Monday, March 6, 2017

Every Man a King

Populism is not new to American life; in fact, it is as old as the republic itself. In its most basic, lowest denominator, populists are the “pure people” who set themselves against a “corrupt elite.” One might argue that this sentiment is at the beginning of, and is the heart, of the American experiment. Parallel to that sentiment is the desire to not be subservient to any other living human. Every man, as Huey Long said, should be a king. And this is an interesting thing; until Donald Trump arrived on the political scene, Huey Long was perhaps the most successful populist politician in the modern age, and though Huey wanted every man to be a king, he wanted to be, and tried very hard to become, the emperor who ruled over all the kings. The authoritarian government that Long set up in Louisiana was “…the closest thing to a dictatorship that America has ever known” (David Kennedy, Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War). One of the major problems with dictatorships is that the martinet seldom thinks about what his subjects need or want. Absolute monarchs only think about what they, themselves, want and will selfishly do whatever it takes to get it. Dictators are less statesmen and more Mafiosi.

It might be interesting to go on and further compare Huey Long with Donald Trump; both brash, both almost feral in their cunning ability to get what they want, their demagoguery, their flamboyance, their rejection of a globally unifying vision of the world, and their extremely thin-skinned intolerance of criticism and contradiction. But these similarities are not what interest me right now; I’m more interested in the message rather than the messenger, because this populist notion of being servile to nothing and no one except one’s own conscience is a malignant and pernicious idea. It’s malignant and pernicious in large part because there is no longer (and perhaps there never was) an agreement among the members of our society upon the very simple, manifestly evident proposition that we all do better when we try to ensure that we all do better. But dictators must do better than everyone else in order to have someone to rule, creating a climate of competition that forces competition one with another in order to curry favor with the powerful and wealthy, rather than cooperation.  An autocrat creates largely artificial differences between genders and races, wars external as well as internal, and a constant state of chaos designed to keep others off balance and frightened enough for them to look to him to provide them with answers, stability, and leadership.

Populism insists upon the fantasy of not being subjugated or enslaved to anyone, and it is a fantasy which belies the reality of life, the hallmarks of which are the painful disparities and frustrating limitations of being a human being. But being human beings, we are geniuses at creating the comforting illusion and the frangible “reality” that convinces us that we are unrestrained free agents and can do as we please, especially if what we do pleases us. Populism seems to depend upon the human tendency to create comforting illusions of existential freedom and easy certainty while ignoring the utterly crushing weight of all that one doesn’t, and can’t, know or accomplish. These kinds of movements reject expertise and ridicule as na├»ve the idea that scientists, journalists, philosophers, educators, and others may actually be working in good faith, holding no agenda other than the desire to shed more light on the mystery of human existence and, as Aeschylus put it, “tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.” The task of living a human life is, in large part, the struggle to understand one’s internal and external limitations and constraints, and the fundamental problem to undertake when we encounter those limits, is one of consoling and encouraging ourselves and each other to be adaptable, resilient, and hopeful. But now in populist America there exists a rage, rage predicated upon a belief that one’s failure to achieve a satisfying life is the fault of someone else.

Why are so many of us willing, even eager, to believe the worst about other people, especially those people who have struggled to somehow cobble together an existence lived outside of “conventional” societal expectations? Are we such a fragile people that we must purge from our midst any ideas that emit the merest whiff of challenge or pose the slightest danger to a fatuous and puerile comfort—a form of comfort that, I can only conclude, many have proclaimed to be an unassailable, right? Are our identities and our beliefs so fragile that we can brook no criticism of any kind or calls for self-reflection whatever? Why do so many of our people and politicians want to hurt, actually want to harm and punish, people who, harming no one by their actions, dare to step outside of the influence of conventional social life and love, work, create, and simply live as some deep, impelling need commands them? Like a January nor’easter, there is a profound meanness and a chilling humorlessness blowing across the U.S., and if it doesn’t freeze you in your tracks it should at least give you pause, because no one, and I mean no one, is really safe in such an ungenerous world for very long. One’s successes are not owed to one’s special brilliance, or a shrewd manipulation of the constituent forces comprising life. Good luck is always the most influential factor. Fortuna’s wheel can turn very quickly and in so doing, unexpectedly crush one beneath it even though just a moment ago, one was thrilled to have been atop it. And—make no mistake—we must all, as Bob Dylan sang, serve somebody. In Melville’s Moby Dick, Ishmael articulated this fundamental truth saying, “Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that […] either in a physical or metaphysical point of view, that is; and so the universal thump is passed round, and all hands should rub each other’s shoulder-blades, and be content.” The populist vision sets no one free, it makes no person a king; in fact, it always does the opposite by enslaving one to a dollar, a demagogue, a desire, a nation, or a religion. How the enslavement happens varies, but it is a virtual certainty that one will be enslaved, at the very least, often to one’s own worst impulses.

