Thinking Through Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method

Found essay from 1988, when I was immersed in the academic study of religion. This was not the only tool in the toolbox, of course, but it’s funny for me to see the way I thought about things from that perspective. It was during my first year of graduate school, and I always tried to find something of value in everything I read, always tried to rescue something from a text even if I disagreed with many of its points. I was struggling to situate my thoughts in a context that was still very strange to me. There are a couple of good bits but it’s hilarious how ungrounded this really was, and how I floundered with the idea of understanding itself. It’s also interesting the way I sidestepped the issues of gender, race, class, and even geography. Still, there’s something from that time that does live on in me. I was perhaps kinder then, and more curious.

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Scientific methodology in the human sciences, including the study of religion, is shaped by a scientific ideal that excludes the observer from that which is observed. The use of objective methodological tools to analyze and control key texts places the interpreter above the realm of the examined. The participatory aspect of humanity and tradition is often not taken into account, and so a dead representation of the original meaning, wrenched from its rightful place, is transmitted in a rehashed form inappropriate to the experience of the time. Gadamer, in Truth and Method, outlines an ontological shift which seeks the reintegration of “belongingness” as a way to vitalize and reunify the truth obscured by the alienating “distanciation” of method.

“Effective-historical consciousness” allows us to recognize our present reality as part of a tradition that cannot be done away with. We cannot wish it away (although we may sometimes ignore it and assume an ivory-tower stance). We stand in a context in which we pose questions of a text that may have contributed to the context in which we are standing to ask the question. The sphere of understanding shown within texts from the past (or even of a different and contemporary community) has a different “horizon” from the one in which we are asking questions. Likewise, professors in an academic context provide the shape (to some extent) of the horizons of students and other colleagues. The interpreter, through a creative and responsible interpretation of texts, opens new horizons yet becomes part of a particular tradition.

A historical and reflexive consciousness is particularly appropriate for scholars who study religious and philosophical works, which have shaped the academic world in which we find ourselves. Individually, we play with academic traditions and we are played by them, but we must also find common ground to discuss the “something” called religion if we are to consider ourselves as composing a distinct discipline within a pluralistic society. An examination along the lines of methods and theories in the study of religion is one way to explore the ways discussion is currently proceeding.

In the study of religion, we consider important cultural texts, language captured by signs called words, wholly abstracted from a particular place and time and let loose on the world. If the text speaks in such a way as to expand the current horizons of the individual reader, it also speaks dialectically to and through the interpreter in the form of a dialogue of question and answer. The text may become (or may already be) part of a human tradition, and it may shape the questions and answers of the future in ways that were never intended by the author. Hermeneutics seeks to retain the unity of the original meaning while letting the text speak to the current constellations of meaning. The text has the possibility of becoming a hermeneutic event at any time, and–if it is published–for anyone who cares to read it. In addition, the text may have the power to shape the world view of a community.

Gadamer is often perceived as a conservative because his emphasis seems to assume the rightful authority of a present tradition. He is, after all, playing with and being played by his own context, which may be a privileged one. If the tradition of which Gadamer speaks must necessarily be limited to being for and about only a small portion of the human population (as critical theory would have it), then it is possible to see flaws in his philosophical-hermeneutical thought. However, if one applies Gadamer’s insights to Gadamer’s own work, it is possible to argue that his emphasis on a certain type of Western tradition (in which he lives, and must speak from) is not fundamental to his understanding of being and knowing. Rather, his hermeneutic approach is part of its own historical dialogue and opens the doors to a better understanding of our present consciousness.

In questioning institutional authority, one takes a stance against a certain type of prejudice as it is expressed by power, but to do so necessarily expresses another in relation to the opposed viewpoint. Gadamer may be a bit idealistic in presenting dialogue as a universal possibility–as though all sides would sit down amicably, discuss political ideology, agree on a plan of action, and peacefully change the world. However, one cannot criticize effectively without coming to a dialogic understanding of the claims being presented. To put this another way, you have to grok it somehow to be able to translate it at all into another context, even if it’s to critique the claim.

Without the language of experience expressed in the claims of the oppressed, critical theory could not exist. The interpreter of culture permits the subject matter to have its way, without losing a sense of hermeneutic validity. The claim of the text or artwork must be allowed to score its own points, and the interpreter tries to become as conscious as possible about how their own pre-understandings may be obscuring or cloaking their interpretation. Pulling in every kind of approach you can – existential, poetic, etymological, sociological – within and outside the text brings better questions to ask. Empathetic common ground, then interrogation. Gadamer does not go so far. He does reinscribe, so that his welcome is slightly cyborgian.

It is impossible to avoid the historical context; history and understanding proceed onwards and around–together. Gadamer’s reflective moment is in a continual dance with the historical one. Creativity and imagination are born of language that has its home in a particular place. Although Gadamer phenomenologically links authority, prejudice, and tradition, his elucidation of the interaction of these terms attempts to rehabilitate these terms from their negative connotations. Each individual voice–in becoming itself–decides what “authority” means before, through, and as one speaks in language in which we “articulate the experience of the world in so far as we are in agreement.”

The dismantling of barriers to understanding can be accomplished only through language based on hermeneutical experience. Social criticism and more importantly, cultural understanding, would only be supported by full and complete interpretations of key texts through an open (but careful) dialogue with them. Hermeneutic approaches encourage bridges of understanding in our pluralistic society by encouraging the voice of the alien, the voice of a stranger in our strange land, to become in some sense “at home.”

Situating human consciousness is a continuous dialogue that rests on an event of understanding that places the experience and the interpreter/participant within an interstructural world of language. The hermeneutical event is as much an ordeal as a subject for study. Religious thinkers and writers and artists deal with precisely these issues. The interpreter of art, culture, psychology, and religion must seek the self in the alien and become at home there, partaking of another worldview, which in turn informs a changed self, one that has reshaped its presuppositions, in order to begin to translate those claims into the continuing dialogue outside the self. This is the hermeneutical circle. Without a dialogue (language) based on both methodological approaches and grounds and subjects for discussion, no community of scholars could exist.

