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.

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.


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.’


The Scientific Worldview (Part One) (4/21/11)

As our consciousness of that complex whole (of which we are but an infinitesimal part) deepens and expands, it would not be all that surprising if our sense of our personal and collective importance underwent a corresponding diminishment. Perhaps I should begin with a brief description of how things used to be with me—before, that is, I began to realize just how boundless and uncharted the unconscious psyche actually is. For, it was this realization—which was far, far more than a merely intellectual acknowledgement or recognition—that changed everything thereafter. Prior to that series of fateful encounters with the unconscious and the gradual realization—in my bones—of where ‘I’ stood (or swam) in relation to that vast ocean of unknowability upon which ‘I’ precariously floated, I held very different notions of knowledge, of truth, and of the attainability of truth. And, of course, I am referring here to insights of a psychological and philosophical stripe—not the mundane, ‘informational’ data that so many of us are overwhelmed by these days. Like many persons who don’t know any better, I innocently assumed that the rational intellect, alone, was a perfectly adequate ‘organ’ for unearthing and apprehending these grand philosophical and psychological truths—the only kind of truths that, to this day, can be consistently relied upon to arouse my serious and abiding interest.

Although my intellect was not of the supremest possible caliber and my formal education—as with most of my fellow Americans—was spotty, shoddy, and generally superficial, my ‘nose’ for the big questions and for those thinkers who, like myself, were gripped by them, has always been rather sensitive. Like those who have a nose for suitable persons to befriend or whose favor to court in order to advance socially and/or professionally, I seem to have been equipped since early adolescence with an innate predisposition for these big questions. But mere hunger and a good nose for finding our way to restaurants that serve what we’re hungry for don’t quite pay for our meal. Nor do they equip us with the ability to digest that delicious and nutritious, as yet unobtained, meal. Hunger and dreams can occasionally propel us into the realm of authentic experiences where we are at last in a position to get our fill of what we hungered for and dreamt of—but what we do—or don’t do—once we’ve entered that realm makes all the difference in the world.

When I began my quest for philosophical knowledge and psychological insight, I was handicapped by the notion of education and learning that is still dominant today in the United States: an essentially pragmatic, information-and-technique-focused enterprise that views knowledge primarily as a consumable and marketable intellectual commodity. Becoming knowledgeable or educated, according to this model, often consists in the accumulation and mastery of copious amounts of theoretical, practical, and statistical information within one’s usually rather narrowly limited field of expertise. Because empirical science and modern communications have yielded and disseminated such a staggering amount of (ever-expanding) information and new techniques, it is inconceivable that even the brightest minds might assimilate, let alone, master, any more than the tiniest fraction of this continually-growing whole.

Since this was—and still remains—the operative paradigm for what knowledge consists in and how it is acquired, it was only natural for me to assume that the kind of knowledge I was drawn to was acquired and mastered in the same way that one became an expert, say, in Gnosticism, molecular biology, or in the Reconstruction period of U.S. history.

A principal model behind this notion of education was that of empirical science. The scientific investigator would carefully observe empirical phenomena, gather and organize his data, and then form a hypothesis that aimed to account for the behavior of these phenomena (or this specific little subset of the larger realm of nature). Then he would test his hypothesis, using experiments which could be reproduced by anyone, anywhere, anytime. The ‘objectivity’ of the resultant findings conferred a degree of dignity and authority upon such ‘knowledge’ that was perhaps justly denied to merely subjective, conjectural claims and statements. Such arbitrary claims had nothing to back them up beyond the conviction or personal testimony of the claimant. Scientific criticism demanded more than passionate assertions, and the rigor of its exacting standards did a splendid job of choking and uprooting the weeds of irrationality and wildly speculative poppycock that had previously tried to pass itself off as knowledge. The purgative and elevating benefits for knowledge delivered by honest scientific standards are incalculable—and for these benefits only barbarians and loutish obscurantists will feel no debt of gratitude.

Nonetheless—too much of any good thing inevitably leads to trouble of some sort or another, and one of the downsides of science’s enormous success was the further disruption of the always dicey and parlous equilibrium of the collective mind. Like poetry, philosophy, religion, and mythology, science is also a way of seeing—and when anyone looks at phenomena through the ‘lens’ or ‘window’ of science, he sees something very different from what he would see if he were looking at that same thing or situation ‘poetically,’ religiously, philosophically, or as a depth psychologist. Every organized or formalized way of seeing, including science, has its own distinctive criteria for ‘truth,’ ‘value,’ significance, and in some cases, even ‘reality.’ I think it is fair to claim that science has contributed more than any other competing ‘way of seeing’ (religion, philosophy, art, economics, etc.) to our present-day collective worldview—even where most of the persons who have adopted this worldview are not, themselves, trained scientists and have never actually practiced science formally. Its standards (of honesty, truth, validity) and its methods (for arriving at and testing its hypotheses and findings) implicitly govern the modern Western worldview for better or for worse. Most of us (in the U.S., at least) know about the ‘better,’ but it is not quite so easy for us to see (or recognize) the worse. Persons who have managed to develop and mentally inhabit ways of seeing that rival or complement the scientific worldview are obviously in a better position to recognize the defects, hazards, and blind spots of the current scheme.

Every organized ‘way of seeing’ emphasizes or accentuates certain aspects or features of the phenomena it addresses at the expense and neglect of others. Thus, the moralist is focused upon the ethical features of the situation before him, and not upon the chemical composition of the human bodies involved. And conversely, the strictly scientific analysis and speculation that were behind the Manhattan Project had nothing to do with the moral question of whether it was ‘better’ or ‘worse’ to pursue such research that inevitably resulted in the atomic bomb. It is largely, if not entirely, because science excludes all such ‘extraneous’ and irrelevant (to its aims) features from its approach to phenomena that it has such power and effectiveness. Scientists speak (sometimes haughtily and contemptuously) of their ‘objectivity’ in dealing with phenomena—and of their almost detached, unbiased neutrality towards the objects of their study. But such claims are misleading, to say the least, precisely because the scientific ‘eye’ attends only to a very specific and limited subset of the totality of aspects of experience that can be attended to, felt, imagined, cooked and eaten, made love to, painted in oils, dramatized, worshipped, tortured, set to music, danced upon, visited in the fall, or that one can martyr him/herself for. So when certain scientists crow about their ‘neutrality,’ some of us cannot help but roll our eyes, if by ‘neutral’ and ‘objective’ they mean to suggest an utterly unbiased and open-minded attitude towards the world of experienceable reality.

Only a Luddite or a lummox will fail to understand the wide appeal afforded by science and its fruitful offspring, modern technology. In earlier ages, the religious priesthood promised to guide and to tend to our ‘dark and sinful’ souls—but in more than a few cases they proved to be dubious imposters, cynical opportunists, naïve dreamers, or pederasts. Consequently, many of our recent forebears had the courage to question—and the good sense to reject—the unmerited power and authority of clerics and their institutions. Some have argued that, as they directed their attention more and more completely outwards, our not so distant ancestors catastrophically ‘threw out the baby with the bathwater,’ losing their (and our) souls in the process. And what is it to ‘have’ a soul if it is not to have a vital and meaningful connection to the inner world of the psyche? The allure of the outer world was simply too powerful to resist for the ‘up and coming’ with their ‘great expectations.’ This widespread exteriorization of attention towards the utterly fascinating world of foreign lands and peoples, sensual delights and the amassing of fortunes, newly won political liberties and creature comforts of every sort, all beautifully coincided with the rapid development of empirical science. The consolations and hopes that had formerly been vouchsafed for the soul (in quiet contemplation of God’s grace) were now being redirected towards the physical body, along with the very different activities and delights relevant thereto. Science and technology—to their credit—made good on their promise to improve and to extend the life of the body, and because of this good credit, they were quite understandably elevated to the position of lordly authority they still rather confidently enjoy to this day.