So why, then, are people attracted to mass movements like populism? I think Eric Hoffer provides us with the answers in his 1951 book, The True Believer. Movements such as populism are especially appealing to those who long to be other than who or what they are; they want to be rid of an unwanted life, an irksome existence, a too weighty humanity; they have failed in terms of finding the ability to create the kind of life they think they should have been able to live, and they find no hope of life being different for them in the future. Mass movements appeal to those who feel cheated by life, that they have been prevented from succeeding by outside forces or some massive conspiracy instigated by minorities, a secret, wealthy cabal, or a “rigged system.” The fanatic, writes Hoffer, “…is usually an unattractive human type. He is ruthless, self-righteous, credulous, disputatious, petty and rude.” He is willing to “sacrifice much that is pleasant and precious in the autonomy of the individual […] The true believer is eternally incomplete, eternally insecure.” Fanaticism is the only way for some to quiet the inner voices of doubt and uncertainty, and by joining a mass movement they hope to lose their frustration and seem to give themselves a new self, a new identity, and a different, less problematic life.

Unfortunately, their new lives are empty of any individual uniqueness, critical thought, self-reflection, or free choice. They give themselves over to a demagogue who has convinced them that he is leading them away from their undesired, intolerable lives, and the kind or quality of ideas the movement espouses is of little significance to them. What is significant to them is “…the arrogant gesture, the complete disregard of the opinion of others, the single-handed defiance of the world” (Hoffer). The act of taking up fanatical points of view is tantamount to an admission of deep fear and uncertainty, a profound personal shame at the center of one’s being. And if he can convert others to the fanatical cause, he shores up his weak self-concept and feels more whole and complete. Curiously, a forced conversion of others through intimidation or other coercive means doesn’t seem to subdue his enthusiasm for, or cause him to question the moral, ethical strength of his belief.

It seems to me that the loudest, most insistent, most authoritative voices demanding patriotism and trumpeting freedom are likely to come from the very people who feel the least whole, and the most aggrieved about their inability to live a life of personal meaning and personal significance and who are the least fit for living contentedly in a truly free society, let alone governing it wisely.

