The Art of Individuation (2/15/11)

The discipline of the individuation process must be taken up day after day because, like athletic practice or musical performance, it is an activity and an art. Passivity only makes us rusty (or fuzzy) individuals, guitarists, and pole-vaulters. A path is formed by walking on it, as the Taoist says, but just as surely that path ends when we stop moving.[1] And when we stop and take up a new path in a new direction the former one soon becomes carpeted with weeds and wild grass. Our individuality becomes liberated by blazing and following our own path, but at the same time our lives are bound in dutiful service to the path that we have opened. Who else is going to tend to it—or should, for that matter? The manifestation and the experience of our inimitable, unique self is consubstantial with our path.   Because our path reflects and ‘dialogues with’ the surrounding world, it becomes our world only as we bring as much of the outside into us as we can assimilate and ‘digest.’

Shakespeare brings the wit and joviality of humanity into himself and then gives birth to Falstaff. He brings grace and modesty into himself and he gives us Desdemona and Cordelia. He takes in sententiousness and hollow prolixity and gives us Polonius and Paroles. He divines uncompromising existential probity and transforms it in the crucible of his imagination into Hamlet. He ingests evil and metabolizes it into Iago and Edmund. I take the works of Shakespeare into myself and see through their artful and entertaining surface into the process of imaginative transfiguration of ‘world’ into ‘soul stuff.’ It is amusing to hear his biographers tell us, over and over again, that we know next to nothing about the actual man, William Shakespeare, since there are so few recorded facts about his life. This is the mark of the literalist. He simply cannot see what is right in front of him because he is looking for something entirely different, and much less important, than that something which is right in front of him—the meaning-making process (and product) of the supreme poet, or maker. They search wildly through dark pantries and cupboards for the flour, salt, sugar, and eggs instead of beholding and enjoying the cake that has been assembled from these ingredients and baked to perfection by the poet. They will learn much more about cooking on their own by attending to the cake than by searching out the ingredients blended and baked by the genius. Ingredients are always easier to come by than is the art that instinctively knows how to make the highest use of them.

In the careful examination of our own or another person’s life it is perhaps far less fruitful and illuminating to focus upon the biographical ingredients—or raw materials—than it is to concentrate upon the artful use to which these (often commonly-occurring and widely available) ingredients have been put in the making of that life by the person we are studying—or by that person’s genius, his or her daimon, muse, or tutelary spirit. We do better to concentrate our attention on the growth and development of the subject’s distinctive, guiding vision and his understanding of the whole (and of his place in that whole), rather than upon the mundane details of his early upbringing, his teachers and his friendships, and other matters of personal concern. No one will deny that such personal factors and formative conditions play a shaping role in the life and work of our subject, but the more imaginative and genuinely creative he is, the less strictly determining will be these literal, biographical influences. The less powerful the guiding light of individual genius, the more thoroughly shaped and determined that life will be by collective and biographical factors.

For the true genius, such biographical ingredients will often be of little value in and of themselves, however obliged we all are to come to terms with our personal histories. The great artist is distinguished from the generality precisely in his or her ability to create a second—and significantly more interesting, subtle, and enduring—world (of words, images, melodies, deeds) that transcends the crude factual, biographical realm in which most of us remain snugly and more or less contentedly embedded. This transcendence through artful means and the transformative processes of an imaginative nature is not a mere escape from the ‘real’ or factual world of raw ingredients—a misjudgment frequently made by non-artists who have little or no direct experience with this disciplined work of the imagination and with the speculative mind which sees into, through, and beyond the brute facts and biographical data. The artist, rather than escaping from the given, literal world of common experience, selects his material (or ingredients) from that common world and then organizes, distills, and imaginatively transforms that material in order to make meaning, or soul, out of it.

Moreover, the true artist—insofar as he/she is genuine—does not do this chiefly for fame, wealth, or for any other ulterior motive, although the world may choose to ‘reward’ (or tempt) him with these secondary goods that it has to offer. He will make art, meaning, and soul because he must—because she is driven to do so. Once he has tasted of this rare fruit that he, like a gifted horticulturist, has learned over time to cultivate, everything changes. She can never go back to the way things were before—the way, alas, that things always are for many of us most of the time—quotidian, mechanical, repetitive, drab, and ghostlike. The world of mundane preoccupations, the flood of merely titillating, inflaming, and generally distracting information from every direction, the Sisyphean see-saw of hunger and satiety, lust and discharge, excitement and boredom, getting our affairs in order while we wait, stoically or fretfully, for death with the television on—all of this, when compared to those precious moments of genuine creativity strewn here and there throughout his day, cannot but seem like the most God-forsaken, barren desert to the true artist who has diligently followed his muse into a place where water flows and green things grow.

 

[1] Even balancing our lives involves a continuous kind of movement—a subtle shifting this way and that in order to maintain the desired equilibrium of rivaling pushes and pulls. Even to stay ‘centered,’ then, in a state of relative stillness and quiet requires such delicate and artful movement.

