Saturday, November 28, 2015
MILOSZ: HUMAN SOLITUDE IN THE UNIVERSE; SHALLOWNESS OF MYSTICISM; ENTER, MEANING RETURN
THE FAR NORTH
It’s been snowing all night.
My mother and I take turns
pushing father’s wheelchair.
He dozes. He’s already part of the snow.
Mother remembers that he used to have
“an excellent sense of direction.”
No use now.
Only night and snow.
A ship is waiting in the harbor.
It could still be a hundred miles.
The stars look blurred, as if caught
in a long photographic exposure.
We don’t even notice the cold.
~ Oriana © 2015
This poem was inspired by a dream I had when my father was nearing the end. Parkinson's is a very cruel disease. It also tends to last a long time, so you get used to this new reality (“we don't even notice the cold”). When you are a caretaker, it may seem that the sick person will never die, even though there is progressive deterioration. Things will just keep on getting worse and worse, you’re trudging in the snow farther and farther north — but that’s just how it is and will be.
Now this poem reminds that “this too shall pass” — both the good and the bad shall end.
The phrase “far north” makes me think of Longfellow’s famous poem, “Ultima Thule” — referring to the northernmost region of the earth as imagined by ancient geographers.
With favoring winds, o'er sunlit seas,
We sailed for the Hesperides,
The land where golden apples grow;
But that, ah! that was long ago.
How far, since then, the ocean streams
Have swept us from that land of dreams,
That land of fiction and of truth,
The lost Atlantis of our youth!
Whither, ah, whither? Are not these
The tempest-haunted Orcades,
Where sea-gulls scream, and breakers roar,
And wreck and sea-weed line the shore?
Ultima Thule! Utmost Isle!
Here in thy harbors for a while
We lower our sails; a while we rest
From the unending, endless quest.
~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Youth’s “land of dreams” versus finding yourself in Ultima Thule — yes, much has been written about that, and I'm not going to repeat it. What I repeat to myself in my mind is “Ultima Thule! Utmost Isle!” It’s the sheer music of the words that enchants me, and obliterates the negative meaning.
MILOSZ AND OTHERS ON HUMAN SOLITUDE IN THE UNIVERSE
Milosz: “Our epoch began somewhere around the end of the eighteenth, the beginning of the nineteenth century, and should be viewed as a whole. It is distinguished by a central philosophical problem ripening slowly as a result of the criticism directed at traditional Christian beliefs and aristocratic institutions, monarchy chief among them. . . . The true revolutionaries were the poets and the artists, even the most ethereal and least bloodthirsty of them, because they cleared the way; that is, they acted as the organizers of the collective imagination in a new dimension, that of man’s solitude as a species.”
Milosz also says: “The common feature of the teachings of Hegel, Feuerbach, Marx, and Nietzsche is their portrayal of the stupefaction of man when he recognizes that BEYOND HIM THERE IS NOBODY IN THE UNIVERSE, and that he does not owe his attributes to any deity.” (“Speaking as a Mammal”)
Milosz may be overestimating the revolutionary role of the arts; economic and technological forces doubtless play a huge role in cultural evolution, and the failure (so far) of the SETI project to find intelligent extra-terrestrial life has no doubt had an impact (such life may exist, but so far away that communication is impossible). If anything, one could argue that it’s writers and artists (especially movie makers) who keep alive the yearning for meeting “someone out there.” But that “someone” is no longer imagined as a deity, but rather as an equal.
Indeed, in another essay Milosz does acknowledge the central role of technology in the process of secularization. But if I read Milosz correctly, he posits “man’s solitude as a species” as the central problem of modernity. He may be right; the explosion of science fiction, the most visionary branch of literature and film, seems to express a yearning for (and sometimes a fear of) intelligent extraterrestrial beings who could communicate with us. As angels and demons become increasingly implausible, ETs (wise as Yoda, or primitive as Chewbacca) rush into the mythological vacuum.
Yet all we have is science fiction (and the emphasis here should be on FICTION) and the notion that the universe is so vast that earthlike life is likely somewhere — but most likely too far away for contact.
