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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ignorance and Arrogance (8/13/14)

Haven’t we all noticed a strong correlation between ignorance and excessive (or unearned) confidence, presumptuousness and self-assurance, in a person’s supposed wisdom about life?  To be perfectly clear, I am not talking here about technical knowledge. As far as toaster ovens or Louisiana divorce laws are concerned, a moderately clever person can know pretty much all one needs to know about such subjects. I’m talking about general wisdom—say, about how geopolitics and the global economy work, or even murkier arenas, such as the mysteries of human nature and human spirituality. I suppose at my age I shouldn’t be, but I continue to be shocked and surprised by the presumptuousness and the arrogance of semi-educated, persons who have little experience outside their narrow cultural horizons. I hasten to add that any skill I have in recognizing the more carefully disguised forms of this practically ubiquitous presumptuousness I owe to years of unpleasant ‘recognitions’ and revelations of my own arrogant presumptuousness!

I live in Houston. With all the cars and the nearby oil refineries, the air quality here is about as bad as it gets in the U.S. The air pollution in Beijing and Jakarta may be worse, but the point I want to make is that when you grow up in a city that has serious air pollution you just take it for granted. It’s normal. You don’t notice it until you go away to the Andes in Patagonia or to a remote Pacific island where there are no cars or refineries—and then you come back home to polluted Houston. A similar situation applies to arrogance and ignorance. When you, yourself, are quite arrogant and ignorant, and the vast majority of your fellow citizens are ignorant and arrogant, too—arrogance and ignorance are normal. And unless we are confronted with particularly egregious and conspicuous examples of ignorance—say, with George W. Bush or Sarah Palin—or outrageous examples of arrogance—say, with Dick Cheney or Donald Trump—we simply go about our business as if nothing were amiss.

But be forewarned. There is comfort in numbers and, no matter how tough we happen to be, being alone—being left alone—tends to be uncomfortable. As long as we are all arrogant and ignorant together, things are quite tolerable, even if this collective arrogance and ignorance is actually hastening our collective demise. On the other hand, as soon as we begin to acknowledge our own arrogance and ignorance we place our happiness and well-being at grave risk, even though this is the honorable and correct thing to do.

Couplings between Train-cars Hitched to the Love-Locomotive (8/3/15)

‘Love,’ as it is vulgarly understood—or rather, misunderstood—is seldom a positive, healing force radiating disinterestedly from the lover, but a kind of lack or deficiency that the lover hopes will be answered or supplied by the beloved. Thus, someone with homely looks and a lot of money teams up with an obliging partner long on looks and short on cash. Or perhaps a cool-hearted, subtle-thinking type and a warm-hearted, simpler-minded feeling type are attracted to each other. In a third, hypothetical case, an older man with much worldly experience—tainted perhaps with a certain encroaching Weltschmerz—and an innocent, young sheltered woman (who is deeply impressed with his accomplishments and adventures in the world) are drawn together.

The first example most closely approximates a strictly commercial arrangement—and a conjugal bond between two such persons, based solely on the stated terms, would amount to little more than prostitution hiding behind the conventional cloak of marriage.

In the second instance we move more decisively into the realm of psychological complementarity. The partnership between the lopsided, emotionally-disengaged thinker and the minimally-thinking, equally extreme feeling type comprehends within itself more psychic territory and sensitivity than either partner would command on his own, but unless there is genuine, sympathetic understanding and trust between them, the actual relationship is likely to contain a great deal of unlit, shared space. (Such a space is typically—if not unavoidably—filled by projections from both persons.)

If the first two hypothetical examples of ‘need fulfillment’ may be labeled ‘economic-sensual’ and ‘psychological-functional,’ respectively, the third example might provisionally be called ‘spiritual-existential.’ Both parties are seeking a kind of refuge or protected haven at some remove from the slings and arrows of existence. The world-weary elder member, who, through his ordeals has seen through many of life’s exaggerated promises and steadily diminishing pleasures, seeks peace, repose, tenderness, and simplicity in lieu of his former, more boisterous enthusiasms. The younger, innocent and inexperienced partner is content to encounter the fullness of life vicariously—through the eyes, thoughts, and measured judgments of her trusted elder guide and faithful ally.

