Meaningless to Whom, Exactly?

Image is from Pixabay

An artist is someone who sees something that others don’t. And then makes that thing visible, in their work, for others to see.

What the artist sees is something that did not exist before it was observed by the artist. William S. Burroughs seems to equate existence with visibility. Ignore your enemies out of existence, he says, putting great emphasis on the power of the human mind to shape its own reality. Burroughs believes in ESP, witchcraft, Scientology … Whatever you think of these things, it’s impossible to truly grasp Burroughs’s approach to writing without acknowledging his deep and literal belief in the truth of many paranormal claims.

You have to take him literally: he found meaning in his dreams. But looking around it seemed to him that not many people were capable of doing the same. “Dreams mean nothing,” they say. To which Burroughs replies: “Meaningless to whom, exactly?” And he points out that he has made a living finding meaning in his dreams.

If science believes it has proven our night-time dreams to be meaningless, it also believes it has proven the daydreams of paranormal enthusiasts to be false. But, like dreams, the realm of the paranormal was a great source of inspiration for Burroughs. Would it have been better if he had listened to reason and abandoned his study of magic and UFOs? But in that case Burroughs the writer would have become a very different animal.

If the question of meaning – of what is meaningful and what is not – is decided for us in advance, then the notion of a personal quest for meaning itself becomes meaningless. And who knows by what paths you will come to the greatest understanding of yourself? While it is certainly a sign of progress that scientific method can be applied to determine the truth or falsity of any given claim, it’s worth remembering that truth and meaning are not the same thing. It’s suspension of disbelief that allows you to find meaning in what is fantastical, and by noticing where you find meaning – what stories inspire you, and what dreams nourish you – you might also find a great new truth about yourself.

(I’ve been reading My Education by William S. Burroughs.)

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Scrooge

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“ … It was always said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”

Christmas would also be a serious time, for Scrooge. He would remember that night of his sudden change of heart. By his nature, he had never been forgetful – always remembering every debt, and slight, and perceived stupidity in others. And what is deepest in him, the tenacity that defines him, remains unchanged. Only now he holds on to only what is important for the spirit, and lets the rest go. The lessons he learned on that long night: those he must keep. His own debts and faults: he must remember those, and learn from them. And, most of all, he remembers to laugh at his old self, in his newfound lightness of spirit.

Almost imperceptibly – you’ll see it in his twinkling eyes if you look closely – he becomes sober and thoughtful as advent approaches. He is thinking about past Christmases. He is thinking about what might have been. He has seen the horror of an alternate future narrowly averted.

He’s back on form by the 1st of December, if he could ever have been said to have been off it. This is his time to shine, after all. He does what is expected of him and keeps Christmas in grand style. Not because it is expected of him. No, he has a natural inclination to smile and sing at Christmas because Christmas brings him joy.

And he’s a jolly person all year round now. Even in a thoughtful mood, he’s a hair’s breadth from breaking into laughter, and he’s always ready with a smile if anyone should interrupt his meditation. Christmas brings about no change in Scrooge, in respect of his jollity. The change is one of perspective: Christmas, with all its traditions and associations, is an illuminating force, a shining backdrop, which shows up Scrooge plainly now for what he truly is and has been all year. The greens, reds, whites of Christmas – trees, gifts, candles – all set him off and show him up, a shining example of humanity and joviality.

And that’s all the big change in him ever was: a change of perspective. Everything you see is a projection of what you are. It took a change of heart, a lighting up and brightening of the spirit, to create a world that Scrooge could find joy in.

(I’ve been reading A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.)

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The Golden Age

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The ideal is always something inhuman:

“These men were the so-called golden race, subjects of Cronus, who lived without cares or labour, eating only acorns, wild fruit, and honey that dripped from the trees, drinking the milk of sheep and goats, never growing old, dancing, and laughing much; death, to them, was no more terrible than sleep.”

According to Robert Graves, the golden age myth has its origins in the worship of the Bee-goddess. Like bees, the ideal human beings just get on with whatever comes naturally, dance their dance, and are incapable of worry. Like the bee they don’t labour: you might think of a bee as “busy”, but it doesn’t count as work when it’s no trouble and just part of an eternal dance.