The Birthright (1/24/17)

The better part of what the thinker-poet does consists, of course, in suitably matching his available inventory of words, concepts, and metaphors with the more or less steady stream of nebulous seed-intuitions, moods, affects, and perspectives that mysteriously arise from “God knows where.” If truth be told, it is this cloud-like mysterium that assigns the terms and conditions of the relationship, and not the thinker-poet, who is little more than an obliging vessel, a capable servant, and a talented translator of a kind of text without words. Sticking with the image of the cloud (“the raincloud of knowable things”), the mind of the philosopher-poet achieves the “dew point,” enabling these vaporous possibilities to undergo condensation into fluid images and metaphors. It is precisely here that meaning is born.

To employ a different extended metaphor to depict this ongoing oscillation between impregnation and delivery that is always at the core of the creative life: at first, the mind of the thinker-poet and the mysterium are juxtaposed like ovum and sperm.  Following insemination, the developing “embryo” gestates within the watery womb of the philosopher-poet’s imagination. While there, this embryo recaps, figuratively speaking, the intermediate stages (“ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”) through which our primordial ancestors clawed and gnawed, slithered and groped, their crooked way to that self-reflexive angel-beast, the human being.  When the moment of delivery arrives, there should be no confusion about what sort of creature has been born. Its past is hidden within its present shape—a long and eventful past has been condensed and woven together in such promising, but fragile children. What you have just read is but a modest example of such a “condensation” – an enactment, if you will.

I have called attention to the seemingly privileged creature, the “thinker-poet” – as though he or she were singled out and specially entrusted with a sacred office: namely, to usher this precious, vital substance into a cultural arena that craves meaning just as hungrily as our bodies crave salt. But make no mistake: all of us, by virtue of our human status, are, without exception, endowed with this sacred office and – if anything is deserving of the term – divine potential. It is our birthright as humans, regardless of the actual scope, depth, and quality of our daily engagement in the work of meaning-creation. This charge or privilege is thrust upon us whether or not we lovingly and gratefully embrace it. But to deny this birthright may prove to be the greatest “sin” we can commit against ourselves and against the mysterium that has inexplicably permitted us, however fleetingly, to appear as individual, conscious creators.

All of us are endowed, from birth, with instincts that propel, roughly define, and guide much of our thought and behavior. When these innate drives and instincts suffer trauma or if they regularly overpower us, problems ensue. Analogously, if our innate meaning-creating capacity remains dormant or becomes damaged and deformed by misuse or mis-education, serious problems arise. We know, intuitively, that a healthy human existence depends, to a large extent, upon awakened, functioning, balanced drives and instincts. I would further suggest that each of us – provided we’ve got a certain amount of experience and reflection under our belts – is equipped with all that is necessary to recognize and to follow his/her calling. Our calling or vocation is not necessarily the professional career path we follow to earn a living (although often enough they coincide), but neither are we talking here about mere hobbies or recreational activities we pursue in our spare time. Our calling or vocation (as this word is used in a religious context) may be said to serve as a kind of portal or gateway between the individual and the much larger whole of which he/she is a part. So we can see here that, rather than being something secondary or peripheral to our life or fate, our innate calling is every bit as essential to our psychic or spiritual well-being as food and shelter are to our physical well-being.

Moreover, while roughly distinguishable, these two arenas – the physical/external and the psychic/internal – are not separate, but constitute two sides of a single coin. Thus, problems or imbalances on one side of the coin invariably lead to problems and imbalances on the other. Sociopathy and depression appear to be the prevalent disorders today. Mightn’t both of these widespread maladies stem, in large part, from the failure of a significant portion of the population to have recognized and followed its innate calling? And, it will be asked, to what extent has our present culture – with its peculiar, lopsided aims and methods of “education” – actively contributed to this widespread psychological malaise? Does such an unnatural and psychologically pernicious system even deserve to be called a “culture”? Or is it not more accurate to call it a breeding ground for disease – every bit as unhygienic for human souls as the mosquito-filled marshes, rat-infested slums, and unsanitary conditions of the past were for the bodies of our forebears? Have we rid ourselves of one set of unsanitary conditions only to replace them with another – on the plane of psyche?

On Dialectic and Rhetoric (10/18/15)

I realize how important it is to overcome the mind’s natural tendency to be charmed into obedience or assent by eloquence, by flattery directed towards our wishes and prejudices, and by rhetoric. Rigorous dialectic has something very un-charming and dis-illusioning about it. It cuts through the beautiful flesh of eloquence in order to reveal the musculature and skeletal structure (or lack thereof) hiding below the fetching, distracting, and often misleading surface. As such, dialectical thinking is perhaps intrinsically ruthless, painful, and disturbing. And yet it is essential to the quest for the truth precisely because its task is to flay the thick layers of skin and flab that normally conceal more than they reveal of the truth that lies at a deeper, subtler level of experience. With such gruesome images in mind, it should come as no surprise that Socrates was feared and detested by those in his midst who deeply resented having their piss-poor innards and frothy pretentions unveiled and publicly displayed by that peerless old vivisectionist of souls. Only the toughest and most sincere lovers of truth would have welcomed—or willingly withstood—such a torturous unmasking. Apollodorus—who is presented in the Symposium as semi-misanthropic despiser of himself and of everyone else but Socrates—may have been just such a toughened and dis-illusioned candidate for philosophical self-enquiry, if not an altogether flattering portrait of one.

