3.20.2009

Hieronymo's Mad Againe

I'm guessing you've felt it: blogging is dead. I'm a little surprised I was taken in for so long -- I tend to be great at spotting false idols as they come along. At worst, as in my case, blogging has become an indulgent delusion; at best, it seems increasingly like an exercise in intellectual inbreeding.

My hope for blogging was that it would allow space and time for sustained and respectful disagreement. Instead, it has become the latest victim a blob-like force in our culture that leads people to seek sources that reinforce their opinions and ignore (or ridicule) sources that challenge their opinions. The red team knows where to look to find its intellectual ammunition. The blue team knows as well. The reader seeks what he already has. If he is unusual, he may eavesdrop on the other team from time to time, but he will never be persuaded. He will not change.

This phenomenon is most obvious in politics and religion, of course: if you approve of President Obama, turn on MSNBC, and they'll give you good reasons to approve. If you disapprove, turn on Fox News, and they'll give you good reasons to disapprove. But the problem, in my judgment -- and it really is a problem -- has almost nothing to do with superficial things like religion and politics: it has to do with our experience of "identity." Let me show a story:
When I was in about 2nd grade I was walking on the sidewalk with a friend. He asked, "Do you like MSU or U of M?" I had never considered the question before...

When I was in about 3rd grade I was walking on the sidewalk with the same friend. He asked, grinningly, "Are you a virgin?" I didn't know what he meant. But I could tell it was a setup, so I looked at him sideways and said... "No?" And his eyes exploded and he started laughing at me, so I said, "Yes, yes... I am."

When I was in about 4th grade I was walking on the sidewalk with the same friend. He asked, are you a republican or a democrat? I didn't know what he meant, and told him I wanted to go play football... he made fun of me for being stupid.
Eventually, I must have learned my lesson: that kind of detachment, whether it stemmed from lack of information or apathy, was unacceptable. My friend had mastered the process of constructing identity, and in my retrospective judgment, it doesn't seem like a coincidence that he would be crowned homecoming king in a class of 425 students our senior year in highschool.

In the years that followed, I had a number of false starts: I tried to make collecting Canadian pennies my "thing." I tried to wear my clothes like everyone else, or different, to make that my "thing." I tried being a Christian, an atheist, and a libertarian. I tried all kinds of hats -- fortunately, few of them fit.

Years later, I am increasingly convinced of the adage that you can never completely trust someone who loved the high school years. I'm convinced that this process of identity construction sits in us like a tapeworm, and as it grows, we must feed it more and more and more. We are always on the brink of being unable to keep convincing ourselves that we believe that we.... enjoy golf, have a Ph.D., are atheists, are Jewish, are former and possibly future Adventists, or Baptists, or Catholics, that our fathers were in the military, or psychiatrists, or basketball coaches, or rich, or poor, or that we are democrats, or republicans, etc.

These examples are bad enough, but worse still are the identities we cling to that lead us to say, "I am a postmodernist," or "I am an idealist," or "I agree with Derrida," or "Levinas," or "Moses," or "Jesus," or "Howard Zinn," or "Alan Bloom." These commitments diminish the hunger for the true nourishment, obviate the need for direct revelatory experience, keep us from knowing our real identity: these kinds of commitments keep you from listening and seeing what would otherwise be so full, so tangible, so direct. To agree and disagree misses the point.

Last night I did not want to fall asleep because I found myself bringing back to life the physical structures of my childhood neighborhood. By the end of the night, I had reconstructed trees, grass (in June, and in August), rotting wooden fences, a dent in my parents' driveway, two different pavements (they repaved my street when I was about ten), the neighbors' kids, the inside of eight or nine houses, the outside of ten or twelve. I had looked down into those half-circle things that are up against the side of houses, usually next to basement windows, had seen last year's fallen leaves. I had gathered again in the rain a bucket of a thousand worms with my seven-year old brother, played catch with my father, learned to "skid-out" on a big-wheel. I was not for or against any of it. I had no identity but my name, and that meant little to me.