The golden age ideal is a state of bliss free from worry. Neither is there any choice, since choice implies worry. “Did I do the right thing?” Everyone moves according to a natural flow, and no place for reflection or second-guessing.

Reflection comes in the silver age, where people start to become “quarrelsome”. With reflection comes judgement and retrospection. “You shouldn’t have done that.” The implication here is that these quarrelsome people are inferior to the golden ones. According to the golden age myth, we should all have remained as bees and thereby remained perfect. It’s funny that the silver race are criticised for being “ignorant” when the golden ones were all mindless as bees.

But bees aren’t entirely mindless. They know what they need to know to do what they do. The people of the silver age lack that kind of knowledge. They do not sacrifice to the gods – and thereby fail to do what is necessary for their own survival. They are ignorant in the sense that their minds are always on the wrong things, spiralling off into reflection and blame, and thereby losing sight of the material reality of their own existence.

It’s difficult to remain focused on what’s important when you have so much to think about. The golden age myth is a reminder that less can be more: emptying your mind can put you in touch with reality again, with what is essential for a creative life. That all the calculations and abstractions in the world won’t get you anywhere if you can’t catch hold of what is in front of you.

(I’ve been reading The Greek Myths by Robert Graves)

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Religion, Magic, and Science

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It’s useless to try to define something like religion. James Frazer says all he’ll do is say what he means by it, and then try to be consistent in using the term throughout his work.

By “religion”, Frazer means

A propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man which are believed to direct and control the course of nature and of human life.

He goes on to say that, according to this definition, there must always be both a theoretical and a practical side to religion. There must always be a theoretical because one must believe in a higher power if one is to feel compelled to attempt to appease it. There must always be a practical side because appeasing a god always involves some kind of work, whether that be ritual or merely living a “good” life – a life in accordance with the preferences of your god.

Frazer believes that the religious world view is superior to the magical world view that came before it. The magicians believed that they could control nature, performing rituals to cause rain, to make crops grow, and so on. Religion comes about when human beings start to notice that the magic doesn’t always work like it’s supposed to – it doesn’t always rain when the magician says it will rain, the harvest was bad again this year – and they come to doubt their own powers to cause desired outcomes in nature. Religion is born of “a confession of human ignorance and weakness.” What follows from this confession is the imagining of a power greater than they, against which they are helpless, but which might be merciful and grant human beings what they need if they behave rightly.

To believe in the existence of gods is more rational than believing in magic, Frazer tells us. We can prove that magic doesn’t work, but it’s more difficult to refute religion. Spirits and gods can be fickle, and a failure on the part of the priest to produce the desired outcome might be viewed as proof of the displeasure of the god, rather than of the non-existence of that god. And yet, according to Frazer, the religious view has been slowly eroded. Little by little, it has become apparent that nature behaves in a more or less orderly and fixed way. Gradually humankind has come to see that nature does not look like something governed by the whim and caprice of spirits. Increasingly, the scientific world view has come to prevail.

For Frazer, the scientific view is similar to the magical. Both views are opposed to the religious belief in fickle spirits. Both claim a regularity in nature. The magicians claimed that they knew the laws of nature and through this knowledge could make predictions and bring about desired effects. The scientists make similar claims. The difference between the two is that science seems to be effective, whereas humankind has gradually come to believe that magic is not.

The triumph of science is not final and absolute, for Frazer. Magic, religion, and science all have in common the fact that they are theoretical ways of viewing the world. The belief in magic and religion were only very slowly eroded over time, as gradually it became apparent that they did not explain the world. Frazer leaves open the question whether the belief in science might go the same way.

For Frazer, science appeared when humankind started to doubt whether the world was governed by the caprice and whim of invisible powers. The arrival of science brought with it a confidence in the fixity and predictability of things, in the human being’s power over nature and assured place in the world. But however things might have looked to Frazer, today we live in a world of uncertainty. Isn’t it starting to look, to many of us, as though the world is not quite governed by law in the way we were told? That decision-making is impossible in a world of information, with so many variables to hand? That with so much misinformation out there, truth and falsity is beginning to look like a matter of personal preference? Perhaps amid this uncertainty we are heading once more towards a world governed by whim and caprice, and towards a world view that looks a little closer to the religious than the scientific.

