Tuesday, December 18, 2007
Friday, December 07, 2007
Let us hope so, and let us hope that this event marks a turning point in the maturation of the American political class. For make no bones about it: this event is a signal challenge to the power of the Israel Lobby, which has led our nation deeper and deeper into fanaticism. It is the Israelite contingent which has been calling for war with Iran - that contingent and their judaizing supporters in the so-called Christian ranks. Military higher-ups, on the other hand, like Admiral Fallon, have been calling for reason and restraint. An invasion of Iran, he said, would "not happen on his watch."
Maybe things will become so insane in the USA that it will take an actual military revolt to restore the governance of America to America and to pry it out of the hands of the dual-loyalists who have taken over foreign policy. The Israelis left that charade in Annapolis with everything they wanted, yet one of their journalists recently cried that the NIE report was a hit "below the belt." Below the belt? Translated from propagandaspeak I suppose that means that a rational American foreign policy is against the interests of Israel.
I wonder why nobody mentions poor Ariel Sharon any more. Is he still alive? - living in some comatose state in an Israeli hospital? Unfortunately the state of Israel has more and more come to resemble the state of the comatose Ariel Sharon. The world will have no peace until the Israelis make the decision to join the human race and reconcile themselves with mankind and their neighbors. We Americans have many of those tendencies as well, perhaps not quite as pronounced. But this NIE report shows that there are signs of life yet in American government-- signs of a tentative rapprochement with humanity stirring in even the citadels of Mordor.
Saturday, November 24, 2007
I cannot recall what I first wrote to him about - perhaps it was that his writings and thoughts on Peak Oil seemed to possess those marks of spirituality and refinement, and a deep sense of history, culture, and roots, that are so rare to find today. I had posted an essay on my former website called "The Prophetic Literature of Oil Depletion," in which I had quoted from him, and perhaps I was inviting him to respond to it. I recall receiving a gracious reply. I cannot remember the sequence of communication, but I offered to send him a copy of my book of short stories, Earthly Nurturance -- which I duly did, in a little package bound for Tehran. Again I received a gracious reply, in which he said he particularly enjoyed the story "Two Sisters" -- a nonfiction story in a collection of fiction. It was a story about my mother's Aunt Jennie, from Rome, Georgia, who ended up as a Principessa Ruspoli in Rome, Italy. Somehow I thought that fit - he would like the story about the aristocratic princess.
Well, in order to find his e-mail, I tried to bring up his website, which it seemed, was no longer operative. I googled his name and found a bulletin from www. peakoil.com dated November 23, saying that Mr. Bakhtiari had passed away. Several persons wrote in to express their feelings, memories and regrets - and some, surprise. "Was he that old?" someone wrote.
I cannot explain how, after these several years, I would have had the thought to write to Mr. Bakhtiari again - nor why, just now. I would like to believe that the e-mail I thought to send has somehow made it into another dimension - not through the clumsy medium of computers, but through the medium of thought itself - touched with thanks and blessing.
Thursday, November 22, 2007
"As far as I know the path for humanity at large which is provided by the 21-day
process is relatively new. I can only speculate about its origins and the
reasons why it should appear just now. . . The possibility has appeared suddenly
and could not necessarily have been foreseen. It is evident that a critical
situation has come about in the evolution of the earth. The spiritual world, I
mean the good and positive spiritual beings and leaders of humanity, are
watching planet earth and humanity with anxiety and despair because they see
that the great majority of human beings are unable to break out of a materialism
that is destructive and also no longer suitable for our time..."
Sunday, November 18, 2007
Today we are going to talk about the new architecture, called the Box. A box, as you may recall, has four sides, and it can be of any size, as the above photograph indicates. For example, a very small box could hold a wedding ring. A somewhat larger box is useful for containing cereal, e.g. Post Toasties or Wheaties. And of course we know of boxes of all sizes and shapes for sending things through the mail, for example, computers or compost tumblers, or a set of wineglasses, or ammunition, or most anything, in fact.
Boxes in the modern period made a real step foward as housing design, for example in the art of Walter Gropius, Frank Lloyd Wright, or Le Corbusier. Farnsworth House, for example, designed by Mies van der Rohe, looks "like an alien spaceship whose retro thrusters destroyed with their heat everything below it upon landing; but, at the same time, it remains perched above the ground as if ready to blast off at a moment's notice." (E. Michael Jones, Living Machines: Bauhaus Architecture As Sexual Ideology.) To say that this house resembles a box is somewhat generous to the truth, as it in fact remarkably flat. But certainly the form or archetype of box must have "inspired" it.
Unfortunately in human evolution the box has always had to play second fiddle to the Wheel. It is not known what genius invented the wheel, although this immortal not only invented the wheel but a common expression to go along with it, e.g. "reinventing the wheel," which means, (oddly enough, considering the importance of his invention) something utterly repetitive, futile, inane, and wasteful.
We have now a new metamorphosis of the Box as an art museum, which could perhaps give rise to a creative tweak of language. Perhaps "reinventing the box" will come to mean something so egregiously ugly that it will come to be seen as the signature of space aliens rather than human beings. Or perhaps some clever person will come up with another application of the old standby, "thinking outside the box" as an ironic comment on an architecture that does everything in its power to destroy the notions of beauty, shelter, home and place.
Paul Goldberger, the usually sane architecture critic of the New Yorker, remarks, in what must be the world's finest example of understatement, that "The visual signals this building sends... seem deliberately ambiguous." The Japanese architects who designed it were perhaps known for their design school in Essen, Germany, which is "a concrete cube, a hundred feet high, punctuated seemingly at random with windows of assorted sizes." With further understatement, Goldberger remarks that their architecture's "refined (!) style might seem odd on the Bowery, one of the grittiest streets in New York."
It would be hard to find a flatter and more understated piece of writing than Goldberger's "Bowery Dreams," to accompany the photograph of this new architectural variant of the Box. Flattery, I suppose, will get you everything, and Goldberger is evidently out to flatter the modernists who funded this eyesore -- "the decision to move to the Bowery was perhaps a clever way of assuring its supporters that its agenda remains radical."
Modernism has certainly been taking many strides backward since 1913, and we have this example of it to reassure us of its intention to go all the way - maybe back to that original genius who gave us the wheel.
Friday, November 16, 2007
Sunday, October 21, 2007
Walter de la Mare [1873-1956]-- from a letter to Edward Wagenknecht: '…the Christian and Catholic idea of Man and the Universe is the richest, profoundest, most imaginative and creative, beautiful and reasonable conception of any I have knowledge of… Therefore…it is…the most likely to be true.'
Imagine the following: a somewhat flaccid, complacent, conformist gentleman, who lives at some unspecified time between 1870-1910, and whose thoughts never strayed beyond the confines of his English village and the perimeter set by his formidably conventional wife, falls ill for a number of days, possibly weeks, with Influenza. One afternoon – perhaps Sheila, his wife, has left the house – he undertakes to leave his sick room and wander outside for a little walk. His path takes him down to the old churchyard where, on a mossy gravestone, after pondering the fate of the denizen within whose memorial he traces out in the broken lettering, he falls asleep.
Upon waking, he feels somewhat refreshed, and saunters – no, strides, – "with [a] vivid exaltation in this huge dark night in his heart, and Sheila merely a little angry Titianesque cloud on a scarcely perceptible horizon" -- back to his house. He returns to his bedroom, sits in knitted thought upon his bed for a few moments, feeling unusually alert -- "it seemed as if a heavy and dull dream had withdrawn out of his mind." He lights the candle, takes out his razors and prepares to shave himself. He looks at himself in the glass.