Contemporary Man (8/26/15)

I know that in the past I have frequently spoken of the malignant forces within modern culture as though these evils were threatening us primarily from without—like a viral contagion or dangerous microbes in our drinking water—but I am aware of the fact that the real frontline of this battle against rampant nihilism and spiritual bankruptcy lies within all of us. I am conscious of the fact that when I attack these malignant and barbaric forces in modern ‘anti-culture’ I am merely drawing attention to symptoms and manifestations of collective and individual inner factors that are rooted in our beleaguered, malnourished souls. To be sure, these symptoms are contagious, but we are far less likely to succumb to infection if we take adequate precautions.

Unfortunately, the ‘malady’ of modern culture is so widespread—so pandemic, if you like—that most of us are infected long before we objectively recognize our illness for what it is, and thus, long before we have learned about any adequate measures of prevention. But our situation is actually more complicated than this.

It may in fact be the case that culture, as such—any culture anywhereso long as it remains a thoroughly unexamined and un-critiqued gift or acquisition, poses a mortal threat to our well-being and our true fulfillment as human beings. It may, for instance, be the case that even the most sound and sane cultural inheritance functions like a sturdy set of ‘training wheels’ that help a youngster get up and rolling on a bike. The aim, of course, is to assist the cyclist to ride independently on his bike—to ‘internalize’ the training wheels, as it were. Or perhaps we might think of our initial cultural inheritance as scaffolding that surrounds a prospective building, lending shape and dimensionality to the individual ‘work in progress’ that acquires distinctive form and substance within that provisional and eventually outgrown and dispensable frame. We might also compare our cultural endowment with a local diet that offers a particular array of nutrients necessary for human survival. As we digest these foodstuffs they are transformed, as it were, into vitality and into the very substance of our bodies.

But—continuing with this ‘diet’ metaphor—some cultures are ‘rounded’ and rich in their spiritual, intellectual, moral, and aesthetic nutritional content and others somewhat less so. Some cultural diets—again, figuratively speaking—are heavily weighted with ‘proteins’ but light on ‘fiber.’ Some suffer from a specific ‘vitamin deficiency’ or from an excess of ‘fats’ or ‘refined sugars.’

I would argue that, as a species, we are undergoing a tumultuous, radical transformation that is probably unprecedented in our brief history as culture-dependent creatures. This cataclysmic change we are collectively undergoing has exposed the lamentable inadequacy of all our present cultural knowledge and resources to respond to the challenges that we (and our descendents) will be facing for a long time to come. Part of the tumult or ‘shake-up’ produced by this world-historical revolution directly pertains to the status of culture as such. Today, not only leisured, well-educated, and reflective individuals, but also ordinary persons all over the globe acknowledge the precarious relativity of culture and all the products of culture (including religious dogma, moral and political theories, metaphysical doctrines, etc.) These narrowly and shabbily educated persons didn’t arrive at this momentous and potentially destabilizing insight through earnest and painstaking study of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Freud, and Jung—or through any sustained effort at deep reflection. This idea—this profoundly flimsy assessment of culture, all cultures, as relative and not absolutely binding or inherently authoritative—is now the common property of the majority of semi-educated men and women (and even precocious, untested but energetically texting teenagers) throughout the West—and now with growing numbers of persons in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, where traditional cultures are steadily losing ground to the relentless, leveling waves of modern consumerism and moral-cultural relativism. There are plenty of fanatics and militant dogmatists still out there—and some of them love to stir up trouble whenever they can for the Godless, flaccid ‘nihilists’ they suppose the rest of us to be. But here, as elsewhere, the exception merely proves the rule.

So, how—it will be asked—are we responding (or reacting) to this recently acquired insight into the relativity and ‘fictional’ status of cultural forms? We might be roughly divided into two different camps: 1) Those who—because they can neither understand nor adequately meet the severe challenges involved in having the rug pulled out from under their ‘world’—decide, in effect, to ‘eat, drink, and be merry,’ rather than live in a state of disquieting uncertainty and mental disorientation. 2) Those who feel called from within to come to terms—albeit provisional and pragmatic ones—with the fact that the tectonic plates of culture are continually shifting under our feet.

From one angle, the rather fluid and indeterminate state of cultural (and inter-cultural) factors is a natural and necessary compensation for the static, orthodox Medieval-Christian cosmos that prevailed without serious opposition for centuries in Europe. And while there is certainly much to admire about that holistic, hierarchical scheme that oriented religious, political, social, and moral affairs, there is no getting around the fact that as educated and adventurous minds and spirits acquired new knowledge about (previously unexplored) lands and cultures, about the natural world, about human nature and the body, serious challenges to the traditional static order of things were bound to arise.

