|This spiel contains some bits (and endless contextual excerpts) included in my current interview with Matt Freese added to overflow from my ever-digressive, tortured mind. Because it started as small editor thoughts notes, it is by no means thorough, coherent, or finished. I don't know if writing about this subject can be finished. But I plan on expanding it into a larger essay some day.|
© 2007 David Herrle
my name is Human
I come from Love.
on earth it's easy to forget our home.
all remember from time to time.
"Human" by Sol Seppy
In Aeschylus' Agamemnon, Cassandra wails (as translated by Philip Vellacott, 1956): "Alas for human destiny! Man's happiest hours/Are pictures drawn in shadow. Then ill fortune comes,/And with two strokes the wet sponge wipes the drawing out." Humanity is in deep, blinding despair to this day: more deeply because intellectual search and hope for a unified knowledge are abandoned or mocked, and this despair entails relegating spiritual, poetic, God-acquaintance, and real love to La-La Land rather than actuality and human reach. Disappointment in sustaining happiness breeds such despair and rejection. Insult from injury smears ideas of human ultimacy, humans as worthy ends rather than mere strugglers for comfort. Modern "philosophy" has become a quest for untruth or battering of truth, a war against mind itself: a quest against quest. Thinkers tend to wallow or revel in the inferiority of thought (to what?). The modern world image is, as Buber said, a disbelief in world image, what brilliantly foolish Carl Sagan calls "our conceits about being the center of the universe". In Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, one of the Ten World Controllers, Mustapha Mond, ponders the ingenuity of a heretical book that he bans for the sake of the utopia:
It was the sort of idea that might easily decondition the more unsettled minds among the higher castes - make them lose their faith in happiness as the Sovereign Good and take to believing, instead, that the goal was somewhere beyond, somewhere outside the present human sphere; that the purpose of life was not the maintenance of well-being, but some intensification and refining of consciousness, some enlargement of knowledge.
Dostoyevsky's Father Zossima says as much:
worldly] have science; but in science there is nothing but what is the
object of sense. The spiritual world, the higher part of man's being
is rejected altogether, dismissed with a sort of triumph, even with
hatred." In an
apparent loss or absence of God and reliable Love survival becomes the
only, temporary good: avoiding evils and scrambling to fill bellies. (How
pity, charity, and love tumbles out of unintended, physical chance plus
time is beyond me.) Man does not truly live on bread
alone. Satisfaction of needs is not the
summit of human achievement and health.
As Dostoyevsky wrote, "The secret of man's being is not
only to live but to have something to live for."
Only highly intended creatures can fall so low as humanity. We know our wrong to the point of disbelieving in ultimate salvation. We don't deserve it. Strict materialism is stuck in jungle law: tooth for tooth. We are our own punishers, but we seek outside blame while disbelieving in an outside. Stuck in a walled-in physical cycle, there is no Grace. "The maze of nature is inextricable, and offers no escape" without higher understanding, Swedenborg says. As in Greek Tragedy, legalistic fate reigns. We must all be punished for the guilt of being alive. We are caught in a Macbethian hell. As Harold Bloom wrote: "Nature is crime in Macbeth, but hardly in the Christian sense that calls out for nature to be redeemed by grace, or by expiation and forgiveness. As in King Lear, we have no place to go in Macbeth; there is no sanctuary available to us." Salvation from the cycle is not obtainable from within the cycle. "Do we matter in mere matter?" is our common question. Love says "Yes." Love and loveliness show that we are miracles in a natural, effectively hostile world of pain and accident: that there are a surprising number of goods in a big bad universe. Said G.K. Chesterton:
The center of every man's existence is a dream. Death, disease, insanity are merely material accidents, like a toothache or a twisted ankle. That these brutal forces always besiege and often capture the citadel does not prove that they are the citadel.