But we have decided, most of us, to take our stand. We have carved out a corner, planted our flag, and we are determined to live under it. If we are nothing else, we are consistent--especially if part of our identity consists in proclaiming inconsistency! Against this trend, I have little hope. There are ancient methods for unencumbering ourselves, but they are understood (correctly) as disciplines, and we tend to believe discipline is antithetical to personal freedom, which is something we think we have and need to protect.

We have disclaimed the authority of ancient religious texts, but we cling to authority more than ever. We value our parents' opinions, or our teachers', or our President's, so much that we have not learned to trust ourselves. We are secretaries, taking dictation for what should be our own autobiographies from elsewhere. Is my rhetoric too high? Have I written too much? Do you agree with me, or disagree? Or -- ?

What do you allow yourself to simply notice? If you are "a progressive," can you withhold judgment? stay quiet? look with fresh eyes? If you are Jewish, does it change the way you listen? If you are a "conservative," are you on guard against? If you are an atheist, in a roomfull of Christians, must you feel separate? If you are something, can you become nothing again?

"No," I say to my Dad, who is visiting for a weekend from 600 miles away, "I have changed. You must be looking with old eyes. It is possible to change, but so few people ever do that you may be lulled into thinking that nobody changes; you may be looking with eyes that cannot see change."

And I was right, even if (to give credit where credit is due), Jiddu Krishnamurti -- Human beings have built in themselves images as a fence of security -- and T.S. Eliot -- the eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase -- had been right before me, even if I was not the first to discover this fact of human nature, I discovered it firsthand, for myself, not by reading, but by looking with no-identity-but-curiosity, by looking with no judgment, by reading against myself whenever my identity took up a location, by walking around the neighborhood aimlessly, dragging out the hours before sunset, kicking a pebble sometimes.

I'm putting this blog on a probably-permanent vacation because those few of you who have read this much cannot learn from me -- and because those of you who haven't read this much cannot learn from me. I'll keep reading and responding to other blogs, but for my purposes, this technology is too limiting, and less effective than personal messages, phone calls, and shared experiences.

3.18.2009

Axioms Universal

SO when I said I'd talk about the Federalist Papers as a religious document, I hope ya'll understood I would be using a loose definition of "religion." My definition sounded like this: "religion" consists of metaphysical assumptions and ethical convictions, regardless of their source. Here's an interesting place to start:
This is one of those truths which, to a correct and unprejudiced mind, carries its own evidence along with it; and may be obscured, but cannot be made plainer by argument or reasoning. It rests upon axioms as simple as they are universal; the means ought to be proportioned to the end; the persons, from whose agency the attainment of any end is expected, ought to possess the means by which it is to be attained. (Federalist No. 23, Hamilton)

My recent fascination with Parmenides' notion of "Oneness" has made it clearer and clearer to me that this tension in the pre-Socratic period was anything but idle talk. It was an ontological claim concerning the nature of reality and simultaneously a social claim about the nature of civilization. Allow me to leap around one little bit more to make my point...

In Harriet Jacobs' autobiographical slave narrative, the narrating voice poses the problem this way:
My mistress had taught me the precepts of God's Word: "Thou shalt love they neighbor as theyself." "Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them." But I was her slave, and I suppose she did not recognize me as her neighbor.

In few words, Jacobs calls into relief the important question of where and how wide we draw the circle of our sympathy. The only "metaphysical assumption" and the only "ethical conviction" that will satisfy the conscience in response to this question is, of course, to expand our sympathies without end -- we know that anything short of unifying the world under our sympathy is less than enough.

The other day I argued that no separation (between "religion" and "politics") was possible. Today I'm suggesting that clear separation is not only possible, but advisable. My thinking is that although our theoretical response to Jacobs' implicit question is something like Love, Love, Love, our actions speak louder. As soon as we refuse to perceive the Oneness of reality -- that is, as soon as we are not wholly motivated by our religious convictions -- we are wholly in the world of politics. It's hard to state this clear enough; to put it in narrative terms: once we step with one toe out of the garden of Eden, we are wholly, altogether out.

