11.29.2008

Early Holiday Gift

While you're waiting for the thunder, I've decided to make one of my old blogs visible again (I deleted the original, A Voyage Thither, during a bout of temporary insanity). Here is the link that will take you to Q-Majin, which I highly recommend. There are more than 150 posts, and I'm guessing two-thirds of those are "high quality." Enjoy.

11.25.2008

"Hi. Take it easy."

I'm on the verge of a breakthrough. Easy now.

Today it occurred to me that I always feel as if nobody listens to me -- but (keep listening!) as I was feeling that, I thought, more rationally, that people do listen to me at a fairly normal clip. Then why this feeling? Why did I write a dissertation placing "listening" at the center of ethics? Why does it sometimes feel like even my mom doesn't listen to me? Anyone else ever get this feeling, even while they know "rationally" that it isn't the case that no one listens?

The post I'm aiming at is going to deal with the comments in the last post, but it's going to take me a few days -- if you (Fenhopper, Monica, etc.) have anything to add, now's the time. I'm sticking with the keywords I mentioned there, and a few others:

Time, narrative, sequence, order, Conversion, abstraction, "lived experience," transformation, mysticism, testament(s), perspective, One/Many, solution to oldest philosophical problem known to humankind, dawning of age of Aquarius, most important idea in American history, turkey.

11.24.2008

Concerning [...]

"The [...] from the dead. [...] to be, but now [...] perfect. [...] flesh, but this [...] is true flesh. [...] is not true, but [...] only an image of the true."

--from The Gospel of Philip

11.22.2008

Buddha "Fully Released" (again)

Since my XBox 360 joined forces with Netflix, I've been busy. I never regretted buying and XBox 360 instead of a Wii, but now I just feel sorry for Wii-people. I can watch as many movies as I want, basically for free.

Yesterday I watched a documentary about something you might remember: the 2001 destruction of the giant stone Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. The statues were pre-Islamic, 1500 years old, and the Taliban didn't like them... the film is about the history of the statues and the region, etc.

I was telling my wife about the movie this morning and I got to describing how old and revered the statues were, and how the Taliban purposely tore them down -- my wife said, "Buddha would have loved that." She interrupted me just as I was about to say something like, "Isn't it a shame?" And I'm glad she did -- she's so right. Buddha would have loved the destruction of his image, just as he did the first time around so many moons earlier, when he "died." Here's a link to the movie. Here's a link to Buddha's "Fire Sermon." And here's a picture of the larger of the statues being blown to bits on March 21, 2001:


There's a cool video about all of this on YouTube, unrelated to the movie:

11.21.2008

Monism and Dualism (part deux)

The other day I argued that metaphysical discourse is often essentially the same thing as political discourse. Unfortunately, "etherealists" tend to believe they are apolitical while they smoke pipes and discuss the nature of G-d or the definition of the Soul, and materialists tend to believe they are successfully avoiding metaphysics by speaking about political policies and candidates in strictly practical terms. Although they disagree about where to place emphasis, both groups accept the essential-dual nature of reality (material vs. ethereal); neither group genuinely understands the "Monist" position, and consequently, both groups can be characterized as Dualists. I have mentioned before my recent favorite book of literary criticism, E Pluribus Unum, by W.C. Harris (2005). In the chapter on Poe, Harris argues that Poe's apparently super-ethereal cosmology is in fact a dialogue that bears heavily on political conversation. He writes,
Given the entrenched nature of certain perceptions of Poe [Harris alludes here to the consensus view that Poe was purely an aesthetician, unconcerned with practical affairs] and his work, specific objections should be addressed at the outset. One is that if Poe means to address problems of social organization, cosmology is an oblique way to do so... [but] cosmology is always about the construction, revision, and legitimation of social order. (46)
Unfortunately for Monists, Dualists make up an overwhelming percentage of the citizenry. Poe is dumped in the pre-established and easily-ignorable "etherealist heap," and thinkers like Marx are thought to be entirely free of theological concerns (as if re-establishing the principles of Justice could take place without a corresponding redefinition of G-d).