The exploratory activity and innovations (in theology, literature, philosophy, political theory, economics, technology, manners and morals, etc.) of the Renaissance and the 16th-17th centuries gave birth to the relativistic, materialistic modern ‘system’ into which contemporary humanity has been, for the most part, thoroughly conscripted. Questions have only led to further questions—undermining hallowed pieties and weakening institutions along the way—throwing defenseless individuals back upon their scanty spiritual and moral resources to fend for themselves in this ongoing cultural earthquake that I’ve been sketching.

It might be argued that, in certain respects, our insecure, fluidic modern world presents us with a far more honest picture of nature and of our actual existential situation than would ever have been possible in the seemingly innocent, childlike, harmonious-hierarchical, pre-modern world that Dante depicts so beautifully and so self-assuredly in the Divine Comedy. Everything and everyone had its/his/her properly assigned and immovable place in that world. That world, I think we can all agree, has long since evaporated. And while I certainly would not recommend a restoration of the medieval order of things as a remedy to our modern ills (as ISIS is perversely attempting to do—albeit with the incongruous but indispensable assistance of modern weaponry, internet banking, YouTube, and cell phone communications), I regard such persons who scornfully say ‘good riddance’ to everything pre-modern (without first thoroughly understanding what those epochs contributed to the development of Western culture) as nitwits and dolts. I would not wish to return to the third through fifth grades, although I am thoroughly convinced that it would have been a serious mistake to skip over them—and certainly not (or not mostly) because of the classroom knowledge I would have missed out on, but because of all those valuable associations, life lessons, and formative experiences that happened to me between grades 3 and 5.

The ‘world’ of even the most discerning and perspicacious fifth-grader tends to be rather more innocent, sheltered, and carefree than the ‘world’ of a newly-minted college graduate—simply because of where these two are positioned, time-wise, on the linear path from cradle to grave. Are we not likewise inclined to suppose that even the most sophisticated and penetrating minds of medieval Christendom were somewhat childlike and innocent compared to the unexceptional but moderately sensitive product of today’s frayed and rapidly decomposing leftovers of a once-living culture—just as most of the infantrymen who survived the trenches of WWI rapidly became more existentially ‘evolved’ than the effete, brandy-sipping, distant generals who were orchestrating their ordeals by fire (and mustard gas) from afar?

Only in this restricted sense do I advance my suggestion that we moderns are afforded a more brutally honest picture of our actual spiritual predicament, as a species, than our more myth-ensconced forebears. Like the soldiers in the rat-and-corpse-infested trenches, we moderns are routinely exposed to many psychic pathogens and insecurities from which our medieval forebears were shielded by ignorance and innocence (i.e., an intact faith). It’s not that horrible and unimaginably painful events did not happen to them. Of course they did. But they happened within an intrinsically meaningful—and not an absurd or meaningless (‘existential’)—universe. Nietzsche famously referred to the cardinal event that separates the mental world inhabited by our not so distant forebears from the one we inhabit as ‘the death of God.’

Spiritually responsible persons (who, alone, are brutally honest with themselves) have always recognized that no other person—living, dead, or to ‘come again’—can magically redeem their souls. The soul achieves in its own salvation or liberation chiefly by liberating itself from any lingering hopes or expectations that something or someone outside of it can ultimately make or prevent its redemption. And, of course, this sweeping relinquishment applies to cultural, philosophical, religious, moral, and aesthetic forms and formulas, as well. These become the stick with which we stir the fire and which is eventually consumed by that fire.

Approaching Othello (8/1/15)

If we approach Othello as a dramatic portrait of psychological and moral negotiations within Shakespeare’s psyche at the time he wrote the play, the principal characters may be regarded as complex symbols of distinct psychological processes, standpoints, functions, levels, and values. The overall course of action may be seen to symbolize the natural outcome of the conflictual relationships between these differentiated psychic factors.

