On Individuality (4/2/12)

There is some part of my nature that has always displayed a mysterious reluctance to treat my family members—and my two sons—with more tender regard than I would a non-family person, just because they are my kin. Of course I am not altogether immune to those instinctive and societal promptings to show favoritism towards family members. Nevertheless, for some time now, the degree of concern and warmth that I feel for my immediate family members has not been decided principally by the fact that they are blood relations. Rather, the quality of my regard for them is influenced chiefly by the sort of natural ‘chemistry’ I feel for each one of them. Their actual merits and individual qualities…how much they give of themselves to life and to those around them…their sense of justice and their honesty with themselves and with others—these and other factors play a part in shaping my regard for them, just as these factors shape and influence my regard for persons to whom I am not related by blood and shared history. In this way, I seem to differ from many persons, the quality and depth of whose relationships with blood ties appears to be determined to a much larger extent by these collectively inherited—one might almost say archetypal—structures. This peculiarity of mine has its pluses and its minuses, its benefits and its drawbacks.

My partial liberation from these inherited collective structures (and the conventionally-dictated obligations that accompany them) has developed slowly and gradually over the years, though I strongly suspect that I entered the world already blessed (or cursed) with the seeds of ‘impersonality’ that were germinated under my peculiar biographical circumstances. I would be reluctant to claim that all persons are born with this predisposition towards impersonality, along with the greater degree of immunity from collective or ‘herd’ instincts that allows such impersonality to grow and develop in the soul. But I was, and it has always inwardly set me somewhat apart from most persons I’ve known, read about, or seen on TV. In other words, my sense of being a peculiar sort of creature has not been foisted onto me primarily by others, or entirely because of the way they have treated me. It is innate and, so far as I can tell, it is no more separable from my ‘core being’ than my DNA or my brain are from my body.

Does this preclude the possibility of my ever truly experiencing an enduring and completely unconditional heart-and-soul bond with another human being—blood relation or otherwise? Such a complete and utter marriage of hearts and souls would require the suspension or transcendence of this seemingly intractable seed of individuality—or uniqueness—would it not? Truth be told, it has often proven to be a problematic factor in my relations with others, at least when things move beyond the persona level—whether they acknowledged it or not.

Now, as I see it, genuine individuals (who will probably always constitute a small minority—if only because of the solitary inner work, leisure time, and freedom from ordinary distractions, preoccupations, and burdens that seem to be required for the cultivation of this individuality) are not engaged in some secret conspiracy or relentless campaign against members of the collective. But those persons who, either knowingly or unknowingly, have suppressed and betrayed their ‘weirdness’—their fragile and delicate seeds of genuine individuality—in order to conform with the herd, or the collective, in exchange for its conditional protections and its membership benefits—such persons are necessarily engaged in guerrilla warfare against genuine individuals—and vice versa. That ‘weirdness’ that I just confessed to about myself—my innate resistances to treating my blood ties and my own sons with greater (or lesser) regard than I would extend to someone I’m not related to by blood—might alone be enough to win the scorn and hostility of perfect strangers. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of my weirdness!

Because the exceedingly collective person tends to be disturbed by, or disparaging of, anything ‘weird’ or truly individual about him- or her-self, the more I open up to my own weirdness and my own elusive individuality, the more I am induced from within to conceal that individuality from those around me—or, at least, to underplay it. A goodly number of my friends and old acquaintances don’t really know what to make of my peculiar ideas—when they bother to read them at all, so far as I can tell. Their very different lifestyle choices and priorities make it plainly evident that our paths began to diverge quite some time ago. I am a tolerably affable enigma to them, just as their own precious (but largely buried and repressed) strangeness is perplexing to them. But I am also (sometimes) an ambivalent reminder that such stubborn and lonely individual consciousness has not been completely annulled in the otherwise anti-individual matrix of contemporary collective consciousness. I said ‘ambivalent’ because the faint voice of authentic consciousness is always as irksome and unnerving in its impact upon the herd-like elements of the responding psyche as it is reinforcing and inspiring to the repressed individual buried deep beneath the thick, muffling layers of white noise that constitute collective consciousness.

But surely such a claim must sound preposterous to many ears—the claim that authentically individual consciousness is inherently ‘disturbing’ and even ‘frightening’ to most persons. And it must sound preposterous whether or not these persons happen to have been ancient Athenians, or Hebrews in old Jerusalem, or contemporary Americans. For most persons, individuality is professed to be a prized quality, right? Cookie-cutter replicas of the ‘same old, same old’ are boring and put us to sleep, right? But perhaps we need to make an important distinction between ‘novelty,’ on the one hand, and genuine individuality, on the other. Or between a fresh approach to the same old themes, patterns, and routines—and an altogether radical or revolutionary re-visioning of everything.

