Strain, and see--

It's about time for summer vacation. I'm going to be in and out of my place for the next month or so, so don't expect much posting -- let's all meet back here in late August.
When you know that you have become this perfect work, when you are self-gathered in the purity of your being, nothing now remaining that can shatter that inner unity, nothing from without clinging to the authentic man, when you find yourself wholly true to your essential nature, wholly that only veritable Light which is not measured by space, not narrowed to any circumscribed form nor again diffused as a thing void of term, but ever unmeasurable as something greater than all measure and more than all quantity -- when you perceive that you have grown to this, you are now become very vision: now call up all your confidence, strike forward yet a step -- you need a guide no longer -- strain, and see. --Plotinus, The Enneads, 1.6, "Beauty"


Inconsistency, Truth, Rhetoric, Democracy

Today during a long car drive, I listened to Rush Limbaugh as Gretchen and Iris slept in the backseat. Limbaugh was analyzing the Elena Kagan confirmation hearing. His take was that Kagan sounded just like Alito and Roberts--that is, sounded like an "originalist," who revered the Constitution and the Law... as opposed to the typical idols of the Left, equality and social justice. Limbaugh's explanation? Kagan (via Obama) knows that, to get confirmed, she needs to say certain things--to sound a certain way. And then, after she is confirmed, she can let her true colors show.

Do we all agree that A) this is troubling, and B) that this is what Rhetoricians & Sophists teach us to do?

If you want to govern in a way that is unpopular, then run on a platform that is popular, and then govern on another platform altogether. It seems to be the way--of politicians on both sides--these days. Republicans saying they want smaller government, then increasing spending at record rates. Democrats running on an anti-war platform, then installing dozens of czars, taking over major industries, tapping wires, creating civilian hit-lists, not ending torture, and ramping up Colonialist aggression.

Has it always been this way? Could it be otherwise? Could anyone ever simply sit before the Senate and say, "I believe that the 'negative constraints' of the Law put into place by the Founders are no longer sufficient, and will do everything I can to bring about social justice and economic equality. I will favor women and minorities, because white men have historically had an advantage, and I believe the courts are powerful enough to bring about balance, and even vengeance."

So ya'll sophists don't think this is a problem, right?--running one way, acting another? Doesn't it make a mockery out of democracy?

Now I understand why I've been practicing my sharpshooting on Call of Duty so obsessively for the past couple years... hope it translates into reality

So now, despite the fact that I'm unwilling to get involved, I find observing this intellectual struggle between Paul Krugman and Niall Ferguson very entertaining. Listen to Ferguson's latest interview, in which he argues that "it's all on the line for America."

I honestly don't know, but I really hope the empire doesn't collapse in my lifetime or my daughter's... when hoarding gunpowder and eating squirrels becomes the norm, I just don't know what my role will be.

[Fortunately, yesterday the number 3:10 recurred in my life a few times (miles driven, the cost of a purchase, etc.), and so at night, I opened my Bible, which was bookmarked at the beginning of Revelation, and I read to 3:10, sort of looking to see what my verse would be. Here's what it said: "Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth."]

So, whew!


"Talk Not to me of Blasphemy, Man"

I wonder if I should shut this venue down again, at least for a while. I became conscious this weekend of just how compromised my perspective has become since becoming a father. You really should have trusted me before--I was a reliable and decent person, whose seeking was an earnest effort to make the world better for all, and not just myself. Sift through the archives, friends. I was a prophet then, a bona fide soothsayer. I had your interests in my heart.

Now, after this...

...I don't give two cents about "Ethics" or "Justice." If keeping all of Africa impoverished means my daughter can have a better life, then fine. Or, conversely, if bolstering Africa with aid makes my daughter's life better, then fine. But don't talk to me of Justice, man. I'm a rogue nation. I might even be lying right now, right to your Face.

Don't ever elect me to public office. That's all I'm saying.


