Monday, June 8, 2015

Archived Reflections

Ours is a goal oriented culture. From childhood we are exhorted to be something. Later the emphasis of the exhortation shifts. Having at last arrived at the enviable position of being something, we are at once en­couraged to do something. The more serious this something is, the higher the level of civilization, of sensibility, we are assumed to have achieved. There is a deep-seated prejudice in our cultural unconscious that whimsy --- which is usually identified with laziness --- is at least psychologically un-American and possibly legally unconstitutional.
I am no more immune to this conditioning than is anyone else, and I am as willing as the next man to try to measure up to what is reasonably expected of me. Consequently, I have spent a large part of my life diligently attempting to determine what it is I ought to be and do. Having found the first of these determinations impossible to make, I eventually decided to concentrate on the second. It is true, of course, that doing something is considerably complicated if one has foregone the attempt at being something, but I can report with satisfaction that the difficulty is not insurmountable.

I meet the central issue head on and with reckless abandon: the lot of man is not a happy one. History teaches that fear, misery, pain, suffering, loneliness, disease, dread, and death have been man's prime inheritance and his constant companions throughout his long exile on this modestly verdant rock. Whether or not Lord Destruction is sovereign of the entire universe I leave to the physicists, the astronomers, and their fellow Pythagoreans to decide; that He holds forth on this infinitesimal and inconsequential dust speck province of the limitless galaxies I judge for myself to be the case. The 'apostles of progress' cannot sway me; incorrigible yea-sayers, impervious to evidence, they are nonetheless as entitled as I am to play out the charade as suits them best. God laughs at them no more heartily than at me.

My own position is difficult to define. I am fond of man, despise though I may the conditions which he has created, conditions which make life an indulgence and sanity a luxury. The human organism is unsuited to the societies we have constructed, as the proliferation of our mental illnesses will readily attest, and all our efforts to improve these conditions, directed as they are to exacerbating our distractions and further distorting our contact with the truly biological, the truly neurological, the truly real, will do no more than accelerate our decline. We could perhaps see the hand of fate in all this had our sense not grown so dull, so coarse, that we have difficulty enough discerning that hand when it strikes a sudden blow let alone discerning it when it does no more than beckon suggestively.

At its root the word "progress," which is the modern catchword for the whole process of growing into maturity, presupposes severance, and thus, for its fulfillment, its elaboration, necessitates reconciliation. As men we take our first steps only by leaving behind that by which and into which we were born. We purchase our first freedom by virtue of a separation from that which brought us into the world. This is the pain of motherhood,  the price of citizenship. There is a sense in which expatriation is a prerequisite of liberty, a law of freedom. Hard though it is,   this seems to be a requirement of America: there is no liberty without a prior alienation.

However much one hopes to avoid the rigors of a thorough self-examination and for whatever reasons, the fact remains that the evasion to which such hope necessarily gives rise is necessarily limited in its scope. There is something of the universal law in the Socratic dictum, however much our common history or our individual circumstance might incline us to deny it. It is of the essence of universal law that it express the imperative, the unavoidable; thus the time inevitably comes when a man must submit himself to the scalpel of his own scrutiny.
That there is danger in this goes without saying. Truth kills: the whole of our culture attests to this fact, and does so, remarkably enough, almost in the same breath with which it witnesses that truth liberates. We weave our lives of such contradictions. Still, no rational man dismisses the danger lightly. It is possible to know oneself too well, and often only a salutary illusion permits our retaining our balance. Who can dismiss out of hand the intuition that the economy wherein we spend our lives has just and vital need of illusion? It is true that the unreflected life is not worth living, but there is more than a mere possibility that it is true also that what passes most often for self examination is a pale and puritan hubris and that the genuine article is contracted for by the sane only under duress. To say that a man can truly encounter his soul only when he is fully ready to do so is also to say that he puts the task off until he has no choice. We retard our spiritual maturity as our parents retarded our adolescence, and it is by this act that we identify ourselves as the legitimate progeny of our age, as the children of experience (and, one may be permitted to hope, as the sires of a wisdom).

