Friday, June 27, 2014

The Soldier and the Seer (Rutgers University, June 23 2014)

(Warning: this is a REALLY long post.)

My friend Phil sent me a private Facebook message a couple of weeks ago, with an event on the O.T.O. calendar and the message, "Are you going to this?" "This" was a colloquium entitled "The Soldier and the Seer : J.F.C. Fuller, Aleister Crowley, and the British Occult Revival." It was being held at none other than Rutgers University, New Brunswick. The colloquium was being held of in relation to an exhibition entitled "Unheard of Curiosities : An Exhibition of Rare Books on the Occult and Esoteric Sciences." I could not pass up an event so close to home. So, this past Monday, I took the route that I used to take on Wednesday evenings to teach Cataloging and Classification at what was then the School of Communication, Information, and Library Studies. The event was in Alexander Library's Pane Room, and I reflected that this would be much more interesting than the usual NJLA workshop commonly held in that same room.

I was surprised to learn that Rutgers had the papers of J.F.C. Fuller, a British military man who was more commonly known for being a sort of godfather of tank warfare. I was aware of the Crowley/Fuller connection, as Crowley made Fuller a Chancellor of the A.A., an organization meant to succeed the esoteric Order of the Golden Dawn, and that has some overlap with the Ordo Templi Orientis. In fact, it was Academia Ordo Templi Orientis that was co-sponsoring the event. There was an amazing list of speakers, and I was very much looking forward to the event. I was not disappointed.

Associate University Archivist Erika Gorder spoke about the exhibition and the collections, noting that the occult books came largely (if not entirely) from the collection of Clement Fairweather, a scholar who lived in Metuchen, and was more known for his work on humor, though he was also a scholar of horror literature, in particular the work of H.P. Lovecraft. It was William Sloane who contacted Fuller about acquiring his papers, and received them because he did not think anyone else would want them.

Gordan Djurdjevic was the first speaker, who gave an overview of Academia Ordo Templi Orientis and its mission. It is made up of O.T.O. initiate members, and currently membership is by invitation only. The group was formed in 2011, and is dedicated to interdisciplinary scholarship with respect to Western Esotericism, Thelema, and Crowley, as studying all aspects of esotericism helps to illuminate O.T.O. teachings. He noted the need to separate scholarship from practice, as the theoretical study of subjects related to magic would not include one's personal practical experiences--these would be difficult to write about in a scholarly context. He also addressed the question of "objectivity" from "insiders", which is a basic consideration in Religious Studies. It is often argued that "insiders" lack objectivity on the subject, but as Gordan noted, an agenda-less objective view is a construct itself. The American Academy of Religion approves both inside and outside approaches. Certainly in the field of Religious Studies, there is much academic work in the field of Christian theology by believers. There is really no reason that Thelemites can't write about esotericism.

The next speaker was Henrik Bogdan, who gave an introduction to the study of Western Esotericism, to put the Fuller/Crowley relationship into context, and to address the question of why we should study Crowley. Esoteric beliefs tend to share the idea of a Godhead manifest in the natural world, a microcosm/macrocosm construct, though their correspondences differ significantly. Western Esotericism is a comparatively recent field; there was not much scholarship prior to Francis Yates' work on the subject. He noted that historians of religion tended to view esoteric views as "heresies", and therefore not part of theology, and therefore not studied by theologians. On the continuum between Christian doctrine and pure rationality, Western Esotericism lies somewhere in between, resisting the dogmatism of both approaches. Esotericism stresses the experience of gnosis, that experience of the one true Self, or one's ground of being. There was always a link between science and esotericism, until rational, modern science distanced itself from any kind of "metaphysical" thinking. Antoine Faivre was probably the first scholar to try to come up with a single definition of esotericism that applied to various groups, and he suggested that these groups share a family resemblance--they are a form of thought that includes the idea of correspondences, the idea of living nature, the use of imagination and meditations, the experience of transmutation, and the praxis of concordances, among other elements. Wouter J. Hanegraaff and Kocku Von Stuckrad altered this definition, as Faivre's view tended to view esotericism and its literature as something static, referring only to older sources. Hanegraaff and Von Stuckrad both suggest that esotericism is dynamic and changes over time. It tends to consist of rejected or polemic knowledge, a kind of "mirror image" of the prevalent culture. Understanding Western Esotericism is fundamental to the history of Western culture, and indeed will cause aspects of it to be rewritten. It also helps scholars with issues of identity, identifying and confronting scholarly prejudice. Crowley in particular is important because he is a "religious synthesist". Rather than being a regression to the Middle Ages, magical study and practice was in fact a harbinger of modernity. It looked to science and philosophy rather than Biblical inerrancy, and could be summed up in Crowley's motto for the A.A., "The Method of Science, the Aim of Religion". Crowley felt that both religious and scientific approaches were limited, and failed to answer their own questions--magick was the "third way" that synthesized both. Crowley and his influence provides us, in Henrik's words, "a window on the dialectics of Christianity, rationalism, and modernism." J.F.C. Fuller had a revolt against Christianity in common with Crowley, and for Fuller this lead to agnosticism. Crowley and Fuller met when Fuller ended up being the only contestant in an essay contest on Crowley's works, and resulted in the publication of Fuller's "The Star in the West". Fuller brought his friend Victor Neubig into the A.A., and oversaw many A.A. probationers. He broke with Crowley after a scandal involving George Cecil Jones, when Crowley would not take the stand in his libel suit against "The Looking Glass".

