Some Reflections on Oedipus Tyrannus (12/14/17)

mama  I don’t know if this somber and weighty mood I’m experiencing today is an aftershock following my re-reading of Oedipus Tyrannus, but, given the wallop this ancient text always delivers, how can there not be a connection? The tragedy is sublimely humbling to the human – insofar as Oedipus’s predicament in the play represents the ego’s inevitable fate: to always be attempting to avoid what it suspects to be its horrible destiny; but the more it runs, the tighter become the coils that bind it to that fate. That fate is not so much death as it is something far more crushing, mocking, diminishing—something that springs from the buried, unexamined links between our most unacceptable, ‘shameful’ desires and our most paralyzing terrors. Moreover, it entails a painfully conscious recognition and digestion of one’s ultimate and utter insignificance vis-à-vis the Gods and nature.

Before this realization sinks in, we see a marked impetuosity and managerial mania in the character of Oedipus. Sophocles succeeds – at least with this reader – in punching the wind out of the belly, leaving one writhing helplessly on the ground. Even so clever and beloved a savior of the city (of Thebes, by answering the riddle of the Sphinx) as Oedipus cannot extricate himself from the ever-tightening coils of Pythia’s prophecy (named after the Python-serpent slain by Apollo). As ‘tyrannos,’ he is the self-made, self-authorized ruler of the Thebans. He seized or claimed this authority after demonstrating his superiority – and yet the conditions that enable and legitimize his rise (by killing his father, Laius, and marrying his mother, Jocasta the queen) are the very fulfillment of his curse. The fact that the abominable acts and his investiture as ruler are two sides of the same coin is crucial: those who are first (citizens) will be last (the most fallen).

No one, it seems, who registers the full weight and impact of these sobering, chastening truths about our ultimate irrelevance and insignificance as separate egos, could ever again—with a clear conscience or robust enthusiasm—chase after empty honors, exotic pleasures and luxuries, or any of the countless distractions and diversions available to man – but would gratefully make do with enough. What does a thoroughgoing digestion of this overwhelming insight into the puniness of even the most proud and prominent specimens of humanity – the Pharaohs, the heroes, the Caesars, the holy Roman emperors, the Napoleons – lead to? Doesn’t it make it impossible to go back to the cramped old anthropocentric perspective, where such childlike hero-worship is still possible? It is in this sense that Oedipus Tyrannus is unmistakably a religious work of the highest order – if one of the chief functions of religion is to reveal to man his actual place in the grand scheme of things – and to make him feel it. Does such a humbling and purging realization necessarily or invariably crush or permanently cripple us – so that we are thereafter consigned to a pessimistic paralysis, unable to work up any further enthusiasm for existence?

I would say it all depends on how much resilient strength of soul there is to begin with. Certainly there are plenty of spirits that are broken by gentler impacts than the one considered here – persons whose will to press on through life is extinguished under lighter weights than this. But for other, few in number, this is precisely what is called for in order to balance and temper their oversized spirits properly. No doubt, it is fortunate for most of us that our minds – unlike that of the relentlessly probing Oedipus – have an instinctive awareness of where to shrink back and stop asking questions the answers to which we are scarcely strong and brave enough to withstand. Perhaps this helps to account for why Oedipus Tyrannus won only second and not first place the year it competed in the drama festival at Athens! Its true impact, while powerfully sensed, failed nonetheless to be fully acknowledged even by perhaps the most spiritually resilient audiences ever to fill a theater.

It would be foolhardy not to frankly acknowledge the double-edged or equivocal character of this initiatory vision – this staggering insight into human insignificance, blindness, and fragility. The peculiar light that floods the mind during such momentous initiatory experiences cannot help but have a destabilizing effect upon our familiar bearings. From the standpoint of our established understanding of things, the inrush of light, rather than merely illuminating and valorizing that understanding, exposes its grave limitations and gaping inadequacies. Some “victims” of this flood of penetrating-exposing light (from the unconscious?) never really recover from the shattering ordeal. Like a literal tsunami that sweeps over a coastal town, the flood of light dissolves and washes away all those once trusted, once-stable structures. “Madness” is one name for such fateful encounters with this transgressive and irrational light (or is it a kind of darkness?) from beyond the usually secure perimeter of the human, all too human.

This exposing, disruptive light – and I am proposing that Sophocles’ play has artfully embedded within it a spark or scintilla of this equivocal light – both reveals and, in a sense, magnifies what is already there in the character of those it penetrates like an X-ray. What does Oedipus’ self-blinding tell us about his fundamental character? By ensuring thereafter that he could never again look upon those his actions, however unintentional, had wronged or desecrated, his blinding suggests that he still adhered to notions of taboo (against father-slaying and mother-laying) that, for another character might have been rendered null and void by the very light that throws the human conventional domain into dwarfish irrelevance. It is precisely this property of the equivocal, transcendent light – its inherently transgressive character, “beyond good and evil” – that makes it so potentially undermining of salutary, civilizing human laws and institutions – including the incest taboo and religious proscriptions against parricide and matricide.

Are we getting close, here, to the reasons why religion has been regularly and systematically tamed by those, ever a minority, who astutely recognized just how dangerous and destructive it can be in undiluted, uncompromising doses? By selectively emphasizing only (or mostly) its civically and morally edifying powers and potentials, these teachers, poets, philosophers, and prophets labored to transmute a potentially lethal and maddening substance into one of civilized humanity’s principal supports and comforts! No small feat. Was Carl Jung, who surely knew, firsthand, of the equivocal power of religion – with its rootedness in the archetypes – one such artful, philanthropic tamer of (explosive-corrosive-animating-electrifying) religious materials? Was he attempting, with the other hand, to recover its lost or watered-down power to turn our lives upside down? While reading Jung, we cannot fail to notice the indisputable sense of awe with which he confronts the mystery of the unconscious. And, for him, the unconscious was the true source of “religious” or numinous experience, as it has forever been for all genuine initiates and “victims” of that transcendent-transgressive light.

Contrast Jung’s reverential, respectful stance towards the numinous with the comparatively dismissive, cavalier, or patently hostile attitude towards religion that we see in Voltaire and most Enlightenment philosophes (including our Founding Fathers, as “deists” and diehard rationalists), and it is difficult to imagine that the latter had any feel or natural susceptibility for the numinous core of religion. For them, it was simply superstition and delusions—which, to be fair, it certainly can be for those who lack openness to the numinous. Nevertheless, it was recognized that religion—because of its ‘irrational,’ spellbinding appeal and its power to override commonsense as a compass and guide for some persons—had to be controlled through the spread of “rational enlightenment,” which was to supersede and supplant religion by exposing its roots in childlike or primitive beliefs. Thus, the separation of Church (which is not synonymous with “religion,” as I am treating it here) and State was a relatively superficial or peripheral matter.

A far more significant campaign against genuine religious (transcendent-numinous) experience sprang from the general elevation or exaltation of (scientific/pragmatic) rationality to an authoritative status that had never before been dared by our ancestors. (Something akin to this was underway in the Athenian Enlightenment—with the rise of ‘atheistic,’ tradition-eroding, skeptical Sophists—when Sophocles wrote Oedipus Tyrannus, partly as a warning to his fellow Greeks, as Bernard Knox argues in his excellent study, Oedipus of Thebes.) Thus a rather narrowly defined (but materially transformative and momentous) form of human rationality was raised, by design and via “modern education,” to a position of unprecedented authority over human affairs. Religion was implicitly demoted in dignity and authority in this “transvaluative” campaign conducted by proud, “enlightened” men on both sides of the Atlantic. It would take some time – after the intoxicating “high” of this myth of progress by means of pragmatic reasoning began to wear off, following a couple of world wars – before a sizable number of reflective persons began to realize that modern rationality had no bottom or grounding to it – and that it was essentially just instrumental, a mere method. Moreover, there was no natural aim or teleology to it, unlike ancient (ontological-speculative) reason.

On Part Three of Beyond Good and Evil (“The Religious Character”) (9/16/13)

In part three of Beyond Good and Evil (‘The Religious Character’) it is as if Nietzsche has implicitly assumed that a kind of dome covers humanity. That dome, like the hemispherical ceiling of a planetarium, is solid and impenetrable. Moreover, the various constellations of the zodiac, along with the other noteworthy individual stars and galaxies, which are projected onto the dome, correspond to the various mythologies, religious principles, metaphysical systems, and moral doctrines that have been created solely by great geniuses who—though superior and exceptional specimens—were, nonetheless, irrefragably and inescapably human. Culture, then, and those principle works of art and thought that lend both structure and ‘luminous’ orientation to human lives everywhere and at all times, are solely human inventions. As with Darwinism, there is no need to introduce extraneous teleological or superfluous metaphysical principles (i.e., ‘God’) into Nietzsche’s genealogical scheme in order to account for man’s cultural evolution. There is no need—no justification—for bringing such intangible or supernatural factors into the equation. Naturalism suffices. And perhaps a little bit of ‘naturalistic’ human psychology.

