Wednesday, June 27, 2007
RED: I find I am so excited I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it is the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain... I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.
And here's a map, followed by a picture of where we're staying. I'll let you just imagine the view:
Brian's driver/fiancee: "Oh, yeah--sorry."
Angry man: "Well, are you above the law?"
Brian's driver: "It's just a parking garage."
Angry man: "Oh, so--rules don't apply there?"
Brian: "You wanna fight, man?--let's go."
Angry man: (walks away scoffing)
Brian: "See you later, Captain Democracy."
Sunday, June 24, 2007
It is the perpetual effort of conscience to divorce the soul from the dominion of sense; to nullify the dualities of the apparent, and restore the intuition of the real. The soul makes a double statement of all her facts; to conscience and sense; reason mediates between the two. Yet though double to sense, she remains single and one in herself; one in conscience, many in understanding; one in life, diverse in function and number. Sense, in its infirmity, breaks this unity to apprehend in part what it cannot grasp at once. Understanding notes diversity; conscience alone divines unity, and integrates all experience in identity of spirit. Number is predicable of body alone; not of spirit.
I've been trying to figure out a way to articulate something like this as I sense, more with each semester, that the word diversity seems less an less interesting to my students, who have heard it sounded through their classrooms since they were 8- or 10-years old. It's not that they are anti-diversity (although many of my peers like to fault them for not having spent a good part of their life in New York City or backpacking through Europe, etc.) -- rather, they are no longer moved by the claims of diversity, which seem to have lost their freshness. In my students' words: "Yeah, diversity--what else is new?"
Alcott is right to suggest that it is the understanding that "notes" and discovers diversity. But given two diverse objects--or better still, two diverse beings--it is only the conscience that sees an underlying unity through surface differences. I am convinced that if my students need any intellectual medicine, it must be some idea that helps them see through difference to discover underlying sameness. Anyone who has ever heard an 18-year old say "Well, everyone has a right to their opinion," or, "He'll do his thing, I'll do mine," might understand where I'm coming from. The "point" of the diversity movement of the '80s and '90s seems to have been lost. It is not enough to be atomistic and mutually uncoercive beings.
Here's to "nullifying the dualities of the apparent." We all know the problems of turning in the direction of unity; it is not without its problems. But the problems involved in shifting our focus may be equal to or even less than the problems associated with figuring ourselves as diverse agents -- it may be true that I am [some quality], and you are [some other quality], but we may very well have more in common than we have been educated to think.
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
Tonight on NBC's Last Comic Standing one of the Australian comedians made a joke about flying on an airline from the United Arab Emerites to Australia -- the joke had something to do with being startled awake in the middle of the night by an Arabic voice over the PA system warning of turbulence. He didn't understand it, and was scared... his punchline was something like, "In case anyone has forgotten, those of us in the West can be a little iffy about hearing Arabic hollered over the speaker system on an airplane."
Look also at Africa -- right below Europe, but not part of the West. And Russia, well... far be it from me to say anything authoritative about Russia (if anything, Russia transcends the East/West paradigm: Russia is an idea more than it is a physical location). Not to mention the less-well-defined "Middle East" (notably not described as "Middle West" -- after all, "we" don't want them on our team).
So here's how this is annoying: there absolutely is a need for the East/West distinction in philosophical traditions. But the East/West pairing, which connotes a sense of totality (where else could there be if not East or West?), leaves out at least one continent and the biggest country by area in the world, and disqualifies places like Turkey for trying to straddle the line.
Anyone else ever annoyed by this? I think the East/West vision has been very useful in philosophical and theological history, but it seems to have reached the end of its line... Suggestions for revision?
Monday, June 18, 2007
One single name is not uttered in the world, the name which the Father gave to the Son; it is the name above all things: the name of the Father. For the Son would not become Father unless he wore the name of the Father. Those who have this name know it, but they do not speak it. But those who do not have it do not know it.
All I can say is that this is true. Any guesses as to what this mysterious name might be? -- of course, there's no chance anyone will get the right answer, because those who know it do not say it. Still, for my amusement. Anyone want to admit to knowing it? Brian, did you figure this out yet? I'll offer only this commentary: there is a profound reason why the one who knows this unutterable name does not speak it -- it is not an ethical reason, nor is it a kind of "secret knowledge." It is not so much that the name is unspeakable as unhearable.
Not incidentally, the preceding paragraph (in Philip), which I've quoted before, offers some substantial clues:
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 (Ekklesia)" 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 Aeon (eternal realm), 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 Aeon.
