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.


怡君 said...


pure_sophist_monster said...

My Perennial Response: constructions are no less real for there being constructions (or, as you might say, fictions).

pure_sophist_monster said...

And then I would remind you of this.

Casey said...

Haha... that cartoon's good. But my point was that the construction--although real--is not the final point. So do we agree that there are useful "real" fictions that are meant to allude to other, perhaps otherwise unspeakable, realities?

fenhopper said...

since we're going over stuff again and again, i'll choose something that i've hoped in the past will burrow into you, and i know someday will:

no matter how confident you are that you understand their reasons for being as they are, you have no idea how close or removed the experiences of others are to yours.

Casey said...

You've shown me that before, Fen? I don't remember. But it's good!

Maybe I don't remember because I'm not that confident that I understand their reasons for being as they are...?

Anyway, that's a profound notion. Say more about it, if you like. I find it unsettling, of course--

fenhopper said...

well we've talked about it before. we've of course talked about your revelation/quickening and i've asked how sure you are that a) no one else has had a similar transcendent episode, and b) that it's the only way to stand as you do.

remember my earlier warning about where people look for justice? you were sure "they" don't look within. that's what i'm getting at.

years ago a smart man warned me not to expect others to see g-d the way i do. it's probably impossible to expect and it's almost certainly unnecessary.

Casey said...

I know beyond a doubt that others have had experiences similar to my one little religious experience, because their accounts are famous and present in every cultural tradition. Whether's it's Paul on the way to Damascus or Carlos Castaneda or Buddha or even Schopenhauer, who phrased it all in an atheistic language, I recognize their "structures."

Although the experience is impossible to describe to those who haven't had it, it's easy to recognize when someone else who had it makes even the shadow of an effort, if you've had it yourself--but then, of course, there's no reason to speak of it.

And obviously, I understand how useless it is to talk about it. Indeed, I see that it sounds "show-offy," though in my mind the value of the religious experience remains questionable, despite its unforgettable nature. I sometimes argue that "the vision" of Oneness creates a moral sense that would've been impossible without it, but I'm no better at obeying the moral sense after the experience than I was before I had this moral sense.

One of those church-brochure things they hand out at church, at my Unitarian church a month or so ago, had a quote from Martin Buber, where he said something like, "If I am asked what sin is, I know immediately with regard to myself; but I know not at all as it concerns others." And I liked that.

But questions of theology are separable, I think, maybe, from questions of culture. I'm not quick to write anyone off as hell-bound, but that doesn't mean I can't have ideals and values, and judge others according to those standards, and even flip them the bird if they violate my standards, etc.