Attachment, Nietzsche, Spirit, Soul, and Ego (8/30/12)

The deeper and more tenacious our attachments to material, sensual, emotional, and ideological forms/experiences, the harder it will be, naturally, to surrender to the ‘evolutionary’ impulse of spirit, for this powerful impulse points in the opposite direction from those attachments. The attachments act like durable cords binding us to all manner of phenomena and experiences in the ‘three worlds’ (physical, emotional, intellectual), and the spirit points away from these familiar harbors. As incarnate human beings, we are perhaps naturally disposed to equate these attachments (and the kind of experience that these attachments immerse us in) with life itself. Consequently, surrendering to the spirit is almost inevitably experienced as a virtual death of the personality—the ego-personality that we have long assumed to be our authentic and substantial self or true identity. Surrender to the spirit ultimately reveals this assumption to be only a half-truth. It is only half-true because there appears to be a deeper, subtler root of selfhood that is not synonymous with egoity, or the sense of separate ‘I-consciousness.’ From the standpoint of the immaterial, spiritual self, the ego (and even the body, which in some respects is correlative with ego-consciousness) functions almost as a kind of ‘mask’—a kind of projected identity or actor on the stage of temporal and phenomenal affairs. From the standpoint of the silent, meditating spirit that disinterestedly beholds this long-running stage play (that we are cast in as long as we function as ‘normal’ human beings), the phenomenal world is little more than a ‘coagulated dream.’ It is a kind of movie or epic story that can sometimes be thoroughly captivating and absorbing, while at others times it appears to be futile, a kind of sham or trick, an ‘eternal recurrence of the same,’ as Nietzsche put it.

It is perhaps also worth noting that Nietzsche seems to have consistently believed that the spiritual dimension was itself merely an illusion or a lie fabricated by priests to manage and ‘pastor’ the ignorant and the resentful, and that there was no real possibility of transcending the phenomenal realm—the ‘realm of appearances’—except via death, which is not so much transcendence as extermination. Perhaps as a consequence of a profound religious crisis suffered as a young man, Nietzsche seems to have consciously and irreversibly rejected the idea of the spirit as a transcendent—but nevertheless real and truly experienceable—dimension.[1] Perhaps, as he came to see all things and all processes ultimately in terms of power, he gradually closed himself off from the possibility of making fundamental sense of experience in any other terms. This is most unfortunate when it comes to making some kind of sense of spirit, since the surrender to the spirit-impulse within us is, at the same time, a kind of relinquishment of all power claims within the stage play of phenomenal, ordinary human experience, as mystics and saints from all traditions have attested. Since power remained paramount for Nietzsche—both as a force or energy to be sought for its own sake and as a kind of heuristic or explanatory principle for making ultimate sense of everything—his philosophical legacy is a rhetorically brilliant, but one-sided assault upon the spirit, which, again, he regarded as no more than a hollow ideal, a delusion clung to by powerless (and/or manipulative) people.[2] Nietzsche’s philosophy is perhaps the most eloquent presentation of materialistic metaphysical assumptions—a worldview that reached its cultural zenith in the 19th Century. Former materialists from both the ancient and modern eras (Democritus, Leucippus, Epicurus, Lucretius, Hobbes, Bacon, Gassendi, d’Holbach, Marx, etc.) strike us as crude and fumbling ‘innocents’ compared to Nietzsche, who deliberately and almost ‘religiously’ struggled to close off every possible ‘escape route’ into the ‘nothingness’ of the sham spirit world.

A close and thorough study of Nietzsche’s spellbinding writings reveals that his is, by far, the most seductive and persuasive voice ever to speak out on behalf of the involutionary arc—the thrust into concrete, flesh-and-blood existence and into the agon of contending, embattled human egos.[3] The Iliad is probably his favorite depiction of the ‘noble’ game as it should be played—but I am now fairly certain that Nietzsche missed the whole point that Homer was trying to get across in that timeless story. Perhaps the closest likeness to Nietzsche that we find in Homer is to be found in book eleven of the Odyssey, when Odysseus visits the underworld and hears the words of Achilles’ shade:

Let me hear no smooth talk of death from you, Odysseus, light of councils. Better, I say, to break the sod as farm hand for some poor country man, on iron rations, than to lord it over all the exhausted dead.