Careful attention to language is a way to create a keen understanding of this community. Whether it is specialized branch of academic study, or a global community, the group or individual projects possibilities for itself and reshapes its own presuppositions continually. For instance, memory as an idea has an history of its own. The concepts of remembering, forgetting, and recalling were formed in and into traditions of common use, they were not created in a cultural vacuum. Ideas, as expressed in words such as memory, fact, truth, God, and religion have histories which cannot be ignored if the words are to be employed. In addition to the history of ideas, the individual or group who “remembers” has to learn what it means to do so at roughly the same time as he/she/they are actually remembering. If the academic study of religion–in using memory as a tool, supposing facts to be self-evident, asserting truths, and describing previous and current ideas of humanity and God–forget the subject matter at hand in the manipulation of information, then the sometimes-present spirit of technocratic professionalism has played it pretty roughly. Without a sense of the history of ideas as well as the consciousness of historical dialogue, each scholar’s work can only become disconnected and airy, narcissistic and atemporal, leaving out too much of the lived experience and realities that can’t bow down to universal claims.

It is because scholars of religion must themselves wrestle with the “big” questions, (i.e., what it means to be human, how meaning and ultimate concerns are constructed and why) that they can be at all qualified to examine how others did and do so. Imagination and good scholarship, like a good poem, suppose a common ground, that of language as experience. When the history of the reception of ideas and their effects begins to obscure the claim of the idea, it is the scholar’s job to reconstruct what went wrong and present a new interpretation with the integrity appropriate to serious discussion.

The finitude of understanding is never overcome, but students of religion can re-perform or re-tell insights to give them better light. It is an art to learn to take a claim seriously and to restructure your presuppositions based on a recognition of the truth of that claim. It is not an art that is commonly taught, but it is an art indispensable to the study of religion. The opposition inherent in an exploration of the alien, especially as regards the normative claims made in religious texts, requires a way to create bonds that become productive and constructive of new meaning that better “speaks” to an audience that can be very culturally removed from an original text. Hermeneutic understanding does not stipulate the end of imaginative endeavors in the interest of consensus. Rather, it is a way to bring some measure of consensus of meaning into scholarship, despite its ever-incompleteness.

References:

Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method
Paul Ricoeur, Hermeneutics and the Social Sciences

I Only Report

“A Report to an Academy” (“Ein Bericht für eine Akademie”) is a short story by Franz Kafka, written and published in 1917. In the story, an ape named Red Peter, who has learned to behave like a human, presents to an academy the story of how he effected his transformation. The story was first published by Martin Buber in a German monthly. This English version was translated from German by Philip Boehm.

Esteemed Gentlemen of the Academy!

I feel honored by your invitation to present the academy with a report on my former life as an ape.

I am afraid, however, that I will be unable to comply with your request. It is now some five years that I have been separated from apedom – a short time according to the calendar, perhaps, but an eternity when you have to gallop through it the way I did. And even though I was accompanied, at least for parts of the way, by fine human beings, good counsel, orchestral music and applause, my journey was in essence a solitary one, for the accompaniment-to stick with the metaphor-kept far away from the barricade. This achievement would have been impossible if I had desired to cling to my origins, to the memory of my youth. In fact the first rule I set for myself was the renunciation of any and all forms of obstinacy; I, a free ape, willingly accepted this yoke.

But because of that my memories withdrew more and more. And the gateway of return, had the humans willed it, which at first was as great as the heavens that vault the earth, became less and less lofty and more and more constricted as my development proceeded at its spurred-on pace. I felt increasingly at ease, increasingly included in the world of men. The storm that followed me from my past abated, and today it is nothing more than a breeze to cool my heels, and that distant aperture through which it blows, the same opening I once passed through myself, has grown so small that I would have to scrape the fur off my body to make it through-assuming I had the strength and willpower for the journey back. Frankly speaking, much as I enjoy finding images to describe all this, frankly speaking, esteemed sirs, your own apedom, insofar as something similar may lie in your own past – could not be further from you than mine is from me. But every creature that walks the earth has a ticklish heel: from the small chimpanzee to the great Achilles.

Nonetheless, I may be able to respond to your request after all, at least in the most limited sense, and I’m very happy to do so.

The first thing I learned was how to shake hands. A handshake is a sign of candor, and today, at the pinnacle of my career, I’d like to expand on that first handshake by adding a few candid words as well. And although what I have to say won’t teach the academy anything essentially new, and though it’s far less than what was requested of me-and what I cannot articulate despite my best will-I might nevertheless be able to offer a broad outline of how a former ape managed to penetrate the world of men and continue his existence in that world. Nor would I permit myself to say the little that follows unless I was absolutely certain of myself, having secured an unshakable position in the biggest variété shows of the civilized world:

I come from the Gold Coast. As to the method of my capture I have to rely on the accounts of strangers. A hunting party of the firm Hagenbeck-incidentally I have since downed many a bottle of good red wine with the leader of that expedition-had set up a blind in the bushes by our watering place along the riverbank, where I went in the evening together with my tribe. Shots were fired, I was the only one hit, I took two bullets.

One grazed my cheek, and although the wound was superficial, the bullet did shave out a large red scar that led to my being called Red Peter–a disgusting name, completely inappropriate, only a monkeybrain would come up with a name like that, as if the red mark on my cheek were all that distinguished me from the circus chimp Peter, recently deceased, who was well known in certain parts. All that just as an aside.

The second shot hit me just under the hip, and it was serious; to this day I limp a little as a result. I recently read an article penned by one of the thousands of gossiping gadflies that write about me in the papers, who claims that my apish nature is still not completely repressed, and cites as proof my predilection for removing my pants whenever I have guests to show the entry point of that bullet. The man who came up with that should have each finger shot off his writing hand, one by one. I may remove my pants in front of whomever I please, the most anyone would find there is an impeccably groomed fur and the scar from a shooting wound that was-and I use this word carefully so as not to mislead anyone – that was downright criminal. It’s all plain to see, there’s nothing to hide, for when it comes to truth, even the highest-minded individual is ready to let his manners drop. On the other hand, if the author of that article were to take off his pants when he had visitors, well, that would be another matter entirely, and I’ll give him the benefit of any doubt he doesn’t do this. But he should stop imposing his own delicate sense of propriety on me.