Gordan Djurdjevic spoke again, this time on Buddhism and Yoga presented as "The Temple of Solomon the King" in the Equinox, volume 4. He spoke about the practice of concordance and the translation of cultures, as well as the "Easternization of the West" in esoteric practices. The Order of the Golden Dawn incorporated no Eastern practices except for tattva. The A.A. and the O.T.O. both incorporate Eastern practices. Much can be credited to Crowley's involvement with Alan Bennett, who taught Buddhism based on reason rather than on fate. Crowley's "BERASHITH" was intended to be a "sangha of the West", and based more on mathematical rather than mystical comments. Gordan suggests that Crowley did not significantly change his ontology after receiving Liber AL vel Legis in 1904. Crowley was distrustful of monism, because it was rooted in the concept of illusion, and he believed that empirical reality was factual. He rejected any kind of absolutism, suggesting that the only "absolute" thing was zero.

Crowley's Buddhism may have prepared him mentally for the receiving of the the Book of the Law (Liber AL vel Legis), although he had an aversion to specific passages, specifically the idea in the second book that "existence is pure joy". Eventually Crowley abandoned Buddhism, thinking that the Buddhist precepts were really a joke, as they could never really be fulfilled. He believed that the Atman was capable of change, the "Self" dynamic and fluid. While Crowley instead embraced the idea of "Love is the Law, Love Under Will", his ontological views did not substantially change.

Richard Kaczynski spoke about J.F.C. Fuller's continued interest in the occult after his break with Crowley in 1911. He gave a visual review of Fuller's publications, from the Agnostic Journal in 1904 to his works on yoga and the Qabalah in the 1920s and 1930s. He wrote many articles for the Occult Review. In spite of his break with Crowley, it was clear that Fuller still read his works and collected them. Of note was his article "The Black Arts" in the Occult Review of January 1926 (illustrated by Austin Osman Spare), which may have influenced Gerald Gardner's conception of Wicca. While it is known that Gardner paraphrased much from Crowley, some of Fuller's made-up incantations in this article appear in Gardner's Samhain ritual. While not a central remark to the presentation, I found it interesting that Robert Lowell felt that Fuller was as good at what he did as Bertrand Russell was in philosophy. I had not seen a reference to this in Lowell's interviews and letters, but I also wasn't looking for it at the time I reviewed them.

