Category Archives: Religion

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.

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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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Excerpt: spirit as metaphor for sex (and vice versa)

Continuing to post selections taken out of context from large amounts of unfinished material collected for The Constellation of Man, a work of literature planned for three volumes. Some compositions are unrepresentative in style, subject, or themes. All remain under development, subject to change. All selections were written by me since 2010. —CPB


It is too literal to believe that the cilice is worn no longer [by modern and secular people]. It is too literal to believe that penitence, or mortification to suppress the concupiscence to commit acts of sin, are obsoleted when these words are left to grow unfamiliar and antique.

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Die Jungfrauen by Gustav Klimt, 1913

Of all acts of desire formerly proscribed by religious authority, and forms of hedonism still censured in spirit, lust troubles most intimately. Even after the most diligent corruption of the youth to mistrust the body has passed from common instruction, the taboo body lingers, and puberty makes it a stranger. One generation passes shame, secrecy, and silence to another. The next passes awkwardness and avoidance to another. Overcoming schooled inhibition requires touching again and again, talking again and again, practicing again and again.

Some of the most immodest or promiscuous remain firmly in thrall. To want to prove that transgression of a taboo is possible proves also that the taboo holds—at least enough to tempt, and has not been thoroughly overcome. To transgress compulsively, to reduce sex to mere performance of acts, is to forget the tabu indicates sexual physicality is holy, not merely forbidden. Along this line, we can learn more than an error from those who still condemn lust as a sin.

The dangers of leaving desires to seethe unreleased, leading to unintended perversions of libido, have been extensively described. Indeed, religious modesty hides more than flesh. Suppression perpetuates undercurrents of fiendish attention to sexuality, as well as anticipating sin from such preoccupation. It forbids an appetite and fulfills an expectation, a guilty loop.

But more than cultivating obsessive attention, it also encourages another species of attention: a conscientiousness surrounding sexuality, hinted at by the concepts “purity” and “innocence,” an aura easily left behind when sexuality is rendered common and taken for granted. A purely utilitarian, matter-of-fact attitude toward sex would dispense with shame, anxiety, and bashfulness, and Eros too.

To actually encourage being present in the sexual act goes too far for those who worry about participation. Inhibited by shame, they are generally unable to obtain the fruits of such cultivation. These fruits are spiritual in a metaphorical sense of spirit, while the facilitating practice for present sensual, erotic, and ecstatic experience is—outwardly and physically—foreplay, sexual intercourse, and orgasm. They are too timid about that ritual to enter the temple’s Holy of Holies. No one can meet the god from a distance, performing self-conscious sex without abandon. No one honors Eros without fucking.

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Danaë by Gustav Klimt, 1907

Yet religious sanctity is of a kind with presence in the act, and not in total opposition. Those who still identify sex with sin at least intensify attention to sex, even though—and partly because—they are not supposed to. They know at least to impart significance to sex, and not demote a potentially profound neurogenic experience to a material interaction, or a biological drive. Preoccupation or obsession does heighten experience, despite unfortunate condemnation of the means of fruition and deemphasis of method. So do the various, overlaid religious frames treating sex as a profound, spiritual matter and not a mundane one.

Whereas, the alternate error of those called licentious is always to harvest, never to cultivate; that is, not to impart a neurogenic halo to the sexual acts, but to expend these occasions without reverence, and without intent to “set the mood” for any meaning beyond the obvious. This potentially reduces pleasure to expending the heightened senses of physicality, without attuning the senses for a broader neurogenic significance while they are heightened. Opportunities for peak experiences are lost.

That would also be the cost of coming to see sex as “simply biological,” the urgent need which one simply discharges, and gets back to something more important. One forms utilitarian relationships for this purpose, without emotional or spiritual attachments. One is too rarely struck, as by a lightning bolt, by an orgasm with meaning. One is too rarely shocked. Perhaps not at all.

It might be better not to lose the long-taught memory of shame, if this must be the price. Fortunately the price is paid unnecessarily by those who do. The mystique of sexuality need not be lost because the shame is lost, and because the moralizing has been, in its turn, lectured at, judged, and rejected.

Steven Pinker Talks Down to the Humanities

[via Open Culture on Facebook] Was amused by responses to an essay by Steven Pinker (“precious and facile as always,” as one put it) called “Science Is Not Your Enemy,” that misses its opportunity for the descriptive subtitle: “Steven Pinker Talks Down to the Humanities” (among which he seems to include “soft,” humanized, or subjective social sciences and psychologies).