When I woke up after being shot – and this is where my own memory gradually begins – I found myself in a cage on a Hagenbeck company steamships, down in steerage. Instead of four walls of bars this cage had only three, and was fastened to a large crate, which comprised the fourth wall. The whole thing was too low to stand up in and too narrow for sitting down. So I just crouched inside, with my knees bent and constantly shaking, and my face turned toward the crate, as I didn’t want to see anyone and wished only to be left alone in the darkness, the bars cutting into my flesh from the back. This method of confining wild animals is supposed to be particularly advantageous during the first days of captivity, and judging from my own experience I cannot deny that this is indeed the case, from the human point of view.

But at that moment I wasn’t thinking about that. For the first time in my life I was trapped with no way out, at least nowhere I could go directly, since straight ahead of me was the crate, board securely fixed to board. And though I discovered a gap between the boards, which made me howl for joy in all my ignorance, it wasn’t even big enough to stick my tail through, and all my apish strength couldn’t make it any wider.

Later I was told I made unusually little noise, which led everyone to believe I would either soon die or else – assuming I survived the first, critical period -would prove to be very tamable. I survived. Dull sobbing, the painful search for fleas, apathetically licking a coconut, banging my head against the wall of the crate, and sticking my tongue out at anyone who came near me-this is how I first behaved in my new life. But my one prevailing feeling was that I had no way out. Of course today I have to rely on human words to describe what I felt then as an ape, so my portrayal is bound to be distorted, but even if I can no longer attain my old apish truth, at least my depiction is very much in that spirit, there’s no doubt about that.

I had always had so many ways out, and now there was none. I was trapped. My freedom of movement couldn’t have been more restricted if they had nailed me down. And why? You can scratch between your toes until you start to bleed and not discover the reason. Press yourself so close against the bar of the cage until it nearly slices you in two and you won’t find the answer. I had no way out, so I had to invent one: otherwise I was doomed. If I had stayed staring at the wall of that crate I would have inevitably died a miserable death. But that’s where Hagenbeck & Co think apes should be, and so I stopped being an ape. A beautifully clear train of thought I must have somehow hatched out with my belly, since apes think with their belly.

I’m afraid that you may not understand exactly what I mean by a way out, which I mean in the most ordinary and fullest sense of the phrase. I am deliberately avoiding the word freedom, because I don’t mean this grand feeling of freedom on all sides. As an ape I may have known it, and I’ve met humans who yearn for exactly that. But I myself have never asked for freedom, neither then nor now. As an aside: freedom is something people deceive themselves with far too frequently. And just as it counts as one of the most sublime feelings, so, too, can it lead to the sublime disappointment. Often, before going on stage as part of a revue, I’ve watched this or that pair of trapeze artists high in the air by the ceiling. They would swing and sway, floating into each other’s arms, one would carry the other by her hair in his teeth. “So that’s another example of human freedom,” I thought, “ego-maniacal and high-handed.” What a mockery of holy nature! There’s not a building on earth that could withstand the laughter of the apes at such a sight.

No, I didn’t want freedom. All I wanted was some way out – right, left, wherever it might lead. I kept my demand small, so that if it turned out to be a delusion, the disappointment would be no greater. Anything to get on, to get out! And not just stand there with upraised arms pressed against the wall of some crate.

Today I see clearly that I could never have escaped without the greatest inner tranquility. Indeed, I think I owe everything I have become to the calm that came over me after those first few days at sea. And I probably have the crew to thank for that.

They’re good people, despite everything. To this day I enjoy recalling the sound of their heavy steps that echoed through my half-sleep back then. They had the habit of taking everything extremely slowly. If one of them wanted to rub his eyes, he’d raise his hand as if it were a hanging weight. Their jokes were crude, but hearty. Their laughter was generally mixed with coughing that sounded dangerous but didn’t mean anything. They always had something in their mouths to spit out and couldn’t care less where it landed. They were constantly complaining about the fleas jumping from me to them, but they weren’t ever really angry at me; they realized that fleas thrive in my fur and that fleas are jumpers, so they learned to live with that. When they weren’t on duty they’d sometimes sit around me in a half circle, more cooing than speaking to one another. They would stretch out on the crates and smoke their pipes, slapping their knees whenever I made the slightest movement, and now and then one of them would take a stick and tickle me where it felt pleasant. I can’t say I’d accept an invitation to take another voyage on that ship, but nor could I claim that all the memories I have from that passage are ugly ones.

Above all, the tranquility I acquired among these people kept me from trying to escape. Looking back, I think I must have sensed that if I wanted to live, I needed to find some way out, and I must have understood that fleeing would not accomplish this. I no longer know whether such an escape was possible, but I believe it was – surely escape is always an option for an ape. Today my teeth are such that I have to be careful even with ordinary nutcracking, but back then it would have probably been just a matter of time before I chomped my way through the lock on the door. But I didn’t do that, for what would it have gained me? As soon as I stuck my head out they would have recaptured me and locked me up in an even worse cage, or else I might have crept off unnoticed, to the other animals–for instance to the giant boa that was caged across from me, and breathed my last breath in its embrace. I even might have managed to steal onto the upper deck and jump overboard, in which case I would have rocked a while on the water and then drowned. Desperate deeds every one. I didn’t calculate things in such a human fashion, but under the influence of my surroundings I acted as though I had.

I didn’t calculate, but I probably observed things in peace and quiet. I watched the people going back and forth, always the same faces, the same movements, I often had the impression there was only one of them. So this man, or these men, went about with no impediment. A lofty purpose began to dawn on me. No one promised me they would open the bars if I acted like them. After all, promises aren’t made for seemingly impossible tasks. But when such tasks are accomplished nevertheless, the promises are made after the fact, and exactly where you would have looked for them in vain before. Except there wasn’t much about these men that truly tempted me. Had I been a follower of the grand freedom I mentioned earlier, I’m sure I would have chosen the sea over the way out I saw in the gloomy faces of these people. But in any case I spent a long time observing before I ever had thoughts like that, and it was the only accumulated observations that first pushed me in a specific direction.

