Celebrity Smackdown: Thoreau vs. Marx

by Sam Buntz

I’ve never felt the attraction of socialism—although I think I understand what makes it appealing.  For a while, I admit, I was interested in non-Marxist forms of socialism and communal forms of living—like the Christian anarchism of Leo Tolstoy— but this was mainly because those paths made individual development a priority, and they were voluntary associations.  Their existence wasn’t compelled from above by the state, and the thinkers who inspired those movements didn’t say the kinds of things that Karl Marx said— for instance, that “The smallest human unit is two people.”  Although many people find this statement to be a beautiful condensation of the idea that we ought to live for others, it never resonated with me.  In fact, it repelled me.  I do believe we ought to help other people—not that we should be forced to help them, though, since this usually proves to be self-defeating enough.  The idealists who devoutly espouse this principle often seem to think a bit too narrowly about what it means to help other people.  They end up becoming the flip-side of the Ayn Rand worshippers, who make it a moral imperative to live selfishly and not to help others.  That is, they seem to think about charity in primarily material terms—curing hunger and sickness, for example.  But every socialist or communist country that has ever come into existence—and I mean the nations which enforced complete government ownership of all industries and the abolition of most private property, and not the Scandinavian countries, where private property and private enterprise both still exist—seems to have ended by reducing the concerns of humanity to the base material level.  The greatest artists and spiritual figureheads the Soviet Union produced were its dissenters and undertakers—people like Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak—and not the various Stalinist lackeys whose artistic and architectural monstrosities now seem as dead as the empire that funded them.

Undoubtedly, hunger and sickness are enemies we need to fight—but if I insisted that everyone commit themselves to a Marxist notion of what it means to fight them, I would never have allowed Thoreau to spend so much time idling on Walden Pond and in Concord, Mass., taking eight slow years to finally revise and self-publish a book about his often solitary life-experiences. A committed Marxist would’ve seen what many of Thoreau’s more materially-minded contemporaries saw—a lay-about who wanted to “hoard his virtue for himself”, to collect nature-lore and observe the passage of the seasons without ever lifting a finger for others (aside, of course, from sheltering slaves on the Underground Railroad and performing the occasional act of civil disobedience—which are, admittedly, pretty significant instances of Thoreau’s social-conscience.)  All of Thoreau’s contemporaries (except Emerson) were blind to the great gift of Walden—and it failed to find its full audience until the Great Depression clued people into the virtues of simplicity, and again, with a resurgence in the 1960s.  It did eventually have an impact on tens of thousands of people—yet essential to its eventual success was the fact that it had been produced by a man, who, in his lifetime, shirked the idea that we ought to live overtly and materially for others.  He criticized this idea in a passage from Walden:

“I would not subtract anything from the praise that is due to philanthropy, but merely demand justice for all who by their lives and works are a blessing to mankind. I do not value chiefly a man’s uprightness and benevolence, which are, as it were, his stem and leaves. Those plants of whose greenness withered we make herb tea for the sick serve but a humble use, and are most employed by quacks. I want the flower and fruit of a man… His goodness must not be a partial and transitory act, but a constant superfluity, which costs him nothing and of which he is unconscious. This is a charity that hides a multitude of sins. The philanthropist too often surrounds mankind with the remembrance of his own castoff griefs as an atmosphere, and calls it sympathy. We should impart our courage, and not our despair, our health and ease, and not our disease, and take care that this does not spread by contagion.”

This is perfectly balanced wisdom.  But if Thoreau had lived in the Soviet Union, he would’ve been prime fodder for the Gulag.  Of course, post-modern Marxists will argue that the Soviet Union failed to realize Marx’s ideal—which, I would submit, is due to the fact that no one can realize it.  (And besides, the authoritarian state endorsed by Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and Mao didn’t depart significantly from Marx’s “dictatorship of the proletariat”, anyway.)  And I don’t mean to argue that, since Walden never would’ve been written if Thoreau had lived in a communist state, the Marxist idea is totally bankrupt.  I mean to argue that since thousands upon thousands of meaningful achievements, attained by people known and unknown to the world-at-large, would never have happened if they had been circumscribed by Marx’s rigidly material notion of human-development, the Marxist ideal is totally bankrupt.

The American Transcendentalist tradition—which is fairly close to enlightened Libertarianism—is not an enemy of charity, but only of a materialistic notion of charity.  Emerson did say that he thought a dollar given to the philanthropist was a wicked dollar, although he sometimes indulged in it himself, but his meaning was evidently that real charity isn’t second-hand, but something we produce with our own energy and through the use of our own talents.  I used to think Steve Jobs was a bit selfish for saying that he thought he could due more good for the world by investing his money in Apple, rather than trying to set up a massive charitable foundation like Bill Gates, but ultimately I think that both paths are valid.  The Socialist tendency to condemn all private enterprise jars irreconcilably with this fact.  It would be better to start competing, and marketing good and ethically-responsible products against the constant flow of crappy products that don’t improve life, and in fact damage or lessen it, rather than attempting to destroy those wasteful or value-less products through management from above.  Too often we try to combat those products—like the Kardashian shows or whatever cliché object of derision you want to use for demonstration—by railing against the stupidity of the consumer and attempting to get the government or society to somehow protect the consumer from his or her own negative propensities.  But did it ever occur to anyone that the consumer’s attention might actually be more effectively diverted by the production of quality alternatives—by great ideas and slick marketing?  One might need to wait for some time to see the final fruition of the goal (like Thoreau’s ghost had to), but it is important to consider Time as an ally.  Emerson urged people to light a candle instead of cursing the darkness—such advice would’ve probably diverted the energy that was wasted in things like the Occupy Movement into infinitely more effective channels.  Individualism and Libertarianism are not for people who want to manipulate the public interest without creating anything real—they’re for people who believe that the latent powers of mind and will in humanity-at-large will respond when provoked by a true act of creation.