But there are serious problems, of course, with having elevated science-cum-technology to a position this team has never been fit to occupy. The problem—which is obvious to anyone who knows what science does and what it can’t do—is that while science is very good at telling us how material objects and measurable energies work in nature, it cannot legitimately tell us what we should do with our knowledge—how we should behave, what we should live for, what is important and what is not; what is good and what is evil; what is refined or dignified and what is base and vulgar. At least the Church lost no opportunity to exercise this privilege. But science, remember, is ‘neutral’—which is to say, silent about values such as I have just listed. To be fair to scientists, most of them will readily admit to the existence of this enormous gap or vacuum in the very heart of science’s cool, detached, morally unbiased approach to phenomena. But as soon as millions of persons become drunk with the intoxicating powers and ‘pluses’ of a particular way of going about things, they easily lose sight of its weaknesses and drawbacks. That is where philosophy comes in—or (dare I say it?) should come in. Philosophy is the strong coffee that sobers up the drunken, half-blind champions of an ‘institutionalized way of seeing’ which has never been up to the comprehensive task of ruling—precisely because it is constitutionally and deliberately ‘blind’ to those very values and passions which any capable leader in troubled times must fully understand and be prepared to deal with.

Now, no self-respecting adult (or spirited teenager) wants to be told what to do or how he should behave by some doubtful authority figure or body of elders. Such persons want to consult their own souls for guidance and direction. But it is precisely here, inside us—where our souls ought to be—that we all too frequently encounter a black and empty hole. It is not so much a silent black cavity as a cavern full of shrieking demons, barbaric impulses, impotent feelings of helpless frustration, and other unpleasantries that most of us would naturally prefer to avoid, deaden, or medicate into silence.

Derailment (9/2/13)

I was watching a taped interview with an English film critic who was commenting on Luis Buñuel’s strange little 1969 movie, La Voie Lactée (‘The Milky Way’), which cinematically depicts several heretical sects from the 4th century to the present. The critic—following Buñuel—was both fascinated and shocked by the fact that many people were willing to die—or to kill—for their allegiance to a particular interpretation of some piece of theological dogma or another. Now, I have little difficulty grasping the Catholic Church’s ulterior motive for suppressing heresy, since the tyrannical authority of the Church over the minds and goods of the ‘faithful’ would be seriously compromised if a welter of competing beliefs and divergent teachings were to disturb the precarious unity of canonical doctrine. In plain terms, the sanctity of Catholic dogma had next to nothing to do with allegiance to divine wisdom, and pretty much everything to do with mundane political expediency and mind-control. I can also appreciate the hostility and moral outrage that certain heretics (like the Jansenists) felt towards worldly, hypocritical ecclesiastics who reveled in luxury, while flagrantly ignoring the actual life and teachings of Jesus. Such defiant indignation certainly inspired some heretics to stand by their heterodox beliefs in opposition to Church doctrine and authority—even if such heresy seems, occasionally, to be driven more by moral and political motives than by metaphysical ones. The film critic seemed, however, to be surprised chiefly by the heretics’ insistence, for example, that the monophysite (‘one nature’) doctrine was literally true, as opposed to the diphysite (‘two nature’—i.e., divine and human) doctrine, which they held to be literally untrue. It was this insistence that theological ideas (mere figments of the mind or the philosophical-theological imagination) are literally true that intrigued and baffled Buñuel and the critic.[1]

This is familiar turf for me. I have long recognized that unless and until one learns how to break the powerful spell of concretistic or literalistic thinking, he will remain mentally imprisoned by a ‘cruder order of being.’ It is reductive, literalistic consciousness that reifies or freezes living ideas into static, bloodless abstractions which are then idolized, fetishized, rationalized, and catechized. Sectarian battles erupt over differing interpretations of these dogmatic articles of faith. The dogmatic principles are able to function as the ostensible cause of conflict between different-minded parties only so long as their status as literal truth is a matter of life-or-death importance to the blinkered disputants. Once such dogmas are de-literalized and viewed metaphorically, their literal, binding power immediately begins to melt or evaporate. At that point, these ideas acquire a wholly new kind of significance, psychologically or intuitively. This shift—from literal to metaphorical significance—is dramatically liberating, psychologically and spiritually, for the individual who experiences it. It is as if we wake up from a dream or come out of an enthralling hallucination. What we formerly believed to be literally true is now understood in a psychological or spiritual sense. Moreover, the ‘released’ meaning is now immeasurably fresher and livelier, since it is purged of much of its torpid materiality and reconnected to its archetypal roots in the living soul of the person. Such metaphorical-psychological insights are not simply reducible either to literal, physical facts or to fixed, abstract concepts (or dogmas). Their vividness and meaningfulness are dependent upon a distinctive kind of mental attitude or ‘metaphorical perspective.’ What we are talking about, of course, is a radically different level and type of consciousness than literal consciousness. When understood in this way, we can see that the shift from literal-mindedness to metaphorical consciousness is not merely an intellectual process or problem. Certainly two markedly different intellectual attitudes are associated with literal and metaphorical understanding, but the crucial difference between the two is one of psychic elasticity. As I said earlier, the literal-minded standpoint naturally inclines towards fixity, towards unequivocal, unambiguous formulation, while the metaphorical perspective is comparatively molten, open to a variety of complementary and even conflicting meanings. This willingness to resist the temptation to ‘nail things down’ into a fixed, unambiguous form is characteristic of the metaphorical perspective. Where this willingness—this comparatively trusting receptivity to a cluster of meanings and various interpretations—is absent, literalism, ‘orthodoxy,’ and dogmatism are almost sure to be found.

‘God is dead’ and ‘the Church is dead’ for many contemporary Westerners, but literalistic-dogmatic consciousness is still very much alive—and kicking. Ideologies have triumphantly replaced theology and religious dogmas for many of us.[2] Catholicism, Lutheranism, Calvinism, and Puritanism, for which thousands of persons fought and died throughout centuries of religious wars, have been superseded by free market capitalism, secular humanism, consumerism, corporatism, libertarianism, pragmatism, scientism, and technolo-jism. Today, armed men and women kill and are killed under the banners of these authoritative political-economic-corporate ideologies. At least these modern, secular dogmas don’t make outlandish supramundane claims like their hypocritical ecclesiastical forebears did—worldly clerics who often privately enjoyed a life of ease and comfort while effectively holding the many in poverty and ignorance.

One of the explicit aims of the Enlightenment, as we know, was to work towards the release of all thinking men and women from idolatry, superstition, and ignorance. This release from mental manacles was to be accomplished by means of the spread of the then new ‘scientific’ knowledge and the rational-empirical philosophy that had such a decisive influence upon the Founding Fathers of these United States. This country, founded upon such ‘rational’ principles of ‘justice for all,’ equality before the law, and the right to pursue happiness (that is, if you were white!), stood as a model or beacon for a world that was still for the most part mired in ignorance, obsolete and irrational traditions, and under the thumb of exploitative oligarchs and cruel, oppressive monarchs.

And yet, despite the white American’s promising start—despite the spread of new ideas and literacy—it would seem that we have failed, dismally, to put literalistic, dogmatic consciousness behind us. For, to the extent that the majority of Americans are still ‘under the thumb’ of some form of ideological dogma or another—so long as the majority of citizens uncritically and gullibly genuflect before any one of the various ideologies that lord it over the so-called ‘mass mind’ in America—we are still light years from being a free nation. Until that day comes when we see a general, collective revolt against mindless servitude to ideological dogmas of any sort, we cannot legitimately call this nation free.