Because we humans tend to be painfully conscious of our mortality—and because our hopes and our imaginative longings often reach quite far beyond our actual, limited conditions as frail, ephemeral creatures (even when we’re not fully conscious of these hopes and longings)—it should come as little surprise that, from early on, our ancestors have been concocting all manner of (benevolent and malevolent) immortal figures who have a significant impact upon our lives—and whose power we neglect at our peril. Nietzsche recognized that this imaginary relationship between the unreal Gods and very real mortals makes very good sense from both the individual, personal standpoint, as well as from the social/political standpoint. For the individual, this imaginary relationship with the divine, supernatural dimension provides a context and a kind of playground for those transcendent yearnings that mortals are often afflicted with when they remember they must die. What a marvelously effective and time-tested pressure valve these imaginary heavens and hells provide whenever we need to let off steam! On the other hand, this same valve can be closed off when pressure is precisely what is required to jolt us out of our indolence and make us serious about our ‘salvation.’

For millennia, the artful manipulation and exploitation of these supernatural longings and anxieties by crafty priests and opportunistic rulers has greatly contributed to social-political stability. A ruler who tampers with established theology (or who used to, since this is quickly becoming a thing of the past in the West) and customs—from Akhenaton to Henry VIII, from Mao to Stalin—had better possess despotic powers if he is to succeed in implementing such disruptive reforms. A leader whose actual or supposed religious sympathies diverge from those of the mass population (as when rumors spread about Obama being a Muslim) will be up against fierce, and often unconscious, prejudice in the generality. Mitt Romney’s good looks and his anti-Obama polemics were not quite enough to offset the ‘Mormon’ factor and enable him to inch out ahead of Obama’s good looks and his slippery-silver tongue. John F. Kennedy’s (epidermal) Catholicism tugged against his good looks and silver tongue, making it necessary for his wealthy father to buy Chicago’s deciding votes. But, I digress.

As with other ‘naturalistic’ thinkers—both ancient and modern—Nietzsche, in explaining the ‘religious character’ in exclusively human, all-too-human terms, effectively explains away transcendent or superhuman factors altogether. In the final section of Part Three Nietzsche makes it quite clear that as soon as religion—in this case, Christianity—succeeds in becoming sovereign (as opposed to remaining a subordinate means of marginalizing and thwarting the canaille and providing the proper breeding conditions for higher human specimens), culture is debased into a ‘sublime abortion.’ In its successful campaign to preserve and protect the great mass of ‘failures’ and ‘degenerates,’ two thousand years of Christianity has bred…

…the European of today, a herd animal, something well-meaning, sickly, and mediocre.

He accuses the Christian cultural leadership—over the past two millennia—of having been stupid and cowardly. These were:

people who were not high and hard enough to give human beings artistic form; people who were not strong or far-sighted enough, who lacked the sublime self-discipline to give free reign to the foreground law of ruin and failure by the thousands; people who were not noble enough to see the abysmally different orders of rank and chasms in rank between different people. (sect. 62)

And for this awful crime committed against ‘higher’ human possibilities, Nietzsche shouts: ‘Christianity has been the most disastrous form of arrogance so far.’ What in the world is going on here? Nietzsche is certainly not being cryptic or ‘tricky’ here. He cannot be accused of resorting to ‘esoteric writing’ in such blatant declarations of his own personal preferences and his standards of what ‘health’ looks like with respect to human culture. But, to spell things out even more explicitly, so as to dispel any lingering, unresolved doubts about what he is saying here, let us begin with his endorsement of treating human beings as a potter might treat clay, or as a sculptor might employ stone in order to impose artistic form upon them. Upon us. (But, let us remember, it was Christianity and not Nietzsche’s Anti-Christianity that constituted the most disastrous form of arrogance so far!) This basic notion of man as moldable clay accords with his description of humans earlier in this same section (62) as ‘the still undetermined animals.’ All but the rarest and most unlikely exceptions among us (since exceptions so often come to ruin) are merely programmable animals without a determinate (and therefore truly knowable, clearly discernible) nature. Most of us are just conscious enough to be aware that we are destined to struggle and eventually to die. Thus, in our anxiety and our natural credulity (when facing the awesome authority of the past and its ‘legacy’) we almost invariably succumb to the sort of imprinting or programming that Nietzsche and many others understand acculturation to consist in—and nothing besides. A human being without cultural imprinting would be all nature and no art.

Technically speaking such a creature is not fully human at all. He is feral, a savage. He may be possessed of (or by) instincts and drives that are hardwired into him, but lacking language and culture to canalize these raw energies and impulses, the (truly unfinished) creature’s existence is decidedly worse than that of an animal’s. Such an existence would be chaotic and anarchic. At least the animal can rely on the regulatory function of its instincts. Civilized human life, on the other hand, depends to a decisive extent upon the disruption and often upon the artful repression of these instincts and drives. They must be re-directed down new, socio-politically acceptable courses. They must be hammered (or coaxed) into new shapes and down new pathways. One of the principal functions of religion, as Nietzsche and many others have understood it, is to instill and to inwardly enforce an elaborate system of (albeit illusory) rewards and punishments—the aim of which is to keep wayward and impetuous little unfinished human animals on track. And by ‘on track’ we mean out of the wilderness of overpowering lusts, rages, and other uncivil drives and affects that may have served our proto-human ancestors well enough out on the savannah, but can only lead to mischief nowadays—unless, of course, we happen to be serving our nation overseas, fighting heathen, Huns, and towel-heads who need a good thrashing if they are to stay on the track we lay down for them.

But the problematic upshot of this momentous game-changing transformation from wild animal to obedient modern consumer is that, for Nietzsche, we might very well have lost as much as we gained in the bargain by becoming so thoroughly domesticated. Like Freud, in his excellent, late essay, Civilization and its Discontents, Nietzsche worries over the damage unleashed upon the ‘animal’ in all of us by the severe constraints that civilization (and especially religion) inflicts upon our erotic, aggressive, and other vital—and vitalizing—instincts. One would be an arrant fool to categorically dismiss such claims. Few Western persons living today have a very good idea—or rather, experience—of the sort of repressions and constraints that were commonplace in 19th century European cultural and social life. One would have to ‘do time’ as a female in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan for a few years in order to get a rough idea of the sort of mentality Nietzsche and Freud were calling into question—and with Nietzsche, this concern seems to have been confined, for the most part, to men.

Having made this preliminary—and admittedly sketchy—effort to contextualize Nietzsche’s ‘naturalistic’ understanding of man’s religious need and his notion of culture as an elaborate system of ‘necessary illusions’ or arbitrary fictions, let us probe further. Nietzsche makes it clear elsewhere in BGE that he sees genuine philosophers as the authors and creators of these collective values—these necessary fictions. Figures like Plato, St. Paul, Confucius, Hammurabi, and Moses are the ‘commanders and legislators’ of entire cultures or durable worldviews. It is such figures who stamp their own image upon the mass of clay—that indeterminate creature, man—and, in doing so, provide us with distinctive goals and hallowed trajectories. They provide us with ‘serious games’ that have awesome implications and consequences. It should come as no surprise that Nietzsche ever so tacitly regards himself as one such commander and legislator, even though he rather furtively and unconvincingly tries to conceal himself behind the mask of herald of the ‘philosophers of the future’—those who will eventually take such Herculean responsibility upon their shoulders. Astonishingly, it would appear that Nietzsche’s notorious megalomania actually had limits beyond which he deemed it prudent not to transgress. Although he spells it out for anyone who bothers to put all the pieces together, he never has quite the temerity to come out and say precisely and plainly what he means: I, Friedrich Nietzsche, have come here to redirect humanity’s path into the future in accordance with my own superior will and intelligence!

Given his special gifts, along with the apparent fact that he acknowledges nothing of genuine value or ‘transcendent’ significance beyond that dome—the outermost limits of which are established by the most clever and seductive human commanders and legislators—it makes a certain kind of sense that Nietzsche would see himself and his calling as fatefully bound up with this sort of cultural renewal and regeneration. As Plato and Socrates had done before him, he would assume the role of ‘physician’ and undertake a thoroughgoing diagnosis of an ailing patient: Western/Christian culture. He would tirelessly dig and delve into the unconscious assumptions and unexamined collective values that were at the root of the devastating illness. ‘Nihilism,’ ‘Decadence,’ ‘Pessimism,’ ‘Pity,’ ‘Slave Morality,’ ‘Egalitarianism,’ ‘Socialism’—these are but the most conspicuous of the names and forms of the degenerative disease that has eaten away the once-vigorous heart of Western culture. At bottom, it is a war between nature and anti-nature, or vigor and sickness, as Nietzsche passionately conceives of the struggle that is perhaps in its final throes. Life itself is under siege—at least where man is concerned—because it is no longer being revered and served by our decadent, effeminate culture. In fact, we wrongly and suicidally misuse culture as a means of escape from life, as Nietzsche sees it. It does not function as a means of courageously engaging with life, as certain pagans used to do, in accordance with their nobler cultures.

And the reason this damning truth about modern culture is not more widely known is simple enough to understand: virtually everyone is so infected with the disease of modern culture—the disease is so far advanced for us, collectively—that sickness has become normal. Our disease is like the stench of urine that goes unnoticed by persons who live in a park latrine that never gets cleaned. When this is all you smell, rancidity and acridity become odorless because they no longer stand out. Then one day you are miraculously released from this giant outhouse. You go for a lovely hike, high up in the nearby alpine forest. You breathe in crisp, clean, invigorating mountain air. When you are called back to the park latrine—say, because of your attachment to loved ones who cannot leave the toilet, or because collecting admission fees from visitors to the urinal is your only source of income—the full reeking impact of the stench assails you with its revolting unpleasantness and unhealthiness. How have you managed to breathe this foul air for years—day in and day out—and never notice that something was terribly amiss?

