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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

*****

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

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

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

 

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Text and Interpretation (1/31/15)

Nietzsche often referred to the ‘text’ of nature—and how very different that ‘text’ was from the interpretations we foisted (or forced) upon it. For him, ‘morality’—regardless of its provenance—was always, at bottom, just another interpretive scheme that was being projected onto the ‘text’ of natural human drives and affects. Thus, the text is more or less decisively obscured by the interpretation, while these two—text and (moral) interpretation—are fused in the mind of the (unwitting) projector. They become indistinguishable.

Once the validity and the binding authority of an interpretive scheme are implicitly believed in, a number of interesting results typically follow. The interpretation automatically acquires greater importance and a greater sense of reality than the text in the mind of the believer, if that text was ever known by the believer in the first place, which is unlikely. Moreover, this is not due to a conscious choice or judgment on the part of the believer. It is simply due to the fact that he can see no text, only interpretation. If the believer could truly see the text, he would at the same time see the startling difference between this stark, opaque text and his interpretation—or any interpretations, for that matter. Such a shocking, sudden revelation of the raw, uncontaminated text exposes the elements of arbitrariness and relativity in all interpretations—including one’s own, of course. In such revelatory moments it is understood that all interpretations have some kind of hidden agenda, or motivating purpose, woven into them. Perhaps the most common and obvious of these motivating purposes embedded in our interpretations pertain to power and meaning, which are often closely inter-related.

When we feel that we have ‘grasped’ the inner meaning of some bit of ‘text,’ we simultaneously feel empowered with respect to that text. We feel that we have uncovered its secret and, in doing so, tempered its power over us. As long as it remains stumpingly opaque or mysterious, the text exerts a magical sort of power over our minds. It is vaguely—or, as the case may be, intensely—threatening. Unless and until we can ‘make sense’ of the disturbing bit of text (say, disquieting suspicions, eruptions of hatred for a family member or spouse, fear and general anxiety about another ethnic group, etc.) we may experience profound psychological discomfort and uneasiness. A satisfying interpretation—particularly one that is shared by millions of other fearful and insecure persons—comes to our assistance. It provides the consoling illusion that we have gained the upper hand over the disturbing (and formerly mysterious) text.

What we don’t realize—what we don’t want to realize—is that, far from gaining the upper hand over the menacing and mysterious text, we have only placed some distance between the text and our minds by means of a buffering lie. Instead of genuinely engaging with—or authentically wrestling with—the text that is given to us, we have merely substituted our ‘meaningful interpretation’ for the text itself. In incremental moves, we retreat, as it were, from actual engagement with the given text of life experience and wall ourselves into the artificial enclosure of our interpretive scheme. Thus, we become removed from inner and outer mysteries as we huddle under the canopies provided by our personal and collective myths—shielded from the very (raw) elements that we proudly but preposterously purport to have brought under our control!

What none of us wants to admit, of course, is that projecting or foisting a ready-made interpretation upon the given text of life is precisely the opposite of extracting or drawing genuine insight from our encounters with that mysterious, elusive text. And of course there can be no such encounters so long as our minds are already made up. Virtually all of us live out our lives on the map and not in the territory (for which our colorful, but simplistic and reductive maps are no substitute). Our culture (which is scarcely more than an enormous, unkempt map room!) is lorded over by puffed up map-owners whose charts contain the most detailed information about the mere surface of the mysterious territory they have no serious intention of confronting on its own terms. That would instantly perforate such puffed up pretenders—and show everyone just how empty and superficial their ‘knowledge’ is. There would seem to be little dignity—little to celebrate—in a species of restless, chattering map-addicts who refuse to acknowledge the fact that this paper-thin palace of poppycock provides no real protection against the encroaching ‘wilderness’ of the very real text that scornfully defies our often puny and pitiful ‘interpretations.’

