Category Archives: Psychology

Excerpt: memento mori from Attention to Ordinary Revelations

A brief excerpt from Attention to Ordinary RevelationsPart 2 (of 8) from Book I of Volume I, in The Constellation of Man. I wrote this part several years ago. Today I decided to show it as a preview in October, the month of Halloween and Samhain, a time of both harvest fertility and cyclic transition into fallowing darkness, that may stimulate as much reflection and imagination as we allow. —CPB


Totentanz_Lübecker_Bernt_Notke detail

Detail from destroyed 1701 copy of Lübecker Totentanz, a tapestry by Bernt Notke c. 1463.

In acclimation to our lives, we forget remarkable things about them.

We forget the fragility of our own bodies—until our brief interval of youthful vitality and resilience ebbs, and we are reminded by pain or dysfunction. Some confront their vulnerability because of injury. Some are reminded by punctuated illnesses that their bodies could succumb. Some are surprised by inherited conditions in anatomy they once trusted to remain a silent servant. Some only learn later, from the ailments of aging. 

Still, on a daily basis living biology pulls away from existential realization. 

We are even induced to forget the stunning revelation of our own personal mortality. Instinct blurs reproduction with survival, to the blind benefit of progeny, also effecting genetic replication. Most want offspring—a family like themselves. Some adopt and promote other things like themselves. Many presume to survive through subordination to causes, including family, or more removed mythology.

Das_Jüngste_Gericht_(Memling)

Das Jüngste Gericht or The Last Judgement, painted by Hans Memling, 1466–1473.

Death—when recognized—becomes a word, a metaphor, an entity to haunt us, a god, a waiting judge, an anticipated afterlife or reincarnation, even an enemy to defeat—anything instead of a name for the time when our organism will no longer renew itself, and will rot; also the end of experience. Man would rather personify an inhuman notion.

Danse_macabre_by_Michael_Wolgemut

Danse Macabre, woodcut by Michael Wolgemut, 1493

For any proper, thorough appreciation of death must terrify any ego, rooted in place, time, and a particular identity of things. It is far more difficult to accept dissolution of bodily integrity and annihilation of mental experience in an indifferent universe, than a universe governed by some interested or humanized order.

Even secular views make death an event, if secularization does not also mask sentiments very like those of religious descent. Often, we return to casting death as an enemy. Not only do we long to erode “the undiscovered country” by living longer, we also wish to overcome mortality through permanent advances in medical science—useful, but also another way to diminish self-effacing transience evident in the world all around us, and make it seem manageable.

Shiva_as_the_Lord_of_Dance_LACMA_edit

Shiva Nataraja in bronze, Chola dynasty India, 10th century. The Lord of Dance personifies the rhythm of creation and destruction—of both cosmic forms, and human illusions.

We forget that the measure of what we call time becomes apparent as changing phenomena, not by any numerical scale, nor by formal repetition of cycles (seasons, sunrises, moons) which have also governed the imagination of time. The ideas of numbers and cycles make transience seem regular. Time does not pass without transformation. Time marks the metamorphosis of things that are always going to become. “Time” is human, temporary; the universal flow of changing phenomena is never-ending, undelimited, and unfathomable—except as the erosion and vanishing and re-creation of things we can recognize. These things, and the loss of them, become remarkable to us.

In our towns and cities, we see each other going about our lives on the street, riding in vehicles, and inhabiting buildings. We observe animate life around us—trees and green plants swaying in the wind, animals walking and flying. We do not think of how the material of each living thing we see has had many other forms, has recombined uncountable times as trees, plants, animals, fungus, bacteria, through rot, consumption, growth, reproduction and birth. We do not see the other identities of the matter of that flesh and bone before us.

On the faces we see around us we may think we see the lines of the past. In the craggiest old faces we mark an instant of the geologic ocean of time in which the rocks themselves flow in shape, and wrinkle in furrows and mountain ranges. We do not envision the soils and silts through which the stuff of each human face has passed.

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Excerpt: secrecy versus security; how information protects

Julian Assange WikiLeaks Publisher - The Numbers

It’s early days yet on the following preview excerpt from The Constellation of Man, but I wanted to publish something in support of the world’s greatest political prisoner (if only because the work he began empowers so many other dissidents). He is the founder of WikiLeaks and inventor of the only viable model for a free and independent press I can imagine in today’s world. He saw the need for 1) anonymous and secure submissions by whistleblowers, 2) publishing original source docs (unredacted) “so readers and historians alike can see evidence of the truth,” 3) actively protecting sources like Edward Snowden, and 4) broad, not beholden fundraising. Julian Assange, already of victim of many years of dirty tricks and concerted attempts at suppression by powerful state agencies and major corporations who fear public disclosures, currently languishes in effective solitary confinement in the Ecuadorean embassy in London. For 63 days now, his internet has been jammed and visitors blocked by the government that agreed to give him asylum and citizenship. Of course he is still targeted, surveilled and surrounded by agents ready to snatch him should he go outside. He is trapped, which has been the case for years. This for the crime of publishing freely and effectively on serious matters (unlike media compromised by financial interests). WikiLeaks thereby informs a public often thankless, or easily led to be vindictive, if they gullibly believe standard smears used in psyops against perceived enemies of states. It’s clear that many remain naive about the systems Assange tries to lay bare, clueless about their likewise precarious position, and even servile in the interests of the powerful who rule them. Despite all his maltreatment—which only vindicates and shows the need for Wikileaks’ mission “We open governments”—Julian has persevered, at appalling personal cost and risk. I doubt that any man living is more deserving of celebration as a popular hero. While I allow him human foibles (especially under such pressure), he is certainly a hero to me for what he has accomplished, speaking as a humanist, dissident, and human being. I have no doubt that a future that civilized people manage to create one day will owe Julian Assange a debt. The following excerpt undertakes to explain why he is correct in his theory of information, and the establishment case for secrecy is profoundly wrong. —CPB


GOVERNMENTS CLOSE, and restrict information in proportion to the factors of their centralization, and dominance.

Instead of an absolute, this describes an intention. The human factors of incompetence to keep secrets or incapacity to control information limit governments to obsessive undertakings. Just as reality has deprived rulers of the absolute power they claimed, when it came to molding the actual world to their desires, even autocratic or totalitarian systems have remained permeable. Certainly, every imperial republic with limited freedom of information and speech has been a sieve. Every breach pokes a hole in the pretense of state omniscience.

Mentality set in motion what incentives and motives perpetuate: the desire for a closed government empowered with secrecy and obfuscation.

The seed mentality for secretive policy was laid down long before any state’s military preeminence over rivals or bureaucratic centralization, because the deceitful rise high in a hierarchy of officials, bureaucrats, or rulers, all those who fancy themselves masters or servants of a public collective.

Their habit is mistrust, befitting those who are never true. They expect similar insincerity, fraudulence, and deception from the world. Remember that a megalomaniac can scarcely infer a mind unlike his or her own. To unscrupulous careerists, all are ambitious, dishonest, and engaged in a slow struggle against the world. Otherwise others must be fools—or relegated to the rank of pawns, among many. Therefore, in their relentless maneuvers they remain wary of shadows and likenesses who cannot be trusted, either. Fearing others’ strength, leery of others’ rise at their expense, they vaunt to mask their own vulnerability, the narcissist’s hollowness which delusions of grandeur and power cannot make replete.

Entrenched, established, they set up concentric rings of mistrust, from their own agitation for aggrandizement versus rivals, further outward, against clique, faction, or party, and further, to unseen enemies abroad, who bear the worst and most exaggerated projections and scapegoating. It is this mindset that sets the tone for an official culture that wishes to hide behind fortress walls, opaque to everyone outside.

The would-be lords of a realm set up means to hoard information like misers, because they seek an advantage over enemies—real or invented, or to hide their own misdeeds from those they claim to safeguard. The ethos of spies and public lies followed as an instrumental necessity of both—and as a consequence of mentality, intensified by fear, hysteria, and obsession echoing within closed halls of power and bastions of bureaucracy.

They claim that secrecy protects—an article of faith. They hold military secrets to be especially sacrosanct, and inviolable on penalty of espionage or treason. Well-trained authoritarian instincts, which become the rule under a domineering state, reflexively proclaim the right and necessity of state security, and cite the exigencies of the military. This obsequious defense answers any doubt.

The logic of public secrecy presupposes that the fates of ruler and ruled are, more than intertwined, a single bloc; as goes the ruling system, so goes the people. Thus “national security,” the security of empire, of imperial interests shared by rulers, is supposed to ensure the security of the people. [In the extremity of this rationale, the doctrine of total war which has been a plank of imperial nationalism, the population form a reserve army of the state, working to supply logistic needs if they do not fight. All share the same destiny or downfall, in this concept. To the contrary, conscripts in a universal army endure much that its commanders do not.]

 

RATHER, the flow of information protects people from their rulers, who occupy an immediate position to do them harm. 

Transparency opens governments to wider criticism, of which they are intolerant, of cruelty, brutality, officiousness, rapacious corruption, and indifference, and of the double standards which the powerful and their enforcers enjoy, such as effective immunity from prosecution under the same laws they use against others.

Official secrecy and privileged access keep the confidence of the furtive state, hiding personal misdeeds and policy failures under the unquestioned protections of classified information. Imbued with seriousness, this works effectively, together with public fear—fear of punishment for knowing, and the vaguer fear of “the wrong hands” to have information. Yet knowledge of the wrong hands who are already in power, already unworthy of the one-sided trust placed in them, would be quite specific and not so speculative.

Knowledge would be a means to gain insight into the nature of those who seek to rule others, instead of governing themselves. To know rulers with sufficient knowledge is to dispute their fitness to rule. Therefore, ruling systems employ misinformation and propaganda systematically to exclude “their own people” from inside knowledge, more than an enemy. 

