boat created from reflected meaning—the boat that carries the spiritual newborn who has just emerged from the fluid-oozing womb of metanoia. Because everything has been turned upside down and inside out, it is necessary to be carried for a while by the boat of soul before it is possible to walk with orientation on one’s own. The word metaphor means ‘to carry across.’ This is a hint for those nearing a certain readiness for transformation. The word ‘psyche’ in Greek also meant ‘butterfly.’ Another hint.

Climbing Out and Dusting Off (5/14/18)

I picture contemporary (Western) humanity as buried under the rubble produced by the general collapse of the once defiantly anthropomorphic edifice of our two-legged culture. One strong leg was provided by our Greco-Roman heritage; the other, by Judeo-Christianity. And while it is certainly true that many uneducated or half-educated persons are able to sense this toppled, reduced state of affairs for what it in fact is (despite the misleading technological and socio-political indicators of net or unmitigated progress), only those who have managed, almost miraculously, to dig themselves from out of the ubiquitous rubble and recover a clear vision of how things were before the collapse are truly in a position to assess the scale of the damage, loss, and destruction.

Perhaps the most important question an intelligent and courageous young person might ask today is, “Do I want to spend the rest of my life adapting and catering to this malignant, inherited condition – a half-life amidst the decomposing limbs and organs of Western culture – or do I want to dedicate my best energies to climbing out of this graveyard-infirmary and explore realistic ways of starting over – of rebuilding on new ground?”

The insidious, all-pervasive “system” into which we have been born has been increasingly tailored for the purpose of exploiting our culturally bankrupt and collapsed condition – not to address and/or remedy our condition, for that requires tremendous courage, imagination, and compassion, as opposed to greed, craftiness, and deceitfulness, which will always be in greater supply and will always be more materially rewarded. Contemporary education, consumerism, entertainment, and mass politics all work hand-in-hand, first to cripple minds and imaginations, and then to keep them permanently distracted. Crippled minds and souls that are kept distracted, medicated, and restlessly hankering after addictive sensations/substances are easily kept marginalized, isolated, and depoliticized. Those of us who would climb out of the rubble must first trust our suspicion that the complex system and its conscripted servants (which usually includes our parents, our teachers and religious leaders, and virtually everyone we know who is not regarded as a crank or a lunatic) are bent on blowing out our flickering flame of rebellion and dissent. Only a few young and spirited souls possess the audacity to solitarily defy this colossal chorus of energetic corrupters who use every trick in the book to scare or tempt or drug us into adapting and resigning ourselves to a comfortable life in the shallows, the shadows, the flattened and frenetic, frothy and frivolous, wasteland that the diabolical system is set up to mentally rule and materially exploit.

What crushing disappointments and unappeasable loneliness await such audacious, promising, self-trusting souls! How unlikely it is that they will somehow manage to escape maiming or irreparable damage to their souls as they struggle, alone, to extricate themselves from the sticky web of conditioning and indoctrination that has perversely been sold to us (often by sincerely well-meaning but naïve indoctrinators) as crucial to our welfare – as a kind of privilege! How many will be able to withstand this overwhelming crisis of having the “world” turned inside out? For there is no better description of what the spirited, self-trusting solitary must endure as he slowly claws his way out from under the rubble of dying and dead forms. What an uncanny coupling of exultation and remorse, triumph and despair, such souls must endure as they survey the sinister but heart-breaking scene from which they have succeeded, if only momentarily, to step back – to view from the outside!

Even if our human, all too human attachments and loyalties to certain beloved conscripts, inmates—and perhaps even a few prison guards and officials—eventually lure us back down below, these ecstatic-climactic moments of liberation can never be fully erased from our memory, even if we sometimes wish we could forget what we struggled so doggedly to see with our own eyes. I speak as one who has known such revelatory moments and I still cannot say with absolute self-assurance whether I am blessed or cursed to have been granted such glimpses from beyond the perimeter. Nothing remains the same after such experiences. All our darkest suspicions have been confirmed and an invisible veil or membrane forms between us and all of those who know and suspect nothing of these things. The veil or membrane is porous and permeable, so much pain and a little (black?) light can pass across the border when a courageous candidate approaches and presents his hard-won passport.