Shock: the face that confronts him is not his own – at least it was not the Arthur Lawford that seemed to have existed formerly, the Arthur Lawford of history, appearance, and self-belief. It is another face, lean, hungry, wolf-like and saturnine. After a pause of terror, horror, tears, he hears a rustle of skirts mounting the stairs. Sheila knocks at the door. Husband and wife engage in a little colloquy across the locked door. There are pauses, strategems, little maneuevers of postponement – dinner is kept waiting, what will the servants think? – finally Sheila returns again, is allowed to enter, and confronts her changed husband. "Who would believe, who could believe, that behind this strange and awful and yet how simple mask, lay himself?" Would Sheila believe it? Would she "keep the faith"? Who, indeed, is Arthur Lawford? -- "flesh" or "spirit?"
This is the question addressed in Walter de la Mare’s novel, The Return, published in 1922 (American edition). Modern folk may be inclined to chuckle at the high importance given to respectability in the novel. The world of Sheila is, so to speak, deadly serious, and to opt out of the warm waters of socially sustaining beliefs is the equivalent nowadays of a "Terror Alert."
For, as Sheila puts it,
"…Who, in the whole of the parish—I ask you—and you must have the sense
left to see that—who will believe that a respectable man, a gentleman, a
Churchman, would deliberately go out to seek an afternoon’s amusement
in a poky little country churchyard? Why, apart from everything else, that was
absolutely mad to start with. Can you really wonder at the result?"
Let us see if we really get this. A married gentleman has left the house one afternoon to commune with his thoughts in a poky little country churchyard, and the fact that he returns home with a different countenance is somehow less outrageous, less bewildering, than that he would wish to separate himself, and merely be alone with his own intrinsicality, in the first place. For, to paraphrase Hamlet, what dreams may come, when we are alone? What is the social consensus, the net of expectations, the choir of self-affirming beliefs, that hem us and hedge us and shape us to a neat level of being, so that we may nod and agree with our fellows, and not dare to put forth a dissenting branch in the way of the shears?
Alas, dear Reader, these questions are no less consuming now than they were in Walter de la Mare’s sleepy village, though perhaps we have fewer people in our immediate circle – if indeed we even have something resembling an "immediate circle" – who are sufficiently awake, or even loyal to us, to ask the questions. The vicar, Mr. Bethany, remains loyal to Arthur Lawford despite his perplexing change of state. The question is raised if Arthur has been possessed by the Hugenot pirate, Nicolas Sabathier, who died by his own hand in 1739, and whose bones rest in the unconsecrated ground of the churchyard of Arthur’s musings. "Possession" raises the thoughts of devils, and devils, according to the vicar, are real -–"I believe in the Powers of Darkness, Lawford, as firmly as I believe he and they are powerless – in the long run. They—what shall we say?—have surrendered their intrinsicality. You can just go through evil, as you can go through a sewer, and come out on the other side too. A loathsome process too."
And Nicolas Sabathier, though he may have deposited his countenance upon Arthur, also leaves behind, in Arthur’s experience, a new word for the language, a neologism – "to sabathier," which will mean, in a couple of hundred years, "To deal with histrionically…" but which for now, may mean, "To act under the influence of subliminalization; to perplex, or bemuse, or estrange with otherness."
I believe that some wit deepened the pool of human thought with the observation that wherever there is a tumult, you can be sure that pride and folly are at work. The things that serve life and the true history of mankind are the quiet things, the unnoticeable and unremarked. Our world today resembles that English village without "Mrs. Grundy" – without the respectable ladies to keep their eyes upon us. "Mrs. Grundy" at least helped to keep the peace, but nowadays even "Mrs Grundy" herself has been sabathiered. Everything is histrionic, theatrical, bloated with crazed self-belief.
Start your ramble to the nearest churchyard and begin asking yourself how steel towers could have collapsed through burnout, when it has never happened before, or whether the Jews are the perpetual victims they paint themselves as being, or whether the Muslims are the demons that our newspapers continually cry out that they are, or why gambling casinos are being built in every nook and cranny of what was once America, or why the reservoir of the world’s poor keeps growing deeper and deeper, or why the people you see on television appear merely as livid masks, incapable of making sense… Start asking yourself a few questions, you with your intrinsicality, and what remains of your dignity and common sense, and sooner or later the Sheilas of this world will come to scream into the ruins of your face – "What, what have I done to deserve all this?"
Sunday, October 07, 2007
In the third week of September I flew to Oregon for six days to visit my friend Linda Sussman, author of The Speech of the Grail: A Journey Toward Speaking that Heals and Transforms (Lindisfarne, 1995). As Sussman said of Wolfram von Eschenbach's epic, Parsifal, "I know of no other story of such length, complexity, and historical importance in which the essential heroic deed is an act of speech."
114. The Banquet
This is the time of all times,
This is the banquet of all banquets.
I was in the feasting-hall of Arthur, when he smashed his glass to the floor
And watched the blood-red wine trickle through the cracks of the stone,
And glanced at his wife, and saw that her thoughts rested elsewhere.
And I came to the hall of the wounded king,
Where there was feasting, and much to drink, where the king was sitting.
But I could not ask him the question, I did not say,
"Why do you suffer? What ails thee?" And so the castle
And the feast and the hall were taken from me, and I wandered
Many years in the waste, not knowing myself or what I did.
And I was with you at your feast
When you passed the cup to your friends,
Saying, By this you will remember me—
And you said one of them would betray you, and one did betray you,
But you returned.
And I feasted in the banqueting hall of the symposium,
Where that rascal Alcibiades whispered passion into the ear
Of Socrates, and all the young men lay on their couches
Getting drunk on divine philosophy.
And I went deep into the well of the past with Joseph
And his brothers, the twelve sons of Jacob,
Who feasted in the banqueting hall of the prince of Egypt,
And the eleven did not know their host was the brother
They had cast into the pit so many years ago,
To whom now all the power of Egypt was entrusted.
And to begin at the beginning: I feasted
With Adam and Eve in the garden. But we know what fruit
They feasted on – it was bitter, and its taste is lingering.
But we who live still tell of these things,
Remembering the great stories as we rejoice among friends.
Saturday, September 15, 2007
Posted November 15, 2007
Owen Barfield is remembered today mainly as the friend of C.S. Lewis – who called him ‘the wisest and best of my unofficial teachers.’ Barfield’s own contributions to the understanding of the history of Western thought have not been as widely recognized. A solicitor by profession, Owen Barfield was a sometime member of the ‘Inklings,’ along with others including J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams. Lewis, Tolkien and Williams all labored in the vineyard of the Christianized imagination. For Charles Williams, only those who possess imagination can really grip the action in the drama of life. In viewing imagination as a form of ‘Power’ or ‘Realization,’ Williams’ esoteric-occult novels veer into a moral ambiguity which is contained in the exalted tension of his amorous and subtle Christianity. But the idea of ‘justification by imagination’ has forcibly entered our cultural nexus without this Christian tension, where, as a purely secularized theory of art – or even nowadays, of government – it has been destructive.
Barfield’s work in the imagination was of more philosophical kind. As he once put it – “Imagination is not, as some poets have thought, simply synonymous with good.” The truths he quested for in language, philosophy, philology, history, and science were framed in short, dense argumentative books of philosophical meditation. His first, Poetic Diction, published in 1928, was dedicated to Lewis with the motto ‘Opposition is true friendship.’ The two friends argued at length over the role of the imagination, which Barfield believed could lead to truth, but Lewis said should be viewed as a way of meaning.