What I want to emphasize is the overwhelmingness of the Dualist position. The Dualist camp includes both hardline Democrats and hardline Republicans, devout Evangelicals and committed atheists. Against such an established orthodoxy, thinking in the manner of a Monist -- and ultimately speaking as a Monist -- is not only difficult, it is dangerous. It is important to point out here that most nominally religious people are not Monists. They go to church on Sunday, and work the rest of the week in the real world; or they responsibly differentiate between a literalist interpretation and a "reform" or contemporary interpretation. John Wesley made this point very clearly:
And so say all the world, the men who know not God, of all that are of Paul's religion: of every one who is so a follower of him as he was of Christ. It is true, there is a sort of religion, nay, and it is called Christianity too, which may be practised without any such Imputation, which is generally allowed to be consistent with common sense, --that is, a religion of form, a round of outward duties, performed in a decent, regular manner. You may add orthodoxy thereto, a system of right opinions, yea, and some quantity of heathen morality; and yet not many will pronounce, that "much religion hath made you mad." But if you aim at the religion of the heart, if you talk of "righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost," then it will not be long before your sentence is passed, "Thou art beside thyself."
We know how it ended for Jesus. Same story for 8th century Persian mystic, Al-Hallaj, who was crucified for eliminating the conceptual differences between himself and G-d. As William James points out in his chapter on "Mysticism" in Varieties of Religious Experience, the mystical/Monistic way of thinking surfaces occasionally in all cultures, and leads inevitably to a disintegration of the differentiating consciousness ("The mind is a cleaver," if you remember Thoreau's way of putting it). Look at what happened to Paul when he said too much in front of Festus:
I have had God's help to this very day, and so I stand here and testify to small and great alike... At this point Festus interrupted Paul's defense. "You are out of your mind, Paul!" he shouted. "Your great learning is driving you insane." "I am not insane, most excellent Festus," Paul replied. "What I am saying is true and reasonable." (Acts 26)
Here a related point arises: there seems to be some connection between the Monistic way of thinking and what Festus calls "great learning." Consider Socrates. Consider Lao Tzu. Consider Plotinus. Consider Meister Eckart and Julian of Norwich. Consider Emmanuel Swedenborg and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Each monistic thinker is the product of considerably great learning... gaining this vision of the One, a vision that William James declared to be the single connecting bond between all mystical experience, seems to be the product of intense study. Here's how Socrates puts it:
And so, Glaucon, I said, we have at last arrived at the hymn of dialectic. This is that strain which is of the intellect only, but which the faculty of sight will nevertheless be found to imitate; for sight, as you may remember, was imagined by us after a while to behold the real animals and stars, and last of all the sun himself. And so with dialectic; when a person starts on the discovery of the absolute by the light of reason only, and without any assistance of sense, and perseveres until by pure intelligence he arrives at the perception of the absolute good, he at last finds himself at the end of the intellectual world... (Bk. 7 emphasis added)
And "Oh, by the way," Socrates should have added, "his contemporaries will think him mad, and seek to put him in a psyche-ward if he insists on trying to communicate his vision of the absolute good. If he's very unlucky, they'll make him drink hemlock."

I don't have much to add, other than to say: "I'm sure glad I'm not a Monist! That would be a tough life..." and maybe, additionally: "We should be more compassionate, perhaps we should even listen better, to the people we describe as insane." Maybe I have one more little saying to add: "If you've never been accused, seriously, of talking crazy -- if you've never disconcerted people by your speech -- chances are you haven't been speaking the Monistic vision."

Back to dualism tomorrow: I've been meaning to get to a discussion of the defintions of death (within this context of Monism and Dualism), but this post is already bloated.



Somewhere in America, A.D. 2008

My favorite radio show (Brotha Fred's AM Mayhem on 96.1 in Charlotte) is making it big. The portly fellow in this video is part of the cast:

11.18.2008

Win One (er... Many) for the Dualists


To paraphrase from memory (maybe to quote!) Henry Thoreau, the mind is a cleaver.  But the question seems to be unanswerable whether cleaving is worthy of esteem or pity.  Read Today's story about a 2,800-year old monument implying a separation between the body and the soul -- I like that the article contrasts the ancient "mountainous" king's view of the soul with his contemporaries, the ancient Israelites, who did not agree to such a separation.

In one view, One god, no separation.  In another view, presumably, Many gods, sharp separation.  I guess I like knowing that these two apparently unresovable intellectual traditions have shared a spirited and lasting contest that spans millenia.

The most important "eureka" moment that I've had in this intellectual game came in graduate school (right around the time I was reading Poe's Eureka, in fact).  Somewhere along the way, I recognized that these theological debates are never separate from arguments concerning the shape of civilization "in the world."  Our metaphysical questions coincide with our physical questions -- to ask whether there is "division" in the universe, as the Cartesians most famously taught, is to ask whether France is divided from England, or whether Europe is divided from the rest of the world.  To defend the American Union at the cost of many lives is to argue for One True G-d, without resorting to words.