We might wonder: Was not Plato, in attempting to beautify philosophy, behaving as an even more audacious ironist than Socrates? Does he not, in fact, ‘meta-ironically’ employ Socrates’ irony as a lightning rod to absorb and deflect far more serious charges from himself? Wasn’t Nietzsche justifiably suspicious—if not flatly dismissive—of Plato’s equation of ‘truth, beauty, and goodness’?

****

If, from the standpoint of ordinary human expectations, preferences, and desires, the unvarnished truth concerning the fundamental questions of human life is ugly, then doesn’t it follow that beauty and truth can only coincide or converge for the philosopher who has dialectically ascended the ladder of understanding to a vantage point high above the normal (‘interested’ or desire-infused) human perspective? Such a person would necessarily have transcended those run-of-the-mill expectations, preferences, and desires before truth could be purged of the ugliness it necessarily possesses for the resistant non-philosopher. Is it possible that seductive beauty and off-putting ugliness cancel each other out in the neutral but vital contentment of the philosopher whose perspective has transcended this familiar pair of opposites?

If we allow ‘eros’ to stand (or substitute) for philosophy—or even philosophical insight—we see (at 201e in the Symposium) that Diotima clears up the ‘dichotomy’ in Socrates’ mind by asking him, “Do you believe that whatever is not beautiful must necessarily be ugly?” Eros, like philosophy, turns out to be something neither good nor bad, beautiful nor ugly, but something ‘in between.’

*****

The final chapter of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

 

True words are not beautiful;

Beautiful words are not true.

A good man does not argue;

He who argues is not a good man.

A wise man has no extensive knowledge;

He who has extensive knowledge is not a wise man.

The Sage does not accumulate for himself.

The more he uses for others, the more he has for himself.

The more he gives to others, the more he possesses of his own.

The way of Heaven is to benefit others and not to injure.

The way of the Sage is to act but not to compete.

Lao Tzu’s words (which, after all these centuries, still startle) echo the observation concerning Plato’s ‘beautification’ of philosophy—and Nietzsche’s astute rejection of Plato’s equation of truth-beauty-goodness. Plato could purge his Republic of the poets, but it took all the disappointments of a long, uncannily circumspect and irreproachably honest life to silence the beautifying poet in himself, as we see in the later dialogues, which are models of logical-lexical rigor. (And, despite himself, Nietzsche doesn’t seem to have had any more luck along these same lines than Plato did…although if he had lived longer, who knows? Perhaps he, too, would have eventually seen through and tamed the Circe of intoxicating eloquence.)

Perhaps beauty—like pleasure—pertains to the inherently preferential individual ego, but—like ugliness and displeasure—are matters of indifference and irrelevance to the truly liberated spirit. In becoming liberated from the ‘ego and its own,’ doesn’t the spirit transcend all those preferences, desires, fears, and concept-convictions that define, bind, and drive individual ego-consciousness?

On Intellectual Hedonism (3/15)

Perhaps after having invested months of care and doting attention to a half-dozen or so translations and various commentaries on Dante’s Commedia, I have earned the right to make a few tentative criticisms of Dante scholarship as a complex, ongoing enterprise.

I will begin by expressing my gratitude and heartfelt appreciation for the contributions made by serious scholars and commentators—reference materials, insightful textual analyses, and historical-biographical studies that help to open up this difficult text to the modern reader. Without their conscientious efforts, Dante’s great poem would have been practically opaque and impenetrable to me. With this level or realm of scholarly knowledge and information I have no quarrel—only heartfelt gratitude.

My direct acquaintance with the (albeit translated) works of Dante reveals an extraordinary mind that is vast and subtle, profound and superbly artful.   The same claims, alas, cannot be made for the majority of the Dantisti, the professional and amateur scholars who, over the centuries, have devoted themselves to unlocking and exploring this justly revered text. At times, when I am reading Hollander’s or Durling’s impeccably detailed and well-researched notes on a minor figure from the Inferno or on a much-disputed tercet from the Purgatorio, I get the queasy feeling that I am listening to treble-voiced Lilliputians ‘holding forth’ about Gulliver, whom they believe they have managed to tie down and bind with oodles and oodles of twine. All too often, the sense of who Dante genuinely was and of what he has bequeathed to the world in his great poem is flattened out and watered down by these diligent scholarly laborers—reduced, that is, to the modest, bite-sized terms that they and their fellow Dantisti can more or less comfortably fit into their encyclopedic, information-processing noggins. Again, I am not trying here to disparage the service these scholars are providing—as far as that service extends. I merely wish to suggest that perhaps only a mind as subtle and comprehensive as Dante’s is in a position to fully appreciate what he’s accomplished and how he pulled this off.