On Renunciation (10/4/12)

Bliss is not so much the fulfillment of bodily desires and emotional yearnings as it is freedom from enthrallment to these desires and yearnings, which can always be relied upon to disturb or unseat us from our true bliss. This observation is not confined solely to desire, but applies to all of the affects and perturbations of the soul. Bliss and serene contentedness, or poised neutrality, are one and the same. When you meditate, observe how your desires hijack your attention and direct it away from the center. Even the craving for centeredness, when it becomes urgently pressing, stands as a kind of impediment to perfect peace of mind. Our desires spontaneously project imagined objects or ends (desiderata), while genuine bliss seems to consist in the absence of all such objects of desire—being always sufficient unto itself. The inversion of desire, of course, is fear—and fear is every bit as effective a disrupter of our spiritual poise as desire is.

Some persons do not respond trustingly and receptively to the neutral bliss of perfect meditation, or centeredness. It is not that these persons find it unpalatable, an absurd suggestion, since bliss is intrinsically pleasant; rather, they are rattled by the fact that, once experienced, it throws all of their established, long believed-in, human-all-too-human goals, pleasures, and assumptions into a peculiar light. Genuine spiritual illumination necessarily exposes all merely human aims, pleasures, and dreams for the shadows and poor substitutes (for genuine spiritual contentment) that, alas, they are.[1]

I suspect that most, if not all, persons, at one time or another, enjoy spontaneously occurring moments of this unadulterated spiritual bliss. These moments probably occur more frequently during childhood—before the young person has become fully enmeshed in his/her role(s) and functions within society. Once mundane reality and everyday demands have thoroughly conscripted our souls and we become the more or less helpless servants of our desires, duties, talents, fears, and so forth, it becomes far more difficult for us to relax our way into the stillpoint. But if perchance such a moment of grace lifts such a slave out of his bondage, soon after the joy of liberation is savored ‘the world’ and one’s established place in that world reasserts its dominating power over us and the moment of joy is drowned out by the noise and bustle of ‘real life.’

Every once in awhile, here and there among the children of men, someone will say to himself after such a moment of euphoric freedom: ‘This is the true reality! The scripted and plotted life that I lead as an ego among other egos is the inauthentic, artificial realm of experience!’ In deciding to switch his allegiance from the world of social duties and limited personal attachments to the inner path of spiritual liberation, he initially invites all sorts of trouble into his life. The transformation he has inwardly committed himself to will not happen quickly or painlessly. It is perhaps the hardest thing in the world to overcome one’s attachments to the world, for what this ultimately comes down to is overcoming our deeply-rooted desire for incarnation in the world of ordinary human experience.   Before we can truly and enduringly abide in the spirit, we must die to the world. Each lives the other’s death, in a very real sense.

For a long time, therefore, the committed seeker after spiritual liberation will be mired in the agonizing struggle to master those recurring desires and stubborn attachments that define his personal ego consciousness and the general trajectory of his life. It may be the desire for fame as a great teacher or saint that is the secret engine driving his ego, or it may be a sentimental, sticky attachment to his mate or his child. Persons who are profoundly attached—or addicted—to sensual pleasures, to personal power and wealth, or to intoxicants of some kind or another are not likely candidates for enduring spiritual liberation, since these compulsions are exceedingly difficult to break free from, not to speak of the more vicious and brutish inclinations which have captured the helpless souls of the criminally depraved and the possessed.

The protracted and arduous struggles of the committed seeker after release (from the compulsive tendencies and the pet illusions of his own ego) will be rewarded from time to time with reassuring episodes of great inner peace and an extraordinary sense of groundedness in his true and authentic essence. These periodically encountered oases of spiritual refreshment and encouragement have certainly restored my own strength and determination as I have trudged through the desert of the world as experienced and known only by the ego. Only after we have lost our initial innocence and ignorance (about the actual hollowness and essential fraudulence of the ‘constructed’ world and its offerings) are we in a position to systematically deconstruct that world—to see through it and to gradually extricate ourselves from its seductive snares. Without these periodic infusions of spiritual insight and encouragement, we would possess no counterweight against the tantalizing pull of the world—or, contrariwise, against the nihilism of despair, which constitutes every bit as strong an obstacle to our inner freedom.

Who, then, is committed? It is not—it cannot rightfully be—the ego, since it is the ego’s perspective that is being seen through, relativized, and, ultimately transcended. It is the spirit-spark itself—what the Hindus call atman—that is behind the whole process, from start to finish. We find an analogy in Gnostic mythology: Sophia, believing that she was pursuing the light of the hidden God, was actually plunging into matter, where the divine light was being reflected. Similarly, the atman, or spirit, may be said to have become identified with its shadow, or reflection, in the individual human ego—its carnal twin. The spirit is awakening from that slumberous descent—returning to its true home—leaving behind the lesser lights for the ‘invisible sun.’