What if, for instance, we approach Iago not as we would a morally accountable human being who should be possessed of a modicum of human sympathy or compassion, but as the personification of an utterly inhuman, motiveless mode of thinking (instrumental reason) that can be arbitrarily employed to serve a wide variety of divergent and even contradictory ends?[1]

Allan Bloom’s thoughtful essay on Othello—‘Cosmopolitan Man and the Political Community,’ from Shakespeare’s Politics—makes very insightful observations about Iago, Othello, and Desdemona (whose name in Greek can mean ‘superstitious’ or ‘ill-fortuned’). Of Iago, he writes:

Iago, as I have said, is only a mirror or an agent that causes the unseen to become visible…Shakespeare is, in the final accounting, very hard. Iago’s speeches, read dispassionately, show that he is the clearest thinker in the play. ‘Honest Iago’ is not merely a tragically misplaced epithet. Iago does tell more of the truth than any other character. It is difficult to understand his motivation; no villain in Shakespeare seems to act without some plausible end in view, an end the value of which all men would recognize, though they might perhaps not be willing to commit the crimes necessary to arrive at it. But Iago, as does the Devil, seems to act from pure negativity. ‘I am not what I am.’ Whatever Othello wants, Iago wants the opposite. He is sub- or super-human. But, in opposing Othello, he shows that the world dominated by Othello is a world of fancy. He speaks out for a freedom which none of the others recognize. Iago wishes to live his own life free from the domination of other men, and especially of other men’s thoughts. He realizes that true tyranny is not imposed by force, but imposes itself on the minds of men. For Iago, man can free himself only by thought. He has thought through the emptiness of most beliefs and will not live in subordination to them. He cannot found his life on self-deception, as Othello does. (p. 63)

If we think of the prejudices or shared illusions (‘ideals’) that bind together, define, and—in a sense—constitute a community (in this case, Venice) as the matter upon which Iago’s caustic intelligence goes to work (‘I am nothing if not critical’), we get a clear glimpse of his function in the tragedy. To every particle of ‘matter’ he encounters, this spirit of ‘pure negativity’ stands figuratively as a particle of antimatter. When divested of all merely human desires, aims, and designs, Iago is indeed no more and no less than a sub- or super-human force of negation or contradiction—an ‘agent’ capable of nullifying or effectively dissolving all those positively asserted and believed-in prejudices upon which the individual (Othello, Cassio, Desdemona, etc.) and the community collectively depend.

Thus, only that being who is genuinely reconciled to the truth or the reality that transcends this war of opposites (i.e., personal/cultural prejudices and their negation) is capable of encountering Iago and coming away unscathed. Such a being (sub- or super-human?) would have already succeeded in reconciling and harmonizing the pairs of opposites that, together, comprise the matrix out of which dramatic, deluded, ordinary human experience is spawned. Such a being would indeed be free, not only of the prejudices that define all mere humans (as exponents of a particular culture), but of the desires and fears that are otherwise guaranteed to keep us mentally imprisoned in the endless cycle of suffering that life—which feeds upon itself—essentially is. (Incidentally, Harold Bloom, noted bardolator, argues that Iago would have been seen through and disposed of right away by two other Shakespearean characters: Hamlet and Falstaff.)

Iago certainly is not free—despite his apparent success in seeing through the delusions and myths that others live by. And why is he not free? He wants to have his cake and eat it too. Clearly he is still subject to desires (for recognition, advancement, power over others, etc.) and fears/anxieties (of being exposed for whom/what he is, of having been cuckolded by Othello, etc.), so we are not entitled to call him disinterested. He has merely pushed his consciousness to the cynical end of a spectrum, the other end of which is populated by equally deluded idealists and staunch believers in the sacrosanct inviolability of romantic love, the value and durability of reputation, etc. He has not—like the ‘transcendent’ being we hypothetically proposed earlier—succeeded in reconciling these opposites within himself. Only by harmonizing or reconciling them is it possible to neutralize the dynamic force naturally generated by the polarized pairs of opposites—a force that is most commonly experienced as fear and desire, which are but two sides of the same coin. Thus, upon close and honest examination, we find that the cynical-critical Iago is no less the captive of his desires and fears than are his idealistic, ‘gullible’ victims. His actual motives may be murky or not evident, but he certainly acts with drive and passion.

Two things that are on trial in this play—and which are being subjected to the fiercest and most stringent acid test—are ‘reputation’ and ‘romantic love.’ I think it is fair to say that by the play’s end, neither of these survive the ordeal, but are exposed for the deceptive, ultimately disappointing, and flawed pursuits that they, at bottom, are.

