Sunday, July 27, 2008

Advice: Read Richard Tarnas (Pt. 2)

Yesterday's post on Richard Tarnas was for those of you who need to read him. This second is for those of you who don't, because you already get it:

Today I was reading Cosmos and Psyche on the porch, reading Tarnas' chapter on what Carl Jung called "synchronicity." Jung's word concerns those coincidences that seem a little too improbable to be entirely devoid of meaning. I was reading on the porch with my wife, sort of vaguely trying to open myself to synchronicity to see if I could "get it to happen."

Digression: since I met her, Gretchen's been telling me to read Eckhart Tolle -- "I know you'll like him," she always says. His first book was called The Power of Now, and his more recent international sensation (thanks to Oprah's Book Club) is titled A New Earth. I've put off reading Tolle because I've sort of figured I knew what was inside: a kind of new-agey metaphysic based on something-like-prayer-and-gratitude. Ho-hum. I'm too smart for that nonsense.

While I was reading Tarnas this morning I said to Gretchen, "You know, this guy is sort of suggesting a new way of thinking that is neither exclusively modern nor 'primal' in its nature -- it's almost like he's describing a third way that is a mystical combination of both."

"Like Eckhart," she said, with a glare.

I fell to reading silently, and these are the first two paragraphs I read (!!!) in Cosmos and Psyche after the exchange about Eckhart Tolle:

On rare occasions a synchronicity proves to have an extraordinary power through its impact on an historically significant individual, so that it ultimately plays a pivotal role in the collective life of the larger culture. The famous coincidence that formed a turning point in the life of Petrarch took place at the climax of his ascent of Mont Ventoux in April 1336, an event that has long been regarded by scholars as representing the symbolic beginning of the Renaissance. For many years Petrarch had sensed a growing impulse to ascend the mountain, to see the vast panorama from its peak, though doing such a thing was virtually unheard of in his time. Finally choosing the day, with his brother for a companion, he made the long ascent, marked by intense physical exertion and inward reflection. When he at last attained the summit, with clouds below his feet and winds in his face, Petrarch found himself overwhelmed by the great sweep of the world that now opened out to him--snowcapped mountains and the sea in the distance, rivers and valleys below, the wide expanse of skies in every direction. James Hillman recounts the event:

At the top of the mountain, with the exhilarating view of French Provence, the Alps, and the Mediterranean spread before him, he had opened his tiny pocket copy of Augustine's Confessions. Turning at random to book X, 8, he read: "And men go abroad to admire the heights of mountains, the mighty billows of the sea, the broad tide of rivers, the compass of the ocean, and the circuits of the stars, and pass themselves by..."

Petrarch was stunned at the coincidence between Augustine's words and the time and place they were read. His emotion both announced the revelation of his personal vocation and heralded the new attitude of the Renaissance... Petrarch draws this crucial conclusion from the Mont Ventoux event: "Nothing is admirable but the soul" (nihil praeter animum esse mirabile).

Petrarch was so moved by the coincidental force of Augustine's words that he remained silent for the entire descent down the mountain. He at once recognized the coincidence as part of a larger pattern of such transformative moments that had happened to others in the history of spiritual conversions. "I could not believe that it was by a mere accident that I happened upon them. What I had there read I believed to be addressed to me and to no other, remembering that Saint Augustine had once suspected the same thing in his own case." For indeed Augustine had undergone a nearly identical experience at his own momentous spiritual turning point. In the garden of Milan in 386, in a frenzy of spiritual crisis, he heard a child's voice from a nearby house mysteriously repeating the words, "Tolle, lege" ("Pick up and read").

"Tolle, lege!?!" Okay, okay -- so I went inside and picked up Gretchen's copy of A New Earth, opened to a random page, and went down 14 lines (in honor of Petrarch). Come to think of it, I think I'll keep what I read there private, but just admit that, well... it was awesome.

If you think this post is "too much" (Michael, Santos, Mxrk), consult Pt. 1 of the Tarnas posts. It's much more likely.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Advice: Read Richard Tarnas (Pt. 1)

I'm reading a 2006 book by Richard Tarnas callled Psyche and Cosmos. I confess, he had me from his opening sentence: "Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect, Santayana declared." For me, this one of those darts through the heart that stings a little because I recognized it as something I had been trying to say, without the same clarity.

Tarnas' first book was published in 1991, and was called The Passion of the Western Mind. I haven't read it, but it supposedly traced the whole history of Western thought from the presocratics through postmodernism. Quoting Santayana, and in the tradition of Carl Jung and Joseph Cambell, Tarnas finds himself within that immaculately ignored tradition of powerful thinking that resists and has been resisted by academia.

