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.


Ideology and Anti-nature (9/12/16)

If the ideological scheme – or prevailing worldview – into which we were born, indoctrinated, and gradually conscripted is radically out of alignment with the more deeply rooted structural features of the ancestral unconscious from which our psyches were born, then one thing is certain: adaptation to and conformity with these less than natural, craftily engineered ideological imperatives runs afoul of our inherited natures and courts individual and collective catastrophe. Only an equally determined and relentless insurrection against this booby-trapped indoctrination affords some of us a slender chance of forging a thick life, as opposed to the mythically anemic and psychologically threadbare existence we see among “the sleepwalkers.” But for such self-liberation to get off the ground – or off the “drawing board” – we must first earn a clearer understanding of that against which our life is in revolt.

What this understanding consists in – and how it is arrived at – are perhaps my chief concerns as I near the tender age of sixty. To be plain: I have not been lazy or fainthearted all these years; rather, I have devoted my best energies to serious study, reflection, discussion, and “journaling” (as a vital and necessary aid to digestion). I have never been a namby-pamby greenhorn in whose heart the fire of rebellion waits to be kindled, for the process of uprooting and peeling away my own malignant, crippling ideological indoctrination (on a variety of fronts: religious; philosophical; political-national; moral; cultural; etc.) has long been underway. It has advanced side-by-side with the deepening and the subtilization of my understanding – both of the psyche and the forms (of thought, feeling, belief, valuation, etc.) – that makes a measure of such self-liberation possible.

A life that would be free must first come to frank and no-nonsense terms with the mental manacles by which it is bound. Since – like the prisoners in Plato’s allegory of the cave – most of us are not only content with, and possibly even proud of, our state of imprisonment, but oblivious to it – we mistake slavery for freedom, or at least for the acceptable norm. What is it inside some of us that instinctively “smells a rat” in all such norms, regardless of which “culture cave” these norms preside over? Isn’t it the nearly universal acceptance or endorsement of these general norms that arouses our suspicion and mistrust?

What, more specifically, provokes this ineradicable uneasiness and caution where such norms and collective assumptions are concerned? Aware of their anchoring and compelling power over the multitude, I soberly acknowledge the order-imposing power and the steadying influence of these blunt, categorical “rules of thumb” upon the skittish herd. We, too, like less philosophically-minded elites, typically prefer stable socio-political conditions (at least in our own backyard). It is probably safe to say that if cynical oligarchical elites did not promulgate some “noble lie” or pious fraud, around which the people, now as ever, could huddle – as around a magnetic field – the people would clamor for such an order-imposing and stabilizing fabrication. The people will always need and greatly prefer empty generalities to dense, subtle, and dangerously substantial truths – which cause them to fret and scatter – and what are these empty, puffed up generalities if they are not the same noble lies I just referred to?

The chief difference between the philosopher and the cynic is that the former sort cherishes social harmony and stability so that he may be left in peace and quiet to ply his unpopular passion (hoping that his influence upon thinking men and women will promote the common good), while the cynical profiteer sees in the same conditions the most favorable opportunities for fleecing the sheep. Lao-tzu and Plato, both from the first lot, had the temerity to counsel those from the second bunch – but Lao-tzu only as he departed, once and for all, from the palace gates. Plato chose instead, to employ a form of esoteric writing that both hinted at and concealed the radical political conservatism (or muted pessimism?) he actually espoused.

Poisons and Pathogens (9/12/12)

