The Birthright (1/24/17)

The better part of what the thinker-poet does consists, of course, in suitably matching his available stockpile of words, concepts, and metaphors with the more or less steady stream of nebulous seed-intuitions, moods, affects, and perspectives that mysteriously arise from “God knows where.” If truth be told, it is this cloud-like mysterium that actually assigns the terms and conditions of the relationship, and not the thinker-poet, who is a more or less obliging vessel, a capable servant, and a talented translator of an invisible, wordless text. Sticking with the image of the cloud (“the raincloud of knowable things”), the mind of the philosopher-poet provides the “dew point” that enables these vaporous possibilities to undergo condensation into fluid images and metaphors. It is precisely here that meaning is born.

To invoke a different extended metaphor to depict this ongoing oscillation between impregnation and delivery that lies at the core of the creative life: at first, the mind of the thinker-poet and the mysterium are juxtaposed like ovum and sperm. Following insemination, the developing “embryo” gestates within the watery womb of the philosopher-poet’s imagination. While there, this embryo recaps, figuratively speaking, the intermediate stages (“ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”) through which our primordial ancestors clawed and gnawed, slithered and groped, their crooked way to that self-reflexive angel-beast, the human being. When the moment of delivery arrives, there should be no confusion about what sort of creature has been born. Its past is lurking, ghostlike, within its present shape—a long and eventful past has been condensed and woven together in such promising, but fragile children. What you have just read is but a modest example of such a “condensation” – an enactment, if you will.

I have called attention to the seemingly privileged creature, the “thinker-poet” – as though he or she were singled out and specially entrusted with a sacred office: namely, to usher this precious, vital substance into the cultural arena—an arena that craves meaning just as hungrily as our bodies crave salt. But make no mistake: all of us, by virtue of our human status, are, without exception, charged with this sacred office and – if anything is deserving of the term – divine potential. It is our birthright as humans, regardless of the actual scope, depth, and quality of our daily engagement in the work of meaning-begetting. This charge or privilege is thrust upon us whether or not we lovingly and gratefully embrace it. But to deny this birthright may prove to be the greatest “sin” we can commit against ourselves and against the mysterium that has inexplicably permitted us, however fleetingly, to appear as individual, conscious creators.

All of us are endowed, from birth, with instincts that propel, roughly define, and guide much of our thought and behavior. When these innate drives and instincts suffer trauma or if they routinely overpower us, serious problems occur. Analogously, if our innate meaning-creating capacity remains dormant or becomes damaged and deformed by misuse or mis-education, our work will be greatly hampered. We know, intuitively, that a healthy human existence depends, to a large extent, upon awakened, functioning, balanced drives and instincts. I would further suggest that each of us – provided we’ve got a certain amount of experience and reflection under our belts – is equipped with all that is necessary to recognize and to follow his/her calling. Our calling or vocation is not necessarily the professional career path we follow to earn a living (although often enough they coincide), but neither are we talking here about mere hobbies or recreational activities we casually pursue in our spare time. Our calling or vocation (as this word is used in a religious context) may be said to serve as a kind of portal or gateway between the individual and the much larger whole of which he/she is a part. So we can see here that, rather than being something secondary or peripheral to our life or fate, our innate calling is every bit as essential to our psychic or spiritual well-being as food and shelter are to our physical well-being.

Moreover, while roughly distinguishable, these two arenas – the physical/external and the psychic/internal – are not separate, but constitute two sides of a single coin. Thus, problems or imbalances on one side of the coin invariably lead to problems and imbalances on the other. Sociopathy and depression appear to be the prevalent disorders today. Mightn’t both of these widespread maladies stem, in large part, from the failure of a significant portion of the population to have recognized and followed its innate calling? And, it will be asked, to what extent has our present culture – with its peculiar, lopsided aims and methods of “education” – actively contributed to this widespread psychological malaise? Does such an unnatural and psychologically pernicious system even deserve to be called a “culture”? Or is it not more accurate to call it a breeding ground for pathology – every bit as unhygienic for human souls as the mosquito-filled marshes, rat-infested slums, and unsanitary conditions of the past were for the defenseless bodies of our forebears? Have we rid ourselves of one set of unsanitary conditions only to replace them with another – on the plane of psyche?

Seeing Beyond (8/25/17)

The ordinary human eye is capable of responding to visual stimuli or data within a certain range. We know, of course, that there is plenty of data beyond the visible light spectrum – beyond ultraviolet and infrared light—but such information transcends the bounds of ordinary human eyesight. Other instruments – electronic eyes – must be devised and utilized for such “transcendent” vision.

