Thursday, August 28, 2008

Philosophy, Silence, and Poetry

Western philosophy in the twentieth century, especially that of Wittgenstein and Heidegger, is marked by silence. The great three perennial problems of the West, namely, human freedom, God and immortality, were largely considered unverifiable propositions. Only space and time were a priori intuitions — the rest was a language-game.

There has been, in the history of Western thought over the past century, an acceptance of the limitations of pure reason, a turn toward metaphor and interpretation, a casting about in the realms of poetry and literature.

For example, Nietzsche gave birth to the mythical Zarathustra, Heidegger wrote about the "valid poetry" of Rilke, and Sartre wrote plays and novels.

In his writings, Wittgenstein prodigiously employed metaphor, analogy and simile, his pianist fingers rising effortlessly to the black keys.

(Even Kurt Gödel, of all the twentieth century’s great minds, the most silent, the most reluctant to publish, appreciated fairy tales.)

Historically speaking, this turn to the language of beauty is a paradigmatic shift in Western thought. While in prison, Socrates had dreams that bid him “practice and cultivate the arts.” So, before his death, he composed a few poems, a hymn to Apollo and a few versifications of Aesop’s fables. Nevertheless, in the final analysis, Socrates believed the art of philosophy was the highest kind of art. His student, Plato, of course, famously banned all poets from the Republic.

The Great Big Book

Imagine a Great Big Book in which all of natural history is written. ‘Natural history’ here is the problematic phrase. What do the words ‘natural history’ mean? In short, everything. The sum total of space and time, of consciousness and reality, of thought and action, of humankind and nature, of silence and words.

If this present configuration of space is A(0), and the previous configuration of space is A(-1), and the next configuration of space is A(1), and so on, to both positive and negative infinity, then the written sum ∫ of A(-∞) to A(∞) — the written sum of all previous, manifest and possible configurations of space — would be the Great Big Book.

If you prefer, (if you must), consider the Great Big Book a metaphor for All Configurations of Space in Time, or for the Universe of Perfect Causation, or for God’s Will.

Can you imagine such a book? What would it look like? How great and how big would it be? Where would you find it? When would it have been written? (And, dare I ask, by whom?)

The purpose of this thought-experiment is to approximate, in our minds, such a totality. If such a totality were to exist — and it seems to me one need only accept space, as infinitely extended, and time, as infinitely successive, to accept such a proposition, but such an argument is beyond the purpose of this investigation, and very likely, beyond the intuitive or logical capacity of the human mind — if such a totality were to exists, what kind of consequences would that entail for us? If the Great Big Book existed, what would that mean to me, an ordinary human being?

Let us extend the thought-experiment one step further. Given the Great Big Book, then your life, in its totality, would necessarily be written therein. Your life, every mental event, every physical movement, every word, every gesture, would be written therein. Imagine then that you obtained a copy of this Great Big Book of Your Life. Imagine your private copy is a normal sized book, one that you could hold in your hands. (Do you see it now, in your hands?) You have your book and your pen. You look down upon your desk and your chair. You are in a small, well-lit, pleasantly warm room.

Your task, then — the ethical imperative — would be to copy, or, more precisely, to trace over, with your own hand — with your own curious hand in creation — each and every word of your existence as written in the book. This task, and this task alone, is your sublime, moral responsibility. You sit down to work.

And with each stroke of your pen, working in perfect silence, you feel closer to the truth. With each stroke of your pen, as you effortlessly fall into the flow, you feel the rush of beauty. With each stroke of your pen, with each moment of your life in the Great Big Book fully affirmed and embraced by your own pen, you feel closer to a perfect love of fate, you feel closer to God...

Can you imagine such a little room? Such an at once tedious and exalting task? Such a Great Big Book?

Saturday, June 28, 2008


Dystopia is a difficult genre. If there is anything we don't know, it's the future. What the dystopic form has revealed is the imagination's capacity for horror, its proclivity for self-terrorizing, in a word, its fears. The genre has made many lasting contributions to the collective consciousness, namely, the doublespeak of 1984, the genetic manufacturing of Brave New World, and the rebelling technology of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But these lessons are merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. An full investigation into the literary form is necessary.