Monday, February 6, 2017

An Open Letter to my Colleagues in the Study of Mythology

             David Miller tells a charming anecdote in which Joseph Campbell delivers the punchline, saying, “A myth ith ath good ath a sthmile,” punning on the idiom, a miss is as good as a mile. More than simply recalling the incisorless speech of a child, mything and missing are a conspicuous pair pertaining to the study of mythology as well. There is, as Dr. Miller points out, something missing in our mything.
              Indulge me the telling of my own anecdote, one that I’ve heard in various settings and circumstances my whole life, and has always suggested to me the peculiar ability of my people to ignore discomfort or emotional disturbance. It goes like this:
                             An English couple have a child. After the birth, medical tests reveal that the child is normal, apart from the fact that it is Norwegian. As the child grows older, it obsessively reads about farming and farm implements and dresses in overalls, flannel shirts, and hand knit sweaters bearing wintry designs, but all his basic functions develop normally. He walks, eats, sleeps, learns, and so on, but for some reason the Norwegian child never speaks. The concerned parents take the child to the doctor, who reassures them that the child is normal in all other areas and he is sure there is nothing to worry about and that the child will speak in time. Well, years pass and the child becomes a teenager and still does not speak, although he seems to be completely normal in all other respects. The Norwegian child’s English mother is particularly distressed by her son’s apparent inability to speak, but she tries to hide her worry and sadness from the child while she works very hard to make her unfortunate child’s life comfortable. One day she makes the now 17 year old, still silent child, a bowl of tomato soup and takes it to him in his room where he is listening to music on the stereo. Not long after, the child appears in the kitchen and suddenly says, “Mother. The soup is a little tepid.” The astonished mother says, “All these years you never spoke a word, and it appears you could speak all along! Why? Why did you never say anything before?” “Because, mother,” answers the child, “up until now everything has been fine.”
 For most of my life, whenever I heard one of the several variations of this joke, I merely chalked it up to a gentle lampooning of Scandinavian stoicism. But now I find something deeper and darker in this old joke, a disturbing truth about a cherished value, comfort. This little anecdote reveals the disturbing shadow of comfort in that when one becomes too comfortable one is removed from, or taken out of the stream of life, one lives as an invalid. Being comfortable and certain, suppressing dissonant voices and unwelcome experiences, creates a wound; a wound that inhabits and inhibits individuals—as well as scholarly disciplines—as well as intellectual discourse, and inhibits the development of more subtly complex perceptions of the sublime mysteries to which one is exposed through the often prosaic effort of living.  If one is to more deeply understand the sublilme mysterium which lives us, a willing acceptance of the uncomfortable, discomfiting voice, the voice of the stranger at the door, the speech of that which is disturbed and disturbing, is essential. One must encourage the kind of disturbing conversations and inquiries which are often missing from the methodology that we, in the Pacifica tribe, employ in the study myth. And like the little Norwegian boy, I found that up until a few years ago, the way we studied myth had been fine. But it is no longer fine, at least not for me, and now I have something to say.
              Considerations of disturbance lead me to, once again, consider David Miller. In a keynote address, in fact, the same speech in which he told the anecdote I previously referenced[1], Dr. Miller spoke of the need for those of us who employ what he calls a synoptic study of mythology to address its criticisms. Upon reflection, I believe Dr. Miller was characteristically generous in his understanding of our understanding. Those of us who attended Pacifica Graduate Institute and who, like myself, received a Ph.D. in Mythological Studies, run the risk of cultivating an embarrassing self-deception because we did not really study mythology; we did not study the source material that C.G. Jung, Joseph Campbell, and James Hillman studied. Instead, we learned about Jung, Campbell, and Hillman, and their psychological, metaphorical approaches to mythology. All too often critiques of that, largely psychological, method were received as ad homonym attacks rather than legitimate, albeit disturbing, appraisals. Professor Miller assumed, perhaps over-optimistically, that those of us listening in full sympathy with him on the cusp of that Labor Day weekend in 2012 knew full well what he meant when he uttered the word synoptic. I know that I thought I knew. I knew that the word synoptic meant that several different stories, perhaps by several different authors, writing in different places and at different times, despite their lack of correspondence or consistency, all told the same story. I was sure that I knew that the word synoptic meant that different narratives point to the same meaning—in the case of myth, a psychological meaning—and I became enthused to write just such a synoptic methodology for the study of myth and answer critics like Roland Barthes, Bruce Lincoln, and even our own academic sibling, Sophia Heller (whose work holds no small appeal for me). Not surprisingly, as a psychotherapist the program running in the background dictated that, for me, the best use of myth is that use which clarifies and valorizes the human-all-too-human condition. Other, unconsidered and "irrelevant,"  perspectives had been of little importance and held only a marginal interest for me. Perspectives like that of, say, William Faulkner’s, himself a great mythographer who is supposed to have said, “One of Keats’ odes is worth any number of old women;” or that of Roland Barthes, who seemed to aggressively suggest that myth “…is stolen speech” and is best understood semiotically, or even the notion of Goethe’s in which he insists that the presented form of myth is not allegorical or metaphorical but is itself an Ur-phenomenon, or in other words, the reality that a Greek statue of Aphrodite is not a mere representation of the goddess, but is itself nature manifesting in material form, the very form love would necessarily take were it to become incarnate.
              So I wrote David a longish letter about my plan to write a methodology for the synoptic study of mythology illustrating that all myths had one meaning—namely, a psychological one—to which he responded that that would be a fine idea, and that since he didn’t have ownership of the word synoptic, I could use that word however best I saw fit, but he wanted me to know that the way I used the word was not how he used the word. Professor Miller borrowed the term from Feldman and Richardson (The Rise of Modern Mythology 1680-1860), a term which they used in the early 70’s to argue for a return to treating myth as a “master field” unto itself, a primary subject which could be used to illuminate other disciplines rather than the other way around, causing mythology to be embedded within other disciplines. For example, from a Jungian perspective, archetypes are meant to “attract, to convince, to fascinate and to overpower” (Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious). Myths, in Jung’s conceptualization, are the epiphenomena of archetypes, psychic products which are themselves twice removed from conscious inspection or elaboration. From such a perspective mythology is in service to psychology, and while that is very appealing to me, it is very far indeed from being the only possible reason for the existence of myth. For instance, it is clearly possible that it is not only differing levels of consciousness which are responsible for the production of myth, for archetypal images are “…neither evenly distributed, nor found on all continents” (Witzel, The Origins of the World’s Mythologies, 15). It may be that physical and social environments, pathway dependencies, charismatic qualities of political or spiritual leaders, and other individual and cultural factors all, in some way, condition systems of mythology. As G.S. Kirk stated it, “Analysis of a myth should not stop when one particular theoretical explanation has been applied and found productive” (The Nature of Greek Myths).
              Because I am nothing if not persistent, although I acknowledge that some call it perseveration, let me return to Jung’s statement about archetypes, those productions of Psyche which he described as overpowering, fascinating, and enthralling, or some words to that effect, and which provide a very big clue to that with which mythology is engaged, and why we find it so engaging. Jung’s language is very similar to the language the 18th Century philosopher Immanuel Kant used in his descriptions of the sublime[2]. But the sublime is not a product of psyche; it is itself a totality which exists outside of psyche and to which psyche may be exposed. As I recall, Kant argued that the sublime has at least two dimensions, one of magnitude and the other of force. In other words, when confronted with the sublime, the experience is so big, so immense, that one simply cannot wrap one’s mind around it; it is incomprehensible. In addition to its incomprehensibility, there is the added and intense feeling of being overwhelmed in its presence and one’s physical and emotional integrity feels threatened by an encounter with the sublime. What makes the sublime even more disturbing is the feeling of undeniable pleasure in the face of the apparent “counter-purposiveness,” as Kant named it, and which one experiences as the disorganizing, distressing, and disturbing effect upon cognition, emotion, and consciousness in general. One would expect such an encounter to be painful, but instead the sublime encounter evokes pleasure and an aesthetic experience one retrospectively understands to be beauty.
              Perhaps it is, in fact, the sublime which is the proper subject of myth—that mysterium tremendum which the logos of myth attempts to render intelligible, and if this is so, the addressed subject is so vast, so extensive, so interminable and immeasurable that only one approach to its study, or a singular voice of understanding serves ultimately to trivialize and domesticate an ungovernable and unfathomable reality. As David Miller put it, “The danger is that we may be unaware and unconscious[3].” Unaware and unconscious of the embedded political, theological, social, and psychological agendas buried so deep within the psychological way we study myth as to be unrecognized, we are more likely to further shackle than free, more apt to obscure than illuminate, more likely to limit than restore mythography to its rightful place as a master discipline. As the philosophical method referred to as destructuralization has repeatedly demonstrated, what we see is determined by what we cannot see; or as the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips writes, “Our vision, […] what we are able to see, is sponsored by our blind spots; [knowing] what we are determined not to know frees us and forces us to know something else” (Becoming Freud). To accomplish the knowing of what we do not know provokes and invites disturbance and discomfiture, it demands from us a willingness to allow our senses to incorporate something that initially appears insensible. But there is something else going on in one’s experience of the sublime. One’s own ideas and intuitions (both conscious and unconscious ideas of one’s own reason, which Kant suggests interact with the sublime, if not actually constituting an aspect of it) are brought to bear on the experience and eventually result in a harmony of reason with the sublime. With this move, the sublime becomes “purposive” rather than “counter-purposive” and creates a feeling of deep, acute pleasure. The deep disturbance is now matched by a higher pleasure rising from the newly discovered purposiveness, and it persuades us, as the poet Shelley noted, to forsake the easy for the harder pleasures. Of course, one can’t shoehorn the sublime encounter into a continuous state of being. The purposive and counterpurposive states are alternating continually and neither of them wins out, which is to say that experiencing the sublime subjects one to a disturbing, rapid alternation of feelings and perceptual states[4].
              If myth is indeed the speech of the sublime (ology typically refers to the study of something, but the root word is logos, commonly taken to denote speech) then one, single, unopposed perspective is nothing more than a blind alley in a welter of urban streets. Myth needs a variety of approaches and voices in interposition to even begin to plunge its limitless logos; it requires a cacophony of voices clambering to live in the awkward fullness of life rather than seeking out a comfortable, banal, and ultimately regressive paradise of belief. Campbell knew this very well, and while his rhetoric or his imagery sometimes left the earth, he never did. And if there is a hell, it is not to be found in some distant place either, but exists here and now, formed by all of us together. It seems to me there are only a few ways out of hell; one is common and used by many: fail to attend to the hell and become so much a part of it that one no longer sees it. An alternative way, a challenging path to be sure, demands that one live seeking out the sublime encounter, a way of living and thinking that places one, more often than not, uncomfortably outside of one’s pleasingly comfortable beliefs. This way out of hell requires one to disregard easy pleasure and instead be determined to recognize who and what voices, in the midst of hell are not hell, and subjecting them to rigorous examination help them to be recognized and abide, creating a space for them and in so doing, experience marvelous hopes, extraordinary insights, and sublime pleasures, rendered all the more marvelous for their difficult acquisition.

