8.24.2009

You Shall Know the Truth, and the Truth Shall... give you bronchitis?

"Crooked activities of body, speech and mind, and wrangling lead to the influx of bad physique‑determining karma." --from chapter 6 of the Jainist scripture known as the Tattvartha Sutra
In the original printing of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Whitman's name did not appear in the prefatory material--was not on the title page. In its place, this now famous portrait appeared:

It was a genius move. Whitman consciously refused dualism throughout his career, understanding that the mind is the body. In an effort to solidify his only thesis, Whitman showed himself standing comfortable, content, his undershirt showing, his beard untrimmed, his face un-posed. It was the outward expression of an uncomplicated inner-being. The famous portrait might be most effectively contrasted with any of the great portraits of Napolean, always awkwardly straining to look otherwise than natural.

There are two fundamental ways of making sense of this difference, two contrasting interpretations of the difference that I believe reveal one of those perennial splits in academia. One way of accounting for the difference between Whitman's "stance" and Napolean's (which I'm using as representative) is to argue that Whitman's is truer, is more natural, is almost objectively more noble than Napolean's. To hold this view, one must believe that Whitman's posture is self-evidently an improvement on Napolean's--or, in other words, that Napolean's carriage was affected, whereas Whitman's was not.

The second view is a view that I expect would be at least as popular (probably more popular) among contemporary academics: that is the notion that both posturings are equally staged, equally performative, equally affected.

It is the first view that I wish to defend, and the second view that I take as being representative of a larger way of thinking that is currently practiced most deftly by those who identify themselves as "rhetoricians."

But it is difficult to defend the self-evident, of course. I can point only to facts like these: I see far more people on the street standing like Whitman than like Napolean. Or, when I stand like Whitman I feel comfortable and steady, whereas when I stage myself like Napolean my back hurts and I feel awkard.

So, instead of defending, I will attack.

One interesting starting note: when two who hold the view of equanimity (the rhetoricians) gather they will find themselves in comfortable agreement over the most important point. One rhetorician will say to the other, "Well, where I come from, Whitman's stance is probably more comfortable, but there's no truth of posture, so--" and the other will nod in agreement. Once this point has been established, all kinds of interesting points can be made to justify all kinds of different postures--including their own.

The one difficulty that continually presents itself to the rhetoricians occurs when one who is not a rhetorician interjects, saying, "I disagree; I believe there is a true posture, though I struggle to know it and achieve it myself."

It's the second part of this comment that's most damaging. If the interjector were to have suggested that he believed in true posture and that his posture was true posture, the rhetoricians might have easily argued that that's too convenient to be true. But in the admission of imperfection, the non-dualist forces the rhetorician into further self-examination.

What motivation would a rhetorician have to say (and even believe) that the Whitman-posture and the Napolean-posture are co-equal? [Hint: ...including their own.]

---

Let me make a diagonally-related point by way of an imaginary dialog:
Non-Dualist: The Yogic postures are correct and true.
Rhetorician: Well, as a rhetorician, I believe that truth is how you frame it.
Non-Dualist: May I ask a question about that?
Rhetorician: Sure.
Non-Dualist: Have you learned the Yogic postures? Have you practised them?
Rhetorician: There is no more truth to the Yogic postures than to my posture.
Non-Dualist: Wow, that seems like a good way to end a conversation that might not have gone your way...
Rhetorician: Precisely.
Non-Dualist: [shrugs, gives up.]
The point here is that when a rhetorician is confronted with facts that argue for the truth of one position over another, the rhetorican--rather than engaging the conversation at the level of comparative analysis--can always fall back on the line that "there is no truth," and their jobs will never be in danger as long as they remember that. But I worry about their physique-determining karma. :)

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