Tuesday, May 29, 2007
Monday, May 28, 2007
I have found that those who have never converted, one way or another, often take for granted the categories they discover in the world around them -- indeed, their attachment to their original understanding of the words "believer" and "atheist" (or "skeptic") may constitute the central aspect of their own ontology. William James lampoons the skeptic who has never considered belief in his chapter on "The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness" in Varieties of Religious Experience:
Q: What does Religion mean to you?
A: It means nothing; and it seems, so far as I can observe, useless to others. I am sixty-seven years of age and have resided in X. fifty years, and have been in business forty-five, consequently I have some little experience of life and men, and some women too, and I find that the most religious and pious people are as a rule those most lacking in uprightness and morality... The God-idea was begotten in ignorance, fear, and a general lack of any knowledge of Nature. If I were to die now, being in a healthy condition for my age, both mentally and physically, I would just as lief, yes, rather, die with a hearty enjoyment of music, sport, or any other rational pastime. As a timepiece stops, we die--there being no immortality in either case.
Q: What comes before your mind corresponding to the words God, Heaven, Angels, etc.?
A: Nothing whatever. There is no agency of the superintending kind. A little judicious observation as well as knowledge of scientific law will convince any one of the fact.
Q: What is your notion of sin?
A: It seems to me that sin is a condition, a disease, incidental to man's development not being yet advanced enough.
Q: What is your temperament?
A: Nervous, active, wide-awake, mentally and physically. Sorry that Nature compels us to sleep at all.
James follows this section with a particularly keen analysis: "If we are in search of a broken and contrite heart, clearly we need not look to this brother. His contentment with the finite incases him like a lobster-shell and shields him from all morbid repining at his distance from the Infinite." And of course, I only quote James to help me present what I think is the less common image: that of the religiously-skeptical atheist type. Obviously, there is the correspondingly "omni-satisfied" religious-religious type, who says contrite things like, "Oh yes, life seemed difficult to me, too, until I accepted my savior Jesus Christ into my life--since then I've been happy every day." (The political equivalent is again a useful contrast: those who have subscribed, from an early age, to one political party, without considering shifting their politics, may end up betraying their own early convictions in order that they stay true to the party-name.)
These two types, symmetrical to the point of being effectively synonymous, are unable to see that there is one overarching principle bringing them together -- William James calls it "Healthy-Mindedness," and is currently being peddled as The Secret, and has generally been found in the "Self-Help" section of your local bookstore. "I am an atheist and have no need for God," says one. "I am a Christian and have the LORD and put all my trust in him." And these words, these self-defining terms (atheist & Christian) serve to protect these two from ever experiencing the conversion.
On the other hand, the person willing to renounce the protection of terminology may discover that what he formerly took for his devotion is really just a disguise for his doubt. Similarly, the person willing to renounce the safety of labels may discover that what she formerly understood to be her skepticism has only been the fear of being overwhelmed. The religious conversion will not come until the potential convert feels absolutely indifferent about labels -- have you ever felt nothing about the words atheist, Christian, believer, skeptic, faith, doubt?
A brief personal history may help: when I was young I said "God" and felt content. A little older, I said the word "success," and felt content. A little older, a little more mature, I said, "atheism," and felt content. A while later, I said "Oversoul," "Buddhist," then "mystic" and felt content... and the beat goes on, the beat goes on.
Friday, May 25, 2007
Thursday, May 24, 2007
The Savior said to his disciples, "Already the time has come, brothers, for us to abandon our labor and stand at rest. For whoever stands at rest will rest forever. And I say to you, [be] always [above...] time... [...]...you [...] be afraid [of...] ... you ... [...] ...anger [is] fearful [...] arouse anger... [...is...] but since you have ...[...]...[...] they accepted these words [concerning it] with [fear] and trembling, and it set them up with governors, for from it nothing was forthcoming. But when I came, I opened the path and I taught them about the passage which they will traverse, the elect and solitary, [who have known the Father, having believed] the truth and [all] the praises while you offered praise.
For the record, I am absolutely convinced that this Nag Hammadi library is even more than essential reading. I believe that these texts are profound enough in their own way to bring about a change in Christianity as significant as the reformation. These texts have only been available in English since 1979, however, and changing two thousand years of consensus and orthodoxy takes a little time. Over the next few centuries, though, and maybe within a couple generations, these scriptures are going to find a place in or alongside what we now recognize as "mainstream" Christianity. And, in my view, this will be a blessing. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "The doctrine of hate has to be preached, as the antidote to the doctrine of love, when love starts to whimper and whine..." And though the Gnostic texts do not constitute a doctrine of hate, they may seem to be a compilation of heresy. But, and I think Emerson would agree, every great spiritual movement begins as heresy.
The gaps in the text protect it against assaults from literalists, who tend to miss the spirit for the trees; that is, who tend to miss the forest for the words. If you've read Anne Carson's recent translation of Sappho's poetry, you'll have some understanding of the beauty of omission. Here's a translation of part of one of Sappho's poems:
Remember the many garlands of violets
and roses I placed next to
the many flower necklaces I weaved around
and spread bountiful myrrh
[......]* fit for a
and upon the gentle mattress,
passion you exuded
and neither the [......]*
nor the singly
did we weave [......]*
from which we stayed
Faced with these lacunae, reading is forced to become the imaginative act that it always should be. We become co-authors with the great poet of Lesbos. As well as any aesthetic or ambiguous words ever could, this little symbol -- [...] -- resists ossification and orthodoxy. Some of the gaps in the texts recovered at Nag Hammadi seem to be so perfectly-placed that some readers of great faith might suggest that the gaps in the text were foreordained. Consider the maddening elipses in this short excerpt from The Dialogue of the Savior:
Mary [said, "...] see [evil...] ...them from the first [...] each other.
The [Lord] said, "[...] ...when you see them... [...] become huge, they will... [...] ...But when you see the Eternal Existent, that is the great vision.
I can't imagine any more wonderful presentation of the elusive mysteries of the universe. It's like eavesdropping on a conversation that you really want to hear, and missing some of the critical words -- these gaps are fertile soil for the imagination (trust me!), and provide almost infinite possibility for interpretation. I know people who shut down at the utterance of the word "Jesus" or "God." Their reaction is certainly an indictment not of them or their character, but of the evangelizing strategies of orthodoxy. For them, Nag Hammadi offers a two-columned (because two-text) tract called The Sophia of Jesus Christ. In that text, we read,
[Now] those [who] come [from the...] exist with their [...] [in] every aeon [...] [...] [...In the beginning, thought] and thinkings [appeared from] mind, [then] teachings [from] thinkings, counsels [from teachings], (and) power [from] [counsels].
Far be it from me to pronounce the meaning of this fragment -- but it.. is... awesome! Monica's going to be so excited about all of this.