Even insiders isolate themselves from [contradictory] knowledge and self-knowledge; for they are too closed in, and too comfortable with loyal falsehoods. An indoctrinated propagandist does not have the clear, cynical awareness of fooling other people, despite keenness to say (and half-believe) whatever serves their cause. Rulers themselves believe in their own mythology. Note that it is very possible for those with no aptitude for truthfulness, and no reinforcement of telling the truth at a personal cost, to believe in specific lies they tell. They will bow to a mandatory correction of transparency if they must, just as matter-of-factly as they will tell uncorrected lies when they are allowed.

 

OPENNESS additionally provides strategic protection at a broad scale, precisely the security that institutions modeled on comprehensive secrecy are supposed to provide for a society, by bracing for conflict across territorial or factional lines. 

The flow of information protects all people, whether they fall under the designation of “ally” or “enemy,” from dangerous uncertainty over military intent and relative power, which is caused by keeping secrets. It is they who will be the casualties of wars sought out of grave miscalculation. In the history of militarized states, the greatest defeats and mutual disasters of all have demonstrably happened from miscommunications of intent, and poor estimates of strength, not from clearer and freer knowledge. Ultimately, the flow of information protects people from accidental extinction through military miscalculation, the foolish end which may easily befall a group, or the species, until the de-militarization of human society.

Even in decentralized society, it is knowing the threat posed by an individual or organization that saves others from harm, and those who seek to do harm with impunity will try to keep secrets for the purpose. A murderer tries to keep his intent secret. One with malicious intent can be overwhelmed by many. Imagine also a scenario of local people relying on themselves, instead of a state. A gang among them who sought to dominate their pacific neighbors by force would surely make use of conspiracy, knowing they would likely be thwarted if there were warning to form a defensive league against their plans.

Much the same applies to large-scale society broken up by states, each with rulers proposed as “government.” In conditions in which intentions and capacities are more likely known far and wide, instead of walled off elaborately, they are more likely to find balance in mutual security, because those who are threatened have the ability to collaborate with alacrity. Identification of aggressors is more possible with knowledge of the intentions of rulers, and the relative capacities of state militaries. Combined defense against aggressors is more likely possible. Those who cannot defend themselves are more likely to know whom they must accommodate in order to survive. Futile wars happen out of ignorance.

The degree of centralization under a hierarchy is a societal flaw and strategic liability that obstructs the corrective network of information-sharing, and undermines the available distributed means for security, which include mutual collaboration, and awareness of genuine threats. At the same time, leaders’ infectious mindfulness of insecurity and concomitant pursuit of military dominance jeopardize peace through the provocation, or creation of enemies. Military antagonism demands secrecy, and an organization better able to constrain information, through centralization. The combination builds dangerously, like a runaway mechanism. Imperial states are the most unsafe, cursed with both (top-heavy bureaucratized states, and supreme, blundering military ambitions). About empires, the most tumultuous history has been written.

The logic that secrecy protects must be turned on its head. The advantage conferred by secret tactics in the field should not be mistaken for a comprehensive policy which is strategic for a society’s way of life. The same strategy of espousing communication that opens cloistered and controlled societies to commerce, trade, and prosperity also contributes to literal survival.

Global and regional security is not a game played by opponents, who must deceive each other. That is a lesson of conquerors and political rivals, brutes and paranoiacs, and the world they made. For people who are not concerned with their own power, mutual security is put at risk by the very presumption of opposition, instead of the construction of mutual interests in peace—through trade, communication, and other means to facilitate interaction and familiarity.

A universal society of people espousing shared information works to include more people, and de-emphasizes enmity. A closed society defending distinctions and lines with secrets and lies exacerbates it.

Twenty. (An anniversary retrospective.)

Today, May 20th, marks the anniversary of my life’s work. Twenty years ago, I set myself to developing a philosophy that I called Promethean, or Prometheanism. Today, composing Promethean philosophy is still what I do.

But many things have changed. To explain some of that, I feel like I probably have to set the stage just a bit.

When I started in 1998, I was writing with the internet audience in mind, which was then select, relatively-educated, and worldwide. Back then, online publishing was a frontier that required web design. It was before blog software. It was before social media sorted everyone within their culs-de-sac. In fact, the usual types were hand-wringing about the “digital divide” of access, not-yet universal, seemingly unaware that mainstream crowds can ruin anything special. Back then, many people actively surfed the web looking for interesting, random, and challenging reading, as well as stupid humor. (That was always there.) Scattered individuals who were motivated to learn and interested in a better future were excited to have the means to connect and congregate. I was unapologetically talking to this forward-looking elite—of all ages, socioeconomic classes, and origins—who were looking for enlightenment, and eager to participate in a renaissance.

Promethea.org maelstrom

The “maelstrom” theme I designed for the Promethea.org web site in 2000.

I wrote and published multiple articles and essays on the web, and especially created novel, illuminated presentations for a website called Promethea, including The Promethean Trilogy, which began with The Promethean Manifesto, the genesis of all Promethean writing of mine. I worked on e-books/series on subjects like the economics of liberated society, critiques of naive faith in democracy, the importance of typical philosophical errors, and prospects for ending war. One goal was to try to build a cross-disciplinary Promethean movement.

You see, back then, with enough talent and very little money, you could create and publish, and people would come. Intelligent people would read it, and converse with you. You weren’t competing with billion-dollar corporations for mere seconds of attention from millions of eyeballs. It was a promising time, but it didn’t last very long.

As of 2004, when everything unique and thoughtful was getting lost in an interminable internet, I began to shift my emphasis to writing paper books, instead.

Photo on 2011-12-22 at 06.02

Checked-off proofreading edits in a printed draft of Pyramid of Babel, December, 2011.

I spent about seven years, on and off, on the great project of writing an unpublished novel, called Pyramid of Babel. I’m proud to say that Pyramid of Babel turned out both provocative to the conventional tastes and temperaments of those who follow along in society—as a novel of ideas ought to be—and unique, as I think a great novel ought to be. It did not fulfill my goal of breaking in as an author, however, so that I could get other books out there. If I had known the dire state of the industry, its rigidity of genres, its sanctimony, and its gatekeeping by agents, it’s possible I would never have adopted that plan—prioritized the novel, bet on success, and sacrificed so much as I have in order to create it. That would have been a shame, artistically.

Pyramid of 5 Aspects of Pyramid of Babel

I made a Pyramid of the complete draft.

Along the way, I also finished and self-published a collection of essays in 2008 called Rising in Words.

I also wrote a lot of material for 2 or 3 important but unfinished nonfiction books. The lion’s share consisted of 1) research to flesh out a cybernetic attractor model of personality and mind, while 2) working to articulate it with the wonder and clarity of the best popularized science writing, so as make it understandable to as many interested people as possible—the closest thing to a user’s manual of the human mind I would ever try to write. I don’t work on it consistently these days, but I have plans to do so again, when the course of writing The Constellation of Man leads me back to the part where I have to work out how to communicate these same mental attractors that we all demonstrate.

Another batch of work laid out my sociological theory of the anti-social origins of conflict, not in Paleolithic human nature, but in historical-era hierarchical institutions, which empowered psychopaths and narcissists. (A subject also intended for a vid-doc script on Myths About Human Nature and War.) Part of the argument would be an evolutionary one, accounting for the presence of these sub-types. And, a perhaps-separable book built on overlapping research would emphasize psychopathoid personalities in modern society over their origins.

At some point I began writing some entries on this blog, Wisdom Dancer. I don’t entirely remember why, except that I needed a place to talk about process, and journal, and vent, basically (as opposed to my “real” writing). I did all that of elsewhere, first, and then gradually migrated here. Happily, I left social media behind.

Currently, I write material primarily with The Constellation of Man (formerly Prometheus Redux) in mind. This evolved from early efforts in The Promethean Trilogy to invent new kinds of philosophical literature, better able to tell a story about reforming and rekindling humanistic values. (Actually, Nietzsche beat me to it.)

thinking-through-philosophy-tpm

February, 2013

I have many emotions as I look back on twenty years of personal history as a philosopher, a creative artist, and a dissident.

I have thought and written across boundaries—for instance, between social criticism, philosophy of science, humanistic psychology, cybernetics, anthropology, political science, history, education, epic literature, and mythology, with enthusiasm for fusion. I’ve held no more regard for artificial academic boundaries than the artificial boundaries of government, or moralism, or collective divisions, which I have repeatedly written against. As a result, I have often found that I fit nobody’s expectations, and fit in nowhere; and that I make impermissible, unpopular arguments. I do not regret it. Taking sincere advantage of freedom of thought is highly likely to have genuine social and economic costs, not only in facing off with institutions and conventions, but with herd-minded people, and those simply ill-equipped by their institutions to recognize (and value) a wider breadth of thought than their conventions. Again, I do not regret it.

The large majority of what I have written remains unpublished—some of importance, unfinished. The weight of potential hangs over my work, as I do it; I rarely have the satisfaction of completion and feedback, and have never had the feeling of success. It was not a journey I embarked on for attention or reward, although I intended to have more of an impact. It has certainly not been a journey I have continued because any project has, so far, really accomplished what I set out to do. These days, I often have to think that I write for the future and not the present. I continue because the work itself compels me, or needs me. It still fascinates. It still frustrates. I could say that I continue to write because I am a philosopher, and I cannot be someone else.

I can, all at the same time, appreciate that I have made much progress over the years as a writer of philosophical literature. Mastery does not come easily, and it is never finished. Abilities and efficiency go through ups and downs, not continual improvement. But once in a while, usually by sticking it out through many trials and errors—as well as through the marvelous leaps of imagination—the writing does play out as it feels like it was meant to, and fully satisfies even the perfectionist in me.

I will always have mixed feelings about testing the lines between epic accomplishments and impossibilities. I cannot be satisfied with less, in any case. I will always have that kind of ambition.

Regardless, I figure that twenty years of shouldering responsibility in a cause I am truly proud of, and have never compromised—and 20 years of labors, undergoing some immense challenges—well deserves a bottle of Lagavulin Scotch whisky. So that will be my toast tonight. No lamentations for what might have been.

