5.10.2009

Resisting the Prophet's claims

These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.
Awakening. Salvation. Enlightenment. Gnosis. Experiencing the "hymn of dialectic." Transcending. The sensation of Oneness. The Peace that passes all understanding. In this essay I am going to write in the voice of a person who has had this experience, and I am going to call it "the experience."

People sometimes ask me whether I believe in the experience. I can only say that the experience is not something that can be understood or explained, and can only do my best to communicate that single fact over and over again. As far as I know, there is no prerequisite knowledge that one must gather before having the experience. There is no essential vocabulary. No academic degree can promise anyone the experience.

Before I had the experience, there were many things I did not believe in. I did not believe in "God" or heaven or reincarnation. I did not believe in Marxism, and I resisted things like "postmodernism," anarchism, capitalism, and so on. Indeed, I disbelieved in almost everything on the eve of having the experience.

Since then, I have read accounts of other people's experiences. Most of them seem to have had a slightly different apprenticeship on the way to the experience. Instead of adamantly disbelieving in as much as they could, they were what I call "constricted believers"--that is, they believed very strongly in one dead tradition or other. They generally called themselves "Atheists" or "Christians" or "Muslims" or "Advaitists" or "Jainists" or "Buddhists" or whatever.

Despite our differences on the way to the experience, I have found that there is absolutely no disagreement after the experience about what the experience is, or whether it exists.

But as I have said, people who have not had the experience occasionally ask me to defend the path I took to get to the experience. And no matter how hard I try to make it clear that the way one takes is laughably unimportant from the perspective of one who has had the experience, it seems that my questioners cannot help but focus on my path instead of the experience itself.

People who are "path-obsessed" are themselves the cause of the tradition that involves an "experienced" mentor/teacher/guru/shaman telling a student to jump through a given number of hoops in a particular manner: "Go outside and find 'your' spot on the front porch. I will not teach you until you have found your spot. Make sure to sit cross-legged (right leg on top) when you find your spot." The master's intention here is nothing other than to shake the path-obsessed student of their obsession with the path. As somebody who has had the experience once said, "The way matters but little; the will to arrive suffices."

But the path-obsessed are nimble and graceful compared to the stubborn mules who refuse to believe there is any "experience." These I call the "Intractables." Refusing to believe that there is anything on the other side of the ocean, the Intractables refuse to embark on a voyage; and by their refusals, they obliterate their natural curiosity to know what's on the other side. The Intractables would sooner look me in the eye and tell me that my own experience of the experience must be a kind of madness, or a chemical imbalance, or something of that nature -- anything rather than admit there may be land on the other side of that vast ocean. [Sidepoint: caution: this is only a metaphor... we should remember the reminder given to us by another of those who had the experience: "They also serve who only stand and wait." The other side of the Ocean may well come and get these Intractables.]

Or, if they be that rare case, not "believing" in the possibility of the experience, but disciplined enough to admit the possibility that I have experienced something they have not, they will have sculpted themselves into a perfect mystery to me. For my thesis will always be: "This experience has occurred at least once. I know it from experience." And for those wise enough to not argue that point, the experience may be closer to them than they know. Of these I ask only, in good faith, tell me what is in your heart--speak that.

4 comments:

Casey said...

AND SO... this is the reason the university should keep literary studies: because literary studies at least claims to be able to give some kind of transcendent experience. If Rhetoric would do that--would make that claim--I would be happy to see Rhetoric replace literary analysis in the academy.

EnthyAlias said...

Literature does not claim to offer a transcendent experience. (I think Hemingway, among many others, just rolled over in his craved on that point.) And as I keep saying, you are conflating religious experience with studying literature. The comparison is not only logically faulty but also frames the conversation solely on your terms.

Also (as you can see I'm just as sucked into this debate as you), you gloss an important - even vital - detail in your account of religious experiences: they were shared through words!! Indeed, you could have only recognized one another's experiences through the social logic of language. Moreover, the fact that the experience itself eludes language does not necessarily make it transcendent in the sense of containing some greater truth that what we know of here, especially if it is repeatedly being shared (and vicariously experienced) through our social measures of experience like language, art, or music that help us gain some meaning from the experience. (Notice then that the truth follows language, not the other way around.)

As for the what you would consider a religious experience that us "stubborn mules" who abide by social meaning-making simply could not appreciate it, try this on:

When I was 16 I rolled my car on a back road near my hometown. Just as I lost control of the wheel and the car began to spin, I have a distinct memory of being outside of the car, watching it from the side of road, the whole scene bathed in a soothing white light. In the memory of that moment I wasn't scared; I felt "at one," to use your language. Then the next moment I was back in the car just as it rolled into the ditch and the roof buckled miraculously between my friend's head and my own.

I know of experiences that defy rational explanation and I appreciate the wonder they hold. But I would never assume that because I've had this experience I should force others to have the same. Nor do I see any place for this experience in my profession or in my understanding of literature as an art form. For instance, I love Marquez for his magical realism, but I don't feel compelled every time I read him to connect it to my experience outside the car that nearly killed me. That was my experience to have, and I value it. But I don't see that as my entitlement to tell others whether they are enlightened or not, as you seem to do.

Casey said...

One "argumentative" point: language allows me to make sense of the religio-mystical-ineffable experience... it helps me to feel calm in the wake of the experience. But, at least in my experience, it absolutely does not precede experience/perception. But this is all boring compared to...

----

That story about the car is what I'm talkin' about! -- now you're talking. Huzzah!

My rhetoric about "enlightenment" has served its purpose -- it took quite a bit of prodding, but you've spoken in what I recognize as heart-language, and that's what I like to hear. I strongly prefer your story about the car (and the implied "connection" it points to between our experiences) to any essay on Emerson or Lanham I've ever read.

If you want to call that story you told "Rhetoric," by all means -- I'm on board. What I think the world needs (via the university) is more stuff like that, and less like the stuff written by Lyotard and Derrida. There is no recognition of experience available in Lyotard, because he refuses to risk entering as the first-person...

I see Literature as performing that act ("heart-talking") much more effectively than the little that I've read from Vitanza and now Lanham and the few other giants of the field of Rhetoric.

Again: I'm extending a hand -- I want this to lead to a realization of synthesis... if we call all of this "rhetoric," then all I ask is that we distinguish between "head-rhetoric" and "heart-rhetoric." And I can't defend my preference for personal narrative (actually I can a little... but not here, not now)! I just prefer it.

For the head-defense of heart-rhetoric:

http://vivenza.blogspot.com/search?q=defend+narrative

[Anyway... thanks for playing ball, Enthy. I appreciate the careful reading.]

Casey said...

As for that claim about Literature not claiming to offer a transcendent experience -- don't lump it together like that. You've certainly heard Dickinson's definition of poetry:

"If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?"

If I feel physically...Again: I'm not saying you haven't had this experience. But I have. It's real. And it's justification in itself.