“The Intelligent, Post-Modern Woman’s Guide to Nihilism”

by Caspar Da Gama
(a Portuguese ‘heteronym’)

[Note: I have asked Mr. Da Gama – this suave, internationally educated member of “the Portuguese gentry” (as he described it to me), now a fellow graduate student (though he is studying English and Italian literature in the Comp. Lit. Department, while I am studying “Religion and Literature”)—to provide readers with a brief formulation of his “philosophy of life,” in the manner of NPR’s “This I Believe,” but more in-depth. It is certainly not one that I agree with, but I felt that a ‘heteronym’ —for that is what Mr. Da Gama is, in reality—would be a useful tool for expressing certain perceptions or thoughts that have occasionally haunted me, though they are contrary to my own practice, both in life and in thought. His title, as I take it, is both accurate and rather a joke—alluding to George Bernard Shaw, I believe. – Sam Buntz.]

I am, for lack of a better or more accurate term, a nihilist—I have no steady, stable system of beliefs, and, in fact, I abhor such structures. Practically, this makes me just as adverse to all rational, optimistic, scientifically-minded atheists as it does to Christians, Jews, Muslims, and the whole lot of starry-eyed believers. I find the religious perspective even more intolerable as it becomes infected with these perniciously modern qualities—the less God becomes an irrational Force, and something more like a rational, optimistic, mild-mannered, scientifically-minded, beetle-shaped little person, who has measured out the rings of Saturn with a big compass, and measured out electrons and protons with a much smaller compass. When your average atheist—like, say, Richard Dawkins—looks at the world, he sees a set of physical, natural laws that have governed the universe changelessly forever—have even called it into existence—and will continue to do so for another period of endless duration. Like the Deity of the Monotheists, a Dawkins-type atheist—by no means worthy of the true Nihilist’s merit-badge— sets up his own neat and nifty vision of the cosmos with a big compass and a little compass—his mind is his God, and there is little pragmatic difference between it and the tyrant of the Old Testament. Yet I see no continuities within my own ego that would make it capable of discerning such eternal patterns any more than I sense a power within it that would make it capable of discerning a creator deity.

When I—the genuine, sincere, and (more or less) joyous nihilist—look at the cosmos, I don’t see a changeless architecture of physical laws. I see what I call “The Swirl.” “The Swirl” is just the endless flow of impressions passing by all of us at all hours of the day. The laws of nature we observe can in no way be declared absolute—they are but the customs of “The Swirl”—semi-stable patterns in the cosmic flux or flushing—and they probably will break down at some point in the future or simply become irrelevant. This Swirl is not only what transpires outside of me, but inside of my self: the dark eddy of experience is all that I—insofar as “I” even exist—am capable of discerning. I don’t know whether it is inside of me or outside of me, or whether there is an inside and an outside. It just goes on and on… We live amid spontaneity and chaos—and the fact that some things seem stable within this chaos can easily be put down to the fact that within The Swirl there are so many weird potential events bubbling up into existence that some of them just happen to take the form of stable, non-chaotic patterns. But still, even those supposedly unbreakable laws of nature—to say nothing of spiritual laws!—have bubbled up, have been formed incidentally, temporarily: they may just be functions of our own perceptions. They probably weren’t ultimate and probably never will be—they themselves are the products of vagary, of The Swirl—the state in which we live, where nothing can be accepted or believed, affirmed or denied. All of this, all the time, is being continually re-made and broken apart: “cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air,” as T.S. Eliot put it. Lucretius’ definition of the world as a “burning rampart” thrust out into the midst of space is also rather compatible with what I mean.

Some scientists are interested in learning why and how, if God doesn’t exist, we seem to be able to observe and comprehend the entire universe (our minds seem adjusted to it)—and they have proffered some tentative solutions to this problem: for instance, by suggesting that we live in but one of many universes, and this just happens to be one that our sensory organs have become particularly well adjusted to. But I reply that we aren’t observing “the universe”—we are just observing the perpetual bubbling of phenomena—impressions that continually batter against our senses. We just happen to call the total form of the phenomena—what I just referred to as “The Swirl”—the “universe.” Why do we perceive these phenomena? We do not know and have no real need of a hypothesis. Whence does it come from? Where? All futile questions—we simply know that something is taking its course. It occurs. It happens. “The rest is silence.”