Othello’s personal power and security depend, as it turns out, almost entirely upon the maintenance of his reputation as a capable general. He has no protective birthright in Venice.[2] He possesses no great wealth. His valiant reputation and his skills as a general have won him a measure of authority and importance within the Venetian state. But he is essentially a foreigner and a mercenary—and even with his marriage to Desdemona, these facts cannot be fundamentally altered, so far as public perception is concerned. Cassio’s abrupt loss of his reputation (and his office as Othello’s lieutenant)—through ‘possession’ by drunkenness, a ‘devil,’ as he calls it—prefigures Othello’s ‘possession’ by an intoxicating jealousy and his rapid loss of status and position as a consequence of his unwarranted violence against Desdemona.

Desdemona’s ‘unconditional’ surrender to Othello’s will and authority constitutes the other side of the riddle of their joint demise. It is precisely because she submits so ‘selflessly’ to Othello—refusing to question or to prudently protect herself from this possessed husband of hers after he has become physically and verbally abusive to her—that she winds up a victim of his ‘honorable’ wrath. In behaving in this way, she is, at one level, enacting the flawed formula of the romantic love myth. This myth requires nothing less than the psychic-erotic merger (or mutual identification) of the lovers. The beloved is one’s ‘other half.’ This, in a nutshell, was Desdemona’s undoing—and this was her contribution to the tragic finale. She had ‘boundary issues’—in the sense that none existed for her.

But, as was noted, Othello’s violent action against his innocent (but equally possessed—if by a different fantasy) wife was consciously motivated by his wounded honor. He realized—all too abruptly and overwhelmingly—that without honor and a commanding reputation, he would be reduced to nothing. His equally real—and equally overwhelming—need for Desdemona’s love (or belief in the reality and faithfulness of her love) left him vulnerable and exposed to Iago’s manipulative lies. Othello was thus doubly—and, as it turns out, mortally—wounded by the collapse, in his mind, both of his honor and of the love that he had come to rely on from Desdemona. ‘Chaos is come again’ and he, the helpless agent of this chaos, felt compelled to take her down with him into the abyss that opened up before (or within) him.

[1] H. C. Goddard anticipates this approach in likening Iago’s thinking to Cold War strategizing.

[2] There was an energetic, prolonged attempt by his enemies and detractors to place Barack Obama in this frame—and by our current president (2/1/18).

East and West: Sober Reflections (4/11/14)

Ronald Schenk, in his terse reply to a question I posed by email (concerning Jung’s and Hillman’s ‘mistrust’ of the Indian psyche) said: ‘Jung and Hillman were both influenced by Indian thought, but both felt it was problematic for Westerners to identify with it, thereby creating a ‘shadow’ of factors that are part of the Western psyche but not included by the East.’

Now, I agree that there is some truth here, but I’m not quite sure it redounds to the credit of the Western psyche—which, on the whole, may be rather more insane and out of alignment with inner reality than the (traditional) Eastern one is.

The formative influences of Christianity, rational philosophy, humanism, republicanism, and the ‘rights of man’ have all contributed to the actual (or purported) sanctity of the individual in the West—while the more ‘collectivist’ East lags behind in its very different regard for the ‘autonomous’ individual. And while no one can deny that a goodly number of humane principles and morally enlightened practices have emerged (in the West) from this more respectful stance towards the individual, this same individualism is inseparably bound up with a slew of collective ills that now threaten to do us in—both culturally and with respect to our natural environment, which is rapidly being compromised and gobbled up by the reckless, unbridled collective appetites of devouring consumers. An honest analysis of the modern ‘individual’ in the West is more likely to reveal an amalgam of generally unfettered, irrational habits, cravings, and compulsions (that demand instant gratification) than the self-controlled, liberally educated, rationally reflective citizen enthusiastically idealized by the founders of modern democracies.

Since the mindless consumer appears to be the rather unpromising and depressing creature in which Western individualism has culminated—the rationally calculating, politically impotent, narrowly-educated conscript, serving a desire-propelled corporate-capitalist economy—we have reason to pause before deeming this a real advance over the more communitarian arrangement of the pre-modern scheme, where the energies, lusts, and personal ambitions of the ordinary human being were, for the most part, suppressed and subordinated to the comparatively restricted needs and the cohesiveness of the larger group—and to the cultural-political elites who lived off this collective labor and sacrifice. The unleashing and the aggressive stimulation of these energies, lusts, and personal ambitions in the modern West has led, unsurprisingly, to evident cultural decline and fragmentation, the evils of colonialism, obscene over-consumption and waste, the ominous ascendency of what Nietzsche famously dubbed ‘the Last Man’—a shallow, frothy, short-sighted creature who is obsessed with his own material and psychological comfort—and sees nothing wrong or ignoble about this.