P.S. -- for those of you with low I.Q.s (Imagination Quotients), the Gnostic texts are not all tattered with lacunae. In the Gospel of Philip for example, we get this:
Names given to the worldly are very deceptive, for they divert our thoughts from what is correct to what is incorrect. Thus one who hears the word "God" does not perceive what is correct, but perceives what is incorrect. So also with "the father," and "the son" and "the holy spirit" and "life" and "light" and "resurrection" and "the church" and all the rest -- people do not perceive what is correct but they perceive what is incorrect, [unless] they have come to know what is correct. The [names which are heard] are in the world [... deceive. If they] were in the eternal realm (aeon), they would at no time be used as names in the world. Nor were they set among worldly things. They have an end in the eternal realm.
Or in The Gospel of Thomas (#13):
Thomas said to him, "Master, my mouth is wholly incapable of saying whom you are like."
Jesus said, "I am not your (sg.) master. Because you (sg.) have drunk, you (sg.) have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring which I have measured out."
And he took him and withdrew and told him three things. When Thomas returned to his companions, they asked him, "What did Jesus say to you?"
Thomas said to them, "If I tell you one of the things which he told me, you will pick up stones and throw them at me; a fire will come out of the stones and burn you up."
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
It's true what they say, by the way -- everything you need to know is in those books. All of your cutting edge buzz-concepts existed from the very beginning. But, I understand: you need to get tenure, etc.
Anyway, I just wanted to drop a plug for Plotinus' (204-270 AD) Enneads. This won't be for everybody, but if you're interested in a synthesis of all of the great theology and philosophy of the ancient world, if you're interested in the fountainhead of the mystic traditions of Paganism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Gnosticism, this is it. It's very ethereal, profoundly metaphysical in flavor, but the Penguin edition is "an interpretive translation" by Stephen MacKenna, heralded as one of the great translations of the 20th century.
I understand why people get balky (is that a word?) around the old stuff -- it's difficult, and sometimes it seems to make persistent reference to bizarre-sounding concepts. Consider this passage from Plotinus:
Wisdom and understanding consist in the contemplation of all that exists in the Intellectual-Principle, and the Intellectual-Principle itself apprehends this all (not by contemplation but) as an immediate presence.
And each of these has two modes according as it exists in the Intellectual-Principle and in the Soul: in the Soul it is Virtue, in the Supreme not Virtue.
In the Supreme, then, what is it?
Its proper Act and Its Essence.
That Act and Essence of the Supreme, manifested in a new form, constitute the virtue of this sphere. For the Ideal-Form of Justice or of any other virtue is not itself a virtue, but, so to speak, an exemplar, the source of what in the Soul becomes virtue: for virtue is dependent, seated in something not itself; the Ideal-Form is self-standing, independent.
I have bold-faced some of the words that I think might give even the most literate people difficulty on a first read. But Plotinus is careful to define his terms as his argument develops, and all that seems required is deliberate reading and, perhaps, some occasional marginalia. Five years ago, I was unprepared to read this kind of text; I would have said, "It's mumbo-jumbo, hogwash. I don't have the patience for this."
But I did one thing right. I blamed it on me (lacking patience), and not on Plotinus. It is difficult to "shotgun" 12-ounces of wine, and very few people would want to -- and it is no different with Plotinus. If you decide to try him, take him out on your balcony during the sunset hours and be prepared to slow down.
Says wikipedia, "According to the account of Eustochius, who attended him at the end, Plotinus' final words were: 'Strive to give back the Divine in yourselves to the Divine in the All.' Eustochius records that a snake crept under the bed where Plotinus lay, and slipped away through a hole in the wall; at the same moment the philosopher died."
Hmm... hey, haven't I heard this one before?
Two weeks ago, I was pulling into the liquor store to buy a bottle of wine with my fiancee. I had to hit the brakes pretty hard as I began making the turn, because a tiny duckling was waddling at the edge of the parking lot. As I drove around the fuzzy little yellow thing and found a parking spot, I noticed the mother with her five or six ducklings trailing behind up on the grass, perhaps 20 feet from the stray that seemed unable to climb the curb, unable to keep up. My future wife, noble being that she is, decided to go help the little runt by tossing him up in the grass -- "Go catch your siblings," she mumbled, as she placed him on the grass.
The baby bird immediately turned around and tumbled down the curb, then seemed to try to climb up Gretchen's ankle. This time, she picked the duckling up and ran him over by his duck-family and then sprinted away, into the liquor store. I sat in the car and watched. A moment passed before I saw the little yellow feathers; inexplicably, this maniac duckling was headed back for the road where cars were passing every few seconds.
I watched. And as Gretchen got back in the car, the duckling entered the road. "It's only a matter of seconds now," I thought, and maybe said. Gretchen looked away, and then it happened.
Now my question. What happened?
A. The saddest thing ever.
B. Nature ran its course.
C. Natural selection at its finest.
D. An allegory for my own fragile exitence and impending doom.
E. Nothing significant.
F. All of the above.
G. A divine admonition against drinking wine.
H. Suicide isn't just for humans.
I. Rebel duck demands freedom! -- dies trying to make it back to the pond, away from the roads.
Take your pick, or invent a new interpretation of the event. In any case, understand that whatever you decide, if you leave your remarks in the "comments" section under this post, your perception & interpretation may take on ethical proportions.
When someone who is 95-years old dies, we interpret the event: "She was called home to G-d." When someone who is 5 months old dies, we do our best to interpret the event: "He was too perfect for this sphere." When a 16-year old gets drunk at his cabin up North on the 3rd of July and dies diving off the dock head first, we usually try not to interpret. Why is this? Do we understand intuitively that the way we see, and the way we say that we see, is a matter for ethical consideration? Would it be unethical to say, "Well, served him right -- that's a lesson in youthful arrogance if there ever was one!"
But enough about death. When a 20-year old college sophomore finds out she is pregnant, is her reaction subject to questions of ethics? How does she perceive the conception? A curse, or a blessing? Could we argue that to perceive the conception as a curse is unethical? Emerson said,
Thoughtless people… do not distinguish between perception and notion. They fancy that I choose to see this or that thing. But perception is not whimsical, but fatal. If I see a trait, my children will see it after me, and in course of time all mankind—although it may chance that no one has seen it before me. For my perception of it is as much a fact as the sun.
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
Microsoft Word is an allegory for the rational mind. Then recall: have you ever opened a new document and begun typing before the cursor is able to catch up? You have typed most of your first sentence, "Upon discovering a dead mouse under the passenger seat in his 1999 Honda Acc...," before the letters start to appear. This is a metaphor for how reasoning works.
Or, your computer represents the mind. You start it up, the desktop appears, and you double click on the browser icon -- you are heading for a familiar webpage, a page where you know you will want to scroll down. Before the page loads, the scroll bar on the right appears, and you click to scroll down. The screen hesitates, then jerks, and as the page loads you are already somewhere below the header images.