Likewise, each one of our psychological functions – thinking, feeling, intuition, and sensation – is naturally associated with a corresponding arena or domain of distinctive experience (thoughts, feelings, intuitions, sensations), just as the eye is associated with objects within the visible light spectrum. This is not to say that the thinking function cannot perceive/apprehend a feeling-content. It can acknowledge that something is there, but that something gets automatically translated into a thought-concept – the sort of content it is equipped to deal with in its own terms. And, as we know, a feeling that is “translated” into a concept is no longer a feeling, but something quite different. In being carried across the wide border between the two functions, the feeling has been transformed into something quite alien to its original form – like a light wave being transformed into a particle, a caterpillar into a moth.

Naturally, the reverse is true, as well. When a concept or thought enters the airspace of the feeling function, a feeling value is either consciously or unconsciously assigned. This is what the feeling function does, for this is its role within the psychic economy. What it does not do is evaluate and analyze the concept as a “thinking type” would. This is not a choice or a decision made by the feeling function. It is simply beyond its power or ability to make such an analysis or logical assessment. This incapacity, however, seldom prevents the feeling function – or the decided “feeling type” – from foisting all manner of feeling judgments upon thoughts, ideas, and arguments that he/she is incapable of understanding or appreciating in their own terms, within their own proper sphere or domain.

This analogy holds true for the ordinary human ego, as well – or so it would seem. Just as the human eye is confined to visual information within a certain limited range – and just as thinking and feeling cannot help but falsify and distort phenomena that they are unfit to deal with and to properly assess – ego-consciousness, as soon as it begins to arrogate authority and to pronounce judgments upon phenomena that lie beyond its purview, proves to be reliably inept.

There are almost as many definitions of “ego” as there are egos, but for the sake of discussion we will focus on two features of ego-consciousness that are widely agreed upon: a natural tendency to literalize and a more or less “heroic” drive to bring things under control within one’s sphere of influence – either by hook or by crook. And, to prevent any misunderstanding, let me say at the outset that my aim here is not to denigrate or disparage the ego, as such, but simply to explore and assess its proper sphere of activity and its rightful jurisdiction within the larger totality of the psyche. To be sure, the ego is vulnerable to various maladies and potentially dangerous excesses, but – like the human heart, brain or liver – it serves a vital and necessary function in the “psychic economy.” When the body is afflicted with congestive heart failure or a brain tumor – the diseased organ can bring the whole organism down with it. Analogously, a perilously inflated or stunted ego will often lead to serious trouble for the individual and for those under his/her sway and influence.

With these ideas in mind, let us glance quickly at the functional role played by the ego’s tendencies to literalize and to “heroically” establish a more or less stable and secure place in the world. If we can imagine for a moment the helpless vulnerability of the human infant – or the susceptibility to suggestion, “possession,” and overpowering terrors in the primitive – we get a glimpse of the condition that exists before the ego has developed properly. The infant and the primitive are, as it were, submerged or immersed in the enveloping sea of psyche with no solid platform upon which to land. In the case of the infant, a sense of security must be provided, initially, by the mother, the father, and the external circumstances within which its fledgling identity develops. For the primitive, rituals and social roles/duties provide the exoskeletal structures that serve in lieu of a differentiated ego-complex.

Thus, without a minimally developed ego, we are at the mercy, so to speak, of the Gods – or of the elements, or Fortuna, the unconscious, etc. – while a functional ego equips us with a kind of breathing space between our “selves” and the mysterious, enfolding whole. As it happens, some human beings appear to be more favorably disposed towards this surrounding, ineffable mysterium than others, who do everything within their limited power to block it out of their awareness – usually by clinging like barnacles to everyone and everything that is soothingly familiar, predictable, diverting, and reliable.

So, if the ordinary, run-of-the-mill human ego’s essential function is to provide a more or less stable foothold within an otherwise mysterious and uncanny world and/or psyche for the “individual consciousness,” should we therefore jump to the conclusion that the establishment, cultivation, and extension of the ego’s power and sway is the proper aim of human life – and that some persons, like great athletes or musicians, are simply better at ego-ism than others? Nietzsche, as I read him, certainly comes close to such a position – if we bear in mind the fact that he shows a decided preference for what he calls “spiritualized expressions of the will to power.” He is referring here to artistic, political, and intellectual – i.e., cultural – forms of excellence. Philosophy – for Nietzsche (as well as for Nietzsche’s Plato) – is regarded as the most spiritualized expression of the will to power because it has the responsibility for humanity’s future on its conscience.