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
O men of Athens, I must beg you not to interrupt me, even if I seem to say something extravagant. For the word which I will speak is not mine. I will refer you to a witness who is worthy of credit; that witness shall be the God of Delphi -- he will tell you about my wisdom, if I have any, and of what sort it is. You must have known Chaerephon; he was early a friend of mine, and also a friend of yours, for he shared in the recent exile of the people, and returned with you. Well, Chaerephon, as you know, was very impetuous in all his doings, and he went to Delphi and boldly asked the oracle to tell him whether -- as I was saying, I must beg you not to interrupt -- he asked the oracle to tell him whether anyone was wiser than I was, and the Pythian prophetess answered, that there was no man wiser. Chaerephon is dead himself; but his brother, who is in court, will confirm the truth of what I am saying.
Socrates says that "the God of Delphi" will witness in his defense. Later Socrates responds to Meletus' accusation that he is an atheist by saying,
...no one who has a particle of understanding will ever be convinced by you that the same men can believe in divine and superhuman things, and yet not believe that there are gods and demigods and heroes.
This is sort of the punchline to Socrates' argument that no one would be so foolish as to believe in horsemanship, but not horses, or flute-playing, but not flute-players. Because he belives in divine and superhuman things, he argues, he must believe in "gods, demigods and heroes." And heroes? Something fishy is going on here with words.
Socrates comes to us through the centuries as an eccentric, but not a madman -- in fact, most people think of him as a light in darkness. If nothing else, Socrates took great care in dealing with definitions and language. Because he was in court, and because his entire life and work were on the line, he tried to use language that would be as intelligible in the court as it had been in the market, or in the streets. And keep in mind, he was trying to prove that he did believe in superhuman things--he was on trial for disbelieving, or for having different gods than the state.
But how are heroes superhuman? And how can the Oracle at Delphi be called "God?" The powerful "men of Athens" before whom Socrates is made to defend himself were loosely polytheistic--we know that from the history books. But could that signify something to us that it did not signify to them? What if I suggest that we have our own gods?: Franklin, Jefferson, Emerson, Edison, Oprah.
Socrates' great heresy, his major intellectual contribution, was to collapse these gods, to recognize in them a single light--to discover the One. Refusing to pay homage to the conventional, state-sanctioned "gods," Socrates bravely declares,
Some one may wonder why I go about in private giving advice and busying myself with the concerns of others, but do not venture to come forward in public and advise the state. I will tell you why. You have heard me speak at sundry times and in divers places of an oracle or sign which comes to me, and is the divinity which Meletus ridicules in the indictment. This sign, which is a kind of voice, first began to come to me when I was a child; it always forbids but never commands me to do anything which I am going to do. This is what deters me from being a politician.
This voice within is Socrates' One and only God. It is not external, but internal. As Emerson said 2,000 years later, "Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,—— and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment." I'll only add: I think we need to begin thinking about a new terminology, something that captures this insight, but represents it in a new package. What was once the virtue of Odysseus exists in all of us. What was once called God we all know as love. What we have known as love has passed as beauty. In his turn, Emerson almost managed to get away with calling it "self."
When, in (about?) the 1960s, someone in San Fransisco described his hallucination-experience as "awesome," he meant precisely that: the vision inspired awe, was grand, transcendent. Others may have picked up the language. By 1970, a young woman in Indiana returned from a rare trip to the ocean to describe what she saw to her friends: "awesome." Soon (1995), however, teenagers were using the word to describe a keg-stand they did on Friday night. In less than four decades, the word went from meaningful to meaningless. And so what words Whitman chose, "I celebrate myself," we rightfully mistrust. Too much interest in the Self is a vice in our culture, not a path to transcendence. Randall Jarrell, through Brian, taught me this: "The darkness from the darkness. / Pain comes from the darkness / And we call it wisdom. / It is pain."
Ask: why is there so much more scholarly interest in beauty than there is in ugliness? What makes us prefer love to hatred? What is the thing--what shall we call it? With Plotinus, I might start calling it the "intellectual-principle" for a while, just to freshen things up. Or, I might call it "Randall Jarrell" or "Brian."
Darkness comes from wisdom and we call it pain. It is darkness.
Monday, June 11, 2007
In case you doubt the translation, here are a dozen others:
- Pray without ceasing
- Pray continually
- Pray all the time
- Be unceasing in prayer
- Never stop praying
- Continually pray ye
- Pray unceasingly
- Pray constantly
- Without ceasing pray ye
- Nunca dejéis de orar
- Priez sans cesse
- Betet unablässig!