Imitating people was so easy. Within a few days I was able to spit. We would spit at each other in the face, with the only difference that I licked my face clean afterward, and they didn’t. Soon I was smoking a pipe like an old salt, and if I pressed my thumb into the bowl to boot, the whole steerage would cheer; except it took me a long time to understand the difference between an empty pipe and one that had been fully stuffed.

The whiskey bottle caused me the most difficulty. The smell was sheer torture, I forced myself with all my strength, but it took weeks to overcome my aversion. Strangely, the people took these internal struggles more seriously than anything else about me. While I don’t distinguish the people in my memory, there was one who kept coming back, alone or with his chums, day or night, at the oddest hours. He’d stand outside my cage with the bottle and instruct me. He didn’t understand me, but he wanted to solve the riddle of my being. He would slowly uncork the bottle and look at me, to check whether I had understood; I confess that I always watched him with wild-eyed attention-all too eager, in fact-no human teacher on earth would find such a student of people. After the bottle was uncorked, he would hold it to his mouth; I would follow with my eyes, from the bottle to his throat. He would nod, pleased with his pupil, and place the bottle to his lips. Delighted with my gradual discovery, I would shriek and scratch myself all over, wherever I felt the urge. He liked that – then he’d tilt the bottle back and take a swallow, and I was so impatient and desperate to emulate him that I wound up soiling myself in my cage, which would again cause him enormous satisfaction. Then, swinging the bottle away from his body and back to his lips, he would drink, exaggeratedly bending over for purposes of instruction, and down the entire bottle in a single gulp. Exhausted from so much effort, I could no longer follow him; I’d hang limply on the bar, while he ended his theoretical instruction by stroking his belly and grinning.

Then came the practical instruction. But hadn’t the theoretical part already worn me out? Indeed it had. Still, that’s part of my fate, so despite my exhaustion I reached as best I could for the bottle being held out to me, and, shaking all the while, uncork it. Success gradually brought renewed strength, and I managed to lift the bottle in a manner hardly distinguishable from the original. I raised it to my lips, then threw it away in disgust, disgust, even though it was empty, with nothing left but the smell. I was so revolted I tossed it on the ground, to the sadness of my teacher, and the greater sadness of myself, and the fact that I didn’t forget to stroke my belly and grin after throwing away the bottle didn’t make either one of us feel better.

All too often, that was how my lessons went. And to my teacher’s credit: he wasn’t angry with me, though he did on occasion hold his burning pipe against my body in some place I couldn’t reach, until my fur began to glow, but then he’d dampen it himself with his huge kind hand – he wasn’t angry with me, he realized we were both on the same side, both struggling against my apish nature, and he knew I had the more difficult struggle.

So what a victory it was for him as well as me, when one evening in front of many onlookers – it may have been a party, a gramophone was playing, an officer was carrying on among the crew-at a moment when no one was watching, I grabbed a bottle of whiskey that had been inadvertently left outside my cage, and did a perfect job of uncorking it-to the increasing attention of the group around me. Then I held the bottle to my lips and without the slightest hesitation or grimace, like a bona fide professional drinker, with round and rolling eyes and letting the liquid slosh into my throat, I really and truly drained the bottle, and threw it away, no longer out of desperation, but as an artist. Of course I forgot to stroke my belly, but for that, because I couldn’t help it, because I felt an irresistible urge, because all my senses were intoxicated – well, to make a long story short I called out “Hello!” in a human voice, and with this call I leaped into the community of humans, and their echo of “Listen to that – he’s talking!” felt like a kiss on my body that was thoroughly drenched with sweat.

I repeat: I never felt any desire to imitate people; I imitated them because I was looking for a way out; that was my only reason. And even this triumph was just a small step. I immediately lost my voice, which I took months to recover, and my aversion to the whiskey bottle came back worse than ever. But my course had been set once and for all.

When I arrived in Hamburg and was handed over to my first trainer, I soon realized that I had two choices: zoological park or variety show. I didn’t hesitate for a second. I told myself to focus all my strength on getting into the variety show, there lies your way out. The zoo is just a new cage, if you end up there, you’re lost.

And study I did, gentlemen. You learn when you have to, when you’re looking for a way out, you learn with no holds barred. You drive yourself with a whip, flogging yourself at the slightest opposition. My apish nature came tumbling out of me so fast that my first teacher nearly went ape himself, as the saying goes. He was soon forced to give up teaching and had to be taken to an institution. Fortunately he was released soon thereafter.

But I wore out many more teachers, even several at once. When I became surer of my own abilities, and the press began to follow my progress and my future began to shine, I hired my own tutors, had them set up in five adjacent rooms, and learned from all of them at once, constantly jumping from one room to the next.

What progress! How the rays of knowledge penetrated my waking brain from all sides! I will not deny it: it made me happy. But I must also confess that I did not overvalue my achievement, neither then nor especially today. Through an unprecedented exertion I managed to acquire the education of your average European, which might not mean a thing in itself, but at least it helped me out my cage, at least it provided me with this way out, this human way. I slipped off into the bush, so to speak-the human bush. I had no other choice, assuming that freedom was never an option.

Looking over my development and its purpose up to this point, I neither complain nor am I fully content. I half-sit, half-lie in my rocker, my hands in my pockets, a bottle of wine on the table, and look out the window. If I have company I show them the proper hospitality. My agent sits in the anteroom; if I ring then he steps in and listens to what I have to say. I perform nearly every evening, and my success could hardly be greater. If I come home late after a banquet, a scientific society, or a friendly evening at someone’s house, a small, half-trained chimpanzee is waiting for me and I have my pleasure with her in the manner of apes. I don’t wish to see her by day, as her eyes have the insanity of the befuddled half-tamed animal, which I alone can recognize, and which I cannot bear.

By and large I have accomplished what I set out to accomplish. It cannot be said it wasn’t worth the effort. Nor am I asking for any human judgment; all I wish to do is disseminate knowledge, I only report, and that is all I have done for you tonight, esteemed members of the Academy: I have reported, and nothing more.