Notes on Vol II, on the occasion of writing “Apprehending the God”

In this post, instead of showing an excerpt from The Constellation of Man, I write about some of the ideas behind a whole volume of the project.

It is not so much that I am obsessed with human nature, although as a general subject this has been of recurring preoccupation and serious interest to me. I have been obsessed with humans’ lack of understanding of their natures, and their dismissive attitudes toward “human nature”—indeed, their very poor appreciation of the problem—and the reasons for this strange state of affairs, as well as its consequences.

(Why “strange”? To quote a line from my notes: “Perhaps it is strangest [and most indicative] of all that the mere fact of acting out human nature does not make human nature more understandable to a human being.”)

This leads to writing a great deal of material that goes in two directions:

1) Exploration of human nature, and attempts to characterize it more accurately.

2) Description of human ignorance surrounding human nature, and examination of the many errors that have mischaracterized the creature called Man.


A brief elaboration on the first aim:

  • Exploration of human nature, and attempts to characterize it more accurately.

For example: working on more useful philosophy of mind, suitable for living people who do not delight in rehashing artificial thought experiments. (I could almost say, a replacement for “philosophy of mind,” at this point.)

In the nitty-gritty end of applied scientific speculation, I’ve done considerable (unpublished) work over the years to devise psychological models to describe the human mind, which, among other avenues of improvement, address holistic deficiencies in cognitive, computational, or functionalist models of the brain, mind, and human evolution. My guidances in that kind of endeavor include the interrelationships (feedbacks), complex adaptive systems, attractors, etc. talked about in cybernetics, complexity, and systems theories. These are great sources of analogies and metaphors for leaping past folk intuitions, too, so they work as explanatory models on more than one level of precision.

Other guidance for reforming an impression of human nature comes from physical anthropology, ethnography, archaeology, ethology, personality theory, and the logic of evolutionary selection. Much more is known of human breadth than human origins, but a more accurate characterization must jibe with both. I take a syncretic approach, willing to find useful information or inspiration from virtually anywhere. I believe that the narrowness of most (academic-specialist) approaches has neglected to connect many dots between areas of evidence that have been described, and between new models for thought that have been available, in modern times.

The connective speculations of Darwin, of Gregory Bateson, and yes even of sometimes-reductive or mystical psychologists like Freud and Jung inspire me to think that a science—that is, “organized knowledge”—about mankind has not only room for synthesis, but great need for it; a holistic creature wants “big,” holistic, interconnective theory, like: the project of making new maps of Man (or more precisely, Man’s mental navigation) and for Man to make better sense of himself.

(At the risk of a great digression cut short: keep in mind that noteworthy attempts to draw maps of Man didn’t have to be “correct”—if we could even reasonably impose that expectation—in order to goad others to explore fertile directions. A map only had to describe new, or seldom-visited areas—or approaches to human nature—concretely, so that other map-makers could follow; construe unseen moralities, infer subjective preferences in economic activity, delimit types of personality, or graduations of consciousness, etc., etc.)

Such grand endeavors have passed out of fashion in a world of specialists, although I think it is telling that many academic specialists write books to claim an overarching significance for their version of what their own speciality has to say, without really doing the work to draw from other disciplines and points of view as though they deserve care and attention.

I close the subject of characterizing “human nature” with an appropriate caveat, taken straight from my notes:

Human nature expands too far into horizons for one perspective to take it in, or for one state of mind to hold it. Therefore human nature plays elephant for the blind man. Each observer claims that the beast is something else.


And with that, I move on to the second direction my writing has taken:

  • Description of human ignorance surrounding human nature, and examination of the many errors that have mischaracterized the creature called Man.

I cannot summarize an explanation here for the shallowness with which most have approached the problem, and regarded themselves or others as far more transparent than would be intellectually responsible. I will just say that a proper accounting ought to cover far more than traditional theologians’ negativity, or the historical influences of casuistries, that closed minds on the subject instead of opening them. And a systematic accounting—of these and many other reasons for ignorance—is arguably of secondary importance; when I choose to go into them in the book, it is primarily an assistance to illustrating the fact that people do habitually underrate matters of depth and complexity about “who they are.” In this I include “people” whose business it is to know better.

Pointing out that people fundamentally do not understand themselves (personally and generically) seems to me to be of the greatest importance. The pretense of knowledge, amidst ignorance, affects everything—personal attitudes about self, imagination of society, and the deep pessimism felt about the human condition and human potential.

Laying this out is the best kind of problem-solving I know to address so many soul-wrenching “I am lost,” or “we are lost” lamentations about self, or society. Many adverse conditions tend to be seen as inherent or essential problems, or natural to living, that—to the contrary—issue from dysfunctional approaches to having a human body and undergoing the experience of a mind, without a user’s manual.

I don’t intend to be able to offer that “user’s manual,” or minimize the difficulty of encapsulation. Few of us have adequate respect for the mysteries that we still represent, and that we are part of. Many of us have had the arrogant expectations of understanding or closure, and that is part of the message I am intent to get across.

Sometimes, frequently perhaps, it is possible to problem-solve dysfunctional approaches to living with a graduation of knowledge that realistically admits human nature. More-realistic characterization of human nature obviously enables spelling out more of this kind of prescriptive humanism. But, even when ameliorative knowledge is lacking—or I don’t have it, in order to write about it—there is still the mystery to admit.

And the restoration of wonder at a mystery in itself serves as an emotional, spiritual remedy, for those who had demoted human life on Earth. The absence of understanding that human beings have need of feeling profound, and participating in “divine” mystery, is another kind of “dysfunction,” another kind of ignorance about the human race.


Thus far, the second volume of The Constellation of Man looks like it’s shaping up to unite both of those two projects and fascinations about human nature. Special focuses will include:

  • the emotional reach of “nature,”
  • the mentalities of “mind” which are not limited to abstract intellectual systems,
  • the ambiguous power and mistrust of the unconscious,
  • and the legacy of an evolutionary past we still fail to appreciate.

The second volume has received most of my writing and editing time since 2016. As I write this, I’m currently working on several parts of it, in a sequence that I’ve been calling “Apprehending the God.” This sequence fits into a larger chain of metaphors that hasn’t sorted itself out as neatly as expected, but has turned out a battery of charged material. The last time I posted a preview, it was an excerpt spun out from another one of those metaphors. If I can, I’d like to find a way to pick out a piece from this sequence worth showing without its context, and the buildup of meaning which only several parts in tandem seem to be able to convey.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading a bit more about the philosophy I work hard to articulate, through the years and despite various obstacles that arise in the creative path. I’ve supplied my thoughts in text form this time, instead of recording another video journal. (In the recent heat wave, my voice would once again have had to compete with the hum of an air conditioner!) As always, I look forward to your comments.

Excerpt: Soulless Faces and Dread Urges

Here is a Constellation of Man preview taken from recent drafts, just a bit late for Halloween. It illustrates a technique I mentioned in August: developing the subjects I have in mind by intuitive branching from an arresting cluster of imagery, instead of organizing material by topic. Aspects of the human face were the starting point for this part, and a few others. It’s a better way to sort out voluminous material than filling out one abstraction after another, like “human nature.” A compelling journey follows the most memorable lines.
—CPB


To look into human eyes, and see no liveliness, no awareness, or no cleverness there, can unsettle or scare like a nightmare.

So can seeing no recognition, or no empathy. We shiver at a familiar face who suddenly does not act familiarly toward us. We feel as though we have met an impostor or a stranger in their skin, or a perfect copy. Feeling betrayed, we wonder if we have ever known them.

Even provided with a temporary explanation, such as hunger, exhaustion, despair, or catatonia or frenzy induced by an illness or a drug, we get an uncanny feeling from someone we expected to know.

Dread of the soulless, or fear of the automaton following reflexes and instincts, are among the most gripping unconscious fears to have, whether they concern society that surrounds, or reflect a fragile personhood which is contingent—subject to chance and circumstance—or terribly hollow, after all.

What elicits fear in an abject form will suffice to cause anxiety in a moderated form. The same reactions continue to be important and instructive as they commonly occur, not only in rare intensity.

Blake_Dante_Inferno_I

Dante running from the Three Beasts, illustration for Dante’s Inferno by William Blake, 1824-27.

Consider the great and historic fear of instinct. This is the tension engendered by pretending that men and women, girls and boys are not also animals, whose “ignoble” needs, demands, and urges are not unlike those of other omnivorous, sexual, territorial, social mammals. It is a consequence of maintaining a dichotomy between those instincts and “noble” characteristics unique to humanity, scarcely to imagine that one provisions the other.

The ideologues who severed values for socialized Man from his animal nature no doubt discovered ugliness—the genuine ugliness of stifled, cornered, agitated perversions of instincts, which corrupt refined and civil qualities of mankind. Yet the evidence must have confirmed their culprit, and the moralists redoubled efforts to separate the “spiritual,” human creations and divine experiences, from mortal flesh and base desires that distract.

Those who do not permit primal invigoration make themselves the most vulnerable to frightful instincts. Consider too the ordinary jeopardies of those who do, but insist that sublimations of instinct must shed the bestial, primitive, or irrational character of the source. Perhaps that means they eschew visceral qualities, or disallow sexuality, or emotional honesty, or strangeness. Perhaps they inhibit spontaneity, like an artist who expects to produce inspirations on a schedule.

Even some ferocity might need release in order to move flesh and blood behind the head’s enterprise—or to ever embrace a calling. It is certainly not unusual for acceptable aspirations to be tame, or pursuit of them timid. These are among the old and traditional solutions to that “civilized” ugliness, blamed on vigorous desire.

To refine instincts to the point of thwarting them produces dissatisfactory results, and confounds expectations of pressing them into safe and civilized service, as predictably as forbidding instinct to exist makes it monstrous.