And, of course, the same criteria apply to this interpretation of a troublesome bit of ‘text’—the interpretation I’ve just served up here. What, if anything, makes it any more credible or valuable than a discarded gum wrapper from 1959 or a political leaflet that circulated around Boston in the fall of 1784? All have been chewed and spewed and then are over and done with—as we, too, soon shall be. And you don’t need a map to figure this out.

Bridge Repairs and a Holy Trinity (4/15/13)

James Hillman’s reliably provocative essay, ‘Peaks and Vales’ (one of my longtime favorites by him), poses a clearly articulated challenge to the aims and the presuppositions of the Indian-style seeker after spiritual liberation—or, at least his barely recognizable California/New Age cousin. As a self-proclaimed ‘advocate’ for soul (in contradistinction to ‘body’ and ‘spirit’), Hillman—following Jung—posits psyche, or soul, as the ground of all possible experience (esse in anima). Moreover, he links the spirit, along with the yearning for liberation or transcendence, with the puer archetype. In slyly equating the spirit with an archetype—in this case, the puer aeternus, or eternal youth—Hillman runs the serious risk of reducing spirit to soul (pneuma to psyche). He ‘makes sense’ of spirit (ontologically) in terms of soul, which amounts to pretty much the same thing.

Of course, I strongly share Jung’s and Hillman’s legitimate and urgent concern over the deliberate elimination of soul from the original tripartite (spirit-soul-body) scheme that stretches back to pagan antiquity. As Hillman points out, the episcopal council at Nicaea in 787—following the implicit eclipse of psyche by pneuma in the theology of St. Paul—dealt something like a death blow to the living, autonomous images of the psyche—in the political interests of orthodoxy and ecclesiastical authority. This produced the unfortunate consequence of nearly eradicating soul and the archetypal (polytheistic) imagination from Western culture. At any event, soul-making was forced underground (i.e., alchemy, astrology, Gnosticism, mysticism, etc.) or was consigned to the ‘fanciful’ works of the poets. The ‘bridge’ was out—and has remained in a state of serious disrepair ever since—between the concrete, sensual world and the spiritual, transcendent one. The symbols, analogies, metaphors, and living images that had previously served as vital concourses between the now antithetical (or mutually hostile) realms of spirit and body were largely erased from Western culture, long before Descartes’ strict and formal mind-body dualism triumphed in the 17th century. And while I can understand and thoroughly appreciate the natural enthusiasm of these recoverers of the soul-bridge (Jung, Hillman, and Corbin), I also believe that it is more important to promote traffic across the bridge than it is to get preoccupied there because the view from the bridge is so beautiful, so initially refreshing.

This rather serious problem (from a cultural standpoint) has come to my attention gradually—and not entirely as a result of discernible theoretical disagreements between the archetypal psychologists, on the one side, and Indian sages/seers like Ramana Maharshi, on the other. Certainly, those disagreements are there—and one notices them as soon as one begins to search them out—but, for me, these clashing standpoints were not the first thing that brought my attention to the fundamental differences between them. It was contrasting experience of soul and of spirit that was behind the recognition. If I had to express as succinctly as possible what I have taken away from these experiences, I would say that spirit, soul, and body (or matter) resemble the three states of water: vapor, liquid, and ice. No one of them is more truly ‘water’ than the other two.

If I were to elaborate just a bit, I would say that when spirit ‘condenses,’ it naturally precipitates into soul, the liquid state of the One that is Three. And when the fluid, mercurial images of soul coagulate and rigidify, they are translated, as it were, into concrete forms (like snowflakes or ice sculptures). Thus, soul, because of its position ‘in between’ spirit and letter, the formless and the embodied, serves as the natural bridge between spirit and material forms. When soul, or imagination, is repressed, denied, or disparagingly relegated only to the lunatics and the ‘poets,’ a gap or split is experienced between ‘free’ spirit and ‘imprisoning’ body, or matter. It is a salutary move—both for the individual and for the culture—to lift this repression and restore the bridge to its rightful place. But to elevate soul to the status of an arch-principle and to regard it as the legitimate sovereign over the other two states is, I believe, to overstep the bounds of justice. Ironically, this would be a kind of idolatry of soul and I’m sure that is the last thing Jung, Hillman, or Corbin would have wanted, being the honest and just men that they were.