Love Letter

Darling Sweetheart,

You are my avid fellow feeling. My affection curiously clings to your passionate wish.
My liking yearns to your heart. You are my wistful sympathy: my tender liking.
Yours beautifully,
M.U.C.*

Even with such a designer as Turing, it takes more than imitation-games of consciousness to write a love letter.

Still, isn’t there something about this letter that suggests our own, often inarticulate, longings?

*In this instance, MADAM preferred to call herself M.U.C. (Manchester University Computer). I know how she feels.

(Thanks to John for calling my attention to this bit of sweetness).

Sharing D.H. Lawrence on the Cosmos

D.H. Lawrence is most well-known for his loverly novels, but I am most fond of his book “Apocalypse.” I picked it up again when it caught my eye, patiently waiting, wedged between Bataille and Baudrillard – out of order, why? I opened it up to a random page, and found this passage. I loved it so much that I want to share it with you.

Perhaps the greatest difference between us and the pagans lies in our different relation to the cosmos. With us, all is personal. Landscape and the sky, they are to us the delicious background of our personal life, and no more. Even the universe of the scientists is little more than an extension of our personality, to us. To the pagan, landscape and personal background were on the whole indifferent. But the cosmos was a very real thing. A man lived with the cosmos, and knew it greater than himself.

Don’t let us imagine we see the sun as the old civilisations saw it. All we see is a scientific little luminary, dwindled to a ball of blazing gas. In the centuries before Ezekiel and John, the sun was still a magnificent reality, men drew forth from him strength and splendor, and gave him back homage and lustre and thanks. But in us, the connection is broken, the responsive centers are dead. Our sun is quite a different thing from the cosmic sun of the ancients, so much more trivial. We may see what we call the sun, but we have lost Helios forever. We have lost the cosmos, by coming out of responsive connection with it, and this is our chief tragedy. What is our petty little love of nature – Nature!! – compared to the ancient magnificent living with the cosmos, and being honored by the cosmos!

And some of the great images of the Apocalypse move us to strange depths, and to a strange wild fluttering of freedom: of true freedom, really, an escape to somewhere, not an escape to nowhere. An escape from the tight little cage of our universe: tight, in spite of all the astronomist’s vast and unthinkable stretches of space: tight, because it is only a continuous extension, a dreary on and on, without any meaning: an escape from this into the vital cosmos, to a sun who has a great wild life, and who looks back at us for strength or withering, marvellous, as he goes his way. Who says the sun cannot speak to me! The sun has a great blazing consciousness, and I have a little blazing consciousness. When I can strip myself of the trash of personal feelings and ideas, and get down to my naked sun-self, then the sun and I can commune by the hour, the blazing interchange, and he gives me life, sun-life, and I send him a little new brightness from the world of the bright blood. The great sun, like an angry dragon, hater of the nervous and personal consciousness in us. All these modern sunbathers must realize, for they become disintegrated by the very sun that bronzes them. But the sun, like a lion, loves the bright red blood of life, and can give it an infinite enrichment if we know how to receive it. But we don’t. We have lost the sun. And he only falls on us and destroys us, decomposing something in us: the dragon of destruction instead of the life-bringer.

And we have lost the moon, the cool, bright, ever-varying moon. It is she who would caress our nerves, smooth them with the silky hand of her glowing, soothe them into serentiy again with her cool presence. For the moon is the mistress and mother of our watery bodies, the pale body of our nervous consciousness and our moist flesh. Oh, the moon could soothe us and heal us like a cool great Artemis between her arms. But we have lost her, in our stupidity we ignore her, and angry she stares down on us and whips us with nervous whips. Oh, beware of the angry Artemis of the night heavens, beware of the spite of Cybele, beware of the vindictiveness of horned Astarte.

For the lovers who shot themselves in the night, in the horrible suicide of love, they are driven mad by the poisoned arrows of Artemis: the moon is against them: the moon is fiercely against them. And oh, if the moon is against you, oh, beware of the bitter night, especially the night of intoxication.

Now this may sound nonsense, but that is merely because we are fools. There is an eternal vital correspondence between our blood and the sun: there is an eternal vital correspondence between our nerves and the moon. If we get out of contact and harmony with the sun and the moon, then both turn into great dragons of destruction against us. The sun is a great source of blood-vitality, it streams strength to us. But once we resist the sun, and say: It is a mere ball of gas! – then the very streaming vitality of sunshine turns into subtle disintegrative force in us, and undoes us. The same with the moon, the planets, the great stars. They are either our makers or our unmakers. There is no escape.

We and the cosmos are one. The cosmos is a vast living body, of which we are still parts. The sun is a great heart whose tremors run through our smallest veins. The moon is a great gleaming nerve-centre from which we quiver forever. Who knows the power that Saturn has over us, or Venus? But it is a vital power, rippling exquisitely through us all the time. And if we deny Aldebaran, Aldebaran will pierce us with infinit dagger-thrusts. He who is not with me is against me! – that is a cosmic law.

Now all this is literally true, as men knew in the great past, and as they will know again.

By the time of John of Patmos, men, especially educated men, had already almost lost the cosmos. The sun, the moon, the planets, instead of being the communers, the comminglers, the life-givers, the splendid ones, the awful ones, had already fallen into a sort of deadness; they were the arbitrary, almost mechanical engineers of fate and destiny. By the time of Jesus, men had turned the heavens into a mechanism of fate and destiny, a prison.

The Christians escaped this prison by denying the body altogether. But alas, these little escapes! especially the escapes by denial! – they are the most fatal of evasions. Christianity and our ideal civilisation have been one long evasion. It has caused endless lying and misery, misery such as people know today, not of physical want but of a far more deadly vital want. Better lack bread than lack life. The long evasion, whose only fruit is the machine!

We have lost the cosmos. The sun strengthens us no more, neither does the moon. In mystic language, the moon is black to us, and the sun is as sackcloth.

Now we have to get back the cosmos, and it can’t be done by a trick. The great range of responses that have fallen dead in us have to come to life again. It has taken two thousand years to kill them. Who knows how long it will take to bring them to life?