So, what about those other persons for whom the strange, the unfamiliar, and the unknown exert greater attractive power than the known, the familiar, and the securely nailed down features of life? These are persons who are more likely to find the whole arena of “normal” and “commonplace” experiences boring, cramping, and even suffocating. This impatience and dissatisfaction with the generally lawful and stable surface of everyday experience do not come from some shallow hankering after novelty and diverting variety. Instead, such dissatisfaction seems to arise from a deep skepticism about the adequacy of the ego, alone, to guide us – as humans – to a full and rounded existence. Such seekers after the mystery – beyond the deceptive veil of the familiar – have made the crucial discovery that it is the questionable or illegitimate authority of the ego that is behind this tyrannical, leveling normalcy that is revered and kept on the throne by the many – now as ever. In effect, it is collective fear and loathing for the abnormal, the pathological, the paradoxical, the anomalous, the bizarre, the uncanny – the ever-unsettling mystery of existence – that is responsible for the sovereignty or tyranny of ego over soul.

Here I have introduced a new term – soul – to denote the perspective that exists, imaginatively, in between the staleness of the habitual and the ineffability of the mystery. Jung, in attempting to give a name to this perspective that contrasts with the ego-perspective, spoke of the “transcendent function.” “Active imagination” was enjoined as a means of “dialoguing” with the “inner figures” or archetypal images that serve as the faces presented by the Mystery (of the unconscious). Of course such language and such activities – introduced at a time when positivism still had a strong purchase in most educated minds – sounded like a species of madness itself. Hence, quips like the famous maxim of Karl Kraus: “Psychoanalysis is a disease for which it purports to be the cure.”

Wholeness and Time (8/15/17)

If I’m on the right track and supposing that “called or not, the Gods are present,” then the quest for wholeness – or the full unfoldment of the personality – may be somewhat less dependent upon actual or manifest cultural-historical conditions than is commonly assumed. How do I arrive at this view?

In the field of time, or history, the eternal archetypal drama must perforce be enacted in narrative form, as a kind of complex story-line. As a sequence of events, one episode, mood, or character conflict/resolution comes into prominence after another as the archetypes – like the colored bits of glass in the kaleidoscope – continually move into and out of new configurations. The primordial archetypal factors – like the colored chips in the kaleidoscope or the Greek Gods and Goddesses of Olympus – retain their distinctive characters, but the enacted dramas and kaleidoscopic permutations emphasize this and now that mythic situation, color scheme, mood, and set of opportunities/obstacles.

With these helpful analogies in mind, let us return to our original question about the quest for psychological wholeness within the field of space-time – or the present cultural-historical context. Out here on the surface of mundane experience – the flat screen, as it were, upon which the eternal (timeless) archetypal drama is continually being projected – we are granted only a partial, slit-like vision of the whole, since certain aspects are always being emphasized at the expense of others. Thus, our actual birth in space-time – say in prerevolutionary France or postwar America – inserts or embeds us in a particular scene or worldview within a very long play or, if we get stuck, into one frame of a motion picture. If perchance we allow ourselves to become too comfortably adapted or attached to that particular scene or frozen movie frame, all our little psychic tendrils groping for wholeness will gradually wither and die. To become fully invested in and stubbornly attached to one’s “day and age” – one’s particular cultural-historical setting – is to become a conscripted servant or slave to those particular limited terms, conditions, and role requirements. This would seem to be a rough description, now as ever, of upwards of 95% of humanity.

If we are denied the freedom to literally teleport or catapult ourselves into earlier or future eras and cultures – in our quest for an experience of the full drama underway in space-time via archetypal projection through humanity – we are not forcibly prevented from vicariously experiencing other “scenes,” stages, worldviews, aeons, etc., imaginally.

It will be apparent, then, to some readers that our incremental advances towards psychological wholeness will be dependent in large part upon our ability to loosen up the mental straitjackets and manacles that confine us to our limited/limiting scene – our day and age, our inherited worldview – so that we may regard our situation from fresh and different perspectives. Thus we are continually extricating ourselves from Plato’s cave, striving to get a glimpse or two of the drama as a whole – from start to restart, from soup to nuts! There can be no vision quest that is more comprehensive or demanding.

In my kaleidoscope analogy, a reversion or archetypal reduction process corresponds with attending primarily to the turning, reconfiguring colored ships that are the source of all the particular images appearing at the far end of the kaleidoscope through the peephole. Practically speaking, this is achieved by immersing ourselves in ongoing researches into mythology, history, comparative religion, philosophy, the visual arts, world literature, depth psychology, and other disciplines in and by means of which we are granted glimpses of these archetypal figures and motifs.