Thesis: All literature is dystopia: representations of conflict, fear and death.
(William Wren gave me the idea.)

A preliminary list of novels and films:

1. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
2. 1984, George Orwell
3. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick
4. A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
5. A Scanner Darkly, Philip K. Dick (Richard Linklater)
6. The Road, Cormac McCarthy
7. Battlestar Galactica, Glen Larson and Ronald Moore
8. Bladerunner, Ridley Scott and Philip K. Dick
9. Civilwarland in Bad Decline, George Saunders
10. Pastoralia, George Saunders
11. We, Yevgeny Zamyatin
12. Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
13. Metropolis, Fritz Lang
14. Brazil, Terry Gilliam
15. Soylent Green, Richard Fleischer and Harry Harrison
16. Children of Men, Alfonso Cuaron and P.D. James
17. The Purple Could, M.P. Shiel
18. Tom's A-Cold, John Collier
19. No Blade of Grass, John Christopher
20. The Day of the Triffids
21. Damnation Alley, Roger Zelazry
22. Earth Abides, George R. Stewart
23. Beyond Armageddon, Walter M. Miller
24. A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller

Tuesday, June 3, 2008


Philosophy is the art of contemplation. Thinking takes time. It is the fixing of one's mind upon a certain idea, or thought-space; the delving deeper into liberation via truth, or right-view; the resting of the mind and body in a clarity of light, or ultimate luminosity. Consider the following meditations.

a. On Non-Dual Reality.
Thesis: The process of enlightenment, or liberation, is none other than the process of dissolving the boundary between subject and object, between self and other, between interior and exterior.
Practice: Staring, with a soft gaze, at wind-blown leaves.

b. On The Mind/Body Problem.
Thesis: The mind is the body, as the body is the mind; the mind is none other than the body, as the body is none other than the mind; the mind is the perfect representation of the body, as the body is the perfect representation of the mind. The two are one; their separateness is illusion, or misapprehension.
Sources: Whitman, Dr. Reggie Ray, tantric tradition

c. The Dual-Dialectic of World-Politics
Thesis: The world is approaching, in Hegelian fashion, a dualistic political reality of, on the one hand, absolute totalitarianism, and, on the other, utter anarchy. The future holds both systems, simultaneously. Pockets of anarchy will stand over and against world-totalitarianism.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Salinger, Trungpa, and Spiritual Materialism

Essay to be written on J.D. Salinger's articulation — in The New Yorker in 1957 — of Chogyam Trungpa's central concept of spiritual materialism — as delivered to the American public in a series of lectures in 1970.

"As a matter of simple logic, there's no difference at all, that I can see, between the man who's greedy for material treasure — or even intellectual treasure — and the man who's greedy for spiritual treasure. As you say, treasure's treasure, God damn it, and it seems to me that ninety per cent of all the world-hating saints in history were just as acquisitive and unattractive, basically, as the rest of us are."
-J.D. Salinger, from "Franny and Zooey", from the mouth of Zooey


“The consciousness that you are nothing but fragments, that short periods and longer ones and the longest ones are nothing but fragments... that the duration of cities and countries is nothing but fragments... and the earth a fragment... that all of evolution is a fragment... there is no completion... that the fragments have evolved and are evolving... no trajectory, only arrivals... that the end is without consciousness... that then there is nothing without you and that therefore nothing is...”
-Thomas Bernhard, from “Amras”

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The So-Called Soul

As I work through my tedious list of end of semester evaluations, I am reminded of the central tenant of my friend and former colleague Michael Hunting’s view: humankind, above all else, must be stripped of its pretensions.

Who am I to judge these young men and women, my precious students, my apprentice philosophers? Who am I to judge Alex Reynolds, the current favorite son of the department and intimate disciple of Michael’s? I should assign them all A’s, or else, I should assign them all F’s. Or perhaps all C’s. Or C+s. I am considering a random lottery. I will put each of their names in a hat and select the A’s, B’s, and C’s (we don’t grade lower than C here at Bloomsbury). That I am uniquely qualified to judge the philosophical merits of any person is a mere affectation of mine. One that pays my bills, and one that I’ve paid for with years of study, hundreds of thousands of dollars of tuition and interest on my loans — education in America is a racket! — an undergraduate degree in English from Princeton, a Phd in Philosophy from Columbia, a graduate thesis on Kurt Gödel, a slim, midlisting volume on metaphysical enigmas of the ages, and a decade of teaching Philosophy 101 — a course in which I encountered the sheer stupidity of the American youth, the sheer shallow nature of its collective mind, the sheer unthinkingness of a culture.

