Sunday, December 21, 2008

American Gods - and Demons

The All-Father (Odin)
Courtesy: home.earthlink.net/~norsemyths/norsemyths.html

Neil Gaiman's American Gods (2001) made the New York Times bestseller list in July of that year. The events of September 11 were like a fulfillment of the author's prophetic imagination.

In this novel, the characters frequently allude to "the coming storm." I picked out six of them - and only one was a reference to the weather. Some examples: "it's not a storm of our making," "it scares me - I would do anything to get away," "if I can get away before the storm hits, away from a world in which opiates have become the religion of the masses," "the war had begun and nobody saw it. The storm was lowering and nobody knew it." The ostensible text is the coming battle between the Old Gods and the New. But the hidden text...? One is inclined to wonder: what did the author know and when did he know it? The imagination has its sources of perception and feeling, and its accuracy is far sharper and more deadly than mere news reporting. This author's imagination has tuned in to the new theory of government, stated a few years ago in a New York Times article by Ron Suskind, who was quoting one of the Bush people: "We're an empire now... we create our own reality. " The New Age has come to government. Welcome to literary theory as political creed.

Who are the Old Gods? Well, there's Mr. Wednesday - Odin - Wotan - Wotansday - Wednesday - the All-Father. Shadow, the ex-con who is the hero of our tale, runs into Mr. Wednesday after his release from prison a couple of days early because he learned that his wife was killed in a car crash. Mr. Wednesday offers him a job as an "errand boy," and Shadow, somewhat dubiously at first, accepts. Mr. Wednesday tells him, "I have as many names as there are winds, as many titles as there are ways to die." It's not always crystal clear who the Old Gods are, or what they want, but it's clear who the New Gods are: credit cards, freeway, Internet, telephone, radio, hospital, television, plastic, cell phone, neon, bureaucracy - the gods of debt, servitude, rootlessness, Empire.

But there's this: the New Gods always give themselves away in the way they speak. Here's the Fat Kid, his eyes glinting "like an antique computer monitor," who tells Shadow: "You tell Wednesday this. You tell him he's history. He's forgotten. He's old. Tell him we are the future and we don't give a fuck about him or anyone like him. He has been consigned to the Dumpster of history while people like me ride our limos down the superhighway of tomorrow...Tell him we have fucking reprogrammed reality. Tell him that language is a virus and that religions are an operating system and that prayers are just so much fucking spam... It's all about the dominant fucking paradigm, Shadow. Nothing else is important."

The Fat Kid, Media, Town, Mr. World - they all want a "clean world," they want to "own tomorrow," they want "to write the future in Letters of Fire." Shadow begins to notice "how they seem to like to speak in cliches." The New Gods sound like robots, ever reproducing the things they have already heard. In the end it's about the word - the ability to speak, and to take responsibility for one's beliefs. As one of the Old Gods explains, "This isn't about what is... It's about what people think is. It's all imaginary anyway... People only fight over imaginary things"-- because ... "People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe; and it is that belief, that rock-solid belief, that makes things happen."

In this novel the magic of the Old Gods meets up with history and with the techno-magic of our era. There is love and wonder too, and the border between life and death opens to reveal the common story. Shadow's wife comes back - in a sort of half-life, and becomes Shadow's protectress. But she wants to be alive again, to feel the real blood in her veins - "Make it happen, hon. You'll figure it out." Shadow almost does -- but not as a new Christ figure, although he hangs for nine days in a vigil over Wednesday, on an ash tree in Virginia. He hangs there because the stories go on, and because the stories go on, the hero as bearer of imagination is willing to be moved, to act, to believe, to stand. Only such a decision, taken in the marrow, can lead to a real future, of truth - not the cliche-ridden nightmare foisted by illusion-mongers and manipulative fakes feeding off the chaos they have created.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Lost Souls


[Note: This is a re-post from November, 2006]

Vox clamato in deserto . . .

The writings of the Christian ascetics of the Orthodox tradition comprise the collection of texts known as the Philokalia, and span the 4th to the 15th centuries. The first compilation of these writings was completed in the 18th century. In our time a four-volume set was compiled, translated and edited by G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware, and published in 1979 in Great Britain under the auspices of the Eling Trust.

It is a shock to encounter the Desert Fathers. Almost everything that comes to mind when we hear of them is wrong, and there are vast layers of assumption and prejudice that have to be peeled away before we can understand what they mean about the different energy levels in human nature - intellect, image, emotion, wishing, perception, thinking, voluntary and involuntary. Compared to their acuity of discernment, Western philosophy seems a dry husk, and the massive accumulations of psychology and social science following the post-philosophical age - that is, the harvest of modernity - seem like mere dust.

The shock of Christian ascesis consists in realizing how much the activity of thought depends upon or presupposes the existence of the soul. But it is precisely the existence of the soul that is at issue. As Jacob Needleman writes in Lost Christianity, referencing a modern practitioner of Christian ascesis, "... the soul is not a fixed entity. According to Father Sylvan, it is a movement that begins whenever man experiences the psychological pain of contradiction." [1]

It was a disaster for Christianity, according to Father Sylvan, when it accepted the existence of the soul already "in finished form" in human nature.