“Pinker is a a bildungsphilister and this is one of the most vulgar and foolish essays ever published in a leading magazine. A masterpiece of middlebrow kitsch, nearly all of it is wrong, and in a risible, contemptible way.”

So upon reading it, I must say I too am impressed. Pinker doesn’t just set up a straw man. He has an entire straw debate going on there. It’s remarkable because most of what is correct in it has nothing to do with any real argument that intelligent people would present. But Pinker still has a lecture! Err, that’s nice Pinker—tell us some of the neat things “science” has done (not scientists – monolithic “science”) and *do tell* how it banished superstition (yes, you’ve heard this one before). Why not put on a whole performance of “Inherit the Wind”? We’ll wait.

But then, maybe go look into some things you don’t already know, like what the term “scientism” properly means when intelligent people use it, instead of pretending it has no meaning, a move worthy of Daniel Dennett’s argumentative tactics. My favorite ignorance is found in the paragraph accusing others of being “historically illiterate” while demonstrating his own in the very next sentence.

He makes evident that his grasp of a great many diverse subjects (including those grouped under political science, arts, history, anthropology and economics) is sometimes no more sophisticated than the preliminary biases, cliches, naivete, and prejudices of the average college-level intellect obtained from an undergraduate class or (more likely) casual reading.

Such an unprepared debater has all the moral authority of a man with no pants. Those well-versed in “the humanities” will simply wonder why he blundered in, so to speak, seemingly determined to pick a daftly-collective argument.

Pinker couldn’t have supported Gould’s assertion of two spheres appropriate to humanities and science (reflecting the classic distinction between “is” and “ought”) any better if he’d argued for it, instead of against it. I don’t incidentally draw lines between subjects like academic specialists too often do, but one has to be clear about the differences between describing the way things work, and prescribing what to do about it—as well as differences in preparation, methods and mentalities each properly require.

The fact that public intellectuals no better than this have taken charge of current philosophy of mind (via cognitive science in most cases, although not exclusively—some from traditional philosophy) does inspire me to correct their many deficiencies, though. There are still tremendous opportunities to write great books about human nature, evolution, psychology, the brain and the mind that are not mostly farfetched, beside the point, silly, or parochial in outlook. And it’s the last point that may be the most important strike against these academics’ stabs at writing definitive books to unravel the enigma of Man. Whether it’s Steven Pinker or John Searle or whoever, the most important thing about human beings will always be: “the field I’ve studied” or “the focus of my background.”

Addendum:
I want to note, on the positive side, that Pinker’s stated desire for collaboration and synthesis towards the end of the piece points to a laudable project (one which I wrote about at great length in my essay Rising in Walls), though the way he has written this piece, and comports himself, makes a productive “truce” impossible. And, to parallel Dennett’s distinction between good and bad reductionism, there is good synthesis and there is bad. The examples of cross-fertilization Pinker gives are pretty bad, having for example not enough of the humility before the unknown and uncertain, or  appreciation for qualitative subtlety, that the best humanists in science or the humanities will call for. It would be wonderful for scientific techniques and rigorous epistemology to inform more of the subjective theory written about life on Earth, and vice versa. Pinker just doesn’t have a handle on what that would look like, because he is not enough of a generalist, either.

Addendum Two:
With an essay this bad, it would take more time than I have to unpack everything. Here’s a brief, eviscerating praeteritio that covers  points that I did not go through—including, that Pinker obviously ignores and doesn’t consider worthy of mention a number of aspects one would normally consider quite essential to “the humanities.” Some criticisms may be less obvious though, and perhaps it’s worth the exercise of going through them. In the above post, I took for granted that, meeting Pinker halfway, we were going to talk about the humanities as functional—focusing on purposes and purposeful thinking, which is certainly not the only way to look at things. But this is the teleology you have to expect from scientism; it doesn’t have time for a lot of meandering around and reading poetry so to speak but rather wants to talk about what poetry does for the human race. In short, I took some deficiencies for granted, and arrogance—this is Pinker, after all, the man who went up against Stephen Jay Gould on evolution, though to this day, he casually misunderstands (or misrepresents?) the basic Darwinian argument.

Aim higher, atheists

Modern people can be so weirdly literal. And by no means are they all fundamentalist religious types.