Think about that again for a moment: Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect. In Tarnas' opening chapters, he suggests that we are living in a kind of intellectual sea-change of the same magnitude as that represented by the Copernican revolution. He tells the story of those early astronomical reformers, and reminds us that Copernicus and his immediate followers were not hailed as the geniuses that history revealed them to be. Instead, they "wrote letters to each other across centuries," and they argued with the twin authorities of the church (which might be expected) and the general scientific community, who regarded a heliocentric theory as betraying the most fundamental of our sensory observations.

Tarnas challenges us to imagine the same kind of new thought emerging today. It would have to be described by politicians, by scientists, by academics, and by theologians -- by all of them, it would be dismissed as ridiculous. There would not be a vast and happy transformation over the course of 18 months; instead, this transformation might take centuries.

All of this makes me think about the prejudices of academics -- the ones that I have observed in others, of course (as I am blind to my own!). What things have academics not only disagreed with, but effectively refused to consider over the past decade? A tentative list:
  • The possibility that personal "identity" is illusory and unimportant
  • The ennobling potential of devout spirituality
  • The prospect of an eternal universe (i.e., no Big Bang)
  • Conservative economics
  • "Essences," Truth (sg.), and authoritarianism
  • That "Progress" is a myth (note: postmodern theorists love to claim that they believe progress is a myth, but I've seen almost none of them [in academia] behave accordingly -- that is, renounce the notions of better Justice and intellectual superiority that seem to come naturally with history -- that is, most graduate students think they are more knowing than Plato because they've read Derrida, who came "after" Plato in historical terms)
  • That astrology is the product of ancient wisdom rather than superstition
  • That the mind is not entirely physiological -- i.e., that Prozac is/has been a con
  • That sexuality is a not genetic matter
  • That man-made global warming is an overall positive

Of course, this is a list composed mostly of my own observations, and probably is the result of my own biases and prejudices. Feel free to call me out: what do I refuse to consider? What about you? Have you remained chaste so long that you've forgotten how to give yourself over, making chastity itself a hollow act of dead piety? Are the words of the prophets really written on the subway walls and tenement halls, and not in Philological Quarterly? Have you scoffed at our time's Copernicus?

For good measure, here's a YouTube video of Harvard Professor Richard Tarnas speaking as the keynote at a conference on astrology (yes, astrology, not astronomy):

Thursday, July 24, 2008

A Dream Without a Dream

No one thinks it necessary to ask "What did that mean?" upon stubbing their toe, spilling a glass of water, or receiving a fortuitous pro-rated refund check in the mail. These things happen, right? They are the substance of life, and to comment on them further seems somehow beside the point.

Yet, when it comes to literary criticism, no stubbing can pass unremarked. It's in the nature of the game. Most of the time, I think it's right and proper that critics ask "What does that mean?" of even the smallest details. In one of Poe's more famous essays on art, he claims not to have put anything in the story but that which was absolutely necessary -- in other words, he encourages us to look that closely. If a character stubs a toe, by golly, it must be an allusion to "Achilles' Heel" or something!

But I have begun to wonder whether "looking closely" and "looking critically" are two different things: the difference between "seizing the day," "getting the most out of life," "Being present," on the one hand and, on the other, asking "What does that mean?" If you stub your toe, the gurus say "Go into that, let it be, get the full experience." But honestly, nobody (sane) asks what it means when they stub their toe.

I am thinking, again, of the correspondence (if I were a postmodernist I would definitely turn that into a renewed jargon-word and write: "correspondance.") between narrative fiction and life. My reading and my living have so far convinced me that we tend to treat these things very differently, and that it might be more interesting (both in terms of living and to our reading experience) if we did not. I'm working on finding a way to demonstrate this point without resorting to storytelling.

Comments are welcome, but this is just thinking aloud at this point, I suppose.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Don't Get Too Excited

Things are looking reasonably good for the Obama campaign, and I currently hope (and expect) that he'll win in November. However, I want to be on record as encouraging new/young voters to continue learning about history as we approach our next presidential election.

My concern is with the Obama supporters who think in terms of utopia and panacea: most of them from the generation of possibly-somewhat-naive optimists (and heck, what generation isn't when it's 18-27-years old?), these voters are overwhelmed with joy at the possibility that all social ills will be cured if only we elect the right man in the fall.

Of which social ills I will name poverty and racism as among the most upsetting to young voters. And while it's nice to see that another generation of humans will have consciences, I'm frightened to think that critical thinking might not come along for the ride.