My Perennial Complaint, Refigured

When I try to explain the necessity of fiction to my students, I often ask them to imagine trying to explain to a five-year old what it's like to fall in love. They often struggle, awkwardly comparing it to the love of parents, or to the way they feel about a favorite stuffed animal. Once, a good student, a girl, said, "I'd tell the child that it's like when you look in the cookie jar with a friend and see that there's only one cookie left, and you are willing to let the other person have it." I've always thought that that was a pretty good approximation, and of course, it proves my point about storytelling.

Now imagine if after hearing that story, the 5-year old was given an assignment to explain what romantic love was to everyone else in his class.

It's my contention that most academics are like that 5-year old, and that they fall into one of two camps: those obedient five-year olds who do their best to explain something in which they have limited or no personal experience, or, worse, like the bratty five year old who declares brazenly that romantic love doesn't exist at all: "Love is a social construct, and..."

And of course, Love in my analogy is like Tr-th, or G-d, or the mystical experience, or the Ultimate Reality, or whatever.

And what happens is that the good-faith academics who are trying to explain the Great Mystery, not having had any experience in it themselves, hollowly employ the terminology that they've heard from their own teachers. They will speak of cookies and cookie jars as if those were not figures of speech, but actualities. And this is why the history of philosophy is so clotted with minor, secondary, explanatory works of very little help or importance, and this (I think) has been the problem with much of literary criticism since that genre became institutionalized.

Plato's forms, Parmenides's One & Many, Jesus's mustard seeds, Buddha's Self -- all of these are figures used to help a willing mind "unteach" itself. The use of paradox is prevalent in every major religious tradition precisely because it brings us to our wit's end.

But, seduced by the exoticism of the language employed by these and other sages, legions of academics (and monks before them) have crowded library shelves with commentary, criticism, and derivative theory. Ask someone what Love is, and they will tell you that they know someone famous who once said that Love is like when there's only one cookie left in the jar, and...

And maybe it has to be that way. What could they do, really? They could not fall in love with you just to teach you what love is. They could grin and smile knowingly, confident that the experience would find everyone some day, but they wouldn't get tenure for that. And of course, they could deny that love exists, not having experienced it themselves, and convinced (theoretically) that, even if they had experienced love for themselves, they would not be able to communicate it to others; and so they might say, "There is no such thing as love."

And honestly, there'd be no harm in that.