When I hear modern people complain of being lonely then I know what has happened. They have lost the cosmos. – It is nothing human and personal that we are short of. What we lack is cosmic life, the sun in us and the moon in us. We can’t get the sun in us by lying naked like pigs on a beach. The very sun that is bronzing us is inwardly disintegrating us – as we know later. Process of katabolism. We can only get the sun by a sort of worship; and the same with the moon. By going forth to worship the sun, worship that is felt in the blood. Tricks and postures only make matters worse.

D.H Lawrence, Apocalypse. Viking Compass Edition, 1966, pp. 41-47. Copyright The Estate of David Herbert Lawrence, 1931.



American Fascists: Language… and Reality

What a beautiful present on a Saturday morning! It is rare to see someone write on this set of issues with such precision and clarity. Gigantic kudos to Jeff Fecke, and a huge thank you to Mark Crispin Miller for sharing this with me!

The F Word
By Jeff Fecke | October 27, 2010
Please go comment on the original post!

There are epithets that decent people shy away from using. One obvious example is the use of racist, ethnic, or gender-based slurs. If you’re a decent human being, you don’t use them, because one uses them to hurt, to malign, to defame.

But it is not just slurs on one’s person that we avoid. We also avoid slurs on one’s political philosophy. Describing someone as a Nazi, for example, is rightly seen as beyond the pale. It says a person is a believer in an ideology that led to the slaughter of six million innocent people, and ignited a global war that killed millions more. Unless a person actually is a follower of Hitler’s philosophy, describing them as a Nazi is not only inaccurate, it’s pejorative. And the same is true of other discredited, vile, or simply discarded epithets, like communist1, or Maoist, or totalitarian; unless a person actually is a communist, Maoist, or totalitarian, describing them as such is simply rude, and is designed to create far more heat than light.

But sometimes, the shoe fits. There are still Nazis, after all. There are still segregationists. Still anti-Semites. Still communists. Some of these people wear their positions proudly, like the perky neo-Nazi with the swastika tattoo on her head who frequents my local convenience store.2 Most, however, hold their positions without admitting to the label that defines them — as the label itself describes a belief system that has been rejected by everyone.

This is why people who proudly use racial epithets will refuse the epithet “racist.” They are racists, of course, but they will not wear the mantle, because racism is bad, and everyone agrees on that. Of course, they may believe that people of different races shouldn’t mix, and that people of a given race are inferior to people of another race, and that people of a different race moving into a country will destroy it. But don’t call them racist — they’ll pitch a fit.

And this is, of course, the other reason decent people shy away from applying the most loaded political labels to their opponents — because they don’t want to have to have the fight. Because no matter how much your opponent says Stalin had some good ideas, calling her a Stalinist will only lead to a fight about how she isn’t one.

And yet — sometimes you simply have to call a racist a racist. If a person is advancing all the tenets of racism, then that person is in fact a racist. And standing by and pretending that person isn’t racist is playing into their hands, by allowing them the fiction that their racism is not racism, but something benign.
And that lets radicalism in through the back door, and lets decent people advance radical views without admitting to being radicals. And slowly, that makes radical views acceptable.

There is a political philosophy that you are probably familiar with. Among its core tenets are:

  • Nationalism – The people of its country are special, and the founders of the nation as uniquely wise — and people of all other nations are inherently dangerous. People who do not fully assimilate are viewed as threats to be dealt with.
  • Social Darwinism - Those who are poor are poor because of their own flaws and failings, and if they can’t work, they don’t deserve to eat.
  • Propaganda - It uses its own media outlets (when out of power) or state-controlled media (when in power) to support its own viewpoint while ridiculing others.
  • Anti-Intellectualism -It ridicules the pointy-headed intellectuals with their large words and their big plans, in favor of the simple, salt-of-the-earth man on the street, and the wisdom of the Average Joe.
  • Heroism – National heroes are not just heroes, but uniquely heroic, uniquely wise. No other country’s heroes were as brilliant and crafty, and no other nation’s enemies more deserving of punishment.
  • Social Authoritarianism – When people fall away from morality, the power of the state can and should be used to push them back in line.
  • Militarism – The military is the best and most respectable part of the nation, and war should be supported unblinkingly whenever an enemy threatens.
  • Corporatism – The power of the government can be used to intervene economically, but almost always on the side of corporations — as it believes that companies create wealth
  • Anti-Communism – Communism — usually defined as “other political philosophies” — represents an existential threat to our way of life, and must be defeated at any and all costs.

The adherents of this philosophy believe that they are saving their nation from the weak, the Communists, the intellectuals. They see their country as at a crossroads, and believe that if the wrong turn is taken, it will cease to be a great nation, and will become like all the rest of those lousy states. Because they believe that they are the saviors of their nation, they are willing to do almost anything to gain power — lie, pull dirty tricks, and resort to violence against political opponents. Indeed, in every country where this philosophy has taken hold, it has used extrajudicial action by its members to intimidate its opponents.

If you have been paying attention, you know that there is a political movement in this country that mirrors these views. Its members claim that America is a unique country, a shining city on a hill. That the Founding Fathers were wise beyond any reckoning, and that any deviation from the course they set us on is tantamount to blasphemy. That immigration (and, sotto voce, racial and gender equality) is destroying the uniqueness of the American experiment, and that we keep moving away from the good ol’ days of the 1950s to a place that would make the founders blanch in horror.

These people have their own news network that tells them what they want to hear, that lies to them brazenly, that calls their opponents socialists and secret Muslims. They mistrust intellectuals, rage against the well-educated, claim that deep thinking is un-American. They believe that the government should use its power to keep people from getting abortions, and to discourage homosexuality. They believe that the unemployed are lazy, and that they should either work, or starve.

They are worshipful of the idea of the military and of citizen militias. They do speak out against corporate greed, half-heartedly, but oppose any action that might impose limitations of corporations — and are indeed happy to support corporate welfare whenever they get the opportunity, so long as they can call it something else.

They say they are doing all of this because of the threat from socialism, which is a word that in America has become conflated with communism.
And they are most definitely using extrajudicial violence and intimidation to get their way.

In America, in 2010, these people call themselves the Tea Party. They say they are trying to get our nation back to its founding principles, deliberately using iconography from the American Revolution to stake a claim that they represent the last, best hope of Real America.