Chris Giudice spoke about Fuller's connection to the Fascist movement, and his relationship with Hitler and the Nazi party. Anti-democratic feeling was an accompaniment to modernism--there was a rebellion against progressive/Marxist ideology, and Fascism was as much a system of thought as it was a political idea. Italy was the first to embrace this rebellion, and in Germany, National Socialism was a reaction against French Revolution values--discipline, law, and order were hailed. The onset of the Great Depression also did much to facilitate the spread of fascism. Fuller was an intellectual, and like many others, he was attracted to both mysticism and fascism--Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and W.B. Yeats are examples of others with similar interest. Fuller's ideas on the military, particularly on tank warfare, were not well received in Britain, but elicited great interest in Europe. He was called upon to advise Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco in their military operations. One wonders how things might have been different if his home country had taken him seriously, as his military writings gave Germany in particular a great advantage in World War II. Fuller did appear to hold some anti-Semitic views, though he ultimately wrote that anti-Semitism should not have a place in the British state, in his writings for Mosley's British Fascist group. It is notable that Fuller and his wife attended Hitler's 50th birthday party, and they were the English minority at that event. It is not held that Fuller was a traitor, and I do wonder how he felt after viewing the aftermath of World War II, especially in Germany.

Bob Stein gave the next lecture on Crowley, Alphabets, and Liber 231. Liber 231 is a technical treatise on the Tarot, and presented by Fuller in the Equinox Volume 1. Bob noted that there were no numbers on the original Tarot decks, and no particular sequence. The Sefer Yetzirah was later tied to the numbering order of the cards, as well as the zodiac. The alphabet comes from Eliphas Levi, though there was an earlier version of this alphabet.

The sequence of cards was changeable from the time of the Marseilles Tarot. The Fool originally had no number, and adding the zero shifted the numbers of the other cards up by one. He notes that Justice came before Strength, which is out of sequence in terms of the zodiac (putting Libra before Leo). Crowley's work 777 points out both the Qabalistic and zodiacal correspondences, and was written prior to the Book of the Law. Bob spoke about the definition of a "Class A" publication of the A.A., and its authoritative value. Much of Crowley's writings on the Tarot are from Class A, except for Liber CDXVIII (The Vision and the Voice, 1st Aethyr), which is both A and B.

The correspondence of the Hebrew letter "Tzaddi" in the Tarot was explored in the Book of the Law (e.g., "Tzaddi is not the Star"), and Crowley makes some comment on this in the extenuation commentary (available in "The Law is for All"). Tzaddi ends up being the letter and number of the Emperor (IV), and in Liber VII (Lapis Lazuli), Crowley has the line, "only the fish-hook can draw me out", another reference to Tzaddi. Liber 231 itself switches Heh and Vav in the chart relating to the genii of Mercurii and the Qlipoth. Here Strength and Justice are put in their correct zodical order, Ra Hoor Khuit is associated with the Emperor, and Tzaddi is associated with the Star.

Bob made reference to Liber 27 (vel Trigrammaton), which tried to apply the English alphabet to the Tarot sequence--it did not work. By the time of the Vision and the Voice, the Tarot sequence was established and consistent. He made some other comments on the attribution of Tzaddi in the Book of Thoth, and suggests that the Vision and the Voice, 1st Aethyr, resolves Tarot questions. Bob did not attempt to interpret the meaning of any of these correspondences; he merely put them out for Thelemites to ponder.

The last presentation was by William Breeze, and it was on the O.T.O. Archives. He mentioned Hans "Hansi" Hammond (who shows up as the character Dionysus in Crowley's "Diary of a Drug Fiend"), and connects him with Rutgers University and the acquisition of the Fuller papers. I may have misunderstood him, but I believe he said that Hammond was actually University Librarian at Rutgers (I haven't been able to verify this independently as of yet.). If I heard that correctly, that is quite a startling connection between Crowley and Rutgers--Hammond was the son of Leah Hirsig, and William showed scans of newspaper articles about Hammond and Crowley when Hammond was a child. He then discussed Crowley scholarship up to 1974, mentioning Ellic Howe's "Magicians of the Golden Dawn" and "Eliphas Levi and the Occult Revival", as well as James Webb's "Flight From Reason". He stressed that archival evidence is key to Western Esoteric study, and mentioned Marco Pasi and Henrik Bogdan as particularly working with the O.T.O. He then gave a list of Crowley archives around the world at various universities, and mentioned several Masters and Doctoral Theses on Crowley (including the one by my friend Philip Jensen at UT Austin in 2000). Graduate programs in Western Esotericism have come about in Europe, and Religious Studies departments in the United States and elsewhere are starting to expand to include esoteric currents.