From a recent article in The Guardian:
“In the very long run, as the sun gets hotter, the only way for humans or our successors to survive may be to move off-planet; it actually makes sense to start thinking about this now. Such a vision – "often implied but rarely acknowledged explicitly for fear of cynical ridicule" according to Billings – has guided space exploration since its inception when Konstantin Tsiolkovsky dreamed up the first space rockets in a remote log cabin in the late 19th century. It explicitly informs Starship Century: Toward the Grandest Horizon, a recent volume in which distinguished scientists explore the feasibility of initiating interstellar travel by 2100.
In "The Light Years", one of the Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino, the narrator sees with his telescope a sign on a galaxy a hundred million light years away that says "I saw you". Aghast, he checks his diary and finds that on that very day 200 million years before he had done something that he had always tried to hide. He casts around frantically for a response, contemplating "Let me explain" and "I'd like to have seen you in my place" before settling for "What of it?" A conversation unfolds between the narrator and his distant interlocutor, with even more remote observers pitching into an exchange in which each comment takes hundreds of millions of years to arrive.
Calvino was writing in the 1960s, shortly after the discovery of quasars and at a time when the nature of the universe as we now understand it was coming into view. He turned this to delightful comic effect. But speculation that life exists across huge distances inthe cosmos is not new. In the sixth century BC Anaximander suggested that other worlds were endlessly forming and disintegrating in a universe of infinite extent. A century later Democritus, the laughing philosopher, argued that the never-ending dance of atoms would inevitably lead to countless other worlds and other lives. In the 12th century AD, citing a verse in the Qur'an that describes Allah as Lord of the Worlds, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi wrote of a thousand thousand worlds.
In the 17th century Johannes Kepler, Christiaan Huygens and others began to wonder if improvements to the recently invented telescope would one day enable humans to actually examine some of those other worlds. "There may be yet created several other helps for the eye," wrote Robert Hooke in 1665, "such as by which we may perhaps be able to discover living Creatures in the Moon, or other Planets.”
And yet in at least one respect we are no further along than Democritus or Hooke. We have found no trace of other life. This seems strange. Given the age of the universe and its vast number of stars, extraterrestrial beings should be common. As Enrico Fermi put it tersely in 1950: where the hell are they?
In Five Billion Years of Solitude, Lee Billings tells the stories of those who have tried and are trying to answer Fermi's question.”
Why didn’t the atheist cross the road? — Because there is no other side. ~ Dan Barker
SPIRITUAL NO MORE: THE SHALLOWNESS OF MYSTICISM
Mystical explanations are considered deep. The truth is that they are not even superficial. ~ Nietzsche
It still takes Nietzsche to say something as politically incorrect as this, and as exhilarating. Do we need “mystical” explanations of the universe? I think we can enjoy the mysterious without multiplying useless metaphysics.
I don't deny the interconnectedness of things, but see no reason to call it mysticism. Do we gain anything by using this word? We might as well call interconnectedness exactly what it is — “interconnectedness”— and gain precision. It’s a perfectly natural phenomenon — no supernatural explanation is necessary.
Personally I have never found any depth or strength through religion, nor have I found religious people to radiate love and peace the way a profoundly happy person does — say, someone who is in love, or someone who is very deeply devoted to their work (which is like being in love, but much more lasting). All that talk about the afterlife was vague and abstract and ultimately a bunch of platitudes about something invisible for which there was no evidence — unlike a tree or an animal, or a a painting or a poem. I have found depth through art and simply hard work -- which taught me humility, patience, and all the other virtues that going to church never imparted. Fear of god only taught me to hate the invisible monster in the sky who spied on everyone's thoughts, beyond any Orwellian nightmare.
I appreciate the part of Ecclesiastes that says two things 1) whatever thy hand finds to do, do it with all thy might 2) at other times, put on nice clean clothes and enjoy life while there is still time. That's all the wisdom I learned from the bible, finding most of it insufferably boring and/or vicious and archaic, with lots of violence but little understanding of human psychology, esp child abuse which leads to so much aggression and suffering later. I've learned a bit from Buddhism -- but that bit about desire and suffering has been extremely important. The rest I learned from life itself and from grappling with something very difficult — poetry and challenging intellectual work in general.