And, if we are to be realistic, that day is not likely to arrive anytime soon, nor—in all honesty—is it likely ever to come. How can a nation be free so long as the minds of the majority of its citizens are still under the controlling spell of some ideological fantasy-dogma that promises results it can never deliver? These secular ideologies are no more capable of delivering on the outrageous promises than the Catholic clergy was able to ensure a rich sinner’s place in ‘heaven’ if he made a sufficient cash (or real estate) donation to the Church. And when these modern secular ideologies do actually deliver concrete results—as with Stalin’s Five Year Plan, Hitler’s restoration of Germany’s military strength and economic prosperity, modern globalization’s stimulus to the world’s economy—the terrible costs invariably wind up outweighing the benefits. The explanation for this lamentable track record—whether we are discussing the outrageously unrealistic broken promises of religious dogma or of secular-political ideologies—is that they invariably depend on miracles in order to work out for the best. In the case of literalized religious doctrines and miracles, this is obvious, and easy enough to dispose of without much ado. In the case of modern ideologies such as free-market capitalism, Libertarianism, Radical Feminism, Neo-conservatism, or Socialism, the ‘miraculous’ factor is not quite so conspicuous—but it is nonetheless discernible by anyone who is moderately honest with himself, about himself, and about the observable facts concerning most human beings that he has personal dealings with—not to speak of the reliably sobering historical record.

Let us begin by considering the mere possibility that it is as difficult as it is rewarding to think for oneself—and to resist the temptation to climb on board of some religious, political, philosophical, or moral ‘ideology-locomotive’ and be carried away. Climbing (or being pulled) on board some such locomotive is, without question, the normal and expected thing to do—and this has been the case for most humans ever since the murky beginnings of civilization. I am not going to make any sort of moral-philosophical judgment call here. My aim is quite simply to try and describe the generally observable and well-documented facts about our generally puerile, credulous, pliable species in an honest, unvarnished manner.

We can already see, then, that the comfort and convenience of riding on the train stands in obvious contrast to the effort and strain involved in walking on one’s feet through life. Moreover, the speed of the train, in contrast with the slowness of walking on our own feet, promises that we will arrive at our destination more quickly than the walking man. We must make note, however, that trains travel from station to station, and these stations are typically located in large, bustling cities. Sure, the trains pass through the largely unpopulated territory where a few solitary walkers can be seen, now and then, through the window of comfortable railway cars, but it should be evident that the walker is much more intimately acquainted with the territory that lies between the bustling cities than the train passengers—because he is immersed in that territory. Walking slowly and watchfully and solitarily through the territory that lies between the bustling cities, the soul of the ambler naturally adjusts itself to the slower tempo and the venerable rhythms of the territory—allowing him to hear and to see, to smell and to envision, phenomena that are difficult or impossible to see by those who are carried along briskly by the locomotive from station to station, city to city.

Embedded in this brief account is a crucial key to appreciating the difference between the ideologue and the man who, risking inconvenience and discomfort, opts to think and decide for himself to the extent that he can. We can also see the seductive appeal that ready-made religious and philosophical systems, ideologies, and moral doctrines hold out to us, as humans among other humans. So very many inherited drives, instincts, fears, insecurities, and other natural promptings urge us to get onto the train that if there is a ‘miracle’ to be found here, it is the anomalous appearance of human beings who are somehow able to so temper and resist these urges and seductions that they voluntarily avoid getting on the train—or jump off it as soon as they see where the train is really heading at a breakneck pace.

[1] Buñuel detested psychology, so it is likely that he would have sneered at Jung’s account of the ‘numinous’ power that various theological ideas (e.g., the Trinity, the Resurrection, Virgin birth, etc.) exercised over the minds of believers—heterodox or orthodox. For Jung, it was the affectively-charged, irrational, archetypal background of these symbols and ideas that seized possession of the minds and souls of our Christian forebears—and not the rational persuasiveness of the theology. See Jung’s Psychology and Religion, C.W., vol. 11.

[2] And their ‘archetypal,’ or numinous power to seize and possess the minds and souls of modern man has proven to be just as formidable as that wielded by ‘the old-time religion.’

A Dream and Some Reflections on Shakespeare (9/8/14)

Dream: Someone with whom I was acquainted was illicitly accessing and using a company elevator to enter a workplace where (presumably) he was working without authorization. As he entered the elevator I parted company with him and walked up the street. (Was I on Centenary Blvd. at Rutherford, across from the campus main entrance?) I noticed a white vehicle parked on the street—it could have been a station wagon or a regular sedan with a very large trunk. I’m not sure if I actually saw the young female owner of the vehicle before I opened the trunk—but I knew, while I was exploring its contents, she was the owner and that she would be returning anytime. There was no moment of stressful wrestling with my conscience before my curiosity prompted me to open the trunk (or rear hatch) and begin exploring the contents of the vehicle. My initial intention was not to steal anything, but simply to look, and if I found something I wanted, I guess I thought that I would stick around and make an offer—if I thought that far ahead. So, what was I finding? Books (boxes full of them), some vinyl record albums, and large Hershey chocolate bars. The books were, on the whole, the sort I like, or have read in the past: multiple copies of works by Nietzsche and Hermann Hesse among them. The albums—some of which were very old and apparently in excellent shape—were mostly classical music, from what I could tell. And then there were the large chocolate bars. The thought did cross my mind that I could take off with the two or three books I had selected (to awkwardly purchase from her when she returned?) and no one would be the wiser—but at this point I spotted the woman—the owner of the car and its contents—walking on the other side of the street. More importantly, she had seen me! In fact, she was watching me, warily and alarmedly, and I suspected at once that she had seen me rummaging through her stuff in her white vehicle with its trunk open. Goofily (and obviously ashamed of having opened her trunk and unauthorizedly explored its contents to see if there was anything there to my liking), I made a poorly received, unsuccessful effort to communicate to her (from across the street) the idea that I was an honest bloke and that I wanted to purchase a few of the things I had unlawfully ‘happened upon’ in her vehicle. I wanted to allay her distress and somehow quell her suspicions about me being a menacing person or a thief—but I could clearly see that she was keeping her distance. Then it occurred to me that she may have called the police and that she would let them deal with me. At that moment, just before I woke up—anxious from the dream—it dawned on me that even if I stuck around and tried to explain my actions, I was still culpable (for having opened the trunk and explored its contents) and that I would be at the mercy of the woman and/or the police. Sizing up the situation, my impulse was to flee—but at that moment I woke up.

I had a flurry of associated thoughts right after I woke up—while the dream was still fresh in my mind. The first thing I thought of was my recent ‘feud’ with J. S. (philosophy-spirituality versus modern empirical science personified). Next, I had the peculiar thought: No wonder William Shakespeare prudently kept a low profile (in his social milieu) and drew scant attention to his personality. I recalled the historically attested fact that those who did know and speak of him knew him as a pleasant and unassuming fellow. Then I thought of Demi P. pulling back from me with a look of shock and suspicion, thirty years ago, telling me, with more than a hint of horror in her voice that startled even me—‘You are a voyeur of people’s souls!’ Next, I recalled Nietzsche’s observation that Shakespeare must have had a wicked soul—and also remembering that when I read that remark for the first time I thought to myself, ‘Herr Nietzsche, it takes one to know one!’ Lastly, I thought about M. P.’s recent refusal (or conspicuous neglect) to call me back after she said she would, despite my repeated effort to re-connect with her after a long, but by no means hostile, silence—and that it’s always me who takes the initiative.

At that point, I began to reflect, generally, upon the pros and cons of ‘donning the polite and benign mask’ in my dealings with others. Those who manage, like D. P. (and perhaps M. P.) to see through that mask probably feel deeply violated and/or exploited—by my probing curiosity more than by my lust or by my cruelty—and tend, like the frightened car-owner whose trunk had been opened and its contents explored without her knowledge or consent, to ‘pull away’ in understandable dismay.