It is my perception that the East—particularly Indian spiritual teachings, and to a slightly lesser extent, Chinese Taoism and Japanese Zen Buddhism—has something of vital, if not absolutely crucial, importance to offer us here in the West. This perception is founded upon two firm convictions that have come from years of experience, study, travel, and reflection:

  1. The present (and all but unchallenged) scheme in the West almost exclusively promotes personal/collective competition for (limited) material goods and for (personal) power within one’s sphere of (worldly) action.
  2. Unbridled self-interest is the principal source of evil and misery in the world—and the greatest obstacle to spiritual enlightenment and liberation. On a collective scale, aided by modern technology, it constitutes nothing less than a gargantuan pair of jaws, ceaselessly devouring human souls, natural resources, and the future of our own and other species.

It may be the case that from our ‘enlightened,’ ‘sophisticated,’ ‘liberated,’ point of view, the East seems ‘backwards’ and crude, but our forward-rushing, reckless momentum is hurtling all of us into a whole series of walls and barriers that a few of our more alert observers can clearly see directly ahead of us. If going ‘backwards’ is unthinkable—not even an option—then at least we might consider the value of slowing down, of tempering our acquisitiveness, of quieting our compulsive urges and habits, of separating ourselves from the mindless herd. There may be comfort in numbers, but that comfort will vanish as soon as those in the front begin colliding with the walls and are crushed to death by the stampeding skittish simpletons behind them—all those ‘liberated’ goats and sheep who lacked the courage to stray, alone, from the group, from which vantage point they might have clearly discerned the trouble looming ahead. Perhaps for some goats and sheep, mass suicide is preferable to solitary salvation or survival. Who knows what goes on—and doesn’t go on—in the minds of goats and sheep once they get up a full head of steam as a rutting, glutting group? We must leave them in ‘God’s’ hands. Since ‘He’ made them, they are His responsibility and we must not lose heart in dire ruminations about the outcome of the dismal stampede that is so clearly shaping up—clear to anyone with an honest pair of eyes, or even one BIG EYE. Our pity—or, conversely, our outrage and resentment—must be superseded and kept under strict watch, lest we become paralyzed on the sidelines—and miss our (slim) chance of being rescued from our own very different collision with a dead-end.

Assuming we have successfully extricated our solitary souls from the mindless, ‘possessed and enthralled’ mass of self-styled ‘individuals’—and from those positive and negative attachments that prevent the transcendence of egocentricity—what next?

In the unlikely event that my critical assessment of Western ‘individualism’ (or at least its American version, which I have observed with anxious concern and care for many years) has escaped the reader, let me pronounce bluntly: ‘Individualism’ has been thoroughly and systematically debased into an empty concept—a vacuous label signifying nothing—all style and no substance—in this mass culture we presently inhabit. The actual courage, intellectual honesty, and discrimination that are the basic requirements for becoming an authentic individual are becoming harder and harder to find. The cultural soil here is simply too depleted, the air too toxic, and the rainfall too scarce to support more than a few wild and anomalous growths, here and there. And such anomalies typically have the good sense to stay well out of the crass (and, by turns, sentimental and cynical) public spotlight, so that few of us have heard of them. Wide public engagement and activity, while it may nurture mere talent—and even certain forms of genius—often spells doom for genuine individuality, which bears a resemblance to a snowflake exposed to the merciless glare of the afternoon sun. First, the glare effaces the intricate and subtle crystalline detail-work, before reducing it to a micro-puddle of featureless non-identity.

And yet, this stage—of the genuine, self-standing, critically discriminating individual—must be heroically achieved and moved through before being sacrificed in the ‘metamorphosis’ that leads to the Self—i.e., beyond confinement to the personal, individualized ego. There is no skipping over this lonely and usually excruciating baptism by fire and into the crucifixion experience of release from ‘I,’ ‘me,’ and ‘mine.’ It is harder for the bloated, inflated, puddin’-headed mass man to shrink into the modest, psychologically honest, thoroughly conscious individual (who is capable of slithering through the eye of the needle into the blissful serenity of the Self) than it is for a rich man to get into heaven. Both the mass man and the amasser of excessive personal wealth are facing in the wrong direction—in the exact opposite direction from the Self—which is to be found, if at all, in the silent, inner world, not in the noisy, fast-paced, mundane one.

Holding Hands (8/23/13)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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