I have known many atheists and I have come across a great many atheists. The first rule of atheism is: talk about religion. The second rule: dispute the Bible. The third (possibly the second, actually): tease and argue with fundamentalists, mostly in absentia, especially they most objectionable and uncouth ones.

Yes, now that they don’t have to worry themselves anymore about the literal truths of the Bible that all the fundamentalists believe in—phew—I get the impression many self-congratulatory atheists like to spend a whole lot of their intellectual time insisting the Bible isn’t literally true and is in fact full of falsehoods and absurdities (and in doing this, feeling intelligent and perceptive).

Well, first of all: no kidding, the Bible is not literally true. Have you ever tried to read other mythology literally? Ovid makes a poor science or history textbook, but that’s a similarly insipid point.

We can rest assured that whoever refuses to accept such a painfully obtrusive lesson must have a personal attachment at stake, or simply won’t because a contrary painfully-obtrusive lesson was hammered into them already by their parents and church, and brainwashing works the first time.

Either way, if “freethinker” atheists have the opportunities to think about and discuss anything they like, it seems dopey to spend time telling the fundamentalists that material which millions of people have already come to view as allegorical since the Middle Ages is—*gasp*—not literally true.

Whether they’ve rediscovered how to be as concerned with literal meaning as fundamentalists, or how to keep pace with fundamentalists, or how to keep having a ‘conversation’ with fundamentalists instead of moving on, I’m not sure that congratulations for “free thought” are in order quite yet.

You’re simply not past religion and done with it until you regard reading the Bible as no more threatening and offensive to your own mind than reading ancient Greek, Norse, or Chinese myths. In fact, I’m sure it’s no coincidence that quite a few intellectuals got past their own religious instruction and obstruction by reading mythology and literature more widely, as Jung did, and realizing that not only is belief subjective, but there is more depth to be found in religious interpretation than Christian theology has to offer. In the process of graduation to move beyond religious obsession, agnosticism with less to prove and more to learn seems the freest stage, not (as some atheists think) some weakly-resistant intermediate stage.

If instead the atheists’ concern and reason for so much adversarial attention is merely and truly over what fundamentalists will do with their dogmatic beliefs (as many atheists would claim) , they should be spending some time telling the hundreds of millions of Hindus that their authoritative texts aren’t true; they should logically also be dispelling the doctrines of fundamentalists of all kinds, in the orthodoxies of science and politics as well as religion, wherever free and open thought is denied and the consequences are great.

Instead, the trending atheism today is yet another species of missionary fundamentalism by a Chosen People who are zealous to prove they are not at all like the believers.

Writing Great Philosophy for the Sake of the Future

Some of the most important written works neither profit a thinker, nor advance an academic or public career. At first, they offer only themselves. (Or, perhaps, some extraordinary adventures and experiences necessary to write them—yet the total labor required to see them through often dims this value for the author.)

Yet the expectation that compositions should soon yield profits, status, fame or advancement keeps many thinkers and writers away from achieving greater work.

This is one reason why academia is very nearly the death of philosophy, and the market for writing, little better. Most who somehow emerge from modern “education systems” and have philosophy to offer—ideas cultivated through study and appreciation of the sciences (the fields of human knowledge) and expressed as a creation of art—are obliged to bury their ideas in entertainment in order to sell their work and support themselves. This is valuable, but second-hand.

While philosophical works should not quite follow “art for art’s sake,” they must be undertaken without promise of rewards save important work of great meaning. Though it is no guarantee, great philosophy first requires appropriate ambition, and dedication of oneself.

And we all require more great philosophy. Without great works to develop new ideas for the future, there will be no future different from the consequences of the ideas inherited from the past.

There are too many old and misplaced ideas we are living with. If they were ever right, they are no longer right, for us, now. We are still counting on Plato, Aristotle, St. Paul, and so many others to write our future—implicitly. Even Darwin has yet to sink in. We are still building upon ancient notions like foundations we almost never notice. Many of the newest sources are centuries old; many of those we call “modern” thinkers are unoriginal recyclers, copycats, and poor synthesists of the grab bag. Yet people who repeat echoes of Rousseau, Paine, and poor readings of Jesus wonder why they cannot change things. Utopian faiths, demanding abstractions, and political revolutions come up empty because they have been tried before without understanding, only to be repeated now as though new.

We wonder why we’re stuck in a present that still looks like the past—degraded, plus technology that—we like to hope—has something to say, because we don’t. No, we’ll only have a different future when enough of us commit to thinking and writing for one.