But cannot the same warning or proviso be directed at those who would make matter or spirit the arch-principle—the true and only source to which the others are legitimately reduced? This raises questions not only about Hobbes, Holbach, Mach, and Freud, but about those skinny little Indians (Sāṅkhya philosophers) who would have us believe that spirit is the end-all and be-all.

Better to reserve our pistis and our gnosis for the ‘Holy Trinity’—spirit-soul-body.

*****

What implications, if any, does this holy trinity paradigm have for hierarchical ordering schemes? If spirit is no more and no less essential a side of this equilateral triangle than matter or soul—all of them being equally ‘important’—then what happens to our valuations of noble and base, high and low, sacred and profane? Aren’t such valuations more bound up with moral and political and religious issues within the cultural arena than they are with reality in the trans-human, or impersonal sense of the word. ‘Noble’ and ‘base’ qualify objects, persons, and states that one feels obliged (or in some cases, compelled) from within to move towards or away from—correct? But where the real is concerned—how can we genuinely move away from or towards it? The real is the whole, the abiding, the enduring, the ground and container of all possible things, persons, and states. Our movement may be said, then, to pertain to the un-real (or the incompletely real) and never to reality as such, for we are already embedded in it and completely at its mercy.

Of course, the conscious development and employment of such hierarchical schemes—such as the ‘Great Chain of Being’—greatly facilitates the work of differentiation, particularly when ‘higher’ up the ladder is sincerely believed to be nobler and closer to some ‘good in itself.’ And nothing attracts certain philosophical minds more powerfully than the differentiation of entities, persons, species, actions, and even states of consciousness into some order of rank or another. Certainly Plato and Aristotle typify this zeal for differentiation and classification. Because there is an implicit motivation to move towards the noble, the good, the beautiful, and the true—and away from the base, the evil, the ugly, and the false—this zeal for differentiation is, at bottom, moral zeal.[1]

We can certainly imagine a kind of morally neutral, aesthetic (or ludic) passion for differentiation—as when a certain kind of scientific mentality applies itself to anatomical variations on the theme of ‘forearm’ or ‘respiratory system,’ from one species to the next—or to the various colors and hues within the visible light range of the electromagnetic spectrum. I am sure there are a few ‘inspired’ lunatics out there who will try and make a case for the moral superiority of ultraviolet light over infrared radiation, but most of us would sensibly regard such a claim as preposterous.

At any event, playful employment of the holy trinity paradigm might very well be conducive—at least half the time—to a serene contentment with the whole in its undifferentiated, self-balanced state. I am referring, of course, to the figure we sketched of an equilateral triangle, where no side is greater than the other and each side can serve, provisionally but never absolutely, as the base of the triangle. In my view, Taoism probably comes closest to espousing this non-preferential, trans-moral perspective.

It should be evident to all students of theology and comparative religion that my speculative notion of a spiritual-soulful-material ‘holy trinity’ has little or no connection to the Trinity, as it is presented by way of official Catholic doctrine. The widely available scholarly evidence points in a very different direction, does it not? Would we, in fact, be wide of the mark if we observed that the official dogma was designed specifically with the intention of keeping out, with its Trinity, what I am attempting to let back in with mine: matter, the feminine, and soul, or psyche? The dogmatic Trinity is—as Jung showed—lopsidedly spiritual and masculine, from a psychological standpoint. As an inevitable consequence, it seems to have forfeited any legitimate claims to comprehensiveness or wholeness, both of which are retained—to cite some counterexamples—in the symbol of union between yin and yang in China and the lingam of Tantric yoga in India.