[1] When we experience exceptional joy or happiness while engaged in some activity or in beholding some beautiful scene, the activity or the scene may best be thought of as opening a portal or window into the joy or bliss that is always native to our innermost being—if we could but see this. What happens though, is that we typically reify the happiness and conflate it with the activity or with the scene which, properly speaking, are merely occasions for the bliss that is always within reach, regardless of the circumstances.

Radical Equanimity (11/9/11)

The world’s best kept secret: In the human realm, when you win, you lose. And when you fail, you succeed. The “human, all too human” won’t let go of you until you begin to let go of it—and this can only be accomplished from a standpoint that is not, itself, confined to the merely human: an essential paradox concerning spiritual liberation. As long as I believe I can attain freedom within the confines of exclusively human horizons, I will continue to trip over my own feet. What we commonly recognize as ordinary human aspirations, values, desires, and fears constitute the very shackles and hoods which bind and blind us. And yet, as long as we are identified with our ordinary human perspective, it is impossible to acquire any more than momentary, sporadic glimpses of the serenity, wisdom, and freedom that are inherent in the perspective that lies just beyond the horizons of the human, all-too-human. What I am suggesting is that we first must die to the demands and enticements of the human realm before we can be stably initiated into the level awaiting us beyond. Such renunciation cannot be compelled, of course. Moreover, it does not come about through a scornful or bitter rejection—for this is merely a negative bond, an inversion of the attachment of desire, but every bit as sticky, stubborn, and difficult to undo. Release from these confining horizons is only attained with the serene neutrality that sees through and beyond the warring pairs of opposites—chief of which, according to Buddhism, are desire and fear. These, in a real sense, constitute human experience and define its horizons.

So, if we are encouraged to loosen and to extricate our souls from all those positively binding attachments to persons, places, and things—if, that is, we are to achieve the neutrality that is the key to our liberation, we must also let go of any desire to take punitive revenge upon life (for disappointing our hopes, desires, and expectations) or anyone in that life. Both the positive and the negative inducements (or seductions) must be ‘seen through’ and ‘neutralized.’ This is true poise and equanimity—rarely encountered among our kind.

Psychic Topoi and Initiation (3/23/11)

Here, at the tender age of fifty-four, I am beginning to feel as if I am truly becoming myself. There is still much to be done—the ‘image’ at the core of my personality is still becoming more and more clearly defined (like an ever-so-slowly developing photograph) in my words, actions, reactions, and projects. But a Rubicon has been crossed and no longer am I so easily misled or confused by stars that are not mine to follow, paths that are not mine to travel, and rabbit holes down which I am not lured. Although now and then it is halting and still strongly alloyed with the echoes of my elders and my next of kin, my voice has at last started to become my own.

It seems fitting to describe this spiritual milestone as a kind of initiation into a new level of consciousness. And though it may be said that a threshold had to be crossed in a decisive way in order to fix, or clinch, this initiation, it was by no means an experience that happened ‘in a flash.’ In fact, the transition has taken years—moving from one more or less stable orientation and psychic center of gravity to a deeper and more substantive one. I began making brief, fitful excursions across the threshold when I was a youngster, but they were in the manner of momentary visions that would soon end with my return to my former bearings with their very different ‘look’ and ‘feel.’ Over the years, the leaps across the border became more frequent and of greater duration, so that eventually I thought of myself as a more or less experienced traveler between two very different realms of experience, for both of which I possessed a valid passport.

It is perfectly legitimate, I believe, to characterize the new center of gravity as a psychic topos—an imaginatively inhabitable locale within the boundless and largely uncharted inner world. There is a temptation to say that I was able to reach this topos only (or principally) by diving, or descending, but that is not quite adequate. There were ‘sublime’ flights into the thin, bright air involved as well as submergence into deep, dark depressions. In other words, there were highs and lows, peaks and vales (to invoke James Hillman), involved in the gradually executed relocation process whereby ‘I’ moved from ‘there’ to ‘here,’ from ‘before’ to ‘now.’ Perhaps what may be taken from this observation is that we are concerned here with a vertical axis and not so much with a horizontal one.

As it happens, I am best able to stabilize my foothold in the new topos primarily through journaling, as I am doing now, and by speaking to others who are more or less responsive to what I have to say about these matters. I suspect that for some persons who also are engaged in the work of inner transformation and the cultivation of soul, words and language are not the principal means or medium, as they seem to be for me and many others. Silent meditation, prayer, and the other arts—such as music, painting, and dance—are primary for them.