William then went on to tell the story of how Liber AL vel Legis was lost twice--first by Crowley (later found with some skis at Boleskine House in storage--William theorizes that the shape of the box with the book, which was on a large roll in a rectangular box, was probably stored with the skis by his servants, as they were about the same length and shape as the box). The second time was after the death of Karl Germer in California. After Karl's death, robbers broke into the house where Sascha Germer was still living, and stole many items related to the O.T.O. When Grady Louis McMurtry went through the house after Sascha's death, he could not find Liber AL vel Legis, and assumed it was stolen. Somehow it ended up in the basement of a house in Oakland, California in 1984, which had been purchased by a bibliophile who saw the work, and realized its value. After consulting with a friend (who happened to be in the O.T.O.) and Israel Regardie, he asked about donating it to the O.T.O. Regardie responded with the understatement, "That would be a nice thing to do."

There was a discussion of the alleged "title page" of Liber AL vel Legis, which William does not think was a title page at all. He also discussed Liber 231, looking at Rutgers' copy, which has the genii illustrations, but no Hebrew lettering. An infrared scan of the original shows where the Hebrew letters had been penciled in and erased. It is an example of how primary source material helps interpretation.

After this there was a brief panel discussion, in which it was noted that the proceedings to this conference would be published. When asked about the future of Esoteric and Crowley studies and what they would like to see, William Breeze suggested that he would like to see a Chair of Crowley Studies (a suggestion made to Marco Pasi, who held a postdoc position at the Warburg Institute--Pasi responded, "That will never happen."). A question on fascism and Thelema led to Chris Giudice's recommendation of the book "Aleister Crowley and the Temptation of Politics". William Breeze also noted that Liber OZ represents the political platform of the O.T.O.

This was the end of a long and interesting day, and I haven't even mentioned the exhibition itself. If you are in New Jersey, this is the last week to see it, so try to drop by Alexander Library at Rutgers before July 3. There are many fascinating esoteric works on display, as well as some of Fuller's letters, original Crowley and Fuller works, and some creative exhibitions that incorporate pop culture works on the occult along with classic volumes.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

"Slender Man" and the Psychology of Stories

As someone whose primary interest is myth, religion and folklore, I was naturally interested in the bizarre stabbing this week that took place in Wisconsin. Two girls tried to murder a third to appease something called "Slender Man", an Internet meme that was apparently created as part of a contest to create a "paranormal" creature. There is a Blair-Witch style backstory, and even a video that supposedly tells the origins of "Slender Man", a Chthulu-like figure that lives in the forest. Many people are fans of this story in the same way one might be a fan of Lovecraft and his monsters.

Slender Man is described as a meme in some places, and as an urban legend in others. Urban legends are a version of local folklore--someone tells a story that they swear is true from a "friend of a friend", and it gets spread with even more variations. They may potentially have a grain of truth to them, though they are not necessarily "true". I question whether or not this is an urban legend per se; however, the more relevant question might be, can Internet memes become urban legends? As noted, there is a "clear paper trail" for this tale--it is not one of those stories told many times over and the origins get lost, like stories of "Resurrection Mary". It was clearly intended as fiction.

Why would two girls believe this is true? And do they really believe it is true, or is this just a way of getting out of murder prosecution? All the details on the girls, their background, and their relationship to the third girl are still unknown. This is hardly the typical response to a fictional story, even if you want to believe it.

Part of me wants to look at the story and ignore it, as I'm sure there will be a thousand half-baked theories as to what is going on, and people don't necessarily need to hear mine. I don't claim to understand the reason at all. But as the same Jezebel article noted, the potential for this to turn into something like the "Satanic Panic" of the 1980s is pretty darn good. So, for better or for worse, I feel a need to step back and look at what is going on here. That's what I'm paid to do in at least part of my life.

So--first--this is one type of illustration of what Jung meant when he said that "imagination is a fact". Slender Man is clearly fiction, and yet the impact he has is very real. He takes on a psychological reality manifest in the actions of the girls. Now, I anticipate two reactions--one says that Slender Man is still not REAL, the girls are just deluded at best and crazy at worst. The other will try to compare it to religion, but religion arises out of a natural need to negotiate the unknown. While Slender Man may have represented something to the individual psyches of the girls, I do not think you can convincingly compare him to a "deity". This is an isolated incident; there are no mass gatherings of Slender Man worshippers. That would be a different situation entirely.