(I’ve been reading The Golden Bough by James Frazer.)

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You must be ecstatic

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In The Night Manager, Madame Latulipe asks Jonathan if he is in love. “Not that I am aware, madame,” he replies.

“You are unhappy? You are lonely?”

“I am blissfully content.”

“But to be content is not enough! You must abandon yourself. You must risk everything every day. You must be ecstatic.”

John Le Carré has Jonathan reply that “his ecstasy was in his work”. Since he is a cook, perhaps she can believe this. A cook is a kind of artist after all.

Meanwhile, Henry Miller sings and shouts and makes conversation as he types. According to Robert Ferguson he is “playing at being a writer”. He’s not carefully considering “artistic problems” in the way that Joyce, Beckett, or Nabokov did: he just goes for it, hammering at the machine. It’s when others can see him here, glass of wine beside him, putting his deep thoughts on the page, that he feels like he’s a writer. He is “enjoying the paraphernalia of the role,” putting on a show for those who watch him create. Is this not a man in a state of abandon? In a state of ecstasy?

I find this notion of playing at being a writer fascinating. Don’t all writers need to do this to some extent? Abandon themselves to the task and just start to put those incomplete thoughts on the page, and see what comes of them? Or is it just that I can relate more to the Miller-type than to the more serious kinds of writer? If I tell myself: This is work, I need to get this done then nothing comes at all. Whereas when I just sit down and bash the keys at least I’ll have something down on the page, which I can work into something better later on. I can’t remember who taught me that writer’s block does not exist, and I don’t know whether that’s strictly true, but as soon as I stopped believing in it I found myself able to write every day.

Of course, not everything that comes from bashing the keys is going to be very good, and that’s why it’s not serious work. Half the time you’re not producing anything worthwhile, just enjoying the process. This seems to be one of the ways we’re to understand “seriousness”: in opposition to “fun”. Something is serious when it’s more than just fun, when it has some definite purpose beyond that.

But according to that definition, playing at being a writer would be serious too. Because it’s not just about having fun, it’s also about hoping that something worthwhile will come of the work beyond that. Writing is “serious play”, one might say, because it has the lightness of play mixed with the purpose of serious work. One plays in the hope that, eventually, one might succeed in producing a completed piece of work.

“You must risk everything every day. You must be ecstatic.” This is the ecstasy of play. You roll the dice: perhaps nothing will come of this play. Perhaps the day will be wasted. But what’s the alternative? Preparing and preparing and never getting down to the business of writing. Of course, one day you’ll be sure everything is in place, ready to begin, and once you finally get down to writing it will be marvellous. But when will that be?

(I’ve been reading The Night Manager by John Le Carré and Henry Miller: A Life by Robert Ferguson.)

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A Short Note on Reason’s Certainty

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In Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, having “reason” means being certain that you are “all reality”, knowing that the whole of the world can be found in your “I”. This self-certainty is well-founded in a sense: idealism is true, and the opposite belief, that the world subsists outside ourselves and simply impresses itself upon us through our senses, amounts to a naïve and false realism.

But reason’s certainty is also mistaken: its notion of idealism is too simplistic. For Hegel, it is not just a single “I” in which the whole world is found; this “I” must find itself to be a member of a community, and only “we”, together, can form a real and true conception of the world. The whole of reality is found in a community’s conception of itself, and not just that of a single individual.

To say that the “I” is the whole world, in any sense, is to take up the standpoint of idealism. It is not such a strange thing for a philosopher to do: we have Berkeley, Kant, Fichte, and many more. And Hegel himself is an idealist.

We can observe reason’s claim for itself from different perspectives: on the one hand, we can take it in its immediacy, in which case it is simply saying “I am the whole world.” In which case it seems a strange, mad claim to make. On the other hand, we can view this utterance in the context of the Phenomenology of Spirit, in which case we see consciousness, as reason, at a point on the path that has brought it here. It has taken up and rejected the various claims that the particular forms of consciousness and self-consciousness have made for themselves along the way – for example, that truth can be found immediately in objects, or in the negation of objects and withdrawal from the world – and step by step, as it has moved along this path, consciousness has demonstrated the truth of the simple idealism of reason.