We have long been told that ‘the truth shall set us free,’ but that would be scanned. It may well be the case that in matters of spiritual insight, this old saying actually carries some weight. However, when the ‘truth’ pertains to political/social problems, a different situation often obtains. Instead of feeling liberated by many of the truths that I am uncovering about dubious corporate practices, the World Bank and the IMF, the ‘military-industrial complex,’ cowardly and corrupt Congressional and Senate members, taxpayer-funded bailouts for incompetent and/or villainous financial officers, etc., I am left feeling more and more helpless and powerless as a citizen. It is perfectly correct to say that I am liberated, in part, from my ignorance, but one may ask: does learning the truth, say, about toxic elements or infectious pathogens in our air and our drinking water make us feel free—especially if we’ve been drinking that water and breathing that air for years? Certainly not if we also learn that both the leaders and our fellow citizens in the poisoned, infected city are in denial about the seriousness of the threat facing all of us. Under such conditions, we are scarcely in a suitable position to address and correct the problem. From the standpoint of feeling, mightn’t I actually have been better off never having uncovered the truth about the poisons in our air and the pathogens in our water? I would be just as lamentably (or contemptibly) naïve and credulous as the other ‘ostriches’ and ‘know-nothings,’ but since ignorance and bliss have long been intimate bedfellows, I would not feel as helpless as I actually am. So, it would seem that ignorance and bliss are far more closely connected than are feeling and being (or the actual truth of things)—at least in many cases.

For those who need to be alerted to such things, let me announce that I am about to launch into an extended metaphor. As for the rest of you, my apologies for having to spell out what should be apparent: As long as I see little convincing evidence that a sizable number of my fellow citizens and our elected officials are addressing the pressing issue of poisons and pathogens in ‘air’ and ‘water,’ I don’t know whether I should stay in the endangered city or not. The air is slowly killing me and the water—even though I boil it and meticulously filter it—is still causing fevers for me. I am painfully aware of the fact that I am worthless as a Cassandra uttering prophecies and warnings that no one hears or heeds—and I am worthless dead or senselessly martyred (by continuing to take in poisons and pathogens that are made even more virulent by my consciousness of the havoc they are wreaking upon my vulnerable body). An alarming number of my ‘friends’ have become conspicuously silent and aloof towards me. Perhaps they regard me as a kind of smelly untreated wound or as a disturbing nuisance who spoils their ‘happiness,’ which is easily uprooted, since it is often planted in such thin, poor soil to begin with. Perhaps a number of them regard me as a crank, or worse, a resentful malcontent who is secretly envious of their ‘success,’ their prestige, their material ‘security,’ and their participation in a game which I have long viewed with the profoundest mistrust. How doubtful—how unlikely—that I will convince such persons they are dead wrong about me and about the true nature of my unsightly, stinking wound!

It is quite obvious that the knowledge I have been inwardly compelled to seek is neither welcome nor pleasing to most persons I am acquainted with. This observation applies both to knowledge about the socio-political realities of our own and earlier times, as well as the spiritual and psychological knowledge that pertains to the largely unexplored inner world. The first sort is unpleasant chiefly because it invariably conflicts with the comforting stupidities, official lies, infantile diversions, preposterous over-simplifications, and petty poppycock that we are continually awash in. The second sort is welcome only in small, watered-down, sandalwood-scented doses, but soon is felt to be burdensome and taxing, for its cultivation requires serious discipline and considerable leisure (for study and digestion), two things that are in scant supply for busy professionals who have families to feed and hefty expenses to cover.

So, for this student of life (and of humankind), the acquisition and disciplined cultivation of liberal knowledge (as opposed to merely technical skill and know-how) have occasioned a fair measure of sorrow and disappointment, if I am to be completely honest. Rather than having the effect of puffing up my sense of my own power and personal importance, my knowledge has had a generally deflating and curbing effect upon my native human arrogance and my joie de vivre. The overall effect of the knowledge that I have endured may be likened to the alchemical process of purification through fire in a crucible or to immersion into a vat of corrosive acid—where superfluous impurities are burnt away. Of course, such psychological torture (yes, this is the appropriate word) is not for the squeamish or for those of little faith (in the psyche). The work is necessarily lonely since it is business between me and my own soul, and finally has little to do with other persons. I now am convinced that I and others like me were born for such lonely interior labors, for unless the drive to pursue this work is there from the start, it is not likely to be ‘put there’ by books or by anyone else.