In the past, you were always trying to explain something to me, and you were almost invariably wise and articulate, but I was deaf.
Now, in my memories of the past, you are always patiently explaining something to me and I am hearing you, but you are struggling with words--there is wisdom on your brow, but I cannot quite understand your meaning.
In my imagination, we sit down in the future with a glass of red wine in early autumn, after the sunset, near water or a fire (or both), and I am perfectly prepared to listen--but something happens when I think of the future. In front of that campfire, with the past behind us, we will have forgotten why we have met in mid October; you will have nothing to say. And it is a good thing, because I fear I will be distracted by the irregular crackle of dry wood.
Saturday, June 9, 2007
But consider this chart.
If babies learn very specific skills and behaviors during narrow periods of time, then it seems quite reasonable to suppose that the time of year during which they were learning those skills and behaviors might be relevant on long term development. If, for example, I learn something like object permanence during the months of summer, I may learn it by play hide-and-seek behind a large oak tree. Alternatively, if I learn object permanence during the winter months, I may learn it by watching a toy drop out of vision down a stairwell and discovering that it remains even when I can't see it. These are two very different settings for learning.
If my parents take me outside when I am 3 months old because the weather is nice, I may observe natural shapes--pin oak leaves, blades of grass, branches of trees. On the other hand, indoor learning may aquaint me with regular shapes--television sets, kitchen tables, tile flooring, etc. I'm an Aquarius, which means I was born between January 2nd and February 19th. My parents took me outside very much to play when I was 3-6 months old. Someone born in October might not be outdoors as much between 3-6 months of age.
Doesn't this make sense? Should we try blending together melted metals to make gold...?
1. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in "Self-Reliance":
Your goodness must have some edge to it--else it is none. The doctrine of hatred must be preached, as the counteraction of the doctrine of love, when that pules and whines.
2. Jesus, in The Gospel of Thomas (#55):
Whoever does not hate his father and his mother cannot become a disciple to me. And whoever does not hate his brothers and sisters and take up his cross in my way will not be worthy of me. (See Also)
3. Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to William S. Smith:
If you understand Jefferson, you may be able to understand Emerson. What would it mean for the "doctrine of love" to pule and whine? How would the doctrine of hatred be a solution? The "dark" American romance writers--Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Dickinson--were deeply unsatisfied with the sentimental novels permeating the publishing industry in the 1820s-1840s. If you've never had the time to read any of these novels, trust me: they're mushy. They typically espouse a banal doctrine of "love" and graciousness, often warning young ladies against marrying a "rake." The love expressed in those books seems, for most people today, to fall flat, to be inauthentic, insincere. It took a refreshed understanding (via refreshed language) to restore the genuineness to the old and ever-true "doctrine of love." Similarly in Russia during the 1860s, when the "Sons" refused to accept the values and definitions of the "Fathers."
God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented, in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions, it is lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. ...And what country can preserve its liberties, if it's rulers are not warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to the facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.
On the other hand, I wonder if an "opposite" dynamic may be true as well. E.M. Cioran confessed,
When I catch myself nursing an impulse to Revolt, I take a sleeping pill or consult a psychiatrist. Any means will due if you pursue Indifference without being predisposed to it.
Any genius will see how love and hatred may be the same coin--different words for the same giant thing; but only a prophet may discover how passion and indifference are kindred as well.
Friday, June 8, 2007
Thursday, June 7, 2007
Guess they chopped down my imaginary Bob-Ross-ish pine tree.
Here's a photograph that I found (after completing my painting!) for comparision:
Following up on my exceedingly good post, Zero, One, Many, I want to suggest a revision of the national motto, which has always been E pluribus unum, "Out of many, one."
I think it's about time we inverted that motto to reflect the changes in our national values. Our new motto would be E unum pluribus, or, "Out of one, many." Unless I'm mistaken, it does seem that diversification rather than unification has become our goal, and I have always believed that clear articulation of goals is important to productivity. You wouldn't wear a "Vote Republican" button and then work hard to elect a Democrat, so why should we carry around this burdensome, outdated phrase that no longer reflects our national goal?
Of course, just as our quest for union brought us into civil war and eventually to discover the ennui of unum, I'm sure our quest for diversity will bring us to civil war and allow us to discover the ennui of pluribus, but what else is there to do?
Some day, a nation will rise whose only motto is E pluribus unum; E unum pluribus, etc., etc., and that will be one fine place to live most of the time.