No wonder Nietzsche constructed strong and elaborate defenses against the spirit. It seems likely that he suffered an actual encounter with it and it had the dual effect of inflating him and scaring the hell out of him—as seems to have been the case with a number of ‘inspired’ men and women, including none other than Carl Jung, who appears to have been slightly better prepared to navigate through the paralyzing and mentally destabilizing paradoxes that appear to accompany numinous experiences. As it turns out, these torturous paradoxes, which are often experienced as menacing and threatening factors when the initial ‘infection’ occurs, eventually metamorphose into antibodies or a kind of psychic auto-immune system that can protect us against…against what? Against ‘personal ego’ obliteration. Against insanity. Against crippling nihilism. The paradoxes, under favorable internal conditions, become the very seeds out of which soul, the ‘third’ factor, is born. Soul, of course, is the middle principle between spirit and concrete, literal consciousness (ego-consciousness). Its distinctive features are the image, the symbol, and the metaphor. As a kind of psychic platform or perspective situated between spirit and ego (or literal consciousness), it is a kind of hybrid that partakes of both spirit and matter. Hence the paradoxicality that is fundamental to soul and to ‘anima consciousness.’ It is an ‘as-if’ mode of consciousness, experience, and manner of interpreting events—a mode well known, of course, to authentic poets to mystics, alchemists, visionaries, and (more recently) to genuine archetypal psychologists. I will employ an ‘as-if’ formulation in an effort to illustrate Nietzsche’s little-reported horror of the spirit—a horror that seems to have compelled him to take an uncharacteristically dogmatic, defensive stand for ego (will to power) and for (a subtle but inevitably reductive form of) materialism as an ultimate explanatory principle.

We might say that the impact of unadulterated spirit upon the typical human ego is analogous to the encounter between a particle of matter and a particle of anti-matter, or between a positively charged ion and a negatively charged one. In the encounter between matter and anti-matter, both are obliterated—at least, according to current theory. A kind of neutralization occurs—and in the case of the ego, this experience is horrifyingly deflationary, from one angle, while from another, it is liberating, releasing, and indescribably pleasant.[4]

What seems to make the crucial difference between a salutary and a lamentable outcome in this encounter is which ‘factor’ the experiencer is most allied with, consciously. If he is identified chiefly with the ego the experience will more likely be crushing and annihilating (because the spirit exposes the utter puniness and frightening fragility of the ego and all that it is attached to), and if he identifies wholly with the spirit, he will almost certainly suffer a dangerous inflation. Neither of these outcomes is desirable or psychologically healthy. If, on the other hand, there is some soul development, there is a good chance that the disturbing and ‘animating’ experience can be assimilated imaginatively or metaphorically, and not merely literally or pneumatically.

[1] An account by Ida Overbeck, the wife of Nietzsche’s close friend, Franz Overbeck, is helpful here. He was on the most intimate terms with both husband and wife and was often a guest in their home: “I had told Nietzsche earlier that the Christian religion could not give me solace and fulfillment and that I had in me the thought and feeling of carrying in everything the fate of all mankind. I dared to say it: the idea of God contained too little reality for me. Deeply moved, he answered: ‘You are saying this only to come to my aid; never give up this idea! You have it unconsciously; for as I know you and find you, including now, one great thought dominates your life. This great thought is the idea of God.’ He swallowed painfully. His features were completely contorted with emotion, until they then took on a stony calm. ‘I have given him up, I want to make something new, I will not and must not go back. I will perish from my passions, they will cast me back and forth; I am constantly falling apart, but I do not care.’ These are his own words from the fall of 1882!” (Conversations with Nietzsche; Sander Gilman, editor, p. 145)

[2] Nietzsche employs the word ‘spirit’ frequently, but with this term he seems to be referring to spiritedness, what the Greeks call ‘thumos.’

[3] However, it cannot, in all fairness, be said that he lived as he wrote, since—plagued with chronic health problems—he was forced to live the life of a virtual ascetic, moving solitarily from one boarding house to another in northern Italy and southern France, after retiring (for health reasons) at the age of 35 from his professorship at the University of Basel. Lonely, sickly, unmarried, and surviving on a modest pension, Nietzsche’s life was lived, especially throughout his last years before his mental collapse at the age of forty-five, in his head.

[4] Not to be flippant, but merely for the sake of illustration: the comparison with an organism seems apt here. The ‘neutralization’ corresponds with the climactic discharge of pent-up sexual force, which is accompanied by a burst of pleasure and a feeling of great contentment. Horror and/or delight may come a short time afterwards when it is learned that pregnancy resulted from the deed and henceforth one’s life will no longer be one’s own! Something roughly analogous occurs when we are impregnated by the (holy) spirit. But then, Nietzsche and Freud would have insisted that Joseph was the real father (in one famous case of questionable insemination).


Individuation as the Middle Way (4/21/17)

I woke up this morning with an ominous feeling that something wants to be born through my pen – and soon. Accompanying this weighty sensation is an exceptionally strong feeling of my personal insignificance and transience compared to the tiny handful of interesting ideas and perspectives I am charged with “birthing” in speech.