Alas, my ongoing quest for interior knowledge and for authentic (individual) experience—often appears to move in the exact opposite direction taken by the great majority of my fellows. Opening up to this constitutional mistrust of the goals and values of the majority and coming to more or less peaceful terms with this sobering fact about my personality has constituted most of the ‘torture’ and disorientation that I have encountered since I was very young. It is only insofar as I have deeply and irreversibly accepted this fact about my innermost nature that I have been able to lift my head somewhat above the confusion and pain that resulted from bucking against my true nature. What for the majority of persons constitutes their familiar and stable ego-personalities can no longer be more than a kind of mask or provisional platform for me. I no longer experience my ego as my ‘true self’ or my essential being. Someone—or something—different, other, and more essential has always been there—but now I am more inclined to recognize that ‘alien’ as my true ground, my essence.

It has been through my voluntary submission to this mysterious but decisively authoritative essence that I have begun to realize that much suffering, confusion, and folly were necessary by-products and symptoms of the metamorphosis, the seeds of which have been inside me all along. This interior work that I have been drawn to since I was young has been responsible for germinating those seeds. And of course, in realizing what feels like my life-work—how could I possibly regret it? How can one genuinely regret the realization of one’s given nature without at the same time being a traitor to themselves?

We are what we are at the deepest, core levels—and likewise, we can never be what it is not within our nature to be. If all of us could learn to be what we are, as purely and as completely as possible, there would be a lot less unnecessary noise, waste, and confusion in the world. There would still be tensions and conflicts, of course, but they would be purer and more intelligible. They would be meaningful tensions and conflicts—nothing like the conflicts, say, in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, which were founded upon lies, false pretenses, and deeply conflicted motivations. But to learn what we are—and what we are not: is that a priority or even a serious consideration for our teachers, our parents, and others whose responsibility it is to guide and educate children? Or, do we find, instead, that nothing is more common than for these parents, teachers, and guides to mislead by trying to shape their charges after their own idealized image (of themselves)? This is a collective problem of the blind often leading the innocent down narrowly constrictive paths that are seriously out of touch with the innate seeds (the intended tasks) of the young. They are simply being fitted for service within an extremely imbalanced and fundamentally unsound system that has forcefully weakened any ties to nature, to the psychic depths, to the heart, to genuine sanity—and almost always in the interest of material profits and personal power for the winners. Most children today never have a chance to see or to experience any viable alternative to this unsound, anti-natural, pathologically imbalanced system, with its low, vulgar aims and its empty prizes that are quickly found unsatisfying to anyone with healthy or developed taste and judgment.

Cells and Sensation: an updated version of Plato’s ‘Noble Lie’ or the Real McCoy? (10/16/16)

One way of imagining our roles as humans vis-à-vis the cosmos is to suppose ourselves to be differentiated cells in the body of the earth, regarded here as a living, quasi-conscious being. Of course, the other animals, the plants and trees, and the physical elements and compounds fill out the picture of this evolving being that relies on all of us, just as we depend on self-replicating liver-, blood-, muscle-, skin-, bone-, heart-, and brain-cells. Working within this analogy, it is of vital importance, naturally, for all of us to find out as soon as we can whether we are destined to be a heart-cell or a brain-cell, a blood-cell or a skin-cell, a digestive enzyme or an electrolyte, a complex sugar or a fatty acid – and perform our appointed function fully and properly. So long as confusion reigns within and between us, the organism is always threatened with system failure.

So how do we learn what kind of cell we are? Since our cell type is not decided or assigned by our parents or our educations – but is there, like a seed, in the beginning – often we can only come to this knowledge through a kind of self-examination. Because our cell or function type is inborn, it cannot be changed from one type into another, but it can easily be mistaken for another type, in which case we will be likely to miss our life – our intended existence.

One thing that appeals to me about this way of imagining human identity, development, and fulfillment (within a comprehensive nexus of other identities, paths of development, and functions) is that it gently releases my thinking from its accustomed abstract bearings – allowing me to envision this array of complex factors more concretely – more meaningfully rooted in sensible material conditions. For me, such a move has a salutary, corrective, and equilibrizing ‘feel’ to it. It holds out the possibility of redressing a one-sidedness that I simultaneously (and paradoxically) suffer from and exult in. I am referring to my habitual reliance upon my intuition and my abstract thinking function. The aim here is not to shut these functions down – but to counterbalance them with this enriching and ensouling concreteness.