Or, you turn your television on, having come home from spending a day at the pool. It is 4:30, and you are hoping to catch the end of the Tigers game that started at 2:30. After hearing the "pop" that comes with switching on and some out-of-context dialogue (you were watching CNN before you went swimming), you hit the digits deliberately: 2-6. And as the picture warms up, you are already where you want to be.
Regularly, we find ourselves waiting for technology -- is this a "thing-in-itself," though? Or is it possibly only another level of removal? Have you had an idea with direction; have you been able to anticipate the conclusion before the rational mind warms up? To be sure, our technology mirrors the structures and functions of our minds... is it so unreasonable to inquire whether or minds might themselves mirror the structure and function of something "less-removed," something more real? Is it possible that rational cognition is nothing but a refined technology?
Monday, May 21, 2007
It seems to me that Reason aims at something else, even as the reasoner does not know his trajectory. Among the first of the eternal questions is, "What am I to do?," and we generally call this branch of inquiry ethics...
These giant questions (Should I kill one random person for ten million dollars? Should I bomb some few civilians to save thousands more? Should I drop "The Bomb" or not?) help us think about ethics at every level; we use them as examples precisely for their starkness. I developed this question once to explore with my students the problems of responsibility:
Imagine you are driving down the road on a big college campus. You are driving at the speed limit, but it is a nice day out, and you are occasionally glancing at the sidewalk to see the attractive people in their attractive outfits. There are vehicles parallel parked at the side of the road, and as you look to your left to check out some nice legs (or whatever), someone runs out in between the cars parked on your right in front of your vehicle. You hit them. They appear dead. When the ambulance comes, do you confess your negligence, or do you figure that the damage is already done and do your best to appear blameless?
I don't even know if it's a good philosophical question or not, but it usually gets my students talking -- what we all intuit, of course, is that this scenario is meant to sound deeper and more disparate depths than we can plumb. It is not a question about "driving ethics," but about ethics in general. In other words, we believe these kinds of scenarios to be transferable.
I believe these kinds of literary approaches to philosophy are necessary because Reason is strained by limits of time and data. We say things like "Do no violence," but we do not take the time to catalogue all of the exceptions. But what if we did? How many exceptions are there? Where is "the line" between justifiable violence and unjustified violence?
Most people would think it unethical to walk up to someone's pet horse and shoot it in the head for no reason. On the other hand, most people would not worry about stepping on an insect on the sidewalk. Then let us explore the middle territory:
Is it acceptable to kill a turtle? How about if you are driving a car? How about if you are driving a car and there is a child on the side of the road and an oncoming car in the other lane -- should you sacrifice yourself to save the turtle? Certainly you shouldn't sacrifice the child to save the turtle. But what if there was not a child at the side of the road, but a goose. Should you hit the goose or the turtle? What if you were overdue for a brake inspection? This line of inquiry tries to account for every bit of data.
It is not acceptable to kill a man. Is it acceptable to kill a horse? Certainly not. A dog? We say no. A rabbit?--just for fun? Of course not for fun. With a car, though? "By accident?" Or should you ride a bicycle instead, to avoid participating in the time honored traditions of road-killing? But if not a rabbit, how about a mouse? Ever set out a spring-loaded mouse trap? If not a mouse, how about a cockroach or a spider? I have known people to pick up bugs and gently place them outside without killing them. How about that ant on the sidewalk? What about the dust mites in our pillows? This line of inquiry considers degree or magnitude as criteria.
Both of the previous two paragraphs demonstrate a tendency that I believe inheres in Reason, a tendency to divide and reconsider -- and this tendency, which increases in extent and intensity with learning and experience, leads in the direction of infinity. There are too many circumstances and too many divisions in magnitude, too much hierarchical order to keep track of.
In my experience, there is a "magic point" where Reason explodes -- it feels itself accelerating to an unsustainable pace, and then...
If I cannot rationally account for each of my actions, practically and ethically, I am forced to admit that my existence is either inherently meaningless or inherently violent (Levinas says as much). And if, following that realization, I accept this circumstance and accept the metaphysical structure of the universe I have declared the Everlasting Yea. It may be that the notion of grace never occurs to the being who has not sounded these depths...
Forthcoming: an essay exploring the resistance to self-accusation.
God wears himself out through the infinite thickness of time and space in order to reach the soul and to capitvate it. If it allows a pure and utter consent (though brief as a lightning flash) to be torn from it, then God conquers that soul. And when it has become entirely his he abandons it. He leaves it completely alone and it has in its turn, but gropingly, to cross the infinite thickness of time and space in search of him whom it loves. It is thus that the soul, starting from the opposite end, makes the same journey that God made towards it. And that is the cross. --Simone Weil.
R- Reasons to smile: Seeing Mom and Dad.
Saturday, May 19, 2007
I consider myself an environmentalist, but I just don't know about global warming. Of course, if it turns out that these people were right, and California really does fall into the Pacific... well then they should all be given medals of honor and as many accolades as we can pile on them.
But I see more and more articles about how this whole thing is really anti-industrialism in disguise (which, you might be surprised to learn, I could get behind if it were an explicit political platform). I actually heard an interview on NPR or something a month ago where some doom-and-gloom prophet was asked, "Yes, but what about the statistics that show weather is actually getting cooler in many places all over the globe?" And her response was, "Well, extreme weather in either direction is the effect of global warming."
So really what we're fighting here is global change? Is that so bad? See also.
Friday, May 18, 2007
The key to it all is: ideas become things. If you can see yourself having it, and you can believe you will have it, then you will have it... and I've been blessed; this method actually works. I talked to my dad about The Secret the other day and he said,
It's much like Norman Vincent Peale, Dennis Waitley, Og Mandino, and Zig Ziglar...In fact, I think you can trace this all the way back to portions of the Gospels (the "Good News" bible). Astonishingly (as we rediscover every 10-15 years), this theory works--hard to do consistently because as O.J. once said, "life is like a shit sandwich and every day you take a new bite!
That last part is mostly a joke, of course. But Dad suggests one little complication... before we imagine piles of money and homes on the beach and beautiful children and quaint communities for ourselves in hopes of manifesting them through "the secret," there seems to be one caveat...
Dad says in his email,
Take a look at Matthew 6:33, "But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you." Go ahead, try to interpret that one!
Okay, fair enough. I mean, it does seem reasonable to seek holier things first and then to seek piles of wealth like The Secret suggests we can have. But my dad's little tease at the end of his advice is what really gets me... "Go ahead, try to interpret that one!"
And he's right, of course. Theoretically, I can sit down all alone at the end of the day and get in good meditation mind, and get myself all prepared to seek the kingdom of God... and still have no idea where to look or what (exactly) to look for. Jesus would only describe it in parables. "The Kingdom of God is like stable footing on the other side of a collapsing bridge."