True individuality of consciousness is not achieved by a ‘face-lift’ intended to cosmetically enhance the ordinary, to remove its crow’s feet and pockmarks to make it easier to gaze upon. Rather, individual consciousness—like a scalpel or a corrosive acid—slices or burns away the smiling or scowling, comely or homely face altogether. It exposes all the musculature, nerve endings, oozing veins and capillaries behind the mask of ordinary life and consciousness. Such tepid life, such skin-deep consciousness, is thereby shown its true face in the unforgiving but more revealing mirror of a deeper consciousness, a starker life. Rare is the soul, indeed, that can withstand such honest reflections without flinching—without turning tail and fleeing back into the warm, soft, milky bosom of family and friends. Better to heroically slaughter a hundred ‘official’ enemies on authorized battlefields than to FACE MY TRUE FACE in the mirror of lonely, individual consciousness! Only then do I step off the stage and stand alone before the temporal spectacle—out of the river of programmed human affairs—out of the narrative in which I have been embedded for as long as I can remember. If I can retain my sanity, my compassion, and my sense of humor after repeated encounters with scalpel and acid, I may qualify and prove myself as a candidate for initiation—initiation into authentic individuality.

Could it be true that this individuality has less to do with our egos than many of us suppose? Could it be true that the ego is to the deeper individuality what the persona is to the ego? A kind of mask, trained servant, or instrument? An ambassador or envoy, if you like, from an altogether different plane of consciousness—from which perspective concrete, literal earth-events are no more than coagulated fictions or shadows on the wall of Plato’s allegory of the cave?

But for whom would any of this make familiar sense? Unless and until such accounts and descriptions are drunk down like cool water after a long desert journey—they are perhaps not fit to be imbibed. Could it be that we are not ready to drink from this cup until we are prepared to stand completely alone with no more than one remote (angelic) witness?

Scalpels and corrosive acids! These are certainly violent metaphors for the agents or tools required for this job of meeting our true, unique selves! But to what do such melodramatic ‘horror movie’ images refer? The scalpel is the knife edge of discrimination that assists us in differentiating the scripted from the authentic ‘parts’ that we act out; the pre-established and prescribed factors that are received from our cultural and educational environments, on the one hand, and those deeper psychic factors that arise spontaneously from within, on the other. The acid is the fiery solvent that breaks down this ‘composite’ of intrinsic and extrinsic factors into elements that can be separated and sorted out. This whole process of discrimination, conscious differentiation, and chemical transformation may be called analysis in the full and proper sense. When we emerge from such an analysis, we are not the same as we were before we entered. We are more and we are a good deal less. What has changed most dramatically is our inner relationship to our ‘vehicles.’ We are no longer simply identified with our bodies, feelings, and thoughts. They are now our instruments—our less than perfect means of interacting with a world that has also been transformed (in our consciousness of it) from a literal into a symbolic field of activity.


Depth-seekers and Depth-shunners (7/25/17—Quito)

When a marriage, a friendship, a political alliance, or a professional career is simply not working, despite our best efforts, do we not acquire permission to withdraw—permission that may entail a measure of free moral choice on our part but is not ultimately founded or dependent upon our voluntary choice? Where does this extra-moral permission—or should we not, perhaps, call it an imperative or a mandate—come from? And if this permission, this mandate, this imperative comes from some source or region that lies beyond or deeper than our conscious will and reason—say, from some instinctual or pre-conscious level—how much freedom is involved in the act of withdrawal? What we are describing here is a situation where one’s former investment (of desire, interest, love, trust, enthusiasm, hope, etc.) has dried up at its very source. Next, we cannot resist asking: Did we freely create or generate that desire, interest, love, etc., in the first place—and did we just as freely command or orchestrate their evaporation and extinction—or weren’t all of these rising and falling affects secretly and invisibly set into motion and then doused by unseen agencies well out of our reach and, therefore, beyond our control?