A Note on John Danby’s Shakespeare’s Doctrine of Nature: A Study of King Lear (7/12/15, 7/28/15)

Danby argues that Shakespeare gradually arrived at the firm conclusion that the truly good person (exemplified by Cordelia and the humbled-regenerated Lear) can thrive only in a good state or healthy community. When corruption, disorder, anarchy, cynicism, shallow individualism, hypocrisy, and other evils undermine the health and goodness of the society, the good person either ceases to exist[1] or lives permanently at odds with the disordered state. If we accept this general thesis, a number of implications follow—most of which I have treated, in one form or another, in earlier essays.

One of the implications of this thesis is the problem of adaptation or accommodation to degenerate or seriously degraded cultural-moral norms.


Danby’s thesis: The good man can thrive only in the good community, or culture.

If, by ‘good’ we merely mean good in the moral sense, Danby’s point seems plausible enough. Likewise, if he means full development, or wholeness. It seems reasonable to assume that unless we grow and reach maturity within a community that, at its core, is not corrupt to its core, we will be denied two crucial components that are necessary for wholeness (or wholesomeness) and goodness: 1) a critical number of exemplary figures of moral-intellectual excellence and 2) occasions for the reciprocal, mutually supportive practice of virtue with moral-intellectual peers and betters—and not merely with faithless knaves, blinkered simpletons, self-serving cowards, and feckless mediocrities.

But we have plenty of evidence that good persons can—and do—exist in corrupt and vicious societies, despite (or perhaps, in part, because of) the obstacles they bravely confront each day—since they are constantly obliged to define themselves in contradistinction to these deplorable norms and collective habits. Perhaps the crucial, qualifying word is ‘thrive.’ A good man certainly may survive—but seldom or never thrive, or flourish—in a degenerate or thoroughly corrupt community. Why? The conspicuous or public presence of such a figure will necessarily draw ‘sniper fire’ and opprobrium from the corrupt majority whose vices and shortcomings are thrown into sharp relief by contrast with the Socrates or Jesus who philosophizes or preaches in the open air. Peter was no doubt a good man, but his ‘prudent’ denial of affiliation with the sentenced Jesus—as cowardly and weak as it may seem at first glance—delayed his eventual martyrdom long enough to get years of fruitful evangelizing behind him before he met with ultimate mischief. Plato and Aristotle were good men living in corrupt and volatile times, but they had the good (i.e., ‘prudent’) sense to teach philosophy to select students within the walls of the Academy and Lyceum instead of taking on (and thoroughly pissing off) Athenian big shots and rancorous nitwits in the Agora, as the martyred Socrates did.

[1] Both Cordelia and Lear are dead by the end of the tragedy.

Some Historical-Political Observations (8/17/12)

I’ve been watching a 24-episode series on the Cold War, produced by Ted Turner over a decade ago. It has enabled me to better understand the dangerous logic of empire-building. It is quite clear that the threat of Soviet aggression and world domination (a threat that was real but which appears to have been wildly exaggerated by U.S. propaganda) provided an opportunity and a plausible justification for the enormously expensive arms buildup and the militarism that were crucial to the expansion of the American Empire—along with our meddlesome involvement (covert or blatant) in the domestic affairs of other nations, such as Korea, Vietnam, Guatemala, Iran, Chile, and Nicaragua, to name but a few. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991—after a brief period as a ‘lone superpower’—we were fortunate enough (from the standpoint of the opportunistic military-industrial complex and NeoCons) to have been attacked by al-Qaeda terrorists on September 11, 2001. Now, these same power-hungry expansionists and opportunisitc profiteers have grossly exaggerated—and then, greatly exacerbated—the terrorist threat in order to justify further waste of life and treasure, at the deliberately deceived taxpayers’ expense, of course.