I remember having one of those most excellent graduate school dialogues in Heav. 215 a couple of years ago with some of my four regular readers -- we were disagreeing about something having to do with social welfare spending. They were arguing for more, and I was saying "fine," but asking for a better delineation around the question of "how much is enough?" I used the case of Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society," and the conversation came to an abrupt halt -- not because I had made an airtight case, but rather, because nobody else in the room had ever heard of such a thing.

Not to make too much of a history lesson of it, but...

In Johnson's first State of the Union address, "he called for a war on poverty and the creation of a 'Great Society,' a prosperous nation that had overcome racial divisions" (source). Wikipedia reports, "New major spending programs that addressed education, medical care, urban problems, and transportation were launched during this period." The Great Society even set aside new funds for touchy-feely things like "English" and painting, enough to form the financial foundation for the National Endowment for Arts and Humanities. Oh, and, there was a big war happening overseas at the time (1965) that was getting worse by the minute. If you're planning on voting for Obama, all of this -- almost to a word -- should sound familiar. And admittedly, it sounds great.

On paper. In my judgment, however, history took a turn for the not-much-better. Whether I'm correct or just being Debbie Downer I'll leave it up to ya'll to judge... I will note, however, that racism and poverty still exist, last I checked. And might exist even after Obama takes office. Brace yourselves.

Oh, and, oil lines might exist too. See 1973, for example.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Interspecies Communication

I was thinking today in a stairwell (where I do most of my best thinking) about human intelligence, and although I sometimes wonder if we overestimate ourselves, today we seemed a pretty incredible phenomenon. Then visions of eternity snuck into the picture, and I wondered whether the intelligence native to those of us alive in 2008 would be intelligible to whatever descendents follow us in, say, the year 100,000 A.D.

I thought there might be three possibilities: 1) They look back on us and understand our "major" keys but sort of don't understand our daily existences... maybe they have a grip on what religion was, for example, but not on exactly how we expected it to work (or whatever). 2) They look back on us as pre-"human" or something, precisely the way we think of cro-magnon. 3) They've been so burdened by their knowledge of history that they haven't been able to "evolve" in any significant ways. They're basically bookkeepers too frightened to make the break to Ubermensch territory.

Now I don't mean to make myself out to be Stephen Daedalus or anything, but all of this took about three seconds. Interesting enough, but then I wondered about the possibility of human lineage being somehow terminated (probably global warming, no doubt!).

I decided I could handle that, but that I was very uncomfortable with the idea of "intelligence" being extinct. Could it be preserved, I wondered? Could we somehow put the basics of our collective experience in an airtight steel orb and hope that curiosity would someday prompt another intelligent species to crack it open (imagine their surpise!)?

Key to this endeavor would be a way of thinking that, I believe, does not come naturally to us. In order to preserve some of our experience for a future intelligent species that is not derived from humanity, we would have to think about how other species think. I do not believe this comes naturally to us: whenever I have heard this topic approached it has been framed in terms of human intelligence: e.g., dolphins are, relative to humans, not as smart. We have taught chimps to identify some of our words and images. But what if we ask how chimps think without assuming they think less efficiently--what if we cease comparing? What do they know? How might we encapsulate our collective experience in a way that it might be intelligible to them if they ever stumbled upon it in the future? Is intelligence anything?

If I remember correctly, something like this was represented in the Jodie Foster movie, Contact. Or some movie like it. The scientists sent a kind of time capsule out into space with contents including basic arithmetic and geometry, assuming any intelligent species would have some notion of basic mathematics. I wonder if that's a safe assumption?

One of the marks of psychological maturity is being able to think like another person. I wonder if it's possible to think like another species?

Apologies for the length, again. I'm working on it.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Bias, History, Foucault, Baseball, and Artistry

Five years ago, every "postmodern theorist" I talked to agreed -- and usually cited Foucault as their evidence -- that the observer could never be neutral. Every pundit is an ideologue, every critic speaks from a loaded viewpoint, every person is somehow trapped in historical forces larger than themselves. And I'm not sure that 2008's theorists are any different; it's just that I haven't talked to anyone about this for five years. Because...

Well, frankly, because five years ago it seemed like a really good point to me. Although it somehow "felt wrong," I couldn't figure out how to respond to the argument with an argument that felt better.