Barfield’s preoccupations with the imagination arose out of his experience with poetry which, he says, can lead to ‘a felt change of consciousness’ and to ‘the making of meaning which makes true knowledge possible.’ The most detailed part of Poetic Diction comprises the historical study of the uses of particular words by particular poets. “Today,” he remarks, “a man cannot utter a dozen words without wielding the creations of a hundred named and nameless poets.” The emphasis on historical study attracted the attention of the historian John Lukacs, who called Barfield “the most important philosopher of the 20th century” and whose concept of historical consciousness is consonant with Barfield’s historical-evolutionary perspective.
Barfield’s most important book is Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry, which appeared in the US in 1965. Whereas previously he had before devoted his attention to the historical study of language and of poetry, in Saving the Appearances he argues on the basis of the historical study of science. But once again he was met the fate of being overshadowed, this time because of Thomas Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which had taken the intellectual world by storm in 1962. This book made an important contribution to the historical study of science by addressing the role of the larger community in fostering or providing hospitality to certain ideas. Unfortunately it was adopted by people who wanted to dethrone the idea of the objectivity of standards of truth. Adherents of cultural studies and social constructivism used this first shoot of the participatory idea as a battering-ram against science and scholarship. As James Franklin put it in the New Criterion (2000) “… the worst effect of Kuhn … has been the frivolous discarding of the way things are as a constraint on the theory about the way things are.”
I doubt there are many thinkers in the history of this world whose followers have all been beyond reproach. There are an infinite number of ways in which ideas may be misused. Liberals err when they downgrade standards in favor of participation, and conservatives likewise err when they exalt objectivity in order to deride participation. In such a situation one is apt to echo the biblical saying – the very stones cry out! What can reconcile objectivity and participation? Has anyone tried? If so, who? And how is it to be done? And why is it important?
The term ‘saving the appearances’ has its historical genesis in astronomy. The ‘appearances’ of classical astronomy accounted for the celestial movements; the question of whether these theories or conjectures were literally true was not so much at issue. This question had to wait for the Scientific Revolution – indeed it was that revolution, and much of Barfield’s exposition is devoted to the explication of the mental background both before and after this salient “transposition of the mind.”
Saving the Appearances examines the development of science primarily as the story of man’s changing relationship to Nature, especially with respect to man’s awareness of participation. Which is to say, Barfield is an evolutionist but not a Darwinian, and his view of evolution is closer to what some might call “religion,” although it is very far in certain respects from what most people think about when they think about religion. Barfield’s evolutionary change-agent is the Logos, which has an “objective” side (the phenomena) and an interior or subjective one (consciousness) with both sides correlative one to the other.
Science emphasizes the fact that the world it investigates – the atomic physical structure of matter – is not the same as the familiar world we are accustomed to. In fact this investigated world is radically other. “It depends upon what ‘is’ is,” said our former President Clinton, in one epigrammatic mouthful summarizing the gulf that has widened between the received world and the investigated world. This widening gulf has brought the whole area of predication into question—of saying that something ‘is.’ For if the real world is only energy or matter in motion, all that appears in the received or commonly experienced world is chance, happenstance, disconnected spectacle or the result of force. It doesn’t have any necessary logic to it. It’s not inherent to the circumstances nor necessary to the outcome. Nothing participates in anything else; nothing participates in Being. Thus to make the statement, “A horse is an animal,” is suspect. For how can a horse participate in animal-hood, indeed what is animal-hood but a mental construction or imposition of ours?
On the other hand, modern philosophy since Kant has attempted to come to the rescue of the realness of the world by stressing the participation of human beings in the creation, or rather evocation, of the phenomena. It is a way of saying that what we think is there is not really there, but we can do nothing otherwise than suppose it to be there. It’s a big supposition, and our cultural heritage was not built upon so fragile a basis. Nor may it be able to persist with such meager provender for long. As Barfield once observed, “In the long run, we shall not be able to save souls without saving the appearances, and it is an error fraught with the most terrible consequences to imagine that we shall.”
Barfield states that his purpose in writing Saving the Appearances was to draw attention to the consequences arising from “the hastily expanded sciences” of the 19th and 20th centuries. The more we go back into the past, the more human utterance and testimony about the world has a mythological character. We believe that the received world is not real; our ancestors believed in the super-reality of the received. Nevertheless, it is obvious with our ancestors no less than with us that people everywhere engage with and participate in transforming sensations into ‘things,’ and this transforming activity is taught, imitated, and passed on through language and culture in a multitude of ways, whether as mythology, storytelling, science, or philosophy, etc.
This is the participatory premise, and it is basically the common sense theory of perception. But it raises problems. There are several options for an honest dealing with these problems – the multitude of way for dishonest dealing with it we will not explore at the moment. Let us review some of these options:
(1) We can acknowledge that the relation between man and nature has undergone vast changes, and that what ancient people testified about the world was indeed true, not just of their perception and thought, but what they perceived and thought about, that is, of the world itself. Therefore, what they say in regards to the creation of the world by God and the actions of angels and spiritual beings in the world, etc., should be seriously taken into account. In order to gain a true picture of the world, the modern picture of evolution would have to be counterbalanced by the testimony of the ancients regarding Creation. That is to say, we would have to take not only their words but also their phenomena into account when embarking on any description of the world prior to the entrance on the scene of ‘our’ phenomena, that is, circa the 1600’s. This is the fullest accounting, and it would demand a radical revisioning of our view of human history and of almost all of our ordinary opinions.
(2) We can deny that there has been any change in the relation of man and world, or consciousness and phenomena, and that things have always been more or less what they are today. It follows, therefore, that our way of viewing things is the only right way. However, denial at this highly conscious level (it happens all the time subconsciously and dishonestly) would be pretty strenuous, since it would involve throwing out almost our entire culture heritage, or at least certainly any deeper relation to it or participation in it (e.g. religious worship.) This is the de facto position taken by Richard Dawkins and others popularizers of atheism. This strategy basically says that our ancestors were crazy. Thus Julian Jaynes, in The Origin of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, who wrote that “the gods were amalgams of admonitory experiences, made of meldings of whatever commands had been given to the individual.” In other words, the ancients were possessed – insane!
(3) Maybe it is we ourselves – post-Scientific Revolution, post-Cartesian men – who are crazy. (And which of us has never had this thought?) But this is also difficult, for it would involve dispensing with the real gains of modern science. No many people would volunteer for this option, and it has never really been an option in the Modern Age.
(4) If we acknowledge the reality of our phenomena, and deny that either we or our ancestors are insane, how did our perceptions arise? Did they evolve out of the perceptions of earlier human beings or were they just invented? This whole area of differing cultural perceptions and value judgments (or not) has become a huge area of contemporary discourse, and it certainly relates to the issues in the evolution of consciousness pioneered by Barfield.
Thus we find questions and riddles at whatever end we try to grab the stick, and somehow we get the feeling that the stick is shaking us—and that we are in its grip, not the reverse.
Modern physics tells us that the normal, familiar world that we take for granted is comprised of atoms, particles, waves, or just ‘energy.’ To be sure, even these words are cumbersome; they are just ways we have of trying to picture something that cannot be pictured. They comprise the ‘unrepresented’ background of our perceptions. But, if this ‘unrepresented’ background is all that is believed to exist independently of our perceptions, what is the foreground, what is the ‘represented’ or the ‘appearances’ of the world? Trees, houses, cars, faces of people, the singing of birds, this paper – in other words, the received or familiar world. If the phenomena of the world are ‘energetic’ in essence, but this essence is nonpicturable and nonrepresentational, then the world we picture, live in, talk about is, in fact, what he calls “a system of collective representations.” These ‘collective representations’ are the result of our activity, however far back in the past the process may have gotten started and however long the time involved in the transmission of learning about these things is that we call society or culture.
