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Archive for December, 2015

Christmas Nativity

Children await it, grinches hate it, and retailers celebrate it; even as coffee mongers declare war on it. What better time than now to ponder the meaning of Christmas? Not the so-called Real Meaning of Christmas, mind you, for there are nearly as many meanings of Christmas as there are celebrants, but the meaning as any of us might glean after a lifetime of observing traditions and a moment of subtle reflection on the ambiguity of myth.

Consider some of the deeper, archetypal meanings of Christmas. We have, for starters, the differentiated ego-self emerging from the unified spirit, as expressed by the metaphor of God and the birth of His human son. We have the vengeful, disciplinarian God of the Old Testament entering the world as a man in order to understand the suffering inherent in the human condition and to experience genuine compassion for mankind.

From an even more primitive perspective, we can recall the dawn of winter, the Solstice, and the victory of light over darkness, as the days begin to lengthen once more. And still earlier, before our ancestors understood the changing of the seasons, they surely acknowledged the magic of childbirth, life’s truest miracle. Few narratives illustrate the notion of miracles and childbirth like the story of the virgin Mary and the baby Jesus in the faraway stable in Bethlehem.

Today we have elegant models and theories to explain the fertilization of the egg and the replication of genetic material, laws of probability to predict all the possible genotypical recombinations, and ample evidence to describe the resulting phenotypes. These scientific strides have empowered us with knowledge and emboldened us with certainty, but they have largely robbed us of that innocent sense wonder.

To our sophisticated eyes, what is left that we could possibly think of as miraculous? Only those things that cannot be measured by our deft instruments. The unshakable bond between a parent and a child, the perfect unspoken understanding between and mother and her newborn son, the look in a father’s eyes when he examines his newborn daughter’s fingers and toes for the first time. Not that these marvelous sensations must be attributed to some supernatural, higher order, but it would behoove us to bear in mind and cherish the irrational side of life that enriches that human experience but cannot be measured and quantified.

No matter how wise we may become with our laparoscopic surgeries and our personal genome maps, there will always be something magical about the maternal act giving of life, bringing a child into the world and watching it take its first breath, as a partnership of two suddenly erupts into a family of three and then four. It is essential that we remember this magical event, the event with which each of our own lives began. And therefore, we keep our holiday traditions and practice our Christmas rituals, whatever they may be.

This season, let’s spend time with our families, let’s honor our parents and elders, and let us never stop loving the children. As King Herod entreats the Wise Men in Matthew, chapter 2, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.”

 

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Goethe

Poetic Goethe and the German Dialectic

The Germans have a rich and colorful history of dualistic philosophies and philosophers, pitting opposing forces against one another and cogitating their way towards some resolution or reconciliation. The quintessential and all-encompassing example comes from G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) who famously described the dialectical process in thesis, antithesis and synthesis, which purports to explain how a popularly accepted idea is challenged by a new and revolutionary idea, leading finally to a synthesis of the two earlier ideas into a third idea, superior to the first two.

But we could cite many more examples from the annals of Teutonic literature. Friederich Nietzsche explored the struggle between rational Apollonian and passionate Dionysian energies in his early work The Birth of Tragedy. Karl Marx gave us the unforgettable and historically inevitable showdown between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

Hermann Hesse presented us with many such allegories of intra-psychic drama, perhaps most memorably in Demian, but also with Narcissus and Goldmund, whose title characters typified the rivalry of the ascetic and the sensuous. Thomas Mann portrayed a similar dynamic in A Death In Venice. And who can forget the war of wits waged in his monumental Magic Mountain, between Settembrini with his rational humanism and Naphta with his radical zealotry, as each tries to win over the heart and mind of the languidly ambivalent Hans Castorp?

Hesse, in Demian, and finally Carl Jung, in much of his seminal work, especially the later and more esoteric explorations, forge their paths toward resolving the long legacy of duality, striving to demonstrate how the pairs of opposites actually spin together in a sacred dance, not unlike the Rod of Hermes or the double helix DNA molecule.