[1] The Symposium on Myth, August 31, 2012.
[2] As found in his 1790 work, The Critique of Judgment.
[3] Keynote address, August, 2012
[4] I have written about this rapid alternation of perceptual states in an article entitled, “The Disturbing Release of Personality,” published on the Joseph Campbell Foundation’s website,

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Immortal Longings

“Give me my robes, put on my crown; I have immortal longings in me.”

The quote above is from Shakespeare’s play, Antony and Cleopatra. Cleopatra utters these lines just a few moments before she places a poisonous snake to her breast, which then bites her, releases its venom into her body, and kills her. Most of us, I suspect, would be in agreement with her sentiment; when thoughts of death occupy our minds, most of us long for immortality, too.

Our usual solution to the “problem” of death is to simply not think about it; if, perchance, we are for some reason forced to think about that bitter hug of mortality, it’s done only with a begrudging reluctance. Such denial is quite common, really. Perhaps even necessary. If we were to think of death in proportion to its effects on our lives, death would be on our minds constantly and we would be utterly paralyzed, unable to even get out of bed. It is functionally adaptive to be able to avoid thinking about our own mortality at every moment. Even that clear-eyed rationalist, Friedrich Nietzsche allowed that we need the occasional “comforting illusions.” He said that without them, we would die of the truth.

Let me give you an example of how this self-delusion works, and it is nowhere better described than by Tolstoy in his novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich:
In the depth of his heart he knew he was dying, but not only was he not accustomed to the thought, he simply did not and could not grasp it.

The syllogism he had learnt from Kiesewetter's Logic: "Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal," had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself. That Caius – man in the abstract – was mortal, was perfectly correct, but he was not Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite, quite separate from all others.

“He simply did not and could not grasp it.” Death is, perhaps, the only human experience that can’t be learned. We go through life learning how to live from the experiences of others: how to behave in social situations, how to change a tire on a car, how to love, how to play a game, and on and on, ad infinitum. We are told, often in great detail, what these activities consist of, why they matter, and, perhaps most importantly, we get to experiment with these activities under the tutelage of a parent, mentor, or coach and become so intimately familiar with them that we develop a sense of expertise, a “feeling” of doing it rightly, a sense of competence. All of which is terribly reassuring and lends to one concluding that life is knowable, reasonably predictable, and if one follow the rules as articulated, relatively safe, too. One feels competent and efficacious; one feels one is in control of one’s own life. And if you place those feelings of certainty and efficaciousness alongside self-righteousness, you will have identified the holy trinity of human feeling. We love believing that we know things, how they work, their contingencies, their limits. We also love believing that we know how life works, how we, ourselves work, because if one can know that, then one can perfectly order and structure one’s life to receive the maximum satisfaction from it. We literally bet our lives on it, and we don’t much like the idea that we simply do not, and cannot, grasp the idea of life.