Perhaps in this instance it is the overwhelming feeling of smallness and ephemerality that is the content inviting exploration and expression here – at least, initially. I am aware of the psychological fact, I might add, that this same intense feeling of portentousness and gravitas has frequently attended the displacement of my ordinary (personal) ego-consciousness by the much deeper and weightier awareness of the daimon who shares ownership of this body, brain, and set of faculties that go by the name of “Paul.” In the past, before a clearer conscious differentiation between these two very distinct centers of gravity had been established, the anxiety level would be higher during such transitions. This was due, in part, to the fear that accompanies ignorance of the inner process of displacement – or the powerful shift that occurs when I would be pulled down into those heavy-murky depths. In the past, my ego would understandably react in a defensive or self-protective manner. It felt threatened by the very real prospect of drowning. But the resistances it put up only made the inevitable descent more violent and jarring.

Over the years I have learned how to yield to the pull of the daimon with fewer resistances – thus making my descents smoother and faster. I now understand better the crucial part employed by the sensation of the “annihilation” or near-total eclipse of the ego’s sense of personal importance as a prelude or preliminary stage in the descent process. It is my strong suspicion that this semi-paralyzing, annihilating energy/perspective is directed (like a blast from a stun gun) from the daimonic depths up to the shallows where, like a sunfish or jellyfish, my personal ego darts or floats about. As the ego-vessel is temporarily stunned – it is lured down into the depths where it can be usefully employed as a kind of portal or mouthpiece for daimonic perspectives, directives, and ideas. In fact, that is what is underway at this moment – as I have allowed my mind and obedient pen to sink down to “earshot range” of the deeper intelligence within.

It should be mentioned that as I surrender to the descent, the initial feelings of nervousness and trepidation begin to subside. This calming comes from the fact that the new center of gravity (of the daimon) is being contacted and stably inhabited. The anxious feelings correspond to the “in between” or transitional state: prior to my consciousness becoming stably situated in the deeper center of gravity while it is no longer anchored in the familiar personal ego perspective.

Now, such a description must necessarily strike some readers as a species of mental illness or a dangerous psychic condition. And, no doubt, this experience of being uprooted or dislodged from the personal ego-complex is typically observed in schizophrenics or those suffering from multiple personality disorder. The difference between what I experience (and which I am attempting to describe) and what the “mentally ill” person experiences must be thoroughly explored and clarified – to the extent that I am equipped to undertake such a task.

The two crucial factors here are: 1) the polycentric nature of the psyche, and 2) the conscious/imaginative work of bridge-building between these various psychic centers of gravity, or autonomous complexes. Before exploring these two factors, let us first take a look at the psychologically incomplete or ignorant standpoints of mentally ill and monolithically ego-centric persons who, together, vastly outnumber exemplars of the psychologically initiated consciousness I seek, by and by, to describe.

The mentally ill person who suffers from a splintered or disassociated psyche is the victim of a weak and easily “possessed” (or overshadowed) ego, so that the autonomous complexes, always lurking below the surface of the ego-platform, can easily break through that thin membrane and act out or speak out in ways that are clearly at odds with the ‘level-headed’ aims and apparent interests of the ‘rational’ ego. In other words, the ego of the dissociated person – as weak and uneducated (about itself and about the polycentric psyche) as it is – is easily overpowered and reduced to a mere puppet of these unconscious complexes over which it has little or no control. We see such cases of possession every day (in milder form) when family members, co-workers, spouses, or we, ourselves, succumb to irrational fits of rage, terror, jealousy, euphoria, romantic enchantment, etc. The difference between these ordinary cases and those of the mentally ill is a difference in degree, but not in kind. The difference lies in the degree of strength, stability, and self-knowledge achieved by the victim of his/her unconscious complexes and affects.

Those persons, on the other hand, who have invested all or most of their time and effort in the cultivation and defense of the ego against intrapsychic powers and influences suffer from a very different set of problems. Such persons have, in a sense, deified the ego – and reified it in the bargain – so that, for them, the psyche as a whole is disastrously reduced to the much narrower terms and conditions of individual ego-consciousness. For them, the cohesiveness, heroic strength, and authority of the personal ego constitute the supreme priority. Such persons often scoff at the suggestion that autonomous (unconscious) complexes and powers exist and/or exercise ultimate sovereignty over the ego. Such skeptics and scoffers regard those persons who subscribe to such beliefs – in the transpersonal psychic forces and factors – with muted contempt or with patronizing indulgence, as Jocasta regards those who foolishly believe in prophecies in Oedipus Tyrannus. But, in almost every case, what we uncover behind the egocentrist’s contempt and “superior” disdain is paralyzing terror of the very forces and factors they deny and disdain.