Out of this profound tradition, one the earliest examples of philosophical duality comes from Germany’s most beloved man of letters, J.W. Goethe (1749-1832), specifically his two poems “Prometheus” and “Ganymed”. Like so many of his fellow countrymen, Goethe calls upon Greek myth and its archetypal patterns that possess our thoughts and ideas in order to clarify his own message about man’s conflicting tendencies and sensibilities. Indeed, what the ancient Greeks already understood about human nature and were able to illustrate through the drama of mythology cannot possibly be overstated.

But whereas other novelists and polemicists might explore or emphasize the dichotomy of personality traits, such as the rational and the passionate or the civilized and the primeval, this pair of poems from Goethe probes deep into man’s enigmatic relationship with and attitude towards the divine.

Prometheus personifies the spirit of defiance and mischief, stealing fire from the gods to provide mankind with a spark of creativity and ingenuity. So determined was he to share this divine power with humanity, that he was willing to suffer the wrath of Zeus, an interminable punishment, and exposure to the elements. Above all else, Prometheus prizes man for his curiosity and imagination. In Zeus, ruler of Mount Olympus, he sees little more than a spiteful and capricious god who will deny mankind the fire simply out of cruel whimsy, “like the boy who beheads thistles”.

In a world so fraught with evil and anguish, how can anyone accept the notion of divine order and a benevolent, omnipotent ruler? Man can only rely on his own perseverance, endurance and imagination, to make matters more tolerable if he can, and to attribute some meaning to his suffering if he cannot.

And so Prometheus remains undaunted, not to be discouraged by Zeus and his merciless Schadenfreude. “Do you somehow imagine I should hate life, flee to the desert, because not every flowering dream may bloom?” No, instead he presses onward, embracing life with all its sorrows and injustices, indefatigable even in the face of a pitiless master. Not only that, but Prometheus will also see to it that humankind learns to follow his example, to flout divine authority and “to mock you—as I do!”

As a counterpoint to this poetic treatise on misotheism, Goethe gives us the story of Ganymede, with whom Zeus is so smitten that the highest of gods abducts the beautiful young boy, and the boy, showered with love and adoration, succumbs willingly to Zeus’ irresistible seduction. Ganymede embodies obedience and acquiescence, happy to do as he’s told and honor the wishes of his master. In return, the compliant personality experiences life as a smooth ride, and the world a place adorned with welcome mats and doors that swing wide upon, where his gaze is met always with smiles and admiration.

For a golden boy like Ganymede there is no hostility inherent in his surroundings. The handsome youth smiles, and the world smiles back. He is ever eager to please, and in return the world pleases him. “There calls the nightingale lovingly for me from the misty vale. I come, I come! Whither, ah whither?” What is ordained by the gods shall not be questioned. Ganymede will heed the command and trust that he will never be led towards anything other than the true and the beautiful.

Perhaps it’s his unblemished optimism, his own good attitude and radiant disposition, that produce the wonderful conditions that he continuously finds himself in. He is blessed with a positive outlook, blithe and cooperative, and the circumstances simply conform to his expectations. On the other hand, maybe it’s his unblemished good looks and magnetic charm that bring him so much good fortune, a stroke of good luck and an accident of birth, to be favored with such a charmed life.

Regardless of whether the attitude leads to the circumstances, or the other way around, Ganymede clearly brims with love for the gods and for his own destiny. The idea that any German philosopher could ever relate to Ganymede’s Panglossian optimism is utterly laughable (with the possible exception of Leibniz, who served as the real-life model for Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss). The parallels with Prometheus, however, are uncannily striking, as if he were the prototypical existentialist. Like Nietzsche, the bringer of fire subscribes to a morality that goes Beyond Good and Evil; like Paul Tillich, he acknowledges the unfairness and absurdity of life but maintains the Courage To Be.

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Why in the world

After writing the last poem to explain to my daughter why there is a world, I decided it was necessary to also provide an alternative explanation. There are some many possible explanations, after all.