In defense of these modern-day Dante scholars, it must at once be admitted that, as moderns, they inhabit a very different cultural-spiritual context (or worldview) than Dante woke up to each morning of his sublimely thoughtful, thoroughly engaged life. The modern mind enters Dante’s poem, with its very different—and now obsolete—cultural-spiritual context, like a fidgety hand fits into an expertly tailored glove. As a necessary consequence of this fact, we modern students of Dante’s poem are at an enormous disadvantage—the very real conditions of which must be taken thoroughly into account if we aim, in our reading, to establish a functional bridge between Dante’s ‘world’ and our own very different one. Otherwise, all we will be confronting there will be an impenetrable, archaic relic from an earlier, strange stage of our cultural history. As such, this relic—regardless of how interesting or curious it happens to be as a mere fossil from the past—will remain dumb to us or as stumpingly ambiguous as the murky mutterings of a writhing, spittle-spewing priestess at Delphi. For those who are content with this arrangement—to stand on one bank of a river while Dante’s world remains fixed in place on the other bank, with no real bridge in between—then what I am suggesting here about a deeper way of reading Dante will make little appeal. For what I want is to be able to cross that river and get to Dante—or conversely, to have Dante’s transcultural, supra-historical insights stretch across that river (of elapsed time) to my imaginatively receptive soul. Such bridging, while it may be significantly assisted by fine scholarship, transcends merely academic or scholarly aims and concerns.

Reading Dante along with copious notes and commentary has helped me to better understand what sort of reader I am no longer content to be. This gradual realization—a transforming attitude towards reading that is still being negotiated—coincides with my changing attitude towards all intellectual activity, per se. I no longer view intellectual activity for its own sake (or the self-delighting play of the intellect) as ‘above suspicion.’ In fact, I am more inclined than ever before to classify such intellectual playfulness (and the pleasure it yields) as a species of highbrow entertainment. I have not become quite so austere that I am ready to dispense with all forms of entertainment on principle, but neither do I fail to recognize that a ‘susceptible’ fellow like me can easily overindulge such playfulness. It may turn out to be true that the highest—or, if you prefer, the deepest—perspective of which I am capable is imbued with a ‘divine levity.’ Such a perspective would be devoid of the grim sternness that shuns playfulness and light-hearted nonchalance. It is my strong suspicion that true centeredness transcends both undesirable extremes: frothy-frivolous, puerile levity and dense, somber, senex-gravity. Centeredness, I reckon, is beyond all such states, attitudes, moods, and postures. Because it comprehends and transcends all stances, it is—as it were—a non-stance.

But let us be honest: A person whose life is fanatically devoted to the quest for exquisite intellectual and aesthetic pleasures is every bit as much a ‘hedonist’ as the person whose chief love is for sensual pleasures—say, of a gastronomic, bibulous, or erogenous sort. We see here a distinction merely of grade or subtlety, but not of kind, since the attainment of a pleasure-state (of one type or another) is the shared, defining goal of all hedonistic pursuits. It is true, of course, that rare and exquisite pleasures require some degree of care and cultivation—and this entails a measure of effort and application on the part of the devoted hedonist. Nevertheless, such effort is deemed an acceptable price to pay for the refined and subtle delights for which only the connoisseur or cognoscente is eligible. There is usually a considerable bit of vanity or self-congratulatory snootiness mixed in with the hedonism in such cases—so that the pleasure-seeker experiences a delight bonus (in whatever he happens to be pursuing for pleasure) in the pleasant acknowledgement of his superiority over all those ‘beneath him’) who have not yet attained his choosy and exacting standards!

Giving the Spirit the Respect it’s Due: a Note on Tolstoy (11/06)

Tolstoy’s preposterously perverse (and delightfully hilarious) claim that Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe was a finer work of literature than Shakespeare’s King Lear has (since its declaration in his 1897 essay, “What is Art?”) provoked more sound and fury than insight into his hidden meaning. Tolstoy’s seemingly unjust belittlement of Shakespeare’s genius (and his elevation of Stowe’s moralistic novel to such exalted status) has been attributed to the Count’s envy of the bard, or to his stubborn preference for ‘moral’ art over what he took to be Shakespeare’s reluctance to cast more definitive moral judgment upon his characters. And while there is no doubt a measure of truth in such attempts to account for Tolstoy’s outrageous and peculiar remark, I’m not sure they satisfactorily resolve this mysterious matter.

It should first be recalled that in his later years, Tolstoy’s practical and philosophical asceticism was carried to such an extreme that he effectively renounced his entire previous literary output—the work of one of the supreme artists in the history of world literature. Few novelists have given the world such rich offerings as came from the prolific pen of this great lover—and keen observer—of humanity. If anyone can be said to have understood and to have appreciated the enormous value of art for life—from the inside out, so to speak—Tolstoy did, as Shakespeare had before him.