They may see themselves that way, but that is not the right way to describe them. The philosophy they endorse is a well-known one, one described by one word.
Fascism.

You may object to my calling the Tea Party a fascist movement. I understand. I don’t like doing so myself. But they are far closer to fascism than the modern Democratic Party is to socialism. And Democrats being socialist is an article of faith among the far right of the Republican Party.

I don’t like calling my opponents fascist. But the shoe fits — at least among the farthest of the far right, the group that has taken over the modern Republican Party. The path that the Palins and Angles and Millers and their ilk would have us take is the same that Mussolini charted for Italy. They’ve prettied it up, of course. They’ve sanded off the edges. And they’ve added the extra dimension of religion to it — the idea that we are fighting a war against Islam, which is in league with socialism, and that Christianity must be bolstered.

But that was predicted. Sinclair Lewis once wrote, “When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” Well, my friends, fascism has come to America, flag and cross and all. And if we do not say so — if we dare not name it, for fear of riling our opponents — we let them mainstream their views. And that inaction would be far worse than any word can be.


1Note: communist, not socialist. Communism, specifically the brand that was attempted in the Soviet Union and its client states, has been tried, and it failed spectacularly; it rivals Naziism for the most evil political philosophy of the 20th century. A version of socialism, contrawise, has been made to work rather well in places like Sweden and Denmark, without the terror wrought by Stalin and his ilk. One can argue whether socialism is a good or bad political system, but it is not an inherently evil one.
2Do you think I could possibly be making that up?

For Ex-JWs – Sites to Explore

Sites for Recovering Jehovah’s Witnesses to Explore

Scroll to the bottom if you’re not in the mood for this!

Over the years, I’ve noted that the quality and helpfulness of former JW sites varies quite a bit. Some are very angry, while others are more compassionate. Some are able to create spaces to share insights with one another, some are more combative with peers. Some are focused on biblical interpretation, others on issues like abuse and shunning. More recently, I’ve noticed an upsurge of writers that – like myself – have focused on what it takes to follow your own path and walk an authentic spirituality that is not particularly driven by past experiences. I’ve also found a decrease in the purple prose, and more of a matter-of-fact approach that comes with time and experience.

I developed a list of online resources for ex-JWs some time ago, but here’s a more updated list.
These cover a range of thoughts and approaches. Check them out!

Some of that is pretty dark.

Now you need something else, don’t you?

My dear friend Lin shared an article with me on disfunctional beliefs that former Jehovah’s Witnesses might still carry with them.

It probably helps that she herself is not a JW or a former JW. She really has a handle on the central problem of how some aspects of the Watchtower psychology/ideology prevent their adherents ( and post-adherents) from leaving, loving, and thriving. I think some of us would go further and reject the very word “apostate” because its connectations are too deeply ingrained.

Not only is the article itself an excellent resource for former Jehovah’s Witnesses, but I’m very impressed with the quality of the whole site – Mindful Construct. I wish that all recovering JWs had access to such an insightful and caring cognitive counsellor, someone who could interact with them in just this way. And – I was honored that my tips for former JWs article was linked as a resource!

Here, try these too:

Oh – and watch the sublime Sister Wendy talk about art whenever you can. She functions for me in much the same way that Mr. Rogers did when I was a child.

Derrida

I love humor, even when it’s aimed at my heroes. Jacques Derrida was hopelessly misunderstood by much of the American audience, but there is a grain of truth in much of this:

Fair enough. But really… let’s think about intellectual courage

Yeah, Derrida has a lot going on. He is sometimes very difficult to read. And it’s easy to make fun of Derrida and deconstruction, and to think what it means is that there is no basis for justice or ethics. Many so-called religious leaders make this mistake, and far too many academics do as well.

There is no more careful reader than Derrida was – and to start to understand what is at stake, you have to develop the skills to read and to think in ways that are a little different than what you might be accustomed to, but it’s worth it.

A careful reader can easily discern that not only does his work *not* discard or undermine ethics and justice, but it really demands better forms of both than what many of his detractors can offer or (in many cases) care to offer.

The following is probably as clear as Derrida gets on these issues in a short space. Read slowly and carefully, and then try to argue that Derrida was proposing that we have no obligation to pursue (and construct, and deconstruct, and reconstruct) our truths in the light of ethics and justice….

I do not believe that the whole ‘left’ in general is more occupied with cultural identity than with social justice. But if some who call themselves leftists had done so they would deserve Rorty’s critique. On this point and to a certain extent I would agree with him, for then two grave risks would have been neglected: first, though legitimate in certain situations and within certain limits, the demands of cultural identity (and this word comprises all ‘communitarisms’, of which there are many) can often feed into ‘ideologies’ of the right – nationalist, fundamentalist, even racist. Secondly, the left may relegate to the background and gravely neglect other struggles, social and civic solidarities and universal causes (transnational and not merely cosmopolitical, because the cosmopolitical supposes again the agency of the state and of the citizen, be it the citizen of the world – we will return to this). But why must one choose between the care for cultural identity and the worry about social justice? They are both questions of justice, two responses to anti-egalitarian oppression or violence. No doubt it is very hard to lead both of these debates in the same rhythm, but one can fight both fronts, cultural and social, at the same time, as it were, and one must do so. The task of the intellectual is to say this, to mediate the discourses and to elaborate strategies that resist any simplistic choice between the two. In both cases, the effective responsibility for engagement consists in doing everything to transform the status quo in the two areas, between them, from one to another, the cultural and the social, to establish a new law, even if they remain forever inadequate for what I call justice (which is not the law, even if it determines its history and progress).

There is no ‘politics’, no law, no ethics without the responsibility of a decision which, to be just, cannot content itself with applying existing norms or rules but must take the absolute risk, in every singular instant, or justifying itself again, alone, as if for the first time, even if it is inscribed in a tradition. For lack of space, I cannot explain here the discourse on decision that I try to elaborate elsewhere. A decision, though mine, active and free in its phenomenon, cannot be the simple deployment of my potentialities or aptitudes, of what is ‘possible for me’. In order to be a decision, it must interrupt that ‘possible’, tear off my history and thus be above all, in a certain strange way, the decision of the other in me: come from the other in view of the other in me. It must in a paradoxical way permit and comprise a certain passivity that in no way allays my responsibility. These are the paradoxes that are difficult to integrate in a classical philosophical discourse, but I do not believe that a decision, if it exists, would be possible otherwise.