Why in the World — the Anapest Alternative

When on high in the hall of almighty creation
A clockmaker works with precise calibration
Adjusting the springs and perfecting his pulleys
A cosmos conceived without mishaps or follies
The gears are wound tight for a bang of release
The original case of disturbing the peace

A universe born with no boundary or border
His laws are enacted with consummate order
As every last detail earns careful attention
Designed with a purpose, by way of intention
Not one thing at random, through chaos or chance
Everything planned like a synchronized dance

The Creator, Scorekeeper, and Giver of Light
Gave us skills to discern what is good and what’s right
Morality jells, with cognition unfolding
And righteous commandments we’re charged with upholding
Now every injustice is wrought with a reason
But sorrow and joy will appear in due season

Maybe not what you want, or what you deserve
But you’ll get what you need, and you’ll surely observe
That wrongdoers sometimes are blessed and rewarded
With more than the high-minded man is afforded
It’s wisdom obscure from the Bringer of Days
His cryptic, mysterious, inscrutable ways
Just don’t get discouraged, should you suffer on earth
For the gold in your heart is your ultimate worth

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Why there’s a world

My five-year-old daughter kept asking why there is a world. She pretty well stumped us with that one. Finally I sat down and wrote this:

Once upon a time there was a time before the time
And in that time no space no place for reason or for rhyme
No stars, no moons, no ice cream cones, not even empty air
Nothing, no way and no how, and nothing anywhere

Then fourteen billion years ago a bubble went kaboom
Our universe appeared just like a baby from a womb
A scattering of heat and gas across an open sky
Created out of nothing, spreading out as time goes by

Quickly stars were born and for the first time there was light
Burning hot they brought the day to end that long, long night
And then eight planets came to form around a certain star
And one of them began to churn like cabbage in a jar

Frothing and fermenting, spawning microscopic life
Rising from the foamy mist of oceanic strife
Our earliest ancestors learned to crawl up on the land
They shed their scales and buffed their nails and metamorphosed and

Soon they started scaling trees, subsisting on their fruit
Snacking on bananas, yes, but never on a newt
Recognizing dangers, most especially the snake
These clever apes discovered simple tools that they could make

Another million years and they climbed down to take a stroll
In search of newer ways in which to make their lives more full
The discovery of fire, it made everything more fun
Providing heat and light and rather like a little sun

Cooking food meant eating better, growing larger brains
For domesticating livestock and cultivating grains
Along came books and science and cantatas penned by Bach
Oh what an epic journey, on our spinning little rock

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Crime and Huckleberry

Crime and Huckleberry: Literary Models for Coping with Anomie

“The Bible is the most sublime of all books but it is after all a book. It is not at all in a few sparse pages that one should look for God’s law, but in the human heart, where his hand deigned to write.” ~Rousseau

It’s been over 130 years since Frederich Nietzsche shocked the world with his pronouncement that God is dead. In the century after, humanity fulfilled with awful accuracy the prophecies of Nietzsche, and others like Kierkegaard and Tolstoy, who warned against the encroachment of nihilism in the modern, post-theistic world. Through the 20th century, science and technology raced forward, bringing unimaginable displays of destruction and human atrocity in its wake, while man’s spiritual side was left to whither and rot like so many decrepit totem poles.

We remain as ill-equipped to deal with this loss of faith and collapse of moral order today as we were in 1882 (the year Nietzsche published his notorious obit in “The Gay Science”). In fact, if we look to the pages of literature for guidance, we find the novels of the late 19th century as relevant as anything we have today when it comes to coping with this crisis. Literary technique evolved by leaps and bounds with the traditions of modernism, post-modernism and post-post-modernism, but the themes of alienation and moral ambiguity have changed little since the days of Dostoyevsky and Mark Twain. Let us then consider two seminal novels by these literary giants, written from drastically differing viewpoints, at opposite ends of the earth, each struggling to resolve questions of justice and morality in the aftermath of the Enlightenment.