Barfield uses the term figuration to mean the activity that converts sensations into things, that is, as the work of the percipient mind in constructing the world of recognizable and nameable objects, the ‘familiar world.’ It should be said at the outset that Barfield is not going with this where the post-modernists have been going with it – e.g. that “The world is a huge collection of communally-evolved customs of interpretation” (Don Cupitt) or like President Clinton’s statement about the ‘is,’ quoted earlier. Such views are symptomatic of the fact that, for people today, the first glimmerings of participation are apt to be accompanied by confused thinking. Indeed, Barfield comments, “It is characteristic of our phenomena… that our participation in them, and therefore their representational nature, is excluded from our immediate awareness.”
When we gain the first dawning awareness of participation, we are apt to forget our long learning and mutual living with them. It was through the labor of being – our own, and theirs. Our own awareness of them is the testament to their real existence, as their existence is the testament of ours. The world is more than communally-evolved customs because we are dependent upon it for our very being. It is easy to forget the water of life when you are not thirsty. Forgetfulness slides over into habits, habits into taking for granted, taking for granted into not noticing how perceptions and thoughts arise, and sooner or later you end up with real epistemological consequences.
Some years ago I stumbled across a quote which perfectly expresses the alienated character of our appearances, and of how much has been forgotten of the “labor of being.” From Memory’s Ghost by Philip J. Hilts, the passage is a quote from the psychologist Robert Ornstein:
"...There is no color in nature, no sounds, no tastes. It is a
cold, quiet, colorless affair outside us…It is we who transform molecules… these
things are dimensions of human experience, not dimensions of the world
outside…We don’t actually experience the outside world—we grab at only a very
refined portion of it, a portion selected for the purposes of
To preface this remarkable passage with the words “There is…” for the purpose of declaring a magisterial “There is not…” to everything we experience in the world is certainly an act of philosophic contortionism. It does not follow that because I am aware that the human contribution to that trilling sound I hear tells me bird — which by the way is only a way of saying this is its name — that this ‘bird’ is merely a “dimension of human experience.” This is a picture of joyless and unbridgeable subjectivism. It is further remarkable for a psychologist to have written it. Apparently he accepts the existence of a self without argument while omitting to mention that learning the names of things and experiencing them is how we acquire a self in the first place.
It is probably true that we do not pay attention to our figuration, which most of the time has receded into mere habit. And for that matter even a molecule is the result of an historical development, and is therefore ‘participated’ to some extent, so that calling a bird a molecule just postpones the reckoning with participation and only adds a whole new layer of obfuscation. But this is a very silly example of the tricks that are resorted to in the name of a science that has not decided whether its mission is to eliminate participation or to understand the natural world. That we have reached such a point of absurdity is in large part the purpose of Saving the Appearances to show and, if possible, begin to disentangle.
Barfield emphasizes that the major difference between our phenomena and those of our forebears was that primitive or ancient man was aware of participation, whereas we are not aware of it – or at least, if we are aware of it we tend to disown it – just as in the example above. It is characteristic of our phenomena that they are seen as being wholly independent of us, wholly extrinsic – “clothed with the independence and extrinsicality of the unrepresented itself. But a representation, which is collectively mistaken for an ultimate—ought not to be called a representation. It is an idol. Thus the phenomena themselves are idols, when they are imagined as enjoying that independence of human perception which can in fact only pertain to the unrepresented.”
These are strong words, but they are not too strong when you recollect the nature of the modern landscape that we have created in America and are in the process of creating all over the world. Especially is this the case over the suburbanized landscape which more and more resembles a hideous excrescence of disjoint parts strung out into an extensionless void. If we do not cultivate the sustainable quality of care in our thinking, how can we expect to see it in our buildings and landscapes? The degradation of the modern landscape is the witness of the degraded quality of our inner lives and the alienated and ‘extrinsic’ character of our appearances.
Darwinistic evolutionary science arose in the 19th century, when the older medieval participatory consciousness had faded. It took for granted the purely extrinsic nature of the appearances and then attempted to treat these appearances much as astronomy treated the celestial objects, thus giving birth to a mechanistic picture of evolution. Barfield remarks that had such a science developed earlier, or even perhaps later, after 20th century physics did much to undermine materialism, we might have had a science of evolution worthy of the name –”man might have read there the story of his coming into being… of his world and his own consciousness.”
Participation is whatever in perception that is more than just sensation — ‘the extra-sensory link between man and the phenomena.’ The participatory element is supplied by our thinking and figuration and whatever elements of cultural and individual memory, language, imagination and symbolical faculty comprise our passage through the world. Many errors and much silliness might be avoided if we were to consider thinking in relation to some other of these elements, particularly two of its close etymological relatives: thanking and ‘thinging.’ Thanking, thinking, and ‘thinging’ (the making of ‘things, i.e., what Barfield calls figuration) derive from a common root. Let us look at each of these:
Under THANKS we have religion, the concept and action of grace. The heritage of thanking, gratitude, appreciation, the saying of grace, the murmur of prayer, form the foundations of the soul and build the act of thinking, and indeed, make it even possible. Before there is thinking there is a catechism, and a catechism is the art of building a structure for the soul so as to enable an opening. Thanking presupposes a structure; one has to learn how to become open. For no one can think who does open himself, and the paradigm of the opening is the communion made possible between God and man through religion. This is the sacred heritage of humanity, and precedes the appearance of individualized, and later abstract thought by many generations – by thousands of years, in fact.
It may be asked, and many are asking now, whether religion is still needed today. Who has need of a paradigm of opening when the modern world, its science, its art, its media, is so obviously self-sufficient, so obviously advanced in technique, so brilliant in its aspirations and achievements, and there is so much money to be made? Maybe a paradigm of opening would be a retarding force… religion as opiate of the masses, the consolation of weak intellects, the sleeping-pill of the feel-goods and the do-goods and the pretend-to-be-goods. Criticism of religion is often made and is sometimes justified, but on the other hand secular modernity has not reached the end of its lease, and there are peculiar signs of historical stagnation, of spiritual barrenness or intellectual decadence, behind all the glitter of our civilization. So perhaps the paradigm of the opening is not so antiquated after all. It may perhaps be related to a mysterious faculty for creativity in history.
Under THINKING there is no need to repeat the history of philosophy, poetry, and culture. Everyone has his or her own story, his or her own way of connecting to it, adding on to it, or escaping from it. But it cannot be an abstract story, not if it is to have any life in it, and that life is the THINGING, the realm of the phenomena, the ‘things’ that we say that are. Our thinking, ultimately and eventually, becomes thinging – the circumstances, the look and feel of things, the history. Yet we do not really perceive the entire picture, because it happens over a long period of time. Our thinking is a sort of vacuuming — roaring around the world re-ordering, classifying, using, calculating, strategizing, building, conquering… Maybe our thinking is actually this noise, and we are not really very much aware of the THANKS feeding it or the THINGS issuing from it – or of the ‘thanks’ and the ‘things’ feeding and issuing from past and previous interchanges with thinking over a long period of history, with which we are also in a perpetual exchange.
So from the hysterical rants of the modern atheists to the unreal mathematized abstractions of economists and cosmologists, our modern cognition has become the counter-image of ancient participation. Whereas the ancient gesture was the opening, the modern gesture is the clenched fist, the frown, the circumscribed problem – carefully defined, carefully delineated so that extraneous considerations need not apply. It lacks grace but makes up in accuracy. Only there is something wrong with the way this equation is stated, for grace and accuracy belong to the world equally – the true living world, the human world, the given world of mankind and living nature as well as to the divine world.