If we can provisionally agree that the marvelous creations of literary genius come to us from the province of the soul, or imagination—and the peculiarly anti-worldly virtues of asceticism come from the austere and purified spirit, then perhaps we place ourselves in a better position to approach Tolstoy’s quarrel with Shakespeare—as well as his near-rejection of his own imaginative creations—from a deeper psychological perspective than those typically entertained.

I would suggest that what we are up against in Tolstoy’s roundabout disparagement of the imagination (or, more precisely, an imagination that is not ultimately beholden to ‘Christian’ morality) is the perhaps unavoidable tension between spirit, as such, and soul, regarded here as the reflective and imaginative mediatrix between spirit and body. The tension, from the perspective of spirit, arises because the imagination, by its very nature, seduces the spirit out of its detached, isolated unity, down from its imageless altitude and purity—back into ‘the world, the flesh, and the devil,’ as it were—the tragicomedy of the human-all-too-human. Tolstoy’s asceticism, like all genuine forms of asceticism, aimed chiefly at transcendence, at complete and pure renunciation of all binding (and blinding) attachments. My sneaking suspicion is that the most stubbornly tenacious attachment of all for Tolstoy was his attachment to his work as an imaginative artist. (We must be grateful for the ‘lapses,’ in his old age, from this austere suspension of his literary work—when his genius got the better of him, and, as a result, we have an extraordinary novella like the wonderful Hadji Murat to delight in.) To the very end, in spite of his unquestionably sincere efforts to transcend his former self, he remained an artist through and through. The swipe he makes at Shakespeare is perhaps best taken as the index of his frustration over being unable altogether to change his own spots.

It is worth noting that in Shakespeare’s final play, Prospero throws his book of spells and magic incantations into the sea after striking the ‘magical isle’ stage set he has previously conjured. But then Shakespeare, too, seems to have been unable to completely sever his long and vitalizing connection with the London theater, as we know from his subsequent collaborations.

Perhaps the deepest hindrance that stood in the way of Tolstoy’s efforts to become thoroughly ‘spiritual’ or ‘transcended’ rested in his ultimate inability to decisively move ‘beyond good and evil’—as Nietzsche may very possibly have done, if only in episodic, discontinuous spurts of precarious ecstasy. His thoroughly humane and compassionate nature, and not merely his infinitely fertile imagination, prevented him, ironically, from abstracting his mind and attention completely into the realm of cold, pure spirit, where all attachments must first be incinerated before permanent residence is permitted.

 

Aphorisms, Invitations, and Provocations (V)

121. The Greatest Threat of all: From the standpoint of ego-consciousness, perhaps no thought is more threatening or horrifying than the idea of the essential oneness of reality, or the Self.  Why?  With the return to oneness—the return to the one source—the distinction between the Self and other is dissolved.  No more subject-object distinction!  And, of course, every thing and every person the separate ego lives (and may be prepared to die) for hangs upon the thread of this mental ‘illusion’ of duality.  Hence, oneness, or the ultimate unity at the source of all creation, is the scariest thought of all to mere human egos.  Far more menacing than Nietzsche’s ‘eternal recurrence’ idea!  What is experienced as supreme bliss and utter peace from a perspective just beyond the ego’s is dreaded with horror by the ego—and perhaps understandably so, since it must repeatedly pay the ultimate price in order for the Self to emerge into consciousness.  It must get out of the way!

122. It is almost certain that we grow into our individuality in a manner that resembles the downloading of a bittorrent—where a large file is broken up into many pieces, and the pieces gathered from multiple sources, as they become available.  Then, as these fragments are gradually accumulated, they are assembled into the coherent file that we eventually open and experience as a more or less coherent movie.  But then, this is an ideal or best-case scenario, is it not?  Are all the pieces of the whole file—the whole life—ever finally gathered?  This is highly doubtful.  What is certain is that the path to wholeness is never a straight line, but a crooked, zigzag, up-and-down journey that is never the shortest distance between point A and point B.  It is an episodic, picaresque journey that regularly detours from the straight way.  Sometimes the expedition comes to a complete halt for long stretches of time before resuming in a fresh direction.

123. The individual most emphatically does not become a microcosm—or miniature replica of the cosmos—by accident or without effort, any more than Plato’s Republic or Goethe’s Faust wrote themselves.  The ‘whole’ or complete individual is every bit as much a work of art as he is a child of nature.  Perhaps the dismantlement and transcendence of individual consciousness similarly requires a high degree of art—the art of liberation?

124. Taking the Middle Road between Scientism and Christianism Today: In view of what has degenerated into a spiritually barbaric feud between shallow, doltish, moralistic ‘fundamentalist’ believers and secular, science-friendly skeptics, agnostics, and atheists, I refuse to align myself with either side—as these populous sides are presently constituted.  Interestingly, they both suffer from similar infections: literalism, arrogance, narrow-mindedness, psychological superficiality, smugness, and a lamentable lack of (bridging) imagination.  Because the adherents to either side of this generally hostile cultural divide are almost invariably the animated mouthpieces for affectively-charged, dogmatic opinions, rather than exemplars of multifaceted wisdom and psychological nuance, much heat and little light comes from the war between them.  I’ll have none of it.