Cases of natural resistance to this viral contagion (of modern ‘sickness’) are so rare—so anomalous—that we have few salutary models to measure our illness against. Our souls are dead long before our bodies expire—and most of us never suspect a thing.

Glimpses (6/27/13)

That drive to discover and then to abide in some inviolable ‘palace of truth’—a drive that certainly had its way with my mind and soul for many years—was gradually whittled down to a trickle of intermittent ejaculations after my grudging recognition that such a palace appears only in fairy tales, but not in reality, or at least not in the reality I have precariously and gradually come to inhabit. And when the target of one’s restless yearnings is seen to be a phantasm or, worse, an elaborate deception willed into (fictional) existence out of the yearning itself, then honesty counsels us to temper rather than inflame and nurture that drive.

It was by such a circuitous course that I arrived at a more pluralistic—or polytheistic—view of that most elusive of mirages, the Truth. At bottom, it may very well be ‘true’ that eventually all roads lead to some privileged center that is synonymous with Truth (deserving of a capital T) in some thoroughly comprehensive or complete sense. But, in all honesty, from where I am presently situated on my journey, my understanding is infused more with the sense of polycentricity, variety, and complexity than with unity, simplicity, or oneness. I am not saying that oneness is not implied, but as of now, such implied, ultimate unity registers far more faintly to my mind than the image of multiple inner galaxies, each with its own abundant supply of distinctive solar systems, composed, in turn, of various planets—all of which dwarf in size and complexity the individual creatures (or features) found thereupon.

I have spontaneously employed a cosmic analogy to express my point here. In the enormity of its scale, this cosmic image underscores the puniness and the restrictedness of the individual human ego’s field of vision, or range of experience. Always keeping this image of the puniness and restrictedness of the ego’s range of experience clearly in mind helps me to maintain my salutary mistrust of convenient ‘unitary models’ and all simple, self-consistent schemes. As far as I can see, all such models and schemes ultimately do more to hamper and slacken my thinking (and the questioning behind such thinking) than to invigorate and push that thought as far as it can go. It may be different for other thinkers, but for this one, the seductions of oneness and of all-embracing unity are a bit like the pull of a so-called ‘mother-complex’—a hankering to return to mother’s breast—or even to climb back up into her warm and watery belly. Of course, we could just as easily invoke the ‘father complex’ here, insofar as it stands for the urge to submit, in complete, selfless obedience, to the will of the All-Seeing Nobodaddy. At any event, nothing so successfully collapses or ‘shorts’ the electrical tension that is the sine qua non for soaring (or deep-delving) thought than such pat unities and crude simplifications.

I would suggest that a glimpse of authentic unity is possible only after we have courageously weathered and withstood this profound electrical tension—and emerged, as it were, on the other side of the charged field. Note that such glimpses are fleeting—even if the ‘mark’ they leave behind is as indelible as a tattoo. If I may be permitted to employ an erotic metaphor, such a ‘mark’ is like the memory of a supremely satisfying consummation of love with an ardently pursued partner—after many struggles and frustrations have been endured.

By way of contrast, the crude and spurious unities resorted to by the impatient, the careless, the shallow, and the negligent are like a doorbell or telephone ringing just as we are about to achieve our ‘climax.’ They ruin everything!

On Edinger’s “The New God-Image” (4/4/11)

I will begin this entry by confessing that the Edward Edinger book (The New God-Image) is stirring up powerful feelings ‘below deck.’ I am currently re-reading the middle chapter on ‘The Paradoxical God,’ in which the problematic coexistence of good and evil—or light and dark elements—is attributed to God, along with unconsciousness! These ideas strain even the most fertile imagination and test one’s spiritual courage as few ideas can. They are beyond our ‘Christianized’ ken, while at the same time, the attitude we assume towards these perplexing questions would seem to have profound implications for us, psychologically. And even if we ignore or pay grudging respect to these questions—or never adequately register them so that we can, in turn, be infected or stung by their disturbing power—they will still be there lurking like cancer cells in the unconscious. Of course, as long as they are lurking murkily in the unconscious their power to darken and cripple our journey through life is only that much greater because, in that case, they’re operating ‘behind our back.’ Perhaps most of us will never arrive at the point (of conscious appreciation of these profound religious riddles) ever to recognize what has been eating away, like a corrosive acid, at our insides.

But if, like Jacob, we wrestle with ‘God’—if, that is to say, we surrender to these searing questions which implicate us not only in God’s coming-to-be-conscious, but in the dangerous work of harmoniously reconciling cosmic good and evil—we may emerge with a serious limp, but also as walking and talking contributors to the founding of the way ahead. For me—because of what I now so strongly suspect—opting out of the wrestling match is no longer a viable option.

So where does my own anxiety and inner turmoil come from when I read from Edinger and from the uncharacteristically direct passages from Jung’s letters, where he seems to be very much out on a limb by himself—making connections, speculating, creating a new way to imagine deity?

Part of the anxiety stems from the central notion that God is not ‘perfect’ (nor as capable of looking out for us, like a good Daddy, as many of us were brought up to believe since childhood), but should perhaps be regarded as a ‘work in progress.’ To seriously entertain this notion—which, for me, means getting inside of it and inhabiting it like one might dwell inside a myth or story—is to suffer the most intense deprivation of metaphysical comfort conceivable, for it injects the God-image with a stronger dose of chaotic indeterminacy than of stabilizing cosmos. To be sure, Jung is willing to concede a latent meaning behind this work in progress, which is certainly preferable to a stance wherein no such latent meaning suffuses our experience of existence. But because of where present-day humanity is situated, historically and psychologically, the consolation offered by this idea of latent meaning gradually becoming manifest over the next few centuries is not quite consolation of the deepest and most gratifying sort. If the integration of the ‘Cosmic’ shadow—or the reconciliation of the split halves of good (love) and evil (naked will to power)—does actually take place over the next few troubled and disaster-marked centuries, none of us alive today (who are supposed to draw consolation from this possibility) will be around to enjoy the benefits of such a ‘healed’ split. As for the rest: well, they are left to feed like scavengers upon the rotting corpse of the dead ‘God-image.’

Another cause for inner unrest lies in the (psychological) fact that in pursuing the questions and themes of absorbing interest to me since I was young, I have—nolens volens—become conscripted into this unfinishable project that, as Jung rightly said, consists of ‘endless approximations.’ And as I have noted many times before, the deeper into this work I descend, the more alone I feel since few are seized and caught by this strange and strangely consuming task. How many authentic practitioners of alchemy were there? Because I have the compelling sense that this work and this path are my fate—and therefore cannot be forsaken or abandoned without inviting terrible guilt (the guilt of having betrayed or neglected one’s calling)—I naturally want for my life and my work to contribute something of substantial value to others after I’m gone. And yet, what I have to offer is so very different from the more solid and readily acknowledged contributions made by those talented and creative persons who serve men as they are now. I do not seem to be serving man as he now is—do I? And it’s doubtful that I ever will. My inner sights seem to be trained upon the way ahead—the way beyond the fragmented, decomposing culture I have already diagnosed and painfully come to terms with over the years.

The Scientific Worldview (Part Two) (4/22, 4/23/11)

How can we claim to be ‘objective’ when we consciously or unconsciously ignore or undervalue those qualitative aspects of experience which happen to lie outside the quantitative, strictly-defined parameters of scientific criteria/methodology—precisely those aspects of our experience which decisively outweigh and overshadow the comparatively restricted set that science is actually equipped to deal with? And how can we claim to be neutral (or unbiased) when these same highly selective and narrowly restricted criteria conspicuously constitute a bias—i.e., decisively in favor of statistically measurable and materially observable phenomena? Because there is so much more to human experience (that matters—seriously matters) than the comparatively slender portion that can be weighed, measured, classified, and manipulated by the scales and tongs of science, we ‘lay’ persons must learn to be as careful as actual practicing scientists are in recognizing the bounds and the built-in biases of science itself. Only thus will we be protected against the very real dangers of psychological blindness and lopsidedness to which we otherwise consign ourselves. Most scientists, because they have consciously assimilated and mastered the strict methodological constraints of science, recognize these limits simply because they confront them on a regular basis. For those of us who are uninitiated and unaccustomed to the employment of these rigorous principles, these boundary lines tend to be more fuzzily defined. Consequently, we are more likely to over- or under-value science as an institution or way of seeing. It is perhaps for this reason that all of us who regard ourselves as ‘educated’ should, if possible, undergo scientific training so that the power and the actual limits of science can become thoroughly and intimately known to us. There is no authentic substitute for this if we genuinely desire to protect ourselves from the erroneous ideas and questionable valuations that comprise an important part of the ‘scientific worldview.’

We must bear in mind that a collective worldview—in this case, a so-called ‘scientific’ one—is a very different kettle of fish than the purer and more concentrated source-ideas that spawned it. Merely by virtue of its broad extension and its general character, a worldview cannot help but dilute, debase, and distort the foundational ideas in the very act of adapting the worldview for mass consumption or, as Bacon said, for ‘the apprehension of the vulgar.’ If we take a moment to contemplate the gulf that separates the actual words and deeds of Jesus and the Apostles, say, from Pope Alexander the Sixth and the Catholic Church of Renaissance Italy, we get an idea of how wide the gap between a source and the resultant cultural offspring or worldview can be. Nominally ‘Christian,’ but as ‘pagan’ in its actual values and practice as anything from the height of the Roman Empire, the ‘Romish’ Church exerted its powerful authority over the dutiful lives and innocent minds of the masses in a manner that Jesus would no doubt have found questionable, if not palpably appalling.