But a funny thing happens if you buy this vision: to participate unselfconsciously in either "pure" metaphysical discourse or "pure" political discourse becomes incredibly difficult.  This either/both/and-consciousness itself constitutes the synthesis in this apparently everlasting dialectic: the mind that realizes the dynamic that involves both metaphysical speculation and political argument takes a "higher" seat.

I'm convinced that most people would say, and actually do believe, that they understand this strange either/both/and dynamic... but I'm not sure they do.

-----------

By the time I was three, around the time memory started working, I was already a long-time Detroit Tigers fan.  My devotion to the team increased every year, regardless of their (usually low) position in the league standings.  I was pleased when a "good break" went the Tigers' way, and gratified when an umpire's close call went "our" way.  And I spoke in the first person, including myself with the Tigers as if "we" could do it this year... or if not this year, next.

I don't remember precisely when the crack in my devotion happened -- but I do understand how it happened.  One day, around age 25, I was watching the Tigers play in the evening after reading a book about ethical responsibility and accountability to the Other (or something like that).  There must have been a close call on the infield; I would have watched the instant replay carefully -- and for some reason that had nothing to do with my personal will, I would have been able to see that the close play really shouldn't have been called in the Tigers' favor.  The other team was playing hard, and the umpires were watching closely -- the Tigers were called "out," may have lost the game.

In the single moment where I realized (again: through no act of the will) that some principle(s) of rules and "reality" were more important than team loyalty, the crack appeared... I started watching games as a "detached" observer.  I remember watching the World Series in 2006, and politely cheering for the Tigers, but I could no longer feel as if I and that team were inseparable.  I had "achieved" the "higher" seat.

So when I say that most people think that they understand this strange either/or/both dynamic about the body and the soul, and I say that I believe that most of them are mistaken -- I think about "affiliation."  I think about the way that most sports fans never do entirely undo an early loyalty.  And I translate: in the great contest between Dualism and Monism, some of us are Dualism fans by the time we are three; some are Monists by the age of three... and it is only in the complete detachment--in the realization that the umpires are just, and that the Dualists will win the games they should win, and the Monists will win when they should--it's only then that the "higher" seat is occupied.

One cautionary note: watching your team play in the world series after detachment is completely different, and perhaps less "fun," than watching it when you feel a personal connection to your team.  So although I'm calling it a "higher" seat, I'm not sure I mean to attach value to it in the same way... before you detach from the Democratic party, Mxrk, or from the Boston Red Sox, Insignificant Wrangler, or from U of M, Fenhopper, keep in mind: there's nothing "wrong" with staying in the game.

To be continued...

11.17.2008

Thanks, Progress...

Of course someone did...

I know I didn't exactly "find" this, but... you're welcome.

Thanks boingboing.

(By the way: a million bonus points to anyone who recognizes the mismatched music, which came from an underappreciated NES game in the role-playing genre.)

11.14.2008

" 'G-d,' obviously..."



I really love the movie Waking Life (Richard Linklater, 2001), and this is one of my favorite scenes. I'm going to post clips occasionally, because I recently discovered that the entire movie is available for free on some of the internets. I may comment, sometimes -- but not this time.

The thing about Unity, see...

I was in the fancy mall in Charlotte's South Park neighborhood this afternoon, wandering around while my wife shopped for stuff... I stumbled into the Urban Outfitters store, looking a little out of place (Khakis and a long-sleeved golf shirt, tucked in.  Penny loafers, with pennies).  I go in there once in a while because I love how soft their t-shirts are.

The first t-shirt to catch my eye today was this one:

Okay -- I get it.  Retro... borderline authentic looking.  Pretty cool.  At least, before the election.  Now I know what some of you will tell me: Urban Outfitters has never represented authentic counter-culture... it's a kind of bourgeois/faux-rebel shop.  Thirty dollars for a gray t-shirt?  Okay: Fair enough.

But it does really seem that we're entering in on a historically shaky moment here: Obama certainly began his career as a populist, and he got elected President while keeping it more real than any politician I've ever seen (with the possible exception of Jesse Ventura).  But as Mxrk's Dad's letter reminded me the other day, Obama is "the man" now.  He might be a better version of "the man," but he is power.

So I hope there are young people somewhere who understand how much of a sell-out it is to wear the President's picture on your t-shirt.  I suspect they do: a few of my 18-year olds told me that Obama seemed to them like just another stiff suit (which could've been a cover for racism, but could've also been a sign that wearing a track suit on Sundays doesn't count as keeping it real -- I suspect the latter, since the same students who said this of Obama weren't even close to supporting McCain.).