Dostoyevsky

Frederich Nietzsche, in one of his rare moments of humility, once described Dostoyevsky as the only psychologist from whom he had anything to learn. It is true that many of Nietzsche’s concerns about the end of morality, penned in the 1880s, were expressed two decades earlier in Dostoyevsky novels like “Notes From Underground” and “The Possessed”. But the preeminent Petersburger’s most chilling portrayal of a man who has ventured “beyond good and evil” must be Raskolnikov of “Crime and Punishment,” written in 1866.

Raskolnikov, the quintessential anti-hero, reckons himself a kind of superman, a full 18 years prior to Nietzsche’s Übermensch. Dostoyevsky had wrestled with the issue a couple years earlier, in “Notes From Underground,” of how man can reach his highest potential once rational determinism has rendered the religious order obsolete. The Underground man (the short novel’s unnamed protagonist and narrator) raves about how science and reason offer the promise of a deterministic world where every human action can be calculated and predicted with the precision of Newtonian physics. If these mathematicians and statisticians have their way, they will develop formulae for everything, and seemingly rob man of his free will.

“Good heavens, gentlemen, what sort of free will is left when we come to tabulation and arithmetic, when it will all be a case of twice two makes four? Twice two makes four without my will. As if free will meant that!”

The Underground man marvels at the daunting progress of Reason, but cannot reconcile it with the fact the man is inescapably prone to act unreasonably, against his own self interest, which is the key factor in the behavorial predictions. Perhaps good natured altruism and an obedient disposition are enough to make man sublimate his self interest, but Dostoyevsky harbors a greater concern with man’s penchant for self-destruction.

“Shower upon him every earthly blessing, drown him in a sea of happiness. . . . and even then out of sheer ingratitude, sheer spite, man would play you some nasty trick. . . and deliberately desire the most fatal rubbish, for the most uneconomical absurdity, simply to introduce into all this positive good sense his fatal fantastic element.” (NFU, Part 1, Sect. 6ish)

Raskolnikov epitomizes the shortcomings of airtight reasoning like a true descendant of the Underground man, exhibiting that very determination to introduce the “fatal fantastic element” and cast his lot into uncertainty. This tendency to act out traces back to man’s earliest origins, recalling another act of disobedience that led the first man and woman to be cast from the garden of paradise. Perhaps the predilection for defiance is rooted in our need to express our free will and exert our individuality, the same simple way a two year old does. Or perhaps it’s something deeper.

In the case of Raskolnikov, there is no question but that he is out to prove his intellectual superiority, much like the intellectualism mocked at length by the Underground man. In the earlier novel, Dostoyevsky caricatures a world where moral authority has been supplanted by runaway logic and objectivism. It is just such a world that Raskolnikov is participating in, with the implication that the moral high ground is up for grabs by whoever constructs the most clever, if convoluted, argument. It is a case of “might makes right” for the modern man, where mental might makes right. And is that, after all, so much different from the system of justice we see today, where plaintiffs and defendants are judged by the elegance of the arguments rather than the contents of their characters?

Raskolnikov spurns the common notions of right and wrong, and society’s obligations to protect the weak and defenseless, and he assumes for himself a position above these socially constructed standards. In Part 3, Ch. 5, detective Porfiry brings up Raskolnikov’s recent magazine article on the subject of crime. In this provocative essay, Raskolnikov showed off his skills as a polemicist and rhetorician, and seems to have impressed the police detective, but in the final analysis Dostoyevsky has exposed the dangerous limitations of Reason without rectitude. For in the end, Raskolnikov’s eloquent exploration of ordinary versus extraordinary individuals proves misguided and immoral.

Without a strict moral code to offer some social cohesion and encourage us to sublimate our Will, we drift unanchored into a state of nihilism where each individual defines and defends his own morality to the best of his argumentative ability. We arrive, in other words, at moral relativism, where no universal order of morality prevails. So Raskolnikov declares himself an “extraordinary man”, above the law, ultimately claiming the right to murder an old woman whose life is quantifiably less valuable than his, following the argument that justice would be better served by redistributing her rubles to the poor.