Yet there is still the miracle—horrible word, but I use it—that we are here: that we are conscious, that something comes and tickles our membrane—whether that something, the “What” which Epicurus said was unknowable, comes from outside or inside of our minds is probably an unanswerable question. Yet there is richness in this profusion of sensual experiences—there are juices to be squeezed. Contrary to Epicurus, who was correct on so many other issues, we are not to practice a limited-engagement with this world, not to cultivate only moderate pleasures in order to reduce pain – I mean, you might do that, if you really wanted to. Obviously, since there is no real imperative to do anything in particular—at least, I sense and feel none within or outside of myself—you might just lead a boring, moderate, pleasurable life. But as a truly committed nihilist, the belief in the pursuit of pleasure may even be too much of a belief—too much of an ethos. No one would’ve ever experienced the exhilaration of climbing Everest or any of the real, breathtakingly painful passions—which all have a strange pleasure that matches the sufferings they dictate—if they’d abided by this rather dim code. Sure, one might grow numb after so much stimulus—but one is sure to be splattered against the wall of oblivion within the next ninety years or so, so what harm is a little numbness in the course of things, especially if what proceeded it was a felt intensity?

Living as we do in The Swirl, there is no set of commandments (beyond human fantasy) to behave in one way or another—but, considering this, why not reach for the most wildly delightful experiences, rather than constructing a new fantasy, a new moral code (like Epicurus, Dawkins, and the dim-witted remainder)? I’m not suggesting narcotic addiction or thrill-killing—since those mainly only appeal to broken minds, anyway, and possess little appeal to the still relatively “normal” functioning run of people (though becoming a conquering Napoleon or Alexander may make more than enough sense)—but why not attempt the heights? This doesn’t mean one necessarily needs to become some sort of extreme snowboarder or surfer to “live it up”—though those are also very live options—but it does mean that one might as well “live it up” in whatever way strikes the imagination as being most daring or fiery. As Emerson said, “I write on the lintels of the doorpost, ‘Whim.’” In the absence of God, in the absence even of physical laws or so-called “Nature,” human whim takes the central place—it becomes the supreme power, next to Death, which necessarily is truly supreme, since it will have the last say.

The obvious objection to this whole philosophy is that sadness hides behind these attempted exaltations—that consciousness of the void is, at the end of the day, a sad consciousness. But the sadness that hides behind these affirmations only makes the exaltations greater, more meaningful: because they take place against a background of tragedy, of descent into sure oblivion, the quest for these intense experiences is all the more poignant. The light flickers for a second, and then the grave closes all. In his characteristically direct fashion, Edward Fitzgerald/Omar Khayyam phrases the problem accurately: “Oh, threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise! / One thing at least is certain – This Life flies; / One thing is certain and the rest is Lies; / The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.” Fitzgerald / Khayyam’s solution to this state of existence was to get well drunk. That’s my solution, too—yet “wine that never grew in the belly of the grape” is on the nihilist’s menu, and merely literal wine is but one option, and probably one no one will want to stick with for life. As Fitzgerald/Khayyam goes on to state, heaven—and this is true for my own “philosophy” (if it deserves that title)—is “but the Vision of fulfill’d Desire.” Naturally, too much candy gives one a stomachache and drugs do much the same – to fulfill desire, for a true nihilist, is not to gorge, but to strive hard to satisfy the finest, sharpest desires – to out-write Shakespeare or to kill the White Whale.

At this point, I feel content to rest—doubtless, my friend, Sam, or one of his comrades-at-arms—probably a Sufi or a Hindu—will have some strong objections to this philosophy. But if we are to postulate higher worlds, visions and spiritual delights, and all that gooey metaphysical candy—why, then, were we not informed of these realities in coming out of the gate? Why did we need to flail around in the darkness for so long, with no word of true re-assurance from any mouth, human or Divine? Why did our tears provoke no response, no echo from the Holy of Holies? As Wallace Stevens said, “What is divinity if it can only come / In shadows and in dreams?” My experience is that divinity is only a shadow and a dream – nothing has come from outside of me to teach me. I know only The Swirl, and advocate, still, the spontaneous joyousness of living-it-up in high Byronic-style—we were born enflamed with desire, and we will die when that flame flickers out in earnest. But in the interval, we can, perhaps, spread the fire around, stoke it to such an intense pitch that it will burn down this whole frame of things, steeled in the consciousness that our pain was meted to us by no conscious power, and that our joy was but our own most intense way of being, that it came from the mouth of the void and recedes into it. We fall joyous victims to the dark onward rush of Time and Fate and Death (all roughly synonymous terms) – and that is the best that we can hope for. As Omar put it: “The Moving Finger writes; and having writ, / Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit / Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, / Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.” And like Omar, when I’m gone, I would like you, Mr. Buntz, and any of your readers, to “turn down an empty glass” in my memory…

Myths and Other Truths

by Sam Buntz

Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “There are no facts, only interpretations of the facts.”  I think that this can be weakly misread as the siren-song of contemporary nihilism—just some dude with a bad mustache telling me this is all bullshit. The quote certainly isn’t that, but I could understand coming to such a conclusion.  I’ll try to explain what Nietzsche meant—or, at least, this is the explanation that seems most useful and important to me, personally.  I’ll start with a fecund comparison between a few “interpretations of the facts.” There is no real reason to believe that the creation story given in Norse mythology is any more or less true than the first chapter of Genesis: when the Prose Edda claims that the world was created from the body of a Cosmic Giant named Ymir, and that every aspect of the visible world is thus made from humanoid parts—the clouds, for example, were made from Ymir’s brains—we have no rational reason to prefer Yahweh making a mud-pie and blowing his breath into it in order to create Adam.  The Hindu tale of the world’s creation out of the sacrificed body of the god, Purusha (a name that just means “Person”), also relates essentially the same story—except for the fact that Purusha is beautiful and transcendent, whereas Ymir is gross and disgusting.  The same myth persists in the poetry of Blake—the fall and resurrection of the giant, Albion—and in James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, which portrays the cyclic fall and renewal of a larger-than-life hero named H.C.E—short for Here Comes Everybody, he being nothing less than the fully achieved form of all human passion and history.  (I promise this is going somewhere.)