However! -- lately I swear that a monkey could see through to the silly assumptions of that claim. Everyone watching coverage of the 2008 election cycle should be able to see who is "in the bag" for which candidate. Partisan outlets like Fox News, Air America, and Rush Limbaugh aside, it's easy to tell that Keith Olbermann is a democrat -- and yet, when Tim Russert died, Olbermann grandstanded with a wrinkle on his earnest-looking brow with Chris Matthews: "It was amazing how Tim gave equal balance to both sides of every argument -- and isn't that what we all aspire to, as journalists?"

Well, no, Olbermann -- obviously not. You don't. Rush Limbaugh doesn't. And so on. But the question for postmodernists does not concern hacks like those. The question is, did someone like Tim Russert manage to approach objectivity in his journalistic persona?

I think he did. I think it's possible. And I'll prove it right now. But first, soften yourself up, reader. I'm not going to be able to make my case unless you admit that you're drawn to hacks like Olbermann and Limbaugh -- you find them exciting, don't you? It's good to hear simple interpretations that spare you the effort of thinking, especially when they're delivered with the tones of earnestness. If you do feel implicated, don't fret -- you're certainly not alone. Olbermann and O'Reilly and Limbaugh are popular. Apparently everybody likes one of them.

But talking politics makes your shoulders tight, doesn't it, Reader? Allow me to use an analogy instead, before returning to the direct question of whether or not it might be possible to report on history (and current events) in a way that would bewilder Foucault's disciples.

The analogy is the umpire. When I played baseball, I hated umpires. And not just when they made bad calls -- which they did all of the time in my opponents' favor. I hated them for their lack of passion. I wondered what it would take to descend to such a lamentable condition as a human being. What kind of childhood abuse would lead someone to become... an umpire.

But as I've stepped away from active participation in baseball, my respect for umpires has grown. I have come to understand that umpires value the game itself above either of the teams competing. They manage to observe without bias.

"Not so quick!" hollers the Foucalt-worshipper. "You've forgotten that the umpire assents to the overarching ideology of 'baseball' itself every time he steps onto the field. If he is an American league umpire, he reveals himself as ideologically in favor of the designated hitter just by agreeing to call a game."

But in corresponding terms, if you will grant that the umpire can call a game without harboring bias against either of the teams, won't you admit that a journalist or historian (or critic) may "call" that game without bias to partisan factions, at least?

Take the rise of Barack Obama and the 2008 election, now. Wouldn't it be possible to report on what is happening without bias? I think it would. I think an artist could do it. And so I come to what this post is really about:

Definition of Art and Artistry: Art opposes partisanship.

Is that true?

I'll start writing shorter posts again soon -- apologies. It takes practice.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Global Warming and Critical Thinking

I still watch The Real World even though I'm too old to be on the show. I like to think that watching helps me keep in touch with something that I can't be in touch with directly in my own life. After this season's shows, the cast has been doing these little 30-second spots about how we can save electricity (and the planet) by unplugging our cellphone chargers when we're not using them... and that kind of thing.

Saving the planet is really big right now among 18-27-year olds, it turns out. Everywhere I turn lately I hear them saying things like, "We just gotta get the message out, you know -- spread awareness" or, sometimes more urgently, "We need to fundamentally change the way we live."

I do not mean to question their earnestness -- in fact, I'm certain that all of this is well-meaning and generated by the best intentions. I admire the optimism and even aspire to this kind of active engagement.

However, I genuinely believe that this movement has relied on the sloppy and uncritical thinking that has almost been nurtured in this generation, and I think the evidence is growing. This website carries an interesting banner/headline-thing: "There's nothing wrong with a fourth grade understanding of science. If you're a fourth grader." On this part of that site, you can watch a clip from a segment put together by Penn and Teller of "magic" fame and of HBO's series, Bullshit. In the clip -- which can be enjoyed whether you're nervous about global warming or not -- Penn and Teller lay bare the problem with critical thinking that these young people seem to share.

I have written before about my suspicion of science and my desire to see a "Scientific Reformation" in which money would be removed from the field of science (never happen, I know). Might be worth revisiting.

To this day, I've never talked to a person who believes in the man-made global warming crisis who has been able to cite any specific reliable information as the reason for their belief. Instead, they've heard it all over the place, seen Al Gore's movie and, well, that's been good enough for them. (Apparently having numbers on the X and Y axis of your graphs is superflous these days, Mr. Gore?)

Now, none of this would be a problem if "fighting global warming" was harmless -- but I am increasingly convinced that our imbalanced drive to "conserve" natural resources and to clean up our environment is beginning to cause human poverty. Gas prices are only the most obvious culprit -- food prices have risen. Taxes are heavier. While America's upper-middle-class works to ban fossil fuels and to convince us that we should worry about offsetting our carbon footprint (buying indulgences, anyone!?), the rest of us are stuck with a price tag that is becoming increasingly unmanageable. Read even a little about malaria in Africa and the way that DDT would wipe out the disease altogether if only Rachel Carson's vision were not so influential.