This dream seems, among other things, to suggest the deep question ‘Why do we wear masks and what are the dangers or the unpleasant liabilities (‘collateral damage’?) of unmasking? It seems fitting that my thoughts turned at once to Shakespeare after waking from this dream—since Shakespeare may have been the most sublimely accomplished master of masking and unmasking who ever put quill to parchment. The obvious employment of masks is seen, of course, in his use of fictional characters to convey profound truths about unmasked human nature—at all levels, under all typical and extreme circumstances, in all sorts of persons from all stations in life. Because these are fictions enacted upon the stage, we—the audience or readers of the plays—are provided with a conventional means of distancing ourselves to some extent from the dramatic events, so as not to be literally implicated in what is being enacted there. But at the same time, because the uncanny lifelikeness of the dramatic poet’s characters and situations is so compelling and so imaginatively absorbing, we can scarcely avoid being ‘taken in’ by these characters and deeply affected by their words and deeds. In the process, aspects of our own innermost, hidden human nature are shaken up and thereby unmasked for us. When Shakespeare has Hamlet say ‘the play’s the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king,’ he is just as rightfully referring to us, generally. In watching or reading these works, our complex responses to what we see occurring therein constitute the telltale signs and symptoms of our actual consciousness (or ‘conscience,’ in Elizabethan usage). The plays hold the mirror up to (our human) nature, allowing us—if we dare—to glimpse what ‘shadows and substance’ we are made of. And typically, of course, this happens without our knowing it. In other words, although we know something has happened—and that we have been moved and shaken—we usually are not aware of what has been finessed out of hiding, out of the shadows, by Shakespeare’s staggering array of unmasking mirrors. In the end, the plays ‘read’ us—rather than the reverse.   These extraordinary plays, like the sea, are bigger, deeper, livelier, subtler, far more powerful and penetrating than we are.

It dawned on me, some time ago, that the psyche is not in me—rather ‘I’ am in the psyche. It comprehends and contains ‘me,’ not the other way around. I now recognize that despite his forgivable philosophical-spiritual shortcomings and his occasional overstatement of the case, Harold Bloom was fundamentally correct about Shakespeare in his controversial book, The Invention of the Human: Shakespeare’s consciousness is not just different from ours. It includes and greatly transcends our far more limited, biased, ‘specialized,’ parochial, gender-identified, historically-culturally blinkered—and comparatively barbaric—consciousness.

This is what makes an extended acquaintance with Shakespeare’s mysteriously unnerving (but ultimately benign and potentially redemptive) wisdom so fatefully ‘consciousness-altering’ for thousands and thousands of readers and playgoers around the world who have come under the spell of these works. A deep and ever-renewed acquaintance with the plays can safely be relied upon to show us many things about our souls and our natures that we never suspected were there to begin with. The effect of this unmasking is extremely exciting and harrowing—incredibly consoling as well as damning—liberating and reducing—at one and the same time. In a word, the prolonged exposure to the poetically masked workings of this most sublime of imaginations is transformative. Like the fabled alchemist, the imagination of Shakespeare transforms common and even despised objects, persons, and conditions into something precious, subtly luminous, and even sacred.

But like Dante, the pilgrim—who also had to undergo a thorough purgation and trial by fire before he could rightfully enter the gates of Paradiso—the ‘initiate’ into the Shakespearean process of imaginative transfiguration must first serve an unspecified (but unavoidable) stretch of time in the infernal and purging regions of murky, molten, magma-passion, where his very corporeality is toasted and roasted until it slithers from the liberated spirit like the meat from barbecued spare-ribs.

We know that Shakespeare was possessed of a seemingly infinite—but uncannily disciplined, orderly, and accurate—imagination. Over the years, I have become convinced that the imagination that generates my dreams—or at least the ‘special’ ones—is often comparable in scope, depth, suggestiveness, and precision to Shakespeare’s. Of course, I claim no conscious responsibility or personal credit for this enormous and enormously intelligent imagination—no more than I can, in good conscience, take credit for the muse or daimon ‘who’ inspires the better instances of my philosophical speculation and essay-writing. As I am but an obedient ‘scribe’ when it comes to my ‘serious’ contemplative-speculative writing, so I am merely an (often clueless, but thoroughly appreciative) audience member in the theater of dreams delivered nightly during my ‘off hours.’

I usually have a ‘sense’ when a dream is particularly pregnant with significance, and the dream from which I awakened this morning was accompanied by such a presentiment of fullness and ominousness. Moreover, those personal associations I mentioned earlier—the links suggested (by the dream) to several ‘disturbed’ relations with friends, past and present—offer a kind of gateway into the dream, or so it would appear.

The idea of unmasking as a kind of violation of the sacred bond of friendship—a transgression of the unwritten laws of mutual protection, care, and affection—is certainly at work here. The illicit invasion of privacy and the selfish perusal and appropriation of what is uncovered (or dis-covered) is also evident in the dream. And when I was found out—in the dream—I hovered uneasily between an honest and courageous acknowledgement of what I had done and what my intentions were, on the one hand, and a self-protective, guilty retreat from the scene, on the other.

The idea here, it seems to me, is that if and when we go poking and prodding around in another person’s private zone, we are under a strict moral obligation to behave in a respectful, compassionate manner—like Shakespeare seems to have done, even with a number of his less prepossessing characters. The episode with the car full of books, records, and chocolate bars was framed, or introduced, by the unauthorized entry into a workplace by an acquaintance of mine. This sort of doubling technique (like parallel plots in a Shakespeare play) reinforces the main theme while creatively ‘complicating’ it.

Lately I have been writing essays that exhort the reader to moral-psychological courage—and in doing so I have rather baldly displayed my contemptuous disapproval of all forms of moral cowardice and dishonesty. My psyche, always smarter and more comprehensive in its vision than I am, has—like a good Shakespeare play—held an unforgiving but faithful mirror up to some deeply-rooted pillar of my ‘Faustian’ personality. I am not in the habit of regarding myself as Faustian, but the figure sprang to mind here because of his greedy, reckless quest for elusive and generally forbidden knowledge. It is precisely this daimonic drive to deepen and expand his knowledge—no matter how dangerous that knowledge might turn out to be—that makes Faust an interesting subject for Goethe’s genius to play with. Faust exchanges (or believes he exchanges) his very soul for access to this knowledge that is barred from ordinary mortals. The fact that he is willing to bargain away his soul for this knowledge makes it fairly clear that Faust is a man possessed by his curiosity—rather than one who has it under some kind of moral or ethical control. As I stood there, across the street from the woman whose privacy I had contemptuously ignored and whose goods I ransacked, I suddenly felt unequal to my deed, like Nietzsche’s ‘pale criminal.’ Instead of feeling royally ‘above it all’ and exempt from the laws and standards of respectful, civil behavior, I was suddenly acutely aware of the violation I had committed. And I felt scared and ashamed. Moreover, as I contemplated trying to explain myself to her—and to the police—in order to show that I had intended no harm and no theft—and that I was perfectly willing to pay a fair price for the two or three books I had taken from her car—I realized just how whacky and outrageous such an ‘explanation’ would sound to any ‘sane’ person. That’s when I felt the strong impulse to ‘split the scene,’ as they say.

Another prominent theme in my recent writing (to my scientist friend, J.), interestingly enough, has been science’s pernicious amorality—its congenital blindness when it comes to ethical, political, religious, and other ‘non-material’ and ‘non-quantifiable’ matters—which, as it turns out, comprise the lion’s share of what impacts human life where it counts. But was my amoral, transgressive investigation and appropriation of the car’s private contents any more defensible than J.’s ‘complicity’ in the technocratic, systematic investigation and appropriation of material resources for the power and profit of the few who fund and chiefly exploit those projects? Once again the mirror rises before me—thanks to the dream.

Scientism and other ‘-isms’ (1/12)

The enormous amount of time, effort, and imagination that was channeled into deciphering the Minoan Linear B script eventually paid off when the enigmatic ancient language was finally cracked. But this great triumph was accompanied by disappointment that was no less momentous, for the Linear B records turned out to be mere inventory lists (16 jars of olive oil, 9 of wine, 21 goats, etc.) kept by the stewards of a royal household. Of that which scholars had hoped to find in these writings—earlier versions of Greek myths and matters of rich cultural significance—there wasn’t the faintest trace.