Fear is perpetual among the effete, who are forever chased by denied beasts, and the darkness of a savage past. The modern human looks back, and sees the shadow of an animal behind him, and cannot bear it. Something comes too close. Something bares its teeth. Something creeps along the edges. Escape is hopeless. Wherever Man goes, a creature follows. He is evolutionarily preceded.

Instead the usual man enacts, and he projects. He calls others hostile, possessive, or irrational, and he is afraid of them. He curses the “dark side” of the human race. He has reason to feel anxious in his own company. Some furtive, disallowed compulsion really might catch up, and spoil expectations.

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They Live, written and directed by John Carpenter, 1988.

Consider also the apprehension felt over social conditioning. This is the inherent tension between natural and personal inclinations, and social systems aggregated over the years under various constrictive plans to use individuals.

Social institutions are organized for these designs at the expense of an antithetical vision of how civilization should pass its torch to the next generation: by fostering each person to enable their natural gifts and sustain their expression. Any practicable system is most likely to have to grant some latitude and support, in addition to directing abilities. Few institutions have managed to radically replace and subsume initiative, even briefly. Pragmatic ambitions to utilize a collective depend on cross-purposes: on providing some education worthy of individuals, and indoctrinating them in some mass-produced worldview; on letting them go their own way, and drafting them to serve nominally greater things.

To impose goals, social systems must be intolerant of the diversity present in each new generation of individuals, and antagonistic to realistic inferences of human nature and personal nature, able to raise objections. Any yoke draws attention to itself, but especially by subjugating contrary individuals.

Oppressive means of social control have provoked creative resistance as well as paralysis, including depiction in art, articulation in dystopian fiction (or—in obscured allegories—certain tales of horror), and liberal theories in political philosophy, economics, and other social sciences. More frustration and antipathy has been misdirected to blame or attack every sort of prominent, contemporaneous target.

Even those prepared to conform and not to understand why feel an unconscious unease, at least. Those who are gradually going down in the whirlpool remain too quiet in their desperation. Unable to resist the pull, unable to admit they are losing freedom, spontaneity, and individuality, they are loath even to speak of the threat instead of a more ordinary or narrow complaint, lest anyone think ill of them. They keep smiling, and acting as they should. Unconscious recognition of their plight keeps them twisted up, underneath.

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Happy by Laurie Lipton, 2015

Dread and angst have found their way into lore, set into one story formula after another. Preoccupations in culture would give signs of the times to anyone able to decode, for examples:

  • Medieval revenants (from French revenir, Latin revenire, to come back). They return from death as blood-suffused corpses or ghosts to terrorize the living, usually those they once knew.
  • Masses of these, called mindless zombies. Hungry like starved animals, they want to devour the brains of individuated human beings.
  • Takeovers by automation. First, factory machines threaten jobs. Then robots do, and then computers. Finally, androids threaten to resemble, and artificial intelligences threaten to displace Man.
  • Aliens. Shaped like men, but generic and lacking human sympathies, they abduct the powerless.
  • The apocalypse of callous or thoughtless invaders. Brought about by an alien, robotic, or undead army, the end of the world is not just imagination, but metaphor.

As though the unconscious warns through personal and cultural stories, those who do not live as they could—or have a sense they should—put unconscious fears into metaphors.

Articulated thought may succumb to rationalization, and remain out of touch with the rest of our organism. The greater domains of the unconscious mind beware wretched social regimentation. They know torment by the socialization of instincts managed by suppression rather than acknowledgment. They even take the pulse of automata within—the psychic automatism that contrasts often with avowed decisions and self-image. So it is that:

We are confronted by robots. We are threatened by the rise of machines.

We who fear for our individuality could join the shambling dead.

We who fear for our humanity could become just as pitiless as monsters driven by appetite, or just as devoid of thought as their instinct to kill.

Those come out in nightmares, waking imagery, and stories—unreconciled feelings cast out into the world, like the fears projected onto other things and other people. Recycled into symbols, compounded with other symbols, buried under details added to superstitions and fiction, repeated warnings go unrecognized.

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H.R. Giger built a human skull into the face of the phallic Xenomorph featured in the film Alien.

The psychological significance of horror is readily eclipsed by entertainment when its form of expression becomes a public story told for melodrama and pet scares—the thrills of an apocalypse safely not occurring, a monster safely not under the bed. Many can claim horror as a matter of familiarity without resolving it. Depicted horrors—monstrosities, abominations, dying, gore, and even torture—become unaffecting horrors. Sincere fears remain, unmoved.

Part of the enjoyment of the genre has been comfortable distancing—dissolving empathy with menaced characters who feel fright, agony, or powerlessness. Managing to resist emotion identification with their situations can yield a pleasurable sense of control. Stereotypical or unlikeable characters actually contribute to the appeal of performed horror, because this excuses schadenfreude, and permits the viewer to laugh at them without remorse.

The escapist audience knows they have nothing to fear from any monster shown to them. All the more if they take for granted that the real terror sleeps even closer than under the bed—a monster of exaggerated passions and urges. This is the devil inside who mobilizes darkly-regarded, repressed instincts.

It is not untrue that the faces of anger, arousal, hunger, and defensiveness perch on unsettling thresholds. The threat of the liminal expressions is that we could find ourselves looking into contortions instead of a familiar face. In their ultimacy—rage, lust, ravenousness, and panic—these faces of human nature do not reason, or show mercy. They are single-minded. They do not care about anything else. More than coarse or rough, these turn savage. More than moods, these are like personalities—and not our own, we feel assured. They are disowned people.

Yet each and every human being can transform or be transformed by desperate need, or under duress, or by psychoactive effects including drunkenness, like Jekyll’s potion to bring out Hyde. Upon witnessing this universal susceptibility in their own experience, each human being usually fails to accept it.

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Fredric March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, directed by Rouben Mamoulian, 1931.

The visceral and primal deserve respect lest they become troublesome or dangerous. That is possible if the teachings of culture permit a sanguine interpretation of natural instincts. But the base and vile can only be cast out and destroyed, instead. No organism could ever do that to intrinsic parts of its nature. Many who have lived have learned from moral teachings to expect the impossible from themselves, and specifically to deprecate and banish the roots of disturbances, and to feel guilty when they fail.

Therefore, they have long told story after story commemorating their unsettlement. It has never been uncommon for figments from these stories to take on suggestible reality, because they allowed confessions, of an evasive sort, that were intensely desired. In much the same way that a criminal or a survivor plagued by guilt might see a ghost they had been told about, a superstitious man, woman, or child suffering from a repressed, now-fearsome “shadow” might become convinced they were stalked by a real monster.

Consider the recurrence of folklore across time and place describing some humanoid form, some dead, some not, ravenous for blood or flesh, and often identified with viscera, including the heart. These were creatures with the sympathies and kindness of a demonic enemy of the living, as though possessed by bestial hunger—the vampire’s bite—and rage, and in some incarnations, lustful and beguiling also, like a succubus or incubus.

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Title page from a 1734 “Treatise on the chewing and smacking of the dead in graves, in which the true makeup of the Hungarian vampyrs and blood-suckers is shown” by Michael Ranft. This references a posthumous (and pre-Freudian) oral fixation: reported cases of corpses continuing to masticate after burial, biting coffin linen or their own arms.

As late as the eighteenth century, officials in Eastern Europe were obliged to formally investigate cases of supposed vampires in order to quell rural panics. In some areas, corpses were staked until the twentieth. Modern-era fiction made this trite, losing its significance. Confront it as a close, physical reality: some unspoken, desperate terror linked to vampires was great enough for mourners of recently passed loved ones to impale their bodies. That is no small fear at all. It is not to be rationalized as hysteria over a superstition that was never real, and must instead find explanation in grave, yet incorporeal matters.

The legend by many names speaks to the fear of losing one’s human qualities to appetites, like the vampire and its victims do, losing personality and losing control.

These stories might remember fears of the uncontrollable hunger of the starving, in particular. What the uncontrollable bite can do even includes cannibalism, during famines. Prosperity elsewhere and since led to forgetting what starving people have seen themselves or others do. (Modern people who can generally eat whenever they want get only the slightest of reminders of what they are capable of from the passing viciousness of hypoglycemia.) Unforgettable transformations for desperate survival are hardly to be reconciled afterward, felt to be worse than death.

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Necronom II by Hans Rüdi Giger, 1976.

They sum up alarm at recognizing primitive nature, for having witnessed it: We could be monsters inside. That is, nothing but a beast, when cornered, or famished, or insatiable. The life-force of blood† and viscera; the sex of rape; the ingestion that devours other life without pause—our nature can be reduced to these by severe circumstances.

But it is still more frightening to contemplate if it could happen capriciously, through temptations, which guilt both anticipates, and follows—and which attempted suppression of desire actually intensifies. One succumbs, obedient and bloodless.

Old vampire stories reflect acute fear of the sexual urges which might lead to transgression of taboos, or moral norms of the community, and even fear of consequences for violating religious dictates. It was said in various traditions that numerous different transgressions (such as sex out of wedlock, or improper burial rituals) could produce a vampire, even before death.

The vampire turns soulless (absent from the mirror, in the modern telling) because it is bestial, and therefore, deemed inhuman. It is also a demon: the vengeance of an unacceptable impulse sent down. Suppressed instinct, moralized, socialized, does not go away, as it is told. Damned nature comes back as perversion and hate—that is all a revenant has left. Having been marked as evil, instinct can manifest in no other way.

The vampire trope also points to an alternate, timeless referent which is not universal human nature, but contributes to its blameworthy image. There is a recurring cultural warning about psychopathic characters who lack empathy for others and enjoy tricking, manipulating, and corrupting them. It is easier to express that warning in stories and accept them as inhuman monsters, than to admit they are living among other people in society, as brother, sister, friend, or lover in bed. Like an evil impostor of a familiar face, they pretend affinity until it does not suit them.