One might read this as an unveiled and preemptive attack on the form of coercive socialism his country would witness 50 years later under Comrade Stalin. But we also see Dostoyevsky issuing a harsh warning against abandoning Judeo-Christian morality—which is really rooted in a far, far older tradition, as old as the notion of God itself—in the name of scientific positivism. And it is a criticism that deserves serious consideration, especially given the recent rise of neo-atheism (which elevates the scientific method to a comprehensive world view without really saying anything that Nietzsche didn’t say better a century ago) coming hand-in-hand with the resurgence of religious fundamentalism (in which stalwart monotheists scramble to garrison themselves against the threat of secular science). Consider also the twin crises of violence and mental illness that have plagued our society in Biblical proportions over the last generation, and it’s worth re-examining the vast power vacuum left by the death of God.

Over the course of novel, two factors prevail in showing Raskolnikov the error of his hifalutin, theoretical ways. Internally, the aspiring criminal mastermind is racked with guilt. His conscience, speaking to him from the dark depths of his dreams—a full 30 years before Freud laid his theory of dream analysis on the world—reminds Raskolnikov that punishment may come in many forms, even if he is able to evade or outsmart the long arm of the law.

Meanwhile Sonja, his imperfect but deeply religious partner, forcefully insists that there is pressure from God. She begs of him, “Go at once, this very minute, stand at the cross-roads, bow down, first kiss the earth which you have defiled and then bow down to the whole world and say to all men aloud, ‘I am a murderer!’” (Part 5, Ch. 4) Sonja’s religious devotion is a source of mysterious attraction to Raskolnikov, as if he craves a closeness to God that he cannot put into words. Her voice soothes him as she reads from the Bible. She is the light, feminine aspect that his dark nature longs for.

Raskolnikov may try to cheat the justice of criminal law, but there is no cheating God and the cosmic order (the earth he is instructed to kiss). If he fails to confess his crime, he might escape the penal colonies of Siberia, but his soul will suffer an eternity of divine retribution. This pair of influences, internal and external, is one more example among the many ways in which Raskolnikov balances the dualistic forces of the world: good and evil, mind and spirit, man and God. I would contend, however, that God and the conscience are simply two different names for the same invisible, irrational element that quietly guides our judgment.

Ultimately Raskolnikov serves as a warning against substituting a lot of fancy new age philosophy for age old, traditional values and the intuitive voice of our conscience. Incidentally, a fancy philosopher named Nietzsche would come along 20 years later to do exactly that, announce an era of nihilism in which the old and the traditional no longer held water. As he explains in “Zarathustra”, it is the role of the Übermensch (superman or overman) to transcend that obsolete value system and live life on his own terms. But how many disastrous Raskolnikovs will the nihilistic new order produce for every enlightened Übermensch?

In any case, no amount of philosophical footwork can topple the simple facts of right and wrong. Even Katerina, in her innocence, recognizes morality as something to be understood objectively, when she cries out, “Good God! . . . is there no justice upon earth? Whom should you protect if not us orphans?”

Huckleberry Finn

Mark Twain was certainly familiar with Dostoyevsky, but it’s unlikely that Nietzsche read a great deal of Twain, or vice versa (despite the uncanny similarity in their facial hair). Regardless, the Missouri maestro’s sensibility to moral uncertainty is plain to see, and provides a fertile comparison with that of our Russian genius. Not quite the philosopher and prophet that Dostoyevsky was, Twain presents a scenario, no so far-fetched, in which the moral order codified by society falls short of true morality.

Huckleberry Finn’s world, the American South of the mid-19th century, is a world of institutionalized slavery, official racism, and upside-down values. The church and the state, working together as “sivilization”, have failed, and it is up to Huck to construct his own system of right and wrong. But Twain, of course, wraps the whole dilemma in a thick layer of irony, producing a comical conundrum with nevertheless profound overtones.