What is remarkable about these stories is not that they are literally true, but that the ancient Norse and Vedic myths and Joyce’s modernist epic all illuminate a truth, not about how “the world” exists physically, but about how we perceive and, in a sense, create the world: that is to say, we create it out of ourselves.  We interpret everything around us in human terms, because in truth, we are never really engaging with the world as-it-is, but with a “representation of reality” created in our own minds and projected against the blankly unfolding canvas of nature.  I wouldn’t feel comfortable calling the “facts” we take from nature, in order to create these representations, facts, actually—I would prefer calling them “raw material” or “stuff.”   Even, I think, it would be a dangerous mistake to say Newton’s or Einstein’s visions of reality were more than interpretations (since Einstein’s vision of reality needs to eventually be supplanted and doesn’t apply to the quantum world in the first place) – they were simply interpretations that made better and more adequate use of all the stuff or raw material at hand.  The literal, six-days-creation interpretation of Genesis stopped being a good representation of reality when it ceased, not so much to account for all the facts, but to make use of all the stuff available—it failed to satisfy us artistically and emotionally just as it failed us scientifically.  Any poem and any religious vision is just the full imaginative organization that any author can bring to the material at hand.  And that imaginative organization is always an interpretation of reality, rather than a dictatorial statement of how-it-is.   There’s no set of facts that magically interpret themselves, and—despite what billions of Christians, Muslims, and Ultra-Orthodox Jews think—there are no holy books that do this either.

Nietzsche viewed the world as nothing less than a “primordial poem” that we create by representing and envisioning existence together—our experience of reality is primarily a creative one.  Yet, he saw that our representations of reality were growing weaker, becoming increasingly feeble, absurd, and stupid, and he knew that if we failed to recognize that we only have access to representations or expressions of Truth, and instead kept insisting on the too-easy claim not to represent but to actually have the Truth—like those clockwork-brained, literalist guardians of the Bible and the Koran—we would fall into the abyss of real nihilism, burning down all the representations of reality we’ve created in self-hatred.  (We might, arguably, be living in the abyss already.)  Instead, we should’ve affirmed those representations as valuable despite their partial and limited nature.  Homer and Shakespeare—as well as (and I know I risk controversy in saying this) St. Paul and the Prophet Muhammad—might not actually give us the Whole Truth (whatever that would even be, written on a page)—but they represent it in part.  It’s a very fine distinction, but I think it makes a lot of sense.  If we could recognize that the “deep imageless truth” spoken of by the poet Shelley is always behind or before our representation of it, we might be able to chill out a little bit, and give our imagination free reign to continually push at the boundaries of our reality—scientifically, spiritually, literarily, and morally—rather than letting all the old creeds just repress the imagination, limit it, and make us perpetually miserable.  Perhaps Emerson was more eloquent and precise when—in one of my favorite moments in his essays—he said that the only text is the Self, and all the books and scriptures are but commentaries.  All great writers already implicitly know this, but the literalists soon swoop in and start to take tropes for truth.

Many Hindus actually do view the world in this rather Emersonian fashion—the Hindu gods are but masks worn by the Self, fictions more real than we are, but still contingent, still subject to illusion.  And a mask is a kind of commentary in a way—a way of revealing and concealing, of talking about IT without really being IT.  And the Gnostics of two millennia ago also knew that all representations of reality were not actually Reality.  Nietzsche was not so radical a critic as he thought, though he was brilliant and pungent enough—he merely advanced the critique that the great Transcendentalist, Romantic, Hindu, and Gnostic traditions had made before him—until he started to lose his mind, at which point he may have said some things unworthy of him.  The same advance of humanity’s standard out into Chaos and Night has been carried on in the modern era by visionary writers like D.H. Lawrence, Cormac McCarthy, J.D. Salinger, Harold Bloom, and plenty of others.  My point is that, despite claims to the contrary, most religious believers believe in a representation of reality, and certainly not in Reality itself—but they all refuse to call it a representation (which is not the same as calling it a fiction, unless we take a fiction to be a revelation of a partial truth.)  Yahweh, Jesus, and Allah don’t exist on the page in a qualitatively different sense from the way in which Huckleberry Finn and Captain Ahab do.  As Bloom never tires of noting, most religious believers basically believe in literary characters—which would be fine, if they admitted that a literary character is essentially a mask for a deeper underlying Truth that can’t actually be represented, that any character only expresses a part of The Self—which we might identify with that deep, deep underlying truth—but none of them can manage to express it wholly.  For the record, I don’t think this argument clashes with the arguments made by some of the more astute theologians and religious teachers—even with some whom we might think of as being pretty “orthodox.”