And yet, if we could question and examine the millions of ordinary men and women who peopled ‘Christianized’ Europe for well over 1,000 years, we would find in almost every instance sincere professions of the most orthodox faith. The collective trust in the once-living myth of Christian redemption is what constituted the Christian worldview—as, in a coarser way, collective faith in the value of today’s ‘fiat currency’ dollar prevents (for the moment) an economic meltdown. It was the implicit trust (by the overwhelming majority of living men and women) in the ultimate truth of this revealed religion that mattered most—not whether priests, bishops, and even the popes behaved in a Christ-like manner, or that ordinary persons were able to fare much better. It was Christianity as an organized ‘way of seeing’ and of finding (or projecting) meaning in(to) human existence that lent substance and cohesiveness to that now beleaguered and gasping worldview. If our not so distant ancestors placed their hope and their trust in God’s mercy and omniscient understanding—because that’s all they had, we and our children invest the same trust, the same hope, in technology, medical innovations, and the penetrating minds of our best and brightest scientists—and for much the same reason: because it seems that’s all we’ve got.

Today, under the aegis of the scientific worldview (or is it the sword of Damocles we’re under?), which has superseded the former one, our collective attention is pointed, for the most part, in a very different direction—not up to heaven where ‘God’ once watched over our ‘simpler’ ancestors, but down to the earth and to the practical business of enjoying (or consuming) as much as possible of what this earth has to offer—before we’re dead and the rest is silence. The ‘myth’ of science and the ‘dream’ of technological-material ease and comfort are the bases of this relatively new worldview. What do I mean by the ‘myth’ of science? Don’t we, today, see something akin to a ‘religious’ faith in the honest-to-goodness power of science to get down to the bottom of things—to uncover the truth about the universe and about ourselves? If physics and biology, chemistry and behavioral psychology, are telling us—in so many words—that we, too, are simply ‘material’ and therefore subject to the same fate or destiny shared by all merely physical creatures, then it suddenly seems the height of folly to invest our time, energy, and attention in any ‘meta’-physical or otherworldly concerns or pursuits. Such foolishness is unworthy of the honest and savvy man of today because such pursuits are—literally—immaterial!

But science—as a myth—has proven to be sorely deficient precisely because it is silent, and must by its own foundational principles remain silent, about meaning and about value. While scientific criticism and the rational-materialistic standpoint have aided enormously in draining the old Christian myth of its former prestige and credibility, they have done nothing to replace or to fulfill the value-positing function served by the Judeo-Christian worldview—because they cannot. Harkening back to what was said earlier: because science, in order to be science, has banished to the margins those aspects of everyday human experience that are irrelevant to it, those important aspects of our experience have suffered a tacit devaluation or loss of status insofar as the scientific worldview now governs our general sense of the rank order of things and provides our criteria for what truth consists in. Moral and aesthetic questions, political issues, religious and spiritual concerns? Because these are all off limits for it, science has nothing evaluative or normative to say, one way or the other, about issues and concerns in these areas of vital interest to every member of our species. Science does not go so far as to say that morality or religious activity are worthless as such—only that they have no worth or importance to scientific research and activity. Apples and oranges. Through applied science we continue to learn how things work in the natural world (and increasingly in the man-made or technologically-altered world)—and how to make things do what we want them to do. But science can offer no guidance or solid advice to us if we ask, ‘Is there more to us than just our bodies?’ and ‘What is the best way of living our lives in this world? Is the present way of life healthy and good for us as psychological beings—or is it threatening to the balance and well-being of our psyches?’ How can we learn what our true spiritual and physical well-being consists in if such questions are not of vital concern to our educators, our elected leaders, our parents, and our friends? Ignoring these questions does not make them go away. They rise up, reliably, in both the young and the old.

Addendum

My initial approach to philosophy was that of an intellectual accumulator or consumer of written knowledge. This approach, while perfectly valid, up to a point, gradually gave way to a very different approach, which is now primary. The new approach consists for the most part in an ongoing dialogue between the ego and the unconscious. This dialectic is much more than a merely intellectual activity, even though the intellect plays a crucial role in the transformative process. Because the archetypes of the unconscious, as Jung clearly recognized, are affectively charged psychic energy centers, the dialectic between ego and unconscious is dramatic and often suffused with a welter of powerful passions and emotional states. Ego consciousness is transformed by its contact with the archetypal images and energies—and such transformation involves a destructive as well as a creative aspect. What often suffers destruction are formerly held assumptions and convictions which are no longer adequate containers for the ‘new wine’ that is fermented by reflection upon the new insights that are produced in the ongoing dialectic. Journaling provides one of the principal arenas within which this dialectic is advanced for me—perhaps the most fruitful one. Careful reading of relevant (psychological, philosophical, poetical, spiritual, historical, etc.) texts and serious conversation also contribute to the ongoing development and transformation of my ego-consciousness.

The transformation of ego-consciousness entails much more than intellectual development and expansion. It encompasses our moral attitudes and behavior, our aesthetic tastes, our feelings about ourselves and others, to name but a few of the areas of importance affected by this transformative process.

The conventional or customary mode of becoming educated today is markedly egocentric and almost exclusively bound up with the intellectual acquisition of factual knowledge and documented information—which should only be the beginning, certainly not the bulk, of our education. The contrast with this model was long ago provided by Plato, wherein the soul, and not the ego, assumes the place of central importance. This approach does not altogether dismiss the value of accumulating the knowledge provided by one’s cultural inheritance (poetical, historical, religious, etc.), but it sees this as the point of departure for the more important form of education which involves entering into a dialectical relationship with the ‘soul’ (which, for many moderns, because reduced to a mere superstition, has been relegated to the unconscious). Because Plato held that the soul’s knowledge and insight were of a higher order than the comparatively ‘shadow-like’ knowledge that comes from the senses and from formal (conventional) learning, a kind of shift occurs in the student’s mental center of gravity at some point—and thereafter he is oriented chiefly by the light of the soul, and not by the very different, less trustworthy ‘lights’ of the conventional or local environment and of the senses. The ‘local’ culture is compared to a ‘cave’ by Plato, while the truer light of soul-wisdom is compared to the sunlight, which can be experienced in a direct way only by those courageous individuals who manage—against numerous obstacles of inner and external resistance—to escape from the ‘cave.’

 

A Word about Jung’s Religious Fantasy (5/6/14)

Jung, in ‘Answer to Job,’ sketches out what the reader might initially suppose to be a significant advance over the traditional Christian idea of man as a puny, impotent creature—a creature who, though created by God (in His image), does not thereby share in God’s divine power or knowledge. Jung’s proposal is that God needs man to carry out or fulfill His creation. This re-definition of man as God’s little helper—his ‘eyes’ and ‘hands’ in the world—is intended, I suspect, to elevate man’s status, to dignify him by assigning divinely creative potentials and a divine telos in the ongoing task of world-creation and world-maintenance. This active-creative function is implicitly contrasted with the stubborn old image of man as the passive, woefully finite and wayward product of God’s unlimited power (Job). Man as mere creature—unable to fully partake in God’s divine power and knowledge—is, at bottom, a kind of prisoner and victim of creation, tainted since the Fall with Original Sin. While I am not about to try and defend such a degrading and pessimistic view of the human being, as such, I’m not sure that Jung’s ‘doctored’ portrait—wherein man is endowed with a divinely creative role, working with his creator to redeem the world—amounts to anything more than a glorified fantasy image of man—perhaps a merely compensatory inflation of the formerly puny creature. Instead of transcending both man and God—as Advaita appears to do—it retains the old fictional dualism (between creator and creature) but with certain ennobling embellishments accorded to the creature. So, the social mobility of the post-Enlightenment, ‘liberal’ West is subtly echoed in the theological mobility of Jung’s philanthropic myth of Judeo-Christian redemption.

Moreover, the Advaitist would unhesitatingly note that Jung’s religious fantasy takes the world—the field of history and temporality—as real, while it is in truth no more than a vivid hallucination, a trick of the mind, a nightmare from which we are better advised to awaken—and not cultivate like some kind of reclaimed Garden of Eden.

Self and Psyche, Jung and Ramana Maharshi (3/18/13)

The thoughts that occupy our minds may profitably be conceived as symptomatic of the mental context or perspective in which we are, for the moment (or, as the case may be, for decades), situated. Our thoughts are the fauna and flora native to that psychic ‘habitat.ʼ To pursue and to work up these thoughts is, at the same time, to further substantiate the enfolding context or perspective—thus making the perspective look and feel all the more solidly and compellingly established. Often, we unwittingly attribute causal status to these thoughts, although when regarded from the standpoint of their generative context or matrix, they are better regarded as symptoms or effects, just as whales, sharks, plankton, and starfish are ‘consequences’ of the life-generating sea, and not its cause.

Our efforts to ‘objectify’ and to extricate ourselves from these enfolding mental contexts or inherited perspectives will be thwarted if our attention remains engrossed in their enchanting or vexing fauna and flora. It behooves us to be mistrustful of the metaphysical pretensions of all bounded mental contexts, along with all the indigenous creatures spawned within their Garden-gates or horizons. Only thus—with such salutary and sobering mistrust as our loyal ally—are we able to wake up from the dream of the ʽmany worldsʼ and learn, at last, to imaginatively play, where before we moiled and toiled on various maintenance crews.