This is why the separation between politics and religion seems possible and necessary. There's an odd result, though: if I say that I believe (I do indeed!) that a time will come when the religious sentiment guides all people entirely, I sound somewhere between crazy and annoying. But for some reason, the corresponding thinking of Alexander Hamilton, his allusion to an all-encompassing political order, does not sound (to the modern American ear) nearly as outrageous:
The rich may be extravagant, the poor can be frugal; and private oppression may always be avoided by a judicious selection of objects proper for such impositions. If inequalities should arise in some States from duties on particular objects, these will, in all probability, be counterbalanced by proportional inequalities in other States, from the duties on other objects. In the course of time and thing, an equilibrium, as far as it is attainable in so complicated a subject, will be established everywhere.

Hamilton's version of end-time thinking will sound to the contemporary American ear far less metaphysical than it actually is because being American means trusting in Hamilton's mystico-magico-political revelation. But is it? We're certainly still waiting for Hamilton's equilibrium to arrive... while we're waiting, why not just name it "Elijah?"

So, is the idea of political progress less "religious" than the idea of "the kingdom of heaven?" I am not arguing against separation -- I'm (now) arguing for it: if people are better able to believe in the idea of "political progess" than they are in the "kingdom of heaven," so be it. Draw the distinction clearer in hopes of emphasizing how wise we in the "political progress" camp are in comparison to the dim souls in the "kingdom of heaven" camp. But as I've hinted before so many times: it's the belief that counts -- not the object of belief. The Obama administration is exactly right: we're living through a crisis of confidence. Will the idea of political progress keep itself together enough to gather our trust once again? I don't see why not; we're a resilient bunch.

3.15.2009

In Case you Missed it.

video

Beware, and... Beware, and... Beware

This morning I woke up next to my better half who rolled over and giggled: "I just had a dream about you," she said. "All I can remember is that you said, 'The brain is like a metaphor,' and that made me laugh."

And I said, "Wow. Why would you laugh? That's an awesome thing to say."

And then she said, "No it's not. It doesn't make any sense."

So then I explained to her how awesome it was (I'll spare you the details) and as she began to understand, she said, "Well, you don't deserve the credit for it anyway -- it was my dream."

But then I said, "Now wait a minute. It was your dream. But it came out of my mouth in your dream, and I think you know me pretty well -- and you admitted that dream-you laughed at what dream-Casey said. So I think I kinda do deserve credit for that little gem. I just think maybe you're finally starting to understand what I'm sayin'."

But wouldn't you know it: this just made my wife laugh. When she really wakes up--I mean, really "wakes" "up"--I'm not going to let her take credit for that profound explanation coming out of my mouth any more than I let her take credit for the gem about the brain as a metaphor... that is, if "I" am there to argue the point.

Anyway, before I get to the Federalist Papers as religious documents, I thought I'd remind myself of what the guy on the Brooklyn Bridge said in Waking Life: "As one realizes that one is a dream figure in another person's dream... that is self-awareness."

3.11.2009

Part One: No Separation is Possible

An underappreciated guru's recent post has motivated me to respond. The issue is the intersection of religion and politics; some definitions are required:

There are some disingenuous definitions in wide usage that tend to prevent productive conversation on this topic. On the one hand, there are people for whom the word "religion" connotes images of soap-box evangelists holding unnecessarily graphic images of aborted fetuses and hollering about murder; who recall hateful or homophobic rhetoric whenever they hear the word "Christian," for example. For these people, politics is an obviously separate thing -- the distinction is clear, and should be enforced. Not much else needs to be added. And insofar as this is what is meant by "religion," anybody in their right mind should think it should be separated from "politics."

However, if we take a broader definition of "religion" -- so broad that we include metaphysical assumptions and ethical convictions, regardless of their source, to qualify as "religious" (that is, if we allow that any non-rational conviction is effectively religious in nature), then fertile ground rises to meet us.