How, then, should we begin to describe the optimal (or psychologically enlightened) standpoint – one that avoids (by transcendence?) the two problematic standpoints I have just sketched? The ideal standpoint would have to straddle in between the flaccid, impotent extreme of the undeveloped ego, on the one side, and the fear-driven arrogance of God-like egotism, on the other. If we wanted to couch the problem in Taoist terms, we might say that wisdom consists in navigating successfully between “the Firm and the Yielding.”

Another way to frame this archetypal polarity between the rival demands of ‘heroic’ ego and the larger, enfolding psyche is to invoke the alchemical terms “solve et coagula” (dissolve and coagulate). The ego rises up from the oceanic psyche like a volcanic island, eventually returning to that great matrix – and to the undifferentiated state of its origins – but during that brief interim, a human life, a kind of dialogue or dialectic is possible between ego and unconscious. The fluidic, polycentric, “imaginal” psyche tends to have a generally dissolving effect upon the structures and materials out of which the ego-complex is constructed. For this reason, the strength and cohesiveness of the ego depends on the assertion of effort – or the personal will – as a protective measure against weakening and dissolution. A balanced or healthy ego, therefore, gravitates instinctively towards homeostasis or equilibrium between solidity and fluidity, while our problematic cases lose this precarious balance. The extreme (or pathological) egotist instinctively dreads the dissolving waters of psyche (and, by extension, by the fluidic imagination, the native language of psyche), while the impotent or rootless ego is forever the helpless plaything of whatever complex or affect seizes possession of it.

To illustrate these various standpoints by means of historical examples, we can look at Jesus and Socrates, on one end, and Nietzsche and Freud on the other, with Jung acting as a moderating figure in between the two sides. Socrates’ dialectical questioning operated like a solvent or mild corrosive upon the often-inflated egos of his interlocutors (on the level of intellect), while Jesus’ teachings and humble example may be seen as a solvent on the heart level. Freud and Nietzsche, and their different ways, were great coagulators and enrichers of the ego as a bulwark against the id or Dionysian disintegration (to which Nietzsche eventually succumbed). Jung, as champion of the dialectic between ego and unconscious (individuation), recognized the crucial importance of a strong and psychologically/imaginatively enlightened ego in following “the middle way” between the two undesirable extremes of egocentrism and ego-dissolution.

Addendum: it is tempting to draw a connection between pessimism and over-developed/inflated egotism – despite its displays of ruggedness and occasional exuberance. Pessimism is conspicuous and Freud and implicit in Nietzsche’s stridency, despite all his coaching on the importance of “cheerfulness.” There is little in or about Nietzsche’s tone(s) or content that can legitimately be called cheerful or joyous, let alone optimistic, when it comes to the human situation. Again, Jung’s more moderate (and moderating) example serves well: generally speaking, he is measured and balanced in his tone – neither unduly pessimistic nor excessively hopeful about the human condition – but guardedly optimistic.

Origins of the Inner World (2/5/11)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friendship and Our Individual Natures (5/3/13)

Earlier, I read an account by Franz Overbeck where it was noted that virtually all of Nietzsche’s friendships were lop-sided—where he projected far more significance and assumed that there was far more intimacy than the other parties did. Overbeck proposes Nietzsche’s pungent and irrefragable differentness from all other human beings as the likely source of this disparity of friendly love and affection. As ‘hunger is the best sauce,’ Nietzsche’s loneliness must certainly have been a great flavor enhancer—functioning like a walloping dose of MSG in his links with some comparatively insipid souls, judging from their letters and accounts. The recollection by Overbeck triggered personal feelings of estrangement (from others)—feelings that are never far from the surface in me. The more I grow into myself—the admittedly strange (and strangely driven, strangely oriented) human being that I appear to be, the more differentiated from those around me I progressively become. It is perhaps true that I could make greater efforts to accommodate myself to others, to look for things in common, and perhaps such efforts would be rewarded with a greater degree of solidarity and kinship with others. But, aaagh!! To speak truthfully: something has been holding me back from such efforts—and, for the moment, at least—I trust whatever it is that’s holding me back. (I am reminded of Socrates’ daimon here: it never told him to do this or that—only what not to do.)

And perhaps there is no need to invoke ‘daimonic’ influences here—although I would not rule them out. Perhaps it is enough to chalk this reticence up to ‘dog smarts’ in my case. Lord knows I have devoted an enormous amount of energy and attention, care and concern, to my numerous friendships throughout the past—but, alas, with slender dividends to show for all that I have invested.  Do I want too much from persons who, for one reason or another, cannot or will not deliver? Is my pride too swollen for me to condescend any further in order to prop up relationships with persons who can scarcely hold up their end? Have I merely had the misfortune of being thrown together with singularly unsuitable candidates for true friendship with me? I don’t think so. I am fairly sure that a proper candidate for the sort of friendship I have always hungered for is going to be as hard to come by as I am. Pride and arrogance have nothing to do with what I just wrote. Rather, it has everything to do with consciousness of difference—of what is ineradicably and irrepressibly individual about me. When something just is, there is little room for compromise or for concessions. Compromises and concessions apply to things and conditions that are negotiable, mutable, relative, and not yet essential, as the dark depths of my individuality seems to be. We are fortunate if we come to know and to express our individual, inimitable nature—but we are also stuck with what we uncover, are we not?