So that perhaps the phrase “a gain in accuracy” is not quite the right formulation. But there has been an increase of individual self-consciousness, as well as of social power and control, that has come about through the gradual usurpation of Logos and its degradation into mere “intellectualism.” To the extent that this development in time of self-consciousness – which Barfield terms the “evolution of consciousness” — is to the good, it has supported attainment of greater freedom, more independence and self-knowledge. Everything has its place, purpose and power. But the other hand, where this decline of Logos to intellect and depletion of participation to selfhood has issued into a glorification of power for its own sake, then there is something that may be judged, there is something that must be warned against. It can be called an occult transgression, or wrong use of a natural development. It steals from Nature unlawfully – it steals and it does not sustain or restore or reintegrate. This stealing or “theft of Logos” is the great sinful secret of the Modern Age, and lies at the root of almost all its manifestations. As, for example, Simone Weil once put it, the idea of the dignity of labor is the only idea we have not borrowed from the ancient Greeks. But it is from such an idea that we can begin again to construct a notion of the labor of being and of a new form of participation.
But in the meantime, it is only the sheer weight of the so-called masses that provides the countervailing force against the giddy spin of this occult transgression of the mental elites. Whether the masses will in time gain the ability to think, and I mean along the lines that I am suggesting – thinking accompanied with thanking and ‘thinging’ — a new whole and fully participated thinking – on that the future of the world depends.
And this kind of thinking is a participated thinking, concerning which Barfield remarks: “The plain fact is, that all the unity and coherence of nature depends on participation of one kind or another. If therefore man succeeds in eliminating all original participation, without substituting any other, he will have done nothing less than to eliminate all meaning and coherence from the cosmos.” So it is quite right to speak of the world’s future in the context of the development of human thought. Knowledge of this correlation of consciousness and phenomena, the mutual coexistence of thoughts and things, is an urgently needed course-correction for today. We urgently need a new “saving the appearances” – not for the heavens but for the earth.
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
"To realize or be aware of something without counting on it is the most characteristic form of an idea; to count on something without realizing it, is the most characteristic form of a belief." Ortega y Gasset, Historical Reason (p. 21).
"Human reason left to its own resources is completely incapable not only of creating but also of conserving any religious or political association, because it can only give rise to disputes and because, to conduct himself well, man needs beliefs, not problems." Joseph de Maistre, Study on Sovereignty
"... the production of belief is the sole function of thought." Charles Sanders Pierce, from "How To Make Our Ideas Clear."
It is a truism that our perceptions are influenced, or even in some sense conditioned, by our beliefs. According to the Sloan Digital Sky Survey press release, the picture shows galaxies lying near the plane of the Earth's equator in a 2-billion lightyears deep 3D map. Somehow evidence and measurement "bolster" the case for Dark Energy and Dark Matter - the heading of the press release. By combining these measurements with those from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), the SDSS team "measured the cosmic matter to consist of 70 percent dark energy, 25 percent dark matter and five percent ordinary matter." These findings appear to confirm the leading cosmological model, that is, a "rapid expansion of space known as inflation that stretched microscopic quantum fluctuations in the fiery aftermath of the Big Bang to enormous scales. After inflation ended, gravity caused these seed fluctuations to grow into the galaxies and the galaxy clustering patterns observed in the SDSS."
Dark Energy and Dark Matter are hypothesized to exist (their existence has never been proved) because of the complicated mathematical formulations of Relativity and Big Bang theories. That is to say, the theories dictate the existence of entities which are thus, in this sense, purely faith-based. Perhaps modern cosmology is a good illustration of Pierce's formulation, that the sole function of thought is to produce belief. I doubt that this is the way that scientists like to think of themselves. Also one has to ask, which comes first, the cart or the horse? Does the belief give rise to a system of thought, or does the system of thought give rise to the belief? Where, in this game of tag, is the "objective referent," i.e., reality itself, or as the positivists like to say, the "empirical verification"?
My attention was drawn to this particular illustration of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey through Robert Sungenis magisterial work on geocentrism, which pretty much says that modern cosmology is the emperor with no clothes. Make that a ditto for Copernicanism, Einsteinism and Big Bangism too. It's all a cart with no horse, because the uncomfortable fact is, the motion of the earth has never been proved, and even the very tenets of Relativity state that there is a functional equivalence between a stationary sun with rotating earth and a stationary earth with a rotating sun.
According to Sungenis, "The pictorial provided by SDSS shows Earth in the center of two wedge-shaped galaxy segments that also show galaxy density decreases as the distance from Earth increases. Only from the vantage point of Earth do these stunning proportions become significant. In other words, if one were to view them from another part of the universe the concentric proportions would not appear. The centrality of Earth provided by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey is thus consistent with the quantization of redshift values that have been accumulated for four decades prior. Once again, the 'Copernican Principle' is violated. The evidence shows that Earth is the hub of the universe." (Galileo Was Wrong, p. 191)
The Copernican Principle, also sometimes called the Principle of Mediocrity, states that there is no center in the universe, and that no position is 'privileged,' to use the postmodern jargon. Quantized redshifts refer to the discovery that the redshift of various galaxies are all distributed at specific periodic or specific distances from the Earth (multiples of 72 km/sec and smaller ones at 36 km/sec). The magazine Sky and Telescope wrote, "Quantized redshifts just don't fit into this view of the cosmos [i.e. the Big Bang], for they imply concentric shells of galaxies expanding away from a central point, Earth."
Ultimately, our age will have much to answer for in the realm of beliefs. In my novel, After the Crash (available through the self-publishing venue, http://www.lulu.com/) I take up this question in the context of a whimsical tour of the world after the virtual disappearance of petroleum. In the chapter, "Belief Systems Seminars," I write:
"In the early days of the Crash, when there was still electricity, though intermittent, Belief System Seminars were all the rage.
"Belief System Seminars were fantasy-renewing social engagements and exercises. Someone in a Seminar would begin by saying, 'I can't believe this is happening,' and then four or five people would chime in, adding their four or five alternate lack-of-belief narratives to the original one. By the end of the day... you would have heard twelve or fifteen people recount their
lack of belief stories in excruciating detail.
"By the time the Crash had ceased to be an event separable and distinguishable from what was happening in general -- when living without oil, gas, much electricity or abundance of food and water had become the fact of the day, most people found that they had no further use for their lack of belief... At least the people who were sharing their lacks of belief, or lack of beliefs, were engaging in a kind of collective mourning, a group consolation exercise for the past age. In that light, even lack of belief had a certain currency. It was backed up by the good faith and credit of belief itself, the idea or ideal of believability. . . In any case, the collapse of the hydrocarbon cognitive habits combined with the destruction of belief was the double blow that caused so many people to wander in the suburbs of insanity. The era was booming with psychic breakdown. Millions capitulated under the accumulated woes of low food, having to walk everywhere, not believing in what was happening before their eyes, and having to rely on their own powers of perception and reason instead of television. . . "
The repertory of beliefs in our age is a very long asphyxiating list: Progress. Democracy. The Press. The Free Market. Globalization. Efficiency. Technology. Multiculturalism. Equality. The Vote. The Market. The Economy. Freedom. Autonomy. Secularism. Evolution. Genes (either Selfish or Altruistic). Add to this the idols of science, which Simone Weil already noted half a century ago, was beginning to acquire the worst features of religion - dogma and mystique. One begins to long for the day when the salvation of your soul depended on a central belief enunciated with the clarity of a beam of light -
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all that is, seen and unseen. we believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets. We believe in one holy Catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
... and left the rest of the world and the soul aglow in freedom - for by means of the light, everything else was open.