There are two points I want to get across here: 1.) The development of the individual towards wholeness is significantly but by no means exclusively dependent upon the prevailing cultural opportunities, collective preoccupations, and other outer factors – but has as much or more to do with the inner work involved in germinating those seed-potentials (for wholeness) within the psyche and tending to their growth. 2.) The distinctive seed-potentials, along with the peculiar cultural-political soil into which we are born, do not – by themselves – make us into conscious, whole personalities. Together they comprise the “original state” or “prima materia” with which we began our artful work.

If we look, say, at a hundred persons who receive the same splendid formal education and upbringing or thousand persons born with the same balanced, auspicious horoscope, we will find that perhaps one or two from both groups will make extraordinary use of these exceptional, given conditions, while the majority will have un-exceptional success. And conversely, a minority among those born into palpably adverse conditions will – precisely in their creative/heroic response to these hurdles and adversities – be spurred on to achievements that would otherwise lie beyond their grasp. What is being singled out for emphasis, of course, is the role played by our individual effort, imagination, and ingenuity in the alchemical-transformative process we are engaged in here.

Mere mimesis – or adaptive inculcation and imitation of given, prevalent cultural forms, values, and directives –serves only as a point of departure for the individuation process. If we get stuck there, the process of inner growth and differentiation comes to a halt. Naturally, such compliant and obedient adaptation and conscription into the prevalent system is always being encouraged by those who profit (materially, politically, socially, etc.) from such systems and schemes. As compliant servants – say, to an unscrupulous, profit-driven corporation or a reactionary political party – we may “gain the world and lose our souls.”

That being said, unless we initially adapt to and gain an “insider” understanding, as it were, of the scheme, system, or “day and age” into which fate has dropped us, we will thereafter be hampered in our most strenuous efforts to move beyond this preliminary level of acculturation. The more clearly and thoroughly we see and understand our limited and limiting beginnings – i.e., our peculiar insertion point into time-space – the greater will be our success, later, when it becomes necessary to push off from that first platform into terra incognita. If our understanding of our early formation and stamping is dim and sketchy, our attempts, later, to differentiate our consciousness from these horizons will be correspondingly sketchy and ineffectual. The platform against which we push will feel mushy and flimsy, giving way under our feet.

Contemporary Culture Makers (5/23/11)

Making culture is not as easy as making pasta or making whoopee. It is an enterprise fraught with difficult choices and competing ‘pulls’ that continually threaten to ruin or mar our work. Making culture is not simply rehashing time-tested formulas with a fresh, new makeover. The genuinely developed (and therefore, more fully conscious) human being will be obliged to take an adversarial stance towards the present mass culture—pointing out its weaknesses; its shallowness; its enormous blind spots and its deforming imbalances. When the line between culture and mass entertainment becomes blurry—as it has here and now—our work becomes more difficult. Until not so long ago (before widespread democratization and the corresponding degradation and dilution of cultural education), the line between culture and cheap entertainment was clear and thick. One needed leisure and at least a general acquaintance with the natural sciences and mathematics, some philosophy—ancient and modern, canonical works of literature, religious doctrines, modern languages, and practical skills in order to be able to wrestle capably with salient cultural questions.

When the dominant cultural norms and values are thus utterly failing to produce balanced and healthy individuals who then serve as revered exemplars of salutary morals and spiritual values—and I challenge anyone to prove that such a healthy situation is in place today!—then something happens which should come as no surprise: the makers (or re-makers) of genuine, life-affirming and sanity-promoting culture become conspicuous ‘counter-culture’ figures—men and women who seem ‘untimely’ or ‘out of season’ from the standpoint of the prevalent value scheme.

But before we start picturing Jesus writhing on the cross, Socrates resignedly downing his cup of hemlock, and barbecued Bruno, let us consider the idea that, while it can certainly be beneficial to stir up public controversy and fierce, ongoing debates about values and ideals, it is always possible to keep this tumultuous and profoundly upsetting contest between enlightenment and ignorance, energy and inertia, courage and fearfulness within the private, microcosmic compass of the individual’s own exquisitely tormented soul (á la Emily Dickinson). So, instead of mocking and scorning ‘Sadducees’ or ‘Sophists’ out there in the agora, I might concentrate upon my own interior struggle to maintain moral probity, a philosophically enlightened and psychologically balanced attitude, despite the inner resistances I reliably come up against—resistances, of course, that bear an uncanny resemblance to those qualities I find it all too easy to attack and make a fuss over in the philistine, the Sophist, the infidel, or any other scapegoat who serves as a convenient ‘hook’ for the projection of my own shadow.