Teleology, Nietzsche, and Creativity (Straits of Malacca, 4/10/2002)

It may one day be incontrovertibly ascertained that ‘cosmic design,’ a ‘higher purpose’ to existence, as such, and ‘meaningful evolution towards higher forms’ are nothing more than hollow fictions that we puny and clueless humans still desperately cling to in the hope that they can somehow protect us against the other possibility—namely, that mere chance and random accidents decisively prevail over design and purpose in this vast, uncaring universe. Our lives are, for the most part, animated and oriented by aims and purposes that are received pre-packaged from our culture and upbringing—awaiting our own efforts to develop and ‘realize’ them to any extent. The notion that a human life ultimately comes down to little more than a pointless string of moments, hours, days, and years—the unsponsored journey of a biological creature, its noggin stuffed with fanciful dreams—a journey that began with two copulating parents greedily gratifying instinctual urges and ends with unanswered questions and the eerie, irreversible dimming of the animal vigor and the once envied intellectual faculties that brazenly broached and wrestled with big, sweaty, hairy questions: this all seems to be excruciatingly inconvenient for many of us to consider, let alone, to embrace. We hunger for a credible ‘meta-narrative’ descended from a sterling ancestral pedigree, one that might inject beauty and value and meaning into our arid and threadbare souls—and not some patchy, abstract fabrication that we concoct alone in the dark, in our fretful isolation, proudly but impotently defiant of our derailed and bankrupt culture. We long for a compelling and dignifying story that serves as a kind of portal or ‘insertion point’ into the very fabric of existence, a universe that is a rich and multilayered continuum composed of numerous material and immaterial planes. We’ve had it up to our neck with bleak and humorless scientific accounts of a dumb and unfeeling expanse of matter and oodles of void—accounts that are unnervingly communicated by a bespectacled little waste of a man in a wheelchair with his artificial voice and his unmoving lips—just staring at you, rather like the void he is so curiously intent upon describing!

The three major religions (four, if their fountainhead, Zoroastrianism, is included) which emerged in the West are moral down to their marrow, for the ‘narrative structure’ of human life they present is that of an ethical struggle of good against evil, of the righteous over the sinful, of the ‘chosen’ over the heathen infidels or the uncircumcised—a struggle and a trajectory that were set in motion and defined by God through His ‘meat puppets’…er, I meant to say ‘mighty prophets.’ By way of contrast, Buddhism and Hinduism are cyclical (in their understanding of creation) and rather more ‘psychological’ in character (as opposed to being essentially moral and apocalyptic—proceeding to a final day of judgment in the temporal and spatial realms of concrete history). In their depiction of the human situation and its destiny, these more ‘inner-directed’ religions prescribe a purposeful, disciplined struggle against spiritual and psychological ignorance (avidya). Only when this ignorance (which is rooted in wrong or excessive attachment) is overcome does the world-renouncer attain liberation (moksha), the principle aim of the sādhanās, or yogic practice. If this is a crude and unforgivably sketchy depiction of the fundamental differences between the religious standpoints of the East and those of the West, I wish only to establish an important point: notwithstanding these basic differences in perspective—along with the divergent values that spring from those differences—the sense of individual and/or collective purpose is present on both sides.

If Nietzsche is willing to admit that, as a rule, we require purpose and design, order and a sense of direction, if our lives are to have a measure of coherence, dignity, or meaning, he seems, repeatedly, to shoot down the idea that nature and the universe are behind us, sponsoring and underwriting our human-all-too-human plans and goals. As far as Nietzsche appears to be concerned, only spiritual cowards need to believe in such metaphysical claptrap. To assume that our goals and our purposes are established and maintained by an invisible ‘cosmic order’ is to presume that we enjoy a privileged (as opposed to an accidental and therefore utterly unreliable) relationship with nature. Nature, as Nietzsche sees it (Chap. I, sect. 9, Beyond Good and Evil), is coldly indifferent to our schemes, goals, wishes, aspirations, and intentions—even if few of us are able or willing to rest content with such a stern truth staring us in the face each day. But, after the ‘death of God’ (that misfortune of monumental proportions largely precipitated by the rise of modern empirical science, with its skeptical and critical bent), physical nature rapidly became the lone matrix, and its ‘laws’ the dominant standard in disputes concerning purpose and design. Teleology, as we know, is not a conspicuous feature of the scientific method and the sensibility to which it has given birth is even less tolerant of metaphysics—especially metaphysics with a moral agenda sneakily smuggled into them.