125. Instead of announcing (to anyone who might be interested) ‘This is where I stand’ (on some particular philosophical or psychological issue), I now find that it is more honest and accurate to proclaim, ‘This is where I currently swim on this matter!’

126. Oscar Wilde’s great genius (and his superior humanity) consisted in his exceptional ability to see through the generally misleading, hypocritical, and shallow surface level of social behavior and conventional morality and make his findings amusing instead of scornful (after the manner of a Cato or Pascal—and even Mark Twain in his last years), enlightening rather than merely chiding, humanizing instead of misanthropic (as with Heraclitus and Nietzsche, now and then).

127. In a quest for clarity and airtight certainty, perhaps far too many of us willingly accept a tiny plot of well-guarded turf where we unwittingly insulate ourselves from vast swaths of perfectly experienceable reality—all those possible experiences that we will never actually have.  Upon our tiny-tidy plots of well-fortified turf we become so familiar with every square centimeter that any chance of surprise, shock, or inconvenience is assiduously reduced to the barest minimum.  But, as with any closed-off and cramped enclosure, access to fresh, vitalizing air declines in direct proportion to our ascending mastery over the last few remaining leaks in our systems.  Nevertheless, our self-suffocation usually progresses so gradually that we lose consciousness long before we actually die.

128. Inland mines.  These days, I shy away more and more knowingly from all unitary systems or explanatory models.  No One—except that mysterious and incomprehensible whole which forever eludes all our cartographing and conceptualizing—can possibly do justice to the continually transforming drama that is life-and-psyche.  Better, I find, simply to give “thick” descriptions of those fleeting moments of epiphanal insighting—encountered like randomly placed, time-delay, land mines designed to blow off the legs of any lazy settler who would presume to stand and plant himself instead of continuing on his way.

129. The enlightened mind is inclined to perceive everyday events—along with the actual opinions and behavior of human beings—as manifest symptoms or effects of (usually unconscious and invisible) causal factors.  There is recognition of the extremely narrow limits within which preaching, shaming, cajoling, and exhorting are able to work.  It is well understood that mere changes in behavior or in one’s prejudices do little to reform or to regenerate one’s will.  And the will always secretly governs or steers one’s actual, innermost beliefs as well as one’s actual, as opposed to feigned and rationalized, behavior.  Because the enlightened person ‘gets’ this—because the truth of it has sunk in—he knows to expect little from preachments directed to the unready, the unripe, the ‘defended’ or insulated soul.  The mind, then, appears to wait upon the will—in some fundamental way.  It is the will that must be ripe for change—for moral-spiritual transformation—before the mind can open up to the truth that is always present or within easy reach.  The truth is always available precisely because it is not ‘information,’ but an alignment between the quieted mind and reality.  But none of this simple and timeless truth can be properly registered unless and until the noisy mind—full of inherited untruths and half-truths—settles down and submits.

130. Belated Ruminations on some Inflated Expectations.  When I was young I often found persons, ordinary activities and emotions, schoolwork, and much else offensive on what I now suspect were aesthetic grounds.  There was much about myself, my ‘culture,’ and my surroundings that I instinctively regarded as boring, crude, shabby, sloppy, and shallow.  At around the age of sixteen or so I began to seek refuge in literature, in ‘philosophical’ ideas—and in the life of the mind, generally.  Now, well into my fifties, I am beginning to see this refuge as a kind of (posh) prison (for the spiritual equivalent of white-collar criminals).  So much of what used to excite and entice me now feels rather like a luxurious (and pricey) distraction.  The costliness of these (fairly exclusive and by no means popularly embraced) distractions pertains to the years of care, study, and reflection that were required to cultivate my appreciation for these exquisite intellectual and aesthetic snowflakes that melt so easily into irrelevant nothingness in the presence of the far more noble and satisfying silence from which they have distracted me for decades.

131. On Leisure as a Need. Isn’t a serious thinker’s need for leisure tied up with the demand that he slow down before he can be granted even a fragment of wisdom—that commonly undervalued wisdom distilled by those bygone, “pre-modern” races of tradition-bound humans? Wasn’t it precisely the constancy and the slowly turning rotisserie of human drama that allowed such wisdom to cook and to cure—like photographs that require long exposure to faint light before the negative can capture the full richness and delicate shadings of the photographed object? Isn’t this why clever, “successful” persons in the modern world are seldom wise and—vice versa—why wise persons, scarce though they be, are seldom clever and successful by the warped standards of modern civilization? The one demands the utmost from the versatile and mercurial learning capacity, while the other necessarily reaches down below that surface intellect into the older resonances of the intuition and the archetypal imagination, neither of which answers to the clock or the watch.

132. When in purgatory, purge. Don’t binge.

133. Where there is no such thing as time, there is no time to waste. Or…there is no time to waste in our efforts to get to the place where there is no time to waste?