 


† As usual, frequent mutation of storytelling complicates tracing a continual meaning of symbolism. Compare with the considerable positivity of emphasis on ‘eternal life’ through curse/gift of blood in modern versions of the story, surely inspired by the gift of eternal life through blood of Christ. In some treatments the curse of blood does not even place the soul (personality) at risk; it is almost entirely a gift of supernatural powers.

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Excerpt: Grand Illusions

Another preview from The Constellation of Man, in Vol. III. —CPB


THERE IS A TALE of a shipwrecked man who washed ashore on an island naked and bereft, whom the islanders discovered, and proclaimed king. At first taken aback by his fortune, he soon accepted his new life as usual, and enjoyed his privileges. At the end of a year, however, it was the custom of the island to strip the king of his power. This they did every year, only to crown another castaway upon their shore.

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Illustration by George Underwood in World Tales, 1979.

If an unremarkable clerk went to bed thinking himself unimportant, and woke up a king, or president, the same man might think very highly of himself by lunchtime. Not long after, he would think of capitalizing on his days in office, or on the throne. He would approve of the accretion of his own power, seek the adoration of “the people” or “his people,” and fear any hint of falling from grace. He would speak of “the nation” as casually as he once filled in forms, convinced that no one else could shepherd it so well.

Take away his titles, and it might be possible to restore the man to sanity regarding his own powers. It might become clear to him that fate had treated him capriciously not because he deserved it, but on the say-so of thousands of others convinced that he represented something beyond himself.

A grand illusion had taken him up, and let him go—the same illusion persisting still, without him. Thus he had been plagued by an illusion of grandiosity.

This is far easier to make clear than the corresponding possession of the commoner by myths and words and feelings. His lifelong following-along, his faith in the importance of imagined things, his schooling in belonging and obedience, remain invisible to him.

In another land and time, the following-along takes a different course, with different names and pretenses. That kind too seems entirely natural to those caught in the grip of madness, as an observer might say. It is equally clear to the Aztec attending a festive sacrifice to Huitzilopochtli, and the tsarist cheering the monarchs of Imperial Russia, and the American democrat on voting day, that one can do nothing else, and nothing better. Emperors, tsars, politicians, voters, and victims each believe in their role’s essential importance to the structure of the world.

In every place and time, each role-player following along in their grand illusion harbors the feeling that they live in the exceptional place in all the world. They live in the exceptional society, special among all other peoples, and enjoy god-given favor or natural advantages. History tells how many have believed in incomparable rectitude, in inborn virtues, or inherent superiority. History tells how many come to believe in a great mission. They cannot fail as others failed. They cannot suffer what others have suffered. They tell tales of the greatness that will not end, and each has a part in it. Theirs is some manifest destiny to lead, rule, conquer, civilize, liberate. Thus the chosen people always deserved special permissions to act, or to be entrusted with things others would only abuse. History tells of the infamy of exceptions. So many nominate themselves the people of a great name, rise to fame, and as empires, bring the world they know to ruin.

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The Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, loyalty oath to the United States of America taken by children. Photo circa 1950s.

A VISITOR TO A LAND, like Astolphe de Custine in Russia, or Alexis de Tocqueville in America, can observe with unfamiliarity and perhaps clearer eyes than the inhabitant who calls himself a citizen or a subject, who has never once since juvenile inculcation regarded its native customs and political system as foreign to himself.

In turn, whoever leaves the exceptional place, the world traveler, the expatriate, or the exile, has a chance to regain realism about their place of origin by gaining distance and perspective, and the foreignness able to make familiar things strange again. As does the outsider to habits of mind, though he takes himself nowhere, and possibly changes little around him. For in the exercise of making himself an exception to the ways others live, he also begins to make a thinker.

An insider to a culture of public mythology, such as politics or religion, has been conditioned to respond to slight alterations (in absolute terms) as though they mark the extremities of two poles.

He fears reversals of fortune from rearrangements of the pieces in a great game. The game draws him in to play as though everything depends on white or black winning or losing. It does not occur to him that many options would open up from refusing to play the same game by following the same rules.

The native or acculturated believer in a political system places hopes in a different king, a certain president, a legal or policy change, a new party in the voting, a selection of judges, a new mayor, a bold proclamation or a new program, and this is the scope of his imagination.

Of course a modest adjustment to institution of a system could transform prospects for personal advantage, albeit probably for far fewer than believe it will. Yet only the outsider can see that the scaffold does not change because anyone clinging to it is allowed to climb to a higher rung on a ladder. If the insider has dreams and ambitions, they narrow to fit the framework.

Only the outsider to this mentality, an outsider in mind if not in place of origin, can conceive of any genuine transformation or revolution.

The insider’s idea of innovations and reforms upon which he rests his hopes, upon which his world appears to turn, turn out to be subtleties, technicalities, or rhetorical changes. Someone less invested or accustomed perceives variations on a theme. Underlying presumptions go on, unperturbed, and have consequences.

The outsider finds it eerie and disappointing to observe the care and concern given to contentious trivialities, and to rituals. Insiders hang on arcane signs, lend significance to details and meaning to public performances, without an inkling these could be of no intrinsic interest, and have no definite effect.

As a result the outsider has surreal moments, as though surrounded by tribesmen who inexplicably have practical expectations from adding a different feather on the headdress of the chief. It is obvious that no sensible objection he makes to them could change their mind; that would mean dismissing what they consider serious matters. And if they had been attuned to putting their fixations in perspective in the first place, they would have given him no cause to speak. Should he try, insiders would make it clear they like to hear nothing against their custom.

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The Rotunda, Decorated with Tapestries, which Greeted Guests on their Arrival at Notre-Dame for the Coronation of Napoleon as Emperor by Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine, 1804.

THE PUBLIC AND OFFICIAL MYSTERY clouds thinking about people, material, and relationships which would otherwise not be deceived. A sort of alchemy transmutes the sense of things completely. A monumental weight lends gravity to implausible notions, as though an edifice looms over everyone who looks up, and its architecture supports overwrought ornaments and festoons, all in seriousness. A religious air pervades also, and suffices to endorse absurdity. It almost requires affected trappings, like peculiar costumes and stilted language, to signify that a state of majesty obtains, which lies beyond the mundane, and is not subject to common sense. Jargon, like that of theologians or legal experts, indicates separate subjects which cannot be understood by normal means, or unschooled people.

Official terms with special meanings are not meant to suggest that their real-life substance bears careful thought, but rather to invite no consideration by ordinary people. When rulers of a powerful modern-era state order and implement an embargo of trade and travel that causes hardship, if not starvation, an outbreak of disease, and infant mortality, they call it sanctions. Just this particle of jargon makes a special category for punishing a wayward “regime” that exculpates other rulers who impose a blockade of goods, and implies no cruelty to poor and powerless people unable to escape and desperate to survive. Formality, euphemism, and propriety hide the substance of things.

Offices, rituals, and positions sanctify acts normally understood quite differently. Different names and words deceive. Emotions deceive, charged by longstanding bonds to grand illusions. Culture normalizes. Hardly a man really believes himself guilty of great crimes when he assumes a grand role and takes part in great acts, under the public absolution of sin, and indulgence granted for great works.

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The Oath by Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine, 1804.

The main remedy is to endeavor to view a phenomenon, a happening of politics or society, as though it were not public, official, or large in scale. This effectively dissipates the illusion.

By taking the humble prospect of “great men” and appointed officers, and by down-to-earth judgment of individuals’ actions and material effects, one recognizes people effecting their own benefit, or behaving with themselves in mind. Over time, one sees they lack foresight also, when their gain or preoccupation in the shorter term costs themselves along with others in the future—although many do not pay personally for rapacity, and despite incompetence, many fail their way upwards. One watches them causing problems or crises, only to demand trust, obedience, and resources to solve them by forced measures, which cause further problems and crises. One is no longer blind to their starting trouble by turning people against each other, yelling across both subtle distinctions of identity and arbitrary lines of division.

One sees through the brittle posturing of bellicose rhetoric. One learns that literal wars on enemy governments or insurgents, and figurative wars—on intoxicants, on poverty, on crime, on immigrants—will all assault people, destroy property, induce needless suffering, instill violent and desperate mentalities, ruin lives, and disrupt peaceful association for fellowship and commerce, which has no need of such “protection,” despite strident warnings and fearmongering.

One witnesses the epitome of hysteria, fomented by the alchemy of words, over each “invasion” of job-seeking migrants, or refugees. These are nothing other than the journeys made by unemployed people to reach available opportunities, or unsafe people to reach safety and reestablish constructive lives, who are not transformed into threats by crossing the line on a map or violating a statute. And only a bigoted calculus would ascribe to refugees the kind of militancy that drove them out. Immigration makes a preposterous target for attack—therefore most instructive to our suspicions. For it entails not even the harm of injudicious but consensual drug use (albeit far less harmful than a “war on drugs”), but instead a wholly preferable condition; more productive than vacant jobs or a shortage of talent, and much more salutary for refugees than remaining in danger or squalid camps. Immigration presents a solution to economic problems and a resolution to crises caused by wars, not a problem or crisis in itself. Blocking movement by force, unprovoked arrests, laws barring employment without permission, and policies withholding it, not only obstruct amelioration, but further diminish freedom.

Lend no special category and no special credence to the public and official “campaigns,” and it becomes possible to deconstruct what is happening, beyond leveling accusations of scapegoating, bigotry, or misbegotten execution. If one imagines that the world’s largest syndicates of protection racketeers were long legitimized by custom, eminence, and well-meaning attempts to humanize a parasitical institution, their ostensible rationales are no longer mystified (and competence or incompetence must be gauged quite differently, by them). It would make sense for the grand racketeers to want to hobble competition from other syndicates, which erupts in wars over turf. But to fabricate legitimacy, they would also require the regular drum-beat appearance of bravely confronting one dire threat after another, over and over again, and patter on about it to anyone who will listen. The insider media furnish sympathetic interviewers paid to listen solemnly and seriously, and ask hard questions only about doing more.