“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” revolves around the exploits of a young hooligan who runs away from home to play hooky and navigate the currents of the Mississippi River. Along for the ride, Huck’s older travel companion is a runaway slave name Jim. Along the way, the anomalous pair encounter tricksters, do-gooders, law men and bounty hunters, and Huck repeatedly runs into risks and questions about what to do with poor Jim. On the surface, these appear mere logistical questions of boy on a joy ride, but in fact, they are deeply philosophical questions for a boy striving to make sense of the world around him.

Huck concedes to the authority of the church, which flatly condones the notion of slaves as property. He will never forget what he learned in Sunday school, that “people that acts as I’d been acting about that nigger goes to everlasting fire.” So when Huck defies the church’s teachings and continues protecting Jim, he accepts that he is in violation and doing “wrong”.

It is obvious to the reader that Huck has taken the high ground, yet the voice of authority, which Huck confuses with his own conscience, keeps eating away at him. “The more I studied about this, the more my conscience went to grinding me, and the more wicked and lowdown and ornery I got to feeling.” Clearly this lesser conscience is the voice of “sivilization” that’s nagging him.

Meanwhile, another urge, the greater conscience which he is unable to identify, persuades him to keep helping Jim, and the two forces butt heads in Huck’s confused mind. “My conscience got to stirring me up hotter than ever,” he reports, convinced that he must speak out and turn Jim over to the law. “I tried for a second or two to brace up and out with it, but I warn’t man enough.” So the greater conscience prevails in a moral victory, yet Huck faults himself as morally inadequate for his inability to comply with the law. “All right then,” he resolves, “I’ll go to hell.”

Redemption

It’s an unlikely pairing of books, but the comparison yields some interesting results. Essentially, we have on one side a criminal mastermind who convinces himself—and tries to persuade others—that he can commit a capital crime and sin without culpability; and on the other we have an innocent child who commits acts of genuine goodness but is convinced by society that he is guilty of doing wrong. A guilty conscience eventually catches up with the first, while the second resigns himself to live outside of proper society. So finally, both characters end up accepting what is good and right, with or against God’s influence.

Like Raskolnikov, Huck has his own system of right and wrong, independent of and opposed to that ordained by society. Although he considers himself a sinner, it is Huck and not the church who stands for genuine morality. Raskolnikov, on the other hand, deems himself superior, when in fact his moral philosophy is clearly warped and depraved. Twain seems to imply that man does not need a church or a society to deliver morality, that they are in fact more likely to pervert it. Rather, the individual, the noble savage as it were, has an innate knowledge, in his naive innocence, of what is truly right.

Raskolnikov rationalizes his way to a new, albeit wicked, morality, though his gnawing conscience (the voice of God?) knows that there is an absolute right and wrong that fancy semantics cannot overturn. Young Huck, on the other hand, trusts the morality prescribed by society and mistakenly refers to it as his conscience, but like Raskolnikov, he has a higher conscious that knows better. Huck does not trust his instincts, but follows them anyway, and begrudgingly accepts society’s judgment that he is doing wrong by leading a runaway slave to freedom.

Whereas Dostoyevsky laments the erosion of divine moral authority under the sinking pressure of secular reasoning, Twain distrusts the authority of man-made institutions and dreads their ability to corrupt the innocent soul who knows in his heart what’s right without having to be told. Huck is able to resist the errant influence of his socially constructed “conscience”, at least so far, but how long before it may drown out the voice of innate goodness from his heart?

Twain exemplifies the faith in the individual and the distrust of government endemic to these United States. While Dostoyevsky seems to require a higher Lawmaker to impose a fixed order and guide man’s conscience, Twain puts all his faith in the innocent rogue, unblemished by civilization, to find his way to the good and the true.  It seems to me that Dostoyevsky’s breed of self-reliance leans a bit too heavily on a religious system of the past, while Twain’s ignores the importance of community standards and social cohesion. It is time then to find a new path, that we may move forward together.

It is not a question of whether we are entitled to adopt our own value system; whether our society is immoral, amoral, or both, we must. But we must discern. After all, there is a difference between right and wrong, supernatural deity or not. Above all else, we must never stop asking ourselves what’s the right thing to do.

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