Aren’t the present-day attempts in genetic and neurological research to isolate the specific genes and neurological processes (which are believed to be responsible for poetic imagination, musical ability, speculative thinking, and compassion) likely to spawn similar disappointments?   Don’t such paths of inquiry lead only to a vision or perspective that defrocks humanity of the very last vestiges of freedom, dignity, and ‘meaningfulness’ that still precariously cling to us? When both the best and the worst, the noblest and the most deplorable—all of it!—is reduced to chemical and biological factors which are simply given, then the very contents of our thoughts and imaginings, our profoundest religious and moral sentiments, our loftiest flights of spiritual inspiration and musical rapture, are systematically and dutifully downgraded to the humble status of intricate chemical processes such as photosynthesis and digestive activity. Is this an abominable desecration performed every day by honest men and women, boys and girls, who ‘know not what they do’—at least insofar as they are obediently subscribing to the dominant, authoritative norms and directives of the modern worldview—the scientific-materialistic, anti-traditional worldview that was already well established long before anyone reading this was born? Are we blinded by science—or by the unconscious (i.e., unacknowledged) ‘metaphysical’ assumptions upon which it is founded? Is it perhaps necessary to study a bit of philosophy and/or depth psychology—and then do some hard-core reflection—before we can acquire the intellectual tools required to objectify, see through, and improve upon these implicit assumptions? Perhaps it is not sufficient to simply see these things by means of occasional intuitions that, like lightning flashes, briefly but vividly illuminate the darkness in which we are collectively enveloped. These intuitions—experienced by many—must be thoroughly formulated in substantial concepts and rigorously critiqued if they are to protect us from these highly contagious (and philosophically retrograde) assumptions. If we can learn to see through them, then perhaps we can see for ourselves that they are hypostatized assumptions, which is to say unprovable assumptions that have been illegitimately exalted to the status of metaphysical principles.

It is not difficult to see why these popular, materialistic assumptions have been imbibed and embraced by millions of persons. Metaphysical principles or premises of any sort have always provided human beings with a consoling sense of being rooted upon a more or less solid foundation, even if that foundation, in this case, happens to be merely biochemical at its core. This sense of trustworthiness and indisputable authority is incalculably more appealing, persuasive, and comforting for most human beings than the alternative—a critical suspension of all such certainties, the relinquishment of all such implicitly trusted foundations, is it not? Unfortunately, very few persons today genuinely recognize and intellectually grasp the fact that the materialistic metaphysical foundations of the modern scientific worldview are no more demonstrably inviolable than those of ancient Babylonian cosmology or present-day Hindu theology. Sense data, mathematical rigor, repeatability of experimental results: these, alone, do not constitute absolute or invincible proofs of the validity of the scientific standpoint itself. They are its constituent ingredients, its terms and conditions, its game rules and criteria. One either accepts them or one does not. The evidence of the senses is only final and decisive for someone who recognizes no other criteria as superior, more authoritative, more real—and there are plenty of persons, now as ever, who sincerely and, as it were, ‘religiously’ believe non-material, non-sensory, intangible factors and forces to be far more decisive—both in their own experience and in the governance of the world—than mechanical, biological, and quantitatively measurable factors. For these persons—who are not strictly ‘scientific’ in their theorizing—the criteria of the scientist are not altogether irrelevant or negligible. They are just secondary, subordinate to the invisible factors that mysteriously operate behind and within the material world that is apprehended by the senses.

From the biased standpoint of dogmatic ‘scientism’ (a standpoint assumed by many shallow-minded secular humanists and hardnosed atheists), all competing metaphysical or explanatory schemes ultimately amount, in the end, to little more than groundless superstitions—but the dogmatic believer in science (as the only legitimate or adequate system of making sense of our experience) has just as superstitiously invested science with the same magical power and majesty that he denies to all other systems or worldviews. Unwittingly, he has sunk to the level of an idolater. It should hardly come as a surprise that our recent forebears—after being dazzled by the marvels of scientific invention and explanation—would have their worldviews dramatically reformed by what they beheld. So profound and sweeping were the changes to everyday human life that were introduced by science and technology, it should come as little surprise that they were bowled over by what they were witnessing. Among educated elites and those who lockstepped behind them, it was just a matter of time before all former systems of philosophy, religious faith, and culture that were pre-scientific would come to be skeptically, if not contemptuously, regarded as methodologically inferior to modern science. Its tangible results and the power of its techniques seemed both miraculous and natural at one and the same time, magical and perfectly lawful. The nearly universal gratitude with which science and modern technology were embraced by the Western mind made it difficult (to put it mildly) to approach and to assess science (as an institution and as a cultural-societal force) with the degree of sober objectivity and detachment that is now becoming possible for an increasing number of serious thinkers. Some of us are now at last in a position to step back a few paces from the enormous, ongoing impact of science upon man and his world. And for anyone who has glimpsed this ‘problem’ of science and the modern world with a measure of objectivity, there are few problems more interesting, more challenging, or more urgent.

In calling science—or, rather, the unexamined (and therefore dogmatic, spellbinding) ‘scientific worldview’—a ‘problem,’ I should say at once that I am no enemy or opponent of science, as such, nor do I long for the day when material science will be expunged from the face of the Earth. I am, however, not quite so comfortable with dogmatism—of any stripe or persuasion—as soon as it attempts to govern human affairs or to impose its will and its congenital blindness upon undefended human beings. And because of the (ultimately groundless and illegitimate) sense of certainty typically fostered by dogmatic creeds, such fanatical willfulness and assertions of authority are the all too frequent consequences of dogmatism. We know that fanaticism always masks hidden or troubling doubts within the soul of the fanatic. The willful assertion of his/her dogmatic principles and beliefs—their enforcement and evangelical proselytization—stem, of course, from the burning need to silence or suppress these nagging doubts.

As a form of dogmatism, ‘scientism’ (which is different—and I cannot stress this fact strongly enough—from the mere practice of science as a method of inquiry into physical nature) is no less susceptible to blind willfulness and the arrogant assertion of its exaggerated claims than dogmatic (Fundamentalist) Christianity, scientology, astrology, or behaviorist psychology. As soon as any such ‘system,’ mythology, religion, or worldview is taken literally—as statements of concrete factuality about the ultimate nature of things—we can already recognize the unmistakable symptoms of dogmatism and idolatry. Those persons who are already ‘true believers’ fail to see this fact when it comes to their own belief system, of course, but they have no trouble seeing when it comes to (deluded!) dogmatists of a completely different system, religion, or worldview. For those who are thoroughly conscripted into dogmatic Christianity, there is nothing amiss about believing in literal interpretations of the Immaculate Conception, the miracle at Cana, or the bodily Resurrection. Likewise, a dogmatic conscriptee of the ruling scientific worldview will see nothing problematic about a literal reading of Ptolemy’s geocentric model, or (later on) Newton’s mechanistic/heliocentric model, or (even later) the Big Bang & Expanding Universe model. The problem, therefore, is not science, but scientism—not scientific skepticism but exclusive, dogmatic faith in the ultimate authority of the scientific method. Dogmatism is that nearly ubiquitous mental disorder which mistakes a ‘way of seeing’ or of ‘making intelligible sense of our experience’ for the Truth, pure and simple—and we humans tend to be quite righteous about the Truth, as soon as we believe we’ve got our paws on it! We are blessed with a cornucopia of inherited and currently operational ways of seeing and of making some kind of intelligible sense of our otherwise opaque and cryptic experience. But instead of recognizing that all of them—some perhaps a wee bit more than others, for this reason or that—have something to add or to contribute to our curious journeys through life, we tend to elevate one (typically the one we’re presented with as children and never pause to question or to look beyond) to supreme status, relegating all the others to the rubbish heap.