At the cutting edge of neuroscience, we are wrestling with startling conclusions: The world presented to us by our perceptions is nothing like reality (see, for instance, Amanda Gefter, The Case Against Reality, The Atlantic, September 25, 2016). What we call reality and “the things out there,” are more properly understood as icons on a computer desktop. These icons have a particular color, a shape, and a location on the desktop. And when you click on them you expect a particular thing to happen that does, in fact, usually happen. These icons can differ from computer to computer, or even from user to user depending upon how you arrange them. But those qualities or categories of shape, color, and location I just mentioned are not the truth about the file of which the icon is a representation, and there is nothing physically inside my computer that looks like that icon. One couldn’t reconstruct  a computer if one’s only view of its reality was limited to the desktop, and yet we think we can understand life and death through the equivalent act of clicking on the icon of a child, a spouse, a job, or even a casket or a pair of angel’s wings, thinking that the icon itself is reality.

And yet we insist upon living, and thinking about our living, in just this way. We tell ourselves that life is exactly what it appears to be. Especially when it comes to dying. Dying appears to be the end of me; dying appears to be final; dying appears to be separation. Now, when I say dying appears to be these things, I’m not implying that dying is the opposite of these things, either. I’m completely clear that I don’t know what, if anything, happens after we die. C.G. Jung has said that what happens after we die “ simply a psychic activity that transcends the limits of consciousness…[death] means, psychologically, ‘beyond consciousness.’ There is positively nothing else it could mean since statements about immortality can only be made by the living, who, as such, are not exactly in a position to pontificate about conditions ‘beyond the grave’” (CW vol. 7, 191). And yet, because death conveys the possibility that one is to be annihilated, done for, torn away and irrevocably separated from everything and everyone one has hitherto loved, one may well long for immortality. And one may make any bargain to attain it. But, is it not perhaps so, that as long as one lives in fear of death, one is already dead? The fear of death pushes living out of one’s grasp.

Death is the inevitable and even necessary end to life, and as such, it is an important life task we mustn’t try to avoid. Learning how to die will, in fact, teach us how to live. If we refuse to learn how to die, the fear of death makes one into a slave, bonded to anything or anyone that arouses existential anxiety. The fear of death prevents us from living authentically as ourselves, it prevents us from thinking as we choose to think, and instead fashions our lives around the proclamations and directives of those who “know better” than ourselves. The fear of death makes us beholden to whatever person, activity, or belief professes to prolong life for us or even save us from death itself.

The problem, as I see it, is that death is not recognized for what it is, as one of the most important aspects of life (in fact, both Freud and Jung speak of death as the goal of life), and the avoidance of death insures that we will fail to fully live. Freud points out, “ bottom, no one believes in his own death, which amounts to saying: in the unconscious, every one of us is convinced of his immortality” (Reflections on War and Death). And if we don’t believe in our deaths, we will have great difficulty believing in our lives as well. Life becomes empty, mean, and frankly boring, when we refuse to countenance any risk at all to our survival. Jung writes, "Death is psychologically just as important as birth and, [as such], is an integral part of life...If viewed correctly in the psychological sense, death, indeed, is not an end but a goal, and therefore life for death begins as soon as the meridian [mid-life] is passed" (The Secret of the Golden Flower).

A complete life, a full life, would then involve living for life in the first half of life--achieving, mastering, building careers, raising families, and so on, while the second half of life (after the meridian, as Jung puts it) is lived for death--the cultivation of beauty or aesthetics, developing a sense that one's life has meaning, that it has a necessary order, doing those things with one's life that must be done so that at the moment of death, on may be satisfied with the way one has lived. In ancient Greece there was an ideal known as the Kalos Thanatos, the beautiful death, and a beautiful death begins to take shape long before one's actual death by living each moment of one's life as fully and richly as possible, as though one had no other choice. Plutarch recalls the Great Pompey saying to his men as a terrible storm arose upon the sea on which they were about to set sail, “To sail is necessary, to live is not.” Eventually one finds that there are many things in life more important than death.

Before I close allow me to return for a moment to Cleopatra's poignant words, "I have immortal longings in me." Shakespeare, being Shakespeare, leaves the meaning of this utterance indistinct. One may read her as longing for immortality, expressing a wish to avoid death, but one might also read something else in this statement; one might conclude that it is longing itself that is immortal. Immortal longing. Here, I make a distinction between longing and desire. Desire may often be fulfilled, but longing can never be entirely satisfied; even when one achieves cherished, long held goals, what often remains is a nagging sense of incompleteness or gnawing emptiness, as though one expected to feel something more, something definitive and final. It is a function, I believe, of our human, all too human constitution to long for that which cannot be realized, for that which cannot be grasped. I think that the unquenchable longing is really the longing for an aesthetic experience, the longing for an experience of transcendent and pervasive beauty.

I think that the apprehension of beauty is the product of an alchemy of impermanence--our own on the one hand and on the other, the rarity, the strangeness, the fragility of the observed. Those qualities in ourselves bind to the same qualities in the regarded beauty and for a moment, we are transported out of ourselves. We understand that the beautiful is also ephemeral, that the experience of beauty is momentary, it doesn’t last, that beauty is fugitive and hard to grasp. Those qualities don’t diminish the experience of beauty, they define it. The 14th century Zen poet, Yoshida Kenko, wrote: "If we lived forever, never to vanish like the dews of Adashino, never to fade like the crematory smoke on Toribeyama, men would scarcely feel the beauty of things" (my translation).