The essential idea we are considering here is not the self-appointed task of criticizing and haranguing against the general culture—even when it appears to be suffering from the most egregious displays of high-level corruption, general wrongheadedness and imbalance—but that of overcoming and liberating oneself from these inherited, ubiquitous mental pathogens and blinders in order to see, to speak, and to act in far more balanced and just manner. Only then have we earned the right or the inner poise to be able to speak ‘healingly’ instead of merely ‘feelingly,’ as those great destroyers, Nietzsche and Freud, did—to mention only two well-known examples. When great minds make wrong turns many lesser minds follow them down a slope to one side or the other, into blindness and error, but usually without the strength to make their way back up to the middle way from which they have fallen. The middle way is like a narrow ridge at the top of a mountain range—a ridge that drops off dramatically to either side, so that when we fall to one side or the other, the further we fall, the further away we get from those who have fallen down the other side, making it harder for us to hear them, see them, love them, and eventually—even to remember them. They—and all they stand for—comprise the projection of our unconscious.

The greatest minds, on the other hand, enjoy—or suffer—a somewhat ambiguous position vis-à-vis our ‘grasp’ and our easy understanding. The words and teachings of the greatest thinkers and sages seem deceptively easy for us to imbibe, but what we take from them, more often than not, is as different from what they are actually saying as a genuine VIEW from the top of the Empire State building is from the mere possession of the little metal effigy of the same famous skyscraper that is attached to our key chain. The living wisdom from the middle way—directly experienced only when we are perched upon that high, narrow and perilous ridge where mighty winds blow in from every direction—resonates with us wherever we are, but it originates only on that ridge, to continue with my metaphor. This is something of a paradox, of course, because if we have managed to position ourselves on that narrow, middle path, we have no need for such teachings—for we see and feel and know in our very bones all that such teachings can convey only indirectly, for they are diluted by being verbalized and conceptualized. With the greatest minds, direct experience is always primary; words are always secondary and peripheral.

So, returning to the difficulties involved in making culture: if spiritual culture in its most salutary forms consists in utterances made from this precarious place of balance between descending valleys of error, excess, and psychological one-sidedness, the we might reasonably ask—‘When, if ever, has there been a broadly distributed or widely shared spiritual-ethical culture on this planet?’ But then, surely the relatively small number of men and women who have managed to climb up to that high ridge from either slope (where all of us seem to begin our journey) have recognized this fact and pondered its meaning. Because they have (repeatedly) had to overcome the resistances, the attachments, the cherished hatreds and personal battles, etc., that keep most of us glued to our SLOPE, they are all-too-aware of how useless mere words and teaching are except as pointers of the way. They know firsthand of the sacrifices—of comfort, of companionship, of the sense of security, and the diversion afforded by our affiliation with the ‘people of the slope’—that are demanded of anyone who would stand steadfastly in the center.

The utterances of the great spirits poised in the center of this tension of the various pairs of opposites are metaphoric shells still faintly trembling with the paradoxical energy that spontaneously gave them shape and animation—only to abandon them shortly after these shells were formed. The poised, tension-bearing, great spirits are psychic cartographers of the first order. Their ‘exhaust’—their sweat—their flayed skins—are bits of the map, the full extent of which is never known because it can never be finished. Or, so I have heard.

Horror Vacui (10/9/13)

Lurking within the handful of reliably terrifying thoughts that periodically sneak up from behind and have their way with us is the harrowing suspicion that we lack reality in some substantive, metaphysical sense. I point here to an insidious, paralyzing suspicion that our dotingly tended and cultivated personalities are founded not upon some transcendent, undying essence but upon fanciful fictions and our frangible physical frames. Such a creature more closely resembles a wave on the ocean or a dispersible breeze blowing through a forest, if that wave or breeze could somehow be endowed with reflexive consciousness. Perhaps only a minority of us will be possessed and then reduced to quivering jelly by this crushing, annihilating thought—but once it is thoroughly digested, our lives will never be the same thereafter.