From this perspective we are granted a somewhat fuller view of the crucial differences between Jungian psychology and Ramana Maharshiʼs spiritual standpoint. Jung speaks on numerous occasions of the reality of the psyche. I think it is fair to say that what Jung is calling psyche Ramana Maharshi would call mind plus the vāsanās (the innate or residual tendencies of the mind). And more importantly, Ramana Maharshi does not dignify the mind or the vāsanās with ‘realityʼ status. Only the Self is held to be real and abolute. Everything else—including the psyche—being derivative, is less than real, since nothing but the formless Self is self-subsistent, and this self-subsistence is what constitutes reality in RMʼs book. At first, this may seem like a logical quibble or set piece, like Anselmʼs ʽproofʼ of God, but thereʼs more to it than this.

Before the reader is tempted to make a fateful choice between Jungʼs psychology and RMʼs spiritual teachings concerning the all-embracing Self, let us dive a little bit deeper into this subtle business—a region of deeply intriguing questions where mere words and general concepts are more apt to get in the way than to be of assistance to the diver. In order to begin properly, we would do well to place both Jung and RM within the contexts they were responding to in their seemingly different teachings.

As we know, Jung was up against the thick, proud wall of 19th century European materialism at its zenith, while RM was operating snugly within the well-established Indian spiritual tradition. He was, as Jung famously referred to him, ‘the whitest spot in a white space.ʼ In order for Jung to gain cultural relevance (in order to fulfill his fate?), he had to come to terms with the materialist context in which he was immersed. The generally embraced metaphysical presuppositions of materialism implicitly denied full reality status to immeasurable and intangible spiritual/psychic phenomena. Within the jealously guarded fortress walls of the empirical-scientific worldview, there were no entry visas for anything that was not demonstrably reducible to matter or energy in quantifiable terms. It was agreed that terms like ‘mind,ʼ ‘soul,ʼ ‘God,ʼ and ‘ideasʼ referred to intangibles that nonetheless meant something, however vague and confused, to human beings (even to clear-thinking, no-nonsense persons like inorganic chemists and physicists). Accordingly, these weightless, immeasurable, and immaterial factors could not simply be ignored or categorically dismissed as utter poppycock or ‘silly nothings,ʼ although more than a few ‘Positivist’ zealots advocated such a wholesale rejection of all non-quantitative ‘phantasms.ʼ Nonetheless, even among those who granted a kind of provisional reality status to these insubstantial elements (of intellectual-imaginative-moral-spiritual experience), there was a generally shared belief that eventually all of these features of consciousness would be adequately accounted for in material terms—e.g., electrochemical processes; stimulus response of the human organism within its environment; neural pathways; behavioral habits rooted in the brain; and so forth.

When Jung argued for the reality of the psyche he was not embarking on a philosophical-metaphysical quest or campaign. He was not attempting to credit intangible psychic contents with quite the same ontological or metaphysical status that material objects and processes had been endowed with by the ruling scientific establishment. Perhaps his move—his intellectual stratagem—was a bit tricky or super-subtle, but instead of trying to induct intangible, invisible psychic contents into the exclusive club of materialist metaphysics, he simply dismissed dogmatic metaphysics altogether as a standpoint having anything of real or authoritative value to say about the psyche as such. And he accomplished this bold, brazen maneuver by simply turning the whole question on its head. By inverting the order of priority—by making the psyche the primary datum of experience—Jung, in a single move, made metaphysics a dependent subset of the psyche, which for him became the precondition, the sine qua non, of all experience. Some critics of Jung have called this move ‘psychologism’—the undermining of all possibility of philosophical truths by exposing their roots in that protean, irrational datum: the unconscious psyche.

In this way, Jung—who was not a professional or trained philosopher (although he had read Kant on his own, and was deeply impressed)—had delivered as deadly a blow to Western metaphysics as Heidegger had done (from the phenomenological direction). Instead of painstakingly unraveling it, after the manner of Heidegger and his deconstructionist followers, he simply cut the Gordian knot in one fell swoop. To repeat: he argued, in effect, that because all metaphysical positions, claims, and assertions are generated by the psyche (just as dreams, myths, and symbols are), they can never be more comprehensive, more authentic, or more grounding than the matrix out of which they emerge spontaneously and autonomously. Basing his findings upon years of experience with the phenomena of the unconscious psyche (gathered from his patients, from himself, and from the myths, religious symbols, and other recurring motifs in human cultural history), Jung concluded that the psyche is ultimately opaque, mysterious, and irreducible to any of the categories and forms of thought that we have at our conscious disposal. But, he claimed, despite its ultimately unfathomable mysteriousness—despite its transcendence of all our rational categories and methods—it appears (again, phenomenologically, and therefore, in Jung’s perhaps idiosyncratic view of phenomenology, empirically) to operate in accordance with certain ‘heuristic principles’ or observable patterns. Like the interplay of yin and yang—or between various elements in chemical processes—the psyche, of which our consciously differentiated ego-standpoint is but an outgrowth, is not a merely chaotic mystery, but a mystery that holds out the promise of wise understanding and a fuller participation in life. And since the psyche is itself the matrix of consciousness, it provides us with the means with which to make some kind of meaningful sense of it: dreams, myths, ‘archetypal’ images, ‘Gods,’ etc.

So, now we can see that while Jung posits the reality of the psyche (as an immediately experienceable datum that is directly presented to us in the form of autonomously produced images and fantasy material, which constitute its natural language), this ‘reality’ has a very different status than we encounter in rational philosophy and traditional metaphysics. It is the ground or basis of all possible experience (a claim RM will make about the Self), but it resists all comprehension by necessarily limited human rationality. From one angle, this disqualifies the psyche from being a suitable object for traditional philosophical treatment or analysis—since, as we have noted, it transcends the very terms and axiomatic principles upon which rational philosophy is founded.[1] And while the unconscious psyche is ultimately opaque and stumpingly enigmatic, it nevertheless appears to generate forms that invite (or elicit) meaningful interpretations from us. As Jung saw it, this need for meaning (and for the mental orientation it can provide) appears to be innate in human beings. Our languages, myths, rituals, religions, philosophies—and more recently, our rather threadbare ideologies—have served, with mixed success, to organize meanings and values into systems that mediate for us, collectively. They serve as cultural interfaces between human consciousness and the enigmas of the collective unconscious.

When viewed against the backdrop of his cultural-ideological milieu (namely, the scientific-materialistic-rationalistic modern Western worldview) Jung introduced both creative ideas and corrosive criticisms that left many of the ground-floor presuppositions of that worldview utterly untenable.[2] By opening up the psyche as phenomenologically explorable territory—territory that is situated well beneath the cultural forms and artifacts acquired and assimilated by means of the best formal educations available to us—Jung not only greatly expanded the scope of the discernible and the intelligible. He also introduced more exacting standards of subtlety in treating these little-explored factors and phenomena—standards of subtlety that make former (reductive) methods seem ham-fisted and narrow by comparison.

In our efforts to better understand the points of difference between Jung and RM, then, we must first take note of these differences between Jung’s subtle, inner-directed, culturally assimilative depth psychology and the generally outer-directed, (largely) psychologically unreflective material science that still commands the most respect where questions about the nature of things are at issue, at least here in the West. So, how did the reality of the psyche—or its validity as a ‘scientificʼ hypothesis—become established? Due to a combination of cultural, educational, and other collective factors, the realm of the psyche (or soul) had been pretty much relegated to a marginal zone inhabited by impractical or ‘madʼ poets, the ‘innocent’ faithful, dubious charlatans, theosophists, and lunatics. It was only when members of the ‘normalʼ and ‘respectableʼ bourgeoisie began to suffer from troubling and embarrassing neurotic symptoms that serious attention started to be directed towards the mysterious source of these bizarre maladies of the mind.

Freud is generally credited with having discovered the subconscious—but the groundwork for his valuable theoretical and practical contributions to the new ‘scienceʼ of depth psychology had been prepared by dozens of pioneering minds before him. Jung, having worked closely with Freud as a young psychiatrist, inherited the best that his simultaneously celebrated and reviled mentor could offer him—and then carried the flickering candle deeper into the transpersonal realm of the archetypal unconscious. His theoretical writings on the structure and dynamics of the psyche—founded upon extensive clinical work with patients from around the world, and supported by his own life-altering, protracted encounter with the unconscious during the years before and during the First World War—stand proudly beside the most eminent and revered works of psychic cartography within the possession of Western humanity. Written in a prose style that reflects the scientific temper of the times in which they appeared (but which always points beyond the limits of that worldview), these works possess a lucidity and power that speak to the innermost depths of the attuned modern reader. Suffice it to say that Jung’s writings—along with those of the other genuine depth psychologists—have succeeded in communicating the strange but partially intelligible inner processes of the psyche. Today, for anyone who has been initiated into a dialectical relationship with the unconscious psyche, there is a new dimension of experience that is every bit as vast, complex, and mysterious as the outer universe is—but immediately accessible, unlike the outer universe. Speaking about the outer realm, the British evolutionary biologist, J.B.S. Haldane said: ‘The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.ʼ This observation certainly applies to the psyche, as well—that ever-present but perplexing source from which our angelic and demonic impulses, our transcendent and bestial yearnings, and our fate-shaping dreams and imaginings mysteriously arise.

