Future, Present, & Past:



Speculative
~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Monday, May 30, 2011

Geworfenheit at age 12


Because I was adopted as a baby, I am sometimes asked (e.g. by prospective adopting parents) about how I viewed my family situation when I was growing up. I always reply that I believed my situation was no different from anyone else's: we are all, I reflected, thrown into the world from we-know-not-where; my own circumstance is thus just like anyone's, except perhaps, as it were, writ large. I of course had not read Heidegger when I was twelve, but I am quite sure that while I didn't say "writ large," I did indeed use the words "thrown into" (at least to myself), and probably from about that age if not earlier. This was my conclusion, despite the fact that I was also raised in a faith (to which I certainly consciously subscribed) which held that we did indeed know "where we came from," since Mormonism has a well-articulated doctrine of pre-existence of souls. Ever since my break from that religion, it's been interesting to me that I was able to hold these two positions--the existential sense of geworfenheit and the LDS doctrine of pre-mortality--simultaneously without so much as blinking. This stance seems to me to be the flip-side of the indifference with which Wittgenstein regarded the question of an afterlife:
The temporal immortality of the human soul, that is to say, its eternal survival after death, is not only in no way guaranteed; but this assumption in the first place will not do for us what we always tried to make it do. Is a riddle solved by the fact that I survive for ever? Is this eternal life not as enigmatic as our present one? The solution of the riddle of life in space and time lies outside space and time.
(It is not problems of natural science that have to be solved.)

(Tractatus 6.4312, tr. Ogden)
I find myself thinking on this because today is my birthday, as well as the U.S. observation of Memorial Day. (When I was born, this date was always Memorial Day; I was born on the day when we commemorate the fallen).

This coexistence of two ostensibly contradictory thoughts might be put down to the lack of self-reflection of a child, or the pernicious influence of religion in compartmentalizing one's thoughts, or any number of other explanations; but I think it was just the budding realization that an ontological mystery obtains no matter what one's cosmology. It was also, I think, an incipient ease with inconsistency at a certain discursive level. While I went through a period of intense discomfort with apparent logical incompatibility, I've come to experience such inconsistency as more like the growing edge of articulation than as inevitably some symptom of a deep-seated problem (though the growth at the edge always includes reiterations of checking for such such problems). Probably some intense semi-mystical experiences, even earlier than age 12, also had something to do with it. It is salutary (especially for one with a precocious vocabulary and argumentative style) to realize that no matter how you try to express certain things, words will fail. Philosophy is the path to this realization of failure, paved with words of the most exacting precision you can muster.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

They cough in ink


Earlier this month, James Ladyman published an article on the appropriateness of specialization, jargon, and professionalization in philosophy.

Here I am concerned not with Ladyman's contentions about accessibility (whether or not philosophy is "for the masses"), nor with which sorts of specialization are good and which are bad. I am interested in the spirit in which one specializes.

I once worked in a magazine shop, which sold, aside from quite a lot of pornography, publications devoted to a quite bewildering array of specialties. (Now that I think of it, the porn dealt with a bit of a bewildering array too.) I spent many hours perusing magazines on lapidary arts, fingerings for classical guitar, geopolitics in Asia, Civil War re-enactments, hydraulic systems for lowrider cars, Tibetan Buddhism, and stereophonics, among other matters. Of course I did not become a master jeweler, a grandmaster in chess, or a Zen master, but I acquired the ability to ask intelligent questions across an array of disciplines and to think about the answers, and what's more, a keen interest in asking them.

All of this did me much good, but the best good was in knowing that all these worlds were there; it was possible to get lost in any of them, and possible to traverse from one to another.

Many of Ladyman's observations are on-target.
It is all too easy to mock and dismiss the recondite work of academics and question its value. When people claim that professional philosophers are producing work of little or no value because it is jargon-ridden and otherwise inaccessible, this may be telling people what they want to hear.
This is a very fair point, and anyone who wants to deride the fashions of academia had better pay heed, for such derision is itself a fashion. Nor is Ladyman far off-target when he says,
There would be something badly wrong if work in the philosophy of physics were as accessible to a linguist as to a physicist, or if work in the philosophy of language were as accessible to a physicist as to a linguist....Most academic work in all subjects is dry and dull to the outsider and contributes only a minute increment to the sum of knowledge. I expect there are people out there whose appetites for the details of snail morphology or monastic life in seventeenth century France is immeasurably greater than mine. I don’t expect them to be interested in the status of the principle of the identity of indiscernibles in the light of contemporary physics.
But the false note has crept in at the word "expect." Ladyman is quite right to point out that not everyone is a natural popularizer and that "civilisation needs people whose curiosity about obscure matters is abnormal;" and my own pedagogical commitments forbid me from prescribing an obligation to be interested in anything at all. But I believe that philosophy is (among other things) the art of inciting interest, and that this art is practiced by example and love. No one can compel me to be interested in baseball statistics or Korean confucianism or mitochondrial chemiosmosis; but anyone I love may entice me, by their interest, into a new world, and in so doing show me how that world was always open upon my own.