Jim Morrison/Dionysus and Some Criticisms of Monotheism (9/09)

Regardless of its merits as an accurate depiction of Jim Morrison, the Oliver Stone movie “The Doors” serves as a useful illustration of the risks and the dangers involved in becoming psychologically identified with a religious archetype—in this case the ancient pagan deity, Dionysus.  At the same time, the film acknowledges and vicariously celebrates the imaginatively vitalizing and enriching effects produced by an influx of such “unauthorized” (by traditional Christianity) archetypal energy.  As the movie progresses, Jim Morrison’s ego becomes increasingly identified with (or subsumed by, depending on the direction from which one approaches the situation) this age-old god of “divine madness,” leading eventually to the breakdown and disintegration of an inflated, Dionysus-and-Jack Daniels-intoxicated ego-personality.  Of course, in chronicling the progressive dissolution and disintegration of his personality, the film unfolds like a cautionary tale.  The rock star’s ego, failing to maintain even a faint toehold within the arenas of practical, moral, and legal responsibility, was decisively overpowered by the compelling presence of the archetypal contents which, in short order, hijacked Morrison, exploiting him as their recklessly enthused oracle and ecstatic priest.  The alcohol and drug abuse appear to have served chiefly as an effective means of keeping a direct channel open to extreme psychological states and perspectives that the crazed, drunken puppet, James Douglas Morrison, could no longer stand to live without.  The alcohol and drugs were, in effect, secondary addictions—acting as neurochemical “lubricants” to ease the insertion of Dionysus through the back door of Morrison’s all too flexible psyche.  The primary addiction or dependency was upon the “inspiring divinity.”  Thus, Jim Morrison became the front man, not just for the Doors, but for Dionysus.  He served as an open door through which the orgiastic, barrier-dissolving energies of Bacchus could break on through to the other side—into a world that no longer had a religiously sanctioned, officially recognized place for this strange, loosening, and disruptive, archaic God.  Ultimately, the movie shows us that it is one thing to establish a kind of psychological relationship with “Dionysus” through the tempering and civilizing agencies of theater, music, dance, and other cultural media, and it’s a very different kettle of fish to identify with the archetype, as Morrison did—dissolving his identity and ultimately his life in the bargain.  Relationship respects the sanctity and value of the ego, while identification recklessly abandons these checks against “possession.”  This is a very important and salutary lesson about how to approach the Gods, it seems to me.  The outré, slightly sinister and darkly alluring quality of the Doors’ music was evident to me even as a boy of eleven years, when I purchased their first two albums, “The Doors” and “Strange Days,” with my religiously hoarded weekly allowance.

Young Jim Morrison appears to have taken an active literary interest in Dionysus and Dionysian phenomena before the Doors really got going.  It is reported that he read Nietzsche, Blake, Rimbaud, and Joseph Campbell—to name a few of his formative influences—and he learned a thing or two about shamanism.  He seems actually to have felt a secret kinship with native American shamanic tradition, saying in an interview that a car wreck incident (involving some American Indians who had been in the back of a truck) that he witnessed as a boy, while traveling with his family, was “the most important event from his childhood.”

The point of all this is simply to establish the biographical fact that  Morrison’s conscious mind was already quite well stocked with ideas, images, and even whole passages of Blakean verse, which would eventually serve as “new-old” skins into which intoxicating Dionysian wine would pour in copious quantities.   And then, having been poured into Morrison, it would henceforth flow out into the bacchanalia of his stoned, captivated audiences—often with less than tidy (read: “Apollonian”) consequences.  Without ever seeing the Doors in live performance, I was nevertheless brought so thoroughly under the hypnotic spell of their creepily enigmatic lyrics and their haunting music that one day, in a wild burst of appropriately maenadic enthusiasm, I smashed into bits all of my albums by the Beach Boys and the Monkees.  Such saccharine and squeaky-clean teen idols, like Pentheus, somehow deserved to be ripped from limb to limb.

Now, it is not crucial here whether the movie was scrupulously accurate in its depiction of the biographical facts of Jim Morrison’s life and behavior.  Its insights are quite detachable from what Jim Morrison actually did or did not do.  The movie’s treatment of Morrison’s messy, intense personal life prompted me to reflect upon the relationship of “Dionysus” with actual human beings—and in this particular case, with an insufficiently grounded and reckless “host.”  But the same fundamental recognition that I had about Morrison might apply to a significant number of examples or occasions.  If Jim Morrison was indeed “possessed” by or somehow conscripted into the service of an archetype that has traditionally been personified as “Dionysus” since ancient times, what does this say about the possibility of an updated, variant form of polytheism today?  Can “Ares” and “Athena” similarly possess or overshadow a modern human being as they did with Achilles and Odysseus in the Iliad?  Was the secret to Marilyn Monroe’s enormous magnetism and her nearly universal appeal as a sex symbol somehow bound up with her being an unconscious vessel for “Aphrodite”—the female archetype of erotic love and passion?  Would this also help us to understand why there was such an enormous and painful gap between the hapless personal life of Norma Jean Baker and the exalted star status of “Marilyn Monroe,” who was worshipped like a goddess around the world?  Eventually, like Morrison, she came to a sad and lonely end because “Marilyn” turned out to be far too great a burden for the wounded and fragile little Norma Jean to bear.  Gods and Goddesses, while occasionally inspiring their human, all-too-human hosts with superhuman strength, magnetism, and insight, just as commonly saddle them with superhuman longings, demands, and tasks that can easily crush them or drive them mad.

This, again, is why a conscious and measured relationship with the archetypal energies tends to be preferable to unconscious identification, which can easily lead to a weakening and disintegration of the ego, as we have seen in our examples.  The ego, then, must be sturdy, intrepid, and unusually resilient in order to withstand periodic eruptions and inundations by the archetypal and religious energies—which pay no more heed to humans or the puny-paltry human scale of values than a tornado or a tsunami does.  When the human ego succumbs to an identification with the archetype, as in the case of Jim Morrison, it appears on the surface that the ego is strengthened, but this is misleading—if not altogether an illusion.  What we are witnessing is merely an inflation of that ego—its precarious and perilous pumping up with borrowed (impersonal and unearned) archetypal energies.  The situation is analogous to that of a man who has taken LSD and believes that he can fly or kill people with a thought if he just concentrates properly—or that he now completely understands the nature of existence as no one before him ever has or ever will.  He has temporarily been released from the limits of his ordinarily torpid and sluggish imagination by the drug and suddenly all things seem within his reach.  But once the effects of the drug begin to wear off everything returns to the way it was before.  No wonder Jim and Norma Jean, James Marshall Hendrix and Frances Ethel Gumm, stayed drunk or drugged much of the time: the crash landing back into the ordinary, emotionally starved and/or confused person who provided a fragile vessel for the non-human daimon was simply too harsh.

If we direct our attention to the cultural forms or containers in which the archetypal energies manifest themselves or “incarnate,” we observe that the personifying necessarily originates on the “human” side of an imaginary line situated somewhere between man and “the Gods.”  Where there are no ideational, mythical, or religious vessels readily present to provide a temple, a sanctioned mask, or an authorized, fully-invested priest or shaman through which the archetypal energies may properly and legitimately pass—or where these are crudely developed—the archetypes do not simply vanish or politely withdraw, just because they are temporarily “homeless.”  They remain unconscious, repressed, and typically emerge as psychopathological symptoms we see in and around ourselves.  The Gods have become diseases, Jung told us.  What on earth did he mean by this?