When I asked a freshman class to respond to the inaugural reading, Plato’s Phaedo, when I asked, “Before we discuss whether we believe the soul is immortal or not, let us begin by asking, Who here believes in the so-called soul at all?,” I witnessed, again, the sheer unthinkingness of a culture, the vapidity of a generation of minds raised on materialism. When I raised the question, “Who believes in the soul?,” two of twenty-five raised their hands in the affirmative, five raised their hands in negation, the remaining eighteen students — students with eyes and ears and fingers and tongues and noses — students with minds! — and with the shimmer in said eyes that at least suggested the presence of a soul-like entity therein, if not the soul itself, a term, Michael, disgraced and mad Michael, would argue, had been over-sheened by purists and dreamers and poets, by men whose fatal flaw was a lack of precision, a lack of realism, for Michael was a hyperrealist, if not quite anything else categorical, if not quite a Transcendentalist, or an evolutionary teleologist, or a mystic; a hyperrealist, yes, to be sure. Eighteen children confessed to me that fine burgundy fall morning, on the first day of precepts, eighteen children confessed to me that they had never before considered the question, never before wondered whether or not such an entity as the soul existed, whether or not such a word so entrenched in our lexicon, so dominant in our collective imagination, so crucial to our culture of individualism, whether or not such a word in fact referred to anything in our shared reality, whether or not such a thing as the soul — whether the individual, indivisible, irreducible soul existed — and if in fact it did, where it was located, what it looked like, what it was composed of, and, most importantly, what normative consequences such a belief might entail.

In the end, I failed nine of those eighteen students, not because of their failure to have reflected on the existence of the soul before attending my class, but because of their continued failure to exercise their critical faculties during my class, and especially while writing papers in their squalid homes, which I imagined, with an admitted degree of prejudice, were fetid, mindless, TV-dominated dorms. So I achieved a reputation as a “hard grader,” a cursed title at Bloomsbury, but a reputation that earned me the respect of Michael, who came to see me as a kind of friend and fellow-traveler, and ultimately, an earpiece for his most obscure esoterica (and erotica). Attendance in my courses the next semester dropped thirty percent; not that I cared — I had tenure. Former, failed students scowled at me as we passed beneath the arches, and I grew to relish the feelings of mutual contempt that swam between us, not that I desired to feel so, but, in a phrasing I have only recently come to respect: it was what it was. Students wrote scathing satires of me in the university’s weekly humor magazine. They said I would be practicing philosophy in the sand when the enemy struck and murdered me from behind. They laughed at me, poked fun at my personality. All this punishment merely because I had decided to cure my despair at the sheer and unfathomable unthinkingness of a culture by failing a few privileged fools who thought that Philosophy 101 would be easy.

Soul-purging, self-overcoming, self-letting go. Some of my students can perceive this imperative; others cannot, or will not, or are not yet ready. Instead of giving them grades, I should predict at what point in the future they might be ready for the teachings. That would be more fair. All judgments are judgments of timing.

I learned much from my students that year. I learned how to fish. To sit by the river. That is my sole desire. The pale, reflecting river, the mirror on our fluctuations of consciousness, the window onto our inner scintillation. A teacher is a fisherman and a fisherman is patient, alert, and kind. Not a grader of men, not an evaluator of minds — a fisherman of so-called souls.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Representations of Buddhism in Western Culture

"I mean it's very hard to meditate and live a spiritual life in America."
-J.D. Salinger, from "Teddy"