So if it is, in fact, our longing that is immortal, one may experience immortality in a transient moment of aesthetic rapture. This is the experience William Blake described when he wrote, "To see the a world in a grain of sand/ And heaven in a wildflower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand/ And eternity in an hour" (The Songs of Innocence). The longing for deep beauty, whose very nature is ephemeral and transient, places one in harmony with death in a profoundly powerful manner, allowing one to realize that death itself makes life beautiful, and what's more, it is death that makes life bearable. And finally, as Sigmund Freud archly noted, "To bear life remains, after all, the first duty of the living" (Reflections on War and Death).

Monday, November 28, 2016

Altered People

And up the paths   
The endless altered people came,

Washing at their identity.   
Now, helpless in the hollow of   
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins  
Above their scrap of history,   
Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigured them into   
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be   
Their final blazon, and to prove   
Our almost-instinct almost true:   
What will survive of us is love.
--Phillip Larkin
The above is the last half a poem called An Arundel Tomb by the poet, Phillip Larkin (Larkin was just honored this weekend with a plaque in Poet's Corner inside Westminster Abbey), who so plangently renders the timeless relevance of sublime poetry. What catches my attention at this particular moment is the line, And up the paths/ The endless, altered people came/ Washing at their identity. This is a poem that is, on its face, about tourists visiting Arundel Castle in the south of England where there lies a medieval couple carved in stone atop a sarcophagus, he with a gauntlet removed and tenderly holding her hand. What is it about them that draws us to look upon them and feel an instinctual longing, and at the same time, a curious vulnerability?

I think that if I am able to write this essay as I feel it living in me, I shall have succeed in alienating those on the far right as well as the far left, but I don't write to alienate; I write because writing is a way for me to passionately engage the world, to wake myself up. There comes a point in alienation, I suppose, that one becomes so thoroughly alienated that one is alien to oneself, so alien that communal life may no longer be possible, and arriving at such an existential nadir one becomes dehumanized--the greatest risk of embracing the politics of grievance. But I'm getting ahead of myself. It is we who are the "altered people" Larkin writes of. We have altered ourselves to the point that we no longer recognize ourselves as complete, whole people, and have become a people to whom a sense of wholeness is largely unconscious and inaccessible. Once we were beings experiencing ourselves with a vital, physical existence mated to the challenge of exploring and understanding the human experiences of life and living; now we live virtually and vicariously and stake ourselves to a largely metaphysical state of dissatisfaction and lament in which our only responsibilities are protest and accusation.

The politics of identity and grievance have come to occupy American life to such an extraordinary degree that we shoehorn the elaborate heterogeneity of a personality into a single quality or behavior and then demand that this subjective declaration of self-hood be objectively accepted by the entire world. We continue to insist upon being known publicly in only this one particular way, and base an entire metaphysics, language, and world view on that single fact about ourselves--the lone fact of gender, sexual orientation, race, socioeconomics, spiritual practices, political affiliations or any other one of a myriad qualities. Then, too frightened to stand alone in our singularity, we practice our self-righteous, one dimensional uniqueness in groups, attempting to leverage as much power over the thoughts and behaviors of others as we can because we are too frightened of the vulnerability to which standing alone in the world exposes us. We seem to be unable, in modern life, to live satisfactorily as an ambivalent, confused, anxious, easily amused, absurd creature who can be capable of experiencing moments of transcendent beauty and happiness. And I believe that it is the unwillingness to stand alone, to be vulnerable or frightened (what every authentic human being is) is in fact, the biggest threat to our civic life.

We are altered in another way as well; we are altered by our altars. We chain ourselves to altars of belief that reduce complex and nuanced issues such as religions, politics, psychologies, nationalism, race, and power to simplistic, banal statements of irreducible fact and christen it knowledge or intelligence, saying in effect, that because of the complex nature of the issues, my ignorance is as good as your knowledge. This is neither an attractive, nor a recent human development. But what does strike me as novel is the vehement, increasingly angry and aggressive reliance upon raw power and intimidation as though to drive home the point that there is simply no other conceivable way to think. Might makes right, the only catechism needed in the new religion of strength.

The problem with this insipid, mind-numbingly trite, altaring is that it shreds the social contract, the implicit agreement we have with one another to be a democratic, civil society. Democracy is not, in my estimation, best described as a noun, but rather as a verb since it is more accurately an ongoing action, an intentional behavior, a dialectic rather than a thing. The dialectic of democracy requires the cultivation of and subsequent meditation upon certain uncomfortable, discomfiting, disturbing emotions and thoughts which then teach us the way to empathetically enter into each other's lives. This empathetic comradeship may be the most essential of the dialectics of democracy. Democracy depends upon the idea, the very rational idea, that every one's needs are more likely to be addressed or met through cooperation.