But what percentage of men and women living today have learned how to rely chiefly upon this invisible and more mysterious background out of which emerge those most compelling—if unheeded—inducements, commands, warnings, and interdictions? What portion of humanity attends, first and foremost, to these cues and clues from below, from beyond the foreground consciousness that enjoys so much more power and authority over the multitude? Why is this the case and how did it come to be this way? Why does this foreground consciousness and its stock, collective contents so commonly and so effectively muffle or drown out altogether the much older and much more thoroughly ‘road-tested’ voice from the depths—the voice, if you like, of the ancestral spirits?

If we take a close, scrutinizing look at the comparative minority, now as ever, who do in fact heed these ‘cues and clues’ (from what Jung called the ‘unconscious’), what do we observe? What, if anything, sets them apart from the majority who live, as it were, closer to the surface of consciousness rather than in and from the depths? Moreover, how might we characterize relations between these two segments of humanity? Are we justified in speaking of the depth-plumbing minority as the ‘elders’ of our species? Does their attunement—their at-one-ment—with these profounder and older strata of our shared history place them in the position of pioneers, guides, and scouts for humanity—or should we perhaps regard them as atavisms, retrograde relics from a generally barbaric and backwards past?

It must be admitted that this relative minority of depth-seekers are more conservative (and I certainly do not mean ‘right wing Republican’ by this) than the majority who instinctively avoid the quieter and darker depths. The depth-seekers may even be characterized as ‘archaic’ in some respects since the strata of the psyche into which their conscious roots descend have an ‘immemorial’ or archetypal quality about them. And yet, it would be going too far to describe them as ‘primitive,’ outmoded, or backwards. Au contraire. Like seasoned and venerable old elephants, whales, tortoises, and condors that have savored and suffered life to the full, the minority of human depth-dwellers of all ages and climes have something timeless about them. As such, they are emblematic of their kind—their type or species—like living, breathing, suffering, and delighting symbols. At once particular and universal, mortal and undying, actual and imaginal, part and whole.

Such reflections point to a welter of paradoxes respecting the multifaceted, elusive notion of freedom, depending on whether one is a denizen of the depths, the shoals, or from some place in between. The archetypal legacy or inheritance passed down from the primeval past may be likened to a deep, broad river. The waters of this mighty river are gathered from throughout the vast territory surrounding it. The river stretches from its headwaters to the delta where it merges with the sea.

For the minority of depth delvers—employing our river analogy—freedom means adaptation to, and acceptance of, the currents within the rising and falling river. At times, it is both wise and joyfully revitalizing to surrender to the current that follows a course or line of least resistance through the vast surrounding territory. At other times, it is salutary and strengthening to swim upstream—against the current—to revisit past scenes and atmospheres with new eyes and perspectives. What distinguishes the freedom of the depth-seekers is graceful movement or navigation within the all-embracing stream of life. The freedom of the depth-shunners, however, is of a very different sort, indeed.

The depth-shunners are as needful of hydration as their distant kin, the depth-seekers, but rather than immerse themselves, trustingly, into the stream of life, they prefer to dwell along its shallow banks where they can fetch what they need without having to swim—or even get wet. This, in a nutshell, is their notion of freedom. In stark contrast to the freedom I described earlier, the bank-dwellers’ freedom is freedom from immersion in the flowing stream of archetypally-informed-and-animated experience. Levees and ramparts along the river help to protect and insulate them from rising waters, while irrigation channels and hydroelectric dams allow them to exploit the river for countless benefits. Thus, because of these artificial means, the depth-shunners are able to live and move about in relative security and comfort farther and farther away from the river itself. Larger and larger tracts of the desert surrounding the river are steadily settled and inhabited by these depth-dreaders who have never seen, let alone swam in, the distant river that supports them and everyone they know via aqueducts and pipelines.

Whole generations of desert-dwelling descendants of depth-shunners come and go with only a few persons undertaking the long pilgrimage to the river to behold the shared source upon which all depend. As the centuries pass, fewer and fewer of those pilgrims are able to sufficiently overcome their fears—fostered and fueled by stories passed down through generations of depth-shunners—to leap into the magnificent river when they at last reach its distant banks. But one or two from each generation do take the plunge—and then learn how to swim and to navigate the river’s currents. Later, these same depth-seekers send emissaries to challenge and discredit the superstitions and false beliefs of those teeming, timid desert-dwellers who are ignorant and fearful of the very source upon which their thin, dry lives depend.

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?