Of course, a symbol that defiantly ignores or excludes crucial aspects of the whole (which it nevertheless purports to express) only contributes to an inner split in the psyches of those who bend to the cultural or theological authority of that incomplete symbol. Nietzsche recognized in Zoroaster’s teaching about Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu the origin of the morality of good versus evil that found its way into our Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. The Abrahamic ‘people of the Book’ inherited this ‘light versus dark,’ ‘good versus evil’ moral underpinning to their religious metaphysics, or worldview. Nietzsche astutely recognized that it is precisely this decidedly moral foundation to our shared worldview that serves as the motor or engine driving (what’s left of) our culture, even our secular ideals. But what of that motor today? Perhaps Yeats’ famous lines from ‘The Second Coming’ sum it up pretty well: ‘the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.’

[1] Nietzsche, curiously enough, was possessed by such moral zeal, despite all his empty claims to be an ‘immoralist’ who was ‘beyond good and evil.’ Clearly, he still had his own ‘good and evil’—his own ‘noble’ and ‘base’—that motorized his campaign.

Masked Transgressors (10/11/16)

Is there an essential connection between human pride and moral-psychological strength, confidence, and independence? We are warned by examples drawn from both Greek tragedy and from the Old and New Testaments that “pride cometh before a fall.” Can the feeling of strength and confidence experienced by many of us – from time to time, though never uninterruptedly – be understood outside of a moral context, without our assigning a moral interpretation, one way or the other? By way of contrast, it is not normal procedure to attach moral significance to our variously exuberant or puny states of physical vitality. So, why should we automatically “moralize” states of psychological strength and weakness?

Would we be correct in assuming that animated or debilitated states of physical and mental-emotional health are simply facts of everyday human experience, while pride and humility are moral interpretations that are unjustifiably foisted onto these facts? In highlighting this distinction between given facts (various states of psychological and physiological vitality or well-being) and projected moral interpretations, I don’t mean to suggest that these two distinct phenomena are not often intimately linked in a manner that often seems like a causal interrelationship. What, more precisely, do I mean by this?

When, for instance, we are convinced that we deserve our joyful state of well-being (or conversely, our weakened or blighted condition) – either because of something we did or something we are – we are already situated within this moralized territory from which most of us seldom or never venture forth. But the key factor here appears to be this idea of “getting our just deserts,” does it not? Once these moral interpretations and valuations are accepted and unconsciously internalized as universally valid, we have bought into the game, as it were, and the rules of the game thereby acquire binding or sacred authority. In likening a moral scheme – any moral system of values or conventional rules of acceptable/unacceptable thought, feeling, desire, behavior, etc. – to a kind of game, I am not attempting to trivialize morality or characterize it as something we, the conscripted, can exit from as we might exit from a riveting round of Monopoly, Risk, or Life. Or that we should always attempt such an exit.

It is no mere fluke or childish error that many of us who are snugly ensconced in the serious “game” of morality often regard outsiders, reprobates, and deserters as villains and sociopaths. Those who either refuse or who are constitutionally unable to buy into and internalize the rules of the game are – perhaps with some justification – perceived as hostile to human welfare. Jung maintained that humans are hardwired to absorb and conform to a learned set of moral valuations and guiding principles, just as we are hardwired to learn, as children, the language spoken by those around us. If we miss the window of opportunity to learn a code of morality or a spoken language, it will be difficult or impossible to rectify that missed opportunity later in life. Obviously, then, the acquisition of language and some set of moral principles is crucial to normal, if not healthy, human development.

Nevertheless, we are all too aware of how much can get “lost in translation” when we attempt to convert complex ideas from English into Japanese or from Japanese into Italian. A language is always thickly suffused with particular idiosyncrasies, biases, and presuppositions that are implicit in the culture to which that language is linked, much as the fauna and flora are native to an ecosystem. Of course, much the same translation problems arise between moral schemes or worldviews, even if deep beneath these local or regional differences lies something like a shared human nature. This foundational, shared human nature, however—without the benefit of an actual language, culture, and perhaps moral education—may consist of little more than the crude eruptions of boisterous baby talk and passionate grunts.