More on Mysticism

Pascal, from the Pensées 1.130:
If he exalts himself, I humble him.
If he humbles himself, I exalt him.
And I go on contradicting him
Until he understands
That he is a monster that passes all understanding.
Carl Jung, from The Red Book (Liber Novus), [liber primus fol.i(v)/ii(r)]:
Believe me: It is no teaching and no instruction that I give you. On what basis should I presume to teach you? I give you news of the way of this man, but not of your own way. My path is not your path, therefore I cannot teach you. The way is within us, but not in Gods, nor in teachings, nor in laws. Within us is the way, the truth, and the life.
Jordan Paper, "Ethnohermeneutics II: West," from his book, The Mystic Experience: a Descriptive and Comparative Analysis:
The foremost mystic of the Hellenistic world, [Plotinus] relates to the Religions of the Book in this regard as the Upanishads do to Hinduism. Plotinus was a professional philosopher who based his teachings on his own "Union" experiences, which his disciple and biographer, Porphyry, stated he had four times; Porphyry himself had the experience once... For Plotinus, the mystic experience was utterly ineffable: "Thus The One is in truth beyond all statement" (Enneads V.3.13). The experience cannot but be discussed from the standpoint of what is not; that is, by negation.
From E.M. Cioran's book Tears and Saints:
Mysticism is an eruption of the absolute into history. Like music, it is the crowning of culture, its ultimate justification.
From The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali:
Thereafter, one is undisturbed by the dualities.
From William James's Varieties of Religious Experience:
In Hinduism, in Neoplatonism, in Sufism, in Christian mysticism, in Whitmanism, we find the same recurring note, so that there is about mystical utterances an eternal unanimity which ought to make a critic stop and think, and which brings it about that the mystical classics have, as has been said, neither birthday nor native land. Perpetually telling of the unity of man with God, their speech antedates languages, and they do not grow old.
Han Shan, quoted in Peter Kingsley's book on Parmenides, Reality:
As one coming suddently out of darkness, I perceived the full meaning of the doctrine of immutability and said: "Now I can believe that fundamentally all things neither come nor go." I got up from my meditation bed, prostrated myself before the Buddha shrine and did not have the perception of anything in motion. I lifted the blind and stood in front of the stone steps. Suddenly the wind blew through the tress in the courtyard, and the air was filled with flying leaves which, however, looked motionless. I said to myself: "This is the whirlwind that will destroy Mount Sumeru and which is permanently still. When I went to the back yard to make water, the urine seemed not to be running. I said, "That is why the river pours but does not flow." Thereafter, all my doubts about birth and death vanished.
Jimi Hendrix, speaking of his guitar as a metaphor for Tr-th:
Sometimes you want to give up the guitar, you'll hate the guitar. But if you stick with it, you're gonna be rewarded.
Jesus, in the Gospel of Thomas (saying #2)
Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, and he will rule over the all.
From Jacob Boehme's Six Theosophic Points (1620):
...and the eternal Light cannot be laid hold of by anything, unless that thing fall into death, and give its essence voluntarily to the fire of Nature, and pass with its essential will out of itself into the Light; and abandon itself wholly to the Light; and desire to will or to do nothing, but commit its will to the Light, that the Light may be its will.
From Salinger's Franny & Zooey:
...I'll tell you a terrible secret--Are you listening to me? There isn't anyone out there who isn't Seymour's Fat Lady. That includes your Professor Tupper, buddy. And all his goddam cousins by the dozens. There isn't anyone anywhere that isn't Seymour's Fat Lady. Don't you know that? Don't you know that goddam secret yet? And don't you know--listen to me, now--don't you know who that Fat Lady really is?... Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It's Christ himself. Christ Himself, buddy.
From The Chandogya Upanishad
As the rivers flowing east and west
Merge in the sea and become one with it,
Forgetting they were ever separate rivers,
So do all creatures lose their separateness
When they merge at last into pure Being.
There is nothing that does not come from him.
Of everything he is the inmost Self.
He is the truth; he is the Self supreme.
You are that, Shvetaketu, you are that.
From Simone Weil's Gravity and Grace:
We hate the people who try to make us form the connexions we do not want to form.

Re: Jewish Mysticism

"In Jewish mysticism, it is not always understood that union with God is but a temporary experience. Hence, there are warnings against allowing oneself to be dissolved into nothingness due to an assumption that returning to the state of a separate existence is not a subsequent step. But clearly in the above passage, it is accepted that at least some do come back to their former separate being."
That's an excerpt from a chapter titled "Ethnohermeneutics II: West," from a book called The Mystic Experience: A Descriptive and Comparative Analysis, by Jeshua ben Yosef (Jordan Paper), 2004.

And the passage referred to as "above" comes from A disciple of the Great Maggid, Levi Isaac of Berdicheve, who wrote in Kedushat ha-Levi:
When the Zaddik cleaves to the nought, and is [then] annihilated, then alone he worships the Creator from the aspect of all the Zaddikim, since no division of the attributes is discernable there at all.... There is a Zaddik who cleaves to the nought and nevertheless returns afterward to his essence. (qtd. in Paper)
Maybe this explains Levinas's reluctance to talk about religious experience? The author goes on to say, "In the main, the contemporary Jewish attitude toward mysticism, let alone the mystic experience, is to ignore if not deny its relevance within Judaism." Seems odd to me, given the nature of the stories in the Talmud, which practically all involve religious experience (Moses, Abraham, Noah, certainly). Even this seems like an insufficient reason to ignore the testimony of those who claim to have mystical experiences. Certainly most religious traditions have warnings: my Kundalini Yoga DVD comes with a warning that says, basically, "Careful: you might not be ready for this," and mainstream Christianity can hardly be said to encourage mysticism -- indeed, Philip K. Dick wrote his best books understanding that admitting to mystical experiences might land one in the nut-house.

Anyway, hmph.