Essay to be written on the following representations of Buddhist characters in literature and film:

a. Teddy McArdle; "Teddy", by J.D. Salinger, 1953 (Vedic)
b. Ray Smith; "The Dharma Bums", by Jack Kerouac, 1958
c. Maude; "Harold and Maude"; by Colin Higgins, directed by Hal Ashby, played by Ruth Gordon, 1971
d. Agent Dale Cooper; "Twin Peaks", by David Lynch and Mark Frost, played by Kyle MacLachlan, 1990
e. Mike Mahoney Lobsang Dhargey; "The Lay of the Land", by Richard Ford, 2006

Thesis: The trajectory of these five characters, representing, to a certain degree, the integration of Buddhism into western culture, shows a gradual assimilation of the Buddhist individual deeper and deeper to western society.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Ego and Egolessness

"We could perceive the absence of ego at a single glance. But we would not accept such a simple truth. In other words, we have to learn in order to unlearn. The whole process if that of undoing the ego."
-Chogyam Trungpa, from Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism

Ego asserts itself in subtle and various ways. Ego is persistent and cunning. One must always be wary of ego asserting itself. Ego, once it has fulfilled its basic function of providing a secure foundation on which one bases one's confidence, should be negated. This negation of ego requires vigilant awareness and tenacious training. Because ego, left to its own devices, will assert itself, over and over again. Without proper moral education, an individual is at the mercy of his or her ego. Ego is clever and powerful. Ego is the root of distasteful behavior, and of course, the root of much, much worse. Utter altruism, Christ-like sacrifice of self, Buddha-like cosmic consciousness — in a word, egolessness — is the goal.

Yet, one would be wrong to say, "Oh, yes, I have no ego" or "I am always egoless" because the self-asserting nature of ego is a part of human nature. Of course, one can train, one can practice the negation of the over-assertion of ego, one can doggedly avoid instances of the ego's over-assertion. Nevertheless, the assertion of ego itself is natural. The ego is this very tendency of the self to assert itself. The ego is that which asserts itself for the purposes of survival and dominance. The ego desires superiority.

Let us look at an example. A man and his attractive date walk into a crowded party. At this moment, the man's ego wants to demonstrate its position among the other egos in the room. The ego itself wants to demonstrate some form of superiority. This instinct, if unchecked, may lead the man to approach the host of the party in order to say hello. But perhaps the man is not even friends with the host, perhaps the man, in fact, has no real relationship with the host at all, and moreover, no genuine need to approach the host at that given moment. Let us assume the host is engaged in conversation with another guest, and in essence, the man intrudes upon this conversation, again, so that he, the man, might demonstrate his importance amongst the group. Generally the result is a form of awkwardness, a sense of something forced, the sense of something not quite right. This is the overreaching ego. One need not engage with another person without purpose. For example, if the man had brought a bottle of wine and simply desired to deliver this bottle of wine to the host, this necessity would provide a more natural occasion for their greeting one another. But, here too, the ego could very well have asserted itself. One must observe very carefully. What was the man's intention when he purchased the bottle of wine? There are only two options: a. Generosity. He said to himself, "I will bring my host a bottle of wine to show my gratitude." or b. Ego-assertion. He said to himself at the moment of purchase, "I will bring wine and this will make me look good and this will give me occasion to approach my much esteemed host in order to present him with a gift." (Or c. A mixture of a and b, a scenario that is little better that b itself.) Our task is vigilance. We must observe our motivations and intentions with the utmost scrutiny. In any act at all, one can look and see if the ego is over-asserting itself, or, if in fact, said act is rooted in a positive intention, such as generosity. Each and every human gesture is subject to this crucial examination.

Even as I write, I am ever wary of ego asserting itself. "Have I written this sentence to sound smart, to show off, to impress someone so that they think more of me?" or "Have I written this sentence with the express purpose of simply sharing my thought, with the goal (if ever so slim) of successful self-expression which may lead to some form of edification or enlightenment (or perhaps merely simple pleasure) in my reader?" Every sentence, every spoken word, every human gesture ultimately bends in the precarious winds of our original intentions. One way or another, a gesture has its root. (Often, sadly, a kind of mindless ignorance.) No gesture is free from such ruthless scrutiny. Tenacious watchfulness is our duty.