All books—especially holy scriptures—can only be partial revelations, wildly and greatly partial as they may be.  There is always further imaginative development to be made, and we have never yet reached the end of the Self in our attempts to represent it—though some of the naysayers might say we have (there are grumblings about “the literature of exhaustion”), or just deny the notion of the Self entirely, or try to argue that literary and religious representation (which, as I have been arguing, aren’t at all different) don’t actually try to depict the Self, they only depict historical circumstances surrounding a fictional entity we call the “Self”—or whatever.  Fine—abandon yourself to that way of looking at things if you must.  I assume that you have your reward, whatever that might be.  But the truth is that we need to continue excavating the Self and digging through all our representations of it since that’s basically what Civilization is—it provides pleasure, it enriches and cultivates life, and it allows us to identify those restrictions which repress and limit our grasp, so that we fail to reach for all that we could reach for (spiritually speaking), destroying error that threatens to cloud over our lives and deaden them–the kind of error I’ve been trying to point out in this article.

I’m definitely not trying to deny the existence of a metaphysical reality beyond our limited experience or the existence of God in this essay—what I’m trying to do is save those realities from our attempts to depict them when those depictions run out of steam, but also to save them so that we can continue to depict those realities in new ways with total imaginative freedom, following the muse as she moves us.  This is why so many literalist zealots tried to murder Salman Rushdie or why D.H. Lawrence’s work was censored—those writers put totally just, humane, and reverent representations of reality on the page, but were stymied by the bigots who insist that the only representation of reality acceptable is their own, which they claim is not a representation of reality, but in fact, Reality.  I know that I would personally rather be damned to whatever nasty cesspools the anti-vegetarian, human-sacrifice-loving God of such fundamentalists (frankly, usually less-informed Muslims or Christians) has cooked up, along with my heroes, people like Blake and Emerson and Yogananda, than have to endure an infinite supper at an idealized Old-Country-Buffet-in-the-Clouds, listening to Pat Robertson (assuming he dies first) and Osama Bin Laden orate on the duties of lawful service to the all-torturing and disease-dispensing deity of their respective “faiths.”  But fortunately, I am content to seek after Strange Gods—and I think that’s pretty consistent with my skewed Hindu-Christian-Gnostic sort of worldview.  Like Nietzsche, I would only believe in a God who could dance—not one who chomps on the bones of his non-devotees in a remote cloudy clime of pale inertia.  Fortunately, the God who seems to actually exist, buried in the human spirit, is just such a dancer, and the various representations of reality (including the scientific representations), from The Bible and The Gita to Blood Meridian and Franny and Zooey, seem to me to be the intellectual forms of one wild, terrible, yet ultimately, beautiful dance.

And here, the Offense shall rest.

Skepticism and Mysticism

by Sam Buntz

“The universe is wider than our views of it.” –Thoreau

There are two kinds of skepticism: the first is sandbox skepticism, or skepticism-on-training-wheels.  This is the popular variety, to which we are most often exposed, and even though it isn’t anything like the truly terrifying and comprehensive form of skepticism (which I will discuss presently), it is sometimes useful.  It may serve to discredit the efficacy of power crystals for curing cancer (for instance) or expose the fraudulence of certain claims about aliens being involved in the construction of the Mayan pyramids and other topics that seem to form the bread and butter of the History Channel’s usual mental supper, these days.  The two magician-comedians, Penn and Teller, are adept at this more widespread form of skepticism, which usually ends up wearing thin when its practitioners attempt to stretch it over certain issues.  I recall Penn denouncing psychoanalysis on the basis of the Freud’s alleged cocaine use – despite the fact that Freud gave up coke long before he authored any of his famous works.  It’s a cheap and easy way of discrediting things, usually by making even silly things seem sillier than they really are.  But, I’ll leave this digression, since I’m actually concerned with real, philosophical skepticism, which seems to often be out of the reach of even the most brilliant scientists and physicists currently among us (as I will demonstrate), from Einstein to Hawking to Newton.  I will chart the natural consequences of this pure skepticism, before trying to salvage my own hopes and dreams from the wreckage it has created—discussing how mysticism can overcome some of the limitations to which philosophical skepticism says that we are eternally subject.

The greatest apostle of this gospel of Total Doubt and utter empiricism was David Hume.   Hume reached the stunning realization—seemingly obvious, once you understand it—that using our five senses and our reason, we can gain no real, permanent knowledge of the world around us or even of ourselves.  We think we are describing a universal law or rule when we say that “objects at rest tend to stay at rest until acted on by some outside force” or when we observe that water always flows downhill, but what we are really observing, in Hume’s view, is never an unshakeable and definite law, but a “custom.” We only need to see such a custom once violated, definitely, in order for us to see how it is nothing absolute.  This may have occurred recently, when a group of scientists observed neutrinos moving faster than the speed of light, something that is thought to be impossible.

As Hume said, “Custom is the great guide of human life.”  Not only will he allow us no certain knowledge of the real laws of physics, but he will grant us no absolute, and super-confident trust in any of our senses and perceptions—including in the perception of a self (as Buddhists have been observing for a long time, you can observe your thoughts, but it is seemingly impossible to observe the ego that is apparently having those thoughts.)  The universe, as envisioned by Hume, is distinct from both the cosmos of the religious person and that of the ostensibly skeptical atheist (like that of Penn and Teller or Richard Dawkins.)  There is, for Hume, no way of accessing the real world that exists outside of ourselves (if there is one) or of creating an accurate map of that world—something Christians and Muslims attempt to draw just as Einstein and Newton attempted it in their respective eras.  We cannot figure out with what degree of accuracy we perceive the world around us.  We only have access to a bubbling stream of thoughts and impressions—our brains happen to infer connections and associations between the bubbles in this phenomenal froth, we live awhile as best we can, and then “our place knows us no more.”  What is really out there is, for Hume, always unknowable.  We experience this fleeting world of appearances in solitude, through no source but our own sensations and ideas formed from those sensations, with only secondhand access to those of others.