In Nietzsche’s own thought, the courageous uprooting and renunciation of this metaphysical need for supernatural sponsorship does not entail dispensing altogether with the stubborn human need for ‘higher’ goals and purposes. Far from it. In (VI, 211, BGE), philosophers are described as ‘commanders and legislators,’ with the understanding that these higher men are our best guides in this lofty enterprise. It is they who have authorized themselves with the right to lay down the tracks that we must then attempt to follow. According to Nietzsche, they have the right to give direction and purpose to humanity because they are the most comprehensive human beings—their more far-reaching and more deeply penetrating awareness of man and his needs, his possibilities and his limitations, equips them with the vision to chart a course for humanity’s future. It is only because they are in a position to look down upon humanity that they are able to see beyond the ‘thousand and one goals’ hitherto followed by man. In (III, 61, BGE), we are told that these philosophers will make use of religion whenever it proves necessary or convenient as a means for accomplishing the task of giving form and purpose to this ‘undetermined creature,’ man. If man must, perforce, inhabit a protective, life-sustaining bubble (the insulating walls and familiar horizons of which shield him from will-crushing truths concerning his actual condition) then it is the privileged responsibility of the genuine philosopher to create (and poetically adorn the walls of) this bubble—this inhabitable space—this culture, wherein a meaningful and credible future may be envisioned and lived for.

 Better, perhaps, than any other comprehensive thinker, Nietzsche understood the corrosive forces of nihilism and pessimism that have infected the souls of modern men and women—and rather than resigning sadly and defeatedly to these contagious symptoms of decadence, he sought with unrelenting bravery and single-mindedness to face them with dauntless courage and imagination—and to find a way to combat the disease. Those who merely see him as part of the disease (which he diagnoses), and not as a heroic spirit struggling to rescue a disintegrating, de-composing species from despair, anarchic instincts, and impotent resignation, quite simply do not appreciate what he is attempting in his writings. Nonetheless, he certainly expected to be misunderstood by all but the very few.

No doubt, Nietzsche’s loneliness as a human being must be approached and understood in connection with his having broken out of his own, inherited ‘bubble,’ a feat requiring as much daring and strength of will as intellectual penetration and depth of understanding. One is virtually unattended and bereft of allies as soon as he or she moves outside of the meaning-bestowing context of his/her culture, and is thrust into the position, as it were, of the ‘original man’—or, in the phrase of King Lear, ‘unaccommodated man.’ This naked and exposed creature (psychologically speaking) must fall back upon his own poetic-creative powers in order to project a ‘world’ where there seems to be only an indifferent, chartless void awaiting his Adamic name- and meaning-bestowing fiat. This sort of experience is accessible only to a tiny number, while the rest of us must be content to follow well-beaten paths. For the most part, this pertains to ‘leaders’ within the bubble, as well, of course—since they command and lead only from positions acknowledged and recognized by those of us who follow them.

To the extent that we are able to securely inhabit our inherited myths and assigned roles without being vexed and obstructed by the accidents of fortune or the occasional earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions produced by indifferent, ‘cruel’ nature, we often are inclined to believe that what does not work against us is actually working with us, for us, and behind us. This enticing presumption of cosmic support is made a good deal more credible simply by virtue of the fact that the goals of most human beings are so modest and humble in scope—rarely demanding more from life than can be readily supplied by the means at hand or, if somewhat more challenging, attainable with persistent effort and a bit of patience. When conditions are favorable and one’s demands are not outrageously extravagant, as long as one’s faith in his scripted quest is firm and unwavering, felt satisfaction is often within reach. This is the most that many of us can hope for, and it seems to be enough for the majority of human beings. The profoundest existential problems, however, become acutely conscious and urgent only for those whose needs and demands greatly exceed the means ready at hand. The needs of these spiritually troubled persons simply are not adequately palliated or put forever to sleep by those pleasures, entertainments, and conventional remedies with which the generality is distracted and pacified. May we claim that such restless spirits are burdened (or cursed) with immoderate cravings and oversized longings—whether it be in the realms of knowledge (Socrates, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Nietzsche), power (Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin), wealth (Crassus, Croesus), or love (Jesus, as Nietzsche understood—or misunderstood—him)? If such demanding figures are not to despair of life in fits of frustration, they are obliged, it would seem, to create their own means of satisfaction, however precarious these are (perhaps because self-authored). All else is felt to be a flimsy and momentary diversion, never sufficiently binding to arrest one’s restlessness for very long.