This "given-ness" of the soul in the Christian view of human nature passed out of active use several centuries ago - what modern discipline concerns itself with the soul in any meaningful way? -- and has been succeeded by the "given-ness" of reason or intellect -- the a priori assumption of reason. John McMurtry writes that the first rule of the "Group-Mind" is that it cannot adopt itself as an object of critical reflection:

"When the most self-evident line of thought has been blinkered out across a people, only an a priori thought system can account for it. As with other great problems of our era, the group-mind disconnects by stopping thought before it arises."

Christian ascesis is the practice of giving attention to thoughts as they first appear, thus it is a practice wholly at odds with a priorism and with all forms of mechanical, psychic or associative activity which masquerades as "thought." According to Father Sylvan, a hundred, a thousand times a day, thoughts that challenge or contradict assumptions and beliefs, thoughts that might provoke self-questioning or discomfort about some fact or emotion or received wisdom, thoughts that might force one to confront one's own laziness, anger, lack of love, lack of integrity -- such thoughts are continually circling the perimeter of the mind and sometimes even penetrate its arena. And yet they come to nothing, they are quickly repelled, conveniently forgotten, dispersed, and covered over by compulsive action, rationalization, explanation, or emotional reaction. Father Sylvan calls this incessant activity of covering over the Question the "First Dispersal of the Soul." It means that the force of attention is wasted, degraded by absorption into one part or another of the psycho-physical organism, and rendered useless for the growth of the soul. Man becomes trapped in an "automatism of non-redemptive experience," which he likens to St. Paul's "body of death."

The struggle of Christian ascesis is to contain the energy of the Question within oneself so that the Soul can come into being. Thus, the existence of the Soul is not a given, not an a priori assumption. It is an energy formed through the confrontation with question and contradiction, an energy that has to be sought, recognized, collected and accumulated - "pondered in the heart." This is why "God can only speak to the soul," according to Father Sylvan, "and only when the soul exists." How accurately this comment foreshadows the condition of modern man, exemplified in John Derbyshire's complaint concerning his loss of religious faith. When asked by an interviewer whether he had ever had a religious experience, Derbyshire replied, "No, and I'm miffed by this."

It is a relief to move from this world of the whining modern, who expects to be provided with spiritual experience in the full armory of modern comforts, to the writings of the Desert Fathers. St. Mark the Ascetic (5th century; sometimes known as Mark the Hermit) says "Never belittle the significance of your thoughts; for not one escapes God's notice."

Of course - for it is these very thoughts, no matter how seemingly insignificant, that must be attended to and carefully 'interrogated.' The process of interrogating the thoughts is likened in the New Testament to 'dividing the sheep from the goats.' It is an activity of continuous discernment and sifting of thoughts that can lead to the 'gathering' of what is vital in them, 'saving' them and 'saving in them' that which is possible for future development.

Then there is this astonishing passage from "No Righteousness by Works:"

"Involuntary thoughts arise from previous sin; voluntary ones from our free
will. Thus the latter are the cause of the former." [Italics mine.]

I emphasized this last sentence as underscoring the fact of 'Presence,' which is the aim of Christian ascesis - dwelling in the presence and present attention of the soul, which acts retroactively upon the 'past.' It is not the past that determines in the present, as in deterministic modern psychology; it is the present disposition of the soul that influences the kind of past that we even perceive. And again, emphasizing our responsibility for our thoughts, as for our experience, St. Mark the Hermit says: "Do not say, 'I don't want it, but it happens.' For even though you may not want the thing itself, yet you welcome what causes it."

And again, responsibility is presence: "It is the uneven quality of our thoughts that produces changes in our condition. For God assigns to our voluntary thoughts consequences which are appropriate but not necessarily of our choice."

The quality of attention: "When you find that some thought is disturbing you deeply in yourself and is breaking the stillness of your intellect with passion, you may sure it was your intellect which, taking the initiative, first activated the thought and placed it in your heart."

And finally: "He who does not choose to suffer for the sake of truth will be chastened more painfully by suffering he has not chosen."

There are many other sayings of this quality in St. Mark the Hermit's "On the Spiritual Law." And his comprise a small portion of this wonderful collection of texts. In reading these texts one can understand why the West underwent a tremendous historical development, and how the energy these Fathers discerned and elucidated in the soul later exploded into so many fields - fields seemingly quite diverse from their lucid gaze. And reading them today brings one into a renewed sense for the failures of modern Western intelligence, which now at the pinnacle of its power seems like a blind and destructive giant. The recovery of lucid intelligence in the West would be greatly assisted by a revival and study of these texts. Thinking and empathy can only arise in the soul, but if there is no basis in the soul for them to become active and conscious, these manifestations attest to the presence of energies, and these energies do not just cease to be or disappear. They must go somewhere. Instead of empathy and thinking, the energies fuel cancerous hatreds and controlling, rigidifying obsessions.

The Philokalia is our crying need -- in the twilight of our souls, it can be a lamp to hold up against our darkening minds.

[1] Simone Weil on contradiction: "God has entrusted all phenomena, without any exception, to the mechanism of this world... The contradictions which the mind is brought up against form the only realities, the only means of judging what is real. There is no contradiction in what is imaginary. Contradiction is the test on the part of necessity."

Compare also Richard Weaver, speaking of the liberalism in Western societies: "Its fundamental incapacity to think, arising from an inability to see contradictions, deprives it of the power to propagate." From his Ideas Have Consequences (1948).