Since they no longer have culturally authorized channels or masks through which to display themselves, they are obliged to appear as disturbing symptoms.  Symptoms force us to pay attention.  The Gods demand recognition.  When “recognized,” the archetypes are given a place, along with the respect they require and deserve.  Where the temples and priests of the Gods and Goddesses have been demolished, neglected, or forgotten altogether, the archetypal energies have little recourse but to break forth in barbaric and typically destructive forms.  (cf. “Wotan,” Jung, CW, vol. 10)  The barbaric, destructive aspect of archetypal eruptions (of orgiastic lust, of “berserk” aggression, of ruthless ambition, of madness, of possessiveness, of panic, terrifying premonitions, etc.) is the predictable, unsurprising consequence of our modern neglect of the Gods—of our failure to humbly respect and acknowledge their authority over us and their presence within us.  I am not speaking of the pantheon of Greek Gods and Goddesses in a literal sense, of course, but of the archetypal energies they once personified in that pre-Christian, ancient culture: eros, wisdom, battle fury, virginity and purity, poetic inspiration, prophecy, etc.

For those who accept only the idea of a single, benevolent Father-God of the Judeo-Christian heritage—the God whose triumph led, among other things, to the “going under” of the pagan pantheon, along with the sanctioned expression of many of the qualities and energies associated with those Gods and Goddesses who were driven underground (i.e., into what we now refer to as the unconscious)—no genuine solution to this problem has presented itself.  If much good has come from monotheism, alas, much deformity and evil would appear to be bound up with it, as well—as we can see at once from the briefest glance at the last 2,000 years of Western history, with special attention given to the last hundred years.  Monotheism, it would appear, is inherently susceptible to a form of psychological barbarism precisely because of its monopolizing, exclusionary claims upon all who cringe and cower before its tyranny over our insides.  Those for whom this autocratic (but all-forgiving!) Father has died understand—or at least sense—why He had to die.  We realize that His exclusive, imperious rule over the world and over the souls of men was every bit as crippling and maiming to us as it was edifying and strengthening to our forebears.  (Perhaps it is only in the wake of His death that we, here in the West, can at last begin to come to terms with this “double-edged,” psychologically divisive legacy of our Judeo-Christian past.)

I may seem to be venturing out on a limb, here, but can’t we discern some rough parallels between the Procrustean effects of monotheism, on the one hand, and the strict and exacting methods of modern science, on the other?  Doesn’t science strive to represent the physical world in terms of “ultimate particles and their wave forms” within a single, interconnected system (Polanyi)?  Can we not detect a faint resemblance between the effects that empirical science often has upon the phenomena it deals with and the touch of King Midas?  The authority that modern rational-empirical science enjoys in deciding what is real or true was won, in a certain sense, like that of the monocular Judeo-Christian God who seized His throne by forcibly marginalizing, or flatly asserting his authority over, all other rivaling Gods.  Similarly, an initially legitimate quest for comprehensiveness and explanatory thoroughness on the part of science has devolved, at least in its less impressive representatives, into a troubling one-sidedness (scientism) that can rival religious dogmatism in its blinkered rigidity.  More than a few modern empirical scientists have claimed to offer an antidote or an enlightened alternative to monotheistic theology (which many, nowadays, perhaps justly regard as silly and antiquated superstition, at least in its literalistic mode).   Thus, with a little imagination, these scientists can be viewed as present-day exemplars of the monotheistic disfigurement of everything in experience that is not readily reducible to their terms.  One might reasonably claim that God, together with his laws and commandments, has been translated into matter, mass, energy, inertia, gravity.

Life—with all its qualitative richness and its teeming, evolving complexity is falsified and grossly oversimplified by monotheistic presuppositions of any stripe—religious, methodological, ideological, scientistic, moral, economic.  When monolithic or monotheistic presuppositions tyrannize over a man’s thinking and judgment, an exclusionary mode of seeing and assessing is inevitably interposed between him and the world; between the theorist and nature; between the dogmatic moralist and the human soul.  Perhaps in most instances, these acts of organized mental crime are committed in the interests of power, security, and stability.  Violently distorting, reductive, amputating, and imaginatively sterile modes of seeing, thinking, and feeling have—for the time being—triumphed over the more modest, reverential, and imaginatively fertile modes of seeing-feeling-acting that appear to have been embraced by small clusters of artists and thinkers, here and there, during (usually) brief periods when conditions are ripe for such rare and exquisite specimens.  Such men and women seem not to have been obsessed with elevating to supreme lordship some strained or contrived unity—but were capable of enduring and even revering the “divine” play of divergent (but always inter-related) deities, archetypes, modes, genres, styles, moods, “worlds.”  Such an attitude is not only far more sophisticated (psychologically and ethically speaking) than the comparatively constrained and often brutishly simple and “rule-bound” monotheistic attitude: it also requires far more courage, daring, and creative vitality than all forced unities, which tend to deal with “complicating factors” either by ignoring or murdering them.

Aphorisms, Invitations, and Provocations (V)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Language and the Feminine (8/11)

Some time ago I came to believe that when human beings speak and write about ‘moral’ actions and phenomena, their words are more commonly employed to distort and cover up the truth than to convey or represent it faithfully. In most instances, these distortions and falsifications are not deliberately or even consciously perpetrated. What I want to propose is that our (usually) unconscious lying and oversimplifications have roots that reach deeper down into our psyches than is generally recognized. What I want to suggest is that the lies, distortions, and gross simplifications (which amount to the same thing as a kind of blurring or reduction of evidence), are inherited with the language itself, and not concocted afterwards. Ordinary language, at least when it comes to talking about our own and other persons’ moral behavior and motivations, is—to put it gently—wildly inaccurate, grossly misleading, superficial and stupid. While it is already in this corrupt and debased form as it is received and assimilated by us as children, with the passage of time most of us only become increasingly confined within this terribly defective and infantile way of seeing and describing ourselves (and others) to ourselves.

More than a hundred years ago, Nietzsche wrote:

The significance of language for the evolution of culture lies in this, that mankind set up in language a separate world beside the other world, a place it took to be so firmly set that, standing upon it, it could lift the rest of the world off its hinges and make itself master of it. To the extent that man has for long ages believed in the concepts and names of things as in aeternae veritates he has appropriated to himself that pride by which raised himself above the animal: he really thought that in language he possessed knowledge of the world…A great deal later—only now—it dawns on men that in their belief in language they have propagated a tremendous error. (Human, All too Human, sect. 11)

Nietzsche’s claim—about language constituting a ‘separate world’ set up beside the other (‘real’) world—is rather more sweeping and comprehensive in its scope than the problem I want to touch upon here, but I am in general agreement with him in his assessment of what happened during the ‘prehistory’ of our species.[1] Culture and reason depend, of course, upon language and the use of concepts, which mediate between man and nature—that ‘other world’ of which Nietzsche makes casual mention. Nietzsche shrewdly—and I believe fittingly—makes note of the pride that man claimed for himself when he raised himself ‘above the animal’ by means of language. Or, perhaps it was man’s belief that in language he had acquired a means by which he could master the ‘other world’—perhaps this questionable belief is the source of man’s overweening pride and his inflated sense of importance in the ‘cosmos.’ We will refrain, for the moment, from pursuing the question, ‘Can there even be an experienceable ‘cosmos’ without the preexistence of language and concepts, along with the myths and stories that are made possible by them?’

The point I want to raise here—one which follows Nietzsche’s bold initiative—is that in their use of this marvelous faculty, this verbal-conceptual faculty of language, our ancestors seem to have been inclined to widen and deepen the gap between man and nature (or ‘the animal’) rather than employ this equivocal faculty chiefly to establish and maintain a harmony between ourselves and nature. We, the descendants of these distant, course-plotting ancestors—armed and reinforced with scientific, instrumental, and technological powers that would have boggled the imaginations of our forebears—nevertheless continue down the same path of proud mastery and ruthless domination, rather than utilize these formidable powers in a campaign to restore balance between man and nature. Anyone who is not blind or mentally impaired sees and feels the conspicuous symptoms of this perilous imbalance—even young children—and yet, like programmed robots or demon-possessed puppets, we race faster and faster towards the cliff ahead.