When it comes to belief in true Love and God amidst slaughter and evil, in order to trust in Love, to believe beyond the worms, I insist on the Presence in the apparent absence contrasted to the as-if-not of our bloody world. This involves cosmic knowability in general. As writer George MacDonald says, Truth-Idea allows the call of disbelief in the first place. Wittgenstein similarly stresses that doubt follows belief, certainty is presupposed in doubt. Then again, young Witty opposed empiricism so extremely as to insist that merely checking every inch of a room didn't prove that there wasn't a rhinoceros in that room. (He later expressed belief in God as the outside-this-world meaning that couldn't and therefore shouldn't be talked about in our meager language. But Witty is too heavy for this spiel and certainly for my pea-brain.) Even nutty Nietzsche addressed the cornerstone of any knowledge thus:
Our belief in things: this is the precondition of our belief in logic...Our very first acts of thought - affirmation and denial, decisions about truth and untruth - are...already influenced by our belief that we can discover true knowledge, that our judgments can be the truth...
I use these notions (probably quite differently from all three men) to show that skepticism itself rests on trustworthy bases, as basic as our own perception and knowing faculties. Belief in belief is needed before existential rejection can happen. Doubt in everything cancels doubt, just as unwise reason can slay reason and logic can slay logic. If we can't know knowability, then we're claiming to fire bullets from guns that don't work. When we lose high hopes and appetite for the ideal, what Baudelaire called the "unquenchable thirst for all that lies beyond", we tend to sink into machine-like, "safe" routine or despair. We eat ourselves in our hunger for purpose. We become what I now regularly call samoyed, the Russian word for "self-eaters".
David Hume, who was honest enough to admit despair, logic-ed himself into illogic, buried himself because he proved himself a dead man. He became a samoyed. His own words are the best illustration of the mind-suicidal man: "I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning and can look upon no opinion even as more probable or likely than another. Where am I, or what?" He chose to force himself to focus on the so-called little, everyday things rather than the big questions, to avoid torment. "When I turn my eye inward, I find nothing but doubt and ignorance." Joseph Conrad's Kurtz concludes existence as "The horror". "Droll thing life is - that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose." Marlow, the narrator, notes Kurtz' despaired detachment: "There was nothing either above or below him...He was alone." He suffers a similar, passionate fate as Melville's Ahab.
Which brings me back to the Presence in the absence idea. I think human despair comes through a sense of loss, and a sense of loss implies a once-had, a missing existent. Bogged natural man tends to throw tantrums at gloomy apparencies. Coleridge lamented the "spells, that film the eye of Faith,/Hiding the present God". But the "Great Idea" persists. We are matter that realizes matter. As Robertson Davies suggested, "some moral purposes exist deep in the psyche of man." (Even nihilist Ingmar Bergman couldn't help but include beautiful music and artistry in his hope-crushing films.) Life is a missing or finding of something we already know. As Swedenborg wrote, "nothing is further removed from the human understanding than what at the same time is really present to it; and...nothing is more present to it than what is universal, prior, and superior..." Utopianism and even Third Reichs or Year Zeroes are symptoms of humanity's warped thirst for reunification and Purposeful Beauty. Utopian endeavors aren't all foolish or nefarious. They show the deep lack of and yen for goodness and light against physical evidence of futility. And wishing for a God in a foxhole, so to speak, is not unreasonable. King's College religious philosopher, Peter Byrne, stressed that if faith in such transcendence resembles wishful thinking, ala Freud and Feuerbach, it isn't necessarily "merely wishful". I think it's heightened knowing rather than superstitious desperation. It's not an opiate; collectivism is an opiate. The real challenge may be wishing for or needing God in relative comfort.
Doubting God because of bloody, unfair evidence is far from preposterous. In fact, it's a strongly moral indignation. And despair easily happens. Did it not happen to Christ on the crucifix (as one might believe or as the story goes)? Chesterton shows that "God was forsaken of God" and cried the righteously angry atheists' cry. Christ was "the only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation" and Christianity is the "only one religion in which God for an instant [was] an atheist". Dostoyevsky's Ivan Karamazov rejected God for a very good reason: perpetual suffering. We wonder why a God doesn't prevent suffering and evil for creatures' sakes. Utopians mistake the erasure of suffering as achieving the ultimate good. Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel wrote in All Rivers Run to the Sea: "I have risen against [God's] injustice, protested his silence and sometimes his absence, but my anger rises up within the faith and not outside it."