Don't get me all wrong here: I spent a whole dissertation of my life clamoring for Unity, begging for people to come together in a spirit of New Americanness, etc.  I'm super glad Obama defeated that old, divisive, dying fellow.  But let's stay on our toes.  Mainstream/partisan Democrats should bask in the glow just as the Republican base did in 2000 and 2004... but I get nervous when I hear academics defending institutional power.

It's possible that we're sailing into a golden sunset here -- but just in case our boat gets head-butted and sunk by a scary white whale, I'd like to be one of the few who cling to the floating casket of a drown cannibal.  (I'm not sure if that's a metaphorial allusion or not...)

To-Do List

Thought some of you might like to see what an assistant professor does:

-Interview students for college of education this afternoon.

-Prepare defense of (recently composed) New Course Proposal for Monday's department meeting.

-Faculty Progress reports due Nov. 26 (write-up description of professional activities, etc.).

-As chair of committee on student evals., find two students willing to act as representatives to the student body.  Contact the people who designed our evaluation forms.  Organize meeting for early January.  Find out what competitor institutions do.

-Complete "Faculty-in-Residence" application form and essay.

-Doctor's appointment.

-Generate syllabus for ENG 102 (intro. writing, part II).

-Generate syllabus for ENG 204 (American Lit. 1865-present).

-Write proposal for upcoming Poe conference (due Dec. 31).

-Honors committee meeting?

-Write final exams for ENG 101 and ENG 203 (next week!).

-Prepare lesson plan on H.D. Thoreau for Monday.

-Prepare lesson plan on MLA format... and grammar lesson, for Monday.

-Grade ~120 "in-class writings" this weekend.

-Tuck your shirt in; comb your hair; smile.

-Lunch with full-faculty on Wednesdays.

-Lunch with liberal arts faculty on Thursdays.

Forgive me, Walt, for I have sinned...

11.12.2008

Somebody's watchin' meeeeee...

As a follow up on Monday's post about madness and mysticism, here's an article about how paranoia is on the rise. A while back, I did a story about Truman Show Syndrome. This is mostly for you, Fenhopper. My favorite line in today's article is, "madness is human."

Daily Dose of Optimism

I have to say, this article made me feel proud to be a "New American" (a term I'm coining for people who voted for Obama, for people who "get it.").  There are undoubtedly remaining racial tensions in America -- few would argue that ponit.  But if America has, indeed, as this article suggests, reached the tipping point where race is being handled more deftly here than it is in Europe... well that's big news.  Maybe in this generation we won't lose so many James Baldwins.  Hell, maybe we'll pick up a few exiled minorities from Spain and France who recognize progress when they see it.  That'd be nice.

11.10.2008

Maybe the words of the prophets really ARE written on the subway walls & tenement halls!

Admittedly, I'm feeling a bit manic tonight -- prepare yourself.

This afternoon I went to a lecture on a 1967 French novel by Michel Tournier called Friday. It's a retelling of Defoe's Robinson Crusoe that tells of a more contemporary Crusoe's falling away from his cultural traditions and learning to listen and learn from Friday. The speaker, a colleague at my university, was arguing that Tournier's book is a study of the ways in which the colonial Self and Other can be reconciled. The speaker delivering the paper suggested that the Self must cease seeing the Other as a threat, and begin to see the Other as a field of possibility (I'm paraphrasing very loosely). When he was finished speaking, another of my colleagues said, "But don't we have to have some stability?--some relatively permanent or foundational part of the Self--don't we need a vantage point, if only to hold ourselves accountable through time?"

The problem, it seemed to me, was that these gentlemen were insisting on keeping the conversation within the framework of philosophy (or "theory"). In fact, of course, the character of Crusoe was not convinced to listen to Friday by any abstract argument, but rather, by a sequence of events (haphazard or not is, for now, beside the point). In other words, what was needed was a narratological analysis as much as, or more than, a philosophical analysis. If some major mental breakthrough is needed to begin to see the Other, or to see the now-archetypal "Invisible Man," maybe philosophy isn't the path -- maybe a conversion narrative is required. In that way, the self will be consistent across time, but it may be "re-made," or renewed, or (uh-oh) reborn.

When I am thinking best, I am thinking in reversals: if I want to perceive the Other as less of a threat, for example, I should begin by re-evaluating my Self as an object that can be threatened. If some kind of authentic communication is going to take place between the Self and the Other (or the powerful and the marginal, or, in America, white and black), then some non-dualistic thinking is absolutely required.