134. Alchemical fable: What happens when we begin not merely to view, but to experience, the concrete events and personal relationships in our daily lives as the ore, or the raw material out of which the precious, but immaterial meaning is painstakingly extracted? A strange thing happens. As soon as essential meaning is grasped and digested—assimilated and incorporated, as it were, into the soul—it is as if the concrete remnants or ‘leftover’ material becomes devoid of gripping significance. The formerly projected value and meaning has been recollected, reabsorbed into the soul from whence it sprang, and all that remains before us are the gorgeous or grotesque shells and husks of our former life—which turns out to have been a kind of enthrallment, a captivating, coagulated dream from which we have miraculously awakened. This may sound like a sad fable to some ears, but it should be remembered that in undergoing this dis-enchantment, we recover the lost or neglected meaning of our lives. We have awakened and in our wakefulness we are offered protection against hypnotic ensnarement by the siren song of the world—and perhaps this is to be rejoiced in, not lamented.

135. “The greatest gift that the guru can offer the disciple is to show him that he is nothing and that he does not matter.” “But,” you will ask, “who are you referring to—the guru or the disciple?”—to which I will wryly reply: “How could it possibly matter?”

136. Few endeavors provoke more inner noise than the strenuous effort to be still.

137. When the Allies defeated the Germans and the Japanese, power without a myth (unless it was the ‘myth’ of freedom) triumphed over power from myth (of…racial superiority).

138. Contemporary America: We can only hope and pray that Blake was divinely inspired when he wrote: “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”

139. It is always helpful, I have found, to remember that ‘ego’  is not a thing or an entity, but a mode of consciousness—rather like dreaming is not a thing or an entity, but a mode of consciousness.

140.  If, in this world, there are builders and destroyers, it would appear that I am every bit as much a destroyer as I am the other. Genuine freedom pertains to the dissolution and smashing of binding, constraining forms that the indwelling spirit has begun to outgrow—so freedom is necessarily bound up with destruction. The kinds of forms that the spirit willfully destroys (or dissolves) are mental forms—thoughtforms—but once these have been overhauled or dispensed with, results are bound to follow on the emotional and physical planes.

141. Just as vulgarity and the obvious will often pass unnoticed by rare and exceptional souls, so the subtle is reliably lost upon the gross.

142. Youthful enthusiasm is inseparable from youthful ignorance, while adult enthusiasm depends largely on a talent for forgetfulness.

143. Meditation is not a waste of time. It is a taste of timelessness.

144. What are we left with after all the self-canceling opposites have cancelled each other out? Are we canceled out, as well, with the collapse or neutralization of that sustaining tension?

145. First I am a sinker; then, I am a thinker (logos from the bathos?).

146. Rooting out radicals in our midst: My guess is that not a few of my countrymen—were they to read some of my cultural criticism—would label me a ‘radical thinker.’ But I would contend that any person who thinks long and deeply about being human in a world of other desiring, fearing, deluded, and deluding humans necessarily deserves that title—‘radical.’ Radical comes from the ‘root’ word radix which, not without exquisite irony, means none other than root. So, rooted in his delving thought about the roots of what his humanness consists in, a thinker becomes radical by a kind of necessity—by fate. Or at least by etymological reduction!

147. It was not our destiny to maintain the pretense of a friendship that was based solely upon sentimental attachment to earlier versions of one another that we both gradually and decisively outgrew.

148. So long as we recognize a center, we must also acknowledge a periphery. The move (in consciousness) from the periphery towards centeredness is a qualitative move towards greater stillness—towards silence and detachment.

149. Even at its best, mundane human life is little more than a Navajo sand painting.

150. Cassandra was not among the cheerfullest of ancient mythological figures.

 

Ego Development and Instinctual Man (4/10-Salta, Argentina)

There are certain obvious parallels between love, eros, the ‘Dionysian,’ on the one side, and power, logos, the ‘Apollonian,’ on the other. The features of ‘measured distance’ and of the principium individuationis which are associated with the Apollonian also turn out to be distinctive features of ego-consciousness—which is heroically acquired by the gradual differentiation of the young person from a primal state of identification with the mother. Thus, the experience of being a separated self begins and continues throughout the course of one’s life. The merging with a partner in the erotic transports of romantic love and the sense of being absorbed and contained by the group (the tribe, the nation, the corporation, Dallas Cowboy and Dave Matthews fans, etc.) are culturally recognized, momentary interruptions or suspensions of this state of distance or dis-identification that is basic to ego-consciousness. In such moments of erotic or collective absorption, there is often an expansive feeling that accompanies the melting away of the usually solid walls that hem in the ego. We might speak of the connection between such experiences and the ‘mother’ archetype, or the ‘Gods’ Eros and Dionysus.