This is not to say that such inarticulate grunts, gestures, and baby talk aren’t often pregnant with astonishingly rich possibilities. Precisely because they emerge from the un-formed, raw core of the undifferentiated, infinitely prolific psyche, they possess a kind and degree of unmolested potentiality that appears to wane and desiccate as we become more conceptually sophisticated and distanced from our “first innocence.”

So, while it is certainly possible for the probing, introspective thinker to mark and marvel at the crucial distinction between a physiological state, an instinctual drive, a mood, or affect, on the one hand, and a related moral interpretation or valuation, on the other—permitting a momentary peep beyond the (usually) unconscious, enclosing walls of his inherited moral scheme—we must then ask, “What next?” Should he, like a certain 19th-century German philosopher (who proudly dubbed himself an “immoralist”), attempt to make a career out of such diabolically defiant transgressions – perhaps even attempt to inhabit an igloo or a baked mud hut in that icy-torrid ‘no man’s land’ beyond the pale? For some of us who have spent lonely, but admittedly exhilarating, weeks and months beyond the familiar frontier, in that forbidden zone, isn’t it enough simply to know that it’s there – and that despite the best laid plans of mice and men, it will always be there? For us – the antinomian transgressors and the voluntary aliens – isn’t our real work that of cartographers and translators of extra-moral, trans-cultural, and pre-verbal experiences? And even if we have one foot in and one foot out of the colonized, cultivated zone, isn’t our first loyalty to our human kin? And yet, I would argue, that scarcely makes us humanists. Au contraire, mes amis… au contraire!

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.

For the Few? (7/25/16)

It is only “natural” – and perhaps unavoidable – for us to encounter stubborn resistances to the transpersonal energies, factors, and perspectives that are nevertheless crucial to spiritual maturation. The strength of these resistances will be determined by the degree to which our consciousness is identified with the personal ego, or “mind-body complex.” Certainly those of us who have genuinely begun to acknowledge the scripted or “fictive” character of our own and others’ personal identities are in a somewhat better position to absorb the shocks that accompany deep transpersonal insights. Those of us who have long been engaged in the chilling, thrilling discipline of unmasking ourselves to ourselves are certainly better prepared to withstand lengthy exposures to these transpersonal “X-rays” that would almost surely produce a mental breakdown or collapse in innocent “psychological virgins.” These resistances are there for a reason, then. They are the indicators – the telling symptoms – of our fitness for receiving fateful truths that have no regard for persons or for our personal hopes, feelings, preferences, principles, etc.

It is no accident, therefore, that myths and accounts of spiritual transformation typically employ the symbols of death and resurrection – the most conspicuous example of which in our Western tradition being the crucifixion story. Given the unpreparedness of most human beings – now as ever – to undergo the “ordeal by fire” entailed in a genuine spiritual transformation or initiation, we can see the folly – or worse, the abomination – of prescribing or recommending such practices and genuine spiritual pursuits on a grand scale! Isn’t there already quite enough madness and mayhem in the world? The present madness and disintegration stem, in part, from the erosion of traditional moral values and restraints. But we cannot leap from nihilism and flaccid moral relativism onto an authentically transformative psycho-spiritual path without disastrous consequences. Before the “personal self” can be properly relativized and overshadowed by the transpersonal or “higher” self, it must first be brought under control – not through mere repression and aesthetic austerities, but by the enlightened will of transcendent understanding. The higher will alone authoritatively subdues the lower will. The “light” of the higher intellect and the love of the awakened heart are certainly crucial aspects of this comprehensive spiritual transformation, but they are not alone sufficient, it would seem. The transformed will is what is decisive in the end. It slays – and gives life.