I am not what I seen to be: this is perhaps the central truth of our collective humanity, a proclamation to which each man is entitled, the vision which sets us free. Our tragedy and our abdication as men lies in this, that we allow ourselves to see only on the surface, whether we direct our gaze inwards or toward others. We indulge ourselves in distractions, take as being vital those things which are only peripheral, expend our best energies on inconsequential solidities. In short, we make the mistake of equating only that which is tangible with that which is real. I believe that human life is the struggle for the human soul --- the old catholic verities stripped of their supportive dogmatics --- and I know that the crux of the devil's strategy lies in misdirecting our attention.

I often wonder whether the creator suffered from stage fright. Brief enough in detailing the mechanics of the progenitive operation, the scriptures are positively mute as to the divinity's state of mind as he began his week's work. Granted, we are informed that he was pleased with his efforts at each day's end, but in regard to the divine analogue of emotion we are left completely in the dark beyond that brief understatement. Could his efforts have been so completely different in kind from my own, from the efforts of any terrified mortal who attempts to mimic that creative function? I shrink from sitting before this machine for that very reason --- a peculiar species of stage fright --- uncertain whether my powers are as real, as effective, as I would like to believe. Must not god have felt a certain small twinge of anxiety confronting the silent emptiness out of which he was to work, the incomprehensible emptiness of his own thought? Must there not have been a brief instant of uncertainty, of wondering whether the thing could possibly come out right? Subsequent events have shown that such a hesitation would have been fully merited, and to deny god that moment's pause to reconsider might be construed as calling divine foresight severely into question. Bad enough to miscalculate in regard to man (creation's pinnacle --- if history still permits that hubris --- spitefully becoming a paragon of indeterminacy, as if a willful adverb were to insert itself into any sentence as it pleased, without regard to grammar) but to pass off that miscalculation as a finished work.... We are forced to an unpleasant choice: either there is hidden somewhere in the scheme a provision for correction, for editing, or we must doubt god's artistic sense, his taste, and even the sincerity of his artistic impulse. We need only to consider what educated opinion would make of any artist who pawned off less than his best work; the integrity of the genuine artist would not tolerate such a self-deception. I find it difficult to believe in a god less demanding of himself than Beethoven.
No, I am forced to this act of faith: god is no dilettante. Einstein could believe Him to be subtle but not malicious, a conclusion based upon his conception of god as thinker; the same conclusion must follow from a conception of god as maker, as artist: his work may be difficult to fathom, but it is not shoddy.

God's creative impulse is the substance, the theme, of the universe, displayed in endless variation, an instantaneous and eternal act of virtuosity and, like all great art (which, of its essence, imitates this initial art) it is imbued with the power to transform those who behold it and clasp it to their souls. This is an inexorable psychological law --- there is much to meditate upon here --- that no one may properly encounter great art and come away unchanged.

Ours is the age of hard data, the age of the fact triumphant. That it is also the age of the Fact misunderstood too often escapes our attention. Like adolescent schoolboys overcompensating for an inability to grasp the fundamentals of algebra, we reserve our highest praise for that statistical intelligence capable of thoroughly quantifying our experience and rendering our pains "harmlessly" numerical. Though we may decry the increasing dominance of the number, the truth is that in the secret recesses of our hearts (where resides our meanness as well as our purity) we are all fellow travelers of the Pythagorean party. Awed by the successes of tech­nology --- which successes are simply the number made manifest, the number Incarnate--- we allow ourselves to be blinded to the number's essential estrangement from life.
The man of the number is likely to view life primarily as an equation. Initially a convention, a matter of convenience, this bias eventually appropriates a pervasive status; the unconscious is notoriously omnivorous. In accepting the results of his labor we inherit also his myopia. In the short term this does not seem so debilitating a defect, particularly when compared with the choice that the man of the word offers us. More likely to view life as a "liquid mystery" than as an equation, the man of the word is prohibited by his nature from offering us anything more than a minute and honest examination of his own experience, that is, an individualized intensification of our common discomforts: the physician who diagnoses an incurable disease is rarely a welcome guest.