Consciousness is correct, even though it is mistaken. Given what has gone before, it has found, in the certainty of reason, the truest standpoint that it can find for the moment. It has rid itself of naïve realism and has taken up the perspective of idealism, which means that it is at least pointing in the right direction. Consciousness will now find its simple idealism tested, until it is refined and transformed from the narrow idealism of reason’s  “I”, into the more fulfilling idealism found in the concept of “spirit” and the notion of the whole world found in an ethical community and its culture.

(I’ve been reading paragraph 233 of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, translated by A.V. Miller. Image is from Wikimedia Commons.)

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What is Philosophy?

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It’s a question philosophers like to ask from time to time, never arriving at a universally satisfactory answer. If you start to read Hegel, you might arrive at the notion that philosophy is the science of Spirit coming to know itself as Spirit; and yet even once this strange thought has entered your brain, it will take a lot more patient study of the great philosopher’s work to unpack exactly what this means.

In the “Preface” to his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel tells us that what is essential to philosophy is “universality”. Philosophy seeks to discover not just what is true, but what is universally or absolutely so. For example: “Cardiff is the capital of Wales”, “It is the 30th of July 2020”, and “I am hungry” might all be true statements, but these are not the kinds of truth philosophy is seeking. On the other hand, the question of what it is about these statements that makes us say that they are all “true” might be a philosophical question, since it has to do with the essential nature of truth, or what is true in all cases of truth.

Hegel’s approach to the history of philosophy is coloured by this notion that philosophy has to do with universality: it is not enough to take individual philosophers and their systems merely as particular instances, each to be refuted or argued for in isolation; instead, each philosophical system must be seen as expressing the universal truth, however incompletely or imperfectly. For Hegel, truth is something that has unfolded gradually and progressively throughout the history of humankind, and philosophical systems must be seen as connected and part of a long tradition, with philosophers learning from their predecessors, improving on what they find, getting closer to the truth with each passing generation.

To put it paradoxically: the result of philosophical investigation should not just be a result – a set of simple truths that can be easily reported to non-specialists once the philosophical work is completed. Instead, we should see that the result is the result and the process by which the result is reached. We cannot just take up what is true in particular philosophies and discard what is false: what is false must be worked through so that we can understand how the truth was reached, and the false as much as the true must be retained as an essential part of the journey.

Philosophy is the science of Spirit coming to know itself as Spirit, because it is the journey of discovery that each generation must work through afresh, making the same mistakes, only advancing one or two steps further than their predecessors each time. Philosophy never arrives at the end, with a full set of data that can simply be set down for the next generation to read and move on. The students of each generation must do the philosophical work, reading the philosophers who came before, coming to know themselves by seeing themselves reflected in the insights – and mistakes – of the past.

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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Spirit is the Light of the Morning

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“Its shape is in fact shapelessness, the all-embracing light of the morning.” – J.N. Findlay, Analysis of section 686 of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.

It’s impossible to see where light begins and ends. You can see it in the green leaves of the trees as much as in the clear blue of the sky. As much in the grey tarmac as in the glistening ocean. Light permeates all things that are visible and yet is none of them.

Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is the story of the human spirit – or “Spirit” – as it struggles to find itself.

Spirit has discovered that it cannot be morally pure: you can do your duty, but you cannot be free from sin. Any moral stand taken results in hypocrisy – and yet a stand must be taken. Spirit goes around and around and has begun to despair again.

Spirit wants purity because it does not want to be limited. Recognising its own hypocrisy, Spirit seeks to be free from it.

Spirit sees a way out. It takes refuge in simplicity, escaping for now from the intricacies of moral debate. It finds this simplicity, this peace, in religion.

Spirit can stop retreating now that it has found God. A God that is lord and master and does not retreat from its object. God’s object is Spirit itself in its purity. Be one with God and know thyself. Self-contemplation: God is within me and spreads His light outward to all things that come within my vision. I have found a God that is akin to the sunrise, who spreads His light over all objects, making them visible while Himself being none of these particular things. God is the essence but not the being of these objects, making their appearance possible while leaving them to their own mundane existences.