A Repost, For a Laugh

The following was originally posted on a now-defunct blog, A Voyage Thither, on April 27th, 2006. The original included three funny pictures: 1) of Emmanuel Lewis, 2) of a cartoon fish from Little Nemo, and 3) of the yellowish cover of Ethics and Infinity, photoshopped to read, Swimming and Wetness.

Swimming and Wetness: A Parody

A Conversation between Emmanuel Lewis and Nemo
(Begging patience from my uninitiated readers)

Nemo: How does one begin swimming?
Emmanuel Lewis: Swimming is the result of an original trauma -- a scene of violence wherein the consciousness of wetness manifests itself as the result of separation from floating.

N.: What is ontology in the context of swimming, and does swimming require a direction?
E.L.: For me, the swum does not count as much as the swimming. The swimming is the fact that before the Great White, I do not simply study its teeth; I react to them. The swimming is a way of announcing the Other by assuming responsibility for him. Directional swimming closes the infinite and is, in that sense, against the ethical. One can swim -- depths are not ontological necessities -- but the confrontation with the Great White commands: "Thou shalt not swim."

N.: You would say of Moby Dick, all other things being equal, what Jaws said of Leviathan?
E.L.: There are many things for which I can still not pardon Leviathan -- his participation in Pacific-pack-swim primarily. I for my part analyze the modalities of swimming, focusing on its verbal sense. We tend to think of swimming in the form of a gerund: "Swimming is good exercise," but I return to its action-based definition -- the act of moving through water. It is not a matter of escaping from the pack, but rather of escaping from swimming.

N.: In The Pacific and its Depths, you speak much of the Great White. It is your most frequent theme. What does this phenomenology of the Great White consist in and what is its purpose?
E.L.: One confronts the Great White before ontology -- even before swimming. Thus the best way of approaching the Great White is not to see his giant, glimmering white teeth or his eyes rolled back in his head! When one observes the sharpness of the Great White's teeth, one is not in a social relationship with the Great White. The relation with the Great White can of course occur in swimming, but what is specifically the Great White does not take place in swimming.

N.: You speak ocassionally of knowledge as an illumination of the possessed, of the thing owned.
E.L.: Or possessable. Down to the remotest clams.

N.: By distinction the escape from swimming is going to be a dispossessing?
E.L.: What is needed is a way of being wet that does not require swimming. The most audacious and distant swimming does not put us into a "school" with other fish; it does not take the place of moving together; it is still and always a wetness.


The One and the Other

I thought two or three of you might be interested: I just finished reading an article on Levinas and the problem of mystical experience. It sort of brings together what I've been saying with what "you" have been saying -- and shows that I'm right, of course. Ha.

The article was titled, "Reducing the One to the Other: Kant, Levinas, and the Problem of Religious Experience," by Anthony J. Steinbock (published in Levinas Studies: An Annual Review, Vol. 4). While admitting that on most points Kant and Levinas are far apart, Steinbock writes,
There is a troubling point that connects these profoundly different thinkers: the ambiguous place of religious experience and its relation to the sphere of ethics. In fact, in addition to reducing the religious to the ethical, they both disavow the very kind of experience that could bring clarity to the issue of religious experience, namely, mystical experiencing.
This is what I've been trying to say for a couple of years now. "Your" philosophy, however postmodern and anti-philosophical it tries to be, is not accommodating my personal experience, and as a result, I do not find what you're saying persuasive. It's not that I think that the Face of the Other is not a source for realizing divinity -- only that it's not the only source. Steinbock differentiates, as I do, between what he calls "ecclesiastical faith" and revelatory (or "pure") faith. Because the former may be regarded as an object, and subjected to philosophy's ways of knowing, we mystics do not object to criticism of historical religion. But personal/revelatory/experiential religious experience must remain mysterious to those who have not themselves undergone the experience. And in light of this mystery, the philosopher (Levinas, Kant, etc.) must not arbitrarily limit the ways in which I experience the divine.

Anyway, if you've been one to write-off mystical experience, and you're into Levinas, give the article a once-over for me.