[1] I suppose I don’t need to point out the fact that ‘irrational philosophy’ is simply an oxymoron.

[2] Physicists and biologists living today will no doubt insist that no one who fails to grasp the fundamental ideas of relativity and quantum mechanics, of molecular and evolutionary biology, can claim to be fully or adequately educated. With much the same brazen temerity, I would argue that any contemporary thinker who has not thoroughly assimilated Jung’s fundamental insights and perspectives is living at least a hundred years ‘behind the times.ʼ

Walking the Plank (8/18/12)

We are not in a position to ‘see through’ the world until we have first made significant headway in seeing the world as it is. Only after we have begun to see the world as it is do we become properly suspicious of our cozy comfortableness in that world. When we have come to deplore lax conformity and passive compliance with the terms and conditions of the socio-political world and—from the other end of the spectrum—after we have stepped back from our fiery-passionate campaigns to alter those terms and conditions: only then, perhaps, do we properly begin to ‘see through’—and beyond—the world as it is.

The perspective that is able to see through and beyond the world is already situated beyond or outside the bounds of the world as it is, even though it is unconscious and not within easy reach for many of us. Therefore, seeing through and beyond the world as it is consists principally of learning how to establish our consciousness within that centered, neutral position, and to hold that position. This is the eye of the storm—the inner standpoint where ‘the lion lies down with the lamb.’ It is not a physical paradise, a socio-political utopia, or some heaven in the sky. It is a quiet, undisturbed inner state of balance—upon a razor’s edge. It is what is left over after we have glutted and rutted, beaten and drubbed, our way into the world—and ultimately found the world to be even more devouring and consuming than our own unbridled appetites!

As we know, all the world’s great religions have both an exoteric body of teachings and an esoteric one. Exoteric Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism have evolved, over the centuries, to provide moral guidance, a more or less coherent worldview, and metaphysical comfort for the many, while the esoteric traditions provide teachings for the few—teachings that pertain to release, enlightenment, spiritual liberation, centeredness, and mystical vision. Responding to the human situation as it is—and as it will no doubt continue to be—exoteric religion provides rules and instructive examples to be followed by the many (and their all too frequently venal and mediocre political leaders). It is hoped that such moral instruction will serve as a check against doing mischief to themselves and to others while they are confined or embedded within the world as it is. They are promised rewards—usually in an afterlife, but sometimes in the here and now—if they will only abide by these rules and try to imitate the saintly exemplars. The rewards and punishments that are implicit in the moral teachings which are central to all exoteric religions naturally function as ‘carrots’ and ‘sticks’ for the followers. As long as they respect these moral prescriptions, they feel themselves to be human beings who possess inherent dignity and are, therefore, deserving of respect from other humans. When they violate or ignore these traditional moral commands they are little more than wild beasts, and are made to feel so—both by other decent humans and by their own guilty consciences. Exoteric religions, at least in the West, are not about release from (or genuine enlightenment about) the nature of the world as it is. They are chiefly concerned with establishing and preserving social and moral order within that world, and are therefore ingredient to human civilization as such.

The esoteric teachings from all the religious traditions, on the other hand, speak to that part or perspective within us that is not merely embedded in ‘the world as it is,’ but which silently and detachedly observes. It is a kind of seeing that gently resists merger or identification with that which is seen. To the extent that it is able to preserve this distinction between itself (as seer) and the seen, the observer within is free, unbound, and content. As a contented, self-subsistent seer, there is no compulsion to act, to go anywhere, to alter anything. For all these actions are perceived either as disturbances or modifications—either faint or tremendous—of the quiet abidance in Being in itself. This state, when assessed from the standpoint of normal human (or ego-) consciousness, appears to be utterly and perhaps shockingly transpersonal. Although the stubborn sense of ‘I-ness’ or personal consciousness begins to dissolve in the centered, uncompelled perspective like a salt crystal in water, this state is by no means sterile, nugatory, inhuman, or devoid of vitality. It is, however, the vitality of light, and not of a dynamo or of spirited animality. The terms and qualities that we are forcibly obliged to employ from the ‘normal’ standpoint of ego-consciousness are simply inapplicable to the serene, centered consciousness of the seer within. [1]

Over the years, my own efforts to deepen and to extend my experiences of this centered state have not been infrequent or half-hearted. Ever since I first experienced ‘mystical’ or ‘transcendent’ states as a youth I have repeatedly undertaken a serious and energetic pursuit of the contemplative life. Nevertheless, my path has certainly not been a straight or direct one. My journey has taken me into a dozen or so different regions of study and experience, but I have always remained faithful, down deep, to the path of liberation, even when I venture from this path from time to time. The state of centeredness is, for me, the most real, the most comprehensive, and the most intrinsically free perspective that I know of from experience. All else—including all that the world and ordinary human experiences have to offer—is, alas, of peripheral or relative worth, and pales by comparison.

Now, whether it should be trusted or deeply suspected, I have long been governed by an inner determination to try to reconcile my intermittent transcendent experiences with my cultural-philosophical-moral knowledge and experience. This seems to be my inwardly assigned, or fated ‘task’—although I am all too painfully aware of how colossal and unfinishable this task ultimately is. It dwarfs my meager abilities and exposes the paucity of my learning. And yet, my commitment to the task is a commitment that I do not—perhaps cannot—shirk or argue away, so integral it is to the health and integrity of my soul. It is my modest contribution to the general campaign—undertaken by spiritually-motivated persons everywhere and at all times—to construct bridges from the bank of the world to that of the contemplative and serene seer.

Although my journey thus far has been circuitous and, at times, seemingly episodic, the ultimate aim has remained unwavering: liberation by means of ingathering of my attention, attaining a state of centeredness, and attempting to maintain a critical distance from the devouring seductions and allurements, the boogies and the threatening phantasms, of the world as it is—the world as it is seen through the distorting lens of the de-centered mind. The seemingly episodic character of my journey stems from my having explored a number of well-traveled regions of typical experience—regions such as ‘romantic,’ conjugal, and friendly love; archetypal psychology and the Western philosophical tradition; artistic creativity and literary studies; politics and moral theory; comparative religion and mythological studies. From the standpoint of the centered seer all of these regions or arenas of knowledge and experience constitute more or less reliable platforms from which we may involve ourselves with the world. They are interrelated but relatively independent realms. And, perhaps most importantly, they can be traps or snares in which the seer may become lost.

My own involvement in each of these realms is ultimately governed by a will to release. Consequently, I have learned to approach them like a latter-day Houdini who is chiefly alert to the often hidden orifices and weak links that allow one to wriggle out of one’s bonds. The strongest weapon against entrapment in any particular domain of relatively coherent and compelling experience is—as I have observed many times in the past—the mental ability to melt literal forms into metaphors. In viewing and experiencing forms and phenomena imaginally instead of concretistically, symbolically instead of literally, we are able to divine the meaning trapped within these forms—meaning that is obscured or blocked from view so long as we think exclusively in literal terms. Unfortunately, this literal, matter-of-fact, reductionist manner of seeing things has been encouraged by the dominant scientific/materialistic worldview lurking behind virtually all ‘acceptable’ and culturally sanctioned statements and positions.

Why am I engaged in this work of searching for weak links and escape routes from the various regions that have captivated my interest throughout the years? I believe now that I was initially drawn to these arenas of experience and these ‘ways of seeing’ precisely because they promised—each in its own distinctive way—to provide a path towards a viable form of personal or spiritual fulfillment. The more I invested in these particular studies and personal involvements the more I came to see that these prospects of fulfillment were only half-true at best. The steps taken within these arenas—as my knowledge and understanding deepened—were like rungs on a ladder. The rungs would mysteriously vanish below me as I climbed higher (or descended lower, as the case may be, since ‘the way up and the way down are one and the same’). My thoughts and insights would progressively become subtler, more inclusive and synthetic, as I moved deeper and deeper into each region. I could see and feel myself becoming absorbed by the realm as I became more absorbed with its particular phenomena. There was certainly as much that was limiting and circumscribing about such immersions as there was liberating and transcendent about them. There would, for example, be a sense of exhilaration or momentary transcendence (say, of a lower or former ‘rung’) as I had an articulate experience of the next depth or stage—but this would soon enough settle into a new norm, or average, and the ‘shine’ of its earlier numinosity would fade.

What I have gradually come to realize is that with the formal, intellectual, emotional, and even imaginal experiences that we undergo as we delve deeper and deeper into the roots of a realm—say, of epistemology or romantic love—we ultimately wind up on a kind of plank, on the side of the craft we’ve been sailing in. The ‘plank’ ordeal is the liminal experience—the encounter with that strange frontier between the continuity of thought and the coherence of familiar experience, on the one hand, and the transcendent mystery that defies adequate formulation and representation by the human intellect, feelings, and imagination, on the other.

If the sea beckons us and we leap—all our accumulated knowledge, insight, and experience are seen no longer as our possessions. They were merely the vessel that brought us to the leaping-off place. At some level we had to already know—or at least strongly suspect—that the vessel could take us no further on our journey, since vessels float upon the surface of the wide expanse of the sea. That is their nature and function, due to their buoyancy. But if the watery depths call us, we already know that in swallowing us up, they more than compensate for the paltry cargo on board the vessel we leapt from. Knowing how to swim—before we leap into the sea—may be helpful, but if we have learned how to breathe underwater, our plunge will yield even richer finds. All platforms, ultimately, turn out to be diving platforms for those who are called, by fate, to the depths, are they not?