The emergence of ego-consciousness depends at the outset, therefore, upon disturbing the initial state of physical, emotional, and psychic identification of the child with the mother. Later, the gradual strengthening and ‘coagulation’ of the ego involves the focusing of the conscious will and the development of our individual powers and talents. In heightening and polishing these personal powers and talents we may gain distinction within our society and obtain encouraging rewards. If, on the other hand, we allow these talents and capacities to “fust in us unused,” we run the risk of blending into the dull and featureless background of the undistinguished. The admiration and envy evoked in others by the ego that rises by its own efforts high above the lumpen masses can serve as strong incentives to those strenuous exertions that are required to hold onto one’s privileges and one’s social cachet. The acquisition of this elating and invigorating sense of power and esteem within our social and/or historical setting can become the supreme goal to which the individual ego consecrates his/her best energies and efforts. The maintenance and enlargement of his sense of power and importance have, by this point, become the unchallenged priorities of his life. He is their unquestioning, obedient servant. In remaining their servant and in continuing to make of himself the best doctor, lawyer, football- or guitar-player he can be, he serves the general culture, which rewards him, perhaps, with a handsome salary and trophies of various sizes, forms, and dress sizes. He becomes a model or index of what other egos can accomplish if they, too, are willing to make the necessary but acceptable sacrifices.

But what are those sacrifices? What might the comparatively undistinguished and undifferentiated ‘mass man’ enjoy in more plenteous abundance and reliability than the former type—the ‘achiever’ whose higher profile personal status imposes greater pressures and constraints— if, that is, the special powers of thought and/or action upon which his status is founded are not to slacken and be outstripped by the competition? Doesn’t the less differentiated ego frequently enjoy a closer, more enfolding connection with that womb or matrix of instinctual drives and energies from which the more acutely self-conscious ego has strenuously differentiated itself? There would seem, then, to be a noteworthy trade-off entailed in the intensification, focusing, and articulation of ego-consciousness—and what gets traded away, to some greater or lesser degree, is that anchoredness in the natural and self-regulating instincts that we all start off with as tit-sucking, buggar-munching, bed-wetting, poop-smearing, drooling, muling, puking little ‘human animals.’ The more complex and highly differentiated the consciousness, the greater the risk of losing one’s rootedness in the simple, natural instincts and in one’s sense of being securely grounded in his/her (or anybody else’s) body. A kind of self-alienation or dissociation from the root of one’s animal self—from the heart and the belly, as it were—can occur.

We can recognize analogies between the development of ego-consciousness, on the one hand, and art and agriculture, on the other. The as-yet uncivilized, infant psyche may be likened to a tract of earth. This plot of earth can be gradually transformed into a productive farm, but first, it must be cleared of trees and boulders. Only then can the land be profitably worked.  Before that, it is merely nature—and this corresponds to the ‘raw’ human being prior to his being provided with a language, cultural imprinting, moral instruction and an education to equip him to be a contributing member of his society. Because a productive farm is more than mere nature, it does not create itself, but depends upon the art of agri-culture for its genesis. Nevertheless, it is always rooted in—and dependent upon—nature in order to produce its fruit and grains, just as the productive ego is always rooted in its raw, natural instincts, which may be said to motorize and empower it. When these instinctual energies are weakened, damaged, or blocked, the ego suffers much as a crop suffers from drought, blight, or impoverished soil. Although the farm is rooted in and dependent upon nature as it is given, like every art, agriculture itself has something that is not merely natural or spontaneously given by nature—any more than the Mona Lisa or a Ford Taurus is spontaneously given by nature. The raw materials are given by nature, but the design and execution of these ‘works’ depend on culture. The connection between the words ‘art’ and ‘artificial’ is not an accidental or insignificant one. The most complex, comprehensive, and marvelous specimens of human consciousness depend partly upon natural endowments (which, like the bodies and genes we are born with, may either be enviable or lamentable), but the rest—perhaps the lion’s share—depends upon what use we make of our natural inheritance. This, perhaps more than any other factor, is what differentiates one person from the next.[1]

If a man feels a drive to distinguish himself through some art or virtue in order, primarily, to satisfy his vanity or to stuff his pockets with far more money than he requires for a secure existence, then we say that he prostitutes his genuine gifts in the service of his baser appetites and drives. He may nonetheless still be a great musician or scientist, and insofar as he is an exceptional musician or scientist he may rightly be said to contribute something to culture by means of his own individuation. In short, he serves two very different ends, both of which may be said to be larger than himself: the culture and his oversized, uncontrolled appetites for fame and wealth. These two very different ‘pulls’—one from above, as it were, and the other from below—can and often do coexist in one exceptional soul, who is the ‘dwarfed’ servant caught in the middle.

[1] One might be tempted to assume that because the man of distinction devotes himself to an art or vocation which sets him apart (in a variety of senses) from his fellows, he is actually serving something other than himself, while the undistinguished, comparatively artless and passive man is actually more true to his nature, and therefore is more of an authentic individual. But this would be a questionable assumption, since our collective, naturally-given psychic endowment is no more personal or individually developed by the mass man than is the cultural or technical arena within which the accomplished individual makes his/her distinctive contribution. Both ‘types’ are confronted with impersonal and collective contents/factors. The distinguished ego may be said, however, to have a more active, transformative relationship with those factors, while the other type generally assumes a more passive or merely adaptive posture towards them.