What is becoming much clearer now—with no help from the corporate-controlled media—is that once a nation has inflated itself to imperial status (imp-flatus?), there is no simple or ‘glorious’ way to dismount that tiger. Our national arrogance, our intrusive and disruptive meddling in others’ affairs, the state of comfortably insulated ignorance and morally scandalous prosperity in which many of us dwell—have earned the contempt and even the hatred of many outside our ‘bubble’ borders. Nevertheless, many Americans are flabbergasted to learn this when they dare to travel abroad or when they see anti-American protests on CNN. ‘What did we ever do to them to deserve such hatred?’—we ask, scratching our benumbed and befuddled heads.

To be sure, our news media, many of our television shows and films, our lamentable public school (and now university) educations do not go out of their accustomed way to alert the citizenry to the shady shenanigans in which our government and our military, our corporations and financial institutions, are engaged in these often faraway places. But the truth is not deeply buried or censored from publication. If an American citizen has suspicions that he or she is not being provided with a complete or fair account of what is going on in Washington, on Wall Street, in Iraq and Afghanistan—or throughout the whole history of American foreign relations and domestic affairs—there are plenty of available sources of reliable information to flesh out the picture. But we should be prepared to have our moral innocence thoroughly offended and battered by what we will learn from an honest investigation into these disquieting matters. We must first summons the courage and the open-mindedness required to begin dismantling the complex tissue of lies and naïve sentiments that possess our minds and insulate us from the truth. Because so few of us, comparatively speaking, bother to challenge and to bring an end to this steady stream of deception, of calculated distraction, and of deliberate disinformation, the corrupt and greedy ruling elites are able to continue robbing and deceiving us without any serious opposition or organized dissent.


The ideal scenario for navigating through this mounting crisis would, of course, not entail a violent and mutually catastrophic showdown between the few and the many—the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’—although if things continue down their present course, this is one possible outcome. The other extremely undesirable outcome of continuing down the present course is the explicit emergence of a fascist police state, headed by thuggish warlords and composed almost entirely of conscripted, ignorant, angry yahoos who have been raised on Rush Limbaugh and ‘dominionist’ televangelists. The problem with either of these outcomes—a leftist-style, popular revolution (such as put Allende, briefly, in power in Chile before the C.I.A. helped Pinochet to snuff him out) or a fascist overthrow of the government (as with Hitler’s Blackshirts burning the Reichstag and ending the liberal but economically bedeviled Weimar Republic)—is that neither is likely to produce a generally respected leader who can hold the nation together.

It seems obvious to me that the optimal course to follow is a ‘middle way’ through the center of the dangerously polarized, explosive situation that we are presently in. Since most Americans are as deeply troubled by the symptoms of this volatile situation as they are blind to its true causes, a match tossed into this tinder box could rapidly turn into a case ‘where ignorant armies clash by night.’

There is far more ‘heat’ than ‘light’ stored up in this nation’s addled collective brain and yet a relatively containable, but startling crisis may (again) be necessary before the nation’s pitifully scant and scattered attention can be thoroughly captured. Such a crisis occurred, of course, on September 11, 2001, but that opportunity was cynically and cunningly exploited by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Co. as a means of steering the nation’s fury and attention in a colossally backwards direction. Bush was merely the compliant, frightened dunderhead—in way over his head—who tried to put a ‘folksy,’ jingoistic face on the fiasco and the obscene squandering of political and financial capital that quickly ensued.

So, assuming that a revolution and/or a fascist takeover by a police state can be averted after the first truly destructive tremors begin to break open the corrupt corporate-run, militaristic empire, there may be a brief, and only a brief, opportunity for an Odyssean figure (or better, a cluster of gifted statesmen) to chart a path through Scylla and Charybdis. Will America produce a Solon from out of its crisis?

Didn’t FDR assume something like this role with his liberal reforms and legislation—in response to the Great Depression? Of course, our entrance into WWII consolidated the ties between government and industry, putting an end to the New Deal and the politically sane form of mild socialism that it had fostered. After the war, things would never be the same for the working class man—and eventually, for the middle class. Empire had succeeded the Republic.