Saturday, May 12, 2007
The way this works is that the bridge is stable until you (the character) start running across it; then, with each step forward, the plank behind you begins to collapse. It leads to an interesting and unavoidable dynamic:
1. Once the character begins the run, he cannot turn around. See also: Sotapanna.
2. Nothing will happen until the character begins his run; i.e., he may safely stay on this side of the chasm/river.
3. The character may not decide that "this plank is the one that will save me" and stop his running. Every plank collapses after a moment.
4. The character may trust that the bridge will not collapse faster than he can run--an earnest effort at crossing is usually all that counts.
So let's talk ontotheology. As I was walking today it this collapsing bridge image occurred to me as an almost perfect description of my (current) understanding of the spiritual life. But now, true to the metaphor, even this plank seems shaky.
In video games, when you make it across the collapsing bridge, you may stand for a moment and reflect: "Those planks did exist, and they did allow me to bridge an otherwise uncrossable chasm--but they are no longer existing." Memory allows us to access this knowledge: the forms are always changing; or, as the Buddha said, "Everything is on fire."
But the Western mind often makes the mistake of thinking that changed forms signify untruth. I really believe this is a mistake. Indeed, I credit my extensive experience with video games as a child as the source of my willingness to dabble in Eastern philosophy, metaphysics, and spirituality. If you've never noticed that reincarnation is the absolute foundation of most video games, then you may not agree with me on this point: video games have taught Western children much about Eastern spirituality in a way that has not felt violent or unwelcome. Yes, America may have won the ground war in WWII, but the Japanese seem to be in the process of winning "the battle for hearts and minds."
At least from my perspective. Of course, the first time I encountered a collapsing bridge, I'm pretty sure I tried to turn around halfway across, only to find myself hanging in mid-air for a moment like the Coyote-fooled-by-the-roadrunner. In other words: I died. Quick to learn from experience, however, I succeeded (nervously) in my second effort at crossing. From that moment, I knew that every bridge I encountered on Contra might fall from beneath my feet -- memory served as my teacher.
Then I bought a new system and forgot all about Contra. I spent hours learning to move Lara Croft in "three" dimensions on my Playstation, successfully conquered eight or nine levels, and then came to a bridge... and started walking. Once again, halfway across, I panicked and tried to turn back, then realized I couldn't, jumped up into the air and grasped at nothing -- then fell to my death.
But in this experience, a new kind of memory is born -- Toni Morrison might call it rememory. It is the knowledge born of memory that declares not only: I had better keep running any time I see a shaky-looking bridge on Tomb Raider. Unlike memory, rememory declares: any time you see a shaky-looking bridge on a video game, RUN!
This is the knowledge of forms & structure, and I have come to believe that it is not just a valuable way of knowing in video games.
When I was a video-game playing teenager, I never thought consciously about stuff like "ontotheology" (whatever that is); but if forced to give an account, I would've used words like God and maybe Jesus and maybe Tr-th.
Admittedly, that plank has fallen for me (...more than once; sometimes we encounter the same plank multiple times.) -- but in case you've been a bad reader in this post: that does not mean those things were not true when I believed them. The next plank I stepped on had something to do with America and Ayn Rand (collapsed). The next had to do with Plato and Goodness (collapsed). The next had to do with existentialism and Sergei Nechaev (collapsed). The next had something to do with personal psychology, Eastern metaphysics, and video games (that one collapsed this morning).
Thank goodness for unavoidable dynamic #4, huh? Here's a plank long-fallen, its forms totally different, its content ever-unchanging:
...if a man gives with a certain self-considerate generosity to the poor; abstains from doing downright ill to any man; does his convenient best in a general way to do good to his whole race; takes watchful loving care of his wife and children, relatives, and friends; is perfectly tolerant to all other men's opinions, whatever they may be; is an honest dealer, an honest citizen, and all that; and more especially if he believe that there is a God for infidels, as well as for believers, and acts upon that belief; then, though such a man falls infinitely short of the (heavenly) standard, though all his actions are entirely (earthly); -- yet such a man need never lastingly despond, because he is sometimes guilty of some minor offense: -- hasty words, impulsively returning a blow, fits of domestic petulance, selfish enjoyment of a glass of wine while he knows there are those around him who lack a loaf of bread. I say he need never lastingly despond on account of his perpetual liability to these things; because not to do them, and their like, would be to be an angel, (and heavenly); whereas, he is a man and (earthly). (source)
In other words: keep running!--trust in ontotheological-video-game-Rule-#4.
Friday, May 11, 2007
Wednesday, May 9, 2007
So imagine my joy when I read at Russian Marketing Blog that Pelevin's novel is (finally!) being made into a movie, and will be released before the end of this year. Check out the IMDB page.
Gurdjieff indicated that there are many fake schools where the leader of the organization either:
1. Honestly believes that he knows something, when in fact he doesn't
2. He maybe believes another man who is mistaken
3. He is purposely tricking others
Numbers 1 & 2 seem forgivable. And since I'm relying on Gurdjieff to rescue me from skeptical withdrawl, he deserves to be summarized:
Gurdjieff taught that humans are not born with a soul. Rather, a man must create a soul through the course of his life. Otherwise, Gurdjieff taught that a man will "die like a dog." He also taught that the ordinary waking consciousness of human beings was not consciousness at all but merely a form of sleep and that higher levels of consciousness were possible.
See also: Gurdjieff's aphorisms (for the author of The Tr-th Cave, mostly)
First, you have to understand how consciously I've tried over the past two or three years to open my ears and mind to other people's perspectives, opinions and thoughts. It's been a very stimulating and challenging couple of years, and I hope I can continue with this kind of openness indefinitely. I've learned more from the people around me these past two or three years then I did in the previous ten. I'm not saying this to toot my horn -- I'm actually pretty sure that I'm still relatively "closed" compared to many of my friends; but I've made some progress.
Anyway, that was all a prelude. The real story is that I got an envelope in the mail that said, on its back side:
And all of the words in red were underlined. Which is a lot of emphasis. Inside I found a letter addressed to "Someone connected with This Address," and a text-heavy letter (more underlining) setting-up a kind of pyramid-scheme prayer-loop where all I had to do was check one or more of the following:
DEAR JESUS, WE PRAY THAT YOU WILL BLESS SOMEONE IN THIS HOME SPIRITUALLY, PHYSICALLY & FINANCIALLY. AND PLEASE DEAR LORD, BLESS THE ONE WHO'S HANDS OPEN THIS LETTER. MAKE GOOD CHANGES IN THIS ONE'S LIFE AND GIVE THEM THE DESIRES OF THEIR HEART. WE PRAY OVER AND BLESS THIS LETTER IN YOUR HOLY NAME. AMEN.
