Sunday, June 01, 2014

Inversions, and the Idea of Meaning

I have never been one for light reading, for the most part. My Sunday morning breakfast reading is Burt Alpert's "Inversions". If you've never heard of it, don't be surprised. It is a 464-page, typewritten book that was self-published by Alpert in 1973. I heard of it in a 1970s librarian "zine" called the "U*N*A*B*A*S*H*E*D Librarian". It was typewritten and mimeographed on colored paper, and I recall that even the first public library I worked for in the 1980s had copies of this zine. I came across a copy from 1975 in university periodicals one day, and happened upon a review of this book. It was described as "mind-blowing". It made me interested enough to see if I could find a copy. Sure enough, Amazon had one for about 5 bucks.

I believe I have mentioned this book before, as I have started it many times, and have been waylaid by other distractions. I am still in the first section, and there is enough in it to supply multiple blog postings. But one thing that has interested me is Alpert's notion of the heroic. In Mythology, we think of the heroic as part of a journey towards full maturity, or towards being a full integrated or individuated human being, in Jungian terms. Alpert sees heroism as self-sacrifice, and views it as a "cop-out". He thinks of the notion of sacrificing one's life for a cause, even for a resistance. To quote:

Most people regard this exchange as being unreasonable, and those who call for it self-serving fanatics. Having rejected an ethic of oppression which has sanctified self-sacrifice, people are not about to accept self-sacrifice as part of an ethic of resistance. If immolation of the self is the meaning of total commitment to struggle, then they would rather make what little life they can have within the cracks. Even when they sense this is no longer possible in an era of total commitment, still, dying the creeping death of acquiescence seems preferable to committing oneself to the instant death of heroism. (p. 8)

By "total commitment" he means the idea that one should be entirely devoted to a job, or to a cause, that involves giving up one's own self. Today we can see this in corporate jobs that demand well over 40 hours a week, and destroy any semblance of a personal life for the individual. This reminds me of Joseph Campbell's urging towards finding one's "authentic self"--the quest for the Holy Grail, figuratively speaking. Usually this is a quest made on your own, on untrodden ground, as it was with Arthur's knights. There is a certain isolation in the quest, as your family and/or the society around you may not support you on your path.

Living authentically is difficult, to say the least, and Alpert addresses this conundrum. He speaks about the idea of revolution, and cites Abbie Hoffman's phrase, "Revolution for the hell of it!" as being more sensible. "The revolution must be born of joy, and not of sacrifice" (p. 10). He mentions the failure of both religion and psychology to deal with the conflict between the authentic self and society. He cites R.D. Laing's lament that "being out of your mind" is the normal condition for humans in our society. Not much has changed since 1973. There is a deeply felt sickness in humans--a sense that the self is lost in the demands of society.

Alpert's solution to this conundrum is to make one's work meaningful--no matter what it is. Our attempts to make our own creative mark on the world and to do things with awareness of meaning for the rest of the world can possibly change things a little at a time, individual by individual. Put more simply, one lives authentically by living according to their passion. We are trained to believe that our life's goal is to make money, to choose an education that fits a potentially lucrative career, and to aspire to certain material goals and standards. There's nothing wrong with having material goals, but as Joseph Campbell has said, "If you get off the bar to make money, then you've given up your life." I am constantly irritated by articles about "which majors make the most money". Money is useful and necessary, but if you hate your job and are stuck with it, money won't make you feel much better.

My neighbor cleans houses for a living, and she frequently likes to regale me with stories of her very rich clients. Most of them are slobs, and won't even clean up when the dog pisses on their bathroom floor, because "the cleaning lady will take care of that". These are people who buy all kinds of insanely expensive things and then carelessly leave them to be destroyed, or who invest in massive personal training, botox, and other things to make them appear younger, "because no one wants to look at an older woman in business." It's all about image and having things, and it reaches a maddening level of absurdity, and a complete alienation from others. If you get everything you want and can't figure out how to do a single thing for yourself, how do you get on in the real world with real people? How do you have any compassion for those who don't have enough? If the only interest is in the external, what happens to the internal? Maybe it's just me, but this sounds like a pretty horrid existence. There doesn't seem to be much meaning in a life that is just about appearing a certain way for others, and the constant acquisition of "stuff".

On the other hand, the idea of "purpose" or "meaning" is a curious one. What is the purpose of life? We all do things to give our lives meaning, but does it have a cosmic importance? Joseph Campbell once asked, "What is the meaning of a flower? What is the meaning of a flea?" Life is not so much about "purpose" as it is about having an experience of being alive. Alan Watts spoke about a Japanese Zen master who spoke before an audience in New York. He said, "The first thing about Zen is that life has no purpose. If you drop a fart, you drop a fart. You do not say, 'At 9:00 I am going to drop a fart.' It just happens to you." (Naturally his pious Western audience struggled not to laugh at this.)

I think we fill ourselves with the idea of "purpose" because we like to attach some importance to what we do. Humans are storytellers by nature, and we are always weaving a narrative. If we don't weave our own narrative, we get interested in someone else's narrative, or a fictional narrative. There is nothing wrong with creating our own narratives. But it's a bit like the writer who forces themselves to write something they think will sell, or will impress people--it usually falls flat in the end. The best narratives are spontaneous, and arise out of an unfettered imagination. This is the importance of play. When we live our lives according to what we're passionate about, it takes away the idea of "work". I remember our former Religion department chairman where I work telling me that he got his Ph.D., came to work at the university "and never worked a day in my life since." His work was so enjoyable, it ceased to be work. This is why I'm willing to work full-time AND teach part-time while working on my own doctorate--I'm passionate about all of it, so it's not really "work". (OK, maybe some of it is. But not most of it.)

As I'm writing this my cat, Mr. Shiva, has selected a toy from his box and has dropped it at my feet, wanting me to throw it. I throw it for him and he dutifully brings it back once, and then leaves it the second time. But he comes running back and rubs against my leg, happy that I have stopped doing this "serious" thing long enough to play with him. We don't give animals enough credit for their intelligence.

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