A military policy judged solely by evidence—living people hurt, killed, chased away, taken as captives, homes destroyed—loses its pretend dignity. One can see the provocation and aggression in acts of defense and national security, no longer blind to occupation, seizures, physical brutality, and the vilest permissions of state and uniform. The undertaking that employs soldiers and enriches arms merchants loses ill-gotten pride, and it can no longer even seem regrettable but necessary.

The permissive credence given to armed policing is likewise clouded by impersonal illusions, like “justice,” and special license for official acts. Police assault, kidnapping, theft, and murder simply acquire different names, and as a rule, evade prosecution, while lesser offenses against police attract the severest treatment. Such is the local cloud of authority obfuscating phenomena, not unlike the clouded deeds called military, which happen also under the fog of scale, and in the haze of faraway places.

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The Defeated, Requiem by Vasily Vereshchagin, 1879.

By taking the humbling and down-to-earth view, one sees that violations of typical mores are allowed and not called crimes, at the scale of the state. For those proclaimed “leaders,” statistical murders or vast seizures of wealth are rather marks of greatness and bold intention.

Robbed of public and official airs, the gross expenses and excesses of government or Church seem wasteful and vain as any conspicuous consumption or tasteless opulence.

As they welcome the applause of those paying attention to grand illusions instead, those holding profitable positions in the respectable monopolies—on making law, and enforcing it—collude to cartelize other business by a thousand methods, on slim pretexts of doing good for “the economy” or “the country.” In exchange, they receive bribes before, and rewards afterward. They legitimize venality by the alchemy of entirely different words, and the custom of the practice.

The whole grand kleptocracy of the modern-era state seems a triumph of ambitious maneuvers congratulated as public service, and of conniving personal greed, lauded for altruism in doling out funds to encourage support, after rulers, allies, associates, administrators, enforcers, publicists and sycophants have gotten a cut.

In short, by endeavoring to view each happening of politics or society as though it were not public, official, or large in scale, one can see through the conventional and normal to the egregious, were it seen small, and see smallness in those who wish to appear extraordinary.

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An allegory of the state, presented as an effigy of the body politic composed of citizens under sovereign power, from the frontispiece by Abraham Bosse in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, 1651.

THE POLITICALLY-ACTIVE CITIZEN for his or her small part believes in a right to impact other people through “democratically” sharing the power of government, and most have faith in a net advantage to be gained through wielding it.

No matter his modern-era belief in majority rule, each citizen has been granted self-rule, self-government, or autonomy solely in metaphorical terms, which incorporate a collective self out of thousands or millions of people. Contemporary elections may certify select political leaders, among many more unelected leaders, but this practice does not invert the inflexible direction given by hierarchy. That legacy social principle inherited from military aristocracy and theocracy remains the default of government.

Once a leader has acquired status, no matter how, now the leader makes decisions and gives orders. No subject of rule may dictate to leaders as the leaders dictate, which of course defines them as the rulers and not the ruled. “Rule by the people” presupposes the opposite of its implication that people will make their own decisions. Any subject is instead supposed to accept restriction of some decision-making, as in all rule. Under the power of the state, he is obliged to yield to superiors, to be governed by others’ decisions, and accede to official demands. The so-called “consent of the governed,” and many other terms, euphemize the age-old supersession of self-direction as it would emerge from personal desires and needs. More liberal governments attenuate obedience. All expect it.

Remember that ruling is not only a metaphor, and it does not happen in the abstract—but to a person. What does this power of the state entail? Since it is meaningless if anyone may disobey the hierarchy of people giving orders downward, their ruling other people actually entails armed employees, arrests, legal charges, courts, fines, prison cells, or worse punishments for those who disobey. These are only formal ordeals, while harassment, smears, blackmail, threats, extortion, bullying, beatings, torture, and execution occur unofficially, as well as through formal process and institutional decree.

Modern-era democratic states are not exceptions. Policy initiatives meant to sound positive and generous are no less compulsory. The appointed do force the unwilling to contribute and collaborate with government organizations and programs, ultimately by punitive methods.

It is simply that the modern art of ruling respectably, relying less on instilling fear and advertising decisive brutality than former empires and lords, has become more concerned to camouflage the rough points of contact with the ruled, or excuse them. They have not become aberrational means, in the way that anyone might fall back on using force for personal self-defense. People called governments force other people to do things, not as a rare exception, but as a routine.

If enforcers do not routinely repress demonstrators in the streets, or put down rebellions, they act against dissidents and the defiant ones who have been singled out, often finding legal or bureaucratic cover, and set precedent by attacking unpopular minorities or marginalized malcontents. Then, it is easier to claim only backward, undemocratic states and enemies repress their citizens. The same governments can employ more violent means abroad, against those without a vote, and have little concern for appearances.

Those who cannot imagine any other routine recourses in human society are inclined to defend the modus operandi, or reconcile themselves to it, or pretend it does not happen often. As a practical matter they avoid personal contact with the trouble they ignore as much as they can, chiefly by obeying.

Who would not prefer to keep the ordeals of coercion or punishment abstract—felt only by someone else, at some distance—well aware that ordeals do not befall anyone in the abstract or “in theory”? Few even need to be told Obey or this can happen to you. If they never have cause to think on it, it is because they conform compulsively.

It could happen anyway: a case of mistaken identity, a raid on the wrong house, or by walking along with the wrong color skin. It happens in order to catch quotas of offenders, or make convictions. It happens because legally-empowered armed agents have little to restrain them from enforcement of their own whims as well as laws. Few people who would willingly accept the role of enforcer would also abstain from this abuse of the power to abuse.

The citizen has been taught that the good citizen owes obedience, in any case. Therefore he does not find the practices that compel it inherently offensive, especially in formality, and when they “follow the rules.” When the citizen finds out that police, military, or covert agents have used violent expedients like torture, assault, or execution unofficially, he is perhaps most shocked they did not follow the rules, and most placated by apparent discipline.

To the inculcated citizen, disobedience is the egregious behavior; trouble or punishment for it are only to be expected. The disobedient are suspect to begin with, and conflated with blameworthy criminals or even enemies, if their motives are not also marred by perversion or insanity. If a response to them seems excessive, the initial feeling and principle remains that anyone defying authority has brought trouble upon themselves.

But the citizen believes the finest of participation in popular government; and the citizen holds that its failures stem from apathy. He wants more governance, not less, and to stick his head further into it. He believes that others should too, for the abstract “health” of the system, though at the same time he expects that his own ideas should prevail in the “healthy democracy” he envisions, where everyone votes. He wishes to use the power of the state, at least to his benefit, probably to harness it for his good causes. He believes in his democratic right to have an impact on others—however the government does—wishful and delicately abstract about consequences.

Rarely does a citizen have any part of enforcement—the actual means of rule, in the prison, in the court, on the bureaucrat’s desk, in the back alley—except to suffer from it, and hardly ever to control it.

If he is outraged against injustices, he falls back on outlets as incongruous as holding up a protest sign during a burglary, or promising to vote against an assault. The typical citizen’s objections muster all the weight of a sternly-worded letter.

The overruled subject has, least of all, means to restrain obedient enforcers set upon him; even less than in proceedings against him. To escape their reach presents almost as much difficulty.

He has not even the power—the right or the capability—to take exception, stand apart, take nothing and give nothing, and be left alone. He cannot be entrusted with his responsibility. To be sure he is probably not trusted, not by those watchers who may know how to trust no one. But more than this, he is needed and he is required to play his part. For rulers need the ruled, as badly as demagogues need the crowd, and crusading moralists need contrite sinners; not only to obtain material gain and labor in their causes, but for the fanciful conviction that crowns some creatures of the species above others.

Nevertheless the citizen, an insider hopelessly immersed in his culture, rituals, and beliefs, fancies themselves a participant, against factuality.

An outsider to this mentality, this exceptional society might think: “this proud subject has a more disproportionate sense of importance and a more unrealistic fantasy of control than a ruler. In this he is no doubt encouraged by having a vote, and a voice.”

The outsider would see ritual futility in the former, the vote; statistically-trivial in a great population, only periodic, and as a rule confined to nominated choices of rulers, but campaigned with farcical intensity. The argumentative frenzy at election time he would surely regard with puzzlement, and rising alienation.

In the latter, the voice of the people, he would hear a babble; “it is the citizen talking or shouting at once with thousands or millions of others, who also lack the fame or high position to be listened to! Surely an indication of desperation, or derangement,” he would exclaim.

The outsider would hear and read citizens talking about what needs to be done and what ought to be done as if their advice had been solicited sincerely. He would further realize that the citizens also feel they are “democratically” exercising their share in the power of government, along with the rest of the public, through “political action” and “civic participation.”

It is hardly conceivable that the iconic foreigner—were there anyone from a land or a time so different—would listen for the first time to some citizen earnestly pay obeisance to these vaporous notions without a bit of the trepidation he might feel near a psychotic. “Yes, of course. Very nice,” the foreigner would carefully reply.

The citizen’s implied approval of institutional violence-by-proxy would even strike a traveler from a past culture ruled without qualms as ludicrous, in its pretense of agency. To the pragmatist of history, this is the peasant believing he is the lord or the king, because he has theoretical strength in numbers.

And a foreigner with an outsider’s mind would at least know it for an alien custom too menacing and mercenary to pass as whimsical.

For citizens have not only the hope but the expectation to gain from political involvement. They expect to get their way to some extent—although this makes demands upon others, and even when it makes inordinate demands upon others they scarcely mind—and they experience disappointment and frustration when they do not get their way. Thus, citizens make mutually exclusive demands upon each other, and most are destined to be frustrated. For their lot, they blame the people with contrary designs, and not the impossible, irreconcilable, and divisive system under which they are ruled and encouraged to think they are rulers, they who lack the means of rule, and exercise none.

A visitor to this land might record “plebeian delusions of grandeur, of unreconcilable ambition, busybody intention, and oftentimes greed.”

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The Mockers by Arthur Boyd, 1945.