Shakespeare as Hermes (8/2/15)

Tracing symptoms back to their source: I suffer from a chronic need to meaningfully interact with other persons. As outlandish as the following statement must sound to anyone ruled by commonsense, this need to play a meaningful role in others’ lives is contingent upon the implicit belief in the reality and worth of these other persons—and that belief, in turn, is predicated upon the implicit belief in the reality and worth of my own personhood. If individual personhood were discovered to be an illusion—one that could be dismantled and dispensed with—this pressing, chronic need to be meaningfully involved in the lives of others would then be greatly weakened, easily uprooted, and dissolved.

What if I were to attempt to turn this analysis and dismantlement process into a work of art—of literature? How might I best approach such an undertaking?

Something that has long fascinated me about Shakespeare’s work as a poet-dramatist is the enhanced objectivity about human matters that his writing process provided him with. In the thoughtful-imaginative-creative process of differentiating and then interrelating the various characters in his plays, Shakespeare was at the same time working through—and working out—fundamental human problems/questions as they presented themselves in his soul, or imagination. What we, the readers and playgoers, see in the plays are, from one angle, the documented records of these interior explorations, mappings, discoveries, conundrums, and provisional evaluations.

Aside from the marvelous beauty and power of the language, what makes his best plays so profoundly interesting—400 years later and counting—is the depths, the heights, and the breadth of experience and understanding that are made accessible to us as we contemplate these compelling (and inwardly compelled) characters and their interrelationships. But rather than remain a mere admirer of the works themselves, I would like to employ them as beckoning doorways through which I might pass—and thereby enter, sympathetically, the workings of the poet’s mind and soul. Rather than stop at a thorough appreciation of the plays, I want to learn about the internal processes that Shakespeare suffered in order to give birth to them. The plays provide maps of this inner experience whereby the poet-playwright acquainted himself with figures, state of soul, tensions, and revelations that go unnoticed—or are shunned and avoided—by most of us.

I used the work suffered to denote these inner encounters. Why? Could it be true that as we acclimate ourselves more and more successfully to the peculiar terms and conditions of profound imaginative experience—as Shakespeare clearly did—we simultaneously experience a corresponding depotentiation of the literal, outer world of ‘sensible’ experience? As the imaginal realm—which is both subtler and far more elastic and polyvalent than literal, sensory phenomena and fixed abstract concepts—becomes increasingly real and vivid to us, the world of ordinary, external forms, events, and persons becomes hollower, more ‘schematic,’ ghostlike, superficial.

It seems likely to me that Shakespeare’s consciousness—at least during those fruitful hours when he was composing works like Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Twelfth Night, Antony and Cleopatra, etc.—shifted quite decisively into this imaginal realm where potent imaginary forms possess greater ‘reality’ and psychic substance than the comparatively humdrum and prosaic events, objects, and even persons of everyday experience. But, due to his exceptional powers of balance, the familiar and practical realities of mundane experience were not shunned or categorically discredited—as might be the case with the mystic or the rapt ascetic. His special genius endowed him with an ability to straddle adroitly between these two very different levels of psychic experience—the literal-concrete level and the metaphorical-imaginal level. Unlike the materialist or the spiritualist, he did not ‘take a stand’ in one arena of experience against the other—but like Hermes, passed easily back and forth across the frontier between the two.

Two Worlds (8/25/13)

In all honesty, I cannot say that, after nearly sixty years of living among other human beings on this apparently privileged planet, I have ‘settled into’ life. This is perhaps why the Gnostic vision of a ‘fallen world’ ruled by a deceitful demiurge speaks so powerfully to me. Not infrequently, I feel ‘at odds’ with my human existence and with the world I seem to be awkwardly and precariously embedded in. I can honestly say that I feel ‘in it but not of it.’ I have tried—but only occasionally and fleetingly succeeded—to feel completely like an earthling, but it is far more natural for me to feel like an alien interloper or a transiting voyeur butting into the affairs of this world. One of my friends charges me with being a misanthrope. I would never characterize myself as a hater of men—but I will admit to frequently feeling myself a stranger to them, which is a different matter altogether.

It seems to me that if my deepest and most powerful needs were typically human, then the peculiar disappointments and the alienation that I have experienced would either have crushed my spirit or embittered me to the point that misanthropy would be an unavoidable result. Because neither of these outcomes has occurred, I am now inclined to suspect that my deepest and most powerful needs point some distance beyond the human, all-too-human level, or its typical form of existence. As strange as this must sound to utterly earthly ears, it seems to be true for me. I would go further and say that if these ‘supra-human’ needs were not being met—in the modest, intermittent manner that they are met—I would probably have turned out very badly indeed.