So, how – it will be asked – does the newly fledged initiate regard those in his midst who are, or purport to be, on the path of initiation? To begin with, he will view them as he views his former “self” – the way he was prior to the deposing (psychologically speaking) of the old “personalistic” standpoint. That standpoint still lives a much-reduced, vassal-like existence in the psyche, but its former sovereignty has been decisively supplanted, along with the assumptions, priorities, and binding limitations upon which it was founded. The initiate knows, not merely from books by Plato and Jung, Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta, but from direct inner experience, that the shift from the former center of gravity to the new one involves an even greater challenge and reorientation than a move from a medieval European village to present-day New York City or London. Such tectonic plate shifts occur only where it is possible – or perhaps fated – for them to occur, and all merely intellectual sampling and exploration of spiritual materials cannot change that fact. Such pursuits are just as likely to result in mere confusion, consternation, frustration, and even despair. The last thing genuine spiritual work consists in is escapism or moral-intellectual hedonism. More will be lost or sacrificed (from the “personal” standpoint) then could ever have been expected in the exchange of shocking-liberating light for familiar-ensnaring darkness.

The obvious reason the psychic confrontation with transpersonal energies or archetypal factors tends to be so terribly disturbing to the ego lies in the “inhuman” character of these overwhelming data of experience – regardless of whether they approach from the outside (as stunning synchronicities) or from the inside (as numinous/diabolical presences). When the human-sized ego fails to differentiate itself (and it’s tidy, compact little platform and horizons) from these super-human factors, the trouble begins. (This was perhaps Nietzsche’s undoing). When the ego makes the common mistake of identifying with these outsized factors and energies, there will almost invariably be an inflation (with accompanying delusions of grandeur or depravity, depending on the archetype identified with and the attitude of the ego). Egos are easily lifted up or crushed by archetypes, just like unseasoned, wannabe surfers who foolishly swim out to waves that are way too big for them to mount (with appropriate respect and modesty). The human-all-too-human realm of experience is a bit like Lilliput when set beside the archetypal realm, which is full of benign, malign, and neutral Gullivers who can be relied upon to piss on, piss off, and piss out our little “hearth fires” if we’re not careful – even, or especially, when we’re in “mass formation.”

 

Givers: Calculating or Otherwise (8/15/16)

Persons who give generously of themselves to others with no expectation of repayment (in any form) are extraordinarily rare. All such persons see is the need – and what must be given in order to meet it, and, where possible, they act accordingly. Such unconditional givers are provident to others almost as if these others were in the condition of helpless and emotionally crippled babies who belong to other people. The babies are helpless and needy – and incapable of repaying the giver, not even with a smile of gratitude, but that doesn’t stop the giver.

One suspects that with the majority of givers, on the other hand, giving is more or less consciously regarded as a kind of investment. In giving to others around them, they are counting on some kind of reciprocity or return on their investment.  And when such returns are not forthcoming, these invested givers almost invariably feel some degree of resentment. They feel cheated, disappointed, angry, under-appreciated, used. They may feel self-pity and even self-loathing for having given so much to ingrates and parasites. Such calculating givers are always shocked to learn that they have surrounded themselves with persons who prey upon their generosity – but this is precisely the predicament their unwise (and un-free) generosity has created for them. They have become feeders for hummingbirds.  Such dispensers of sweetness can become extremely bitter after the cumulative disappointments and betrayals of a long life of un-reciprocated giving.

Persons who are psychologically balanced, brutally honest with themselves, and spiritually healthy, on the other hand, tend not to be as needy as those who are drawn to the unwise and unfree giver – so they are more likely to steer clear of a codependent relationship with such a type. Moreover, these healthy, balanced, and more psychologically independent persons can usually see right through the calculated generosity of the expectant giver – and into their ulterior motives. These ulterior motives may simply be the need for acceptance by others or for a sexual connection. It may be for money for some kind of material security. But whatever it is, it is something the calculating giver cannot seem to provide for him/herself – or learn to live without.