As with any profoundly moving experience, a bundle of quite different responses are possible. One person may never fully recover from this thought which, of course, does not strike us as a mere ‘thought experiment’ or an armchair speculation, but as a momentous, potentially traumatizing, realization. It is an abrupt and shocking glimpse into the baffling vacuousness and vexing vapidity of 99 per cent of everyday, mundane experience. If one can become too intoxicated (with ideals, blinding passions, tyrannical desires, inescapable attachments, etc.), mightn’t one’s life suffer derailment from an excess of sobriety, as well? If one person is maimed and crippled by this sobering thought, another person will be moved to immerse himself as unreservedly and unreflectively into his actual, everyday life and relationships as he can. This psychological ordeal—this anticipation of the nullification of the personal self—will, in such cases, incite a frenzied assertion and aggrandizement of that imperiled self—even if that ‘walking shadow’ is now inwardly known to be little more than a second-rate actor strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage. This frenetic abandonment to busy-ness and action will, of course, constitute a kind of manic defense against the stumping nullity and insubstantiality that have been glimpsed in the abyss. The exuberance of the personal life—the enormity of one’s investment in his projects, involvements, and duties—will be roughly equivalent to the intensity of the horror vacui suffered by the person.

And yet another person will suffer neither from a catatonic collapse and withdrawal nor from a manic defense—but will be prompted to imaginatively cultivate a fresh new set of bearings that enables him, gradually, to avoid either of these two questionable turns. The new perspective that is gradually composed is that of the soul. The soul-perspective is distinguished from the ego-perspective by its capacity to approach all things, persons, and events imaginally or metaphorically—and not only literally or concretistically, as the ego is wont to do. It is this capacity for ‘seeing through’ and beyond literalism that safeguards the soul-perspective against the very real psychic maladies of paralysis and of manic defense. Thus, it is only the reified or hypostatized personal ego that is paralyzed—or driven to a kind of madness (of reckless immersion and flight from reflection)—by this startling vision of the transpersonal core. From the soul-perspective—which is fluid, imaginative, and not entirely ‘human’—this vision, so devastating to the limited/limiting ego, is the doorway into a subtler and deeper dimension than the one normally inhabited by that ego. To say it again: as soul waxes, ego wanes.


Two Worlds (8/25/13)

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

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

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

An Immodest Proposal (or two) (7/6/11)

In their own distinctive way the classical Greek myths—in their totality—probably did a better job of intelligibly representing ‘the whole’ (and man’s place within the whole) than any single rational philosopher, including the inimitable Plato, was able to do. I would support this assertion by pointing to the greater tolerance (in the mythological materials) for archetypal diversity, for unresolved—and ultimately irresolvable—complexities, tensions, paradoxes, and contradictions. While the struggle to approach and to depict the whole in a rational manner may rightly deserve to be called commendable, it is a struggle that is doomed to end again and again in failure and defeat—like the task of Sisyphus. The basic reason for this failure on the part of rational systems of philosophical thought—in their dogged attempts to comprehensively account for the whole—rests in their inherent limitations vis-à-vis the dynamic and protean whole that they strive to tackle and capture within their faulty nets.

We might ask: ‘What is rationality and why does it—why must it—fail to do justice to the whole?’ The whole is essentially baffling and mysterious, while rationality is not. In fact, rationality (as a method of approaching reality) aims at dispelling mystery. But this is just a flattering way of saying that it strives to reduce the mysterious to its unmysterious terms. Rationality’s terms are no longer quite as fixed and inflexible as most of us are encouraged to believe. Like an accomplished and subtle whore (or lawyer), rationality can adapt to the diverse needs (and budgets) of its various clients in order to provide them with what they all want: justification, or at least the momentary illusion that they have a real leg to stand on.

The ineffable mysteriousness of the whole, however, continues to slip right through the most fine-meshed nets provided by the sought-after whore, reason, and this can be bad for business. And bad business for that lovely trollop usually indicates a resurgence of the mysterious whole from which many of us have been pleasantly distracted while we were ‘thrusting and parrying’ down in reason’s seductive and much-coveted hole. And when the mysterious whole catches us with our pants down, embarrassment and panic typically follow.

It is only natural for little men with short swords to purchase those full-length ‘magnifying’ mirrors that make them look bigger and more dangerous (more ‘justee-fied’) than they really are—and reason can function as just this sort of flattering mirror. Such a mirror both reflects and distorts, but after we grow accustomed to seeing such a reflection each morning as we crawl out of bed, we begin to mistake the strapping image for the stripped-down, actual man. Respectful belief in the authority of reason may someday be recognized as one of the greatest curses to befall mankind—and not, as some would have us believe, the noble attribute that distinguishes us from the beasts. It may in fact distinguish us from the other animals, but not necessarily in a manner that does us a whole lot of credit. It may be seen someday (today is far too soon) that the whore enslaved her noble client and began to rule the kingdom from the boudoir and the back rooms of the bordello—and whores of every stripe, let us remember, are notoriously single-minded.