TALKING IN ABSTRACTIONS allows thoughts to skirt substance, like phantoms gliding over ground. Talk can play out a pure wish, reproduce a platitude serving sanctimony, or erect a hobbyhorse subject to old spleen, and incur no obvious consequence or cost for never touching on concrete and corporeal matters.

Heady and hallowed words—like power, war, glory, justice, health, democracy—will later play out in visible effects, in tangible consequences, and immediate situations to deal with, as well as feelings visceral to us. So will maligned and infamous abstractions—also free to reference like a well-known reality, as close as a familiar, as evident as an incarnation—lead only later to an unforeseen concrete outcome. When the first consequences are only felt in expressions and reactions, the talker need not confront what those ghosts of ideas they follow will likely make manifest later. Those most liable to be satisfied by words lack imagination to foresee, and knowledge enough to predict.

The most persuasive language may have the least to do with substance, like the rhetoric of demagogues who have frightened, browbeaten, and cajoled captivated crowds. It is true that figurative language can exaggerate more freely, a device which propaganda never neglects in its storytelling. That does not suffice for the puppeteer’s purpose. The puppeteer learned how puppets work before plucking strings in a live performance. Before the demagogue opened their mouth, they knew the listener was in thrall to their attachments to certain metaphors, as well as inducible to mimic the emotions of a crowd.

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The Orator (Der Volksredner) by Magnus Zeller, circa 1920.

These are sweeping metaphors of belonging and loyalty and kinship; decency, nobility, and hope; and objects of existential fears, fury, and loathing. Their points of contact with reality are emotional and primal phenomena, neurogenic, and not concrete.

To manipulate these unreasoning attachments, one talks for instance of “the country,” all the diverse inhabitants who live between borders, as one—one family (thus fatherland or motherland) with a family home (the homeland). Or one speaks of “the nation” as one body that must watch its health, or purify its blood, protect its heart, or care for its soul. Each trope can serve many different masters and agendas: admonish us to care for “public health”; or “racial hygiene”; or remind us that civic participation is the “health of a democracy.”

Affected tripe no more artful than this gets in the head of a listener. Many who hear metaphors dutifully repeat them like unforgettable doggerel. Initially listeners might have taken for granted that rhetoric is not literal, and therefore they did not hold figures of speech to realism. Circulation goes on until the absurdity of figurative expressions wears off. They are accepted quite normally and even seriously, the original reason for their coinage long forgotten.

By now the public language of society is riddled with pandering metaphors dated to years or centuries ago, no longer guided by an immediate purpose but driving forward blindly. Forceful pack animals bear the gravitas and sentiment of yesteryears, ready to be drafted into the service of any base mobilization. On the backs of these ponderous metaphors, unsuspecting men and women are carried away.

Many of the usual contrivances subsume disparate people and places into collective figments, which are infused with group belonging and mutual purpose. Though a fanciful grouping fails to match the group at all, few fault or dismiss the fiction, and instead try to realize the fiction. This is because discrepant denotation matters less to its meaning than emotional tenor, which rings true, true to a need.

 

STRIP AWAY THE MAKE-BELIEVE, and one finally has the same chances to understand the motives of men—at least as we imagine them in cases without lofty camouflage, in the selling, dealing, bartering, begging, and bragging of the marketplace, no less usual in the halls of power. The thoroughly-confused remark upon just a few types and occasions, and call them “corruption.”

To begin to decipher the personal interests in a grandiose interest, follow the legal maxim remembered by Cicero: cui bono? Good for whom? The detective also asks, “who benefits from the crime?” as an indicator of motive.

Suspect the motives of those with financial incentives, those courting fame and importance, seeking access to power, or those eager at the prospect of secure employment. One knows that publicly professing concern over “the nation,” “the country,” or “the economy” is not out of feeling for some unlikely bloc, or nonsensical monolith, but a cover for selective interests. Very likely, producers, financiers, or workers engaged in an industry that stands to profit or decline found common cause with professional courtiers, or ideologues craving relevance.

Those urge, “We must do this,” or “We can’t afford not to.” They pretend that everyone in their “we” acts together, and will all succeed or fail together. Every unwitting investor and volunteer is welcome on the team or behind the cause. Far fewer leaders and eventual beneficiaries will be allowed.

Invoking public benefit or necessity is the way for those with ventures or investments to convince many more with nothing to gain to lobby rulers on their behalf. Official support allows investors to unload risk onto everyone included in their common spirit. Subsidy increases short-term profits, at general expense. And if watershed events they have positioned to exploit can be engineered, they could make fantastic sums. They have no intention of sharing gains, or taking on the same risks they demand of others.

To suspect is never to say decisively why events have been set in motion, or to infer planning and responsibility by motive alone. Even a conspiracy of interests can make an event opportune without engineering it.

Nevertheless, groups who promote policy do not lack material or ideological motives which others do not share in. They advocate and lobby out of some special interest, making an investment of sorts, while the individual inhabitant, citizen, worker, or consumer cannot profit by such expenses. Individuals outside of politics lack a sensible interest in the capital except to demand let me alone, and the repeal of what has already been done to them. It is the function of promotional groups and coalitions with agendas to portray their special interests as the common interest—national security, economic development, public health—especially when, latent facts would tell, they do not coincide with the interests of most consumers, workers, citizens, or inhabitants.

Warmongers in particular advocate a policy materially costly, dangerous, or counterproductive to most others, and that is the point of appeals to abstractions. The warmonger relies on faithful citizens’ emotional sympathies felt toward grand illusions. At first giving in to passions of a warlike crowd does feel good; these sympathies thrill, and reassure, and give meaning. Great profits do not land in every pocket, however, but in few at the expense of many. Nor does the civilian share in war’s great accretion of official powers by entrusting the newly-important politicians, the bureaucrats, the spies, and the generals.

Fearing for their safety, obedient citizens endanger themselves by acceding to attacks on faraway targets in their name. Abroad, hostilities kill, destroy cities and homes, and embitter. Making war does not make peace, but risks making future enemies. Civilians are lucky to survive, poorer, less safe and less free; soldiers, to return home with nightmares and intact limbs; refugees, to find a home.

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Destruction during the Passchendaele campaign (third battle of Ypres), 1917.

THE GRAND ILLUSION is not merely produced out of distraction from phenomena and facts by officialdom’s mandates, or created by abstractions, possessive metaphors and other demagogic rhetoric, but engineered by sheer scale that pulls away from obtrusive realities, whereas features in front of our face must be reconciled, and sooner than distant concatenations of events.

The close-up ethnic violence of splitting communities comes of identification with an artificial scale—like “forging a new, independent nation”—not contempt between familiar faces.

To take a train ride across the border between former “enemies” India and Pakistan and visit similar streets, similar homes, similar people, is all that is necessary to dispel anxiety that descended from the time when Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim Punjabis were expelled from their homes, fled, or were murdered, after the Indian subcontinent was “partitioned” by drawing a line on a map between eastern and western Punjab.

People more readily learn to fear or hate a far-away threat for little or no reason. In contrast, an aversion felt toward a neighbor might soon be revealed as paranoia or bigotry, difficult to maintain in the face of familiarity. The feuds that neighbors escalate are more likely spurred by contemptible dealings with each other than baseless, and therefore, if the grudges are not self-limiting, they may be amenable to making peace by mending those relations.

Consider a different effect of scale. An inflated story does not seem so overblown when it tells a tale of the unseen, imagined to extend beyond the horizon, rather than things one can see. It captivates many of those who would doubt it on the smaller stage before their eyes.

Grandiose myths about national production and lifestyle would fizzle at the personal scale, at which business rarely “booms.” Entitlement to the American Dream would sound ironic amidst talk of stockroom paychecks and personal budgets, and similar means of saving to buy a house. In personal finance, boasts of unmeasured success belong to a bumptious character. Even at the relative peak of prosperity, it is difficult to imagine that places seen every day and things done daily stimulated the belief of living in “the greatest country on Earth.”

The soaring scope of disconnection from places and people permits both contemptuous and romantic idealizations that would have drawn ridicule otherwise, if they were conceivable at all.

Even the sentiment of German-speaking families toward fields owned and plowed for generations could not cultivate the effusive propaganda of Blut und Boden among the people of some hamlet living on the local terrain. That slogan of agrarian nationalists, and then National Socialists, needed alienated populations living in industrial towns and cities to idealize the country in the distance; and it was the contrast to degenerate “asphalt culture” of cities (and urbane Jews) that flattered the “peasant” virtues of the countryside and gained popularity among traditionalists. Identity rooted in folklore actually required anticipation of size, numbers, and distances—not locality or community, familiar from experience. Size, number, and distance instill unfamiliarity.

Without having to pay attention to any farmer in particular, völkisch writers could extol eugenics and rustic integrity to purify an incorporeal folk “blood” that courses through no one’s body, and yearn for an idealized race that no one has met. It would not be believed of just one’s own neighbors.

The utopian myth would hardly drive a small town “back to the land” on a patch of nearby country; it required a “nation” to animate. Looking beyond the horizon, to Deutschland, one could talk of redemption through working the “soil,” without having to believe this of some familiar plot of dirt.

By its grand and impersonal size, not subject to any sense, the nation could rise, faraway and eternal, yet present in the imagination.

Oedipus in Egypt, by Jean-Léon Gérôme

Bonaparte Before the Sphinx by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1867–1868.

IN THE GRAND ILLUSIONS OF PUBLIC AND POLITICS, one is forever trying to hide that nothing grand is at work.

Grandeur of rhetoric, monumental scale, and popular fervency hide nothing other, nothing greater than each creature, animated in his or her pursuits and instincts. The society comprises nothing other than all of them together. Never does any part, any faction of organisms, any single organism, cease to be animated in its own causes because of invoking something else. No thing larger than persons and things requires their sacrifice. No nation is standing above them all. No majority decides. No value rules over men. Invoking a grandiose principle does not make the grandiose principle real.