I am travelling to Oregon for a few days and will not post again probably for a couple of weeks. Thanks again to my readers who have written of their appreciation for this blog.
Sunday, September 09, 2007
[Correction 9/15/07: The drawing was made by Eleanor a.k.a. London Bridges, Paul's art teacher at the time.]
"It is perhaps true in a sense that God is a God of beginnings; the ends are up to us, and to work in the fruitfulness of God is to be renewed in the promise of the beginning." From a journal entry, April 24, 2005
I was browsing in an old journal and came across the above. It occurred to me that only a "modern" would write that "... the ends are up to us." Most historic societies have had or continue to have a concept of Providence, which would translate into the concept that "the ends are up to God." Nevertheless, with some reservations, I endorse the modern idea, at least in the context of its sentence.
The real bugaboo for the "modern" is the concept of the "Beginning." Almost all of our science, and certainly our common life, is ruled by a notion of a beginningless - and therefore a godless - universe. I don't consider the "Big Bang" an adequate substitute for the concept of a beginning, which must always include the notion of a definite starting point, a structure of some kind. The notion of the "Big Bang" has too much of the merely random for my taste - as e.g. astrophysicist Alan Guth once put it, a universe is just something that happens from time to time. But even modern science uncovers almost daily new strange facts of all the things that "had to happen" and just in the right amount (and to the tenth or twentieth decimal place) and in the right sequence, for this world to have come into being at all. This precision of event and sequence presents a strange contrast to the nebulous concept of how it all happened in the first place. We live in a strange world, where large and incoherent ideas about origins and metaphysics trip over facts of stringent limits and precision.
On my walk to work the other day, I had the idea for a book someone should write on the "Improbable God." There would be a science section - full of the just-barely "coincidences" that had to happen. In a way this part might be the easiest to write. At least there would be an abundance of material. And there would be a theology section, which also might not be too difficult to write, in the sense that there is much material accumulated over two millenia, so that there would be no shortage of sources and ideas. The improbabilities of Catholic theology, say, would present a living complement to the improbabilities of science, but instead of powers to the 20th decimal place we are examining levels of reality. The particular difficulty is that for the most part we have no very exact notion of other "levels of reality." Even our science on this point is confused - it claims to tell us the truth about the world, but on the other hand it deals with entities inaccessible to ordinary consciousness, hence it has culminated with a new mystique.
The aim of theological improbability would be to restore the world to us - that is, restore the act of knowledge as the encounter of the mind with things. Oddly enough, theological improbability culminates with something very much like "common sense," though perhaps that is an odd way of putting it. It is common sense to acknowledge that this world is very improbable. Theological improbability aims at the restoration of "common sense" - which, we should remember, is already a concept which is not as easy and innocent as it appears. It is bristling with philosophical history. "The history of this one single expression contains in miniature the entire history of the western world," writes Peter Kingsley, in his book Reality - an exploration of the pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides and Empedocles. We assume, rather than in fact know, that human beings always possessed the capacity to coordinate their senses - to see, hear, taste, touch and smell at the same time. Did they? Perhaps they had to undergo a coordination through exercise - through meditation. Peter Kingsley thinks so- "for Empedocles, the training in how to perceive oneself perceiving was provided as part of an esoteric transmission from teacher to disciple." He believes that the teaching of the awareness of being aware was degraded as it took the journey through philosophy. "Reason" pre-empted the activity of watching the perceptive process itself. Hence, being "aware" became something we already have rather than something we have to achieve.
So from theological improbability we take a leap into history - perhaps the hardest part of the book to write. History has the odd combination of being both obvious and improbable. Because it is our medium, because we are immersed in it, we cannot see it - yet when we begin to "see" it we begin to perceive how improbable it is. Much more would need to be written about this, or more accurately, thought. But in essence the improbability which is this universe, world, life and history is at odds with the smooth, dull hum of Evolutionism which has so enthralled the modern mind.
In the tangle of improbabilities which is everything, an improbable God "makes sense" in a new way. Perhaps improbability is a new way to talk about grace. For in the theology of St. Thomas, grace presupposes nature. But in the new schema of understanding, we can also come to perceive that nature presupposes improbability - and this is grace.
Saturday, July 21, 2007
Rudolf Steiner, Nine Lectures on Bees (1923)
SONG OF THE LITTLE DRONE
You know, my job’s "Nuptial Flight,"
& I’m married to it, right!
The Eternal Feminine – upward and on!
People call me just a little drone.
Little do they understand the honeycomb.
When I ascend with my queen – to the Sun!
To the highest flyer is given – "the seal" –
That all being aspires to commonweal.
These are words - I make it real.
Saturday, June 30, 2007
Sunday, June 10, 2007
As he reported to me later, "She gave me this utterly blank look." As he put it, it seemed obvious that she had never been asked to think about what a sex-change operation means in terms of what is happening, instead it was as if whatever is happening is simply determinate - without dimensions of thought or urgency, and lacking any provocation that might entail a response or reaction, much less a judgment, on her part.
This incident seems to illustrate John McMurtry's "first rule of any group-mind" - that it cannot adopt itself as an object of critical reflection. The group-mind of today's Bryn Mawr and Haverford College students seems to be in the process of swallowing sex-change operations with no sign of discomfort or choking. But swallowings like this are going on all the time. For instance, the Philadelphia City Council recently passed a resolution declaring Philadelphia a "pro-choice" city. Certain people protested - notably, the Archbishop of Philadelphia, and a few political candidates. The City Council member, apparently deaf to such protests, said "this is a democracy," which in this tortured logic must mean that only people who believe in killing unborn children belong to democracy.
To believe that passing such a City Council resolution is an exercise of "democracy" falls somewhere under the heading of "intellectual catastrophe," while abortion and sex-change change operations fall somewhere between "biological and social catastrophes." I want to talk later about what these headings signify in terms of Robert Pirsig's "Metaphysics of Quality."
I wish to pursue this theme in later posts this month. Next weekend I will be visiting in Atlanta for a family wedding, and may not post anything for a couple of weeks.
Sunday, June 03, 2007
Like any long-standing belief, this viewpoint carries a great deal of truth. One of the people who made this viewpoint something of a catchword or perhaps even something of an educated cliché, was Leo Strauss, one of the founding fathers of neoconservatism. My post today aims to discuss what I think are some of the problems with this viewpoint. It is not solely motivated by my animus against neoconservatism and all of its works, but certainly I admit to having this animus – for I consider neoconservatism a bad tree that has produced rotten fruit. But before neoconservatism there was St. Thomas Aquinas, who labored mightily to define the respective spheres of reason and revelation.
So, my point being that the reason-revelation divide goes a long way back into Western history, and there could be little debate in asserting that the pillar of reason exemplified in the Dialogues of Plato and the works of Aristotle – and the pillar of revelation of the Bible, form the major signposts through which Western thinking has always navigated.
Yet there may also be a sense in which signposts can become blockades that squeeze the unwary navigator, asphyxiate and choke, prevent movement, subvert development, and sink the vessel. The image of shipwreck has long formed a sober reminder of the perils of the voyage, and I have always been fond of quoting Ortega y Gasset about this, where he said, "I am only interested in the thoughts of shipwrecked men."
Perhaps every culture has thrown up reminders in its own way – Ortega y Gasset, the Spaniard, was alarmed by the decline of Spain, and thus chose to unfold his reasoning powers to the revitalization of the Spanish – and ultimately European – intellect. Herman Melville, the American, on the other hand, wrote an epic about a shipwreck, at the end of which his hero-martyr and witness, Ishmael, floats to safety by clinging to a coffin. At its depths this profoundly Christian image of life-through-death is borne by the narrator, Ishmael. Ishmael in the Bible was the first son of Abraham who was cast out, and who became the progenitor of the Arabian peoples. To take a leap: one could say that true Christian revelation in America is "Ishmaelitic" – that is, "cast out" by the Puritanic, and later Judaic, image of the "chosen people" or "favored land."