**Update: Looks like I'm not the first to think of this, which makes me a slow learner, but confirms that it is a reasonable idea. Language Log even suggests that my reconfiguration is ungrammatical, but my common-sense inversion seems perfectly practical to me. Here is the preferred officially grammatical translation. Any thoughts,
Wednesday, June 6, 2007
Monday, June 4, 2007
But sometime during the 1990s, the cultural tide started to change. Someone remembered the "Many," which corresponds to diversity. More accurately, the Many achieved a threshold status that allowed it to spring to life in mainstream Western culture. Things must've looked grim before those days, when all anyone thought about was whether or not existence had any "higher" purpose. Logical positivists. Camus taking suicide to be the only significant question for philosophy. Wallace Stevens' poems. Kafka. Cold War. Then Diversity was offered as a panacea--the Many had arrived on the stage for the first time in centuries. One could fortell the future by listening to the complaints of conservatives: "Well, but--that's moral relativism!" The accusation of "relativism" was meant to communicate a metaphysical objection to the Many, but had not been needed or employed in so long that it fell flat. Things were not meaningless (Zero), and everyone was not the same (One). Diversity triumphed. Schoolchildren swallowed it like yummy cough medicine. The Many was rising.
And please don't misunderstand. This essay isn't against Many or against diversity, but should be read as a kind of hesitation -- time to take our collective temperature again. We recall the down sides to both the Zero (much lamented by existential Christians like Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard, as well as by orthodox Christians trained in argument) and the One (which manifested itself as political fascism more than once during the last century). But is there any down side to the Many? Take a look at my chart, devised to help me get through a dissertation chapter on Herman Melville:
We know the old dichotomy of Damnation and Salvation, which constituted the whole field of interest of the Western world from about 400 A.D./C.E. until at least a thousand years later. By the time of the founding of America, the Many had begun to show itself again, manifesting itself in the form of political "faction," which frightened the founders into arguing for a strong central government (i.e., a "One") in The Federalist Papers. In political terms, it is easy to see: on one side, a fear of anarchy (Zero) -- on the other, warring factions (Many). Union was the answer for those who wrote America into existence.
But as usual, I'm not so interested in discussing political points -- the negative points are easy to discover on every side of the argument. Note one thing, though: in political terms, it is easy to see the difficulties with either extreme (Zero & Many). In psychological/spiritual terms, however, it is not so simple, because we tend to have an impulse to see in dual terms, even though there are three possibilities (Zero, One, Many). Almost everyone perceives the universe as an opposition between two forces, forgetting a third way.
For some, that forgetfulness means a rose-colored glasses look at nihilistic meaninglessness, the Zero; for others, it means a rose-colored glasses look at schizophrenic detachment, or the Many (also called Buddhist Enlightenment).
I have Christian friends who are worried about the Zero (about what they perceive to be the meaninglessness of the world without God) without thinking about the Many. I also have atheist friends who are worried about the One (what they often call "fascism" or "tyranny") without facing the Zero. On the third hand, I know very few people who are equally fearful of of schizophrenia, or factional barbarism. This suggests to me that we are in a phase where we have recently rediscovered the Many, but have not yet collectively faced the problems associated with it. Thesis: And that is only because the Many has not yet entered the Western world, has not yet been made flesh.
The problems with the Zero have been nihilism and meaninglessness, or spiritual damnation. The One was offered as the antidote against the Zero. But somewhere along the way, certain thinkers, poets, scholars, etc. started to notice that the One was not a perfect solution either (see Captain Ahab, whose white whale is the perfect problematic One). Since that rediscovery, other thinkers have suggested a solution: the Many! That will fix it. They see the problems of the One (tyranny and closed perception) and offer to fix it with the Many. Democratic political structures and "open-mindedness" have been the aims of the pushers of the Many. Have we reached the end of history? Or are there problems with the Many?
Trusting nothing is the Zero. It has its problems. Trusting only a single Holy Text or one's self is the One--it also has its problems. Listening to everyone is the Many. Have you ever really listened to everyone? Have you tried to open your mind to the Many? I'm interested. My own experience has been that the Many is no more or less a solution (or a problem) than either the Zero or the One. In fact, I want to suggest that the line that looks like this:
...is not really a line at all. Instead, this is a kind of loop of history, and that it is through the Many that the Zero manifests itself in the world. When all is considered, when everything is granted coequal authority, the Zero is made flesh. It is our nature to rage against the One, and so we shall.
How unimportant it is that you accept my argument!--I am only concerned that you have understood my terms.