I am thrilled that it's finally OK to reject mysticism and not provoke a storm by saying there is no soul nor the "beyond." When someone dies, he remains in the memory of others -- and that to me is an awe-inspiring neurobiological mystery. The inner world of our dreams is stranger and more fascinating than any idea of the afterlife.
This morning I had a dream vaguely set in Italy — an artist colony, perhaps. There is a dog ambling about, and I decide it’s “my dog” (I'm certainly going to pet it and spoil it). “I have an Italian dog,” I say to a man who happens to be standing there. “Her name is Correggio.” In the dream I believe that this mean courage. My Italian is imperfect, to put it mildly — the word for “courage” is “coraggio.” “Correggio” isn’t even a word, but seems to derive from the word for correcting. (Also, there was a Renaissance painter who was known by that name, after the small Italian town where he was born)
I could see it as a mystical dream — it takes courage to correct a mistake, right? A message from heaven, divine wisdom sent to guide me! To me, it’s simply my unconscious rearranging bits and pieces (I know where Italy came from, and the fantasy of having a dog; I know which act of courage I recently decided on, and another one which would actually be more difficult). And the startling fusion of the words? I’ve always loved languages, learning a word here, a phrase there, and know how easy it is to fuse and confuse.
We are hard-wired to seek patterns and meaning. On the whole this is a good thing, but it can result in the mistake of seeing a pattern where none exists, assuming that “everything happens for a reason,” and manufacturing supernatural explanations.
As Matt said, “Mysticism throws everything back in the formless cauldron so it can be endlessly prated about without logical restrictions.”
You may object that the shallowness I speak about is that of the commercialized “spiritual” movement which sells the trappings — crystals, incense, little altars — but of course can’t sell the alleged depth of the “holy men.” Many of them strike me as charlatans, pure and simple. As for monks and nuns, up close they turn out to be just ordinary human beings who happen to be dressed in strange clothes (which used to be ordinary street clothes in the Middle Ages) and who live in communes rather than in family or single households. Those who do well in communal living are extraverts rather than deep thinkers.
Yet once you delve into physics, the ordinary becomes extraordinary, and the true mystery is all around us. As Nietzsche also said, once you look at something in sufficient depth, an infinity opens up. And that infinity may be frightening to some, but a source of ecstatic joy to others.
One of my discoveries in life has been that it’s happy people who exude peace and love. The easiest way to be happy is to be in love. Now, that love need not be erotic. To me, the most important thing is to be in love with work. I mean not the work you do for a living, though in the luckiest cases there is an overlap, but what you feel is the true work of your life. Daily communion with such work leads to a sense of fulfillment and deep and lasting happiness.
Contrary to Nietzsche, I claim that happiness is the source of strength and virtues such as as kindness, humility, and serenity. How do we become happy? Freud gave the perfect answer: love and work. A gardener happy among flowers, a chef happy in her kitchen, a mother enjoying her child, a father shooting baskets with his youngsters, a scientist in his lab, an artists in his studio — these are the true benefactors of humanity, rather than preachers with their platitudes, or the so-called mystics with theirs.
Though my examples tend to be those of meaningful work, in a way, it all comes down to love: the work you love will usually lead you to people you love — and will make it easier to at least like others. In my experience, I like people best when I am able to do the work I love. My connection to my work gives me the foundation and security so that I can also be spontaneously affectionate.
You may ask, “But what about those nuns who claim to be in love with Jesus?” Yes, a few among them, like Teresa of Avila, may even have hallucinations that make Jesus seem an actual man, and a handsome one at that. But an imaginary lover is just that — a rather limited and one-sided experience, a longing for a soul-mate that can find no outlet in a real person. An idealized imaginary lover has some advantages over a real lover, but — a real lover is always more interesting. Reality is richer. I pity those who, perhaps in order to survive deprivation, settle for the imaginary.