Quietism and Activism (8/14/12)

Like most persons, no doubt, who give Chris Hedges a sympathetic reading, I come away from his writings in an agitated state. I am morally outraged by the evils and injustices that he so provocatively documents. Despite many inner resistances, I am nudged by his galvanizing rhetoric to go out and act on behalf of numberless victims in organized, defiant opposition to the corporate, governmental, and other institutional victimizers. The essays and books are a ‘trumpet call to war’ against the bad guys. While Hedges is not so crudely and buffoonishly black and white in his ‘us versus them’ moral dichotomy as Joe McCarthy was—or, for that matter, certain idiotic demagogues from the Christian right and the imperialistic neo-cons—he certainly comes close to advocating (and trying to incite) class war, if he doesn’t actually cross the line. He tells us to ‘rise up and resist or become serfs.’ It sounds like he’s jonesing for a slave rebellion and that he’s just itching for a modern-day Spartacus to gather an army of disgruntled, marginalized Americans who have nothing left to lose.

All this to make the simple point: I, for one, do not come away from Hedges’ books feeling more centered or more inwardly prepared to deal with the dismal situation we are all in today. His rousing, high-octane agitprop, his nimble command of disquieting facts and his impressive erudition tend to compete with my love for inner centeredness and calm detachment.

In the introduction to The World As It Is, he writes:

I have never sought to be objective. How can you be objective about death squads in El Salvador, massacres in Iraq, or Serbian sniper fire that gunned down unarmed civilians, including children, in Sarajevo? How can you be neutral about the masters and profiteers of war who lie and dissemble to hide the crimes they commit and the profits they make? How can you be objective about human pain? And, finally, how can you be objective about those responsible for this suffering? I am not neutral about rape, torture, or murder. I am not neutral about rapists, torturers, or murderers. I am not neutral about George W. Bush or Barack Obama, who under international law are war criminals. And if you had to see the butchery of war up close, as I did for nearly two decades, you would not be neutral either. (xii)

Now I may be wildly wrong here, but it seems to me that two great spiritual exemplars this benighted planet has miraculously produced—Jesus of Nazareth and Gautama Buddha—were both quite objective about the villainy and the suffering that continue to thrive within this decentered and chronically imbalanced species. Buddha explicitly stated that all life is suffering and that the two fundamental forces that are responsible for our suffering are fear and cupidity, or restless desire. Jesus’ words and example exhort us to ‘resist not evil’ and to ‘love your enemy.’ The result of mentally transcending the pendulum swing between fear and desire is a state of poised centeredness, or, in Buddhist parlance, nirvana. Through cultivated quietness and concentration on the stillpoint at the center of our ‘cyclonic’ existence, consciousness becomes established within the silent, uncompelled eye of this hurricane. The winds still roar and sweep violently throughout the periphery, and will always do so, since that is the ‘objective’ nature of things out beyond the serenity of the immovable axis, or hub, of the inner cosmos. One remains subjected to the ever-recurring clashes and conflicts of competing wills unless and until he learns how to loosen up his sticky attachments to those swirling and bubbling forms—either good or evil, alluring or frightening, noble or base—and sinks, slowly and impersonally, into the center, beyond the fray—beyond the moral and political heroics of the armed conflict of good against evil. Such compassionate detachment—as the examples of Buddha and Christ demonstrate—involves the symbolic death of the personal self, along with all of its attachments. These attachments are of all types and degrees: physical, emotional, ideational, aesthetic, familial, national, ethnic, doctrinal, etc. All must ultimately be tossed into the fire. I have a vision of this process—and this vision of ongoing renunciation and surrender serves as the ‘hidden hand’ that guides my otherwise insignificant little life. From time to time I lose my way, but the vision returns and my spirit is restored.