This does not mean adopting the same enthusiasm they have--one must find one's own way in; some very pertinent thoughts on this are offered in Amod's post here, e.g.:
To stay entirely in one’s comfort zone and never let one’s choice of pleasures be guided by those whose judgement one respects – this is a vice. It’s a sure way to remain mired in the situation...in which virtue does not become pleasurable and pleasure does not become virtuous. At the same time, to ignore one’s own preferences and passions in the hopes of reaching an unrealistic ideal of what one should like – this too is a vice, one that sacrifices one’s happiness and likely one’s virtue as well. How does one negotiate the middle ground?
If I am right, this Aristotelian question of moderation is bound up with the good old Platonic questions of love and of vision. This is a matter of some paradox, but really it just means that one's love is always for something concrete, and yet one love always has in it a feeling of reaching beyond what (who) one loves. Žižek likes to spin a Lacanian take on this point: the lover is always implicitly saying, "I love you, but inexplicably I love something in you more than you." For Plato this "something" is the Beautiful, but even this, as soon as it has been reified, becomes just one more thing. The Lacanian slogan does not stop where I have put the period. It goes on, "...and therefore I destroy you." This conclusion is the overstated but right enough summary of failing to find the via media Amod speaks of (and which Žižek so disdains). One's loves are themselves a dialectic; one goes beyond and returns to one's occasions, because what one loves in ones beloved (and it is obvious here I am speaking of not just the people one loves but every icon in one's life) is their inexhaustibility; the way they open up the whole world; the light they cast on it, that shines through them; and above all, who one is when one loves, when that light shines on and through us.

Philosophy doubtless must needs specialize, but if it any specialty loses its orientation towards the whole (a question not of what one says but of why), then it has become just another hobby, another distraction, a place to hide-- a bit of antiquarianism, a passion for beekeeping, or an obsession with hi-fi audio. To philosophize is to aspire to be more than an ear, even if one were the greatest ear in Europe. Indeed it is to be more than a "lover" even if one were Don Juan--precisely because what happens with Don Juan is that "lover" becomes what "Beauty" becomes in our Platonic example above--reified, and so impoverished. As technocrats move into every last department and philosophers are either shown the door or pressured to provide results, the specialists who Ladyman welcomes are no doubt the penultimate wave of the Kali Yuga. But what would they say, did their Socrates walk that way?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

On Mormon theologoumena


Over at Gnosis and Noesis, a post on the Latter-day Saint (Mormon) concept of God caught my eye. It points out what used to be common knowledge, that "God" is a couple. Mormon cosmology says that the world was created by God (I leave suspended the question as to whether this means this planet, or some section of the universe, or the entire "observable universe", or the whole universe that originated in the Big Bang--assuming there was such a Bang). But this creation was not ex nihilo-- rather, it was out of pre-existent matter. God is a couple, a divine male/female pair, who "organized" (this is the term the LDS tend to use) the matter into a world, for their spiritual offspring to inhabit. The notion is that these offspring (that's you and me) would go through certain necessary experiences only available in embodied mortal existence--the primary one being embodiment itself--before returning to the presence of God (male & female). These experiences are tests of faith and perseverance, of character-building and ethical spiritual purification; they also include certain ritual experiences that must be had in mortal form, though one can experience them either oneself or by having them performed by proxy (this is the basis for the much-debated performance of Mormon Temple services on behalf of the dead). The virtue of these experiences is somehow tied both to physical embodiment, to free agency (a term upon which LDS thought places much stress), and to the mortal condition of not-knowing (or not remembering) our ultimate origin (a condition Mormon theology speaks of by invoking a "veil" said to exist between our world and the former/next world, a veil which also is held to be symbolized by the veil in the Hebrew (and Mormon) Temple). Those of us who pass muster--who fulfill the ritual ordinances and keep moral purity (an impossible task without the atoning sacrifice of Christ, Mormons will remind us), will be exalted and become, in turn, gods themselves. Marriage is one of the ordinances in question, and this is why god is held to be male and female--because it requires a pair, male and female, to attain the fullness of human potential (which is divinity).

Where did our divine parents come from? Why, from a world like our own, of course, in which they ascended by passing the same sorts of tests to which we are now subject. Presumably there was also a Christ-analogue in the history of that world, but I know of no official pronouncement to that effect, nor even any speculation from the days when Mormon theology got good and speculative, back in the days when Brigham Young would refute Orson Pratt from the pulpit. Things have settled down since then, alas. But the doctrine that the couple who fashioned of this world were once mortals on a similar world made by a similar couple, and so on and so on, is generally accepted. The chain extends infinitely into the past and will extend infinitely into the future.

Do these worlds exist in our own space-time or is our entire universe the handiwork of our heavenly parents? Mormons debate this, though generally not publicly. But there is no speculation, let alone any answer, to the question of why this cosmic mortal/divine, caterpillar/butterfly cycle should obtain. (Not even a pseudo-Thomist sounding formula such as "it is its own cause".) This prompted one of my friends to observe that Mormonism is a form of agnosticism.

More interesting to me is the nature of Godhood itself as conceptualized in Mormon cosmology. Mormonism is often (and accurately) viewed as an intensely hierarchical religion, with its ascending ranks of priesthood (Aaronic and Melchizedek), its levels of quasi-Masonic initiation, and so on. "The priesthood" itself is not just a sociological category nor yet a vocation; it is conceived by Mormons to be a spiritual power in itself. One may hold "office" in the priesthood according to one's rank, by virtue of having been ordained, in a manner which bears some comparison to a dharma transmission, though probably the better analogy would be the Biblical anecdote in which Elisha petitions Elijah for "a double portion" of his spirit upon the latter's ascent in the fiery chariot. The point is that priesthood for Mormons is a kind of authority or power as well as a ranking of offices (deacon, teacher, priest, elder, etc.), but above all it is the constituting power of the universe itself. Though I can't chase down chapter and verse at this moment, God is not infrequently said in LDS parlance to have created the world "by" the priesthood. In this respect, though I emphasize that this is not by any stretch an explicit or even "esoteric" official Mormon doctrine (I have never heard anyone speculate along these lines), it has often struck me that "god" (as divine married couple organizing matter into worlds and populating them) is simply the highest office in the Mormon priesthood; while the priesthood itself is the closest analogue in Mormonism to what is traditionally meant by "God" (though some would say it's closer still to "the Force" in the Star Wars saga). The Mormon scripture Doctrine and Convenants declares of "intelligence:"
Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be. (D&C 93:29)
This doubtless stands behind certain speculation of the early Mormon apostle Orson Pratt, probably the most monistic-tending of the early Latter-day Saints, who waxed eloquent on the plurality (indeed the infinity) of gods, but also described Truth itself as God, in the singular. (See, e.g., The Seer I 2, p 24) Since LDS scripture also uses the terms "Intelligence" and "intelligences," one is tempted to think that there is an incipient cosmology here which Pratt was trying to spell out. The late, great Sterling McMurrin, still the godfather of serious Mormon theological studies, has some thoughts along these lines in this paper.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The way up is the way down


Alexander Schmemann says in a number of places that in the Eucharist, bread and wine become "what they are meant to be;" I might press this further and say "what they really are." One could even perhaps press one's luck and venture that as all theology is doxastic and sacramental ("or not at all"), and that theology thus must be the showing of the eschatological face of things, so too all philosophy is precisely the effort of asking of things what they are. This is why science as perpetually open ("revisable") is still philosophy.

Daniel Dennett likes to characterize philosophy as what one does when one doesn't know what the right question is. This is a witty way of attaching a degree of dignity to groping in the dark, but really what Dennett means is that all philosophy is prolegomena to science. I would rather say that science is philosophy which has (artificially) curtailed its questioning, fencing it within certain limits; it is philosophy under the supposition that one can delimit the question (what is known as "laboratory conditions"). Philosophy always aims toward the question of the Whole. Science forecloses this question, and asks, not "what is X?" but under what circumstances X occurs. It does not and cannot investigate the occurrence of "circumstances" per se.

What this means is that science is in a sense a "going further" than philosophy, but always by way of a more narrow focus, a quantitative reduction which is also a qualitative changing the subject. Any moment of science, however, still remains philosophy, in that it has ontological and methodological axioms, and these can be asked after without the concomitant narrowing.

If philosophy generates science as its own "finitely realizable" case, so too poetry arises out of religion, but in, so to speak, the opposite direction--as a move towards the impossible articulation of its alternatives, its presuppositions. Li-Young Lee comments, in a conversation included in Breaking the Alabaster Jar, that
religion is fossilized poetry.... Did you ever see the mouth where lava is being born? There's a place in Hawaii where it comes right out into the ocean. It's this hot, red thing coming out as the ocean is cooling. I'm looking at that and thinking, Well, that lava thing, that's art. When the lava hardens into these patterns, that's religion. They're worshiping patterns that were once living. When you look at it, it's a record of something that was once living. Art for me is the practice of that living--the mouth itself, what's really coming out. (pp 80-81)
Again, I would revise the disparaging analogy (though I don't know that Lee intended disparagement): poetry is rather the invention of the infinitely variable (and as it were, innocent) heresies and theolegoumena which are the indices of living faith; which surround, virtually, the actuality of lived religious experience. I would add that poetry is certainly, as it were, prior to theology, just as science does come after philosophy. (In this sense, science is paired with politics, poetry with love.) See, e.g., this post by John Gallaher on the way poetry is "spirituality," which is today's word for this move of the individual to be religious without "all that."

Science aims at a stricter denotation than philosophy; poetry at broader connotation than religion. Science is an attempt to go further than philosophy; poetry, to back up from religion. Is Theology--which from the outside (or from post-modernity) looks like a manticore (half botched poem, half abortive science)--where they meet?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Louis Lavelle


A while ago I touched upon the question of philosophers I wish would be translated. This post finally got some comments; I hope to see more. Here's one: Erich Przywara, whose controversy with Karl Barth on the analogia entis is one of the great chapters of 20th century theology, but whose works are almost non-existent in English. Or another:Eric Weil, a translation of whose Logic of Philosophy is still nowhere to be seen. (You can get Hegel and the State easily and a collection of essays edited by Kluback if you keep checking the online used book sources religiously.)

Another would be Louis Lavelle. Lavelle's philosophy may seem like a transition between Bergson's and Sartre's, not only in terms of chronology (he held the chair formerly occupied by Bergson at the College of France, and he died in 1951 as existentialism was coming into ascendancy), but in terms of doctrine: we associate the phrase "existence precedes essence" with Sartre, but in Of the Act (1937), Lavelle had already declared that "we need to posit our existence [before] discover[ing] our essence." But unlike either Sartre of Bergson, Lavelle's name did not catch on outside of France. A 1947 article by James Collins of St Louis University called "Louis Lavelle on Human Participation" (ah yes, that explains my interest) is almost the only secondary piece I know, aside from some book reviews (there is also supposed to be a study on The Experience of Being in the philosophy of Louis Lavelle by Joanne Opalek, but I have never seen it). For a very long time almost nothing has been available by Lavelle himself for the anglophone. I have owned a little blue volume called The Dilemma of Narcissus for about 10 years (this one you can get fairly cheap), and recently tracked down Introduction to Ontology, which, I don't mind telling you, was not an easy task. Nothing else has been Englished except a book on four saints (St. Francis, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Francis de Sales) called The Meaning of Holiness, which I've not seen. But all these books are from Lavelle's "minor," "moralist" writings (though I commend Dilemma to you; there's a brief post touching on it here by Bill Vallicella). What I've longed to sink my teeth into was Lavelle's tetralogy Dialectic of the Eternal Present.

Now it can finally happen. The website of the French Association Louis Lavelle has made available selections from Lavelle's major works, translated by Robert Jones, along with very helpful introductory essay and notes by Jones. Serious students of philosophy and scholars of French thought are indebted to him.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Education wants to be free


Zero Tuition College strikes me as an idea whose time may have come. It is an envisioned online community of self-directed college-age students, designed to be not just a supplement to but potentially a replacement for university education.

I am a strong advocate of "alternatives" to accepted educational channels, though I would like to see them become less alternative. My intuition (and that's all it is, not a well-thought-out position) is that the devil's-bargain by which higher-ed has sold itself to what passes for "capitalism" these days is one of the main symptoms and causes (both) of the malaise that stymies social revolution (or even reform) in the west. Without implicating anyone else in my half-baked radicalism, I commend, as a partial liberation from the gatekeepers of education, Salman Khan's Khan Academy. The ZT College, brainchild of Blake Boles, may be the next step.

As an anarcho-autodidact who makes his living slumming in the margins of public education (and volunteering at a very different school), I spend a lot of time thinking about how to apply the principles of free- or un-schooling (which work astoundingly well for pre-college age students), to students in an ordinary public-school setting; and also wondering how this approach applies to college and post-college education. This is more or less the haphazard road I pursued. I educated myself, if that is the word, by following my nose; by always chasing down the interesting-sounding references, always tracing the trail back to primary texts, and by giving myself permission to ask irresponsible-sounding questions. I did audit a number of classes (and even paid for some), because the truth about philosophy is that you can't do it all by yourself all the time (Socrates spent his time in the city). But I had the good fortune to be advised early on (by a professor who gave me straight A's) to steer clear of the academy. "It's a world in which dull dogs tend to rule," he sighed. He may have just been being nice with the A's, I suppose, but I think he guessed that it would have ruined my soul. I probably would have turned into one of those self-congratulatory PC professors or one of those self-congratulatory anti-PC professors.

Not that my soul is especially beautiful. I feel twinges of jealousy of friends whose careers are beginning to rise; I feel insinuations of smugness over reports of people with doctorates who can't find jobs. And I am of course hampered to some degree by a dearth of letters after my name, and sometimes blame myself. All (perhaps) pretty venial, but unbecoming nonetheless.

On the other hand I have no college debt, no craving for tenure, and no departmental politics to deal with. I have work that is as rewarding as it gets and no illusions that I am trapped in it when the inevitable frustrations arise.

All of this not-very-interesting autobiographical material is just by way of accounting for my own interest in Boles' proposal. After all, given the widespread dismay over rising tuition (in my state of Washington some tuition costs have risen as much as 28% in two years), and the terrifying lack of job security, or even job prospects, for people with (advanced!) degrees, what exactly is the attraction of a university education?

I am assuming here that one really is aiming to acquire skills, breadth, learning, proficiency, exposure to ideas, experience, accomplishment. Since the university will not guarantee one a future income, and increasingly seems not even to make one more likely to be hired, all practical or mercenary motives seem moot.

Since I am not an aberrantly intelligent observer, I can't be the only person to ask these questions. In fact, the projects of Boles and Khan and others make it all the more likely that in the future (assuming we have a livable planet), the lack of letters after one's name may become more and more irrelevant to one's career(s). Note, though, that the whole point of ZT College is to have a community of fellow-learners with whom to share ideas and support. Self-directed learning (and I truly believe there is no other kind) is still, irreducibly, a conversation. One learns for oneself, but one learns with others. Perhaps philosophy most of all.

ZT College is currently having a (very modest) fundraising campaign in order to get off the ground. For $25 you can be a co-founder.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Niggle and Morel


On the heels of writing my last post on literary and/or homeopathic "immortality," I finally got around to reading Eileen Joy's "You Are Here: A Manifesto"
literature [i]s a kind of poetic DNA, an inter-subjective, living, and dynamic process and also an open "signaling system," ...literary narratives, especially the ones crafted with a high degree of artistry and whose authors generously and playfully leave the most important questions unsettled ...these narratives are never really done, never really "over"[;].... [C]hange...accomplishes a special purchase within the realm of the imaginative, narrative arts, which I want to argue includes literary criticism, includes scholarship, includes thinking.
This is just what I mean. Moreover, this is (I assert) what the great literary/philosophical tradition has always meant. One retells the great myths not in order to hear them again but to enter them.

Walter Benjamin:
...the listener's naive relationship to the storyteller is controlled by his interest in retaining what he is told. The cardinal point for the unaffected listener is to assure himself of the possibility of reproducing the story. Memory is the epic facultypar excellence. Only by virtue of a comprehensive memory can epic writing absorb the course of events on the one hand and, with the passing of these, make its peace with the power of death on the other. ("The Storyteller.")
Compare this to a remark of James Carse in his Finite and Infinite Games. Carse writes:
To tell a story for its own sake is to tell it for no other reason than that it is a story. Great stories have this feature: to listen to them and learn them is to become their narrator.
It goes back to Plato, at least. Writing, he says, always "says the same thing;" this is why speech is higher, because it can change, because in saying what it means it will alter according to need. Far from undoing any "determinate meaning," this ability to change is precisely what makes speech capable of communicating a meaning. This very same point is made by Latour, in his work on iconoclash: no image means anything by itself; meaning only transpires by moving from one image, one story, one interpretation, to another, to another. This is the case in science as well as in religion, though the modalities of the meanings at stake in such images differs. Of lovers of images, Latour writes that their
iconophilia does not mean the exclusive and obsessive attention to image.... Iconophilia means moving from one image to the next. They know "truth is image but there is no image of truth." For them, the only way to access truth, objectivity, and sanctity is to move fast from one image to another, not to dream the impossible dream of jumping to a non-existing original.
Towards the end of her essay, Joy expressly invokes artistic immortality, urging us to get busy
making new objects. Giving birth to things. Radical acts of coupling and natality and hetero-queer reproduction. Until you can’t anymore. That’s when you drop dead. But don’t worry... you’ll always be with us, by which I mean: with me. I’ll never forget you and I trust you’ll do the same for me. I’m talking to you but also to my dog, the hawthorn outside my study window, the window itself, my favorite plate, and the imaginary pen I write my imaginary books with that never get published. We’ll designate mourners and record their grieving, then play it on an endless feedback loop machine that has a one-thousand-year battery. Some call this medieval studies. Or the humanities, which need to get more, and not less human.
This thousand-year capacity and this playback machine mark the bathetic limit of human aspirations. Long as art may be, it is finite. The feedback loop machine that Joy describes is, essentially, the invention of Morel. This is the title of a novel by Adolfo Bioy Casares, upon which Robbe-Grillet's famous and maddening film Last Year at Marienbad was supposedly based, in part. There is no online text of the story available as far as I can tell, but there are several critical essays, for instance this fine one by David Auerbach. In this novel (spoiler alert), a refugee on an uncharted island discovers a group of people who turn out to be only 3-D holographic images, endlessly repeating a week-long recording made decades earlier. The narrator, slowly unriddling the nature of the people, who of course do not see him, becomes infatuated with one of the women, named Faustine. Eventually he discovers the secret of the recording mechanism, and despite realizing that the process will likely kill him (there are hints that all the original party later died horribly from the effects of the recording process), he records himself "interacting" with various members of the original recording, especially Faustine, in order to give the impression that he was there originally and that he and Faustine are a romantic couple. In effect, he has spliced himself into a story in which he had no part. The story ends with a plea that some future inventor will merge his soul with Faustine's. The Invention of Morel was praised by Jorge Luis Borges as a perfectly contrived fiction. What Borges seems especially to have admired was the way the mysterious atmosphere of the story was resolved (in a perfectly this-worldly manner once the technological premise is accepted) even as it occasioned metaphysical questions that were beyond it.

Bioy Casares' story was published in 1940. It is almost perfectly contemporary with Tolkien's "Leaf by Niggle", written in 1938-39 (albeit first published in '45). (Thanks to SCT reader and commenter Alf for the email which inspired this comparison.) In this work, the painter Niggle works endlessly and sometimes aimlessly on an enormous painting of a tree, when he should be getting ready for a "journey" he must take. He is troubled when he remembers the necessity of the journey and occasionally makes some token preparations; and he resents the intrusions of other business, especially the needs of his neighbor, Parish, who has a bad leg and often needs assistance; but mostly he works and works on his unfinished and perhaps unfinishable painting. One day, however, he is suddenly called upon to leave on his "journey." (Despite Tolkien's avowed dislike of allegory, it is indisputable that this journey is death). Because he arrives with "no luggage," Niggle must stay in a kind of purgatorial "Workhouse," where his labors, at first very arduous, become satisfying little by little, not because they change but because Niggle does. He develops a kind of Zen-like discipline and detachment. Then, after a spate of particularly back-breaking work, he is told to take complete rest. Lying in the dark, he overhears two Voices discussing his "case." Eventually they conclude it is time for some "gentle treatment;" Niggle awakes the next day to be sent on a train to a little station where he finds a bicycle and a path.
The bicycle was rolling along over a marvellous turf. It was green and close; and yet he could see every blade distinctly. He seemed to remember having seen or dreamed of that sweep of grass somewhere or other. The curves of the land were familiar somehow. Yes: the ground was becoming level, as it should, and now, of course, it was beginning to rise again. A great green shadow came between him and the sun. Niggle looked up, and fell off his bicycle.

Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. If you could say that of a Tree that was alive, its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt or guessed, and had so often failed to catch. He gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them wide.

"It's a gift!" he said.
Niggle has found himself in his own art, his art perfected, as it were, by grace. He has been placed there, not by his own design, like the narrator of Morel, nor in a closed universe that repeats endlessly, but in a real world that opens endlessly upon more and more. Even in his original painting, Niggle had included far in the distance mountains; these now become the sign of a threshold to a world beyond his own subcreation, but with which that subcreation is continuous.
There were the Mountains in the background. They did get nearer, very slowly. They did not seem to belong to the picture, or only as a link to something else, a glimpse through the trees of something different, a further stage: another picture.
Like the thousand-year battery Eileen Joy imagines running the feedback-machine of mourning, all the fame of even the best art has its limit. A tiny corner of Niggle's original canvas painting is preserved for a while,
left...to the Town Museum, and for a long while "Leaf: by Niggle" hung there in a recess, and was noticed by a few eyes. But eventually the Museum was burnt down, and the leaf, and Niggle, were entirely forgotten in his old country.
The possibility of really standing under the Tree the artist imagines (and we are all artists in this sense), and of hiking beyond the forest into the land beyond, cannot be given by art, although art can imagine it. Eventually Niggle does go off towards the mountains, leaving Parish to look after the Tree and the garden.
Even little Niggle in his old home could glimpse the Mountains far away, and they got into the borders of his picture; but what they are really like, and what lies beyond them, only those can say who have climbed them.
My brief reading of Tolkien's allegory is not meant to be definitive, much less demonstrative. I am only highlighting what I take to be the difference between the highest aspirations of which human art is capable (a hope for a Nabokovian immortality, an immortality "in song" as it were, long-lived perhaps, like the Indian or Tibetan gods, but ultimately destined to find their limit), and the eschatological assurance of the Christian gospel in which Tolkien believed. I am far from asserting that Tolkien's thematics of subcreation, enchantment, and so on, can only be accessed or even understood by those who share these commitments. My own position, however, is that "enchantment" in the sense in which Tolkien conceived it, is distinguished from delusion in precisely the way Morel's narrator is distinguished from Niggle. The former remains hermetically sealed off from the world. The latter moves, like Latour's iconophile, from story to story to story; it knows, as Joy's commends us to know, that "these narratives are never really done, never really 'over'." But of course, for these narratives to really never be done, they must transpire in a world larger than the one bounded by extinction, in which the clever animals must die and the Museum inevitably burns down. Human subcreation may intuit or hope for such a world, but it is not our prerogative to make it. Either we must find that it is the world in which we are already, or we must live in disappointment, delusion, or resignation.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The homeopathic theory of immortality


Woody Allen famously remarked that "I don't want to achieve immortality through my works; I want to achieve it by not dying." But most of us in the postmodern liberal West, I would wager, hover somewhere around a fond and somewhat guilty hope for postmortem consciousness, supported when pushed to the wall by some platitudes about our work or our legacy, or at least the intensity of our short lives. It is an ancient compromise. From Homer (Helen: "Zeus has prepared a woeful destiny for us so that in the future we may be sung of by the bards") through Shakespeare ("Absent thee from felicity awhile and draw thy breath in pain to tell my story") to Nabokov ("the only immortality we may share, my Lolita"), the maxim vita brevis, ars longa is expanded into an aesthetic soteriology.

We try to keep up our end of the bargain. Whether to lessen our own pain of grief or to reassure ourselves that later generations will do the same for us, we promise not to forget the dead, to keep a legacy alive, to honor lessons taught or accomplishments striven for. The modern and postmodern mythology is full of references to this sort of immortality, a closely-held belief that "as long as someone remembers," the dead are "still with us," or even continue to exist for themselves (as in Kevin Brockmeyer's recent novel The Brief History of the Dead), but the roots go very deep and the manifestations are widespread. The promise to recite Kaddish. The Día de los Muertos. Our memorials public and private.

And when the last one who remembers us is dead? Here is where things become dilute. Someone will remember them, perhaps? And so on, and so on, our "influence," our "legacy" getting more and more diffuse but perhaps (goes the implicit rationale), perhaps still efficacious.

Even aside from every other possible connection across six degrees, I am certainly effected by my father's high school English teacher; maybe even by her mother's childhood best friend. There's a kind of homeopathic subtext here, a notion that though the ripples get ever fainter, a keen spiritual eye could discern the karmic traces, that given the right conditions one could extract a full profile of a slave on Washington's plantation or a monk in 10th-century Silesia or one of our hominid cousins from the savanna a few hundred thousand years ago. The implication is that experience is a kind of medium with a "memory" like water is supposed (in homeopathy) to have. This is, I suppose, what are called the "akashic records" in modern theosophy.

Of course, in practice (aside from some alleged ability to read the akasha) this is a poor substitute for immortality. It's not very satisfying to say that the "legacy" of my father's English teacher's mother's best friend somehow "lives on" (say, in this blog); or that my own will "live on" in the work of someone equally removed down-the-line from me. But then, the question is, satisfying to who? To our ego, that's who, the ego that doesn't want to die, and is going to. The dissolution of such a legacy is just as real as that of the physical elements of the body recirculating through the natural world. To realize this fully is to "die before you die," a practice that has been elaborated in multiple spiritual contexts precisely as a combat against the tyranny of the ego.

The Tibetan Buddhist practice of meditating (with sharply detailed visualization) upon one's eventual death is meant to bring into clear focus the ramifications of our bodily mortality. There are some vivid examples in The Words of My Perfect Teacher, e.g.:
This same body that was wrapped up during life in silk and brocades, that was kept well filled up with tea and beer, that once looked as handsome and distinguished as a god, is now called a corpse, and is left lying there horribly livid, heavy, and distorted.... No matter how precious and well-loved you were, now you arouse horror and nausea.... once you are dead, you just lie there with your cheek against a stone or tuft of grass, your hair bespattered with earth. (p47.)
At the same time, however, there is always the inexorability of karma, by which the ripples of any cause, be they ever so faint, find their equal-and-opposite effect. This introduces a certain tension between ultimate impermanence and the laws of samsara, in which what comes around goes around. The alchemical aqua permanens or Mercurial water is perhaps closer to the kind of "water" the homeopathic theory assumes, a water in which these karmic reverberations could obtain, according to the "law of infinitesimals" (which says that dilution increases potency). Jung remarks that "The philosophical water is the stone or the prima materia itself; but at the same time it is also its solvent...", and the dissolution he refers to is closely akin to the dissolution of body and ego envisioned in the above-mentioned Buddhist meditations. (I am not claiming either continuity of tradition or identity of intention here, only an analogy.) Medieval and Renaissance alchemy speak of "water" and other fluids with more than one adjective--aqua vitae (water of life), acetum fontis (vinegar of the spring), lac virginis (virgin's milk)--which may or may not be various aspects of this fluid. The "father of alchemy," Zosimos of Panopolis (4th c. A.D.), recounts a dream of a figure named Ion, who responds to Zosimos' querries:
I am Ion, Priest of the Adytum, and I have borne an intolerable force. For someone came at me headlong in the morning and dismembered me with a sword and tore me apart, according to the rigor of harmony. And, having cut my head off with the sword, he mashed my flesh with my bones and burned them in the fire of the treatment, until, my body transformed, I should learn to become a spirit. And I sustained the same intolerable force.
(Note that it is Ion who speaks here of his own dismemberment; the Wikipedia article on Zosimos linked to above incorrectly asserts that Ion performs this operation on Zosimos in the dream.) Upon awakening, Zosimos muses upon Ion as an allegory for the the philosophical water. He dreams again of a cauldron full of boiling men, and hears the explanation,
"The spectacle which you see is at once the entrance and the exit and the process."

I questioned him further, "What is the nature of the process?"

And he answered saying, "It is the place of the practice called the embalming. Men wishing to obtain virtue enter here and, fleeing the body, become spirits."
Without identifying Tibetan Buddhism with western alchemy, one may say that in each case, to "die before you die" is not just a salutary reminder of impermanence but a practice intended to lead to a kind of reality beyond death. (I know I may be reprimanded by Buddhists here, so let me clarify again that I am not claiming this means the Buddhism of any stripe believes in a self.) Eliade argues in his book The Forge and the Crucible that the alchemists were "projecting onto matter the initiatory function of suffering." One need not be a full-fledged Jungian to read such passages as pertaining to the process of individuation or indeed something greater. From the Brahmanas' injunction to understand the equivalences of the Vedic sacrifice to the Nietzschean underscoring of mnemotechnical cruelty, the tradition is that the undoing of the ego is linked to the promise of immortality. To read the inevitable dissolution of individual existence at the moment of biological death as a kind dispersal that makes possible a continued existence is a perennial tendency. "Unless a grain of wheat die..."