Alexis de Toqueville has been quoted often saying something like, "Democracy will fail when people realize they can vote themselves money." That's a reasonable paraphrase. The original is from Democracy in America, and it goes, "Democracy will last until the public realizes that it can vote itself largesse from the public trough." This is exactly the kind of statement that only a Frenchman could make about America, and it's so close to being true.

In fact, Toqueville's right: Democracy will fail when people realize all of that. So why haven't they realized it? The answer (and this is my thesis) is that religious sentiment, however latent it has become, has prevented most people in America from even considering this possibility.

Of course, it does not matter at all which religion the people follow -- the faith's the stuff, the confidence itself. But without it, a Democracy is a sinking ship. This religious sentiment is, as far as I can tell, the only thing that has prevented all of Marx's claims about the inevitability of the socialist revolution and the communist society from taking place. So why won't it go away? Why did we get Thoreau in 1854 while Europe got Marx in 1848? Why are there still "voices saying ex cathedra?"

That's a question better left in question form than answered, much like Jesus' "Answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things" (Mark 11: 29).

But consider this: in William Bradford's very influential memoir, Of Plymouth Plantation (1635), which described the lives of the "pilgrims" in the early colonial days, he titles part of chapter 23, "Prosperity weakens community." In that section, he writes,

Also the people of the plantation begin to grow in their outward estates, by reason of the flowing of many people into the country, especially into the Bay of the Massachusetts, by which means corn and cattle rose to a great price, by which many were much enriched, and commodities grew plentiful; and yet in other regards this benefit turned to their hurt, and this accession of strength to their weakness. For now as their stocks increased, and the increase vendible, there was no longer any holding them together, but now they must of necessity go to their great lots... And no man now thought he could live, except he had cattle and a great deal of ground to keep them, all striving to increase their stocks. By which means they were scattered all over the bay, quickly, and the town, in which they lived compactly till now, was left very thin, and in a short time almost desolate. And if this had been all, it had been less, though too much; but the church must also be divided, and those that had lived so long together in Christian and comfortable fellowship must now part and suffer many divisions.

[Then Bradford describes a land-redistribution act that was intended "to prevent any further scattering... and weakening.] But alas! this remedy proved worse than the disease; for within a few years those that had thus got footing there rent themselves away, partly by force, and partly by wearing the rest with importunity and pleas of necessity, so as they must either suffer them to go, or live in continual opposition and contention. And others still, as they conceived themselves straitened, or to want accomodation, break away under one pretense or other, thinking their own conceived necessity, and the example of others, a warrant sufficient for them. And this, I fear, will be the ruin of New England, at least of the churches of God there, and will provoke the Lord's displeasure against them.
Roman or Christian, Greek or Jew, Virginia Trading Company or Masschusetts Bay Colony? If you thirst for water, Rome's the place. If you're looking for G-d, go to Jerusalem. Buddha and Jesus said the same: give up all that you have or you can't follow me. Religion and politics aren't two separate things -- they exist together on a sliding scale much as we conceive Democrat and Republican to exist. There is no intersection, no compromise that isn't cowardice. And, oh yeah, what-is-called "politics" won this dialectical contest long, long ago; and what is called "religion" only exists in brief experiments like Brook Farm, Fourier's imagination, and Haight Ashbury for about ten minutes in 1966. And maybe in parts of the Amazon.

Before I end this "Part 1," I want to say that I am using a concept of religion that approaches Bradford's much more closely than it could be associated with Pat Robertson's. For Bradford, "the church" was the social contract, the community itself -- there was to be no other. See also, the early church described in Acts. For Robertson, "the church" is a money-making machine intended mostly to make deluded hillbillies fully-insane.

[Tomorrow I'll totally reverse all of this to write a post describing The Federalist Papers as religious documents, and argue that there is only ever compromise, and that our task should be to make the intersection perfectly perpendicular... uh, like a cross, I guess.]