The Self

Part One:
Question: is it theoretically possible to become a propaganda writer without knowing it?
Part Two:

In an effort to learn a little more about what my sophist friends mean when they say that "identity is social," and stuff like that, and to draw them out, here's a short little imaginary dialogue:

Casey: Do you dig the image conjured by the title of this blog?
Unimportant Nitpicker (U.N.): Oh, I never noticed that--but yeah, it seems to reflect what you think about identity, right?
Casey: That's right, in a lyrical/inexplicable way.
UN: So you're not convinced that the Self is always already social, huh?
Casey: That's right. I've read a lot of books that have convinced me a of a certain way of understanding the world, and I'm having trouble seeing it your way. Have you heard Emily Dickinson's #822, for example? It goes like this. And you know about my long interest in Emerson. And to make matters even worse, consider the way Ahab (mad Ahab!) talks in Moby-Dick; he says: "Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I." Or even Walt Whitman, uncle Walt!
There is that in me - I do not know what it is - but I know it is in me.
Wrench'd and sweaty - calm and cool then my body becomes, I sleep - I sleep long.
I do not know it - it is without name - it is a word unsaid,
It is not in any dictionary, utterance, symbol.
UN: I think I've heard some of that before. That's fun literature!
Casey: So, my problem/question is that you seem to talk as if you know who you are, but I'm not sure you do, because you haven't told me. And are you sure you know yourself? Who are you when you decide to masturbate, or half-ass it at work, or skip a day of working out? And who are you when you decide what to eat for dinner? See, you're telling me that reality is social, but that implies a group of individuals. And I'm not sure we have an understanding of what "individuals" are.
UN: Okay, let me explain...


Part 3: Another huge government takeover, Obama? Cool.


From Plato's Republic:

And above all, I said, and as the result of all, see how sensitive the citizens become; they chafe impatiently at the least touch of authority, and at length, as you know, they cease to care even for the laws, written or unwritten; they will have no one over them.

Yes, he said, I know it too well.

Such, my friend, I said, is the fair and glorious beginning out of which springs tyranny.


Conservative Psychology -- Have a Glimpse:

Nothing makes me want to "join" the Tea Party more than when I hear whiney leftist academics describe the movement as "frightening" or "terrifying."

You know what's a "myth," Professor Bernstein?--good government.

I'm coming after you, Bernstein. Around any dark corner. When you least expect it. Be afraid. You pussy.


I know there's no evidence, and you might ascribe this to Casey "making it up," but here's what I drafted last Thursday, before quitting due to an interruption:
In one of those odd coincidences of the stars, I just caught onto one of the biggest defenders of metaphysical ethics (i.e., "Platonic" ethics) of the 20th century... her name is Iris Murdoch, and you've probably heard of her as a novelist. I didn't name my baby after her at all, but now it looks like I may be reading lots of Murdoch for a while. [interruption]
I was going to describe the opening pages of Murdoch's Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, and make one of those what's-wrong-with-Levinas posts again, to peeve my theory friends. It turns out that the name I chose for my daughter has been a kind of bread crumb to help kickstart my ongoing truth-quest. Iris (Murdoch) and I are kinda kindred spirits, it seems.

But anyway, remember yesterday's post?--with the enigmatic allusion to a book I discovered on a bookshelf in Black Mountain, NC? An obscure book titled Zchenk Among Demons, written by David Schenck. The book was published in Spartanburg, South Carolina in 1990 by "Est Et Non" Books," a publisher which is evidently now defunct. I spent all night last night and this morning trying to figure out if this guy has written anything else -- he's very obscure. Off the radar. Not a big name academic at all. Finally, this morning, back from a visit to Asheville and Black Mountain, I found this about David Schenck on the internet:
David Schenck has published frequently in scholarly journals, literary magazines and newspapers over the last thirty years.He is the author of "Zchenk Among Demons," praised by Iris Murdoch as "a deep and stirring book," and of its companion, "Z Coming Home."He has taught in colleges and universities in the northeast and the south, and has spent the last two decades working in the non-profit sector in various capacities.He lives in Asheville, NC with his wife Annabeth, and now works at the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy.Whenever he can, he is out in the mountains hiking and camping ...
So, probably his book was in the bookstore because he's from nearby. But "praised by Iris Murdoch?!" That's too much, G-d. As I said yesterday, it is a sweet book. If you're interested in mysticism or truth at all, order yourself a copy from a used-books seller online or something. Now continueth the synchronicities...