Such ‘insatiable’ persons often pass through a more or less protracted period of critical disengagement from their culture, their friends, wives, and families, and all the ultimately un-compelling claims upon their allegiance. Their dissatisfaction with life’s readily available offerings and easily attainable goals can so thoroughly sour them with discouragement that they succumb to bitterness and a miserable, disconsolate resignation—and, as Nietzsche observed, these failures are far more numerous than the ‘lucky hits’ who proceed alone into new territory, opening up new possibilities for themselves (and, consequently—if they leave a record—for the rest of us).



Text and Interpretation (1/31/15)

Nietzsche often referred to the ‘text’ of nature—and how very different that ‘text’ was from the interpretations we foisted (or forced) upon it. For him, ‘morality’—regardless of its provenance—was always, at bottom, just another interpretive scheme that was being projected onto the ‘text’ of natural human drives and affects. Thus, the text is more or less decisively obscured by the interpretation, while these two—text and (moral) interpretation—are fused in the mind of the (unwitting) projector. They become indistinguishable.

Once the validity and the binding authority of an interpretive scheme are implicitly believed in, a number of interesting results typically follow. The interpretation automatically acquires greater importance and a greater sense of reality than the text in the mind of the believer, if that text was ever known by the believer in the first place, which is unlikely. Moreover, this is not due to a conscious choice or judgment on the part of the believer. It is simply due to the fact that he can see no text, only interpretation. If the believer could truly see the text, he would at the same time see the startling difference between this stark, opaque text and his interpretation—or any interpretations, for that matter. Such a shocking, sudden revelation of the raw, uncontaminated text exposes the elements of arbitrariness and relativity in all interpretations—including one’s own, of course. In such revelatory moments it is understood that all interpretations have some kind of hidden agenda, or motivating purpose, woven into them. Perhaps the most common and obvious of these motivating purposes embedded in our interpretations pertain to power and meaning, which are often closely inter-related.

When we feel that we have ‘grasped’ the inner meaning of some bit of ‘text,’ we simultaneously feel empowered with respect to that text. We feel that we have uncovered its secret and, in doing so, tempered its power over us. As long as it remains stumpingly opaque or mysterious, the text exerts a magical sort of power over our minds. It is vaguely—or, as the case may be, intensely—threatening. Unless and until we can ‘make sense’ of the disturbing bit of text (say, disquieting suspicions, eruptions of hatred for a family member or spouse, fear and general anxiety about another ethnic group, etc.) we may experience profound psychological discomfort and uneasiness. A satisfying interpretation—particularly one that is shared by millions of other fearful and insecure persons—comes to our assistance. It provides the consoling illusion that we have gained the upper hand over the disturbing (and formerly mysterious) text.

What we don’t realize—what we don’t want to realize—is that, far from gaining the upper hand over the menacing and mysterious text, we have only placed some distance between the text and our minds by means of a buffering lie. Instead of genuinely engaging with—or authentically wrestling with—the text that is given to us, we have merely substituted our ‘meaningful interpretation’ for the text itself. In incremental moves, we retreat, as it were, from actual engagement with the given text of life experience and wall ourselves into the artificial enclosure of our interpretive scheme. Thus, we become removed from inner and outer mysteries as we huddle under the canopies provided by our personal and collective myths—shielded from the very (raw) elements that we proudly but preposterously purport to have brought under our control!

What none of us wants to admit, of course, is that projecting or foisting a ready-made interpretation upon the given text of life is precisely the opposite of extracting or drawing genuine insight from our encounters with that mysterious, elusive text. And of course there can be no such encounters so long as our minds are already made up. Virtually all of us live out our lives on the map and not in the territory (for which our colorful, but simplistic and reductive maps are no substitute). Our culture (which is scarcely more than an enormous, unkempt map room!) is lorded over by puffed up map-owners whose charts contain the most detailed information about the mere surface of the mysterious territory they have no serious intention of confronting on its own terms. That would instantly perforate such puffed up pretenders—and show everyone just how empty and superficial their ‘knowledge’ is. There would seem to be little dignity—little to celebrate—in a species of restless, chattering map-addicts who refuse to acknowledge the fact that this paper-thin palace of poppycock provides no real protection against the encroaching ‘wilderness’ of the very real text that scornfully defies our often puny and pitiful ‘interpretations.’

And, of course, the same criteria apply to this interpretation of a troublesome bit of ‘text’—the interpretation I’ve just served up here. What, if anything, makes it any more credible or valuable than a discarded gum wrapper from 1959 or a political leaflet that circulated around Boston in the fall of 1784? All have been chewed and spewed and then are over and done with—as we, too, soon shall be. And you don’t need a map to figure this out.