- I received this Church Prayer Rug you loaned me, and I used it as instructed in this letter of faith. Now, I am returning it to you for another to use.
- Yes, I do need the Lord's blessings upon my family and me! Pray for my family and me for...
- My Soul
- A Closer Walk With Jesus
- My Health
- A Family Member's Health
- Confusion In My Home
- My Children
- To Stop A Bad Habit
- A Better Job
- A Home To Call My Own
- A New Car
- A Money Blessing
- I Want to be Saved.
- Pray for God to bless me with this amount of money: $_______
Needless to say, there was also a box allowing me to donate money. Of course, you're probably wondering -- Casey, they sent you a "rug" in an envelope? How'd that work? Yes, the rug was a folded-up picture of Jesus with his eyes closed. I was supposed to look at the eyes until they appeared to open & then I was to pray with both knees touching the prayer rug (the letter was especially particular on this "both knees" point). Then I had to send it all back to them within 24 hours -- including the prayer rug.
So -- why am I peeved? In short, I'm upset because I just cannot bring myself to believe that this is how God wants to work in the world. But!... remember, I'm really open lately. Open to the point of vulnerability and naivety, probably. So I even read this whole envelope. It's true what they say: we should beware of false prophets. But my whole philosophy for the past 24-months and more has been to make sure I don't overlook any true-prophets.
But this envelope is exactly the kind of stuff that I believe forces us to shut down -- we don't want to be susceptible and gullible; we don't like being "suckers." The consequence? Well, next week, when the real true prophet of 21st century life comes to my town and starts preaching, I'll probably just walk on by, dismissing him as "a huckster-con-man-lunatic" or something. All because some probably-well-intentioned church in Oklahoma couldn't keep their proverbs in their proverbial pants.
I don't want this to be a rip-festival. Evangelicals have their rhyme and reason. It's just that, if someone feels obliged to try to persuade me to use their language in discovering my own beliefs, I'd appreciate it if they could be a little more tactful. Really, a Prayer Mat? Here's a picture of the Prayer Mat. Print it off if you want... make sure both knees are touching it or else Jesus won't be listening.
So how has this been a learning experience? Well... I still tend to type a lot. And talk too much. I want to be more careful. I want to make sure that I don't present you with anything that might be as tasteless as a prayer-mat-in-the-mail. That's what the comments section is for, I suppose -- call me out if you ever feel untactfully evangelized.
Hurry! -- the time is near. Respond in the comments section below within 24 hours!
Tuesday, May 8, 2007
Monday, May 7, 2007
To punish Prometheus for this hubris (and all of mankind in the process), Zeus devised "such evil for them that they shall desire death rather than life, and Prometheus shall see their misery and be powerless to succor them. That shall be his keenest pang among the torments I will heap upon him."
Eating raw animal meat was never fun, and I don't particularly like being cold in the winter -- so it is right that we honor Prometheus; it must be. After all, everything that increases our comfort and decreases hardship must be a good thing. Unless...
Any thoughts? Can anyone make an argument against Prometheus from a humanist perspective? From any other perspective?
Sunday, May 6, 2007
Like Adolph Hitler, Captain Ahab reaches for the “folksoul” of the crew, and manipulates their minds with the sinister skill of Joseph Goebbels. As in Nazi Germany, so on board the Pequod, the excesses of the will play a major role, as is illustrated in the various speeches of Ahab, and her fated course is, in effect, another triumph of the will… Ahab is in reality a prototype of a twentieth-century fascist dictator.
Drurer's claims were not without precedent in Moby-Dick criticism. In fact, Captain Ahab has been the subject of unrelenting critical disapprobation since WWII (and earlier)--so much that it is a commonplace of American literary scholarship to associate Ahab with fascism and Ishmael with democracy; and not to hesitate in taking sides.
I've been meaning to write about this for years, and I mean this post to be "but the draught of a draught" (as Melville says). My central argument is that there exists a certain mind, disposed by temperament or something earlier, that can only thrive in the presence of authority. Indeed, I suspect there is a fairly large segment of population (10%+) that might admit to this temperament if it were not for the feeling of embarrassment that might comes with admitting a hunger for authority. Plus, this phraseology ("hunger for authority") reveals the dulled side of the coin -- on the opposite side we can identify the less embarrassing psychological need: the need to rebel.
I am so convinced that this part of my personality developed early in childhood that I wouldn't even be offended or surprised if someone associated this element of my psychology with a kind of latent brattiness: "No, mom--I will not..." But I know from observation that I'm not alone. It is not unfair to say that anyone can recognize this temperament in others by the tendency to knee-jerk into a "No!" Everybody knows someone who just disagrees no matter what is being said. [Digression: I'm not sure how this feels for others -- I suspect it can be quite annoying. Personally, I'm always attracted to the rebellious mind, even if the rebellion is not (yet) "harnessed" or directed.]
Of course, growing up postmodern has been difficult for the rebel-mind -- for the most part (so it seemed, anyway) authority has been so subverted, subdued, deconstructed, and checked that the postmodern rebel resorted to dressing in black or listening to obscure music or refusing to associate with mainstream religious sects: all equally innocuous forms of pop-rebellion. But, unless I'm in a despairing mood, I like to think that rebellion can be a noble impulse...
Who are your idols? Bring them to me! I have a kiln and a hammer and a deep ocean to throw them in.
Back to Captain Ahab. In the 19th century, fear of "mob rule" was still a major part of any political philosophy. Melville would've understood with James Madison,
To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed. (Federalist #10)
In my experience, few intellectuals have an understanding (anymore) of the dangers of what Madison frequently called "faction." Most of my collegues perceive their task to be solely to preserve the spirit and form of popular government--no concern for the public good or private rights against the danger of faction. Democracy is our keyword; Republic seems to be of little interest. Melville, obviously conversant with the founding documents of America, more than once played out the problem of faction in scenes of mutiny--rebellion at sea (see "Billy Budd" or ch. 54 in Moby-Dick).
So, concerning Ahab: yes, he went too far in the direction of authority. But the opposite of authority is a kind of impotent withdrawal, and does not strike me as any more ideal than authority itself does when taken to the extreme. See the continuum like this:
And, if you're with me, understand that Ishmael's retreat into subjective observation is no more ideal than Ahab's tilt toward fascism (though Ishmael has been, with very few exceptions, a hero of democracy for two generations of critics). What if, instead, the asterisk represented the ideal?