I've used this scenario before, but it bears repeating: imagine that "scientists" discover next week that (somehow) carbon dioxide in the atmosphere actually increases the health of the planet and its species -- after all, plants "breathe" CO2, and perhaps they could be spurred to grow better. Whatever. If that happened, and Al Gore got on the air and said, "We were wrong -- CO2 is a good thing. Keep those factories pumping. In fact, step it up a little bit!" -- If all of that happened, what do we think would happen to the contemporary environmentalist crowd? Would they agree to urge industry to Go Go Go gangbusters?

I have a suspicion they wouldn't, and it's because the global-warming crowd is fundamentally motivated by a dissatisfaction with capitalism, and they're using (more or less consciously) the "Green" movement as a means to an end (that is, to moderating or ending capitalism).

Don't misunderstand: that's a viable argument, and I'd like to talk about it -- capitalism does seem rough, and sometimes I think it only "works" for about 10% of the population. Maybe we should get another system where we can all dress up like big bird and dance more and never work for "the man." But as Penn and Teller point out, I wish that we could call a duck a duck and talk about what we're really talking about.

Oh, and because I know somebody's going to be a wise guy and tell me I don't have the facts to back all of this up and maybe I'm the one being uncritical.... well, no. I was going to provide a series of links just then questioning the "science" of global warming. But you're big kids now -- look it up yourself.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Linguistics and Perception

Simone Weil says, "A mind enclosed in language is in prison." I wonder.

Over the past few years I've noticed a very interesting phenomenon working in my life. I'll tell a story to explain:

When I first met my wife we were walking somewhere together and we were doing that thing that couples do when they're falling in love -- sharing our likes and dislikes, our passions and our fears, and so on. We started talking about dogs. As it turned out, we were both allergic. But somewhat surprisingly, we were both quite fond of dogs "but for the allergy." When my wife said that her favorite breed was a Corgi, I said, "A what?"

Never heard of it. She explained to me what it was and couldn't believe I'd never heard of it.

The next day on our walk, as if on cue, we walked past someone walking a corgi and as soon as we passed them my wife pointed, bulged her eyes, and whispered -- "That's a corgi!"

And then for the next month or more I saw corgis everywhere I went. In the four years since then, I've seen at least a hundred corgis (or is it corgies?). But I swear I cannot recollect ever having seen a corgi before learning what it was called. Here's a picture in case you've never seen a corgi, though I can hardly believe that could be possible, since they're around every corner:

Fastforward to last week. I'm playing a kind of virtual and timed generic scrabble with Wishydig who pounds me routinely in the word game. Looking at the words he formed after the timer dinged, I noticed "Ecru." I looked it up, stunned that he'd have typed in such a bizarre arrangement of letters -- Ecru describes the shade greyish-pale yellow or a light greyish-yellowish brown, according to wikipedia. I sent him a message, and he replied by linking me to a recent television commercial where a kindergartener says "ecru!" while guessing about color identification. This is ecru, by the way:

Anyway, my point should be pretty easy to grasp now: are words the gateway to perception? That is, have I trained my senses to receive only that information which I have already codified in my personal mental dictionary? I suppose there must be a stupid thought experiment somewhere instructing readers to "imagine something they've never heard of."

Does my friend the linguist have a more variegated visual experience as a consequence of his broader vocabulary?

Unremarkable Re-entry

Hello. I guess I'll just pick up where I left off, and make everybody feel as comfortable as possible in the wake of this inexplicable seven month hiatus. So...

Forthcoming posts will likely include:
  • Some less reactionary, better informed arguments concerning the dangers inherent in the political movement known as environmentalism.
  • Further consideration about the person of Jesus.
  • Some photoshopped self-portraits.
  • Questions about pedagogy and the problems implicit in "teaching."
  • Observations concerning "the South," from a newly embedded reporter.
  • A review of E.L. Doctorow's City of God and some insightful critical commentary.
  • Some parables (because they have ears, but do not listen--or whatever).
  • Links to incredible or important news items.
  • A poem or two.
  • Some radical and possibly controversial interpretations of history.
  • Plenty of other unnecessary 500-wordish experiments in communication.

And, I hope -- I still genuinely hope -- that all of my readers will feel welcomed and encouraged to comment or criticize or debate or, finally, to acquiesce on a semi-frequent basis.