So I've been thinking all afternoon about this. I am thinking about William James declaring that the fundamental common ground between reports of mystical experiences in all cultures and all religions is a perception of "Oneness": it is waking up after a tormented, sleepless night next to a fiancee (or whatever) and looking at her, unable to distinguish between the pronouns "I" and "You," pleading with her (yourself?) to say "We." It is understanding experiencing the fact that, not figuratively, but literally, the Self and the Other are not divided.

Of course, like James, as I've said before -- I don't know anything about that. But I am convinced that if someone were to step forward these days and say that they were in the throes of such an experience (undoubtedly they would be struggling with the language needed to describe it) we calmer souls would hustle them off to a "psyche-ward" (read about Jones Very!--who, incidentally, MXRK, was raised by an atheist mother and absent father...). Our insane are our prophets, our mad are our saints, our crazy are our mystics. Looks like I'm not alone in saying this (finally!). A brand new article in the journal Mental Health, Religion & Culture (April 2008; vol. 11, issue 3) is exploring the possibility. Here's the abstract, written by author, Charles P. Heriot-Maitland:

Associations between mysticism and madness have been made since earliest recorded history, and the striking resemblance between self-reports of both mystical and psychotic experience suggests that similar psychological processes may be involved in their occurrence. By exploring the similarities, and proposing a common element to mystical and psychotic experience (referred to here as the experience of "oneness"), this paper aims to place mysticism and madness onto the same experiential continuum. However, in contrast to much of the previous literature, the intention is not to pathologize mystical experience, but rather to normalize psychotic experience. The paper argues not only that the experience of oneness is entirely genuine and available to all humans, but also that it has an important psychological (and evolutionary) function. Using cognitive terminology, it then attempts to explain the processes determining whether an individual enjoys a fulfilling mystical experience, or suffers a debilitating psychotic breakdown (i.e., how "oneness" is experienced). Finally, this paper turns to look at some of the important implications such an approach might have for clinical practice and for the mental health of people in general.

If that sounds boring to you, Chappelle's saying the same damn thing:



Update: Another recent article in the same journal makes a similar case. One of you might be interested--here's the abstract:

In the article, I explore the use of spiritual strategies in the treatment of manic depression in religiously oriented psychiatric inpatients. Manic depression, a disorder primarily of mood, is characterized by bouts of mania alternating with depression. Religious themes and mystical experiences pervade the language of manic depressive illness, e.g., sensing one is God, being given a divine mission, receiving divine messages, having ecstatic experiences, and so on. Debate exists concerning the effectiveness of spiritual interventions in manic patients. I suggest that a trained religious leader may be able to work therapeutically with such patients, provided that two goals are kept in mind: emphasizing beliefs that facilitate positive coping and challenging irrational religious beliefs (i.e., beliefs that lead to negative coping). When examined psychoanalytically, patients' religious symbols and beliefs reveal deeply held beliefs about themselves. In particular, splitting and idealization and devaluation can be seen in their religious belief system. The role of culture in promoting maladaptive belief systems must not be overlooked. In employing spiritual interventions in patients diagnosed with manic depression, potential dangers are imposing one's values on patients and overstating the importance of spirituality.*

*Full citation: Raab, KA. "Manic depression and religious experience: the use of religion in therapy." Mental Health, Religion & Culture 10.5 (Sept. 2007). Pgs. 473-87.

11.07.2008

Afraid of Dyin' ?


I said in the comments section under my post about AM Mayhem the other day, "I can't say what I think about race."  Let me elaborate.

You've heard my voice before.  I'm the happy-go-lucky white guy who says, too easily, "We're all one species -- we're all part of one big family."  At least I was, before graduate school.  Then I spent seven years learning (explicitly) to value diverse racial perspectives, learning (implicitly) that race determines perspective.  I left graduate school better able to listen to the stories of racial injustice from American, and world, history.  But I left much more pessimistic than I entered.

By the time I left graduate school, my friends (both white, black, and "other") had convinced me that white people could never really understand the black experience in America.  This isn't just rhetoric to me: it's what I came to believe.  But my friends left it there... 

I went home and thought about it.  What would that mean for America?  In particular, what would it mean from the perspective of African Americans?  I thought to myself, "Well, if I were African American, and I was convinced that white Americans could not understand what it's like to be black, I suppose I wouldn't bother with them much.  They're a lost cause."  After all, I reasoned, if I ever concluded that anyone could never understand my identity, could never understand me, under any circumstances -- I wouldn't waste my time.  Ultimately, if I were African American, I think I would conclude that white Americans just don't "get it," and that conclusion would inevitably lead to a lack of trust.  If I were black, I wouldn't trust white.