What is happening to us? I'm certainly not the first, nor the only one to ask this question. It's nearly the sole preoccupation of many people's minds. Generally speaking, we don't wrestle or explore or try to understand what disturbs us, we simply erupt in anger and try to intimidate the other to fall in line. We seem to live in a hot house environment of perpetual grievance, believing in the childish fantasy that my outrage and anger will restore what has been lost or taken from me. Everything will be made right by outrage. I do, by the way, think there are times when anger might be a helpful emotion to entertain because it might be a sign that some remnant of dignity has not been extinguished, that some humanity still abides within, that one may still marshall one's energies to respond to social injustice--that is the very anger which moved me to write this. But as soon as anger is used to frighten and intimidate others, whatever shreds of dignity and humanity might have previously existed, one has now sacrificed all traces of them and moved closer to the smothering embrace of totalitarianism.

What is happening? Well, one of the things happening is the subtle shift, ongoing for several decades now, in the preferences of modern Americans--Americans on both the right and the left--for authoritarian models of government, education, religion, law and law enforcement, business, and especially modes of thought. It is, I submit, undeniable; from the fatuously slow-witted, antediluvian, repellent second amendment fetishists to the equally fatuous and dogmatic, politically correct thought police terrorizing college campuses and other venues of public discourse. Authoritarianism is, literally, all the rage. Believe in supernatural beings ordering your life and the universe if you want, that is your right. If you seriously believe that a flying spaghetti monster created the universe and controls your life, I truly do not care as long as you don't attempt to make me believe or practice it, or teach it to my child in school. I think you may do whatever you like in private, but don't presume I should do it too. If you like, create an enormous pile in your living room out of all your assault rifles and handguns and writhe, naked, among them attempting some form of human-semiautomatic sexual congress, that is your right. Make sure you live every single moment mindfully in a state of spiritual bliss so you needn't be bothered with that messy, distressing, reality-based life that tends to destabilize your downward dog posture, that is your right. Police your thoughts so that you never harbor a resentment or a wound, a sorrow or  a frown, a contradiction or a doubt. That, too, is your right. Above all else, one must be happy; be happy with a vengeance. And if you can't be happy, then you can be aggrieved. The politics of grievance, the social capital of victim hood and the tyranny of political correctness have largely created what Larkin termed our "helpless[ness] in the hollow of an unarmorial age." Life is not Disneyland, and it's not even close to being fair, or safe, or guaranteed to be fun or your money back. If you think your life should be happy, you're wrong. Not only are you wrong by believing that happiness is the most important thing, you've sentenced yourself to a lifetime of unhappiness. But life should be, and needs to be civil, perhaps that's the most we can ask of existence, the most we can humanly create, and when you stop to think about the freedom and security civility creates, well, that may be as close to Utopia as we're likely to come. Civility means that you don't have to think like me, but you must let me think. You don't have to live like me but you must let me live.

As Larkin notes in his poem, we no longer live in an armorial age; the brutish feudalism, the xenophobia, the bondsmen, the slaves, and all the other sundry roles of illiteracy no longer need be acted out in contemporary life. Who knows what the medieval stone couple's relationship was really like? But Larkin is sure, as am I, that time has altered (and altared) them "into untruth." Their actual lives were almost certainly nothing like we imagine them to have been in our childish romantic fantasies. And the untruth they "hardly meant," the fantasy of pure, gentle, romantic love has been clumsily altered into an idea that we achingly wish were true, an altar to which we moderns make a pilgrimage, shed a sentimental tear or two, and hope that what survives us, absent knowledge of our efforts, our works, or our words, will be love. What draws the tourists' gaze, what creates the vague sense of vulnerability is the wish for love to be real enough, and encompassing enough, to save us. That in the end, we hope we have not altered ourselves to the point where we no longer know how to love, and must face the disturbing fear that love has fallen out with us and fled from the world entirely.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Intelligent Obligation to be Moral

     I thought that today may be a good day to revive Falstaff, not from the dead really, because even in Shakespeare's own hands Falstaff can never truly and finally die; but, rather, to bring him back, like Avalonian Arthur, because his sensibility is most needed in the present conversations of cultural and political life. Falstaff lived subverting conventional thought and morality, the edicts of a monarchical state, and ultimately his own intentions. And through Falstaff, Shakespeare gives us a compelling exemplar of the complex, flawed, ego-driven, and yes, loving, nature of humanity.  Some suggest Falstaff is the most compellingly human life yet authored. Presently, it seems the times call out for a Falstaff to help us keep our eye on the ball, as it were. I don't claim to offer that, but I do offer my best effort toward it. There was a time when Falstaff Was My Tutor was quite popular, read round the world even, and I hope that in time it will be so again.

     I have been re-reading a collection of essays by Lionel Trilling, a modernist bulwark at Columbia University for decades, who died in 1974. The title of these essays , in particular, always enchanted me: The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent. I realize now, writing this on November 9th, 2016, that my urge to re-engage these essays earlier this summer, after so long remaining on the shelf, had more to do with my unconscious need to explore why, in American Culture, intelligence is considered to be some sort of perilous faculty, that "cleverness is the first step into mischief," that the heart and the mind are rivals in the struggle for truth. Why is it, as Trilling himself writes, "...always too late for mind, yet never too late for honest stupidity; always a little too late for understanding, never too late for righteous, bewildered wrath; always too late for thought, never too late for naive moralizing?"