Many learned men have exercised their gifts on describing in minute detail the exact progression by which social organization came into being and have produced collectively an immense corpus of books, unintelligible to all but a few and read by none but the brave. Having been sentenced at various stages of my education to suffer one or the other of these theoretical works, I feel justified in presenting my synopsis of these weighty tomes by saying simply that man organizes socially to facilitate the process whereby he fills his belly and empties his bowels.

I will not have a birthplace. I refuse the imposition of one. I relinquish the right to one. To accede to having a birthplace is but the first step in acceding to a purely statistical life, the organized but irrevocably inorganic objectification that seems to be the (dubious) crowning achievement of our culture, its apotheosis and its degradation. I am to freedom born as surely as royalty of old were engendered into the purple, the scepter, and the throne.
Trace my lineage to books if you must seek roots, to books, which taught me to doubt appearances long before it occurred to me to understand that the world could be conceived as existing --- only pseudonymously, I now admit --- under the separate species of Reality and Appearance. I am as much a creature of paper and ink as I am a creature of flesh and blood, and all these things --- paper, ink, flesh, blood --- whirling in the cosmic chemistry, brewed in the cauldron of the universe, self- and infra-transmuting, become (now thought, now spirit, ever me and ever some others) the humbling mystery of personality.

I play these random chords to heighten certain premonitions. Should I perhaps align myself with more musical ruminations and, deciding upon a dozen arbitrary themes, compose a serial score, a twelve-tone variation on the variegated unity of being? Freed from the tyranny of the tonic I would then enjoy an advantage in an environment that tends to deny the existence of the Tonic (or, oblivious of the subtle and disruptive transposition of key, hears as tonic only Impersonal Law). In a word, I would become 'modern.'

And so the round continues: row, row, row your boast...It is neither tiring nor exhilarating, it simply is and it simply goes on. The burst of motive power, the shout, the cry, the impassioned tears, the broken sob: these remain but the soul declines them, declines to use them to express what it now feels, what it now knows.  It stands helpless, silent, humble in the presence of its great discovery (or is it only on the verge, is it perhaps always only on the verge) and it realizes the futility and the triumph and realizes them simultaneously so that a new feeling, a new thought, a new emotion is born, one never thought before, one never felt before, one unnamed, unspoken (unspeakable) --- for to name it,  to speak it, to skewer it with a word would make it something other than the thing that it is, something other than the new, unique and individual emotion-thought-feeling that the soul knows it to be.
So they tell us we must invent a vocabulary, invent a language that we might express what this new thing is: but the mind knows the limits of language, the mind knows that language --- all language, any language, any form of language --- is finite and in the finitude of language it sees it own finitude. Make me a language of air moved beneath a bird's wing southbound from the snow. Make me a language of baby-fevers and Easter eggs. Make me a language of light to match the sea swells of my soul. Make me this language and I might learn to speak.

Hope. What a strange word! I remember that once, in one of the several worlds through which I have traveled, I knew a woman, fine and lithe, who told me,  flushed with the excess confidence of undressed youth, that she had no hope.  I remember telling her that I was full of hope but that at the moment I was short on faith. Faith, she responded, was her strong suit. Perhaps we should have married; such myopics deserve one another. We did not. Fate (or wisdom) intervened, and we followed separate, but perhaps parallel, paths. Eventually I found something resembling faith, characteristically failing to notice how familiar it felt to me, like an old corduroy jacket worn full of life.   Perhaps, in time, she found something resembling hope. I like to think so,  and these days I think very little that I do not like to think. How is it that I now find it so difficult to care for the "larger issues" of life? (How is it that life was ever foolish enough to become involved with "larger issues"?) We confuse life and the world. The world is perhaps no more than the irreducible waste product of life, and we have perhaps mistaken the refuse for the reality.  I am tempted to say that I do not really know, that it is all beyond my poor ability to comprehend. Alas, I cannot indulge that temptation. Something in me does know, something in me is certain even beyond the limits of certainty.  It becomes so difficult to lie, even in the small things. That, I suppose, must be accounted a gain.



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