Once I began to experience a surer footing in the richer and more fertile topos, it became easier for me to clarify and to negotiate the differences between the two perspectives, the new one and the former one. This work—this large and very interesting task—seems, at present, to beckon me. It is, in a sense, bridging work. (More precisely, I aim to widen and reinforce the tiny ‘rope bridge’ I have built for myself, following the examples of my own guides and mentors.) One thing I hope to accomplish is to help others learn not only that there are other topoi in the psyche which are just as valid and just as inhabitable as the ones we start from, but that there are paths and bridges (on the vertical axis) that link these very different psychic centers of gravity.

Of course, just knowing that such paths and bridges exist—while this certainly brings its own measure of comfort and encouragement to the curious seeker after spiritual/psychological insight—is by no means the same as actually making the journey. The seven month-long, 8,000 mile overland journey I made from Houston to Buenos a few years ago led me through many very different terrains, climes, and cuisines, but it was still essentially a journey along the horizontal axis. But the momentous ‘shift’ of my psychic center of gravity that began midway through that Pan-American journey occurred on the vertical axis. The profound disturbance occasioned by that interior earthquake left my ‘surface’ features and structures in shambles. What prevented me from suffering a complete meltdown—which could easily have happened had I not been sufficiently prepared to absorb the shock to my ego-consciousness—was the fact that I was not taken completely by surprise. I had already made enough forays into the place where the quake had shifted and deposited me (now in a more permanent way) so that I was not utterly disoriented. The difference, from that point on, was that I could no longer truly go back to my former standpoint and be content to remain there for very long. That standpoint had gradually become more and more tenuous, cramped, and inadequate (as a psychic dwelling place) over the years, so in some respects the shift, which for many might have been an unmitigated disaster, was actually relieving and liberating for me. I had outgrown my former self.

Nevertheless, uprooting from our native interior ground and settling—for the long haul—in a new region of the psyche entails many adjustments and adaptations, just as if we were to move like immigrants into the very different climate, language, cultural and social context of an adopted nation. Our altered bearings are not merely intellectual or ‘virtual’—but quite palpable, visceral, and every bit as ‘real’ in their feel as any sensuously grasped object on the physical plane. The new bearings call, of course, for a completely new sort of language, in keeping with the notion of a vertical, as opposed to a lateral move. It is not so much a shift, say, from English to Spanish or to French—where it is a relatively straightforward procedure to translate a prose sentence from one language into another. It is rather a shift from a literal use of language to one that is non-literal. The new language form—the language befitting the new topos—is fundamentally metaphorical, symbolic, and analogical. Unlike scientific and most logical or commonsense statements, which tend to be nominalistic (i.e., a system whereby words are merely tokens or labels for the fundamentally different things they point to), the language forms of the new topos actually strive to carry and communicate something essential to the qualified perspectives and states of soul themselves. They do not merely point to something abstract (a concept) or to concrete objects. As with successful poetry, they conjure and give intelligible form to the very qualities that they are inwardly wedded to. The language form natural to this topos, then, is poiesis, or poetry, in that ancient Greek sense of the word—a kind of making. And in keeping with this creative function of language as poetry, it is fundamentally imaginative in its source and character. As such, it does not merely label or designate sensually apprehensible objects and abstract intellectual concepts. It opens up and animates with meaning whatever it gives expressive form to. It accomplishes this precisely by cracking through the literal, hard shells that ordinary language works with, releasing ‘wounded’ and crippled meanings that are obscured within those airless isolating shells. Owen Barfield, in his groundbreaking work, Poetic Diction, wrote:

Every modern language, with its thousands of abstract terms and its nuances of meaning and association is apparently, from beginning to end, but an unconscionable tissue of dead, or petrified, metaphors. (Poetic Diction, p. 63)

This imaginative-poetical mode of speaking, writing, thinking, and feeling aims ever to constellate a kind of world or cosmos out of the individual components that it relies upon—so that they always have an implicit, meaning-infusing frame or context as an environment. Words and names, then, are not—as with ordinary language—isolated particles which can be combined and recombined arbitrarily like Lincoln Logs or floor tiles. Rather, they are secretly and inwardly guided like iron filings by invisible magnetic currents—where patterns are waiting to be brought out of concealment with the help of obliging words.

 

Holding Hands (8/23/13)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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