Insistence that a good God would outlaw suffering and evil (ala Hume) is used as argument against God's existence or at least God's goodness. On one hand, the concept of an all-controlling God is treated as nefarious as it is insulting; anger that God is not controlling enough to determine goodness and provide total comfort is on the other hand. (Homer's Zeus complains, "What a lamentable thing it is that men should blame the gods and regard us as the source of their troubles, when it is their own wickedness which brings them sufferings worse than any which Destiny allows them." - trans. E.V. Rieu) Freedom is mistaken as zero pain or want. "Bread alone" living is preached as salvation. Meaning in suffering seems outrageous; we seem cut out of participation in the drama, assaulted, toyed with for no or for some cruel reason. (The Epictetus and Seneca crew at least found nobility in withstanding life's ills.) Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote: "Happiness in this world...comes incidentally. Make it an object of pursuit, and it leads us a wild-goose chase, and is never attained." The good news is that outrage against the good/bad dichotomy and blaming it or a faulty or a non-existent God for human error is itself an appeal to a "good," an acknowledgement of a "better," a remedy (which presupposes an ailment). Chesterton says that foundations-shaking satire needs a sense of superior standard to criticize faulty ones.
The pleasure/pain principle doesn't go far enough in human explanation or in spiritual health. We are stuck with the riddle of conscience, "an old word almost out of fashion", as genius John Adams said. And it certainly doesn't explain feeling forsaken of God. Disappointment comes from a deeper knowledge, a hardwired valuation - valuation impossible without meaning, without true measurement. (Yes, living as if is better than as if not.) I think we discredit our own hearts and minds, just as we tend to mistake the ancients as mere ignorant brutes. Our very discontent with evils and God's apparent shortcomings or nothingness is implicit belief in Love and non-evil. And our failure to vanquish evil breeds dangerous disappointment that degenerates into spiteful, "liberal" ruthlessness: war against disorder through despotism and mind/environment control. (Read Burgess' The Wanting Seed or A Clockwork Orange.)
In Reflections On The Psalms, C.S. Lewis writes about the nihilistic passages in Ecclesiastes: "We get there a clear, cold picture of man's life without God...We need to have heard it." And in reference to the negative passages in Psalms, he writes: "The shadows have indicated...something more about the light." James Baldwin, in his introduction to Blues For Mister Charlie, wrote, "We are walking in terrible darkness here, and this is one man's attempt to bear witness to the reality and the power of light."
Christ on the cross felt the shadows. We know the sinful depths of the death camps from the glorious heights of charity, love, and Grace. "[T]hen I found in my heart a quiet spot where the treasure of religion had rested unnoticed, and through it I am saved from despair," rejoiced Heinrich Heine. In unwitting (I assume) Boehmean/Swedenborgian fashion, the rock band The Police expressed a hope for correspondence in transcendent analogy, evoking a sun of the sun, so to speak, the true lifegiver to dead nature:
There has to be an invisible sun
We crave salvation from self-punishment, from harsh and dehumanizing legalism, from horrors. Our films, our books, our comics reflect a thirst for sin-eaters, for scapegoats, for saviors, for heroes, for flight and escape and baptism. Soundgarden, a band I don't particularly dig but respect, has a wonderful song called "Black Hole Sun" that seems to cry in this thirst for salvation:
Times are gone
In my shoes
Black hole sun
I insist (against my easier, bleaker tendencies) on the Presence in apparent absence and ultimate freedom (from not being coddled or miraculously saved as well as coerced into obedience) being evinced by the very horror, the very shit-suffocated doom of architecture-/technology-manifested evil. Our horror comes not from the brutal pool but from the gracious sky.
been rightly told that I cast "a
very large net into the sea" with my metaphysical curiosity.
Believe me, I've tried smaller nets; I've tried in-the-now
living and "down-to-earth" existentialism.
But I find myself pulled to the Big Stuff - Dostoyevsky's Great
Idea - that Chesterton refers to
"Great joy does not gather the rosebuds while it may; its eyes are fixed on the immortal rose which Dante saw."
Some more pertinent clips that goosed me:
far gone am I in the dark side of the earth, that its other side, the
theoretic bright one, seems but uncertain twilight to me.
Melville's Moby Dick
- Geddes MacGregor, 1967
All work is copyrighted property of David Herrle.
© 2007 SubtleTea Productions All Rights Reserved