The Wheat and the Cream

I've read a lot of books by now. If the list that follows seems a little indulgent, keep in mind that it feels to me like I've earned it. Here are my top ten favorite sentences in 19th century American literature, #1 being my favorite (I post these even understanding that almost all of them lose their mojo when taken out of context):
10. Viewed from a balcony, the whole thing would doubtless have been weirdly picturesque. (Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat")

9. At length arrived that crisis of fancy, so fearful in all similar cases, the crisis in which we begin to anticipate the feelings with which we shall fall--to picture to ourselves the sickness, and diziness, and the last struggle, and the half swoon, and the final bitterness of the rushing and headlong descent. (E.A. Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym)

8. These things took the shape of mystery, which is to this day not so clear to my soul as I trust it will be hereafter. (Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl)

7. But when she was there beside the sea, absolutely alone, she cast the unpleasant, pricking garments from her, and for the first time in her life she stood naked in the open air, at the mercy of the sun, the breeze that beat upon her, and the waves that invited her. (Kate Chopin's The Awakening)

6. For this: that, with some minds, truth is, in effect, not so cruel a thing after all, seeing that, like a loaded pistol found by poor devils of savages, it raises more wonder than terror--its peculiar virtue being unguessed, unless, by indiscreet handling, it should happen to go off of itself. (Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man)

5. The riddle of existence is the college curriculum that was laid before the Pharaohs, that was taught in the groves by Plato, that formed the trivium and quadrivium, and is to-day laid before the freed-men’s sons by Atlanta University... [and] this course of study will not change; its methods will grow more deft and effectual, its content richer by toil of scholar and sight of seer; but the true college will ever have one goal,--not to earn meat, but to know the end aim of that life which meat nourishes. (W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk)

4. Silence is the only Voice of our God. (Herman Melville's Pierre, or, The Ambiguities)

3. ...behind most [of the faces on the insane in the asylum in church that Sunday], an inferr'd arriere of such storms, such wrecks, such mysteries, fires, love, wrong, greed for wealth, religious problems, crosses--mirror'd from those crazed faces (yet now temporarily so calm, like still waters,) all the woes and sad happenings of life and death--now from every one the devotional element radiating--was it not, indeed, the peace of God that passeth all understanding, strange as it may sound? (Walt Whitman's "Sunday with the Insane," from Specimen Days)

2. It was that dismal certainty of the existence of evil in the world, which, though we may fancy ourselves fully assured of the sad mystery long before, never becomes a portion of our practical belief until it takes substance and reality from the sin of some guide, whom we have deeply trusted and revered, or some friend whom we have dearly loved. (Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Marble Faun)

1. So man's insanity is heaven's sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indfferent as his God. (Herman Melville, Moby-Dick)

I recognize some shortcomings here: #1) I have underrepresented the esoteric or marginal literature of the 19th century. But trust me, I looked at Richard Henry Dana and Sarah Orne Jewett and Jones Very, etc., and it seems there's a reason we still recognize genius in some of the old canonical names. Objection #2) Nothing from Huck Finn? No "Call me Ishmael," no Emerson? Nothing from Thoreau about marching to the beat of a different drummer? Those are all great, but they all kind of grind on me, probably from teaching them too much, and leave me feeling flat. Objection #3) My aesthetic seems mixed or inconsistent: some of these seem lyrical, some almost philosophical, some inexplicable. To that I can only reply, Guilty as charged. I contain multitudes.

3.09.2009

No Separation, or, A Look Inside Hurley's Head

If you're still watching ABC's LOST, congratulations -- you're not an idiot. But if you're watching LOST and not taking it seriously, consider this a warning. When we saw Ben reading Philip K. Dick's novel, Valis, last year, for example, you should've read that. If you're in graduate school in English, as you all are if you're reading this, you'll have heard of John Locke and Jeremy Bentham -- but if you didn't know about Richard Alpert, it's time to learn. He started going by Ram Dass after getting fired from his professorship at Harvard in the 1960s. Here he is talking about LSD:



Here's Richard Alpert, from LOST: