Excerpts & Passages

Rainer Funk, Erich Fromm: His Life And Ideas

"A person's own Ego has become a product to be had; one receives training in how to sell oneself. Being an integrated and authentic person is no longer the goal: possessing the right personality profile is what counts. It is of vital importance to make oneself attractive, sell oneself successfully, portray oneself in the right light, to present oneself with focused self-confidence. It is no longer of interest what feelings one has and who one really is.

"The aim of modern society is not the realization of the human being, but profit; not profit in the sense of greed, but in the sense of maximum efficiency of the economic system...Our society offers the picture of a low grade chronic schizophrenia. The fact is that most people today are employees high or low [who] do what they are told or what the rules tell them and feel as little as possible because feelings disturb the smooth functioning of the machine. People must train themselves to have as [few] emotions as possible because an emotion costs money."

Lewis Lapham, Harper's Magazine (May 2004)

"The postmodern sensibility is a product of the electronic media, which lend themselves more readily to the traffic in dreams and incantations than to the distributions of coherent argument. As the habits of mind beholden to the rule of images come to replace the systems of thought derived from the meaning of words, the constant viewer learns to eliminate the association of cause with effect...

"Because the camera sees but cannot think, it doesn't matter who sings the undying songs of love, or whether the twenty-four-hour circus parade goes nowhere except around in circles. Nothing necessarily follows from anything else; what is important is the surge and volume of emotion, not its object or its subject...Narrative dissolves into montage and knowledge becomes a matter of instantly recognizing the iconography (Osama's beard, the Nike swoosh, Ralph Lauren's polo player, Howard Dean's upraised fist); history reverts to myth, and politics collapse into the staging of pageants sometimes accompanied by a fall of brightly colored balloons."

Comment On Shelley's Poem, "Love's Philosophy"

Notice that in the first seven lines of each stanza the poet is commenting upon the world almost as a disinterested observer, but in the last line of each stanza he is addressing himself to a certain someone. Might the poem being saying as much about the motives of philosophy as about love?

The fountains mingle with the river
And the rivers with the ocean,
The winds of heaven mix for ever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single,
All things by a law divine
In one another's being mingle --
Why not I with thine?

See the mountains kiss high heaven
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister-flower would be forgiven
If it disdain'd its brother:
And the sunlight clasps the earth,
And the moonbeams kiss the sea --
What are all these kissings worth,
If thou kiss not me?

Michael Shermer, "Miracle On Probability Street," Scientific American

"...a principle of probability called the Law of Large Numbers shows that an event with a low probability of occurrence in a small number of trials has a high probability of occurrence in a large number of trials. Events with million-to-one odds happen 295 times a day in America.

"In their delightful book Debunked!...CERN physicist Georges Charpak and University of Nice physicist Henri Broch show how the application of probability theory to such events is enlightening. In the case of death premonitions, suppose that you know of 10 people a year who die and that you think about each of those people once a year. One year contains 105,120 five-minute intervals during which you might think about each of the 10 people, a probability of one out of 10,512 -- certainly an improbable event. Yet there are 295 million Americans. Assume, for the sake of our calculation, that they think like you. That makes 1/10,512 x 295,000,000 = 28,063 people a year, or 77 people a day for whom this improbable premonition becomes probable. With the well-known cognitive phenomenon of confirmation bias firmly in force (where we notice the hits and ignore the misses in support of our favorite beliefs), if just a couple of these people recount their miraculous tales in a public forum (next on Oprah!), the paranormal seems vindicated. In fact, they are merely demonstrating the laws of probability writ large."

Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity

"The modern scientist is not so naive as to deny God because he cannot be found with a telescope, or the soul because it is not revealed by the scalpel. He has merely noted that the idea of God is logically unnecessary. He even doubts that it has any meaning. It does not help him to explain anything which he cannot explain in some other, and simpler, way...

"What science has said, in sum, is this: We do not, and in all probability cannot, know whether God exists. Nothing that we do know suggests that he does, and all the arguments which claim to prove his existence are found to be without logical meaning. There is nothing, indeed, to prove that there is no God, but the burden of proof rests with those who propose the idea. If, the scientists would say, you believe in God, you must do so on purely emotional grounds, without basis in logic or fact. Practically speaking, this may amount to atheism. Theoretically, it is simple agnosticism. For it is of the essence of scientific honesty that you do not pretend to know what you do not know, and of the essence of scientific method that you do not employ hypotheses which cannot be tested.

"The immediate results of this honesty have been deeply unsettling and depressing. For man seems to be unable to live without myth, without the belief that the routine and drudgery, the pain and fear of this life have some meaning and goal in the future. At once new myths come into being -- political and economic myths with extravagant promises of the best of futures in the present world. These myths give the individual a certain sense of meaning by making him part of a vast social effort, in which he loses something of his own emptiness and loneliness. Yet the very violence of these political religions betrays the anxiety beneath them -- for they are but men huddling together and shouting to give themselves courage in the dark."

The Psychology of Political Conservatism

In 2003 the American Psychological Association published an article titled "Political Conservatism As Motivated Social Cognition" in its Psychological Bulletin. According to the authors of the study, some of the common psychological factors linked to political conservatism include "fear and aggression; dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity; uncertainty avoidance; need for cognitive closure; and terror management." The study is supported by fifty years of research literature. For an overview, see UC Berkeley News for 25 July 2003.

"Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?"

The late Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick pondered this question some years ago in an article for the Cato Institute's Online Policy Report.

"It is surprising that intellectuals oppose capitalism so," he wrote. "Other groups of comparable socio-economic status do not show the same degree of opposition in the same proportions. Statistically, then, intellectuals are an anomaly...Wordsmith intellectuals fare well in capitalist society; there they have great freedom to formulate, encounter, and propagate new ideas, to read and discuss them. Their occupational skills are in demand, their income much above average. Why then do they disproportionately oppose capitalism?"

But do they? In the online version of this article Professor Nozick assumes that this is so without referring the reader to any serious study on the subject. To some of us it might seem quite otherwise: the vast throng of writers, academics, journalists wouldn't dream of replacing the market economy with something else. But his explanation for what he sees as true is intriguing: most intellectuals, he says, wish their society to be a school writ large -- the equivalent of an academic environment where they, as opposed to others, succeed. The fact that this isn't so, especially in the United States, breeds a kind of animus.

Henry David Thoreau: A Lament Against Incessant Business

A common refrain among many Americans today is that they're overworked; that it takes two incomes to handle the load of monthly bills; that there is little time left at the end of the week for most parents to do anything meaningful with their children. Numerous books over the years have contributed to this chorus, from Juliet Schor's The Overworked American to Jill Fraser's White Collar Sweatshop to John De Graaf's Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic.

A similar complaint, in fact, was audible nearly a century and a half ago. Henry David Thoreau, for one, decried what he felt was the obliteration of leisure time -- life completely taken over by "incessant business." This is how he expressed himself in his essay "Life Without Principle" in 1863:

"This world is a place of business. What an infinite bustle! I am awaked almost every night by the panting of the locomotive. It interrupts my dreams. There is no sabbath. It would be glorious to see mankind at leisure for once. It is nothing but work, work, work. I cannot easily buy a blank book to write thoughts in; they are commonly ruled for dollars and cents...If a man was tossed out of a window when an infant, and so made a cripple for is regretted chiefly because he was thus incapacitated for -- business! I think there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, philosophy, ay, to life itself than this incessant business...

"If a man walk in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen. As if a town had no interest in its forests but to cut them down!...

"The aim of the laborer should be, not to get his living, to get 'a good job,' but to perform well a certain work; and, even in a pecuniary sense, it would be economy for a town to pay its laborers so well that they would not feel that they were working for low ends, as for a livelihood merely, but for scientific, or even moral ends...

"So far I am successful. But I foresee, that, if my wants should be much increased, the labor required to supply them would become a drudgery. If I should sell both my forenoons and afternoons to society, as most appear to do, I am sure, that, for me, there would be nothing left worth living for. I trust I shall never thus sell my birthright for a mess of pottage. I wish to suggest that a man may be very industrious, and yet not spend his time well. There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living."

A Complaint Against Intellectuals

The passages below first appeared in Martin Buber's Israel and the World; they have been excerpted from The Writings of Martin Buber, ed. by Will Herberg, (Meridian Books, 1956):

"We are living in an age of the depreciation of words. The intellect with its gift for language has been all too willing to put itself at the disposal of whatever trends prevail at the time. Instead of letting the word grow out of the thought in responsible silence, the intellect has manufactured words for every demand with almost mechanical skill. It is not only the intellectuals who are now finding a suspicious reception for their disquisitions, who must suffer for this 'treason.' What is worse is that their audience, above all the entire younger generation of our time, is deprived of the noblest happiness of youth, the happiness of believing in the spirit. It is easily understood that many of them now see nothing but 'ideologies' in intellectual patterns, nothing but pompous robes for very obvious group interests, that they are no longer willing to believe there is a truth over and above parties, over and above those who wield power and are greedy for it. They tell us, tell one another, and tell themselves, that they are tired of being fed on lofty illusions, that they want to go back to a 'natural' foundation, to unconcealed instincts, that the life of the individual, as well as that of every people, must be built up on simple self-assertion...

"We are not the owners of the truth, but this does not mean that we must depend either on vain ideologies or on mere instincts, for every one of us has the possibility of entering into a real relationship to truth. Such a relationship, however, cannot grow out of thinking alone, for the ability to think is only one part of us; but neither is feeling enough. We can attain to such a relationship only through the undivided whole of our life as we live it. The intellect can be redeemed from its last lapse into sin, from the desecration of the word, only if the word is backed and vouched for with the whole of one's life. The betrayal of the intellectuals cannot be atoned for by the intellect retreating into itself, but only by its proffering to reality true service in place of false. It must not serve the powers of the moment and what they call reality -- not the short-lived semblance of truth. The intellect should serve the true great reality, whose function is to embody the truth of God; it must serve. No matter how brilliant it may be, the human intellect which wishes to keep to a plane above the events of the day is not really alive. It can become fruitful, beget life and live, only when it enters into the events of the day without denying, but rather proving, its superior origin...Our first question must be: what is the truth? what has God commanded us to do? But our next must be: how can we accomplish it from where we are?"

Tocqueville On America's "Fanatical Spiritualism"

Those still perplexed at the extent to which religion can influence the attitudes (and voting behavior) of a certain segment of the American population should consider Tocqueville's thoughts on the matter. Democracy In America is hardly an anti-American manifesto: indeed, Tocqueville spoke glowingly about the young republic's experiment in democracy and believed the old aristocratic traditions of Europe would die out. But there were certain aspects of the American character he reproved, and one of them was what he called "religious insanity." Tocqueville took a tour of the States about 170 years ago and thought that the nation's preoccupation with material prosperity might have something to do with its religious fervor. The passages below have been excerpted from the chapter "Why Some Americans Manifest A Sort Of Fanatical Spiritualism":

"Although the desire of acquiring the good things of this world is the prevailing passion of the American people, certain momentary outbreaks occur when their souls seem suddenly to burst the bonds of matter by which they are restrained and to soar impetuously towards heaven. In all the states of the Union, but especially in the half-peopled country of the Far West, itinerant preachers may be met with who hawk about the word of God from place to place. Whole families, old men, women, and children, cross rough passes and untrodden wilds, coming from a great distance, to join a camp-meeting, where, in listening to these discourses, they totally forget for several days and nights the cares of business and even the most urgent wants of the body.

"Here and there in the midst of American society you meet with men full of a fanatical and almost wild spiritualism, which hardly exists in Europe. From time to time strange sects arise which endeavor to strike out extraordinary paths to eternal happiness. Religious insanity is very common in the United States.

"Nor ought these facts to surprise us. It was not man who implanted in himself the taste for what is infinite and the love of what is immortal; these lofty instincts are not the offspring of his capricious will; their steadfast foundation is fixed in human nature, and they exist in spite of his efforts. He may cross and distort them; destroy them he cannot.

"The soul has wants which must be satisfied; and whatever pains are taken to divert it from itself, it soon grows weary, restless, and disquieted amid the enjoyments of sense. If ever the faculties of the great majority of mankind were exclusively bent upon the pursuit of material objects, it might be anticipated that an amazing reaction would take place in the souls of some men. They would drift at large in the world of spirits, for fear of remaining shackled by the close bondage of the body.

"It is not, then, wonderful if in the midst of a community whose thoughts tend earthward a small number of individuals are to be found who turn their looks to heaven. I should be surprised if mysticism did not soon make some advance among a people solely engaged in promoting their own worldly welfare...If their social condition, their present circumstances, and their laws did not confine the minds of the Americans so closely to the pursuit of worldly welfare, it is probable that they would display more reserve and more experience whenever their attention is turned to things immaterial, and that they would check themselves without difficulty. But they feel imprisoned within bounds, which they will apparently never be allowed to pass. As soon as they have passed these bounds, their minds do not know where to fix themselves and they often rush unrestrained beyond the range of common sense."

Rethinking Our Techno-Rich Existence

"When I'm online, I'm alone in a room, tapping on a keyboard, staring at a cathode-ray tube. I'm ignoring anyone else in the room. The nature of being online is that I can't be with someone else. Rather than bringing me closer to others, the time that I spend online isolates me from the most important people in my life, my family, my friends, my neighborhood, my community...I've got a half-dozen computers in my house. But this cult of computing gives me the heebie-jeebies, the sense that if you don't have an electronic-mail address, if you don't have your own customized homepage on the World Wide Web, if you don't have your own domain name online, then you're being left behind, that progress is going on without you. Human kindness, warmth, interaction, friendship, and family are far more important than anything that can come across my cathode-ray tube. While I admire the insights of many of the people in the world of computing, I get this cold feeling that I speak a different language." -- Author and astrophysicist Cliff Stoll, quoted on the website Digerati.

Rock & Sell: Pop Music As Pitchman's Device

In 1995 Microsoft pitched Windows 95 to the tune of the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up." That was hardly the first time a well-known rock tune was put to such unabashedly commercial use, but the trend since then has spiraled out of control. Today one is likely to recognize the sound of Led Zeppelin, The Who, The Clash, and scores of other bands when spying a commercial on television.

"No, rock music isn't sacred," writes the film critic Wallace Bain. "But the best rock music is designed to be subversive, to subtly (or not so subtly) fight authoritarianism and stiff-arm conformity by promoting individuality, free expression and free thinking...In Martin Buber's famous model, commercialism is a classic I-It relationship. Art, on the other hand, works on an I-Thou relationship, a communication that isn't looking for something -- money, votes, consent, behavior -- in return, but simply a connection for its own sake. The best pop music speaks to us on such a level. Its commercial use introduces a taint of insincerity, the first symptom in the disease crippling secular society, the cynicism that assumes everyone's either a con artist or a sucker."

"Where Have All The Intellectuals Gone?"

"The intellectual was once seen as a solitary, driven being, searching passionately and single-mindedly for the truth. But what happens when there is no truth? Or, at least, when nobody believes that there is any such thing as 'one truth'?

"The intellectual disappears. Or so a spate of books in recent years has it...Frank Furedi's Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone? Confronting 21st Century Philistinism (Continuum) is a look at why thoughtful, serious men of letters have been replaced by well-groomed pundits who can only speak in sound bites." -- Kelly Jane Torrance, The American Enterprise Online

The Appeal Of Literary Dystopias

"Literary dystopias have this in common: They are imagined societies in which the deepest demands of human nature are either subverted, perverted, or simply made unattainable. Not that it is necessarily bad to say 'no!' to human nature. When it comes to certain inclinations, such as violence or extreme selfishness, there is much to be said for defying the promptings of biology. But when society presses too hard in ways that go counter to natural needs, the result can be painfully unnatural, which is to say, dystopian.

"What are some exemplary dystopias? Foremost for many readers are Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's 1984. The towering influence of these works stems not only from their imaginative and artistic qualities, but also from the powerful theme that all dystopian literature shares: the horror of a society that runs roughshod over our instincts, forcing people to be, literally, inhuman...

"[O]rganic genuineness has become less accessible to us all. 'The ordinary city-dweller,' wrote philosopher Susanne Langer, 'knows nothing of the earth's productivity. He does not know the sunrise and rarely notices when the sun sets...His realities are the motors that run elevators, subway trains, and cars...Nature, as man has always known it, he knows no more."

-- Nanelle Barash & David Barash, The Chronicle Review, 12/3/04.

Why Aren't Our Artists & Poets More Esteemed?

This question was once put to Joseph Campbell by Michael Toms, a frequent interviewer of his. Here is Campbell's reply, as found in An Open Life (Perennial Library, 1989, pp.102-103).

"JC: It's worse here in the United States. In France, they name streets after their poets; we have them named after generals. When you think of Melville, Mark Twain, and Emerson, and you go to the places where those men lived, there's no recognition of their having been there; names of former mayors are on five or six different street corners, but not the poets and the artists.

MT: What does that reflect?

JC: It reflects, I think, a businessman's mentality. That's what's running, and has run, and has made this country. It's a curiously unartistic country in its common character, and yet it has produced some of the greatest artists of the century. But they're not recognized publicly; those that are recognized publicly are the razzle-dazzlers who come across in the popular media.

People fatuitously fall on their faces before some marvelous movie actor, but the poet, the artist...And it isn't as though we didn't have poets and artists. For instance, Robinson Jeffers is one of the really great poets of the century; his "Roan Stallion," to me, is a revelation. And when I mention him, as I frequently do, people don't even know his name; but when they read the lines that I cite, they recognize a poet. It's curious.

MT: We have few means to allow artists and poets to even survive in our culture.

JC: One means of real support would be the popular mass media, and they're not interested.

MT: Yes, because of the commercial orientation.

JC: I don't know what it is. I don't understand those people. The things they're interested in purveying to the public seem to be of momentary sensational interest. I'm not saying that they're not worthy, but why are they all running in the same direction?

MT: And you feel that it's important that art and poetry and music be a vital part of any culture.

"I Wish I Had Kicked Susan Sontag"

Kevin Myers, writing for The Telegraph, does not remember Susan Sontag the way most of her memorializers have. The "wretched, credulous, self-hating American academia wanted to fawn on an intellectual whom popular culture could celebrate, and it chose Sontag and her vapid aphorisms. 'The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people's reality, and eventually in one's own;' or: 'What pornography is really about, ultimately, isn't sex but death;' or: 'Sanity is a cosy lie;' or: 'Good health is the passing delusion of the doomed.'

"Well, actually, the last one is mine. We can all do this kind of poser-cleverness, but we'll never find our way into any dictionaries of quotation because one has to have a certain academic status before one's pseudo-sage declarations come to be exalted as 'sayings'."

Why The West Is Heading For A Fall

Is the ghost of Oswald Spengler in the air these days? Is the West heading for a gigantic fall? According to Paul Sheehan of the Sydney Morning Herald, it is. He adverts his readers to the work of a few renowned scholars, among them Jane Jacobs, who has spent 40 years writing about thriving and decaying communities and believes sorry times await the nations of the West. In Dark Age Ahead (Random House, 2004) she claims that the signs are everywhere today:

-- In our rotting communities and families: "A culture of consumerism and debt is working against long-term cultural regeneration. People are choosing houses over families, consumption over fertility, debt over discipline."

-- In our higher education: "Credentialling, not educating, has become the primary business of North American universities."

-- In the tax policy of industrial nations: "Fiscal accountability of public money has almost disappeared from the modern world. False image-making has become a very big business throughout North America and is a staple of the US government. Legions of hired liars labour to disconnect reality from all manner of images."

A Conversation Between A Taoist & A Logician

Jean Baudrillard, in The Perfect Crime, relays a conversation that the great Taoist Chuang Tzu once had with his friend, the eminent logician Hui Tzu:

Chuang Tzu and Hui Tzu had strolled on to the bridge over the Hao, when the former observed, "See how the minnows are darting about! That is the pleasure of fishes."

"You not being a fish yourself," said Hui Tzu, "how can you possibly know in what consists the pleasure of fishes?"

"And you not being I," retorted Chuang Tzu, "how can you know that I do not know?"

"If I, not being you, cannot know what you know," urged Hui Tzu, "it follows that you, not being a fish, cannot know in what consists the pleasure of fishes."

"Let us go back," said Chuang Tzu, "to your original question. You asked me how I knew in what consists the pleasure of fishes. Your very question shows that you knew I knew. For you asked me how I knew. I knew it from my own feelings on this bridge."

The Passing Of Arthur Miller

Arthur Miller "was grieving for mankind, for man's inability to connect with his fellow man, maybe for the need to dream," writes Richard Corliss. "Miller saw the American Dream as a kind of curse, for it led us to mistake ambition for destiny, and to suffer the inevitable slump and crumble when reality makes mock of the dream."

"For all its compassion," Lewis Segal notes, 'Death of a Salesman' is arguably the most subversive play ever written in and about America: a depiction of middle-class domesticity as a trap in which all the trophies of the good life -- devoted spouse, healthy kids, house that's nearly paid off -- ultimately matter less than the insurance policy that says you're 'worth more dead than alive.'"

"In the United States," writes Harold Pinter, "they didn't like him very much because he was too outspoken and too critical of the way of life in the United States...But he was unremitting and remorseless in using his critical intelligence. He did this both as a man and as a playwright, and that's why he's such a remarkable figure."

Is There A Crisis In Filmmaking Today?

According to social critic David Walsh, the films turned out by big studios today "are largely execrable -- shallow, pointless, trivial, aimed at some imaginary demographic. I don't feel that cinema audiences are particularly satisfied by what they experience. They go out of habit, dutifully, but present-day films don't provide much -- in some cases, a few violent shocks to the nervous system, in others, mild titillation, etc. I don't think one would get much of an argument about the deplorable state of the American film industry, even from many within that industry."

And independent film? "American 'independent' cinema is created by and, apparently for, self-involved 28-year-olds with degrees in film studies and not much else. I don't see any indication of anyone having lived a substantial life, having lines on his or her face or in general, many signs of thought or depth...What inspires the artist? The cruise missile, the stock market boom, the 'global war on terror'? Hardly. Art and film need a new perspective. It will not be discovered in the advanced decay of American capitalism, in its drive for world domination. Or in the moral sweatings of self-absorbed social layers who have sealed themselves off from every authentically pressing human issue."

"No One Has A Destiny Any More"

From Jean Baudrillard's The Perfect Crime (Verso, 2002):

"We are in a social trance: vacant, withdrawn, lacking meaning in our own eyes. Abstracted, irresponsible, enervated. They have left us the optic nerve, but all the others have been disabled. It is in this sense that information has something of dissection about it: it isolates a perceptual circuit, but disconnects the active functions. All that is left is the mental screen of indifference, which matches the technical indifference of the images...

"Everyone is moving in their own orbit, trapped in their own bubble, like satellites. Strictly speaking, no one has a destiny any more, since there is destiny only where one intersects with others. Now, the trajectories do not intersect...They merely have the same destination. And so, as on interchanges or motorways (and this goes for information superhighways too), people see only those travelling in the same direction. And even then, they see them no more than fish see each other, when they all instantly veer off in the same direction. There is less risk of an accident that way, but the possibility of meeting is non-existent. The other no longer has any but a marginal value...

"These are, indeed, the only passions we have today: hatred, disgust, allergy, aversion, rejection and disaffection. We no longer know what we want, but we know what we don't want."

The Relation Of Artists To Their Society

The passages below have been excerpted from a column of H.L. Mencken's for the Baltimore Evening Sun, dated April 7, 1924:

"It is almost as safe to assume that an artist of any dignity is against his country, i.e., against the environment in which God hath placed him, as it is to assume that his country is against the artist. The special quality which makes an artist of him might almost be defined, indeed, as an extraordinary capacity for irritation, a pathological sensitiveness to environmental pricks and stings. He differs from the rest of us mainly because he reacts sharply and in an uncommon manner to phenomena which leave the rest of us unmoved, or, at most, merely annoy us vaguely. He is, in brief, a more delicate fellow than we are, and hence less fitted to prosper and enjoy himself under the conditions of life which he and we must face alike. Therefore, he takes to artistic endeavor, which is at once a criticism of life and an attempt to escape from life.

"So much for the theory of it. The more the facts are studied, the more they bear it out. In those fields of art, at all events, which concern themselves with ideas as well as with sensations it is almost impossible to find any trace of an artist who was not actively hostile to his environment, and thus an indifferent patriot. From Dante to Tolstoy and from Shakespeare to Mark Twain the story is ever the same. Names suggest themselves instantly: Goethe, Heine, Shelley, Byron, Thackeray, Balzac, Rabelais, Cervantes, Swift, Dostoevsky, Carlyle, Moliere, Pope -- all bitter critics of their time and nation, most of them piously hated by the contemporary 100 percenters, some of them actually fugitives from rage and reprisal.

"Dante put all of the patriotic Italians of his day into Hell, and showed them boiling, roasting and writhing on hooks. Cervantes drew such a devastating picture of the Spain that he lived in that it ruined the Spaniards. Shakespeare made his heroes foreigners and his clowns Englishmen. Goethe was in favor of Napoleon. Rabelais, a citizen of Christendom rather than of France, raised a cackle against it that Christendom is still trying in vain to suppress. Swift, having finished the Irish and then the English, proceeded to finish the whole human race. The exceptions are few and far between, and not many of them will bear examination."

Einstein On God & The Good Life

"I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, or who has a will of the kind we experience in ourselves. I am satisfied with the mystery of life's eternity and with the awareness of -- and glimpse into -- the marvelous construction of the existing world together with the steadfast determination to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature. This is the basis of cosmic religiosity, and it appears to me that the most important function of art and science is to awaken this feeling among the receptive and keep it alive...

"The highest principles for our aspirations and judgments are given to us westerners in the Jewish-Christian religious tradition. It is a very high goal: free and responsible development of the individual, so that he may place his powers freely and gladly in the service of all mankind...

"But if one holds these high principles clearly before one's eyes and compares them with the life and spirit of our times, then it is glaringly apparent that mankind finds itself at present in grave danger. I see the nature of the current crises in the juxtaposition of the individual to society. The individual feels more than ever dependent on society, but it is not felt in the positive sense, as an organic connectivity or a sense of security, but rather more as a type of endangerment to his natural rights, or even his economic existence. His place in society is further from that advanced and cultivated by his own egotistic driving factors, nonetheless hindering the weaker social driving forces to a large extent.

"It is my belief that there is only one way to eliminate these evils, namely, the establishment of a planned economy coupled with an education geared towards social goals. Alongside the development of individual abilities, the education of the individual aspires to revive an ideal that is geared towards the service of our fellow man, and that needs to take the place of the glorification of power and outer success."

-- From an essay read on National Public Radio's "This I Believe" program in 1954.

The Fear Of Thought

In 1916 Bertrand Russell published a work titled Principles of Social Reconstruction, in which he made this observation about the fear of thought:

"Men fear thought more than they fear anything else on earth -- more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. It sees man, a feeble speck, surrounded by unfathomable depths of silence; yet bears itself proudly, as unmoved as if it were lord of the universe. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man.

"But if thought is to become the possession of many, not the privilege of the few, we must have done with fear. It is fear that holds men back -- fear lest their cherished beliefs should prove delusions, fear lest the institutions by which they live should prove harmful, fear lest they themselves should prove less worthy of respect than they have supposed themselves to be. 'Should the working man think freely about property? Then what will become of us, the rich? Should young men and young women think freely about sex? Then what will become of morality? Should soldiers think freely about war? Then what will become of military discipline? Away with thought! Back into the shades of prejudice, lest property, morals, and war should be endangered! Better men should be stupid, slothful, and oppressive than that their thoughts should be free. For if their thoughts were free they might not think as we do. And at all costs this disaster must be averted.' So the opponents of thought argue in the unconscious depths of their souls. And so they act in their churches, their schools, and their universities."

The Listlessness Of Political Life

Thirty years ago, notes Lewis Lapham in the August 05 issue of Harper's, a nation forced a sitting president from office "because democratic government was thought worth the trouble of preserving."

An earnestness permeated the political air which today is all but absent. Who "now can imagine," Lapham writes, "much less pay to see, a politician (any politician, Democrat or Republican) coming into Congress, as did Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina in the winter of 1974, to speak for three hours on the topic of the Constitution; or an attorney general resigning his office, as did Elliot Richardson in the autumn of 1973, rather than carry out an unethical order from the White House; or a national news media unafraid to bite the hand of the Pentagon zookeepers who bring the noonday fish?"

Today a nation can be led to war under false pretenses; civil liberties can be systematically destroyed; gross irregularities can occur at the ballot box during a presidential election, and next to no one can get worked up about it.

As Lapham notes, "The story of a democratic republic confronted with a mortal threat to both the letter and the spirit of its law doesn't draw a crowd, gets in the way of the regularly scheduled programming, doesn't sell the high-end soap."

From the standpoint of sheer intrigue and glamor, what political scandal or uproar du jour can possibly compete with the latest revelations of Brad Pitt's love life or Russell Crowe's skirmish at a New York hotel? Who doesn't become bored with the political spectacle after a season or two? Who isn't wearied by political spin, by all rival claims and counter-claims to the truth?

The dizzying flow of information is also implicated in this nihilism. After a while, all messages and declarations amount to so much noise, and the urge to tune it all out, or to pick choice plums from the tree of a thousand meanings, becomes irrepressible.

"News broadcasts come and go as abruptly as the advertisements winking on and off in Tokyo and Times Square," Lapham concludes, "the messages equivalent in their weightlessness, demanding nothing of the audience except the duty of ritual observance. Who knows or cares to know whether Rush Limbaugh's truths are truer than Toyota's? Who can follow a story to the end of the week, much less over the distance of thirty-three years? Nothing necessarily follows from anything else, and the constant viewer is free to shop around for a reality matched to taste, to make use of the advice imparted by a wise old Jedi knight to the young Darth Vader in Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace, 'Concentrate on the moment. Feel, don't think. Trust your instincts.' "

Celebrity Benevolence

What exactly is wrong with the spectacle of celebrity benevolence -- of all pleas on behalf of the suffering, of all televised vows to aid tsunami victims, combat African poverty, eradicate AIDS? What about it seems farcical and unconvincing?

The cynic sees the hand of commercial self-interest in all such events: aging rockers keen on boosting CD sales and energizing a flagging career; actors timing their interventions right before the release of a big film, and so on. But there is no shortage of opportunities today to publicize and promote oneself. Brand names do not need a 'great event' because they already enjoy a symbiotic relationship with media. Every radio interview, every TV appearance, every picture on the cover of a tabloid is itself an advertisement.Those truly starved of publicity can always think up a ploy to get back in the news: a new marriage, a third or fourth divorce, a petty scandal will often do the trick.

There is something else at work here, and it has to do with the marked contrast between the public show of altruism and the tenor and feel of our postmodern world -- a world long since fatigued by political causes, moral seriousness, and every sweet project to reinject meaning into social life; a world governed by advertisements and imagery, that can only ever be serious about balance sheets and money. It is the rockers and actors who are the beneficiaries of this postmodern age, who collude in the manufacture of the cool attitude and glamorous image, in the desacralization of all things, and who are the big players in the marketplace of personality. When suddenly, for no reason at all, they turn up as the spoony advocates of the downtrodden, the paragons of compassion, even those not cynical by nature must wonder about their motives.

It could be that they themselves are needy, cloyed by privilege and sick for meaning, and so others' suffering presents an opportunity for them -- an axiological opportunity, a moral opportunity, good enough to fill the void of their soul for a season (or weekend), so that they can get back to basking in the world they partly created.

Jean Baudrillard broached this theme in the context of the AIDS phenomenon. "The AIDS obsession," he wrote, "doubtless arises from the fact that the exceptional destiny of the sufferers gives them what others cruelly lack today: a strong, impregnable identity, a sacrificial identity -- the privilege of illness, around which, in other cultures, the entire group once gravitated...All the anti-AIDS campaigns, playing on solidarity and fear -- 'Your AIDS interests me' -- give rise to an emotional contagion as noxious as the biological."

In the recent 'Make Poverty History' campaign Neil Davenport saw a celebration of giddy political consensus. "Today's clamouring for happy-clappy consensus," he writes, "means that proper social criticism isn't allowed -- or is reduced to the level of teenage cynicism...The absence of social critics -- formerly known as the left wing -- made Live 8 a peculiarly queasy event to watch. It had the appearance of a carnival celebrating the evacuation of politics from Western society."

"Sexuality As A Sexually Transmitted Disease"

The passages below have been excerpted from Jean Baudrillard, Screened Out (Verso, 2002). Baudrillard is the author of over 30 books, including The Consumer Society; Simulacra And Simulation; The Perfect Crime; and Impossible Exchange.

"Somewhere in New England, not far from Dartmouth College, you still find Shaker villages. In accordance with the religious law of that sect, the sexes live meticulously separate lives and do not reproduce...Now, on the nearby campus, which, like the other American campuses was one of the centers of sexual liberation, more or less the same situation pertains: the sexes no longer touch each other, no longer rub shoulders with each other, no longer attempt to seduce each other. Without any explicit prohibition or discrimination, they find themselves -- in the name of sexual harassment and for obsessive fear of it -- in the same condition of apartheid as prevails among the Shakers. The AIDS obsession doubtless plays a role in this voluntary exiling of sex -- though there are never any causal relations in these kinds of things: AIDS is perhaps just one of the obscure pathways for a disaffection with sex which began long before the appearance and spread of that disease. It seems here that sexuality itself is at issue -- each sex being, as it were, afflicted with a sexually transmitted disease that is sex itself.

"There is a fear of catching AIDS, but a fear also of simply catching sex. There is a fear of catching anything whatever which might seem like a passion, a seduction, a responsibility. And, in this sense, it is once again the male who has most deeply fallen victim to the negative obsession with sex. To the point of withdrawing from the sexual game, exhausted by having to bear such a risk, and no doubt also wearied by having historically assumed the role of sexual power for so long. Of which feminism and female liberation have divested him, at least de jure (and, to a large extent, de facto). But things are more complicated than this, because the male who has been emasculated in this way and stripped of his power, has taken advantage of this situation to fade from the scene, to disappear -- doffing the phallic mask of a power which has, in any event, become increasingly dangerous...

"Sexual harassment (the obsession with it and with AIDS) as a ruse of the species to revive the anxiety around sexuality -- and more particularly a ruse on women's part to revive desire (men's desire, but their own too)?...

"Whereas in the past it was freedom, desire, pleasure and love which seemed to be sexually transmitted, today it seems to be hatred, disillusionment, distrust and resentment between the sexes...

"Animal species react to situations of crisis, shortage or overpopulation with sexual continence and automatic sterility. We are perhaps reacting similarly -- quite outside any subjective conviction or ideology -- to a situation of plenty, liberation, well-being and release which, being quite alien to the species over its history, we find agonizing and inhuman. The hatred which the issue of sexual harassment releases may perhaps simply be the repentance of a liberty, individuality and freedom to express our desire which were hard won, and which we are now paying for with a new-found voluntary servitude. Might not servitude itself become a sexually transmitted disease?"

"The Illusion Of Being Together"

The passages below have been excerpted from Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life:

"It was as if they were in a cage whose door was wide open without their being able to escape. Nothing outside the cage had any importance, because nothing else existed any more. They stayed in the cage, estranged from everything except the cage, without even a flicker of desire for anything outside the bars. It would have been abnormal -- impossible in fact -- to escape into something which had neither reality nor importance. Absolutely impossible. For inside this cage, in which they had been born and in which they would die, the only tolerable framework of experience was the Real, which was simply an irresistible instinct to act so that things should have importance. Only if things had some importance could one breathe, and suffer. It seemed that there was an understanding between them and the silent dead that it should be so, for the habit of acting so that things had some importance had become a human instinct, and one which was apparently eternal. Life was the important thing, and the Real was part of the instinct which gave life a little meaning. The instinct didn't try to imagine what might lie beyond the Real, because there was nothing beyond it. Nothing important...

"On the public transport which throws them against one another with statistical indifference, people wear an untenable expression of disillusion, pride and contempt, like the natural effect of death on a toothless mouth. The atmosphere of false communication makes everyone the policeman of his own encounters...If men were transformed into scorpions who sting themselves and one another, isn't it really because nothing has happened, and human beings with empty eyes and flabby brains have 'mysteriously' become mere shadows of men, ghosts of men, and in some ways are no longer men except in name?

"We have nothing in common except the illusion of being together...In a gloomy bar where everyone is bored to death, a drunken young man breaks his glass, then picks up a bottle and smashes it against the wall. Nobody gets excited; the disappointed young man lets himself be thrown out. Yet everyone there could have done exactly the same thing. He alone made the thought concrete, crossing the first radioactive belt of isolation: interior isolation, the introverted separation between self and outside world. Nobody responded to a sign which he thought was explicit. He remained alone like the hooligan who burns down a church or kills a policeman, at one with himself but condemned to exile as long as other people remain exiled from their own existence. He has not escaped from the magnetic field of isolation; he is suspended in a zone of zero gravity. All the same, the indifference which greets him allows him to hear the sound of his own cry; even if this revelation tortures him, he knows that he will have to start again in another register, more loudly; with more coherence...

"People will be together only in a common wretchedness as long as each isolated being refuses to understand that a gesture of liberation, however weak and clumsy it may be, always bears an authentic communication, an adequate personal message. The repression which strikes down the libertarian rebel falls on everyone: everyone's blood flows with the blood of a murdered Durruti. Whenever freedom retreats one inch, there is a hundred-fold increase in the weight of the order of things. Excluded from authentic participation, men's actions stray into the fragile illusion of being together, or else into its opposite, the abrupt and total rejection of society. They swing from one to the other like a pendulum turning the hands on the clock-face of death."

The "Why" Of Learning

Many moons ago, if a student asked a teacher why she should bother reading Shakespeare, some version of the reply "Because knowledge is preferable to ignorance" was good enough to put the question to rest. Not that it was satisfactory, just that the student suspected that some great principle or truth was being affirmed.

Today such a reply is much harder to sell, because what lies between the covers of classics just doesn't seem as real and relevant to people's lives as anything turning up on 500 channels or millions of web pages. The faces of MTV speak to 20-year-olds in a way that Hamlet cannot; a movie starring Scarlett Johansson or Kirsten Dunst seems so much more interesting and important than the mid-week lecture on haiku; the dalliances of Hollywood couples are more intriguing than Moby Dick.

What's an educator to do, or to hope for, in the face of such grim circumstances? Here is one literature instructor's take:

"I ask my students each year which they would prefer in life: wisdom or happiness? Increasingly, the answer has swung toward happiness -- the winner by default, since it seems the fin-de-siecle student is unable to imagine a wisdom beyond mere opinion...The bugaboo of relativism has consumed all talk of the universals William Faulkner spoke of in his 1950 Nobel Address ("love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice"). The new cry is, "that's your opinion" and it is just this certainty, that uncertainty is the principle of life, which undercuts the arguments in favor of literature. An unholy new trinity of "so what?" "who cares?" and "what's the difference?" interrupts all explanations of worth and quality. In this sense, then, the "answers" won't reach an audience until the audience at least allows the possibility that some things have more worth than others. If Duke University professors revel in the provocative view that comics are as worthy as Shakespeare, and presumably believe their own arguments, then the prospects for the study of great literature are bleak. The chance of supplying persuasive "answers" to students made cynical by the non-value values of a postmodern age shrivels...

"But answers there are, if:

-- you are prepared to think of yourself as more than a fairly complex bit of protoplasm entering and exiting time/space on the principle of pure chance. (Thomas Hardy was troubled by this view, but his poems remain powerful for the subtle anguish he makes us share over it, not for the message itself);

-- you are willing to pursue that intuition in you that tells you that Pavarotti sings better than you, Lindros plays better hockey than you, Michaelangelo fashions better sculpture than you;

-- you can remember those moments where you felt the "landscape sit up and listen"; where time seemed to slow down; where love seemed all and enough;

-- you are still troubled about the idea of life, the injustice of life, the problem of pain (as C.S. Lewis called it), the pointlessness of life (unlike the comic book profs who see this, but develop philosophies to remain untroubled);

-- you are suspicious that, contrary to popular opinion, Shakespeare has not survived 400 years just because some privileged people have pressed him upon us;

-- you still feel that some things matter even if nothing works...

"Is life only to be made up of the bottom line, a job, entertainment, cynicism and sneering, the practical and useful? Literature gives us the chance to awaken the humanity in us. It isn't interested in increasing that storehouse of opinions we all carry about. Its answers are in an awareness of self and in the dispelling of our aloneness. These are fleeting experiences in continual need of renewal. But, you only need to feel its power once to know it is real. In childhood, literature allows us to escape ourselves in flights of fancy; adults are offered the solace of finding themselves again. If it seems imperfect at times, try doing without it. Or have you been?"

-- From Brian Bauld's "Why Study/Teach English?" See his main page, Mr. Bauld's English.

Huxley's Insight

Politics seems always to be a dead-end business -- at least compared to the fields of science, medicine, and technology. These last are forever making immense strides toward important goals, and often even attaining them, but politics? All the old problems -- war, greed, poverty, injustice, hooliganism -- are with us. They were with us several millennia ago; they are with us today, and they will likely be with us ten centuries from now (assuming human life continues on that long).

How does one explain this immutability? One might say that human beings are so frail and so fumbling that any expectation that they can pull themselves up by their own moral bootstraps is naive. Political and moral problems, on this view, cannot be overcome in history. Finite creatures cannot fully grasp the historical processes in which they are inextricably bound up, much less surmount them. This idea was advanced by Reinhold Niebuhr in his two-volume Nature And Destiny Of Man, and is the linchpin of Christian realist thinking on the subject. (Some in this school put an even stronger accent on the interpretation and say that involvement in nature is itself the source of evil. The beginning was the mythical fall from Eden, in which humankind was condemned to roam around the dark plains of the sublunary world, yearning to be reconciled with God.)

Another view is that the common herd lacks the wisdom and acuity to create an ideal society. People are easily taken in by ideology and mountebanks and fail to see social reality as it actually is. Until philosophers become kings, and kings philosophers, Plato wrote, the fabric of social life will continue to bear the stain of evil.

An altogether different position was put forth by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World Revisited. The trouble, Huxley said, is that human beings are not fully social animals. Gregarious, yes; social, no. This lack of sociality makes it very difficult to achieve lofty political ends. It would take a certain intellectual and emotional unity, a convergence of individual interests and passions, in order for a civic ideal ever to be realized. Here is how Huxley put it:

"Biologically speaking, man is a moderately gregarious, not a completely social animal -- a creature more like a wolf, let us say, or an elephant, than like a bee or an ant. In their original form human societies bore no resemblance to the hive or the ant heap; they were merely packs. Civilization is, among other things, the process by which primitive packs are transformed into an analogue, crude and mechanical, of the social insects' organic communities. At the present time the pressures of over-population and technological change are accelerating this process. The termitary has come to seem a realizable and even, in some eyes, a desirable ideal. Needless to say, the ideal will never in fact be realized. A great gulf separates the social insect from the not too gregarious, big-brained mammal; and even though the mammal should do his best to imitate the insect, the gulf would remain. However hard they try, men cannot create a social organism, they can only create an organization. In the process of trying to create an organism they will merely create a totalitarian despotism."

In Praise Of Idleness

We read and hear often these days that people are working longer hours than ever before, and that the one thing that they crave, presumably more than even money and sex, is time. Various philosophers over the ages have condemned the ethic of overwork. One thinks naturally of Thoreau. "It would be glorious to see mankind at leisure for once," he wrote in "Life Without Principle." "It is nothing but work, work, work...I think there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, philosophy, ay, to life itself than this incessant business..."

The same regret is sounded by Bertrand Russell in his influential essay "In Praise Of Idleness" (1932). Here are a few passages from it:

"I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached...

"If the ordinary wage-earner worked four hours a day, there would be enough for everybody and no unemployment -- assuming a certain very moderate amount of sensible organization. This idea shocks the well-to-do, because they are convinced that the poor would not know how to use so much leisure. In America men often work long hours even when they are well off; such men, naturally, are indignant at the idea of leisure for wage-earners, except as the grim punishment of unemployment; in fact, they dislike leisure even for their sons...

"It will be said that, while a little leisure is pleasant, men would not know how to fill their days if they had only four hours of work out of the twenty-four. In so far as this is true in the modern world, it is a condemnation of our civilization; it would not have been true at any earlier period. There was formerly a capacity for light-heartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency. The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake. Serious-minded persons, for example, are continually condemning the habit of going to the cinema, and telling us that it leads the young into crime. But all the work that goes to producing a cinema is respectable, because it is work, and because it brings a money profit. The notion that the desirable activities are those that bring a profit has made everything topsy-turvy. The butcher who provides you with meat and the baker who provides you with bread are praiseworthy, because they are making money; but when you enjoy the food they have provided, you are merely frivolous, unless you eat only to get strength for your work. Broadly speaking, it is held that getting money is good and spending money is bad. Seeing that they are two sides of one transaction, this is absurd; one might as well maintain that keys are good, but keyholes are bad. Whatever merit there may be in the production of goods must be entirely derivative from the advantage to be obtained by consuming them...

"In a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving, however excellent his pictures may be. Young writers will not be obliged to draw attention to themselves by sensational pot-boilers, with a view to acquiring the economic independence needed for monumental works, for which, when the time at last comes, they will have lost the taste and capacity. Men who, in their professional work, have become interested in some phase of economics or government, will be able to develop their ideas without the academic detachment that makes the work of university economists often seem lacking in reality. Medical men will have the time to learn about the progress of medicine, teachers will not be exasperatedly struggling to teach by routine methods things which they learnt in their youth, which may, in the interval, have been proved to be untrue.

"Above all, there will be happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia. The work exacted will be enough to make leisure delightful, but not enough to produce exhaustion. Since men will not be tired in their spare time, they will not demand only such amusements as are passive and vapid. At least one per cent will probably devote the time not spent in professional work to pursuits of some public importance, and, since they will not depend upon these pursuits for their livelihood, their originality will be unhampered, and there will be no need to conform to the standards set by elderly pundits. But it is not only in these exceptional cases that the advantages of leisure will appear. Ordinary men and women, having the opportunity of a happy life, will become more kindly and less persecuting and less inclined to view others with suspicion. The taste for war will die out, partly for this reason, and partly because it will involve long and severe work for all. Good nature is, of all moral qualities, the one that the world needs most, and good nature is the result of ease and security, not of a life of arduous struggle. Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish forever."

Defining Beauty As A Mask

In "Alienated Concepts of Identity," an article written some fifty years ago, the psychiatrist Ernest Schachtel observed that many people not only build a negative sense of self around what they perceive as a flawed appearance; they see this flaw as dooming them to a life of unhappiness.

In an age in which millions happily undergo cosmetic surgery, Dr. Schachtel's observation may not exactly seem like a revelation. But he noted something else that few of us ever pause to consider: namely, that our idea of beauty corresponds more to a photographic still or confected image than to an aesthetic that emerges from a certain smile or laugh or gesture -- an aesthetic that is in motion. Today, the photographic still is seen as a mask that represents beauty; for many, not to have the mask is to feel unattractive, and the "solution" is simply to have a surgeon cut one's face into the accepted contours.

This is how Dr. Schachtel put the matter:

"Very often real or imagined physical attributes, parts of the body image or the entire body image, become focal points of identity. Many people build around such a negative identity the feeling that this particular feature unalterably determines the course of their lives, and that they are thereby doomed to unhappiness. Usually, in these cases, qualities such as attractiveness and beauty are no longer felt to be based on the alive expression and flux of human feelings, but have become fixed and dead features, or a series of poses, as in so many Hollywood stars or fashion models. These features are cut off from the center of the person and worn like a mask. Unattractiveness is experienced as not possessing this mask."

In Defense Of Vagueness

In his book Nature, Man And Woman (1958) Alan Watts offered the following defense of vagueness:

"...there is something to be said in defense of philosophical vagueness. Strangely assorted people join forces in making fun of it -- Logical Positivists and Catholic Neo-Thomists, Dialectical Materialists and Protestant Neo-Orthodoxists, Behaviorists and Fundamentalists. Despite intense differences of opinion among themselves, they belong to a psychological type which takes special glee in having one's philosophy of life clear-cut, hard, and rigid. They range from the kind of scientist who likes to lick his tongue around the notion of 'brute' facts to the kind of religionist who fondles a system of 'unequivocal dogma.'

"There is doubtless a deep sense of security in being able to say, 'The clear and authoritative teaching of the Church is...,' or to feel that one has mastered a logical method which can tear other opinions, and especially metaphysical opinions, to shreds. Attitudes of this kind usually go together with a somewhat aggressive and hostile type of personality which employs sharp definition like the edge of a sword.

"There is a place in life for a sharp knife, but there is a still more important place for other kinds of contact with the world. Man is not to be an intellectual porcupine, meeting his environment with a surface of spikes. Man meets the world outside with a soft skin, with a delicate eyeball and eardrum, and finds communion with it through a warm, melting, vaguely defined, and caressing touch whereby the world is not set at a distance like an enemy to be shot, but embraced to become one flesh, like a beloved wife. After all, the whole possibility of clear knowledge depends upon sensitive organs which, as it were, bring the outside world into our bodies, and give us knowledge of that world precisely in the form of our own bodily states.

"Hence the importance of opinions, of instruments of the mind, which are vague, misty, and melting rather than clear-cut. They provide possibilities of communication, of actual contact and relationship with nature more intimate than anything to be found by preserving at all costs the 'distance of objectivity.' As Chinese and Japanese painters have so well understood, there are landscapes which are best viewed through half-closed eyes, mountains which are most alluring when partially veiled in mist, and waters which are most profound when the horizon is lost, and they are merged with the sky."

"Waste Land Lives"

Joseph Campbell was once asked whether the society he had grown up in had become a wasteland, or whether such a diagnosis wasn't overblown. This was his response:

"The majority of my friends are living Waste Land lives. In teaching, you have people who haven't come into the Waste Land yet. They're at the point of making the decision whether they're going to follow the way of their own zeal -- the star that's dawned for them -- or do what daddy and mother and friends want them to do. The adventure is always in the dark forest, and there's something perilous about it. Now, since retiring, I've been lecturing for the most part to adults, many of whom feel they need a new start; they have to find a center in what they do that really meets their lives. And my impression is that many of my friends just are baffled; they're wandering in the Waste Land without any sense of where the water is -- the source that makes things green.

" is different from the way it was and the rules of the past are restrictive of the life process. The moment the life process stops, it starts drying up; and the whole sense of myth is finding the courage to follow the process. In order to have something new, something old has to be broken; and if you're too heavily fixed on the old, you're going to get stuck. That's what hell is: the place of people who could not yield their ego system to allow the grace of a transpersonal power to move them."

-- Quoted in An Open Life, ed. John Maher & Denise Briggs (New York: Perennial Library, 1989).

What It Takes For Evil To Flourish

"In our time all it takes for evil to flourish is for a few good men to be a little wrong and have a great deal of power, and for the vast majority of their fellow citizens to remain indifferent."

"Some people think that to do something truly evil you have to be some kind of Bengal tiger. In fact, it is enough to be a tame tabby, a nicely packaged citizen, safe, polite, obedient, and sterile. It's enough to be a nice guy, as opposed to a good man."

-- The late clergyman and peace activist William Sloane Coffin, in Yale Alumni Magazine (1967) and Credo (2004), respectively.

Our Fear Of Time

The cultural historian and philosopher Walter Ong once noted how fearful humanity is of the onrush of time. Writing some 40 years ago, he made the following observation:

"Though he was born into time and lives in its stream, man does not readily believe that time is good...Man fears time, for it lies totally outside his control. Despite anything he can do, it moves inexorably on, never reversing itself, never allowing him really to recapture a moment of his past, even when this past grows in charm and poignancy as it recedes into the distance. Science may control genetics and even the weather, but it cannot harness time. Not the least promise shows here. Worst of all, time engulfs all our decisions. A decision once made cannot really be retracted. So-called retraction or retractation means not a withdrawal of the first decision, which has already vanished down the steadily moving stream of time, but rather a second decision which we must add to the first. Instead of 'replacing' a decision, we now have two on the record. Time is beyond all persuasion. It hears no pleas. This inexorability of time tempts man into illusion: he likes to think that time is cyclic, that it will return either to give him another chance or to show that he never had a chance at all -- what happens happens because it had happened before, so that he has no responsibility. But this pretense is unreal, and it reveals itself more and more as unreal since the discovery of evolution, which is the discovery of the unrepeatability of all being."

-- From Ong's In The Human Grain: Further Explorations Of Contemporary Culture (Macmillan, 1967), pp. x-xi.

Life Within A Skein Of Words

"Oct. 11, 1973, Venice. c. 10:00 a.m.

A clutch of affluent women, with cliched faces

one of them spots a shop window,

with barely a glance at the window,

she calls out:

1st Woman: Mabel, come here, it's fantastic!

Mabel: (goes over, and turns her glutted eyes to the window: a clear moment before her eyes have contacted the window display, she shouts out)


"I used this vignette in several lectures to illustrate the thesis that we live within, or can easily come to live within, a skein of words, such that we see, as it were, other people's descriptions of the world, instead of describing what we see. Other people (like the first woman) are not 'seeing' the world either, very often.

The map is not the territory,

The menu is not the meal, etc.

But that mote in one's own eye(s)!

Jutta: (driving through fantastic scenery) Isn't it fantastic scenery (with cursory turn of head) Fantastic!

Me: (with cursory turn of head) Fantastic!

Natasha: (new dress) do you like it?

Me: (writing) yes, it's very nice

Natasha: how do you know? You haven't seen it yet

(I had forgotten to look up)"

--- R.D. Laing, The Facts of Life (Pantheon Books, 1976)

The trouble with Richard Dawkins

Dawkins, the widely respected Oxford biologist, is "theologically illiterate," writes Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books. Dawkins thinks anyone who believes in God -- any God -- is a total fool, of the same intellectual stripe as "those rednecks who murder abortionists and malign homosexuals"; he is thus "like a man who equates socialism with the Gulag."

He happens also to be "arrogantly triumphalistic about science."

"On the horrors that science and technology have wreaked on humanity," Eagleton writes, "he is predictably silent. Yet the Apocalypse is far more likely to be the product of them than the work of religion. Swap you the Inquisition for chemical warfare."

Jung's Observation About People

In Man And His Symbols (1964, pp.48-49), Carl Jung offers this telling observation about the many people he had either known or counseled over the course of his life:

"I had always been impressed by the fact that there are a surprising number of individuals who never use their minds if they can avoid it, and an equal number who do use their minds, but in an amazingly stupid way. I was also surprised to find many intelligent and wide-awake people who lived (as far as one could make out) as if they had never learned to use their sense organs: They did not see the things before their eyes, hear the words sounding in their ears, or notice the things they touched or tasted. Some lived without being aware of the state of their own bodies.

"There are others who seemed to live in a most curious condition of consciousness, as if the state they had arrived at today were final, with no possibility of change, or as if the world and the psyche were static and would remain so forever. They seemed devoid of all imagination, and they entirely and exclusively depended upon their sense-perception. Chances and possibilities did not exist in their world, and in 'today' there was no real 'tomorrow'. The future was just the repetition of the past."

The Plight Of The Artist Today

"In the situation of the artist today there are both analogies to and differences from that of the scientist; but it is the differences which are the most striking and which raise the problems that touch most on the evil of our day.

"For the artist it is not enough that he communicate with others who are expert in his own art. Their fellowship, their understanding, and their appreciation may encourage him; but that is not the end of his work, nor its nature. The artist depends on a common sensibility and culture, on a common meaning of symbols, on a community of experience and common ways of describing and interpreting it. He need not write for everyone or paint or play for everyone. But his audience must be man; it must be man, and not a specialized set of experts among his fellows. Today that is very difficult. Often the artist has an aching sense of great loneliness, for the community to which he addresses himself is largely not there; the traditions and the culture, the symbols and the history, the myths and the common experience, which it is his function to illuminate, to harmonize, and to portray, have been dissolved in a changing world.

"There is, it is true, an artificial audience maintained to moderate between the artist and the world for which he works: the audience of the professional critics, popularizers, and advertisers of art. But though...the critic fulfills a necessary present function and introduces some order and some communication between the artist and the world, he cannot add to the intimacy and the directness and the depth with which the artist addresses his fellow men.

"To the artist's loneliness there is a complementary great and terrible barrenness in the lives of men. They are deprived of the illumination, the light and tenderness and insight of an intelligible interpretation, in contemporary terms, of the sorrows and wonders and gaieties and follies of man's life. This may be in part offset, and is, by the great growth of technical means for making the art of the past available. But these provide a record of past intimacies between art and life; even when they are applied to the writing and painting and composing of the day, they do not bridge the gulf between a society, too vast and too disordered, and the artist trying to give meaning and beauty to its parts."

--- J. Robert Oppenheimer, The Open Mind

The Older You Become

"The older you become, the less you think about the connections you've already established. Table, cow, sky, stream, stone, tree, they've all been studied. Now they just get handled. Objects, the harmonic range of invention, completely unappreciated, no more truck with variation, deepening, gradation. You just try to work out the big connections. Suddenly you look into the macro-structure of the world, and you discover it: a vast ornament of space, nothing else. Humble backgrounds, vast replications -- you see you were always lost. As you get older, thinking becomes a tormenting reference mechanism. No merit to it. I say 'tree,' and I see huge forests. I say 'river,' and I see every river. I say 'house,' and I see cities with their seas of roofs. I say 'snow,' and I see oceans of it. A thought sets off the whole thing. Where it takes art is to think small as well as big, to be present on every scale."

--- From Thomas Bernhard's novel Frost

When Once We Have Ceased To Believe...

If there is no longer an ethic or theory of the meaning and value of life to which we can subscribe, what are we left with? The suggestibility of whatever is, the fads of culture, the presumed goodness of appearances. We are free to believe that the smiling anchorlady on TV is good; that the bright objects in the window-display are good; that a cold, desolate city block is good -- or, if we cannot bring ourselves to such a conclusion, those things simply are and we are condemned to live out our life alongside (and in addition to) them.

Walter Lippmann offers this thought in A Preface To Morals (1929):

"...the modern man who has ceased to believe, without ceasing to be credulous, hangs, as it were, between heaven and earth, and is at rest nowhere. There is no theory of the meaning and value of events which he is compelled to accept, but he is none the less compelled to accept the events. There is no moral authority to which he must turn now, but there is coercion in opinions, fashions and fads. There is for him no inevitable purpose in the universe, but there are elaborate necessities, physical, political, economic. He does not feel himself to be an actor in a great and dramatic destiny, but he is subject to the massive powers of our civilization, forced to adopt their pace, bound to their routine, entangled in their conflicts. He can believe what he chooses about this civilization. He cannot, however, escape the compulsion of modern events."

The State Of Our Whole Life

"The state of our whole life is estrangement from others and ourselves, because we are estranged from the Ground of our being, because we are estranged from the origin and aim of our life. And we do not know where we have come from, or where we are going. We are separated from the mystery, the depth, and the greatness of our existence. We hear the voice of that depth; but our ears are closed. We feel that something radical, total, and unconditioned is demanded of us; but we rebel against it, try to escape its urgency, and will not accept its promise.

"We cannot escape, however. If that something is the Ground of our being, we are bound to it for all eternity, just as we are bound to ourselves and to all other life. We always remain in the power of that from which we are estranged. That fact brings us to the ultimate death of sin: separated and yet bound, estranged and yet belonging, destroyed and yet preserved, the state which is called despair. Despair means that there is no escape. Despair is the 'sickness unto death.' But the terrible thing about the sickness of despair is that we cannot be released, not even through open or hidden suicide. For we all know that we are bound eternally and inescapeably to the Ground of our being. The abyss of separation is not always visible. But it has become more visible to our generation than to the preceding generations, because of our feeling of meaninglessness, emptiness, doubt, and cynicism -- all expressions of despair, of our separation from the roots and the meaning of our life. Sin in its most profound sense, sin as despair, abounds amongst us."

--- Paul Tillich, quoted in J.A.T. Robinson, Honest To God (1963)

"Imaginary Life Journey"

First a childhood, limitless and without
renunciation or goals. O unselfconscious joy.
Then suddenly terror, barriers, schools, drudgery,
and collapse into temptation and loss.

Defiance. The one bent becomes the bender,
and thrusts upon others that which it suffered.
Loved, feared, rescuer, fighter, winner
and conqueror, blow by blow.

And then alone in cold, light, open space,
yet still deep within the mature erected form,
a gasping for the clear air of the first one, the old one...

Then God leaps out from behind his hiding place.

-- Rainer Maria Rilke (found at "Uncollected Poems")

Explaining Aloneness

"...[L]onely people are usually lonely not because of hideous deformity or odor or obnoxiousness -- in fact there exist today support- and social groups for persons with precisely these attributes. Lonely people tend, rather, to be lonely because they decline to bear the psychic costs of being around other humans. They are allergic to people. People affect them too strongly. Let's call the average U.S. lonely person Joe Briefcase. Joe Briefcase fears and loathes the strain of the special self-consciousness which seems to afflict him only when other real human beings are around, staring, their human sense-antennae abristle. Joe B. fears how he might appear, come across, to watchers. He chooses to sit out the enormously stressful U.S. game of appearance poker."

--- David Foster Wallace, "E Unibus Pluram: Television & U.S. Fiction," in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (1997)

"Behavior Has Its Own Sources"

Isn't it sometimes the case -- maybe often the case -- that we decide to do something and then later act in a way that is at odds with the decision? Or maybe we decide to do something but for whatever reason can't or won't do it. Sometimes behavior does not follow the orders of thinking; the two can be quite at odds with one another. This conflict is described very well by Bernhard Schlink in his acclaimed novel The Reader (1997; translated by Carol Brown Janeway):

...I think, I reach a conclusion, I turn the conclusion into a decision, and then I discover that acting on the decision is something else entirely, and that doing so may proceed from the decision, but then again it may not. Often enough in my life I have done things I had not decided to do. Something -- whatever that may be -- goes into action; "it" goes to the woman I don't want to see anymore, "it" makes the remark to the boss that costs me my head, "it" keeps on smoking although I have decided to quit, and then quits smoking just when I've accepted the fact that I'm a smoker and always will be. I don't mean to say that thinking and reaching decisions have no influence on behavior. But behavior does not merely enact whatever has already been thought through and decided. It has its own sources, and is my behavior, quite independently, just as my thoughts are my thoughts, and my decisions my decisions.

The Situation Of The Emancipated Woman

Below is an excerpt from the last chapter of Simone De Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1952, trans. by H.M. Parshley):

"The advantage man enjoys, which makes itself felt from his childhood, is that his vocation as a human being in no way runs counter to his destiny as a male. Through the identification of phallus and transcendence, it turns out that his social and spiritual successes endow him with a virile prestige. He is not divided. Whereas it is required of woman that in order to realize her femininity she must make herself object and prey, which is to say that she must renounce her claims as sovereign subject. It is this conflict that especially marks the situation of the emancipated woman. She refuses to confine herself to her role as female, because she will not accept mutilation; but it would also be a mutilation to repudiate her sex. Man is a human being with sexuality; woman is a complete individual, equal to the male, only if she too is a human being with sexuality. To renounce her femininity is to renounce a part of her humanity...

"In order to be a complete individual, on an equality with man, woman must have access to the masculine world as does the male to the feminine world, she must have access to the other; but the demands of the other are not symmetrical in the two symmetrical cases. Once attained, fame and fortune, appearing like immanent qualities, may increase woman's sexual attractiveness; but the fact that she is a being of independent activity wars against her femininity, and this she is aware of. The independent woman -- and above all the intellectual, who thinks about her situation -- will suffer, as a female, from an inferiority complex; she lacks leisure for such minute beauty care as that of the coquette whose sole aim in life is to be seductive; follow the specialists' advice as she may, she will never be more than an amateur in the domain of elegance. Feminine charm demands that transcendence, degraded into immanence, appear no longer as anything more than a subtle quivering of the flesh; it is necessary to be spontaneously offered prey...

"If [the intelligent woman] has trouble in pleasing, it is because she is not, like her slavish little sisters, pure will to please; the desire to seduce, lively as it may be, has not penetrated to the marrow of her bones. As soon as she feels awkward, she becomes vexed at her abjectness; she wants to take revenge by playing the game with masculine weapons: she talks instead of listening, she displays subtle thoughts, strange emotions; she contradicts the man instead of agreeing with him, she tries to get the best of him...But the challenging attitude, very common among American women, for example, irritates men more often than it conquers them; and there are some men, besides, who bring it upon themselves by their own defiant air. If they would be willing to love an equal instead of a slave -- as, it must be added, do those among them who are at once free from arrogance and without an inferiority complex -- women would not be as haunted as they are by concern for their femininity; they would gain in naturalness, in simplicity, and they would find themselves women again without taking so much pains, since, after all, that is what they are."

Life Desacralized

"...once upon a time we felt a need to worship something which lay beyond the visible world. Beginning in the seventeenth century we tried to substitute a love of truth for a love of God, treating the world described by science as a quasi divinity. Beginning at the end of the eighteenth century we tried to substitute a love of ourselves for a love of scientific truth, a worship of our own deep spiritual or poetic nature, treated as one more quasi divinity...[perhaps we are getting to] the point where we no longer worship anything, where we treat nothing as a quasi divinity, where we treat everything -- our language, our conscience, our community -- as a product of time and chance."

-- Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity

"There is no doubt, it seems to me, that there have been profound changes in the experience of man in the last thousand years. In some ways this is more evident than changes in the patterns of his behavior. There is everything to suggest that man experienced God. Faith was never a matter of believing. He existed, but of trusting, in the presence that was experienced and known to exist as a self-validating datum. It seems likely that far more people in our time experience neither the presence of God, nor the presence of his absence, but the absence of his presence."

-- R.D. Laing, The Politics of Experience

Can the stage of not seeing anything as a "quasi divinity" be itself substituted by a still less exalted stage? As Rorty suggests, there has been in modern times a sort of downgrading of the objects of our reverence: first there was God; then there was truth; then there were humanistic ideals; today many of us live in a state of agnostic apathy, perhaps a little too aware of the inadequateness of all belief systems, be they religious, political or philosophical. Perhaps there is very little vivacity in us, and we turn perpetually to the goings-on of culture to feel alive or a little less alone.

How then is this "movement toward the less exalted" continued? Or to put it in Laingian terms, is there an absence even starker than the "absence of God's presence"? Has the nihilism Nietzsche wrote about passed on its genes -- is there a nihilism on the horizon that will make the earlier forms seem charming by comparison?

-- Tim Ruggiero, 4/1/09

The Mission Of Writers & Artists

A young poet once wrote Virginia Woolf despairing of the era in which he found himself, unsure of his aim at a time when certain experts -- "necrophilists," Woolf described them -- had proclaimed the death of poetry. Woolf advised the young man to avoid a brooding introspection, to look out at the world with fresh and interested eyes, and most importantly of all, to see his life's work as a vital continuation of the efforts of his predecessors and as an example and inspiration for those who would follow him. Men like Shakespeare, Donne, Keats, Hopkins, and Wordsworth had run an excellent relay race, handing the baton of thoughtfulness off to their successors; those like this young man, Woolf suggested, were similarly obliged to hand the baton off to the next group of men. (The suggestion calls to mind Camus' excellent thought that the absurd man is someone who does nothing for the eternal.) Here is a smidgen of the advice she dispensed in "Letter to a Young Poet":

" it is of the utmost importance that readers should be amused, writers acquiesce. They dress themselves up. They act their parts. One leads; the other follows. One is romantic, the other realist. One is advanced, the other out of date. There is no harm in it, so long as you take it as a joke, but once you believe in it, once you begin to take yourself seriously as a leader or as a follower, as a modern or as a conservative, then you become a self-conscious, biting, and scratching little animal whose work is not of the slighest value or importance to anybody. Think of yourself rather as something much humbler and less spectacular, but to my mind far more interesting -- a poet in whom live all the poets of the past, from whom all poets in time to come will spring...

"As for fame, look I implore you at famous people; see how the waters of dullness spread around them as they enter; observe their pomposity, their prophetic airs; reflect that the greatest poets were anonymous; think how Shakespeare cared nothing for fame; how Donne tossed his poems into the wastepaper basket; write an essay giving a single instance of any modern English writer who has survived the disciples and the admirers, the autograph hunters and the interviewers, the dinners and the luncheons, the celebrations and the commemorations with which English society so effectively stops the mouths of its singers and silences their songs."

Cosmological Despair

A friend of George Santayana's once confided to the philosopher that he had long been burdened by the suspicion that life may not be worthwhile after all. He asked Santayana to consider life from "the viewpoint of the grave." This is what Santayana wrote in reply:

What you call the point of view of the grave is what I should call the point of view of the easy chair. [That is, the point of view of detached philosophic contemplation.] From that the universal joke is indeed very funny. But a man in his grave is not only apathetic, but also invulnerable. That is what you forget. Your dead man is not merely amused, he is also brave, and if his having nothing to gain makes him impartial his having nothing to lose makes him free. "Is it worth while after all?" you ask. What a simple-hearted question. Of course it isn't worth while. Do you suppose when God made up his mind to create this world after his own image, he thought it was worth while? I wouldn't make such an imputation on his intelligence. Do you suppose he existed there in his uncaused loneliness because it was worth while? Did Nothing ask God before God existed, whether he thought it would be worth while to try life for a while? or did Nothing have to decide the question? Do you suppose the slow, painful, nasty, bloody process, by which things in this world grow, is worth having for the sake of the perfection of a moment? Did you come into the world because you thought it worth while? No more do you stay in it because you do. The idea of demanding that things should be worth doing is a human impertinence.

Santayana's friend broaches the subject again in a later letter, and Santayana has this to say:

The world may have little in it that is good: granted. But that little is really and inalienably good. Its value cannot be destroyed because of the
surrounding evil.

These passages (and title) are taken from an essay Lionel Trilling once wrote about Santayana, "That Smile of Parmenides Made Me Think." In it Trilling notes that while Santayana's thinking is apt to strike us moderns as cold and remote, and his preference for solitude and detachment one even philosophers might find difficult to share, his philosophy does not at all lead to a devaluation of life; quite the opposite, in fact. As Trilling writes,

Whatever his materialism leads Santayana to, it does not lead him to a radical relativism pointing to an ultimate nihilism. It does not lead him to a devaluation of life, to the devaluation of anything that might be valued. On the contrary -- it is the basis of his intense valuation. Here indeed, we might almost say, it is one intention of his materialism, that it should lead to a high valuation of what might be valued at all. If we are in a balloon over an abyss, let us at least value the balloon. If night is all around, then what light we have is precious. If there is no life to be seen in the great emptiness, our companions are to be cherished; so are we ourselves.

A Physicist's Thoughts On The God Question

The respected Cambridge physicist Brian Pippard (1920-2008) wrote an article for the Times Literary Supplement in May 1986 titled "God and the Physical Scientist." In it he noted that the "classic dichotomy of Mind and Matter remains as absolute as ever, and much of the controversy between religion and science could have been avoided if both sides agreed on this." Scientists, however, "have thoughtlessly extended their arguments into the mental and spiritual domains," where they lack jurisdiction to weigh in on matters.

Professor Pippard believed, like others before him, that if God does exist, it must be within a realm that is unintelligible to the scientific model of the universe -- a realm, that is, of no-where and no-when. Here are a few excerpts from his article:

I am a physicist and an agnostic, neither believing nor disbelieving in a supreme being, lacking indeed any personal experience which might allow me to attach a meaning to the idea. To make this state of ignorance an excuse or even an incentive to attack the beliefs of others, as some do, seems to me indefensible. It is as if a tone-deaf man were to deride the pretensions of those who find in music an expression of realities which lie beyond the power of words. When the scientist can explain convincingly to a musician the origin and mechanism of musical feeling he may care to try his hand at religious belief. The true believer, however, need not fear -- his citadel is impregnable to scientific assault because it occupies territory which is closed to science...

Whatever the ultimate reality is that underlies the sensory impressions we interpret as material objects, and explain in terms of fundamental particles and mathematical equations, it has so far eluded imagination; we must not expect to discover or deny God by comparing any model we have managed to construct for ourselves with a futile preconception of what it ought to have been.

All the same, the search for evidence of God's existence in the material world is not lightly abandoned. Why does the universe exist at all, if it was not created? The evidence that it all started with a Big Bang hangs together pretty well, better than any other hypothesis. The trouble is that we can talk about the beginning but not of a time before the beginning; nor, when we imagine the start as an inconceivably hot fireball, are we allowed to picture it situated somewhere in space. Space and time as we know them are aspects of the universe itself, not, as Newton supposed, a divine absolute framework and a divine clock within which our universe came into being at God's command. It is hard enough to imagine space and time as linked in the way demanded by relativity theory, let alone anything that transcends these primary concepts. No human meaning can be attached to the idea of God "outside the universe" nor, in a timeless nowhere, to words like "act of creation" or "God's purpose."

To labor the point once again, our notion of the universe is part of the model we have built, and if we are to find God it will not be by looking within the model, or outside it, but in the no-place and no-time where we cannot look, the reality beyond our grasp. I think the majority of scientists accept that no explicit revelation of God's presence is to be expected in the faultless mechanics of the lifeless material world.

"Darkening Of The World"

The following is an excerpt from Marjorie Grene's essay "Martin Heidegger" in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ms. Grene passed away in March; she wrote some two dozen books, among which are works on Sartre and Heidegger.

The "darkening of the world" is Heidegger's constant theme. So, for example, in Holzwege ("Woodpaths," 1950), he tells us that we live in the age of research, of the planned, systematic coordination of intellectual tasks. And what sort of tasks can be planned and coordinated? Neat, limited, manageable tasks -- tasks, primarily, that demand inventiveness rather than understanding, tasks for engineering know-how rather than theoretical insight. Heidegger draws no line between pure and applied science. Science for him is research, and research is a procedure for solving well-packaged problems. Such problems are, in general, those of manufacture, of inventing new and better gadgets. According to Heidegger, das Herstellbare, the collection of gadgets, is what we are after; that is what specialization, the rigid departmental structure of expertise in our society, amounts to. And all this vast proliferation of technical skills nevertheless has its inner unity -- that is, its historical and metaphysical unity. It had to happen this way. It had to happen this way because we are fallen out of Being. We are more concerned with beings, from genes to space ships, than with our true calling, which is to be shepherds and watchers of Being. So it is that we are lost, and Being itself has become a haze and an error -- nothing.

"Put The Mind Out Of Business"

"Out of this world; out of Vanity Fair; out of the market place. Put the mind out of business. Words are to be redeemed; to be taken out of the market place; to cease to be a commodity; to be removed from circulation. To be taken out of circulation, out of the flow of currency, out of the universe of discourse, into the immovable prajna, the perfectly still mirror. To condense, to crystallize, to become a parable. Words taken out of time into eternity: aphorism the form of eternity.

"From this world to the next; from utility to creation. Instead of words as market-place utilities, brand names to advertise established items, the creative words which make it new. Words made new again, as on the first day of creation; eternity's sunrise. Words used not to interpret the world but to change it; not to advertise this world but to find another. To pass from this world to the next; from ordinary to extraordinary language...

"To see is to see through. Political organization is theatrical organization, the public realm, where 'appearance -- something that is being seen and heard by others as well as by ourselves -- constitutes reality.' To see through this show; to see the invisible reality; to put an end to politics."

--- Norman O. Brown, Love's Body (1966, pp. 234-235)

Worldliness Of The Majority

"The first common mistake to get rid of is that mankind consists of a great mass of religious people and a few eccentric atheists. It consists of a huge mass of worldly people, and a small percentage of persons deeply interested in religion and concerned about their own souls and other peoples'; and this section consists mostly of those who are passionately affirming the established religion and those who are passionately attacking it, the genuine philosophers being very few. Thus you never have a nation of millions of Wesleys and one Tom Paine. You have a million Mr. Worldly Wisemans, one Wesley, with his small congregation, and one Tom Paine, with his smaller congregation. The passionately religious are a people apart; and if they were not hopelessly outnumbered by the worldly, they would turn the world upside down, as St. Paul was reproached, quite justly, for wanting to do. Few people can number among their personal acquaintances a single atheist or a single Plymouth Brother.

"Unless a religious turn in ourselves has led us to seek the little Societies to which these rare birds belong, we pass our lives among people who, whatever creeds they may repeat, and in whatever temples they may avouch their respectability and wear their Sunday clothes...hunger and thirst, not for righteousness, but for rich feeding and comfort and social position and attractive mates and ease and pleasure and respect and consideration: in short, for love and money."

--- George Bernard Shaw, Preface to Androcles and the Lion

The Revolution Betrayed

From the second chapter of Terry Eagleton's Reason, Faith, and Revolution (2009), a book that takes aim at certain misbegotten ideas about religion, particularly those flourishing in popular atheistic treatises in recent years.

"Apart from the signal instance of Stalinism, it's hard to think of a historical movement which has more squalidly betrayed its own revolutionary origins [than Christianity].

"Christianity long ago shifted from the side of the poor and dispossessed to that of the rich and aggressive. The liberal establishment really has nothing whatsoever to fear from it and everything to gain. For the most part, it's become the creed of the suburban well-to-do, not the astonishing promise offered to the rifraff and undercover anti-colonial militants with whom Jesus himself hung out. The suburbanite response to the anawim, a term which can be roughly translated into American English as 'loser,' is for the most part to flush them off the streets.

"This brand of piety is horrified by the sight of the female breast, but considerably less appalled by the obscene inequalities between rich and poor. It laments the death of a fetus, but is apparently undisturbed by the burning to death of children in Iraq or Afghanistan in the name of U.S. global dominion. By and large, it worships a God fashioned blasphemously in its own image -- a clean-shaven, short-haired, gun-toting, sexually obsessed God with a special regard for that ontologically privileged piece of the globe just south of Canada and just north of Mexico, rather than the Yahweh who is homeless, faceless, stateless, and imageless, who prods his people out of their comfortable settlement into the tractless terrors of the desert, and who brusquely informs them that their burnt offerings stink in his nostrils...Far from refusing to conform to the powers of this world, Christianity has become the nauseating cant of lying politicians, corrupt bankers, and fanatical neo-cons, as well as an immensely profitable industry in its own right...

"The Christian church has tortured and disemboweled in the name of Jesus, gagging dissent and burning its critics alive. It has been oily, santimonious, brutally oppressive, and vilely bigoted. Morality for this brand of belief is a matter of the bedroom rather than the boardroom. It supports murderous dictatorships in the name of God, views both criticism and pessimism as unpatriotic, and imagines that being a Christian means maintaining a glazed grin, a substantial bank balance, and a mouthful of pious platitudes. It denounces terrorism, but excludes from its strictures such kidnapping, torturing, murdering outfits as the CIA...

"This brand of faith fails to see that the only cure for terrorism is justice. It also fails to grasp to what extent the hideous, disfigured thing clamoring at its gates is its own monstrous creation. It is unable to acknowledge this thing of darkness as in part its own, unable to find its own reflection in its distorted visage...It is hard to avoid the feeling that a God as bright, resourceful, and imaginative as the one that might just possibly exist could not have hit on some more agreeable way of saving the world than religion.

"I am talking, then, about the distinction between what seems to me a scriptural and an ideological kind of Christian faith -- a distinction which can never simply be assumed but must be interminably argued. One name for this thankless exercise is what Nietzsche, who held that churches were the tombs and sepulchres of God, called in Kierkegaardian phrase saving Christianity from Christendom. Any preaching of the Gospel which fails to constitute a scandal and affront to the political state is in my view effectively worthless. It is not a project which at present holds out much promise of success."

Artificial Paradises

"That humanity at large will ever be able to dispense with Artificial Paradises seems very unlikely. Most men and women lead lives at the worst so painful, at the best so monotonous, poor and limited that the urge to escape, the longing to transcend themselves if only for a few moments, is and has always been one of the principal appetites of the soul. Art and religion, carnivals and saturnalia, dancing and listening to oratory -- all these have served, in H.G. Wells's phrase, as Doors in the Wall. And for private, for everyday use there have always been chemical intoxicants. All the vegetable sedatives and narcotics, all the euphorics that grow on trees, the hallucinogens that ripen in berries or can be squeezed from roots -- all, without exception, have been known and systematically used by human beings from time immemorial...

"The universal and ever-present urge to self-transcendence is not to be abolished by slamming the currently popular Doors in the Wall. The only reasonable policy is to open other, better doors in the hope of inducing men and women to exchange their old bad habits for new and less harmful ones. Some of these other, better doors will be social and technological in nature, others religious or psychological, others dietetic, educational, athletic. But the need for frequent chemical variations from intolerable selfhood and repulsive surroundings will undoubtedly remain."

--- Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception (1956, pp.62-64)

The Artist & Professor Chomsky

Below is part of an interview that the artist Mr. Fish conducted with Noam Chomsky in June 2008. The whole interview can be found on Truthdig.

MF: Something that we’ve lost as a culture...over the last 30 years is our willingness to invite nonpolitical perspectives into our political discussions. Let me give you an example. I was at a Nation [magazine] event a few months ago -- it was a panel moderated by Bob Scheer called “Eight Years of Bush: What Do We Do Now?” -- and much of the conversation was about how Obama was going to get into office and how innumerable social programs were going to be reinvigorated, race relations would be improved, the war [in Iraq] would be ended and that this was a time of celebration, and so on. Everybody was happy and the mood of the room was very high, and then came the Q&A part of the night and dread started to seep in. People started to realize that their intellects were being stimulated, but their souls were still wanting -- you could feel it in your chest. Eventually, the question came from somebody, spoken in a shaky voice, “The panel is called ‘Eight Years of Bush: What Do We Do Now?’ so…what do we do now?” And that’s the rub always with events like that, and political rallies, and talks from people like you, there’s always an underlying feeling of frustration, of disempowerment, because so much of political debate, at least publicly, is about theory and not direct experience. The best analogy I can give is that listening to pundits and journalists strategizing over how best to move the ball down the field is like watching ESPN guys talk about sports. Where is the person on the panel to question the folly of the game? This, I think, was the most outstanding strength of the counterculture [of the mid-20th century] -- there was always somebody at the table to discuss the virtues of non-athleticism. There was somebody to provide a bigger picture and to offer an alternative other than either honoring the glory of the game or, at the very least, legitimizing the rules of the game...Without a philosopher to offer a philosophical perspective of politics, people don’t even know that they can take one step back and consider the [larger reality] and attack politics as a logic problem.

NC: Well, I didn’t go to the panel, but what the panelists should have told [the audience] was to try to organize enough mass popular pressure so that whoever is in office will have to react to it.

MF: But, you see, that just sounds like more work to people.

NC: Well it is work. And it’s hard work.

MF: Sure it is, but I wasn’t inspired to become politically involved from somebody talking about work. I learned about humanitarianism and dissent from art and popular culture, which made it cool and sexy. I joined the movement because I wanted to grow my hair, to piss off intolerant people, to own myself.

NC: That’s just a personal statement. What really changed things in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s was popular organization. I mean, the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the environmental movement, the women’s movement, and so on, there were personal statements, but that was only a small part of it.

MF: The personal statement is what gets people involved.

NC: It may get people involved, but the personal statements are all fine for you, but when you want to organize an anti-nuclear movement or a solidarity movement with Central America, your personal statements don’t matter.

MF: But they’re indispensable with issues of sexism and racism and classism. They’re uniforms -- unifying ones.

NC: There’s nothing wrong with them. They’re, at most, a first step towards more serious commitments, but not always. Take the civil rights movement. It wasn’t about personal statements. It was SNCC workers riding Freedom buses.

MF: Well, you’re right about fashion sometimes being just fashion. Sometimes fashion can actually confuse a person into thinking that he or she is being politically active when he or she is really just posing. Maybe I’m talking about the personal statement more as a reflection of a public expression of dissent versus a private one. Let me make my point this way: As strong as the political satire is that comes out of Jon Stewart and “The Daily Show” or Steve Colbert or Bill Maher, the experience of sharing their disdain for lousy politics is a private act -- it happens in the living room, behind closed doors, and never threatens to spill out onto the streets. Where in the ’50s and ’60s, with somebody like Mort Sahl or Lenny Bruce or Bob Dylan, you had to leave your home to go into the community to really see them. You had to occupy a public space and to be seen with other people, communally. It was a physical act that required some small measure of bravery. It was, in fact, a political act because you were supporting something not sanctioned by the dominant culture, by decent society. Nowadays, with the co-opting of progressive and formerly dissident labels such as the peace sign and the anarchist “A,” and the privatizing of formerly public acts of anti-establishmentarianism, it’s very easy for people to trick themselves into believing that they’re being politically active or heavily engaged in social issues when really they’re not. Get a T-shirt from the Gap with a peace sign on it and, all of a sudden, you think you’re in the peace movement, when you haven’t done anything -- in fact, all you’ve done is given more money to a major corporation that actually functions as the antithesis to the values you believe you’re supporting. Buy the Lennon [CD] compilation for Darfur and you’re selflessly rescuing Darfurians, laugh at “Politically Incorrect” when you’re all alone in your bedroom -- you don’t even need to be wearing pants! -- and believe you’re shaming George Bush so severely that he won’t be able to look in the mirror the next morning. You have to ask yourself, what is the ultimate effect of a bunch of people who believe they’re progressives because they can parrot the language of the movement but aren’t actually engaged in any genuine political activity? People end up marginalizing themselves.


Notice that in the first paragraph Fish offers some interesting insights into the culture of political dissent in America, but rather than engage them Professor Chomsky turns them away with his customary advice about organizing. For all of Chomsky’s contributions to knowledge, his earnestness and commitment to a more just social order, is there not something unyielding about his intellectualism? Something closed off rather than open, receptive, fluid, or malleable?

But then in what spirit should an intellectual or scholar approach his subject? How emotionally invested should he or she be? Professor Chomsky begins with certain political convictions and defends them to the bloody end. Is this steadfastness preferable to a kind of aloof, detached objectivity? Perhaps both are valuable in their way, but wisdom consists in never losing sight of the fact that one judges and analyzes things from a particular vantage point and that no one vantage point is free from built-in limitations. In one of his works of criticism George Santayana makes the following observation:

“In so complex a world as this, there is room for a great number of cross-vistas: when all has been surveyed from one point of view and in one set of terms, nothing excludes the same reality from being surveyed from a different center and expressed in a different notation. To represent a man, sculpture is apparently exhaustive; yet it does not exclude painting, or the utterly disparate description of the man in words; surveys in which there need be no contradiction in the deliverance, though there is the widest diversity and even incommensurability in the methods. Each sort of net drawn through the same sea catches a different sort of fish; and the fishermen may quarrel about what the sea contained, if each regards his draught as exhaustive. Yet the sea contained all their catches, and also the residue, perhaps infinite, that escaped them all.”

Anxiety Reveals The Nothing

The following is an excerpt from Martin Heidegger's essay "What Is Metaphysics?" The portion below can be found in Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings, edited by David Farrell Krell (London: HarperPerennial, 1993), p. 101.

In anxiety, we say, "one feels ill at ease." What is "it" that makes "one" feel ill at ease? We cannot say...All things and we ourselves sink into indifference...The receding of beings as a whole that closes in on us in anxiety oppresses us. We can get no hold on things. In the slipping away of beings only this "no hold on things" comes over us and remains.

Anxiety reveals the nothing.

We "hover" in anxiety. More precisely, anxiety leaves us hanging because it induces the slipping away of beings as a whole. This implies that we ourselves -- we humans who are in being -- in the midst of beings slip away from ourselves. At bottom therefore it is not as though "you" or "I" feel ill at ease; rather, it is this way for some "one." In the altogether unsettling experience of this hovering where there is nothing to hold onto, pure Da-sein is all that is still there.

Anxiety robs us of speech. Because beings as a whole slip away, so that just the nothing crowds round, in the face of anxiety all utterance of the "is" falls silent. That in the malaise of anxiety we often try to shatter the vacant stillness with compulsive talk only proves the presence of the nothing. That anxiety reveals the nothing man himself immediately demonstrates when anxiety has dissolved. In the lucid vision sustained by fresh remembrance we must say that that [sic] in the face of which and for which we were anxious was "properly" -- nothing. Indeed: the nothing itself -- as such -- was there.

The Decline & Fall Of Work

The passages below have been excerpted from Raoul Vaneigem's work, The Revolution of Everyday Life. Vaneigem was a leading figure of the Situationist movement in the 1960s.

In an industrial society which confuses work and productivity, the necessity of producing has always been an enemy of the desire to create. What spark of humanity, of a possible creativity, can remain alive in a being dragged out of sleep at six every morning, jolted about in suburban trains, deafened by the racket of machinery, bleached and steamed by meaningless sounds and gestures, spun dry by statistical controls, and tossed out at the end of the day into the entrance halls of railway stations, those cathedrals of departure for the hell of weekdays and the nugatory paradise of weekends, where the crowd communes in weariness and boredom? From adolescence to retirement each 24-hour cycle repeats the same shattering bombardment, like bullets hitting a window: mechanical repetition, time-which-is-money, submission to bosses, boredom, exhaustion. From the butchering of youth's energy to the gaping wound of old age, life cracks in every direction under the blows of forced labour. Never before has a civilization reached such a degree of contempt for life; never before has a generation, drowned in mortification, felt such a rage to live...

The consciousness of our time oscillates between that of the walled-up man and that of the prisoner. For the individual, the oscillation takes the place of freedom; like a condemned man, he paces up and down between the blank wall of his cell and the barred window that represents the possibility of escape. If somebody knocks a hole in the cellar of isolation, hope filters in with the light. The good behaviour of the prisoner depends on the hope of escape which prisons foster. On the other hand, when he is trapped by a wall with no windows, a man can only feel the desperate rage to knock it down or break his head against it, which can only be seen as unfortunate from the point of view of efficient social organization...

The man who is walled up alive has nothing to lose; the prisoner still has hope. Hope is the leash of submission. When power's boiler is in danger of exploding, it uses its safety-valve to lower the pressure. It seems to change; in fact it only adapts itself and resolves its difficulties.

"I Am What I Am"

Below are passages from The Coming Insurrection (Semiotexte, 2009), a neo-situationist work that was banned in France and penned by The Invisible Committee, a group of anonymous intellectuals influenced by Guy Debord.

"I am what I am. This is marketing’s latest offering to the world, the final stage in the development of advertising, far beyond all the exhortations to be different, to be oneself and drink Pepsi. Decades of concepts in order to get where we are, to arrive at pure tautology. I = I. He’s running on a treadmill in front of the mirror in his gym. She’s coming back from work, behind the wheel of her Smart car. Will they meet?

“I am what I am.” My body belongs to me. I am me, you are you, and something’s wrong. Mass personalization. Individualization of all conditions -- life, work and misery. Diffuse schizophrenia. Rampant depression. Atomization into fine paranoiac particles. Hysterization of contact. The more I want to be me, the more I feel an emptiness. The more I express myself, the more I am drained. The more I run after myself, the more tired I get. We cling to our self like a coveted job title. We’ve become our own representatives in a strange commerce, guarantors of a personalization that feels, in the end, a lot more like an amputation. We insure our selves to the point of bankruptcy, with a more or less disguised clumsiness.

Meanwhile, I manage. The quest for a self, my blog, my apartment, the latest fashionable crap, relationship dramas, who’s fucking who [sic]…whatever prosthesis it takes to hold onto an “I”!...

The injunction, everywhere, to “be someone” maintains the pathological state that makes this society necessary. The injunction to be strong produces the very weakness by which it maintains itself, so that everything seems to take on a therapeutic character, even working, even love. All those “how’s it goings?” that we exchange give the impression of a society composed of patients taking each other’s temperatures. Sociability is now made up of a thousand little niches, a thousand little refuges where you can take shelter. Where it’s always better than the bitter cold outside. Where everything’s false, since it’s all just a pretext for getting warmed up. Where nothing can happen since we’re all too busy shivering silently together. Soon this society will only be held together by the mere tension of all the social atoms straining towards an illusory cure. It’s a power plant that runs its turbines on a gigantic reservoir of unwept tears, always on the verge of spilling over...

The weak, depressed, self-critical, virtual self is essentially that endlessly adaptable subject required by the ceaseless innovation of production, the accelerated obsolescence of technologies, the constant overturning of social norms, and generalized flexibility. It is at the same time the most voracious consumer and, paradoxically, the most productive self, the one that will most eagerly and energetically throw itself into the slightest project, only to return later to its original larval state.

"What am I, then?" Since childhood, I’ve passed through a flow of milk, smells, stories, sounds, emotions, nursery rhymes, substances, gestures, ideas, impressions, gazes, songs, and foods. What am I? Tied in every way to places, sufferings, ancestors, friends, loves, events, languages, memories, to all kinds of things that obviously are not me. Everything that attaches me to the world, all the links that constitute me, all the forces that compose me don’t form an identity, a thing displayable on cue, but a singular, shared, living existence, from which emerges -- at certain times and places -- that being which says “I.” Our feeling of inconsistency is simply the consequence of this foolish belief in the permanence of the self and of the little care we give to what makes us what we are.

Modern Human Relations

The passages below can be found in Theodor Adorno's Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (London: Verso, 1974), pp.183-184.

Private relations between people seem modelled on the industrial bottleneck. In even the smallest community the level is determined by the most subaltern of its members. Anyone who, in conversation, talks over the head of even one person, is tactless. For the sake of humanity talk is restricted to the most obvious, dullest and tritest matters, if just one inhuman face is present.

Now that the world has made men speechless, not to be on speaking terms is to be in the right. The wordless need only stick immovably to their interests and their natures to get their way. It is enough that the other, vainly seeking contact, falls into a pleading or soliciting tone, for him to be at a disadvantage. Since the bottleneck knows of no court of appeal higher than that of fact, while thought and speech necessarily point to one, intelligence becomes naivety, and blockheads seize on this as irrefutable fact.

The common consent to the positive is a gravitational force that pulls all downwards. It shows itself superior to the opposing impulse by declining to engage it. The more complex personality, unwilling to be pulled down, has to observe the strictest consideration for the inconsiderate. The latter need no longer be plagued by the disquiet of consciousness. Intellectual debility, affirmed as a universal principle, appears as vital force. A formalistic, administrative way of settling problems, a compartmentalized separation of everything that is, by its meaning inseparable, hidebound insistence on arbitrary opinion in the absence of any proof, in short the practice of reifying every feature of an aborted, unformed self, withdrawing it from the process of experience and asserting it as the ultimate That's-the-way-I-am, suffices to overrun impregnable positions. Such people can be as sure of the assent of others, similarly deformed, as of their own advantage. The cynical trumpeting of their own defect betrays an awareness that at the present stage the objective spirit liquidates the subjective. They are down to earth like their zoological forbears, before they got up on their hind-legs.

On American Politics

NOTE: The following is an excerpt from "Lights, Camera, Democracy!," an essay written in August 1996 by Lewis Lapham, the former editor of Harper's Magazine. In it Lapham describes the somber mood at a dinner party he attended among the affluent months before the '96 presidential election. His dinner companions were disheartened at the vacuous state into which election campaigns had fallen and wished for a more reasonable and earnest politics. These members of the upper class, Lapham noted, "were reluctant to concede that the American political system grants parallel sovereignty to both a permanent and a provisional government, and that it is always a mistake to let them be seen as different entities."

"The permanent government, a secular oligarchy of which the company at dinner was representative, comprises the Fortune 500 companies and their attendant lobbyists, the big media and entertainment syndicates, the civil and military services, the large research universities and law firms. It is this government that hires the country's politicians and sets the terms and conditions under which the country's citizens can exercise their right -- God-given but increasingly expensive -- to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Obedient to the rule of men, not laws, the permanent government oversees the production of wealth, builds cities, manufactures goods, raises capital, fixes prices, shapes the landscape, and reserves the right to assume debt, poison rivers, cheat the customers, receive the gifts of federal subsidy, and speak to the American people in the language of low motive and base emotion.

"The provisional government is the spiritual democracy that comes and goes on the trend of a political season and oversees the production of pageants. It exemplifies the nation's moral aspirations, protects the citizenry from unworthy or unholy desires, and devotes itself to the mending of the American soul. The tribunes of the people mount the hustings to give voice to as many of the nation's conflicting ideals as can be recruited under the banners of freedom and fitted into the time allowed, ideals so at odds with one another that the American creed rests on the rock of contradiction -- a self-righteously Christian country that supports the world's largest market for pornography and cocaine; a nation of prophets and real estate developers that defines the wilderness as both spiritual retreat and cash advance; the pacifist outcries against the evils of the weapons industry offset by the patriotic demand for an invincible army; a land of rugged individualists quick to seek the safety of decision by committee.

"Positing a rule of laws instead of men, the provisional government must live within the cage of high-minded principle, addressing its remarks to the imaginary figure known as the informed citizen or the thinking man, a superior being who detests superficial reasoning and quack remedies, never looks at Playboy, remembers the lessons of history, trusts Bill Moyers, worries about political repression in Liberia, reads (and knows himself improved by) the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal...

"It is the provisional government that demands the breaking off of trade with China (on the ground that the Chinese shoot political prisoners and make copies of Tom Cruise movies); it is the permanent government that ignores the demand on the ground that too many American manufacturers have become dependent on cheap Chinese labor. The provisional government proposes a constitutional amendment to make abortion a crime against the state; the permanent government discounts the proposal as both foolish and impractical. The provisional government passes mandates for racial preference and affirmative action; the permanent government hires whom it chooses to hire. The provisional government undertakes to guarantee health insurance to every family in America; the permanent government decides the gesture is too expensive."

Lapham's essay can be found in Waiting for the Barbarians (Verso, 1997), pp.101-109.

C. Wright Mills On American Life

The passages below can be found in John Summers' The Politics of Truth: Selected Writings of C. Wright Mills (Oxford University Press, 2008), pp.80-81, 166-167, and 204. Mills was a professor at Columbia for many years, best remembered today for works such as The Power Elite and White Collar.

Criticism of social scientists:

"In fact, several men in the social studies now enjoy enormous reputations, but have not produced any enormous books, intellectually speaking, or in fact any contributions of note to the substantive knowledge of our time. Their academic reputations rest, quite largely, upon their academic power: they are the members of the committee; they are on the directing board; they can get you the job, the trip, the research grant. They are a strange new kind of bureaucrat. They are executives of the mind, public relations men among foundations and universities for their fields. For them, the memorandum is replacing the book. They could set up a research project or even a school, but I would be surprised if, now after twenty years of research and teaching and observing and thinking, they could produce a book that told you what they thought was going on in the world, what they thought were the major problems for men of this historical epoch; and I feel sure that they would be embarrassed if you earnestly asked them to suggest what ought to be done about it and by whom. For the span of time in which The Scientists say they think of their work is a billion man-hours of labor. And in the meantime we should not expect much substantive knowledge; first there must be methodological inquiries into methods and inquiry."

Our experiences are shaped by ready-made interpretations:

“The first rule for understanding the human condition is that men live in second-hand worlds: they are aware of much more than they have personally experienced; and their own experience is always indirect. No man stands alone directly confronting a world of solid facts. No such world is available. The closest men come to it is when they are infants or when they become insane: then, in a terrifying sense of meaningless events and senseless confusion, they are often seized with the panic of near-total insecurity. But in their everyday lives the experience of men is itself selected by stereotyped meanings and shaped by ready-made interpretations. Their images of the world, and of themselves, are given to them by crowds of witnesses they have never met and will never meet. Yet for every man these images – provided by strangers and dead men – are the very basis of his life as a human being.”

Not human virtue, but human shortcomings, lead to popularity and success:

“Among the cheerful robots of the mass society, not human virtue but human shortcomings, attractively packaged, lead to popularity and success. They are men and women without publicly relevant consciousness, without awareness of shocking human evil, and their religion is the religion of good cheer and glad tidings. That it is a religion without dreary religious content is less important than that it is socially brisk and that it is not spiritually unsettling. It is a getting chummy with God, as a means to quite secular good feelings.

“With such religion, ours is indeed a world in which the idea of God is dead. But what is important is that this fact itself is of no felt consequence. Men and women, in brief, are religiously indifferent; they find no religious meanings in their lives and in their world…

“The most obvious competition is with the world of industrialized entertainment. Competing with these mass means of distraction, churches have themselves become minor institutions among the mass media of communications. They have imitated and borrowed the strident techniques of the insistent publicity machines, and in terms of the pitch-man (with both the hard and the soft sell), they have quite thoroughly banalized the teachings, and indeed the very image, of Christ.

“I do not believe that anything recognizably Christian can be put over in this way. I suggest that this religious malarkey diseducates congregations; that it kills off any real influence religious leaders might have. Even if the crowds come, they come only for the show, and if it is the nature of crowds to come, it is also their nature soon to go away. And in all truth, are not all the television Christians in reality armchair atheists? In value and in reality they live without the God they profess; despite ten million Bibles sold each year in the United States alone, they are religiously illiterate. ‘If Christ had been put on television to preach the Sermon on the Mount,’ Malcolm Muggeridge has recently remarked, ‘viewers would either have switched on to another channel, or contented themselves with remarking that the speaker had an interesting face. Christ might have become a television personality, but there would have been no Christianity.’”

Bertrand Russell: On Being Modern-Minded

Following are excerpts from Russell’s Unpopular Essays (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1962), pp.65-68.

“I read some years ago a contemptuous review of a book by Santayana, mentioning an essay on Hamlet “dated, in every sense, 1908” – as if what has been discovered since then made any earlier appreciation of Shakespeare irrelevant and comparatively superficial. It did not occur to the reviewer that his review was “dated, in every sense, 1936.” Or perhaps this thought did occur to him, and filled him with satisfaction. He was writing for the moment, not for all time; next year he will have adopted the new fashion in opinions, whatever it may be, and he no doubt hopes to remain up to date as long as he continues to write.

“The desire to be contemporary is of course new only in degree; it has existed to some extent in all previous periods that believed themselves to be progressive…

“The modern-minded man, although he believes profoundly in the wisdom of his period, must be presumed to be very modest about his personal powers. His highest hope is to think first what is about to be thought, to say what is about to be said, and to feel what is about to be felt; he has no wish to think better thoughts than his neighbors, to say things showing more insight, or to have emotions which are not those of some fashionable group, but only to be slightly ahead of others in point of time. Quite deliberately he suppresses what is individual in himself for the sake of the admiration of the herd. A mentally solitary life, such as that of Copernicus, or Spinoza, or Milton after the Restoration, seems pointless according to modern standards. Copernicus should have delayed his advocacy of the Copernican system until it could be made fashionable; Spinoza should have been either a good Jew or a good Christian; Milton should have moved with the times…Why should an individual set himself up as an independent judge? Is it not clear that wisdom resides in the blood of the Nordic race or, alternatively, in the proletariat? And in any case what is the use of an eccentric opinion, which never can hope to conquer the great agencies of publicity?

“The money rewards and widespread though ephemeral fame which those agencies have made possible places temptations in the way of able men which are difficult to resist. To be pointed out, admired, mentioned constantly in the press, and offered easy ways of earning much money is highly agreeable; and when all this is open to a man, he finds it difficult to go on doing the work that he himself thinks best and is inclined to subordinate his judgment to the general opinion.”

The Mirage Of Mathematical Exactitude

The passages below can be found in George Steiner’s Language & Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), pp. 18-20.

“…many of the traditional humanistic disciplines have shown a deep malaise, a nervous, complex recognition of the exactions and triumphs of mathematics and the natural sciences. There has taken place in history, economics, and what are called, significantly, the ‘social sciences’ what one might term a fallacy of imitative form. In each of these fields, the mode of discourse still relies almost completely on word-language. But historians, economists, and social scientists have tried to graft on to the verbal matrix some of the proceedings of mathematics or total rigor. They have grown defensive about the essentially provisional and aesthetic character of their own pursuits…

“The ambitions of scientific rigor and prophecy have seduced much historical writing from its veritable nature, which is art. Much of what passes for history at present is scarcely literate. The disciples of Namier – not he himself – consign Gibbon, Macaulay, or Michelet to the limbo of belles-lettres. The illusion of science and the fashions of the academic tend to transform the young historian into a lean ferret gnawing at the minute fact or figure. He dwells in footnotes and writes monographs in as illiterate a style as possible to demonstrate the scientific bias of his craft…

“Or consider economics: its classic masters, Adam Smith, Ricardo, Malthus, Marshall, were masters of prose style. They relied upon language to explain and persuade. In the late nineteenth century began the development of mathematical economics. Keynes was perhaps the last to span both the humane and the mathematical branches of his science. Discussing the contributions of Ramsey to economic thought, Keynes pointed out that a number of them, though of signal importance, involved mathematics too sophisticated for the layman or the classical economist. Today the gap has widened tremendously; econometrics is gaining on economics. The cardinal terms – theory of values, cycles, productive capacity, liquidity, inflation, input-output – are in a state of transition. They are moving from the linguistic to the mathematical, from rhetoric to equation. The alphabet of modern economics is no longer primarily the word, but rather the chart, the graph, and the number…

“The temptations of exact science are most flagrant in sociology. Much of present sociology is illiterate, or, more precisely, anti-literate. It is conceived in a jargon of vehement obscurity. Wherever possible, the word and the grammar of literate meaning are replaced by the statistical table, the curve, or the graph. Where it must remain verbal, sociology borrows what it can from the vocabulary of the exact sciences. One could make a fascinating list of these borrowings. Consider only the more prominent: norms, group, scatter, integration, function, coordinates. Each has a specific mathematical or technical content. Emptied of this content and forced into an alien setting, these expressions become blurred and pretentious. They do ill service to their new masters. Yet in using the gibberish of ‘culture coordinates’ and ‘peer-group integrations’ the sociologist pays fervent tribute to the mirage that has haunted all rational inquiry since the seventeenth century – the mirage of mathematical exactitude and predictability.

“Nowhere, however, is the retreat from the word more pronounced and startling than in philosophy. Classic and medieval philosophy were wholly committed to the dignity and resources of language, to the belief that words, handled with requisite precision and subtlety, could bring the mind into accord with reality. Plato, Aristotle, Duns Scotus, and Aquinas are master-builders of words, constructing around reality great edifices of statement, definition, and discrimination. They operate with modes of argument that differ from those of the poet; but they share with the poet the assumption that words gather and engender responsible apprehensions of the truth. Again, the turning point occurs in the seventeenth century, with Descartes’ implicit identification of truth and mathematical proof, and above all, with Spinoza.”

Against The Masses

“Leave this hypocritical prating about the masses. Masses are rude, lame, unmade, pernicious in their demands and influence, and need not to be flattered, but to be schooled. I wish not to concede anything to them, but to tame, drill, divide, and break them up, and draw individuals out of them. The worst of charity is that the lives you are asked to preserve are not worth preserving. Masses! The calamity is the masses. I do not wish any mass at all, but honest men only, lovely, sweet, accomplished women only, and no shovel-handed, narrow-brained, gin-drinking, million stockingers or lazzaroni at all. If government knew how, I should like to see it check, not multiply the population. When it reaches its true law of action, every man that is born will be hailed as essential. Away with this hurrah of masses, and let us have the considerate vote of single men spoken on their honor and their conscience.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Conduct of Life

"I Don’t Want To Be A Brand"

(The following is excerpted from Danielle Leduc’s article, “An anti-preneur manifesto,” in the March/April 2013 edition of Adbusters.)

“I don’t want to be a designer, a marketer, an illustrator, a brander, a social-media consultant, a multi-platform guru, an interface wizard, a writer of copy, a technological assistant, an applicator, an aesthetic king, a notable user, a profit-maximizer, a bottom-line analyzer, a meme generator, a hit tracker, a re-poster, a sponsored blogger, a starred commentator, an online retailer, a viral relayer, a handle, a font or a page. I don’t want to be linked in, tuned in, ‘liked,’ incorporated, listed or programmed. I don’t want to be a brand, a representative, an ambassador, a bestseller or a chart-topper. I don’t want to be a human resource or part of your human capital.

“I don’t want to be an entrepreneur of myself.

“Don’t listen to the founders, the employers, the newspapers, the pundits, the editors, the forecasters, the researchers, the branders, the career counselors, the prime minister, the job market, Michel Foucault or your haughty brother in finance – there’s something else!

“I want to be a lover, a teacher, a wanderer, an assembler of words, a sculptor of immaterial, a maker of instruments, a Socratic philosopher and an erratic muse. I want to be a community center, a piece of art, a wonky cursive script and an old-growth tree! I want to be a disrupter, a creator, an apocalyptic visionary, a master of reconfiguration, a hypocritical parent, an illegal download and a choose-your-own-adventure!…

“I want to be a curator of myself, an anti-preneur, a person.

“Unlimited availabilities. No followers required. Only friends.”

"There No Longer Exist Human Beings"

The following passages appear in Soren Kierkegaard’s The Present Age. They have been excerpted from The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard, ed. by W.H. Auden (New York: New York Review Books, 1999), pp.14-16.

The world’s deepest misfortune is the unhappy objectivity (in the sense of the absence of personality) characteristic of all speech and teaching, and that the one great mechanical discovery after the other has made it possible to expound doctrines impersonally in constantly increasing measure. There no longer exist human beings: there are no lovers, no thinkers, etc. By means of the press the human race has enveloped itself in an atmospheric what-not of thoughts, feelings, moods; even of resolutions and purposes, all of which are no one’s property, since they belong to all and none. It is a torture to the soul to note the callous incorrigibility with which a human being can resort to wherever he thinks there is some truth to be had, for the sole purpose of learning to expound it, so that his music box may add this piece to its repertoire; but as for doing anything about it, the thing never even occurs to him.

If the jewel which everyone desired to possess lay far out on a frozen lake where the ice was very thin, watched over by the danger of death, while closer in the ice was perfectly safe, then in a passionate age the crowds would applaud the courage of the man who ventured out, they would tremble for him and with him in the danger of his decisive action, they would grieve over him if he were drowned, they would make a god of him if he secured the prize. But in an age without passion, in a reflective age, it would be otherwise. People would think each other clever in agreeing that it was unreasonable and not even worth while to venture so far out. And in this way they would transform daring and enthusiasm into a feat of skill, so as to do something, for after all “something must be done.”

The crowds would go out to watch from a safe place, and with the eyes of connoisseurs appraise the accomplished skater who could skate almost to the very edge (i.e., as far as the ice was still safe and the danger had not yet begun) and then turn back. The most accomplished skater would manage to go out to the furthermost point and then do a still more dangerous-looking run, so as to make the spectators hold their breath and say: “Ye gods! He is mad, he is risking his life.” But look, and you will see that his skill was so astonishing that he managed to turn back just in time, while the ice was perfectly safe and there was still no danger. As at the theater, the crowd would applaud and acclaim him, surging homeward with the heroic artist in their midst, to honor him with a magnificent banquet. For intelligence has got the upper hand to such an extent that it transforms the real task into an unreal trick, and reality into a play. During the banquet admiration would reach its height. Now the proper relation between the admirer and the object of admiration is one in which the admirer is edified by the thought that he is a man like the hero, humbled by the thought that he is incapable of such great actions, yet morally encouraged to emulate him according to his powers; but where intelligence has got the upper hand the character of admiration is completely altered.

Even at the height of the banquet, when the applause was loudest, the admiring guests would all have a shrewd notion that the action of the man who received all the honor was not really so extraordinary, and that only by chance was the gathering for him, since after all, with a little practice, every one could have done as much. Briefly, instead of being strengthened in their discernment and encouraged to do good the guests would more probably go home with an even stronger predisposition for the most dangerous, if also the most respectable, of all diseases: to admire in public what they consider unimportant in private, since everything is made into a joke; and so, stimulated by the gush of admiration, they are comfortably agreed that they might just as well admire themselves.

The Necessity For The Name "God"

From John A.T. Robinson, Honest To God (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963),
pp. 54-55:

The necessity for the name “God” lies in the fact that our being has depths which naturalism, whether evolutionary, mechanistic, dialectical or humanistic, cannot or will not recognize. And the nemesis which has overtaken naturalism in our day has revealed the peril of trying to suppress them. As Tillich puts it,

Our period has decided for a secular world. That was a great and much-needed decision…It gave consecration and holiness to our daily life and work. Yet it excluded those deep things for which religion stands: the feeling for the inexhaustible mystery of life, the grip of an ultimate meaning of existence, and the invincible power of an unconditional devotion. These things cannot be excluded. If we try to expel them in their divine images, they re-emerge in daemonic images. Now, in the old age of our secular world, we have seen the most horrible manifestations of these daemonic images; we have looked more deeply into the mystery of evil than most generations before us; we have seen the unconditional devotion of millions to a satanic image; we feel our period’s sickness unto death.

There are depths of revelation, intimations of eternity, judgements of the holy and the sacred, awarenesses of the unconditional, the numinous and the ecstatic, which cannot be explained in purely naturalistic categories without being reduced to something else. There is the “Thus saith the Lord” heard by prophet, apostle and martyr for which naturalism cannot account. But neither can it discount it merely by pointing to the fact that “the Lord” is portrayed in the Bible in highly mythological terms, as one who “inhabits eternity” or “walks in the garden in the cool of the evening.” The question of God is the question whether this depth of being is a reality or an illusion, not whether a Being exists beyond the bright blue sky, or anywhere else. Belief in God is a matter of “what you take seriously without any reservation,” of what for you is ultimate reality. [Emphasis in original.]

Cratylus’ Skepticism

Cratylus was a disciple of Heraclitus’ and a contemporary of Plato’s (one of Plato’s dialogues was named after him, in fact). It was Heraclitus who said memorably that “one cannot step into the same river twice.” Cratylus altered the epigram to read, “One cannot step into the same river even once.” As he saw it, the ceaseless flux of life precluded knowledge and understanding, which must rest on far stabler foundations.

The following concise summary of his position can be found in the Harper Collins Dictionary of Philosophy, ed. Peter Angeles (New York, 1992), p. 277.

“[According to Cratylus], no knowledge can be had of reality; one cannot say anything about anything. The communication of knowledge or of anything at all is impossible because all things are in perpetual change. The language that is used to communicate itself changes in the process of communication; the speaker is in a process of change; the meanings and ideas change even as one is thinking and uttering them; the recipient of the communication is in change; and the total environment is in continual change without anything ever remaining the same. Cratylus concluded that one cannot say anything about anything and that one should not try. He refused to talk, since talking appeared to him senseless, meaningless, a waste of effort. He merely wiggled his finger to indicate he was fleetingly responding to stimuli.”

The Responsibility Of Intellectuals

To whom or to what, if to anything at all, should intellectuals be responsible? Here “intellectuals” is used broadly to refer to anyone interested in ideas and abstract thought, in cerebration, in theorizing.

The longstanding view of Noam Chomsky is that intellectuals are obliged to tell the truth and to expose the lies of those in positions of authority. His view is grounded in the belief that the facts about social life are accessible to anybody interested in them. They can be found in documents and case studies, in the alternative press, in policy journals, in the reports of human-rights organizations, the testimony of witnesses to power abroad. The issue for Chomsky is not whether the truth is ascertainable; it is whether somebody is honest and courageous enough to follow the truth wherever it may lead. In modern societies there are powerful incentives to get along and go along with those who wield influence, not the least being the promise of a comfortable and privileged existence. In any society the dissenter, the resister, can expect to be ridiculed and marginalized, slandered or ignored. This is no less true in the United States than it is in Russia, China, or Britain.

Chomsky does not deny that there are impediments to the discovery of truth. He has written at length, in fact, about the use of propaganda to manipulate and control the masses. He freely admits that much popular discourse obscures rather than reveals the truth, that discourse often serves the purposes of the governing class. It is his conviction, nevertheless, that with some effort a person can come to understand the workings of power in the world.

A quite different perspective is found in the work of Jean Baudrillard. On a range of issues, from globalization to the Iraq war to the arrogance of western power, Baudrillard’s thinking is consonant with Chomsky’s. And like Chomsky, Baudrillard believes lucidity to be the aspiration of thought. But on the question of truth he dissents. For Baudrillard, the world is not some tree off of which the fruit of facts is readily picked; the world today, rather, is governed by appearances and simulacra. In his work America he has this to say:

Americans believe in facts, but not in facticity. They do not know that facts are factitious, as their name suggests. It is in this belief in facts, in the total credibility of what is done or seen, in this pragmatic evidence of things and an accompanying contempt for what may be called appearances or the play of appearances – a face does not deceive, behavior does not deceive, a scientific process does not deceive, nothing deceives, nothing is ambivalent (and at bottom this is true: nothing deceives, there are no lies, there is only simulation, which is precisely the facticity of facts) – that the Americans are a true utopian society, in their religion of the fait accompli, in the naivety of their deductions, in their ignorance of the evil genius of things. You have to be utopian to think that in a human order, of whatever nature, things can be as plain and straightforward as that. All other societies contain within them some heresy or other, some dissidence, some kind of suspicion of reality, the superstitious belief in a force of evil and the possible control of that force by magic, a belief in the power of appearances. Here, there is no dissidence, no suspicion. The emperor has no clothes; the facts are there before us.

The difference between the two thinkers is not so much political as ontological. Chomsky believes, contra McLuhan, that technology is neutral: the intrusion into social life of television and computer screens, the omnipresence of imagery and advertising, the sequestering effect of cellular phones, the collapse of what historically was an agora into strip malls and super malls, the transition from what Neil Postman called a print-based culture to an image-based one – none of these things has inspired Chomsky to reassess his basically empiricist, pragmatist methodology. For Baudrillard these developments mark a fundamental change in the social ecology of humans. They have dramatically altered the relationship between referents and signs (the former have gone missing, the latter continue to proliferate). A decade before the advent of the web Baudrillard wrote, “There is no longer a stage, not even the minimal illusion that makes events capable of adopting the force of reality.”

For Chomsky there is still, in spite of the wild permutations of technology, a reality today susceptible of rational analysis. For Baudrillard there is only the desert of the real, simulacra pouring out of hegemonic networks, and a deep, irrevocable feeling of absence, of a life that is no more. Which of these perspectives, the Chomskyan or the Baudrillardian, is the more convincing today? Or is there a tertium quid?

–- Tim Ruggiero, October 2015

Thomas Merton On Secular Culture

The passages below are excerpted from The Pocket Thomas Merton, edited by Robert Inchausti (Boston & London: New Seeds, 2015), pp. 24, 32-33, 48-49, and 100-102.

“The problem is to learn how to renounce resentment without selling out to the organization people who want everyone to accept absurdity and moral anarchy in a spirit of uplift and willing complicity.”

“We live in a society whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension, to strain every human desire to the limit and to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible, in order to cater to them with the products of our factories and printing presses and movie studios.”

“If we are fools enough to remain at the mercy of the people who want to sell us happiness, it will be impossible for us ever to be content with anything. How would they profit if we became content? We would no longer need their new product.”

“The basic inner moral contradiction of our age is that, though we talk and dream about freedom…though we fight wars over it, our civilization is strictly servile. I do not use this term contemptuously, but in its original sense of ‘pragmatic,’ oriented exclusively to the useful, making use of means for material ends. The progress of technological culture has in fact been a progress in servility, that is in techniques of using material resources, mechanical inventions, etc., in order to get things done. This has, however, two grave disadvantages. First, the notion of the gratuitous and the liberal (the end in itself) has been lost. Hence we have made ourselves incapable of that happiness which transcends servility and simply rejoices in being for its own sake. Such ’liberality’ is in fact completely foreign to the technological mentality as we have it now (though not necessarily foreign to it in essence). Second, and inseparable from this, we have in practice developed a completely servile concept of man. Our professed ideals may still pay lip service to the dignity of the person, but without a sense of being and a respect for being, there can be no real appreciation of the person. We are so obsessed with doing that we have no time and no imagination left for being.”

“The monastic life is in a certain sense scandalous. The monk is precisely a man who has no specific task. He is liberated from the routines and servitudes of organized human activity in order to be free. Free for what? Free to see, free to praise, free to understand, free to love. This ideal is easy to describe, much more difficult to realize…The monk is not defined by his task, his usefulness. In a certain sense he is supposed to be ‘useless’ because his mission is not to do this or that job but to be a man of God. He does not live in order to exercise a specific function: his business is life itself. This means that monasticism aims at the cultivation of a certain quality of life, a level of awareness, a depth of consciousness, an area of transcendence and of adoration which are not usually possible in an active secular existence…The monk seeks to be free from what William Faulkner called ‘the same frantic steeplechase toward nothing’ which is the essence of ‘worldliness’ everywhere.”

On not caring as much anymore

The following is excerpted from Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night (Manheim translation, 1983, p. 395):

“Maybe we like to think different, but the world leaves us long before we leave it…for good. One fine day you decide to talk less and less about the things you care most about, and when you have to say something, it costs you an effort. You’re good and sick of hearing yourself talk. You abridge. You give up. For thirty years you’ve been talking. You don’t care about being right anymore. You even lose your desire to keep hold of the small place you’d reserved yourself among the pleasures of life. You’re fed up. From that time on you’re content to eat a little something, cadge a little warmth, and sleep as much as possible on the road to nowhere. To rekindle your interest, you’d have to think up some new grimaces to put on in the presence of others. But you no longer have the strength to renew your repertory. You stammer…We’re nothing now but an old lamppost with memories on a street where hardly anyone passes anymore.”

The psychedelic answer to the "I" question

Below is an excerpt from a lecture that Timothy Leary delivered in August, 1963. The whole lecture was published under the title, “The Religious Experience: Its Production and Interpretation” for the Psychedelic Review in 1964.

The psychedelic answer to the “I” question is the crux of the LSD experience. Most of the affect swirls around this issue. As Erik Erikson reminds us, it’s hard enough to settle on a simple tribal role definition of “Who am I?” Imagine the dilemma of the LSD subject whose cortex is suddenly turned on to a much higher voltage, who suddenly discovers his brain spinning at the speed of light, flooded by those 100 million sensations a second. Most of the awe and reverent wonder stems from this confrontation with an unsuspected range of consciousness, the tremendous acceleration of images, the shattering insight into the narrowness of the learned as opposed to the potentiality of awareness, the humbling sense of where one’s ego is in relationship to the total energy field.

a) I was delighted to see that my skin was dissolving in tiny particles and floating away. I felt as though my outer shell was disintegrating, and the ‘essence’ of me was being liberated to join the ‘essence’ of everything else about me.

b) Two related feelings were present. One was a tremendous freedom to experience, to be I. It became very important to distinguish between ‘I’ and ‘Me’, the latter being an object defined by patterns and structures and responsibilities – all of which had vanished – and the former being the subject experiencing and feeling. My normal life seemed to be all Me, all demands and responsibilities, a crushing burden which destroyed the pleasure and freedom of being ‘I’. Later in the evening the question of how to fit back into my normal life without becoming a slave of its patterns and demands became paramount. The other related feeling was one of isolation. The struggle to preserve my identity went on in loneliness; the ‘I’ cannot be shared or buttressed. The ‘Me’, structured as it is, can be shared, and is in fact what we mean when we talk about ‘myself’, but once it is thus objectified it is no longer I, it has become the known rather than the knower. And LSD seemed to strip away the structure and to leave the knowing process naked – hence the enormous sense of isolation: there was no Me to be communicated.

c) All this time, for about 2-3 hours, although there was thinking, talking going on, my mind was being used, yet there was no ego…I could with total dispassion examine various relationships that ‘I’ had with parents, friends, parts of ‘myself,’ etc. People who walked into the room were accepted with the same serene equanimity that I felt about accepting my own mental products; they were really walking around in my mind.

d) I was entering into another dimension of existence. ‘I’ was not. Everything was totally dissolved into a flow of matter continuously moving. No time, no space. A feeling of color, but indescribable. Feeling of movement, mainly. Awareness that I, the others, are only collections of clusters of molecules, which are all part of the same stream.

For the small percentage of unprepared subjects who take LSD in careless or manipulative settings and experience terror and paranoid panic, their misery invariably centers around the struggle to reimpose ego control on the whirling energy flow in them and around them. Theirs is the exhausting and sad task of attempting to slow down and limit the electrical pulse of the ten-billion-cell cerebral computer. Thorazine, alcohol and narcotics help apply the brakes. So, I fear, do words.