This skepticism expands into monstrous proportions.  Shelley, the poet—a devoted reader of Hume—wrote in his poem “Mont Blanc”: “Has some unknown omnipotence unfurled / The veil of life and death? Or do I lie, / In dream, and does the mighty world of sleep / Spread far and inaccessibly / Its circles?” Shelley’s unanswered questions get at the horrifying uncertainty that the skeptical realization of our own intellect’s insufficiency makes available to us: we may be living in a castle of dream, surrounded by an infinite number of walls, which only enclose another circle of dreaming.   We may not be capable of a proper adjustment to the greater Nature that lies around us—that is the darkest doubt, to wit, that our own senses may be finally insufficient.  It makes me think of the current controversy in astrophysics as to the nature of “dark matter” and “dark energy.”  Our experiments continually dictate that there must be far more mass and matter in the universe than we can observe because of the gravitational pull exerted by galaxies (far greater than the amount of matter we seem to be detecting), and we also sense that some unseen energy must be causing the universe’s expansion to accelerate.  We have no idea what either of these things could be: every theoretical object so far proposed and probed has proved to be a phantasm.  And what reason is there that we should be able to see these hidden features of our world?  Not that we shouldn’t try to—but there is no reason that we won’t eventually hit a brick wall.  Unless God has intentionally designed human beings to perceive the entirety of physical reality, or evolution accidentally designed us to the same end, some problems posed by the existence of the universe may simply remain beyond our ken.  In fact, I would say that—speaking only from a purely rationalistic perspective, and not from my own convictions and experiences—this is a more likely version of events.  When we look at the other creatures who inhabit our world, we realize that these other creatures have a more limited perspective on reality than we do, though perhaps they also perceive things we cannot perceive—think of a dog’s sense of smell.  But just as a dog’s inability to see color strikes us as a severe limitation, so might our own sensory limits seem to a hypothetical higher life-form.  The German aphorist, Lichtenberg, wrote, “Can there not exist beings who would admire us on account of our ideas of God and immortality in just the way we admire the spider and the silkworm [for their threads]?” And, again, Ludwig Feuerbach said, ““For the caterpillar, the leaf on which it sits is an infinite world.” Taking that quote and applying it to our own situation, we can say that this universe, which we perceive as though it were a vast, possibly infinite space, maybe little more than another leaf, dangling on a shrub at the back of some garden.

Yet scientists like Hawking and Einstein assumed that we were designed—somehow, despite their avowed belief in the lack of a non-material component to existence!—to perceive through all of nature’s mysteries and reach final and total awareness of the complete laws of the physical universe, using only our reason and five senses.  That is as spurious of an intellectual assumption as any.  At least the Catholic assumption that human reason is sufficient to comprehend certain things about the universe (ascertain moral law, for instance) is grounded in the idea that the benevolent God who designed us wouldn’t make our minds and senses play tricks on us (which is itself a problematic assumption, because it claims that a benevolent God’s motives would somehow intersect with our own limited awareness of reality).   But without a spiritual purpose or design, what right has Einstein or Hawking to assume that we can comprehend even more than the smallest fraction of what’s really out there?  Sure, we may be able to construct a working theory which explains all of the things we see, but that may be no more of an accomplishment than that of a frog successfully mapping the bottom of the well in which he lives.

Some scientists hunting for a materialistic explanation for why we can observe everything in the universe—and the idea that we can observe everything is a totally faulty assumption in the first place, as I have been arguing—have posited the idea of a multi-verse, in which all-possible-universes exist, and we happen to live in the one were beings evolved who could perceive everything.  One hopefully sees that this theory only evolved to justify an assumption founded on nothing but humanity’s overconfidence in its own mental capacity.   If we were color-blind and had still made all the same observations about the physical working of the universe, we would still celebrate our scientific conquests with the same degree of confidence that we now possess, not realizing how much we are failing to perceive—and if anyone did show up talking about color, he or she would be locked up or forced to recant.   No doubt, if an ant could think discursively, it would probably believe that it comprehended the sum of all things, just as we do.  And yet there is no reason to believe that our theories and models of how the universe works are anything more than ad hoc attempts to carve a semblance of order out of the shambles.

Thus far, we have successfully pursued the most serious and all-encompassing form of skepticism straight to the bottom, suffering its direst conclusions without fear.  Ultimately, it either leads to a Hamlet-like indecision, constantly thinking and re-thinking over our inability to know, or to a kind of nihilism, in which we live carelessly, with only a shrug for explanation.  This is not the nihilism of serial-killers and sociopaths, but that of an intellectual who, because he or she “thinks too well,” can find faith “neither in God nor in himself nor herself.”  Thankfully, I was only trying to break everything down in order to try to build it back up—but I have only the prospect of a leap in the dark to offer any readers.  If they don’t feel any affinity for the means that I try to use to crawl up this tunnel of infinite doubt back into the light, I can only shrug my shoulders, helplessly.  I mean to talk about mysticism.