So that's how I thought through it as a white person -- of course, it doesn't end there: just as I'm drifting off to sleep with that crystalline thought in my head, I remember: but white people can never understand what it's like to be black.  Some clearly I don't.  So maybe I'm wrong about If I were black, I wouldn't trust white.

A paranoia develops -- a paranoia that ("doubtedly") runs both ways.

I talk to my two or three black friends, and begin to wonder whether they mistrust me.  I wonder whether I (subconsciously) mistrust them.  I try very hard to listen, to understand, to concede the "final word," and so on -- I get a Ph.D. in American Literature, which, obviously, requires a relatively deep knowledge of the history of race in America -- but nothing seems to surmount my starting premise: white people can never understand the black experience in America.  I conclude, pessimistically: Unity is impossible.  If I believe what my few black friends tell me about the black experience in America (and I must, if I am trying to be "ethical"), then I must conclude, as they have, that authentic understanding is not possible.

Then I hear something as simple as this, on another radio talk program in Charlotte (though, this one might be syndicated): "Listen, people: we're going to have to leave some people behind.  Some people are not getting this.  To my black families, Latino families: ask yourselves this: 'Do you have more in common with the white people in America who voted for Obama, or the African Americans and Latinos who voted for McCain? ' "

The speaker is Michael Baisden, who has been playing Sam Cooke's "A Change Gonna Come" more frequently than usual lately.  He is an adamant Obama supporter -- so adamant that he is willing to leave, en masse, the McCain team in the dust of history.

Yesterday I asked Fenhopper a question that always intrigues me: how do we recognize the prophets?  How would I have recognized "who John the Baptist was" if I had been alive then?  By what indication would I have recognized Jesus as Gd?  Would I have been able to comprehend Whitman's poetry when it was first printed?

I know what my academic friends will say about Michael Baisden.  I know the objections to unity.  I understand what is keeping us divided, and why (according to some) we aren't ready for a great leap forward.  But I am ever drawn to mystery, and Baisden's voice (with an increasing number of voices in the media and on the sidewalks) sounds mysterious and tempting to me.  It sounds like an invitation to a party.  We're might-just-gonna leave some people behind.

*See tomorrow's post on my "midrashic" interpretation of the Biblical use of the phrase "to die" if you're concerned about the title.

Who's down with O.P.?

An uplifting article, by Orlando Patterson, of Harvard University, appearing in the NY Times. Especially that last line --

11.06.2008

"How do you and I unify, if we're separated?"

Or: "People may be listening differently whenever they hear something"

I had a really rewarding email exchange with a local FM radio show this morning.  In Charlotte, 96.1 is the best hip-hop station, and their morning show has hooked me from the start, almost entirely because it's ridiculous and funny.  The cast, Brotha Fred (middle), David L. (right), Jacinda (smokin'), and Cubby (not pictured) are a youngish and diverse crowd.


After hearing a large chunk of a rather serious discussion about "race" this morning stemming from Obama's victory, I emailed David L. and asked him to post this segment as a podcast for download, primarily so that I can save it and use it in the future in my classroom.  Click here to listen to segment one; click here to listen to segment two. [PLEASE make sure to listen to at least the entire first segment before droppin' a comment.]

I can't think of a more important moment to have this conversation--to have it over and over and over again--than right now.  The challenge, and it is a monumental challenge, is to find a way to achieve the Unity we all claim to want by sympathizing with both David L.'s and Brotha Fred's arguments.  Best I can tell, the difficulty stems from the fact we are using historically loaded terms: my guess is that almost anyone who listens to these two clips will "choose sides," will side with either David L. or Brotha Fred.

I absolutely know (and try to accept) people who almost certainly would be drawn to Brotha Fred's argument, perhaps so strongly that they will not be able to seriously consider David L.'s perspective.  On the other hand, I know (and try to accept) people who are going to sympathize with David L. so strongly as to make it impossible to listen to Brotha Fred.  The most amazing part of all of this may be the fact that Brotha Fred believes he is agreeing with David L., while David L. remains unconvinced that there is a fundamental agreement. 