Falling in love in the usual meaning of the term? Yes please. It’s turbulent, scary, and difficult, but it can be ecstatic. At the very least, it’s always interesting. It’s not the same as a deep attachment to the right person, which takes years, but love in any form can be a source of happiness. Good things come from happiness.
As for the feeling of awe, which is supposed to be central to mysticism, again I say yes. Religion is not necessary for the feeling of awe. For me the beauty of nature is enough. A combination of the beauty of nature and the collective human genius is a source of inexhaustible awe for me. An great art and music, including sacred art and music. I am open to whatever poetry religion can offer, the esthetic-sensual aspect. The “holy hush” one can experience in beautiful churches when they are empty, yes. Anything that leads to a deep sense of happiness, the joy of being alive and experiencing all manner of perceptions.
Correggio: Jupiter and Io
THE VASTNESS OF THE UNIVERSE FEELS COMFORTABLE TO ME
Pascal complained that the “eternal silence of those infinite spaces” frightened him. I had the opposite reaction, even as a child. The hugeness of the universe pleased me immensely -- it was so clearly not about reward and punishment for using a profanity or spilling the soup (my idea of what "sin" meant).
The universe was so much bigger than all our petty struggles, or causes like nationalism. Nature simply was, without moral justification of any sort. When I looked at the night sky, I knew early on that this was beyond any naive biblical account written by men who had no idea where the sun went during the night.
To me the stars at night — my abbreviated image for “the universe” — just the world thrilled me — were nature that did not appear to need the existence of the god of punishment. Looking at the stars, I did not feel like a sinner, but like someone privileged to behold wonders. I did not feel judged.
This, by the way, was the advantage of the New Age movement over Christianity — its sundry teachings were non-judgmental. It was truly emotionally supportive. For some, it was the dream of a completely supportive religion come true. It was like liberal Protestantism, but without the burden of the Old Testament dragging it down. (To emphasize this, New Age spoke of the Spirit, or even The Holy Spirit; “Christ Consciousness” was occasionally mentioned and equated with “Buddha Consciousness”; Yahweh, however, was deleted, except for occasional short paragraphs of rage against the toxic old-time religion with its vengeful god.)
One touch of badness came during the years that the ruling motto was “You create your own reality” — meaning, if you got cancer, it wasn’t your genes and/or carcinogens or aging. It was your negative thinking. This kind of talk got profoundly trashed as the ultimate in “blaming the victim,” and faded relatively quickly. But if you didn’t “create your cancer” — or, “attracted cancer into your life” — then what about your ability to create good things in your life by having positive thoughts? Doubt crept in. The absurd, shallow side of this mysticism lay exposed — see the “Spiritual No More” section of this blog.
photo: Luigi Chiriaco
I looked down at my keyboard and saw one key:
Enter, with its backward arrow.
Enter, meaning Return.
I'm not sure if I wrote this. I remember that a friend pointed out that the “Enter” key used to be called “Return” back in typewriter days. So arguably the other name of “Enter” is “Return.”
I'm content to let the author be the “collective psyche.”
It’s been true many times in my life: going back to something begun a long time ago has yielded rich “returns.” Every day I start something new, and almost every day I discover something seeded in the past. Often it’s mainly return: I rework an older piece of writing. It gives me joy to have all these riches to return to.
I know this won’t go on indefinitely. As Jane Kenyon put it, “One day it will be otherwise.” But if it could go on, I wouldn’t mind living like that for centuries.
And if there is a gate of paradise, I think it may have a sign over it that says RETURN.
You say returning is an illusion? “You can't go home again.” True. In another poem I say:
Odysseus only thought he returned.
By then, Ithaca
was another country.
But a partial return is possible, as to a favorite vacation spot — and if that's the best we can have, that's fine with me. Meanwhile we will always fantasize about those big and impossible returns — the thrill of the first love, for instance (never mind how it ended). It existed; it happened. The most important thing about love is simply that it happens.