My sense about Hedges is that he is still so passionately invested in his moral-political crusade that perhaps he has become blind to the unwinnability of this ‘permanent state of war’ that is the ‘objective nature of things’ in the periphery—in the natural and merely human realms. Even the most eloquent writers and thinkers of moral conviction, such as Hedges, must ultimately face the crushing realization that they are beating their heads—and the heads of their entranced followers—against a very solid wall. I should perhaps confess that it is my view that human, all-too-human experience in the natural and moral-political worlds is, at bottom, purgatorial and infernal. Our experience here is meant to teach us a hard but liberating lesson: that liberation from the suffering and the inevitable dissatisfactions that are inherent in a consciously lived human life will never be attained either by fulfilling our instinctual human cravings or killing off all our enemies. It comes, if at all, only by psychologically transcending those cravings and fears, since these are the very ligaments binding us to the turbulent, peripheral world whose very nature is suffering, self-consumption, and ceaseless change.

In offering this brief sketch of a rather uncommon response to the suffering and injustice that are inherent in ordinary human existence (when that existence is meditated on deeply and with unflinching honesty, such as Shakespeare and Dante, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, brought to their work)—I sketch a response that is very different from those of Hedges, Chomsky, Zinn, Nader, Sanders, and other valiant champions of the underdogs and victims of deceit and injustice. I do not for a moment wish to undervalue or disparage their commendable and courageous efforts. The fact that such noble and morally upright champions of truth and justice reach so deeply under my skin with their words and deeds makes it clear to me that I am no stranger to the anger and disgust they feel towards the miserable state of affairs that unbridled human greed, willful ignorance, willful deception, laziness, and cruelty present us with. Such spirited and intelligent critics, whistle-blowers, and dissenters—even when they are shunned and ignored by the very citizens they faithfully serve, or are marginalized and jeered at by the corporate media and power elite they expose and indict—provide a priceless service in reminding us of the unflattering truths about ourselves as a species. They are generally ignored or despised precisely because they hold the mirror up to us and show us—wherever we happened to be situated within the wide range of human fortunes—what part we play in this global mess we are in. Our ‘sins’ may be more of omission than commission—more the result of passive conformity to deplorable norms than of the virulent, aggressive evil that we see in the pernicious puppeteers and profiteers who design and command the systems of exploitation and planetary degradation.

Admittedly, my response tends to be that of a quietist, and not of a political activist or a moralizing Cato. The response of the quietest to socio-political, cultural, and economic breakdown is nothing new or unprecedented. Quietism—whether in the ancient Epicureans or Cynics, Christian mystics or Taoists in China, Vedantists and Buddhists in India and Tibet, or Sufism in Persia and Andalusia—has a long, if understated, history. For the quietist, the ‘war,’ ‘contest,’ or ‘agon’ is ultimately interior and great care is taken to avoid projecting or externalizing the source of the conflict outside, for to do so is to fall into a snare or trap. Satan’s third temptation of Christ and Mara’s temptation of the Buddha symbolize this snare, whereby the spiritual man is tempted to locate the source, both of trouble and salvation, in ‘the world as it is.’ The quietist gently but continually strives to unfetter his spirit, his mind, his heart, and his allegiance from outer, sensory world phenomena/persons and to establish his consciousness in the center, where the pairs of opposites are harmonized. When the various pairs of opposites are reconciled in this way, dualisms and warring antitheses are, as it were, dissolved in the process. At last, unity is known. In this grounding experience of unity, we have the compelling sense, or recognition, that there is nothing to do and no-where to go. All is already done. All is present. I have been fortunate enough to have experienced this condition of blissfully contented oneness numerous times throughout my life. It always serves as a profound reminder of the ultimate futility of seeking salvation and true fulfillment outside of myself in the social, moral, political, and economic realms. Other humans cannot deliver it to us—or us to it. Sensual pleasures and worldly honors are dim shadows and poor substitutes for the contentment of enlightened centeredness. After genuinely experiencing this condition of inner balance and blessedness—and recognizing where our happiness is authentically located—we gradually learn to pull up stakes in the outer world, reducing our investment in its false promises and its deceptive allurements. Eventually, our loyalty and our psychic center of gravity shifts, or pivots, and the plodding, determined, liberating work of uprooting our souls from the purgatorial realm of human life proceeds apace. But only when we’re ready.