     It seems to me the case that, as the result of their combat in the cultural arena, heart and mind are irresolvably locked in a death spiral plummeting each to its certain destruction, leaving only a painful nihilism occupying their former places, powerless in its ability to create and expertly equipped to destroy. Nihilism is the true enemy of culture, nihilism threatens civility, nihilism destroys beauty, and it is certainly nihilism which nudges democracies ever closer to accepting totalitarianism with nothing more than a rueful sigh of powerlessness. The rueful sigh is expelled at the dilatory realization that there is no longer a creative, generative, unifying mythology operating in the cultural fascia, binding us together with a sense of common experience or purpose.      
     Nihilism creates and exaggerates a simplistic, naive transparency of the world and ideas, ideas which in nihilistic fashion, tend to remain undifferentiated from and confused with opinion. It forsakes human beings, it forsakes an inquiry into truth, rendering both human beings and truth less important than ideas. Nihilism abandons, to subvert Trilling's title a bit, the intelligent obligation to be moral. Morality is not something that human beings need to be taught, nor is it a set of rules divinely ceded to humankind and recorded in some holy text so they may be careful to not be ignored. No, every child understands that it is better for everyone when they treat others as they would like to be treated. I do not think it likely that, before the Israelites set up camp at the base of Mt. Sinai and received the Decalogue, they thought murder, adultery, and larceny were perfectly acceptable and committed them whenever the occasion allowed. 

     A moral vacuum develops whenever and wherever ideas assume primacy over human beings and is inevitable whenever real people are objectified or marginalized as statistics, modal examples, or as slaves, servants, or subjects, such as when they are uniformly required to offer complete subservience to an institution, a person, or a belief. In other words, an idea. This is what I am identifying as nihilism, and this is the present state of things in modern religion; it exists to an alarming extent in the academy; and it is certainly true, as we have just seen both on the left and the right, in contemporary American and British politics. Intellect is enfeebled when it is employed solely in the service of utility, when it is used solely for developing pragmatic solutions and definitive answers. In a moral vacuum, nothing is sacred except for the monolithic idea itself.

     It is, in my opinion, exactly this lack of a placeholder for the sacred that plunges the institutions of culture into nihilism and, as to whether they address the real concerns of real people, into irrelevance so that there cannot possibly emerge any new cultural mythologies at all, let alone truly novel, generative, creative, unifying mythologies that, at the same time reflect and encourage, feed and inspire, the human spirit. Religion, pick any one from among them, in its early manifestation was replete with mystery and awe, and because it valued--worshiped even--mystery and awe, the sacred was palpably known. I might well say the same thing about academia. In fact, Trilling's own teacher, John Erskine, wrote that "we really seek intelligence not for the answers it may suggest to the problems of life, but because we believe it is life [...] We love it, as we love virtue, for its own sake, and we believe it is only virtue's other and more precise name." When one values intelligence, not for the answers it may suggest to the problems of living but instead, for its own sake as life itself, the element of the sacred is reintroduced into and made relevant to the living of individual lives, and the pedagogical lynch pin of the sacred is complexity, uncertainty, possibility, difficulty, and most importantly, disturbance.

     The mind, the mental, the intellect, appears to operate as a force multiplier making any sensory or cognitive experience that much more powerful. And while this itself should not be mistaken for a monolithic idea, it really does seem that the natural affiliation of the mental is with the moral, each enhancing the other. Intellect and moral sensibility should, rather than make us smugly comfortable, disturb us, disquiet us, and lead us to dissent from orthodoxy; they should even lead us, as Trilling put it, "to dissent from the orthodoxies of dissent." Our philosophies, our religions, even our science should, in some profound ways, disturb us if we are engaged with them, and they with us, vitally and meaningfully. Disturbance urges us to augment and elaborate our strategies of living. Put simply, embracing disturbance forces us to grow, and if lived authentically, this quickly becomes a challenging, exacting, and arduous life. It may even become a life of deep satisfaction and, dare I say it, joy. Gentle experiences don't disturb us, and therefore they don't often move us to reflection or contemplation, either; only the dangerous or the uncanny will reliably do that for us (and both are qualities of the sacred). The experiences that create the necessary psychic conditions that result in the expansion of consciousness are usually existentially terrifying; they move one to become so deeply disturbed, so entirely whelmed, that such events and their sequelae remain powerful currents in the stream of existential imagination, against which, we continue to beat until the ends of our lives. The wound is created by the penetration of the sacred into being and being into the sacred, culminating in a disturbing awareness of the vastness of each, soul and space. Such a wounding is, I think, a prerequisite for the discovery of an inner life and what's more, it is at least the necessary, but probably not entirely sufficient condition for the emergence of new mythologies.

     I have often been accused of thinking too much. To this charge, I suppose I plead guilty. No doubt that I am a depth psychologist because I think it is impossible to think too much about life, life that may, after all, only be understood by reflection. The disturbances, woundings, dissentings, and other manifestations of the sacred are not, as Trilling might point out, "a mere display of [may I say, personal and] cultural indecisiveness but, rather, that they constitute a dialectic, with all the dignity that inheres in that word." To encounter the sacred is to begin a conversation with life that not only, I believe, constitutes the essence of mythology, but also refines and advances morality and intelligence as well as our obligation to both.