For the record, David Hume would not at all follow me into mystical territory.  His own smart and shallow view was that we should simply follow the customs—whether physical, social, or moral—regnant in our time and place, and let our passions, within moderation, dictate our conduct.  These are the conclusions of someone who you could call a brilliant Philistine—someone with as much intellect as you could imagine, but no imagination or aspiration of any sort.  This would be the only conclusion if reason and the five senses were—as many think they are—all we have.  But I prefer G.K. Chesterton—a personal favorite—who called mysticism “a transcendent form of common sense,” and went on to say: “Mysticism and common sense alike consist in a sense of the dominance of certain truths and tendencies which cannot be formally demonstrated or even formally named. Mysticism and common sense are alike appeals to realities that we all know to be real, but which have no place in argument except as postulates.”

George Harrison (he, of the Beatles) said that when he travelled to India for the first time, he would get into discussions about spirituality with certain intellectuals he encountered there.  When they asked him the question, “Do you believe in God?” Harrison would say, “Yes,” to which they replied, “How can you believe in God until you see God?”  This was one of the factors that kindled Harrison’s interest in meditation, and his life-long involvement with Hinduism—the realization that belief in God did not need to be a matter of blind-faith, requiring one to check one’s common sense in at threshold of any old creed.  The response offered by Harrison’s interlocutors is the same as the more blunt assessment offered by Swami Vivekananda: “You see Christ, then you’re a Christian.  All else is just talk.”  Mysticism overthrows skepticism by helping us to get beyond the limitations of the faculties which skepticism discerns—it allows that perception of Christ or God or Brahman or Whom or What you will.

The diverse forms of mysticism all aim to allow one into a direct apprehension of Deity.  We escape the limitations of our five senses and our reason simply by moving beyond them and learning to use other modes of perception of which we are normally unconscious.  Our will and desire can expand our reach beyond our current grasp.  Refuse to believe this if you will—it’s not a matter of belief, anyway, but of verification through practice and experiment.  My encounters with several remarkable persons and continued study of the topic have demonstrated to me that there are human beings—maybe even more commonly to be found than we suppose—who have so cultivated their will and desire that they can actually expand their awareness of reality beyond the crude circle pressed down by the cookie-cutter circumference of the five senses.  William Blake spoke of expanding the senses from their currently limited angle of vision into an unlimited awareness—to perception of the infinite—using (in his case) the reading and writing of visionary poetry as a spiritual discipline.

My own determination is that this is no idle fantasy.  Plenty of Hindu yogis and Buddhists monks throughout the ages seem to have attained such a wider perception to some degree, and a chosen number seem to have attained to the infinite perception—union with Brahman or the Godhead—of which Blake spoke.  The great Christian mystics, Sufis, and Kabbalists seem to have also had many powerful experiences and produced many great saints, though I venture to say that the world outside of India and the Far East does not seem to have bothered to cultivate this pursuit to the same degree or give it the room it needs to grow and flourish or to acknowledge that it alone can give us the knowledge that we really need to orient ourselves in the universe.  So far as a religion encourages the aspiration toward such knowledge, it seems to me a good thing—as the Eastern Orthodox Church did when it affirmed the practice of the “hesychasm” (mystical prayer) over critics who attacked it as heretical.  Insofar as a religion stifles or ignores it, it must be a hindrance—as the Catholic Church was when it persecuted the great mystic, Meister Eckhart, or as the Lutheran Church was when it persecuted the cobbler-saint, Jacob Boehme (perhaps the greatest spiritual genius Europe has produced.)

Mysticism, properly understood, should not be considered a subset of occultism and New Age eccentricities, but rather the only practice—whether pursued through Raja Yoga or the Eastern Orthodox “Jesus prayer” or whatever other sincere and authentic forms of mystical practice still exist in the world—that can liberate us from our current prison of skepticism, which highlights the inadequacy of our own sensory apparatus, and demonstrates that our situation is precisely that of the prisoners stuck in Plato’s cave.  Our average religions and scientific models all too often prove to be only theories of shadows—analyzing the patterns of motion they cast along the cavern walls—and the little light they manage to shine seems artificial.  But the writings of the mystics and the poetic visionaries suggest the existence of something else, a world which we may, in the fullness of time, experience—the world of real forms, illuminated by real light, shining down from a real sun.  We will enter this world, as Emerson wrote, “without more wonder than the blind man feels who is gradually restored to perfect sight.”

It is this hope that gives me the strength I need—not only to write, but to live.

Two Offices

by Sam Buntz

I have found myself surprised and pleased at the quality of the most recent episodes of The Office. It seemed shaky during the last season — whenever characters start pairing off and having babies with each other, and there’s one pregnancy and wedding after another, it usually heralds imminent decline. But occasionally a show can be reborn or find a way to re-perpetuate its old formula without growing stale. In this case, I give plenty of credit to the writers, obviously, but also to Ed Helms for assuming the role of the new boss and to James Spader for being the new CEO. Their characters are certainly amusing, but they also manage to capture and retune certain underlying vibrations that constantly hum at back of the American mind. They are caricatures of particular kinds of Americans and of almost all Americans as they exist within themselves, if not as they exist in public: Helms, like Steve Carrell before him, is a bushy-tailed aspirant, gloriously naive and good-natured, a kind of comic-idiot-romantic-quester (though riddled with insecurities), whereas Spader represents the savvier end of the spectrum, the slick expert with the entirety of Matter and Life perfectly pinned under his thumb.