Where do such dark, unconscious compulsions come from and why are we so powerless to resist them? Do animals—upon which we proudly look down from our superior heights—fall prey to these same epidemics of collective madness that are sweeping like a brushfire through human societies everywhere we turn our iPhone cameras? In their ‘ignorance,’ animals cannot choose but to obey and respect the unswerving and unforgiving order of nature—as it is imprinted in their guiding and controlling instincts—but man’s dogged, multi-generational crusade to commandeer nature (and natural, balance-inducing instincts and inclinations) by means of the distancing and controlling possibilities granted to him by language, reason, and artificial concepts may very well be bringing us and our children closer and closer to the brink of a systemic showdown (or meltdown). This could never have happened if even a portion of the will and intelligence that has been devoted to overpowering nature (both within ourselves and outside) had been dedicated, instead, to the maintenance of a respectful balance and harmony with nature as a whole—not simply those parts of her which served our short-sighted, immediate cravings. Blinded by our collective arrogance, we seem to have convinced ourselves that our species is bigger, smarter, and stronger than nature herself. We seem to believe that our marvelous ingenuity will get us through the rough times that almost certainly lie ahead. But intoxicated with pride and defiance, driven by the restless need to consume far more than we need, and made passive by cynicism, we race at an ever-accelerating pace towards our own collective ruin. Anticipating such a dismal and probably irreversible dénouement, it is difficult to suppress the horrible thought that, as a species, we were a dreadful mistake, a grotesque aberration, a lamentable waste and pissing away of potential. I used to experience outrage and disbelief when I contemplated these matters. Now I just feel sad, remorseful, and a bit ashamed for all of us.

The deeply depressing insight that has emerged like a black moth from the cocoon of these dark reflections is that with the emergence of language (and the advantages that its use afforded mankind), greed and the hankering after power still remain the primary driving forces behind human civilization, established religious institutions, and much of culture itself. While my acknowledgement of this practically indisputable fact about our species is by no means novel, it never ceases to threaten me with a kind of despair and paralysis of the will when I ponder too deeply on these things.

[1] Of course, our ‘prehistory’ is very much alive and kicking in the present—just a few ‘inches’ below the thin topsoil of our ‘civilized’ ego-consciousness. As is evident from any newspaper or local broadcast news report in any large American city, this ‘savage prehistory’ is not only to be found in the bloody thoughts, aggressive impulses, and violent actions of the ‘primitives’ of New Guinea and the Brazilian rainforests or long ago, hidden within the primeval mists of forgotten time.

On the ‘True’ Gold (3/09)

We hear persons use the phrase—‘the search for meaning.’ Like gold nuggets sparsely scattered throughout a remote mountain stream, ‘meaning’ is thought to be located—or more readily encountered—in some places rather than in others. The searcher consistently reappears, day after day, on the bank of the chosen stream with his gold pan. He collects the silt from the streambed and scans for glimmering dust and the odd nugget. After staking a claim at a place where he believes himself likely to encounter such golden particles of precious dust and the occasional lump—reliable habits and methods are soon established.

The slow, painstaking extraction of gold from the earth—either by panning or mining—may be contrasted with two very different means of acquiring it: purchasing (or stealing) golden artifacts, such as rings and goblets, and the fabled alchemical route of transmuting base lead into noble ingots of the prized yellow metal.

Method and approach have a decisive impact upon the outcome. In my analogy, stealing or purchasing golden artifacts yields the least desirable result while alchemical transmutation of the base into the noble (or the ordinary into the precious) yields the best. Panning and mining, while slower and scanter in their results than alchemy, are preferable to purchasing or stealing ready-made golden objects because they mix the labor of the searcher with that which he wins (in a crude state) from nature. He merits the gold by working, cooking, and refining the ore and dust himself.

But here is where the analogy breaks down. The gold in the analogy is not the true gold. The gold in the analogy is very much bound up with the values and uses of this world—the world, that is, of buying and selling. The true gold is spiritual wisdom—and is not the product of the earth alone. Genuine wisdom is humanity’s vital but precarious connection with the sacred. For such wisdom to be linked up with money or with earthly rewards amounts to a debasement of wisdom and a betrayal of its noble office. All sellers and purveyors of wisdom who primarily seek material profit from their enterprise are dealers in tainted or suspicious goods and should accordingly be shunned and shamed off the stage. Like priests who sold seats in an imaginary heaven to credulous sinners, these profiteering wisdom-mongers and sophists shame their office and betray their foolish customers. They poison the well of meaning for many of those who have been taken in by their ruses. Their victims often lose something more precious than their money to such scoundrels. They may lose their faith in the possibility of higher meaning altogether.

To interbreed sacred meaning with the uses and purposes of the profane world tends to be a perilous enterprise because it usually debases the one while directing a borrowed light and inflated significance upon the mere surface of the other. What we seek to learn is how to make psyche, or soul, remain distinct from the literal or concretely physical realm of experience. We want to learn how to withdraw our projections from these persons and objects, as if we were reeling in organs, nerves, veins, and arteries that had somehow exploded from our bodies and onto our surroundings, turning us ‘inside out.’ Because wisdom or higher meaning is a peculiar kind of light, it certainly can spill out from within us and into the realm of literal events and objects. Another word for the automatic spilling out of this inner light of significance is ‘projection.’ As it turns out, projection is normal for us—so normal, in fact, that it requires a considerable amount of reflection and practice before we can clearly acknowledge that we are doing it.

When meaning, which is essentially a psychic phenomenon or experience, is unreflectively projected upon literal persons, outer events, and things, we have lost sight of this crucial distinction. We become mentally and emotionally enmeshed or psychologically identified with the mundane pursuits, material concerns, and all the other ordinary attachments that hijack our attention and, in effect, ‘steal our souls.’ By unconsciously projecting our inner fund of meaning onto the persons, objects, roles, duties, and events in the world of everyday, concrete experience, we reify psychic contents that are neither finite nor reducible to external things. By ‘reifying’ I simply mean that we unwittingly transform a psychic content (an inspiring idea, a feeling of acute disgust or of social prestige, a desperate hope, a burning desire, a moral value, etc.) into a ‘thing’ or person that is located ‘out there,’ in the world: a movie star, a job title, a prostitute, a name brand, a church or a mosque or a Book. Meaning, in its profounder or universal sense, inwardly fights against being reduced to any literal thing, actual person, dogmatic concept, or place. When such a concretistic reduction or identification occurs, soul-making abruptly comes to an end and idolatry begins. But of course it has become perfectly normal for human beings to be idolaters, worshippers of false gods. Persons who perceive from the perspective of soul or enlightened imagination would appear to constitute a comparative minority.

Empirical science—as an instrument for making a certain kind of sense of the world, of our relationship to that world and to each other—has triumphed over mythical imagination and soul-experience to such an extent that these other modes seem on the verge of extinction. The success of the modern scientific way of making sense and making use of the world (and of putting us to use in its service) is proportional, in a real sense, to the degree that it has been able to discredit these other older modes, which are tacitly shamed into timorous silence and impotence by all ‘realistic’ and practically-minded persons today. Unless and until a critical mass of ‘impractical’ and highly imaginative human beings reject the empirical-positivistic disparagement and marginalization of questions of meaning, humanity will continue to remain unconsciously imprisoned within the increasingly banal, barren wasteland with which many of us are becoming all too familiar as a result of our cultural-wide neglect of this animated, immaterial theater of the imagination and spirit.

For those—and they are legion—who have known nothing but the wasteland—what I am characterizing as a forgotten treasure-world from the past must inevitably sound like a childish concoction of make believe and wishful thinking. But such impoverished, unfortunate ‘barbarians of the spirit’ would be quite mistaken about that. The problem—for all of us now—is that such incomplete, undernourished souls have no way of knowing just how mistaken they are, for they have no consciously present inner value that can compete against the ‘real world’—that tantalizing and ultimately exhausting world of ‘buying and selling’—with its relentless demands and its seductive snares—the world that drives most of us just as furiously and exclusively as it confines us.