[1] It is for this reason that we link apophatic or negative theology with mystical vision. Instead of ascribing to the seer (or the deus absconditus, the hidden ‘God’) virtues and qualities that are known and intelligible to us in our ordinary experience, the apophatic approach says what it is not. The shift from ordinary ego-consciousness to mystical identification with the seer, or the Godhead, involves the transcendence of all the ‘concepts and categories,’ the criteria and rationality, of the former standpoint.

Puzzlement (1/25-26/12; 2/8/12)

Liken the contemporary American cultural situation to an unfinished jigsaw puzzle laid out on a coffee table. A few sections of the puzzle have been completed, and they sit like modest-sized islands of isolated coherence and intelligibility upon the table. These completed sections are not connected, of course, to any other parts—and, what’s worse, the persons who are working on the puzzle do not possess a clear image of what the finished result is supposed to look like! For some who are working on the puzzle, the lack of a preexistent image of the final result has produced a sense of enormous exhilaration and excitement, while for others this absence of a guiding model is deeply vexing, almost paralyzing. Nevertheless, there is a general, shared belief that all of the pieces are present on the table—and that if everyone proceeds methodically and patiently, the successful working out of the puzzle will eventually take place.

Now, sticking with this simple analogy for our present cultural difficulties and challenges, let us expand it a bit and raise some additional questions of interest. For starters, how did it come about that these persons are without any foreknowledge of what the completed image is supposed to look like? This situation deviates from the normal state of affairs, where we are equipped at the outset with a picture of a gorgeous rural landscape, a pleasant village scene, a royal portrait, or some other worthy image—a structured and organized gestalt that guides our selection and placement of the pieces randomly scattered about the table.

And, given these unusual starting conditions, why is it that some at the table find reason to rejoice, while others feel utterly stumped and obstructed by the very same conditions? Do some rejoice because privately they disbelieve that such a guiding model or completed image has an a priori existence—and that by inventing or creating the final image (even if it means forcing some of the pieces together or deforming them, as with the bed of Procrustes, in order to make them fit), they will be revered and commemorated as great founders and lawgivers? And do those who feel deeply troubled by the absence of a guiding image worry precisely because of this arbitrary power usurped by their ambitious and inventive fellows? Doesn’t this work upon the puzzle seem far too important and consequential to be consigned to the unguided hands of self-interested human beings? For such troubled participants, an even deeper question eventually takes shape: ‘Can the image we are working on with this puzzle actually be constructed—or mustn’t it be divined?’

Can these two seemingly opposed approaches be reconciled—if not logically, then psychologically; if not rationally, then artfully or metaphorically?

*****

A variety of suggestions and questions can be generated by the jigsaw puzzle analogy—as an image of the present condition of our culture:

  1. As we have noted, some persons favor (or feel the intense need for) a given, preexistent image or goal that guides the cooperative assembly of the puzzle pieces, while others (who doubt the preexistence of such an authoritative image or goal) seek to invent such a goal and then convince or, if necessary, compel their fellows to cooperate in bringing it into being with the available puzzle pieces. For the sake of convenience, we might call the first lot ‘transcendentalists’ (since, for them, the preexistent goal transcends mere human invention and arbitrary will) and the second lot ‘pragmatists,’ since they rely solely upon human ingenuity and instrumental reason to guide and assist their efforts.
  2. Both the ‘transcendentalists’ and the ‘pragmatists’ are in agreement about the obvious fact that no guiding image or blueprint for the puzzle assembly is present to hand for all to refer (or defer) to and that such an orienting image must somehow be supplied. Otherwise, the haphazard or controversial arrangement of the individual pieces will continue, causing ceaseless bickering and disagreement among those at the table. Both groups, then, greatly prefer the acquisition of this guiding model, rather than relentless, arbitrary contention between the participants. As the contention and the bickering intensify, a growing number of the participants from both camps become so exasperated that they are tempted to withdraw altogether from the task at hand. But, being aware of how enormous the stakes are for mankind—depending on which group gets the upper hand in this urgent enterprise—they defiantly hold onto their places at the table.
  3. The transcendentalists are, for the most part, traditionalists, for they believe that the guiding image for the puzzle has simply been lost or forgotten and must be recovered, not invented. More importantly—from their traditionalist vantage point—this precious and sacred guiding image was lost or forgotten in the first place because of general neglect that came about under the influence of their anti-traditional rivals, the innovative Why, it will be asked, was the traditional image or blueprint for the puzzle neglected, and even discredited, under the powerful cultural influence of the innovative new breed of pragmatists?
  4. Although a significant number of these influential innovators called themselves ‘deists,’ they were in fact merely humanists. The deity behind deism was a kind of mechanical clock-maker who set the material universe (and all its creatures, including man) into motion, but then backed off and remained aloof from human and terrestrial affairs—just the sort of ‘reduced’ and unmeddlesome deity that was made to order for the anti-traditional humanist innovators and social engineers. The old personal, involved, and anthropomorphic deity had to be displaced—or at least thoroughly ‘rationalized’ and naturalized—in order to make plenty of room for the ‘human, all-too-human,’ thoroughly mundane plans and purposes of the new breed. It is fair to say that these innovators successfully commandeered Western culture over the past few dramatic centuries. Their impact has been so sweeping and decisive that the former ways of living, of seeing, of valuing, and of understanding have largely been forgotten in the modern West. One must swim ceaselessly against the current or burrow ‘underground’ in order to obtain a glimpse into the lost world of our pre-modern ancestors. But it is only after we have undertaken such ‘unpopular’ quests for generally discredited, ‘obsolete’ knowledge that we, for the first time, place ourselves in a position to see modernity with any degree of critical objectivity. Only by recovering these lost ways of seeing, valuing, feeling, and understanding—only then are we in a position to assess the losses and the damage that our souls have collectively sustained as a consequence of this ‘successfully’ severed connection with our own cultural past and the traditions that once provided a context for meaning and value for the lives of our forebears. This meaning and value is not something we can simply or easily produce from the radically deficient soil that presently supports the disinherited, materialist conditions we restlessly and skittishly inhabit—our ‘anti-culture.’
  5. Taking a closer look at these anti-traditional, atheistic or agnostic innovators, we find a variety of types under the large canopy of ‘humanist.’ Some are animated by a genuinely optimistic estimation of ordinary, rationally self-interested human beings, while others are cynical and see humans merely as creatures of appetite, lust, and power drives which are precariously held in check by the triple threats of legal punishment, guilt, and social ostracism. But both are of one mind in placing man at the summit of the known (material) universe, even if it is ultimately the summit of a dunghill or a strategic plateau whereupon he is best able to command the heights overlooking a squalid, teeming, dog-eat-dog valley below. During the late 18th and 19th centuries, the more optimistic sort prevailed, but after the genocidal wars of the last one hundred years, the near evaporation of noble values and exemplars, the proliferation of a vulgar form of atomized, mass, crass consumerist culture, and the steep decline of intellectual and spiritual culture, the cynical or pessimistic sort has gained ascendancy, seizing nearly complete control over the present political and socio-economic realms. This cynical greed- and power-driven system of manipulation, exploitation, and control of the ignorant and gullible masses has, in effect, taken the place of culture in the West. Even if the method of controlling the masses is closer in spirit to that of Huxley’s (pleasure-based system outlined in) Brave New World than to Orwell’s grim, paranoiac scheme in 1984—as Neil Postman suggests in his worthy little book, Amusing Ourselves to Death—the end results are much the same. Ironically, what may have begun with a ‘humanist’ philosophy has ‘progressively’ degenerated into a palpably dehumanized, subhuman system of mass manipulation and exploitation. Geopolitical directives, economic and technological affairs now thoroughly dominate and preoccupy the minds and bodies of the sheepish, soulless multitudes and their lupine, fleecing leaders. Culture and religious faith, along with the literary, visual and performance arts, formerly provided a kind of shelter or refuge for the non-economical, a-political, and comparatively ‘disinterested’ parts of our ancestors’ souls—but today these cultural protections (against our being reduced merely to consumers and pawns for political manipulation) have been effectively appropriated or conscripted into the service of socio-political, entertainment-related, and economic systems of mass control—and, in the process, much of their former power has been lost. Even our presidents are former actors, reality TV show hosts—in a word, ‘entertainers.’
  6. If, by the same token, we take a closer look at the traditionalists, we find that there is a large—if not a unanimous—consensus that religion (and in the West this means the Judeo-Christian scriptural tradition) provides the guidance and orientation that mere human beings cannot provide. In other words, a divine or supernatural dimension of the universe is acknowledged, lorded over by a deity who is not aloof but deeply involved in His creation, within which man occupies a crucial place and office. This large group may then be divided between a relatively small minority for whom spiritual experience is direct, unmediated, and thoroughly authentic, and a much larger majority who sincerely place their faith in a literal reading of the Book itself, along with its teachings (without, however, feeling a direct or individual connection with the divine dimension).
  7. To return to our puzzle analogy and the absent image or goal—which must serve as guide and orienter for those who are trying to assemble the pieces properly: we may now be in a suitable position to speculate upon what this model would need to contain within itself if it is to provide the basis or ground for a vital culture that is responsive to more than just our economic and entertainment needs. Since a healthy and wholesome culture must be able to offer place, value, and meaning to a variety of different human types—at all levels of physical, moral, and spiritual development—it must be both comprehensive and complex.