Irresponsible atomism -----------*---------- Fascism
The principle of middle-behavior is difficult to describe in contemporary terminology -- it would have been described as a kind of stoic manliness. A better way to describe it might be to borrow terminology from Albert Camus' tremendous study of rebellion (The Rebel, 1957) in which he differentiates between metaphysical rebellion and rebellion in the world. The rebel who never leaves the ground of metaphysics is represented by the figure of the "Dandy." He rejects all popular commonplaces and refuses all assent, including active anarchism power grabbing; his fingernails are too pretty for that kind of thing. Camus describes this as the first phase of an inevitable progression: "Human rebellion ends in metaphysical revolution. It progresses from appearances to acts, from the dandy to the revolutionary." Part of my question is, where is the tipping point? When will our theoretical rebellions be made flesh? What has to happen? When do ideas of refusal become 1776 or 1793 or 1848 or 1917?
So let me ask: is there a discernable difference between authority and fascism? In my experience, the academy is often quick to collapse the distinction. How do we recognize authority? Is authority always on the slippery slope, and if so, how do we prevent it from transforming into fascism? Could there be there danger in having too little authority?
As I mentioned above, this is really a very rough outline -- if you don't have a sense of my thesis statement, welcome to the club.
Recommended Reading: History and Utopia, by E.M. Cioran
Saturday, May 5, 2007
...once the golem had been physically made one needed to write the letters aleph, mem, tav, which is emet and means "truth," on the golem's forehead and the golem would come alive. Erase the aleph and you are left with mem and tav, which is met, meaning "death." (source)
I'm reading a book right now by a professor of literature at Aquinas College, where I sure wouldn't mind teaching in the future (!). His name is Gary Eberle, and the book I'm reading is called Sacred Time and the Search for Meaning. It's one of these books that walks the line between academic and "general non-fiction." For the record, Eberle's books are published by Shambhala, my latest favorite publisher, and his 2007 release will be titled, Dangerous Words: Talking about God in the age of Fundamentalism. Sounds good.
In Jewish lore, the word (golem) was... applied to a legendary creature rabbis created to demonstrate their own metaphysical prowess and the power connected with the sacred name of God and the letters used in the Torah generally.
In the earliest forms of the legends, the golem were spirits, but by the seventeenth century they had become physical creatures, usually human in form, that performed tasks for their makers. The most famous version of the legend concerns Rabbi Loew of Prague. According to this eighteenth-century legend, retold by Isaac Bashevis Singer and alluded to at length by Cynthia Ozick in her novel The Puttermesser Papers, Rabbi Loew molded a man-shaped creature out of earth and brought it to life by writing the secret name of God on a piece of paper and slipping it into the creature's mouth. (In other versions of the golem legend, the Hebrew word emet, truth, was inscribed on the creature's forehead to bring it to life.)
emet = truth
Friday, May 4, 2007
At the moment that the old literary canon was being dismantled at the hands of well-intentioned reformers in the 1980s (goodbye Philip Freneau and Washington Irving, hello Harriet Jacobs and Elizabeth Stoddard), someone forgot to close the backdoor. In stepped a new bunch of (suprise!) white guys to fill the canon-shaped void. Enter Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Jameson, Lacan, Zizek... as soon as new voices like Harriet Jacobs were brought to the forefront, the "Theory" crowd turned their backs, preferring indefensibly-abstruse semi-contemporary French philosophy.
The pecking order was quickly re-established ("What?!?--you haven't read Discipline and Punish?"). The literary canon had not been removed, but had unwittingly suffered a kind of coup d’état... and now, half a generation later, as always happens with revolutionaries, those who seized power have become fat and comfortable. It's the oldest story in the book, but nobody reads stories anymore, so--
It is always easier to worship a man than it is to understand an idea -- these YouTube videos (linked above) demonstrate the cult of personality phenomenon better than I could've imagined. I'll never forget watching Jacques Derrida claim to be completely unfamiliar with Seinfeld in this very serious interview about the postmodern condition... defenders will suggest this was somehow cute or ironic. And here's the thing: it's not that there is something inherent in the language these men use--in their time, and in the right context, I believe these were the prophets. But out with the old already! In 1880 the prophets were Dostoevsky and Henry James and Flaubert, and by 1930 they were James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, and in the 1950s they were Sartre and Beauvoir and Camus -- and I have no problem admitting that the "Theory" crowd (pick three) may forever have the honor of being the sages of the end of the last millenium.
The problem is, successors never seem to come directly from predecessors, however much Foucault might've wanted it to seem that way. Tr0th manifested itself in Egypt 6,000 years ago and then in India 4,000 years ago and in Greece 2,500 years ago and in Jerusalem and then in Constantinople and then in Kyoto and then in Florence and London and then in Dresden and then in Paris. But this is not a bloodline, people. Yet there are those who would write it down: Derrida the son of Levinas, the son of Heidegger, the son of Husserl, the son of Brentano, the son of whoever, the son of G-d.
Intellectual history is never this neat. Let the dead bury their dead. I'm nominating Oprah Winfrey, Victor Pelevin, Helmut Koester, and the screenwriters of LOST as the current torch-carriers. Update: And this guy... seriously.
Thursday, May 3, 2007
The strongest of the sceptics' arguments, to say nothing of minor points, is that we cannot be sure that these principles are true (faith and revelation apart) except through some natural intuition. There is no certainty, apart from faith, as to whether man was created by a good God, an evil demon, or just by chance, and so it is a matter of doubt, depending on our origin, whether these innate principles are true, false or uncertain.
Pascal goes on defending the skeptics, and then offers one interesting sentence in defense of the dogmatists:
I pause at the dogmatists' only strong point, which is that we cannot doubt natural principles if we speak sincerely and in all good faith.
But Pascal doesn't hesitate just because the argument is apparently insurmountable--and seems to speak in all good faith! In reply to the dogmatists' point, he argues from the skeptics' position: "uncertainty as to our origin entails uncertainty as to our nature. The dogmatists have been trying to answer that ever since the world began." Pascal means that, in the skeptical view, we cannot even be sure whether we are sleeping or waking, or: we can doubt natural principles because we doubt what is natural.
That's awesome, but I find that very few skeptics are willing to tread in those waters for more than a few moments. If you take it for granted, for example, that "this" is real and that you're neither dreaming nor in Purgatory nor playing a part in the latest episode of LOST, then you fall into the dogmatist camp. Which means: the easy association between skepticism and modern atheism is unfortunately exaggerated -- in fact, most atheists would fit neatly into Pascal's dogmatist camp, never doubting the very foundation of epistemology (i.e., what is natural, whether they are waking or sleeping, etc.).
So this is Pascal's vision:
This means open war between men, in which everyone is obliged to take sides, either with the dogmatists or with the sceptics, because anyone who imagines he can stay neutral is a sceptic par excellence. This neutrality is the essence of their clique. Anyone who is not against them is their staunch supporter, and that is where their advantage appears. They are not even for themselves; they are neutral, indifferent, suspending judgment on everything, including themselves.