As the plausibility of individual postmortem existence has receded until its main popular defense is the sassy "scientists don't know everything, man!" (with perhaps an NDE anecdote or bit of past-life recall thrown in), the immortality at issue here has shifted from the metaphysical to the artistic, and the medium in which most hope to "live" is not a disembodied spirit-hood as ghost-sans-machine, but the material and cultural matrix of memory. Such a chastened aspiration is not, however, a purely modern innovation. The Bible knows well this sort of fingers-crossed hope. "Let us now praise famous men," Ecclesiasticus says, recounting artists or composers, lawgivers or other benefactors of humanity; these are those whose names remain upon the lips of the living, but a little later it remembers:
And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born; and their children after them.
Yet it is as if just this nod of the text toward them is enough--enough, at least, for this sort of literary immortality:
But these were merciful men, whose righteousness hath not been forgotten. With their seed shall continually remain a good inheritance, and their children are within the covenant. Their seed standeth fast, and their children for their sakes. Their seed shall remain for ever, and their glory shall not be blotted out.
I don't claim that this is the only Biblical vision of afterlife (or lack thereof), but I believe I could make a case that it is the most pervasive one. That is, that the dead have no (conscious) existence of their own--"will the dead praise you, O Lord?" (Psalm 88:10). What postmortem existence they have is restricted to, as it were, suspended solution in the praise of the living. Surprisingly, then, this limited immortality, which is the most that cynical reason can permit itself to believe in, turns out to have a respectable Biblical heritage.

The Bible--both Testaments--proves to be remarkably reticent when it comes to life after death. No one reports anything of it. T.S. Eliot's Prufrock imagines a Lazarus saying
"I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all"
But in fact, Lazarus says not a word in the Gospels regarding this or any other question. One is left with the impression, almost, that the desperate inquiry "what happens to us when we die?" is not a question that preoccupied the Evangelists. N.T. Wright has earned a reputation in part by persistent (and, in my opinion, accurate) reiteration that the New Testament's promise is concerning "new creation" and not immortality--not life-after-death but "life after 'life-after-death'", as he memorably puts it. Life-after-death, in this sense, is precisely continually diluting homeopathic and alchemical immortality in which we enter the conversation and song that precedes us and will come after.

But we know well that this aspiration is not enough to give us what we hope for. We may aspire like Yeats to "dine with Landor and with Donne" at journey's end, or even to be someone with whom some yet-unborn Yeats may hope to dine. In this hope one still finds the ancient belief in poetry and music as magically potent, which is to say, one is right back at the very pulse of the equivalences. Such "salvation through works," through the memory of the living, is what we can aspire to ourselves. I am sometimes moved to wonder whether there is not something to it; for the old alchemists, with (and despite) their weird imagery, were preserving techniques that generated real enough effects, psychic and existential and perhaps ontological as well. But even if we stipulate that the alchemical dissolution of the self and its sublimation into spirit (which amply recalls the Bardos of Buddhism as well as the Dantean purgatory of the west) has a metaphysical and not just a metaphorical reality, this is not what the New Testament is concerned with; indeed, as St. Paul makes clear, the concern of Christianity begins precisely--and only--where our human aspirations face their abject failure.

Wright underscores that the New Testament, promising a new heaven and a new earth, an unimaginable but bodily resurrection, knows nothing of "going to Heaven"--nor indeed to Hell-"when you die." The Biblical eschatological promise is neither the fond superstition of ectoplasm and table-rapping or of disembodied harpists. Neither, however, is it the diffuse karmic immortality of long-memory'd art or homeopathic legacy (even after our name has been forgotten).

And yet, for all that, "literary" immortality is as it were image of what is ultimately envisioned in the same Biblical hope. The language of these human aspirations is not discarded out of hand, for the Church herself is the wounded and risen Body of Christ.. The liturgical refrain of "memory eternal" is a way of making even the faltering and pitiful hope of vita brevis, ars longa (which is, on our own, all we are capable of) an image of eschatological promise. For this faltering, human hope is precisely what has been (so says the Gospel) assumed and redeemed by the God in Whose image we are made.

This assertion remains, however, an act of faith. No image by itself shows the truth; the truth is glimpsed precisely and only where the image fails.

"Walt Whitman"

The master-songs are ended, and the man
That sang them is a name. And so is God
A name; and so is love, and life, and death,
And everything. But we, who are too blind
To read what we have written, or what faith
Has written for us, do not understand:
We only blink, and wonder.

Last night it was the song that was the man,
But now it is the man that is the song.
We do not hear him very much to-day:
His piercing and eternal cadence rings
Too pure for us --- too powerfully pure,
Too lovingly triumphant, and too large;
But there are some that hear him, and they know
That he shall sing to-morrow for all men,
And that all time shall listen.

The master-songs are ended? Rather say
No songs are ended that are ever sung,
And that no names are dead names. When we write
Men's letters on proud marble or on sand,
We write them there forever.

--Edwin Arlington Robinson