*****

Plato was certainly onto something profound when, in the Republic, he developed his analogy between the healthy human soul and the ideal city. He saw these two as mirror images of one another—macrocosm and microcosm. The health of a predominant number of individual souls would be reflected in wise and just laws for the city, and the city with wise and just laws would provide the best education for healthy and just souls.

If we approach our jigsaw problem from this fruitful direction, we can see that what is absent is a generally accepted idea (or ideal) of the ‘best sort of human being.’ It is this image that guides the work of puzzle construction. But where does it come from? It almost certainly is the image of individual human types writ large. The ‘economic’ man sees a money-making scheme at the ‘end’ of the work, while an honor-loving man sees something very different indeed, and he cannot help but regard the money-preoccupied man with a heaping measure of contempt. The philosopher-saint, in turn, sees a very different image than either the gain-driven man or the honor-seeking man. The preponderance of one type or another establishes the general character and trajectory of the regime.

It should be evident that the ‘lower sort’ of human life—and not the nobler sorts—has stamped the modern West in its image. The fact that we live in a plutocratic or oligarchic (money-dominated) scheme should not fool us into believing that our tastes—from corrupt top to crass and raffish bottom—are not equalitarian through and through. There is practically nothing nobly aristocratic about life in this country—in the arts, in politics, in spirituality, in our values. It is all about comfort, material security, and convenience for the self-interested individual consumer-particle. As a people, we are busy, restless, and narrow in our knowledge and shallow in our understanding of everything beyond the tiny sphere of our pressing personal interests or our blinkered immediate experience. Serious, broad education—rigorous personal discipline and self-sacrifice—a cultivated disdain for all debasing distractions and petty pursuits—the rare ability to stand alone—the will and determination to think and feel for oneself, by oneself: most of these basic requirements (for a nobly individuated existence) are conspicuously ignored not only by the ordinary person today (which has probably always been the case) but even by the leaders and exemplars (which is a rather more serious matter).

 

Misanthropy and Some Reflections on Shakespeare (2/27/14)

I suspect there are corrective measures I could undertake—significant ground-level adjustments in my outlook and bearings toward my ‘warped’ culture and its conscriptees—which, if adopted, might temper my easily provoked antipathy toward that culture. I continue to ‘go after’ the misguided and ‘infectious’ culture with all the passion and clarity I can muster. Nay, I don’t even have to work at it! I merely need to position myself near any one of the several bubbling calderas or active volcanoes that are close to hand and voila!—my mouth and pen become spewing magma-spouters.

So—assuming my proposal has real merit—what would the reformed attitude or the new bearings towards the culture and its ‘infected carriers’ consist in? My strong sense is that unless and until I can learn how to see through and neutralize the ‘apocalyptic’ magma-passions, I will simply continue to write more or less the same super-charged harangue over and over again (like the fiery Chris Hedges does)—and never go on to abidingly inhabit the next, presumably more serene and peaceful, depth.

Here I cannot help but remark upon the likely connection between the prophetic (‘Jeremiah’) posture, on the one hand, and the degree of deafness shown to me, personally, by ‘the world’ (as that world is represented, in miniature, by those persons within earshot of me). I could, for instance, produce a rather impressive list of names of persons who flatly refuse to respond to my ideas, my invitations (to jointly investigate matters), my efforts to reach out, and so forth. I’ve been here before—and this creepily unsettling condition of feeling shunned and dismissed presents me with a great challenge. There is much love and much hate crammed into this genie’s bottle that I seem to have uncorked—almost unwittingly and unintentionally. I keep thinking of Timon of Athens—the overly generous simpleton turned bitter misanthrope—and of Coriolanus, whose contempt for the rabble and for cowardice is both thoroughly understood by me and deeply problematic for me.

Sometimes I honestly wonder if my investment in ‘humanity’ isn’t in the balance here. What does this mean, really? How can we not be invested in our own species, it will be asked? Is it possible to turn one’s back upon one’s kind and not, at the same time, suffer a correlative self-mutilation? Is misanthropy a viable option for me? I don’t think so. Why? As I see it, genuine misanthropy can only arise when certain stubborn hopes and ideals (respecting humans and human nature, in toto) are discovered to be utterly groundless, fatuous, and naïve—while life without these hopes and ideals is, at the same time, untenable, pointless, and thoroughly unacceptable. The love for humanity (phil-anthropia) has been shattered and replaced by hatred for mankind (mis-anthropia), and the nasty taste of disappointment cannot be gargled out of one’s mouth. The bitter taste henceforth blots out every last flicker of enthusiasm and hope for one’s thoroughly discredited and devalued species. The misanthrope may, at the same time, be personally affiliated with one or two other ‘exempted’ or exceptional humans whose companionship he sincerely cherishes—persons he can love unstintingly and unguardedly. But the mere possession of such boon companions, which is certainly not to be scoffed at, can scarcely compensate for the incalculable loss entailed in the misanthropic stance—unless one believes that the whole ‘damned human race’ can be redeemed by one or two sympatico chums. A world in which we are able to envision this species, in toto, rising to the fundamental challenges (moral, spiritual, political) of existence is a radically different world from one wherein these fundamental challenges are deemed beyond the collective moral will and intelligence of humanity. Somehow, the idea that we can only hope for a few ‘lucky hits,’ sparsely and haphazardly sprinkled here and there—often without any fanfare or ‘publicity’ spotlighting them—should be spiritually repugnant and vexing to us. And while many of us are ready and willing to admit that nothing of great value comes to us unearned or by chance, we are nevertheless baffled by this apparent scarcity of inarguably wise, upright, and dauntless homo sapiens, while skittish, blinkered, and complacent mediocrities abound.

What does Hamlet say?

What is a man, if his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more. Sure, he that made us with such large discourse, looking before and after, gave us not that capability and godlike reason to fust in us unused. (IV, iv)

It seems to me that Shakespeare was also occasionally oppressed by these torturous feelings of demoralization and disappointment with a species that he must, at the same time, have cherished dearly to have doted on with such a careful, unflinching, and uncannily observant eye! And yet that all-piercing, all-unmasking eye of Shakespeare seems, in the end, to have laid bare all the blind ambition, the overpowering sexual lusts and jealousies, the deplorable cowardliness, the vanity and pettiness, the cruelty and the naiveté that are poured so generously into this bubbling cauldron, man—so copiously, in fact, that they typically drown out the gentle sweetness and the noble, bracing saltiness that are also ‘in the mix.’ This unearthing of human wantonness and frailty reaches a fever-pitch in Hamlet and in King Lear, which are far more comprehensive in scope than Macbeth and Othello, the other great tragedies that deal with blinding human passions.

With the aforementioned works—Coriolanus and Timon of Athens—the misanthropic reaction to what Shakespeare had ‘unearthed’ receives a powerful but problematic voice. If we look at those three plays specifically dubbed ‘the problem plays’ (All’s Well that Ends Well, Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida), which were written close to the period that produced the major tragedies, we see Shakespeare exploring deceit, hypocrisy, sexual obsession, pandering and pimping, and so forth, with unerring penetration. One notable critic has described the mood of these problem plays as ‘rancid.’ The bitter taste (of gall) that I referred to earlier—the nasty taste that the misanthrope has insurmountable difficulty ‘washing from his mouth,’ so to speak—will become a principal concern of Shakespeare’s in the final phase of his long career—a journey that offers telling signs for the attentive psychologist to note.

When we look at the late ‘romances’ (Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest), we find that a principal character has suffered what most of us (humans!) would regard as unforgivable betrayal or abuse by someone close to that character (a brother, a spouse, a parent, etc.). Shakespeare may be said to paint these offenses in such somber and hideous colors so as to test the charity and compassion of even the most forgiving audience members out there. I believe the reason he does this is in order to place the heavy burden of forgiveness entirely upon the shoulders of the wounded forgiver. The message here is implicit: the act of forgiveness is unconditional, purged of any hope or expectation that the malefactor ‘change his spots.’ What Shakespeare seems to be showing us is that Hermione’s forgiveness of Leontes and Prospero’s forgiveness of his usurping brother Antonio ultimately have little to do with Leontes and Antonio—or with their future relations with Hermione and Prospero. In forgiving these ‘unforgivable’ wrongdoers Hermione and Prospero were jettisoning from their own souls the seeds of hatred and relinquishing the lex talionis—to which they were perfectly entitled ‘in the eyes of ordinary humanity,’ where justice (if that!) more frequently prevails over free (and freeing) mercy, or forgiveness.

With these vivid examples in mind, I think it is fair to say that after unearthing and unmasking all or most of the beastly menagerie housed uneasily within the veiled and guarded breast of man, Shakespeare embraced the essentially Christian formula as a remedy against the powerful specter of misanthropy—but in a way that subtly releases the forgiver from an entangling knot of reciprocity with the forgiven wrongdoer. In relinquishing his right to repayment from his wrongdoer, the forgiver removes himself from the harness of the old Law, gaining his freedom not through fulfillment of that Law, but from that Law’s collective grip. Moreover, if Prospero and Hermione exemplify the manner of forgiveness that their creator also embraced, we may tentatively assume that Shakespeare—after seeing through the ‘human, all too human’—became equipped, spiritually, to release humanity, as a whole, from all binding and constraining hopes and idealizations on his part. In releasing ‘humanity’ (from this great burden) he released himself from any further susceptibility to the debilitating taint of misanthropy. Has Shakespeare pointed the way ahead for me?