Metaphysical Materialists and Storytellers (2/8/11)

Freud proposed the idea of a ‘death instinct’ (thanatos) which arises alongside the libidinal instinct (eros) for which he is more widely known. In Civilization and its Discontents, where he mentions but does not develop this idea beyond a very limited extent, it serves as perhaps the strongest single force opposing and undermining civilization as a creative process.

May we not recognize a not-so-distant cousin of this death-instinct in the habit of abstracting our attention from objects? This introverting tendency consists, at bottom, in the withdrawal of psychic energy (libido) from outer objects. This robs them of the power and vitality they would otherwise acquire from our steady payments of animating, reality-conferring attention. (These payments may be consciously made, or they can be ‘automatic bank-draft payments’ that we do not have to consciously attend to.)

In keeping with the generally biological and extraverted biases of his theoretical standpoint, Freud characterizes this death instinct in terms of aggressivity, brutal destructiveness, cruelty, sadism, and masochism (when intermingled with eros)—and even with evil and ‘Satan.’ From a less literalistic, less behavioral, and more purely psychological perspective, the whole problem can be shifted onto a subtler plane, however. In this way Genghis Khan and Tamerlane are replaced by blissfully detached Indian yogis and serenely indifferent Taoist sages. Brutish outer destructiveness and barbaric cruelty are ‘sublimated’ or ‘spiritualized’ into a state of inner detachment that allows for a measure of conscious control over the direction and use of one’s instinctual energy. From ‘discharge’ to ‘take charge!’ From ‘acting out’ to ‘acting in.’

What Freud conceives as the struggle between these ‘opposed’ instincts—eros and thanatos—may just as legitimately be viewed as the continual array of transformations occasioned by the interplay of, say, ‘yin’ and ‘yang,’ or the positive and negative poles necessary for the generation of an energy field. By conceiving the interplay between the two as a war between a life-affirming and a pessimistic, life-denying morality (in Nietzsche’s philosophy, roughly speaking, this is ‘master morality’ and ‘slave morality,’ respectively), Freud runs into difficulties that I believe are subtly sidestepped (or perhaps leapt over) by Jung, the Taoists, and much of Indian philosophy. Metaphysical materialism seems to be implicit in Nietzsche’s as well as Freud’s ground assumptions, whereas Jung and the others maintain a discreet silence about matters that are deemed beyond the reach of human reason. Accordingly, this philosophical modesty on Jung’s part (or his dearth of philosophical arrogance and hypostatizing presumption) ultimately consigns his speculations about ‘final things’ to the realm of myth rather than to that of rational philosophy, but this very open-endedness sharply distinguishes his psychology from the deterministic (and generally mechanistic-reductive) psychologies in which the materialists (Nietzsche and Freud) risk becoming entangled by virtue of their own need to nail things down, or to reduce them to some ultimate set of axiomatic principles (infantile sexuality, the pleasure principle, the reality principle, the Oedipus complex, will-to-power, eternal recurrence of the same, etc.)

These principles function like ultimate explanatory principles for Nietzsche and Freud, despite their unconvincing attempts to suggest otherwise. Jung’s key concepts and paradigms are heuristic—sophisticated but provisional rules of thumb—and not ultimate explanatory principles into which all can be analyzed and resolved. Jung is, therefore, more of a storyteller and myth-maker than a scientist or philosopher in the traditional or strict sense. He is more of an artist, visionary, and (non-dogmatic) religious thinker, to my mind, than a resolver of human problems into irreducible terms or elements, as Freud and Nietzsche attempt to be—but fail to pull off in a convincing manner.

Life is change—and change necessarily involves the ceaseless death and transcendence of the status quo. Living conditions (and the contexts within which the events of life make any coherent sense) are continually undergoing subtle and sometimes momentous transformations—both inside and out. So far as we can tell, no dogmatic theology and no rational explanatory scheme can ever fully account for, or adequately represent, that protean mystery we call ‘life.’ Life can be experienced—if only through a glass darkly, and in non-lethal doses—but it can never be firmly grasped or explained by our feeble philosophies and by the imperfect lights of our minds. Our most eloquent and grave statements about life are no more than stabs by pocket knives into the thick folds of ever-metamorphosing flesh which enclose this elusive motherfather that has spawned our mind-body complexes. Such grandiose statements are impressive only to the foolish and virginal minds of persons who believe that these petty little pin-pricks penetrate the thick layers of opacity, reaching down to the bones and to the heart of life itself. I have certainly counted myself among such fools, but having persisted in my folly, I have gradually begun more frankly to perceive my folly for what it is. And how can I not here speak ‘in praise of folly’ when I know that wisdom which believes in itself with conviction immediately pulls the ‘wise man’ back to the start of the line, where he is forced to re-begin his steep ascents (and deep descents) behind more knowing ‘fools.’ But then, to know is to know that one knows not. Truly spoken words sound paradoxical. Flat statements fall flat on their asses.