Another way of analyzing this whole situation is to begin from the assumption that there are (at least) two more or less differentiated psychic standpoints—or distinct centers of gravity—from which I am able to function: the human and the daimonic (or spiritual). The latter standpoint is the one that has few or no essential human needs—but instead, yearns for spiritual nourishment that simply cannot be provided (at least not directly or abundantly) from the mundane or human, all-too-human realm. Now, to the extent that my own consciousness has succeeded in differentiating itself from the merely human—and has begun to participate in the subtler, colder, starker regions of the daimonic—the merely human has begun to seem comparatively sticky, boring, bulky, sluggish, scripted, and heavy. And yet, while I’m here on this ‘third stone from the sun,’ the only sane course to take seems to be that of a dialectical balancing act between the two rather different standpoints. My psychological/spiritual conscience tells me that I should strive for a state of creative tension between them—and resist exclusive citizenship in either realm.

A Word about Madness (8/1/11)

This is as good a place as any, I suppose, for me to ponder upon the intriguing question, ‘What stands between me and madness?’ I have long known, for instance, that (perhaps 95-98.6% of) the recognized criteria for determining or judging whether someone is ‘crazy’ are conventional, which means that such standards are derived (almost) solely from the half-blind, shallow-minded, literalistic-rationalistic realm of collective (mass) consciousness. The schizophrenic or ‘split-souled’ person goes through life with one foot planted in the un-psychological and literal-minded conventional world and the other foot planted in the archetypal realm. The problem such a ‘split-soul’ suffers from is that he knows of no way to meaningfully connect the two realms of experience. For that to happen, enormous effort is required, involving a long, sustained dialectically transformative marriage between the two seemingly opposed worlds—the archetypal and the collective (or conventional) realms. If one merely asserts or passionately imposes the powerful but strange and ‘archaic’ inner realities upon one’s social and mundane environment, there will be trouble. These inner claims and contents will almost invariably collide with the collective norms. These powerful, autonomous contents will not be able to adapt or easily assimilate themselves to societal and cultural norms, which have numbers—vast numbers—on their side. Psyche and conventional society are two distinct realms, each with its own very distinct set of laws or norms. One cannot and should not be reduced exclusively to the terms and criteria of the other.

The often puny, defenseless, and (culturally-historically-philosophically-psychologically) uneducated ego is trapped in between these two enormously powerful realms and is continually threatened with being swallowed up or appropriated by one or the other in the tension/collision between the two.

My vulnerability to madness has been tempered (though probably not eliminated) by two crucial factors: my knowledge of the psyche and its reality (due largely to Jung) and the basic soundness of my heart vis-à-vis my fellow humans.

Pioneers and Settlers (6/27/13)

When my mind begins to enter into the more or less coherent and spacious ‘world’ of a great thinker or imaginative writer, there is always the (subtly gratifying) threat of being swallowed up by that world—i.e., of becoming a proselytizing or complacent convert. I call this threat subtly ‘gratifying’—pleasant or relieving—because some part of me is inclined, it seems, to see my initiation into the thinker’s spacious world as a kind of homecoming. At last, after twenty years of fighting abroad and wandering at sea, I have been miraculously delivered to the shores of Ithaca, where my faithful wife, Penelope, and my dutiful son, Telemachos, have been waiting for me! But another part of me thinks of the charms and consolations of Ithaca in the same way that Odysseus regards the Sirens—warily. So I tie myself to the mast as my ship sails close enough to Plato, to the Buddha, to Jesus, to Shakespeare, to Nietzsche, to Jung—and now, perhaps, to Heidegger—to hear their ‘songs’ and perhaps even to learn their songs by heart before heading back out to sea, where the most sublime and uncanny creatures can be found swimming below the surface.

Once we abandon all hope or expectation that the great thinkers, poets, gurus, and saints can authentically ‘bring us home’ (to some final resting place?)—and realize that the most these outstanding individual seekers can do is to spur us further along our own, ongoing quest—then our thinking and our feeling are quickened to life in a way that rivals, if it does not supersede, the vitality of those in search of a comfortable, protected harbor. A line is drawn between born pioneers (miners) and born settlers (surface-scratchers). But, of course, that line was already there before we recognized it. Ultimately, it would seem that pioneers can be properly heard and appreciated only by their own kin—other pioneers, other inveterate wanderers within the labyrinth. There is simply too much to be! Think about this long and hard before you dig in and plant yourself firmly. For what we pioneers would be digging is a grave. What we would be planting, a corpse.