In my eyes what you call ‘a kind of political metaphysics’ would be exactly the forgetting of aporia itself, which we often try to do. But the aporia cannot be forgotten. What would a ‘pragmatics’ be that consisted in avoiding contradictions, problems apparently without solution, etc.? Do you not think that this supposedly realistic or empirical ‘pragmatics’ would be a kind of metaphysical reverie, in the most unrealistic and imaginary sense one gives these words?

One has to do everything to see the laws of hospitality inscribed in positive law. If this is impossible, everyone must judge, in their soul and conscience, sometimes in a ‘private’ manner, what (when, where, how, to what extent) has to be done without the laws or against the laws. To be precise: when some of us have appealed to civil disobedience in France on behalf of those without identifying papers (and for a small number among us – for example in my seminar, but publicly – more than a year before the press began to discuss this and before the number of protesters grew to be spectacular), it was not an appeal to transgress the law in general, but to disobey those laws which to us seemed themselves to be in contradiction with the principles inscribed in our constitution, to international conventions and to human rights, thus in reference to a law we considered higher if not unconditional. It was in the name of this higher law that we called for ‘civil disobedience’, within certain limited conditions. But I will not reject the word ‘grace’ (of the unconditional gift and without return) that you offered to me, provided that one does not associate it with obscure religious connotations which, though they can sometimes be interesting, would call for quite different discussions.

Michael Jackson, Child Abuse, and JW Apologist Firpo Carr

“A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” – William James

Recently, I participated in an online discussion in the comments of an article written by a prominent friend/adviser to the late Michael Jackson.

Michael Jackson & Jehovah’s Witnesses, by Firpo Carr

The Michael Jackson case and the issue of child abuse are both important to me, but I didn’t really know who Firpo Carr was when I made my first comment. I’d run into his name before, but I was a little under-prepared for his particular style of debate. I felt pretty battered by the end of it, much like what happens when I try to have a political discussion with someone who has already been stirred up by their favorite propaganda machine.

His back and forth with Jerry Bergman is illuminating and true to form.

A sampling of Carr’s other L.A. Sentinel articles for you to chew on:

One article on money and priorities took an argument that was very familiar to me from JW days, and made it much more compelling and interesting. He’s clearly a smart guy, but something….

I hadn’t really thought about this very much before, but there might be a serious educational problem with a dependence on some forms of long-distance learning, especially at the upper levels in the humanities. Potential scholars may simply lose too much by not participating on-site at their universities. There is a sort of human osmosis effect that can only be learned by being there. It’s important to have both peers that are interacting with you and trustworthy mentors that can call attention to your blind spots without attacking you as a person. It may be more difficult to absorb the values and norms of dialogue and debate if you’re not part of the ebb and flow of discussion.

On campus, you become part of a network of friendship that includes worthy adversaries, and you develop different skills as you learn how to respect people independently of whether or not you have disagreements. Constant exposure to a wide range of scholarship and discussion not only helps the scholar to develop an ethical sense of discernment, but also models the qualities that they admire (or reject!) in a teacher. At its best, university life at the graduate level is amazingly liberating, intellectually stimulating, and fulfilling.

It’s not just the “immorality” (sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll) of university life that JWs object to, it’s the training in strong interpretations and critical thinking, along with the ethics of scholarship, that would be dangerous for them to condone in their followers. Independent thinking is against their religion.

Firpo Carr has written a fair number of books. Good for him for being so prolific! However, some supplemental reading might be helpful. Start with a selection from my page of reading recommendations for former JWs. To that, add:

Why? Because this latter list contains non-JW-influenced resources for understanding some aspects of the mindset that can lead people to be manipulated – and possibly continue the chain.

To stick to the topic at hand, though, readers should be aware that child abuse among Jehovah’s Witnesses is a systemic problem, one that is reinforced by setting unreachable standards of perfection, demonizing “worldly authorities,” defending questionable biblical interpretations with out-of-context snippets, defending the two-witness rule for any accusation of foul play, subordinating women, presenting an almost comical style of discourse and argument, hours of weekly meetings for repetition and reinforcement, the paucity of choices for a mate, the fear of disfellowshipping and abandonment by friends and family, the threat of demonic possession, the undermining of kindness, and the almost complete lack of pastoral care.

Firpo Carr can of course believe what he likes and project what he needs to – his path is none of my concern – but it’s a very odd position from which to deny or rationalize child abuse. Even more so now, I wish that I had followed my instincts while Michael was still alive. Michael Jackson describes some of the abuse he and his siblings suffered at the hands of his father in this video.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mc8HjdK7kJ8[/youtube]

Watch that, then read our discussion. Remember that Firpo Carr says he was Michael’s friend. I’m sorry, but I have serious doubts that Firpo Carr brought much of spiritual value to the friendship. Now he says that Michael Jackson took him aside and told him that he wished his children to be brought up as Jehovah’s Witnesses – and to have them study with Carr!

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PnAhcHMgR_8[/youtube]

I wonder if Michael said that to anyone else, or (shall I be this cynical?) if he said it to anyone at all.

In related news – some new documentation on the Watchtower child sexual abuse settlement. It’s not hearsay – it’s signed, sealed with gag orders, wrapped up in lies, and delivered:

“Documents show that the church knew for years that some prominent members were sexually abusing children and did little.”

The Watchtower PR department issued a statement. “For the sake of the victims in these cases, we are pleased that a settlement has been reached.” Sigh. It’s not for the sake of the victims, or their policies would be different.

This is the way they protect known predators. Imagine how they handle psychological and physical child abuse, and then start Googling for the testimonies…

Here’s a sweet sad Monty Python/Michael Jackson mashup. Maybe it will start to express the inexpressible value of caring and kindness.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q1Z04RssKWI[/youtube]

For a while, Michael was able to redefine and transform his experience. He created music that brought fun – and even joy – to people all over the world.

I will remember him that way.

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