Well, perhaps I stray from my subject, and must needs return to the matter at hand – the polarization of intellect into a ‘reason’ and a ‘revelation’ component. In a certain sense I believe this idea is a myth that has outlived its usefulness. In my view, reason and revelation exist on a continuum which can be, as Coleridge put it, distinguished but not divided. Revelation comes from higher plane of inspiration, but it is nevertheless the source of all intellectual understanding. There is no case of people learning to reason spontaneously, just as there is no case of "spontaneous language." Both faculties of speech and reason imply imitation, instruction and teaching.
Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) emphasizes this qualitative or revelatory aspect of reason. And yes, I think that Pirsig was one of those "dispossessed Ishmaelites" who challenges the American hostility to metaphysical thought. It is not so essential that such a challenger call himself a Christian. What matters is that one develop the capacity to perceive the christianizing impulse in thinking. Anyhow, Pirsig was in hot pursuit of the trail of the ancient Sophists, who, he thought, had received a bad press in Plato’s dialogues. According to Plato, the Sophists claimed to "teach virtue," or to claim that "virtue can be taught" and they were dismissed - in centuries forever after - as "ethical relativists." But what, Pirsig asks, if this is not the case, and that in fact the Sophists were in pursuit of the Good? The Sophists were concerned with quality – and quality has to do with man’s primordial response to the cosmos.
Thus, the Sophist aimed to teach awareness of the "quality-event," the encounter with quality, that underlies the act of cognition. Arete, virtue or excellence, is the prerogative or privilege of man, who is thus dignified by virtue of his response to quality.
There is a sense in which "quality" may be understood as the "revealed cosmos" – and here I am building on Pirsig, not quoting or paraphrasing him. But in any case, subject and object are the results of the encounter with "Quality." Here we see the outline of a basic threefold dynamic, which is the idea in which Christianity was born, which it developed and elaborated – the threefold being the indispensable concept which enables us to navigate between the pillars of reason and revelation. In one sense the quality-event may be viewed as the ground of the Father, that is, ultimate Reality. In another sense it may be seen in the work of the Holy Spirit, that which enables human beings to respond to one another, the "quality of responsiveness." And in still another sense, "Quality" may be seen as Christ, the "I Am" as the cognitive principle.
There may be such a thing as "natural reason" or "unassisted human reason" (i.e. not revelation-dependent) but insofar as it is "natural" it is not reason, or not much to get excited about, and to the extent that it is reason it must participate in the quality-event – which is to say, it must be based upon something originally disclosed or revealed to us.
For there is a great difference between Divine and Human Power. Divine power creates by renunciation, leaves an opening for the future. Human power refuses to renounce anything, and moreover seeks to add to its domain by sheer accretion. But ultimately nothing grows by accretion, which is why modern reasoning (and its correlates in art, manners, buildings, statecraft, education, landscape, etc.) is a garrulous, garish, structureless monumentalism – as if by sheer will power men could obliterate within themselves that tiny infinity, that infinitely small opening, granted by the Creator, that enables them to reason.
Sunday, May 27, 2007
Let us continue in our exposition of one Greek word, usteresantos, which has been elucidated in connection with the womb and with ‘lacking in something,’ which I believed to be connected to true metaphysics. Before I begin with this post, I want to take note of Andrew’s comment to me in an e-mail of May 20 regarding the previous post:
"I really enjoyed your latest post. Your remarks about the Modern age's idolization of self-sufficiency are right on target. I think this idea could also go a long way towards explaining the dismal state of education in our country. Education that has as its goal mere self-sufficiency has by that fact become something less than education. Instead of fostering a feeling of lacking in students which may arouse their metaphysical curiosity, it promises to furnish them with all they need to know to get on in the world. And so, if something can be known but won't help you get on in the world, it's not really worth knowing.
But my reason for writing is rather to ask you whether this prolonged period of stagnation may not be coming to an end. Do you think, perhaps, that the next generation, looking back at the last century and a half of prolonged paralysis, will begin to discover the insufficiency of self-sufficiency? The end of your post suggests you have some hope for the future - if we survive the present - but I wonder if there aren't any signs now of better things to come. It seems to me that the rantings of the chief proponents of self-sufficiency have become more desperate recently, and that just maybe the sober wisdom of those attuned to the Mysteries will gain a wider appreciation by the contrast. "
I believe that we will begin to discover the "insufficiency of self-sufficiency" as we become aware of the "initiatic tradition." What is this? What is "the Tradition"? What is initiation? How can we even begin to think about "the meaning of the initiatic tradition" when we have no language or experience in which to formulate our thoughts, and even to deal with such an "objective concept" already represents a "problem," so to speak, in terms of modernity? Where, indeed, even to begin – to initiate the discussion, which means, "to begin" it?
Just as a prelude, let me suggest that "initiation" is a concept which is opposed to evolutionism, which is the idea that, in a sense, nothing has a "beginning," but that everything develops or evolves according to the unfolding possibilities in Nature. Of course, it is not strictly true that "initiation" is opposed to "evolution," no more than the poetic inspiration of a sonnet is "opposed" to the form of the sonnet, or that the "meaning" of a sentence takes place in opposition to the grammatical rules of the language in which it is written or uttered.
Nevertheless, in terms of modern thinking, it is roughly true that the initiatic idea, which in the Latin Bible is expressed by the term in principio –"In the beginning" - that this principle of the Beginning is swallowed up by the idea of continuity of natural development.
But more precisely, the concept of initiation cannot be seen as being opposed to what unfolds in time, in the sense that this "unfolding in time" is what is meant by "The Tradition." It is thus "the Tradition" which guards the beginning, that is, the principle of initiation. And this beginning-point is always and only the confirmation of the correspondence of the human and divine world, the natural and the cosmic order. "Initiation" is the experience by which human beings receive this knowledge and certitude.
With this as necessary background, I want to proceed into the matter of this post – which may be something of a long one, as I have much material to cover. I want to discuss the concept of initiation, and I also want to lead back to our original starting point with the idea of the usteron, the womb, the feeling of being in lack of something. But I want to conclude by showing how, when this feeling of ‘lacking something’ is denied, or sidetracked into a materialist rather than a spiritualized understanding, we can arrive at the situation of hysterics – which is yet another word derived from our original usteron, the womb.
I realize I am making many demands on my readers, and I hope they will have the patience and fortitude to follow along as best they can – given my defects as a writer.
Lately I have been reading in the works of René Guénon [1886-1951] the French philosopher and expositor of the ‘Tradition’ – most notably his book, The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times. Guénon was a Catholic who, later in his life, moved to Cairo, Egypt, and converted to the Sufi faith. In the West, only Catholic Christianity still continues to bear the initiatic tradition, which was once universal to all peoples and all cultures. In the West, however, the tradition has become ‘deviated’ - that is to say, the impersonal pure intellectual intuition needed to apprehend it has sunk to the level of the ordinary personal intellectualized Reason with its accompanying material evidences, or empiricism. More and more the emphasis in Western thinking has been quantity rather than quality, how things can be measured and utilized rather than how they can be deepened, beautified, or elaborated.