As a man presently employing reason to explain reason itself, I would first direct the reader’s attention to its distinctive virtues as a method of ordering and making some kind of coherent sense of our perceptions and our concepts, the principle materials that reason deals with.

It is the rules of reason (just like the rules of a game such as chess, or those of mathematics and logic) that enable it to give birth to coherent and self-consistent statements about our conceptions and perceptions of reality, about ‘God,’ about natural processes, human behavior, and so forth—whether these statements happen to bear any legitimate truth-content or not. Following or adhering to the rules, then, is a crucial part of reasoning coherently about anything. Without these rules—and a more or less strict adherence to them—our statements lose whatever respectability and dignity they owe to staying within the authorized parameters. To ‘insiders,’ those who utter arbitrary and merely conjectural statements are often privately regarded with a measure of disdain or contempt—the slight regard reserved for the ‘uninitiated’ by fully approved guild members. Or, perhaps they are regarded with the patronizing indulgence some persons feel when they see children trying to bend or re-invent the rules of a game they’re playing in order to stay in the game. One is not allowed to succeed, let alone win, by cheating.

Perhaps I should point out the fact that none of the foregoing has anything whatsoever to do with the whole—the mystery-cloaked ‘big picture’ of which we (and our reason) constitute but a very small and insignificant part. Rules have everything to do with maintaining order—with staying ‘on point’ or ‘on track.’ But what kind of order? What is the point the rule-follower insists on staying on? Where are the ‘tracks’ heading towards? Or perhaps it might be just as worth our while to ask ‘Where do the tracks lead back to?’

Rules, alone, are not enough to bestow upon reason the power and authority it has traditionally enjoyed. That power and authority are under greater suspicion and mistrust in many quarters nowadays than they have been in a long time, but despite all this mistrust and suspicion, nothing has been created that commands the general respect that rationality is steadily having bled from out of itself in today’s skeptical climate.

But, to return to my argument, or my attempt at a rational account of unmysterious reason and of its fundamental incapacity to provide a comprehensive account of the mysterious whole: If we may liken a rational scheme—any rational scheme—to an organism, the rules are analogous to the digestive system of this organism, and to a somewhat lesser extent, the circulatory system that delivers fresh blood to all its tissues and organs. But what keeps this organism alive? Upon what food does it batten and fatten itself? This food—whatever it turns out to be—serves as the analogy for the ground or founding principle of our rational scheme. Some grand rational systems aim at complete transparency. They make their ‘ground’ explicit. Thus, we hear some rational persons tell us, up front, that matter, or material phenomena and processes, constitute the arch-principle of their system. A rational theologian would declare that revealed scripture is his starting place and that all his arguments and positions ultimately refer back and connect to scriptural sources. For Thales, the arch-principle from which all emerges was ‘water’; for Anaximenes, air. For Heraclitus it was fire, while for Anaximander it was ‘the indefinite.’ A Platonist would point to the Ideas and a Pythagorean to integers and numerical proportions. Schopenhauer and Nietzsche speak of the ‘Will’ as the ground—the fons et origo of all that is.

Once the ground and source has been designated and established in this way, all roads lead back to it. The various arch-principles I have just named, because they have all played—or continue to play—a ‘nourishing’ and ‘grounding’ role in Western rational thought and education, deserve to be mentioned as momentous instances. These arch-principles provide the nourishing and sustaining ‘food for thought’ in the more familiar or conspicuous rational schemes which, together, form the spiritual and intellectual foundations of Western culture. Because this once-thriving organism appears to be falling apart and decomposing all around and within us (here in the shallow, silty delta and marshlands of that formerly forceful, deep, and unbroken river), few today are directly acquainted with these ‘macro-systems’ and their respective arch-principles. They have either been defaced by the ravages of time and neglect, like the Pyramids and the Sphinx of Egypt or fallen into disrepute and held to be on a par with astrology and alchemy.

At any event, with the decline and decay of the old philosophical, theological, and rational schemes of past centuries—these macro-systems have gradually given way to micro-systems which, being much more compact and narrowly focused, are both more user-friendly and practically effective. This shift from the grand systems of yore to the much less comprehensive and theoretical micro-systems of rationality that are embraced today roughly corresponds to the general collapse of speculative reason and its replacement by instrumental reason, or pragmatism. This enormously important transformation of reason from a largely theoretical faculty that concerned itself with contemplation of ends to a method of calculating the most efficient means to achieve arbitrary practical aims is masterfully treated by Max Horkheimer in his powerful little book, Eclipse of Reason.