These are consensual pretenses for all those who cannot stand the naked knowledge that they, and those much like them, lack clear mutual purpose and belonging. It would be in error to assume that everyone wishes to see through illusion. Those who want for faith prefer to revel in grandeur, and they resent an indication of its falsehood.

State and Church, which encouraged punitive fearfulness for institutional purposes, were not responsible for fear’s origination. Fear of what diverges from the mainstream clamors for an object. The incisive who see through grand illusions will automatically meet the same fate in fearful society as the outsider who merely dresses or intoxicates differently: to incur suspicion in a relatively tolerant variant of fearful society, and persecution, under illiberal treatment.

The participant in grand illusions joins in for many reasons, not only conformism: his own entertainment; his own fear of irrelevance; his own need of richer sensations than he knows how to provide. One makes unimpeachable heroes of realer men because one needs them, and for the same reason, one subscribes to impersonal figments never to be pierced by sharp senses.

The unmasking of status and scale is a lesson for the perspicacious, who wish to see past themselves, and see through illusions. In the midst of contrary reinforcement, it promises an unrelenting mission.

It promises more, also, than liberation from servitude and suffering. Their reward for making themselves unwelcome foreigners in a world of fabrication is to be that finally, a grandeur of the soul genuinely felt, demonstrated in society by appreciable works, can become sufficient and resilient, and depend no longer on fragile pretenses and hypocrisy. It can be found in the exceptional place awaiting mankind, and not a part of it.

Man, and not entitlement or affectation, can realize aspirations and find belonging.

Dispel the grand illusions of nations, borders, titles, hierarchies, and do not fear that without them, Man would lack company, protection, significance, or access to any grand purpose.

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Excerpt: Awe and Presence

Another preview from The Constellation of Man: Part 3 (of 8) from Book I of Volume I. —CPB


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artwork by Banksy, photo by Steve Cotton

Our “reality” is habitually pared-down, less complex, less awe-inducing, less exciting, as an acclimation. We require experiences to open our eyes to the world around us and within us.

The experiences can always be found. In fact there are too many for our attention. But we must cease to be dead to our senses and our callings.

On one occasion we have reason to doubt. On another, we have reason to marvel. From one time to the other, it is, most significantly, we that have become different, whatever else has changed around us.

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artwork by Banksy, photo by Steve Cotton

It is not unusual that one who encounters pain or tedium lives through what seems like too much to bear, and closes. Another can observe this hardened attitude and see nothing but immaturity. They see a stuck, troubled, thoughtless child, crying “I am jaded, and there is nothing left to amaze and delight me.”

It is common to encounter hardening or dulling experiences that strip away the innocence of youth. It is rare to learn what to take from harsh or deficient experience—how to meet experiences, and not only receive them; how to remain sensitive through what could deaden, how to sublimate what could scar, and how to remain open instead of closing.

Disciplined learning about the world yields some resilience, though not the same that comes with practice. At least, learning can supply alternatives to a single way of seeing and experiencing things, or too few.

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Nelumbo nucifera, sacred lotus; umbilical symbol of creation, rebirth, unfolding enlightenment, purity, and more; seat of gods and goddesses, buddhas and bodhisattvas; iconic in myths of Vishnu, Brahma, Lakshmi; identified with Buddha. In “On the Love of the Lotus,” Chinese sage Zhou Dun Yi observed in poetic allegory that the lotus, both open and straight, grows out of mud, but remains unsullied.

It is necessary to gather perspectives on our own experiences from the breadth and depth of other experiences across time and place. All our lives are local and limited. Greatness can blossom from opening up to just a little more.

Transcending our place to see more, and awakening to the transcendent in us is one purpose of religious mythology.

Scientific knowledge can act as myth just the same; if a child is told the story of how she is made of star-stuff, she learns that her own atoms were once forged within the nuclear cores of stars bright eons before the sun, and by vaster stars that exploded. She learns that life-giving atoms in her and all people were star-sown. The truth of that legend is both incidental to its transcendental power and majesty, and no detraction.

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Light from the edge of a blast wave from a star that exploded approximately 6000 BC, during Neolithic civilization on Earth. The visible supernova remnant is now called the Veil Nebula. This mosaic of Hubble telescope images shows a small section of the distant Nebula, with false colors assigned to emissions from hydrogen, oxygen, and sulfur.

An expansive revelation about our place, and our connections to some mystery we have to struggle to imagine, fills us with awe. Awe is a kind of restorative experience. Awe knocks ennui aside without a thought for the tedium that formerly seemed to pervade life.

In awe, one forgets doubts, and ever feeling that life is insignificant, unimportant, pointless—or miserable, consigned to suffering, or to guilt. One forgets feeling that life itself could be subjected to doubts. Awe induces doubt that life could be known, could be encompassed by our smaller experience.

Simple novelty of experience promotes a modest openness. To pursue novelty is certainly easier and much more common than an awesome, transcendent revelation. Even if novel experiences do not teach, they can achieve some restoration of feeling.

Otherwise, our familiar world seems too small and too usual. That familiar domain occludes the unseen remainder of the world. Life, too familiar, obstructs our participation in all else, diverse as we cannot imagine. Life seems cramped, repetitive, even hopeless. This is our feeling, unfairly attributed to other life without our constraint and beyond our limitations. Our impression of life portrays a distortion of life, conditioned or contained. Escape from noticing life only seems the credible alternative to neurosis and depression.

A routine travesty of living appears ridiculous in the face of further experiences discovered by spontaneity, or created by improvisation. Moments in which we experience different things—or even familiar things, differently—can then become extraordinary to us. These moments deliver us.

It is not too difficult to make extraordinary moments, for those who know they must seek them out. Ordinary moments are not ordinary at all to those who know how to transform them, with observance, into informal rituals. Sense phenomena that others take for granted can attain a phenomenal attention, a spiritual attention, suitable for sacrament.

[To feel] spiritual presence means and requires that you are present. All that becomes banal—an urban skyline view, an alcoholic high, a walk in the woods, rhythm or melody, a sexual touch, an idea written long ago—can be refreshed with spirit.

Spiritual experiences are restorative, as well as extraordinary experiences. They feel special, and make us feel special about ourselves or about living—eternal objects of human desire, taking infinite guises.

Feeling special about ourselves is indistinct from the impression of having purpose, or life having significance or meaning. A “relationship with God” communicates that one is special, that one has purpose, and life has meaning. But this is the same thing that people want most from romantic relationships with other people: the opportunity to feel special about themselves through a sense of connection-to-other. They want transcendence not only from changes in perspective, but manifested in experience made special—spiritual—through renewed attention to the senses, and ensuing intensification. The bond becomes sacred; the sexual rite becomes holy. A deep relationship with one’s work or calling can likewise become sanctified by devotion, attention, and presence.

A sacred or holy experience is not derived from a thing, place, or action called sacred or holy. We must supply preparation for a sense of the sacred or holy, which can be found in almost anything; it is the person who charges the encounter, not whatever seems sacred or holy.

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Lotus Temple, Bahá’í House of Worship, New Delhi

It is a great mystical, esoteric, and at times heretical teaching that the high experiences of religion are open to you. They are allowed. They are already implicit in the living human body, though not well-realized without practice. You can learn to recognize doors and need not depend on formal rituals to unlock them. You need not borrow a set of keys that dogma approves and intercessors must provide.

Even the grandest senses of divinity do not depend upon being seized by powers outside ourselves. The power to have transcendent experiences in the world unfolds from living, open to transcendent experiences.

You must ask yourself if you allow a sense of awe before the majesty of the world, intricate beyond your knowledge, beyond your time.

Can you hear, can you say: “Awake, awake! The world is new from this moment!” This feeling can begin a creation story for a new life.

 

Awe and other concepts that sound religious describe experiences to be realized in actual life. Grace and blessedness, transcendence and revelation, love, joy, passion, ecstasy and rapture are also called religious experiences, but they refer to real experiences of feeling nonetheless.

When religion is made regular, named, and organized, these experiences are exceedingly likely to remain concepts, drafted into rituals or doctrines that may be practiced and followed without those feelings; religion without spirit; religion left with dead metaphors, antique distractions; dogma now without corpus.

Life without the set of spiritual experiences is limited to a subset without sensations of “meaning.”

All the religious concepts—or rather, spiritual feelings behind religious concepts—can be naturalized, made part of our clearer understanding of natural, human life rooted in the body’s nervous system and the dispositions and needs of the mind. Spiritual experiences are special neural experiences, not supernatural or otherworldly experiences. The numinous can be integrated into natural life, and not cast out to the supernatural—nor dismissed along with superstition by the secular-minded.

Awe has become rarer than ever before. That few wonder at the rarity of the experience called awe could almost explain its rarity. The near absence of awe in adulthood seems to go virtually unnoticed and unremarked, though the experience is extraordinary. Awe has become an empty word out of fashion to modern people who cannot relate. Many identify awe with religious devotion, no longer valued, or practiced only as custom. But devotion is a road to awe, to pervasive holiness, to reverence and resonance, and if these things must be lost with secular deliverance from superstition, we should have cause to question whether that is deliverance at all. By all those numb and jaded, awe is missed, and the unshaken soul perceived, if not by words, then deep down instead.

But it is not necessary to lose awe without religion, just as it is not necessary to abandon spirit. Awe before God, or gods, represents awe before the epic of life in the world. It is simply that the origin of mighty experiences was mistaken to be might outside oneself.

Love, also, wells up and flows out from within, not to the credit of objects of fixation: idealized figures of divinity, or erotic attraction. We have in our brains the means for intense alterations of perception and participation. In a sense, as long as we are thus prepared, the triggers are almost incidental, if we know better than to attribute our electrified chemistry to them. We misbelieve in our dependency on others, and outside forces.

Religious experiences can be summoned up from within oneself. This is the “heresy” of personal divinity, that because I can summon up divine feelings, I am God—another untrue metaphor to express a truth.

 

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