These examples, the man at the party, or the writer at his writing desk, are merely two examples culled from the whole spectrum of human gestures, the plethora of human activities. We would do well to observe our intentions in every moment, particularly, in more serious situations, when of course, such self-awareness grows increasingly difficult. I am thinking of situations involving sex and money. Ego can assert itself in the final moment of seduction, after a series of beautiful, mutually-pursued kisses, ego can rear its ugly, monstrous head, and turn something wonderful into a crime. Ego can also assert itself in even the most philanthropic of moments. One must ask oneself the question: Why am I handing this homeless man a dollar? Why am I donating ten thousand dollars to this foundation? Why is this money passing from one hand to another? We would do well to know the answers to these questions.

Ego is a sophisticated enemy. It has grown stronger and more clever over the thousands of years of its evolution. But the inner light, the personal conscience, the moral compass within, is stronger and more clever yet — so long as it stays awake.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Self-Reflective "I am" Statements

"If we observe ourselves, we are never observing ourselves but someone else. Thus we can never talk about self-observation, or when we talk about the fact that we observe ourselves we are talking as someone we never are when we are not observing ourselves, and thus when we observe ourselves we are never observing the person we intended to observe but someone else. The concept of self-observation and so on, also, of self-description is thus false."
-Thomas Bernhard, from Walking

I cringe when I hear someone utter the phrase, "Generally I am a kind person" or "Usually I am a kind person". Chances are this statement is uttered when said person is either not practicing kindness or else relating a story in which he or she failed to practice kindness. The problem lies not with the person — who may in fact have a history of kindness, a verifiable pattern of kind gestures, a genuinely kind character — but with the nature of self-reflective statements themselves. Self-reflective statements — "I am" statements — cast back in on themselves in such a way as to render them meaningless. Someone could proclaim his essential kindness to me until he were blue in the proverbial face, yet these professions would never change the fact that only an accumulation of kind gestures over time make a kind person.

Take me for example...

a. I am philosophical.
b. The proclivity for philosophy is my dominant characteristic.
c. At every opportunity, my mind tends to appropriate the real for the purpose of practicing philosophy.
d. Observing my personal history, one notices a persistent predilection for the practice of philosophy, the dogged pursuit of wisdom, the rather dull task of the naming of this and that, etc.
e. I philosophize, therefore I am.

There are many ways in which I may express my philosophical nature. The worst of all of these ways is the self-reflective "I am" statement. Why? Whereas forms b through e above demonstrate the actual practice of philosophy, statement a is empty and meaningless, the sound of an echo in a cave. Statement b is closest to statement a, but in a weaker, and thereby truer, form. Statement c posits "my mind" as the subject, thereby avoiding the empty absurdity of statement a. Statement d actual offers possible definitions of philosophy, as well as positing the neutral third person "one" as the observing subject. Statement e achieves its meaning via allusion. Only statement a is flat and listless.

Why are self-reflective statements inherently flawed? The answer is complex and profound. I offer two brief explanations.

a. Ultimately, the self dissolves into the universal. The deeper one goes into one's self, the more one discovers the ocean of consciousness, the unified field, the totality of all things. Ultimately, then, the self is non-existent. There is no kind self, only kind gestures. There is no self, only character.

b. The problem with self-reflective statements is linked to the Liar's Paradox. The statement "This statement is false" refers to itself. Notice the paradox: If the statement is true, it's false; if it's false, it's true. Similarly, when language is appropriated by the individual solely for the purpose of verifying the existence of the individual (in one way or another, either one is kind or philosophical or beautiful, etc, either way, one is), language loses its meaning. "I am" statements, then, appropriate language in such a way as to falsify it. In other words, language in the service of ego is a false and lying language. Language speaks of itself, always and only in the service of truth. Through us, language sings.

This thought has bounced around the old noggin for years now. Philosophy, practiced correctly, ought to change behavior. Increased awareness causes the change. The next time I think of saying "I am such and such", I will think twice. That said, if the purpose of my claim is simply to uplift my spirits — "I am happy today!" — then, by all means, I'll cry out my self-reflective statement with gusto. But perhaps we could learn, ever so slowly, to wean ourselves off such statements. The next time I consider saying "I am kind", perhaps I'll simply be kind. The next time I think to say "I am philosophical", I'll instead actually practice philosophy. And the next time I want to say "I am happy", I'll just smile.