Unfortunately, I don't think Pascal spoke carefully enough here -- plenty of people imagine that they can stay neutral, but few live into that neutrality. The sentence in bold font there should've read: "anyone who can stay netural is a sceptic par excellence." Evidently, in Pascal's day, there were quite a few genuine epistemological demons running around doubting whether A = A. My, how the times have changed! These days, at least in my circles, the spirit of "neutrality" has vanished from the world -- everyone is a dogmatist, and the true skeptic goes totally unrepresented. The true skeptics seem to be so small a segment of the population that "open war" has disappeared or gone deep underground (i.e., to the fringes of the internet). I love how Pascal moves through the end of this point, though you'd have to read the whole chapter to get a flavor for his style. One more little excerpt, that you're free to skip if you think you're a skeptic:
Who will unravel such a tangle? This is certainly beyond dogmatism and scepticism, beyond all human philosophy. Man transcends man. Let us then concede to the sceptics what they have so often proclaimed, that truth lies beyond our scope and is an unattainable quarry, that it is no earthly denizen, but at home in heaven, lying in the lap of God, to be known only in so far as it pleases him to reveal it. Let us learn our true nature from the uncreated and incarnate truth... Nature confounds the sceptics and Platonists, and reason confounds the dogmatists. What then will become of you, man, seeking to discover your true condition through natural reason?
So we are all confounded either by Nature or reason -- and frankly, I would rather be confounded by Nature, like the skeptics.
Wednesday, May 2, 2007
A. One. We know because of those signs in the endzones at football games: "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son."
B. At least one. Consider:
Again the LORD said to Moses, "Now that you are going back to Egypt, be sure to perform before the king all the miracles which I have given you the power to do. But I will make the king stubborn, and he will not let the people go. Then you must tell him that I, the LORD, say, 'Israel is my first-born son. I told you to let my son go, so that he might worship me, but you refused. Now I am going to kill your firstborn son." (Exodus 4:21-23)
In scenario B, "Israel" is actually God's first son, and Jesus is... problematic. My suspicion here is that Christians will tend to suggest that Israel-as-son is just a metaphor. Jesus-as-son was the real thing. Similarly, Jews will tend to count the Israel-as-son metaphor as a kind of holy metaphor that even Jesus didn't manage to "repeat."
C. Many. In John 10: 34 Jesus answers accusations of blasphemy by quoting scripture:
Jesus answered, "It is written in your own Law that God said, 'You are gods.' We know that what the scripture says is true forever; and God called those people gods, the people to whom his message was given. As for me, the Father chose me and sent me into the world. How, then, can you say that I blaspheme because I said that I am the Son of God?
This one's tricky -- Jesus is quoting Psalms 82:5-6, and he gets away with it. That text reads:
How ignorant you are! How stupid! You are completely corrupt, and justice has disappeared from the world. 'You are gods,' I said; 'all of you are children of the Most High.'
D. None. You have to exist to have children, and God doesn't.
I think the answer is either A, B, or D. I'm leaning toward B. What about the possibility that both "Israel" and "Jesus" were metaphors for something else... something like "the magnetic chain of humanity" or the Holy Spirit? Maybe they weren't the only holy metaphors.
Anyone ever see the movie Fallen, with Denzel Washington, where evil leaps from one body to another -- never changing its essence, but only changing its physical form?
No, here's a better example: Anyone ever play Tag as a child? Ever get tagged as "it?" What if Tag is a metaphor for the manifestation of this "Holy Spirit" in the world? Always the same thing, but manifested differently and received differently... although: I wonder how differently it really is received. I remember being tagged "It." It felt kind of lonely. Everyone ran away from me and didn't want to become "It." I was like a madman while I was "It." Did it feel like that for you?
Now the mind-blower: "Yes, Casey, maybe Tag is a metaphor for the indescribable Holy-Magnetic-Chain-Thing in the world... I see what you're saying. Like, Abraham was tagged as 'it' and so was Buddha and Moses and Jesus and Mohammed and maybe even Chuang-Tzu and Socrates and maybe Joan of Arc and maybe Shakespeare or Martin Luther or MLK, Jr. Fine. Very clever. But what are we going to DO about it? How will we know who is 'it?' Who can be a trustworthy reporter in this situation? Who can we be sure knows what it feels like to be 'it?' "
Well... you played the game. Why don't you tell me.
Tomorrow: "On the Problem of Authority."
But of course, this is not how it happens. Instead, you wake up one day in February and there is a loud bird making unseasonly sounds. You are not ready to wake up, but it occurs to you—this is your first conscious thought that morning:—you could simply imagine the bird away if what you claim to believe is true. Almost incredibly, a second thought springs into your head, something about Jesus and his mustard-seed parable. That morning you shave, you look yourself in the mirror for the first time in a week, you skip breakfast, the snow crunches as you clear the light, white dust away from your car windows. In your car, you realize that you actually understood what the bird’s call meant, why the bird was making that sound. In your car, you understand that you have forgotten what the bird meant, that you have already forgotten.
But neither is that how it happens. Instead, after you have asked a certain number of questions in the world, a single crow cocks loudly outside your window to announce that you will hereafter be satisfied with making yourself understood. And that morning you shave your face for the first time in a week. There is no stately wooden table and the snow is no longer fresh. You know, humbly, that you used to understand the cries of birds.
This argument (and by argument, I mean divine dialogue) all started when I read Monica's earlier post about Eric Sundquist's comments concerning Christianity. Sundquist is a big-time literary critic who has tended to write about race, history and culture (see To Wake the Nations). Here's how Monica explains Sundquist's recent comments:
Sundquist believes that the very act of translation has helped to transform the Holocaust from a specific Jewish tragedy into a more "Christianized," and therefore universal, experience. This, I'm not sure I like the sound of -- I'm creeped out by the idea that a "Christianized" experience is a more universal experience.
I love that Monica is "creeped out." Few people care enough to be creeped out by anything anymore. I think I understand where she's coming from -- Christianity does have a history of cultural and even political empire building. I was trying to problematize the creepiness by suggesting that, at least initially, the universalism of Christianity seemed to be a big part of what made it successful, was a major part of its "advertising campaign." Whereas the narrative of Judaism excluded Gentiles, Christianity saw the Gentiles as fertile soil -- salvation was not just for Jews anymore. After Peter's preaching in Joppa, the crowd hears his message:
So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.
This phrase, even the Gentiles, is and has always been central to my understanding of Christianity. In Judaism, God's covenant is with the Jewish people. In Christianity, it seems, God's covenant is offered to everybody. The question in the ideological battle between Judaism and Christianity seems to be deserving of its own blockquote:
What is more "creepy": exclusion-by-birthright (which may be understood as the foundation of slavery) or universalizing impulses (which may be understood as the foundation of the Holocaust)?
An obviously unanswerable question. As I understand it (which is almost not at all), Judaism, before its reform phase, was unavailable to anyone whose mother was not Jewish: exclusion-by-birthright. On the other hand, Christianity was available to everyone, but it always does seem "creepy" when those zealots come knocking on your door: "Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?"