This scaling down of rationality and its redirection from the contemplation of grand ethical aims and philosophical ideals to a religious devotion to thoroughly tested diet plans that promise to bring us to our ideal body weight has certainly brought many of us into a much more intimate relationship with narrow, brute facts and with stubborn concrete realities. And perhaps as a corrective against the ‘metaphysical’ excesses of reason’s past, this move was inevitable—and even salutary. But I am not here to promote or endorse one form of rationality or the other. Remember, I am taking issue with reason itself, whether in its metaphysical or instrumental, its contemplative or its prosaically practical moods and modes. And in taking issue with it, I do not seek the wholesale rejection or dismissal of reason. It is an instrument—whether used as wings for flights of spiritual contemplation or as a hammer for smashing obstructive chunks of ignorance that stand in the way of producing a new GMO or of discovering a new form of sustainable energy. And as an instrument or faculty, it is not an end in itself, even if it happens to be pleasurable to exercise it, to run and jump and play with it. Of course, learning how to run and play with reason may involve some initial pain and discomfort, just as training oneself to carry a football at full speed towards the goal-line with a half-dozen handsomely paid professionals bent upon stopping you will almost surely entail some initial pain and discomfort. But pleasure and pain are states. They are not arguments. The rules of reason are indifferent to the pleasure and pain of those who play by them or break them.

And now for a big shift—back to the pressing issue of foundational arch-principles that I likened to the food that fuels and sustains the various grand rational schemes. I want to suggest that these arch-principles (e.g. ‘matter,’ ‘Ideas,’ ‘the Will,’ ‘God,’, etc.) which ground and nourish the various philosophies and theologies that have traditionally served as vital maps and guides in our human journey through the world and existence—I want to argue that they, themselves, are not and cannot be ultimate sources of meaning and value. They are, themselves, doorways that lead into this source, which inevitably remains mysterious, unknowable and ineffable—beyond all of our limited means of conceptualization, imagination, and grasp. As with the sun, we derive our life and our light from it, but our safety and well-being depend upon the measured distance between us and it. Too far away—warmth and light diminish and we freeze to death in the dark. Too close—and we are burnt to a crisp. The various arch-principles which function like food to the different rational and theological systems owe their power, ultimately, to this hidden and mysterious source—but because so few believers are able (or willing) to look beyond their own particular, inherited arch-principle, they naturally attribute this supreme value and status to ‘God,’ to ‘matter,’ to ‘spirit,’ to ‘Love,’ or whatever arch-principle ‘speaks to’ or ‘calls’ them.

Because they cannot see beyond it—and because it appears to be the ultimate source of meaning and nourishment for them—they are not likely to stand idly by when others disparage or ignore their supreme principles, whatever that may consist in. We are apt to feel that our very lives and our basic sense of orientation within the world depend upon our arch-principal, the ‘mask’ that stands between our fleeting little personal existence and the mystery of the whole that lies behind all such masks. We are naturally confined by our limited capacity to conceptualize or represent complex situations and subtle ideas to ourselves. This is one of those psychological truths that is so obvious that it is sometimes difficult or nearly impossible to see. We are naturally more inclined to trust a familiar untruth or half-truth because it is familiar than we are to trust a deeper truth that we have great deal of trouble formulating or imagining. It sounds obvious, of course, when spelled out like this, but what I have just spelled out here is perhaps the single greatest obstacle standing in the way of our liberation from some blinding but consoling generalization or another. It is our lazy comfortableness with the familiar and the ‘known’ that stands chiefly in the way of a sudden acknowledgement of the mystery we are in fact immersed in. But the comfort provided by such blind trust in the familiar is no argument supporting the ‘truth’ of our position. Pleasure and comfort—in this case the pleasure of hiding comfortably from persons and ideas that disturb our stubborn trust in the familiar—has nothing at all to do with the truth or untruth of what we cling to for comfort. And then there is pain. One man plunges from his warm and cozy comfort-zone of familiar dogmas into the ice-cold pool of mystery, and he feels refreshed, liberated, and energized, while another man who is pulled off his perch into the same water suffers cardiac arrest—from fear—and he’s done with. The first man felt the pain occasioned by the cold shock of the waters of mystery that melt and dissolve the comforting dogma-scales that cling to his skin, but he rejoiced in his initiation. The other was not ready for a plunge, and to pull him before he was ripe was wrong and disastrous.