This brings me to my actual point and my reason for writing — to demonstrate how our pop-culture illuminates the crucial differences between Americans and their British forebears, and, more specifically, how it reflects (if a little faintly) the opposing intellectual stances staked out by two of the greatest essayists to ever live: Ralph Waldo Emerson and Dr. Samuel Johnson. If you’ve ever seen the British version of The Office, you’ll immediately recognize how incredibly foreign these personality types (Helms, Spader) would seem in the work-environment of that earlier incarnation of the show. The UK boss, as played by Ricky Gervais, is an absurd failure — he drives his company into the ground in the course of two seasons. The series ended relatively quickly, in accordance with his massive incompetence and persistent mismanagement. Steve Carrell’s boss, to the contrary, tended to fail ever upwards (though he was clearly beset by persistent self-doubts he struggled manically against them). The best the other characters on the UK show can do is to simply keep chugging along in a world where “human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed.”

That’s a famous quote (it would look nice on a refrigerator magnet or a coffee-mug) from Dr. Johnson, doubtless the person most qualified to be called “the mind of England.” I place it here because I think it goes to show how a great genius like Johnson, two hundred and fifty years on or so, can continue to define and comprehend the atmosphere of his nation and illuminate the secret psychological roots of its popular culture. For the U.S. version of The Office, one would need to suggest Emerson as governing sage, the majestic forebear of its assorted zanies. Emerson urges unflagging self-reliance: “If I have lost confidence in myself, I have the universe against me.” Dwight Schrute, Michael Scott, and Andy Bernard never lose confidence in themselves — at least not more than momentarily. They are constantly trying, in quixotic style, to reach the unreachable star. The British Office is, to say the least, something closer to a transcription of reality, in all its dryness and hopelessness (except for the Christmas Special, which tacks on an unbelievable–and wholly Hollywood and American–happy ending.)

This might sound like I’m saying that Americans have endless reserves of vitality while the British are at the end of their rope. By no means. The respective genius of each nation is, in his own way, correct. Johnson sees that the we are not sufficient unto ourselves — limited and weak, we can only keep on the best we can, turning to fresh tasks, and (fervent Christian as Johnson was) can try to place our trust in a higher Providence. We can enter into a covenant with a source of goodness outside of ourselves, but the world will continue to be a fallen universe — Johnson’s major poem is, after all, entitled “The Vanity of Human Wishes” (which could easily be the sub-title for the British Office). Emerson, by contrast, knows only a source of goodness and strength within himself –Nature and the orthodox Christian notion of God can only reflect the “Aboriginal Self’s” great qualities back to it.  One should sign a covenant with the God within because of how untrustworthy and maliciously wily Nature and the God without must be.

Emerson knows better than anyone that the world is going to beat him down, but he still, ceaselessly, is determined to re-assert himself and his principles. Johnson found peace by sharing the world with God and with his fellow Christians — whereas Emerson, an eternal rebel who quit his job as a Unitarian minister, always believed that “for every seeing soul there are two absorbing facts: I [the Self] and the Abyss.” Emerson’s sense of self is un-limited, while Johnson’s is limited. The latter finds peace by locating himself in a divine order, but Emerson sees the deepest part of the Self as the only divine order that there really is. With a little critical application one can easily see how overwhelmingly relevant this distinction is in interpreting the cultural artifacts (like the two Offices) of our contemporary world.

I greatly admire and revere Dr. Johnson, while my temperament is clearly that of an Emersonian. But both perspectives possess immense value. Of course, the British have had their rebels against the Christian-classicist Johnsonian worldview — William Blake and Percy Shelley being foremost among them — and American writers from Poe to Hawthorne to Melville have dissented from Emerson. But in our current cultural situation, at a time when awareness of the central intellectual figures of both of our countries seems to have waned considerably, and the American exaltation of the self is increasingly exported throughout the world and distorted into a merely material exaltation (as opposed to the spiritual and intellectual freedom Emerson actually envisioned), it would seem that a large dose of both thinkers, in equal proportions, would do well to correct these abuses and hasten an awareness of ourselves as both Emersonian individualists and as Johnsonian members of the human species, mortals made of the same clay as Adam.  And when we become more conscious of these facts, we are enabled to read and decode the other, less high-brow, aspects of our culture — we can graft them into the larger and more refined cultural picture.

Reading Emerson, we — meaning Americans — understand exactly who we are, what we’re trying to do, and how we’re screwing it up by embracing a variety of self-centeredness far inferior to the Sage of Concord’s. Reading Johnson we get the antidote that prevents our self- reliance from becoming a kind of petulant egotism — and I imagine Britons will be able to find an even deeper resource in his writings, an inlet into themselves. In the end, the difficulty of seeing ourselves and the universe consists in this: being able to know both that the entirety of existence can only come to us through our own senses and intellect, individually, (that’s Emerson) while being able to see, simultaneously, that one person is ultimately but a particle of the whole, of a great chain of being (that’s Johnson). One may, after all, be a particle reflecting the whole — but still a particle. To balance these contradictory notions — that one is “both everything and nothing,” as Harold Bloom once remarked — and keep them balanced, could be called the definition of wisdom.  Plus, we enjoy and appreciate our entertainment even more when we sense its resonance with the deeper levels of our being.