Here's an excerpt from the email I returned to David L. after he asked me about my views, especially in my role as an educator:
My views are complicated -- I'm new to the region (from Michigan originally), which complicates things further.  In the classroom, I'm convinced that the most important thing is learning to listen to each other's views even when they sting a bit.  But personally, I sometimes feel a little pessimistic: it's as if our definitions (black, white, race, etc.) block us from ever actually experiencing authentic communication... we sort strike the pose of listening, and mutter things like "mmhmm, yeah, mmhmm," but it sometimes seems to me as if we only hear the things we want to hear.  I guess I cling to the hope that there might be other categories ("American," or maybe "Christian," or whatever) that might eventually bring us to see ourselves as "One" instead of diverse -- but I understand that that's probably much easier to say as a white person than it would be for a black person.  Welcome to America, I guess, right?

Bhutan in the News (again!?)

I'm certainly as happy as anyone that the world likes America again: yesterday I told my wife that I was feeling "very American" -- it is a definite emotion for me, one I haven't felt much in a while.
Hmm... I can't quite find the right transition, for some reason; that national emblem of Bhutan will have to do. In any case, I thought somebody might get a kick out of the NPR story I heard this morning about Bhutan. Bhutan is one of my favorite countries, not only because it is practically the "least among us," but also because its last monarch instituted a policy that replaced the focus on Gross Domestic Product with (seriously) Gross Domestic Happiness.

I know I would be significantly happier if I "had to" wear a bathrobe to work every day.

11.05.2008

Settle Down, Children... Let's Talk about "Aridity."

I've been way out of stride lately in an effort to please my faithful readers -- too much politics, not enough tr-th-seeking.

So let's back at it:

In J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey, Franny discovers decides to walk the path(s?) of spiritual refinement after discovering the many (seemingly authentic) narratives of mystical experience. She is buzzing along in life perfectly content until she recognizes that it is--how to put it?--very strange that there are so many bizarre first person accounts of spiritual experience. I can't remember which writers she cites, but it was a list like this: Buddha, St. Paul, Augustine, Plotinus, Mohammed, St. Augustine, Hildegard of Bignen, Francis of Assisi, Joan of Arc, Teresa of Avila, Emanuel Swedenborg, T.S. Eliot, and so on...

Franny moves quickly from simply "recognizing" the fact of the existence of these testimonies to an interest in experiencing such a phenomena for herself. I don't know how to account for that. William James seems to have been interested in mysticism without being a mystic, but sometimes I suspect he was a mystic in disguise.

Anyway, Franny discovers the fabled Russian book, The Way of the Pilgrim, which tells the story of a "seeker" who is interested in learning what St. Paul meant by the phrase, "Pray unceasingly." The seeking pilgrim finds a monk that tells him that he can have the experience of Gd: all he has to do is say the words, "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me." The monk tells him to really focus on the word mercy. The monk also mentions that it doesn't matter whether you believe the prayer or not, so long as you are actually saying it aloud (you can say it to yourself after you've let it settle into your... heart/mind/soul.)

Following in the soul-steps of the Pilgrim, Franny begins muttering the prayer. The "Franny" section of the book ends with her having, apparently, a nervous breakdown, muttering, it is implied, the "Jesus prayer."

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Well, I suppose I could claim one similar -- ahem -- "nervous breakdown" in my life. In my experience, it could not be described as "fun," but I don't think of it as a bad thing. Anyway, my point is this: I'm reading St. John of the Cross' Dark Night of the Soul lately, and I'm finding it really compelling -- not least because I presumed that the Dark Night was a bad thing for the spirit. It turns out, the Dark Night is actually a necessary process, a kind of purgative and preparatory cleansing. The most interesting part is that St. J of the C describes it all as deterministic. Not unlike the Buddhist Sotapanna, who, once entering the stream, cannot turn back, John's archetypal saint seems driven forward (or rather, pulled nearer to G-d).

I loved, immediately-upon-reading, St. J/of/C's description of the descent into the Dark Night -- and some of you might, too. Let me quote a couple paragraphs:

...as G-d sets the soul in this dark night to the end that He may quench and purge its sensual desire, He allows it not to find attraction or sweetness in anything whatsoever. In such a case it may be considered very probable that this aridity and insipidity proceed not from recently committed sins or imperfections. For, if this were so, the soul would feel in its nature some inclination or desire to taste other things than those of God; since, whenever the desire is allowed indulgence in any imperfection, it immediately feels inclined thereto, whether little or much, in proportion to the pleasure and love that it has put into it. Since, however, this lack of enjoyment in things above or below might proceed from some indisposition or melancholy humor, which oftentimes makes it impossible for the soul to take pleasure in anything, it becomes necessary to apply the second sign and condition.