Here's the one other interesting link (for myself).


An Intentional Blog Post

Part 1:

In a "Rare and Used" bookstore in Black Mountain, NC, this weekend, I sifted and sifted until I found a book, now out of print, originally published in 1990, by a publisher of no repute, written by an author (b. 1951) with no Wikipedia page. And I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that none who reads my blog will seek the book out for himself purely as a function of my endorsement, but as a matter of conscience, here is a link:

Part 2:

Two men could, independently, write the same book. Granting that unlikelihood, one of the men could have written the book with the intention of revealing divine truth to his most earnest readers, whereas the other may have written the book hoping to make a living.

Now again, two men may read that book (either version, of course); and, one man may say that it matters greatly whether the author had divine intentions or financial intentions. The other man may say it matters not at all.

Now again, two men may read a book, authored by an author with divine intentions, and one may receive the transmission, while the other may not.

Now again, two men may read a book, authored by an author with mundane intentions, and one may be changed for the better, whereas another may not.

And further: women may even involve themselves in these kinds of scenarios!

Part 3:

Here follows a bit of text that I wish I could use as an epigraph in a scholarly article, but can't, because no editor is subtle enough to get the joke:
"No one realised that the book and the labyrinth were one and the same." --Jorge Luis Borges, The Garden of Forking Paths, possibly translated to Russian by unknown, then quoted in Victor Pelevin's The Helmet of Horror, translated into English by Andrew Bromfield.



Literature as Religion

Today I went with a student to the nearest "Research-1" library to dig a little deeper for our summer project. I found plenty of good stuff--some of which I had sort of lost track of since graduate school. My project has to do with Melville and mysticism (or "religious experience") or something like that, and I found plenty of books, both Melville-related and not, that proved themselves well-versed in what mysticism is and how it works, etc.

But I noticed something interesting: there's almost no scholarship focusing on (or even alluding to) the question of whether, and how, mystical experience can or might be "induced."

Can a text create a spiritual/psychological experience for a reader? Could we understand what it is "structurally" about texts that do that successfully, if such texts exist, that makes the experience occur? Does it (almost certainly) require a certain kind of reading?

So could I get away with calling Melville's texts "mystical" by simply suggesting that those who don't have mystical experiences after reading them aren't reading in the "right" (in context) way?

I know this seems sketchy, but isn't this what all parables are trying to do?--to induce a transformation (or enlightenment, or salvation, or redemption) in the listener? And what's the alternative? What is the purpose of Melville's writing, if not something that grand? If he really wanted to just say, "It's dangerous to become obsessive about eliminating evil," why wouldn't he have written a short tract in prose on that topic? What makes "serious" fiction necessary?

Sealy? You around?


Truth and Law

Tonight Detroit Tigers' pitcher Armando Galarraga came within one out of throwing the 21st perfect game in Major League Baseball history. There's some controversy regarding the last out; in fact, the umpire, Jim Joyce, apologized to Galarraga after the game: "I just cost that kid a perfect game. I thought he beat the throw. I was convinced he beat the throw, until I saw the replay." Check it out:

This seems like an interesting case in the field of Truth Studies. The rules of baseball don't allow for instant replay, but the truth, as anyone who watches the video can tell, is that the umpire made the wrong call here. That makes baseball an institution with more respect for "the Law" than for Truth, and that troubles me a bit. But as I think about it, this seems to be an inevitable problem with Law. It must obey itself first, even when, after the fact, it recognizes its mistake. And isn't that necessary?--precisely because sometimes we need a decision in the moment, before we can watch the metaphorical (and actual) "instant replays," etc.?

But as a Tigers fan, I just wish that the umpire could call up the commissioner and say, "I got that one wrong. Let's change the score book and make it a perfect game, because it was."