All of this is further complicated by the fact that, according to wikipedia anyway, most Jews believe that Abraham was the first Hebrew. And what made him so? His mother was not Jewish. The answer seems to be: he was the first person since Noah to publically reject idolatry and preach monotheism. So, at its very foundation, Judaism is born out of an idea, not a lineage... (Was Judaism reformed before it became orthodox, only to be reformed again? When did the mother-as-prerequisite clause enter the scene?)
Anyway, I tried to resolve this at Monica's page by opening some space between the ideals (of Moses or of Jesus) and the way they were practiced. I'm not sure that solved anything, and I'm sure nobody will be convinced because no one has an attention span big enough for this kind of thing anymore except for people like me and Monica who suffer from ASD (Attention Surplus Disorder).
So, because I have nothing but questions, let me close with Buddha's words:
Profound truth, so difficult to perceive, difficult to understand, tranquilizing and sublime, is not to be gained by mere reasoning and is perceived only by the wise.
Tuesday, May 1, 2007
In fact, looking at this, the rest of the chapter seems almost totally superfluous -- spend about a minute studying this word-image, and you're all set! Hmm... maybe this is the future of academic study. Anyone ever read The Glass Bead Game?
Hawthorne Series -- Essay #1:
"On Ethan Brand"
A temperamentally pensive man, Ethan Brand became a laborer at the end of his youth. His job involved feeding huge logs into the village lime-kiln half-way up Graylock mountain, always keeping the fire ablaze, gradually turning turning marble into lime. Hawthorne's description of the occupation tells more about Ethan Brand, I think, than it does about the job itself:
It is a lonesome, and, when the character is inclined to thought, may be an intensely thoughtful occupation; as it proved in the case of Ethan Brand, who had mused to such strange purose, in days gone by, while the fire in this very kiln was burning.
The story begins with Ethan Brand returning from an 18-year absence to his hometown. He looks a little rough around the edges, and his laugh makes at least one of the children in the town uncomfortable. He has become a legend: Ethan Brand, the man who went looking for the Unpardonable Sin. Narrating from the omniscient position, Hawthorne remarks, "Many years, as we have seen, had now elapsed, since that portentous night when the IDEA was first developed."
His 18-year quest led him, finally, to discover that he had produced the Unpardonable Sin in his own heart. As much as the "IDEA" itself, Ethan Brand's methodology seems to be the problem: "...seeking thoughout the world for what was the closest of all things to himself, and looking into every heart, save his own." And he is not unaware of the terrible irony; when asked, "What is the Unpardonable Sin," Ethan Brand replies:
It is a sin that grew within my own breast... A sin that grew nowhere else! The sin of an intellect that triumphed over the sense of brotherhood with man, and reverence for God, and sacrificed everything to its own mighty claims! The only sin that deserves a recompense of immortal agony! Freely, were it to do again, would I incur the guilt. Unshrinkingly, I accept the retribution!
Superficially, Hawthorne's point is clear: do not become an observer of humankind; be also a participant! But whether or not Hawthorne-as-narrator accepts Ethan Brand's assessment of the situation is somewhat less clear. At one point in the story, Hawthorne seems to offer a counterbalancing image, one with the potential to undo Brand's reading of his own situation. The men from the town pub (lowercase sinners all) come up the mountain upon hearing of Ethan Brand's return. A dog straggles into the scene:
But, now, all of a sudden, this grave and venerable quadruped, of his own mere notion, and without the slightest suggestion from anybody else, began to run round after his tail, which, to heighten the absurdity of the proceeding, was a great deal shorter than it should have been. Never was seen such headlong eagerness in pursuit of an object that could not possibly be attained... Faster and faster, roundabout went the cur; and faster and still faster fled the unapproachable brevity of his tail... until, utterly exhausted, and as far from the goal as ever, the foolish old dog ceased his performance as suddenly as he had begun it. The next moment, he was as mild, quiet, sensible, and respectable in his deportment, as when he first scraped the acquaintence with the company.
The men and children all laugh at the tail-wagging-the-dog. "Meanwhile," writes Hawthorne of his title character, "moved, it might be, by a perception of some remote analogy between his own case and that of this self-pursuing cur, [Ethan Brand] broke into the awful laugh, which, more than any other token, expressed the condition of his inward being." And instantaneously a gloom settles over the merry band; within minutes they disperse, leaving Ethan Brand alone.
If you haven't read him since 10th grade, you might be surprised: Hawthorne can be surprisingly modern psychologically (if not always stylistically). Consider this descriptive passage involving Ethan Brand's sorrowful and lonesome meditation after he has repelled the company of men for the last time:
He remembered with what tenderness, with what love and sympathy for mankind, and what pity for human guilt and wo, he had first begun to contemplate those ideas which afterwards became the inspiration of his life; with what reverence he had then looked into the heart of man, viewing it as a temple originally divine, and however desecrated, still to be held sacred by a brother; with what awful fear he had depecated the success of his pursuit, and prayed that the Unpardonable Sin might never be revealed to him. Then ensued that vast intellectual development, which, in its progress, disturbed the counterpoise between his mind and heart... He had lost his hold of the magnetic chain of humanity.
Keep in mind, America was probably a little more Bible-saavy back in the mid-19th century, so Hawthorne could get away with making allusions that we might not immediately recognize; I think he's doing that in "Ethan Brand." Consider what Jesus said about all this:
I assure you that people can be forgiven all their sins and all the evil things they may say. But whoever says evil things against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven, because he has committed an eternal sin.Or:
Anyone who says something against the Son of Man can be forgiven; but whoever says something against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven -- now or ever.
So does Hawthorne's vision sync-up with Jesus'? It's an interesting question, I think. It seems to depend on how we define the Holy Spirit... what if we define it by calling it "the magnetic chain of humanity?" Ta-da! I know a lot of imperfect people. What I don't know, thankfully, is very many people who have ever totally turned their back on humanity. Further, I'm not convinced that Hawthorne thinks even that "sin" is unforgivable: recall the absurd dog chasing his tail--as soon as he stops, he regains sensibility.
The way I read "Ethan Brand," the Unpardonable Sin cannot be found in saying evil things against the magnetic chain of humanity, but only in acting against it. In the end, Ethan Brand climbs to the top of his lime-kiln and explicitly embraces fire as his proper element, breaking his bonds with "Mother Earth," "mankind," and the stars of Heaven, before jumping in. In the morning, little remains but a skeleton in repose and a stony, marble heart on top of a cooling fire pit.
I'm a lover of the intellect, and I know that the mind is the gateway to a very significant part of being human; but I make company in academics with people who are naturally inclined in that direction, and I sometimes want to raise a glass to heart, to the Holy Spirit or the magnetic chain of humanity, or call it what you may--but please: call it!