Duty and morality fade into the background and the Truth is now found in that play of light over and above the things of the world. Truth is found in detachment from the things of the world.

This God, this Spirit, is now the “shape of shapelessness”, the simple relation of Spirit to itself. It is “the pure, all-embracing and all-pervading essential light of sunrise”. It is “formless substantiality”. The “simplicity” of this form of being means it moves about “aimlessly” and “without stability or intelligence”. It is vast and without limit, and therefore sublime rather than beautiful. It is something fearful and incomprehensible to moral consciousness, its beam vast and uncaring, and its heat potentially destructive of any particular thing that comes under it.

The human spirit will not linger long here. It cannot for long remain satisfied with the empty play of light on surfaces. It has been a relief from the contradictions and pressures of moral and ethical life, an escape. But Spirit will move on and search for new religious forms and find contradictions and pressures anew, and finally find a place for moral and ethical life again.

(I’ve been reading Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit translated by A.V. Miller, with an analysis of the text by J.N. Findlay)

(Image is from Pixabay)

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The Enjoyment in Writing

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Past, present, and future are bound together when Henry Miller is writing. “The past is the springboard, the present the melting pot, and the future the delectation.”

The past is the springboard because it is from the memories of his own experiences that he writes.

The present is the melting pot because it is in the chaos of the moment that he must transform these memories into art.

The future is the delectation: Henry describes the enjoyment he gets from writing. “For instance, when I write something I like extra well I smack my lips and look over my own shoulder. I am already the man of 2500 A.D. or 5000 A.D., enjoying this great guy Henry Miller who lived in the 20th century.”

“Writing is its own reward,” Miller tells us. You receive this reward in the reflective moment of achievement that comes once the work is done. Even one good finished sentence and you can revel in the delicious future in which admiring eyes will be upon your work.

These admiring eyes don’t need to ever actually exist. What’s important is that you can imagine them. “The men of 2500 A.D. will enjoy reading this little passage, I am sure.” You’ve created work that you are pleased with, and so you can imagine others, even in some distant future or parallel universe, feeling the same. Others like you. This is why you write after all: to find others like you.

And along with the delectation of the future: the melting pot of the present, the seething chaos from which you can’t expect anything perfect to emerge. Life, after all, isn’t perfect. And life is the most important thing: you’re trying to bring into the world something that lives and breathes. And that will live on and speak to others, and say new things and even give rise to new ideas that you’d never thought of in the moment of writing.

For this reason, perfection is never the goal. What is perfect is finished with, and nothing new can arise from it. What the best readers want is the flawed, contradictory, and chaotic. Which when released into the world can mingle and find strange new uses in the hands of others.

Miller is saying: write for yourself, and not for any preconceived notion of beauty or truth. The whole purpose of life is to enjoy yourself, and writing should serve that same purpose. And in serving yourself in this way you will produce exactly the kind of lively and provocative writing that your future readers will need.

(I’ve been reading “Writing Is Its Own Reward” by Henry Miller, which can be found in his Henry Miller on Writing.)

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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Orpheus

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Orpheus is playing his lyre with tears in his eyes, begging the rulers of the underworld to return Eurydice to him.

All Pluto and Persephone want is to be rid of those dewy eyes, tearing at their heart strings. They tell him he can have her back on one condition: that he doesn’t look back the whole way out of the underworld.

By the time Orpheus has broken this condition, as he surely will, and he’s crying again, he’ll be long gone and the king and queen won’t have to worry about it.

He’s almost out of the underworld and, worried that Eurydice might not be behind him, he looks back.

As she’s pulled away from him forever there is no look of complaint in her eyes: she was loved and that is enough for her. She whispers a farewell and is gone.

Orpheus finds the denizens of the underworld hardened against him as he tries to re-enter: he’s pushed away from the boat and his song is cut short. They know his tricks now. Distraught, he returns to the daylight to mourn.

All eyes are on him during his time on earth, the famous poet. He is loved by everyone and everything. If he sits in the sun he soon finds himself in shade: the trees have crept toward him to hear his songs.

(I’ve been reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses.)

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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