The second sign whereby a man may believe himself to be experiencing the said purgation is that the memory is ordinarily centered upon G-d, with painful care and solicitude, thinking that it is not serving G-d, but is backsliding, because it finds itself without sweetness in the things of G-d. And in such a case it is evident that this lack of sweetness and this aridity come not from weakness and lukewarmness; for it is the nature of lukewarmness not to care greatly or to have any inward solicitude for the things of G-d. There is thus a great difference between aridity and lukewarmness...

...when it is the spirit that receives the pleasure, the flesh is left without savour and is too weak to perform any action. But the spirit, which all the time is being fed, goes forward in strength, and with more alertness and solicitude than before, in its anxiety not to fail G-d; and if it is not immediately conscious of spiritual sweetness and delight, but only of aridity and lack of sweetness, the reason for this is the strangeness of the exchange; for its palate has been accustomed to those other sensual pleasures upon which its eyes are still fixed...

What does it mean to pray without ceasing? Does all of this sound deeply, even physically, familiar to anyone else, or am I alone on this very strange road?--me and Franny. Later that page, St. J/of/C says,
...although at first the spirit feels no sweetness, for the reasons that we have just given, it feels that it is deriving stength and energy to act from the substance which this inward food gives it, the which food is the beginning of a contemplation that is dark and arid to the senses; which contemplation is secret and hidden from the very person that experiences it; and ordinarily, together with the aridity and emptiness which it causes in the senses, it gives the soul an inclination and desire to be alone and in quietness, without being able to think of any particular thing or having the desire to do so. If those souls to whom this comes to pass knew how to be quiet at this time, and troubled not about performing any kind of action, whether inward or outward, neither had any anxiety about doing anything, then they would delicately experience this inward refreshment in that ease and freedom from care. So delicate is this refreshment that ordinarily, if a man have desire or care to experience it, he experiences it not; for as I say, it does its work when the soul is most at ease and freest from care; it is like the air which, if one would close one's hand upon it, escapes.
Hmm... so that's what this is going to be about? Learning (again, Gd?!) to be quiet, letting go of anxiety? Seems so easy.

Sometimes, infrequently, and involuntarily, as I'm about to fall asleep at night, I feel what seems to be an extra-warm liquid oozing through my body, especially in my fingers an up the middle of my back, up my neck, and (it feels like) into my whole head. So refreshing.

Synchronicity and Paula Abdul

This morning, as I was driving into work at 6:40am, elated, a sound started sounding in my pocket -- I reached in and found that my cellphone was alerting me in a way it never had previously.

I do not recall programming this alert into my phone, so it must have been months ago when I did this -- but my phone was alerting me that, at some time early this morning, probably as I slept, a "note change" was played in Halberstadt, Germany as a part of a peformance of John Cage's most incredible composition, As Slow as Possible (Organ²/ASLSP ).  This page is also interesting, on the same subject.

If you don't know about this -- learn. The single playing of this very long song started on an organ in 2001, but you haven't missed so much (about 12 notes?) that you can't catch up... the song will still be playing long after all of us are dead and gone. I'm not saying the synchronous timing of this incident had anything to do with the promise of a new day in America and the world, but... yes I am:

11.03.2008

#44, The Mysterious Stranger

Look, people--sometimes you've gotta call an Ace an Ace:

Barack Obama's facebook page lists Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, The Bible, Lincolin's writings, and Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Self-Reliance" as our next president's favorite books. A near perfect list, in my humble opinion. I might suggest he add this one:

No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger, by Mark Twain. (For obvious reasons)

For his favorite music, Obama lists Bach (and specifies, "cello suites!"--yes!), Stevie Wonder (from my hometown, Saginaw, MI), and Miles, Coltrane, and Dylan.

His favorite TV: Sportscenter.

One of his interests: "loafing w/ kids."

In other words, what I assume, Obama assumes, and what Obama assumes, I shall assume.

Let's all go vote for this guy, and look for each other in line.

Judge that Maxim: True or False?

Sometimes, I wake up the morning after a particularly engaging kind of interpersonal experience with a kind of linguistic nutshell -- they tend to come in the form of aphorisms or maxims.  The other day, following a conversation with someone I won't name about something I won't describe, I woke up with this little ditty in my head.  So, True or False (that is, does this sound like a good maxim, or like an inauthentic/bad/false maxim?)?:

Never trust a person who has no regrets.

Now, this really did seem to come to me from outside myself -- I wasn't struggling to make it up; I kinda just channelled it.  I'm trying to identify its source, and I can't tell whether my little Devil or my little angel whispered this into my ear.

Any votes?  We may play this game from time to time...