He summarizes as follows: "As soon as it has lost all effective communication with the supra-individual intellect, reason cannot but tend more and more toward the lowest level, toward the inferior pole of existence, plunging ever more deeply into ‘materiality’: as this tendency grows, it gradually loses hold of the very idea of truth, and arrives at the point of seeking no goal other than that of making things as easy as possible for its own limited comprehension, and in this it finds an immediate satisfaction in the very fact that its own downward tendency leads it in the direction of the simplification and uniformization of all things; it submits all the more readily and speedily to this tendency because the results of this submission conform to its desires, and its ever more rapid descent cannot fail to lead at least to what has been called the ‘reign of quantity.’" (94-5)
There are certain characteristics of the state of mind to which we may affix the character of "the reign of quantity:"
- Insolence and presumption of knowledge concerning religious or spiritual matters, and by extension in all matters of courtesy, intellectual and social. Take, for example, the recent book by Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great, and other books of that ilk, now appearing in profusion; a new kind of militant atheism which argues that people would be nicer to each other if they had no religion. The fallacy of this belief is the idea that man created religion. But the truth is more likely that religion created mankind. We do not in fact know how prehistoric human beings stepped forth from the nexus of mere animal sociality into human language, action, reason and culture. This is precisely why the concept of initiation is needed. For initiation concerns the "striving for humanity" at whatever level it occurs, and it would be contradictory, if not nonsensical, to suppose that this "striving" could take place without the participation of man. Thus the naturalist fallacy begins and ends with the notion that no effort is needed, or that we need not bring distinctions, or distinguish qualities, of efforts. Thus the "reign of quantity" ends with the destruction of culture – i.e., utter complacency, which is the "moral" side of the doctrine of self-sufficiency.
- A "horror of mystery" which arises from the notion that "reality" is only what can been seen, measured, quantified, and rationalized.
- Lack of manners, reticence, reserve, humility, receptivity, patience and an aggressive utilitarianism. If there are no "qualities," why bother?
- An inability to understand or appreciate symbolic or imaginative discourse -- a "one size fits all" approach which derives from "uniformization" and of seeing all things on the same level.
- Emotional autism, of being encased or solidified in one’s own ‘individuality,’ with a corresponding lack of empathy or interest in others .
- Manic activity and restlessness, especially in the economic but in other realms as well, which "… is why the period can be said to be using up everything that had been set aside in earlier periods;" (p. 177; italics mine). This is called entropy; it means dispersal or the exploitation of natural and cultural resources without limit, leaving nothing for future generations.
- And finally, the inability to give sustained attention and even to think. For thinking presupposes at least two things: the correspondence of words and things, and the ability to order concepts hierarchically. The first of these is the last echo of the correspondence of the human and cosmic order, and the second of these is the last echo of the sense of quality. Both of these presuppositions, in the "Reign of Quantity," have virtually collapsed.
The ‘deviated’ course of Western history which René Guénon traces from Renaissance Humanism, through Protestantism, to mechanism, rationalism, materialism, positivism, pragmatism, etc. to the purely ‘quantitative’ outlook of today, is not enough, in and of itself, to bring about the final ‘dissolution,’ which he regards as the consummation of this phase of manifestation. Dissolution demands an actual work of ‘subversion’ – through the erection of a counterfeit spirituality, a counterfeit hierarchy, a counter-initiation. Thus:
"This is the moment at which the second kind of work, which had at first only been carried out in a more or less hidden manner by way of preparation, and in any case on a restricted scale, had to come into the open and in its turn to cover an increasingly wide field…" (p. 195)
"’Anti-tradition’ found its most complete expression in the kind of materialism that could be called ‘integral,’ such as that which prevailed toward the end of the last century: as for the ‘counter-tradition,’ we can still only see the preliminary signs of it, in the form of all the things that are striving to become counterfeits in one way or another of the traditional idea itself…" (p. 260)
It is important to distinguish what is still a kind of ‘innocent’ or ‘naïve’ materialism from the work of subversion, which can only proceed from a Spiritual Being:
"… after having worked always in the shadows to inspire and direct invisibly all modern movements, it will in the end contrive to ‘exteriorize,’ if that is the right word, something that will be as it were the counterpart of a true tradition… Just as initiation is… the thing that effectively represents the spirit of a tradition, so will the ‘counter-initiation’ play a comparable part with respect to the ‘counter-tradition’: but obviously it would be quite wrong and improper to speak of the spirit in the second case, since it concerns that from which the spirit is most completely absent… nevertheless opposition is undoubtedly attempted, and is accompanied by imitation in the manner of the inverted shadow… However that may be, the thing that makes it possible for affairs to reach such a point is that the ‘counter-initiation’… cannot be regarded as a purely human invention… the ‘counter-initiation’ proceeds from that source (i.e. the spirit, from when comes all manifestation) by a degeneration carried to its extreme limit, and that limit is represented by the ‘inversion’ that constitutes ‘satanism’ properly so called…(pps.261-2)
* * * * * * * * *
It may seem paradoxical that human life under the "Reign of Quantity" should more and more take on the character of the ‘hysterical.’ And so we return to this word once again, the root of which, usteron, is the womb. The ‘hysterical’ aspect is a counter-image of the metaphysical depths we explored in our previous post. "Hysterics" is womb-without-mind – without the ordering principles of the higher Logos, without intellectual intuition, without receptivity to truth. In the physical body, this receptivity characterizes the womb; in the spiritual organism it is, or should be, characterized by the mind. A "concept" is a mental birth, as the conceptus is of the physical.
Lately there has been an even more radical step into the purely quantitative realm – or even beyond the mere quantitative into the dissolutional. Consider the Large Hadron Collider, an underground science lab in Switzerland that will shoot particles through a 27-kilometer tunnel and analyze the resulting collisions (in a four-million-megabyte –per-hour stream of data," as Elizabeth Kolbert of the New Yorker put it). She quotes one scientist, "What we want is to reduce the world to objects that have no structure, that are points, that are as simple as we can imagine. And then build it up from there again." Here is the best possible summary of Guénon’s thesis: how the quantitative becomes the dissolutive and finally achieves a total reversal, that is, a counter-image of the hierarchy of Nature.
Yet I would like to suggest an additional feature as well. In the supposedly emotionless calculative agenda of this science it is easy to miss the fantastic element in this scientist’s remark. The idea that scientists can "build it up from there again" is pure fantasy, a complete delusion. But is it not also a kind of ‘hysteria’ ? Here is evidence of how the human imagination has become unmoored from Nature, and in so doing, has become self-inflated – with the idea that a scientist can "rebuild the world" again from a mass of shattered particles.
At the very least, this scientist sees no contradiction in the fact that a science intent upon the dissolution of matter can hardly possess the requisite skills for rebuilding. One might say that the skills in the resume are vastly different – poles apart, indeed. But this is merely "Reign of Quantity" thinking all over again – that somehow there is no difference between the work of destruction and the work of construction. Kolbert reports that a few people have ventured to suggest that the Large Hadron Collider will "destroy the world." Perhaps they express more of the truth than they know. Only, it is not a physical destruction that is the portent here. With a science poised between calculated dissolution on the one hand, and hysterical delusions on the other, there is a sense in which any mere physical destruction would be an anticlimax – a mere postscript that never could be written in words - this being the ultimate 'counter-image' to the inexpressibility of spiritual truth itself.
We have come a long way from usteron of the path of the Logos to usteron as a type of receptable or even breeding-ground of demonic beings of pride. For remember, usteron is that in us which must have metaphysics – and that is why we are historical beings. For History is the daughter of Metaphysics.
The Metaphysics of Creation are the truths of initiation, the story of First Principles. It is not wrong to have fables – even the fable of evolution – but it is deadly to have fables without counteracting First Principles. The hour is late. The time is now. For the abyss has no bottom – no, not even for us, favored and forgiven by God numberless times throughout the course of our laborious centuries of striving to become human.