If Slender Man resembles Chthulu in some respect, it may be worth considering the symbolism of that monster, and other Lovecraftian monsters. Lovecraft, as I've said before, was a hardcore materialist. He had no knowledge of the occult, and did not believe in souls, life after death, or religion. In fact, his monsters represent the blind forces of the universe. They will trample you in a moment, because they have no interest in you, and you are nothing compared to them. As Robert Price once pointed out, "the Devil at least takes an interest in your soul." These monsters do not. It might be fitting that new monsters in our mechanical/automatic worldview are as indifferent as Chthulu. At least its a switch from zombies.

This brings to mind another fictional phenomenon that people believe is real--Lovecraft's Necronomicon. Supposedly it is an ancient work written by Abdul Al-Hazra that reveals ancient incantations for bringing these Titanic monsters into the world. This is entirely fictional, but occult bookstore owners have probably lost count of the number of times they've been asked for the "real" Necronomicon. Even my ex-husband believed it was real; and actually tried some of the rituals, to some effect (according to him). It's very difficult to convince people it's fiction once they've decided it is real; this is true about false ideas in the world as well. Example: the notion that vaccinations cause autism. That has been debunked long ago, but many still believe it.

So, we've seen how we can transform fictional things into "real" things in our minds. The Satanic Panic was another example. Real Satanists have no interest in stealing children or in human sacrifice, or in torturing children. Like "Slender Man" it is a "mythical" manifestation of a different issue. When I say "mythical", I don't mean false. I mean it is a metaphorical story that may tell us something about the point of view in question. Myth is either fascinating, repellent, or indifferent. In the latter case, the myth is obsolete, or at least useless to the indifferent individual. In the two former cases, it says something about the neurotic, conflicted, or potentially psychotic nature of the fascinated or repelled individual (or group). If we don't relate to the story in some fashion, it has no meaning for us. Fears of Slender Man, Satan, or any other frightening being are symptomatic of a personal or social fear that we don't want to confront.

Which brings us to the reality of the story itself. Even fictional stories may be metaphorical of some collective fear or desire--that's what makes them popular. I have always argued against things like scriptural literalism, because I feel people are doing exactly what these girls are doing--taking something symbolic (or potentially symbolic) to be a reality. Years ago, one of my professors likened it to believing in Santa Claus--we believe literally as children, we don't believe as adults, but we still appreciate the symbolism and perhaps the tradition. Literal belief does occur among children, and it's not a bad thing, it's a state of development. Usually the beliefs are acted out in play, which is again entirely appropriate. Acting things out is a good preparation for being faced with adult situations, as fairy tales often attempt to solve difficult real world problems in fantastic ways. (See Bruno Bettelheim's "Uses of Enchantment" for some good examples of this.)

In this case, as they say, "sh*t got real". This is not two girls pretending that Slender Man is real--they are taking very disturbing action in the belief that he is literally real. This suggests an inability to draw lines between what is psychological and what is material. That could be an indication of something like schizophrenia (very unlikely, I think), or it could be a continuation of a worldview that assumes that for something to be "real" it has to be a "fact". As it was once said by another wise professor, "Facticity does not equal truth".

So, some of that is the ironic fallout of the scientific worldview. While the notion of Biblical inerrancy predated the rational era, to a certain extent it is the product of rational thinking about the Bible. The underlying notion is that for the Bible to be true, it must all be factual. It's not--and in fact, the Bible stands up much better as "truth" if it is read metaphorically, and in the context of the time when it was written. The need to make something that fascinates us "real" in a material sense may suggest that in order for our feelings to be validated in terms of the idea, it has to be made manifest. We want to see "material proof", the only thing we accept as evidence, even when dealing with the non-material. This can be good--if an inventor dreams of a particular kind of machine and then builds it, that is a positive. In this case, making Slender Man real by murdering someone is a decided negative.

What does any of this prove? It proves that the psyche is like fire--it can create or destroy, yet it is neither good or bad in and of itself. This is not an argument for rigidly controlling the psyche, because that is impossible--the more you try to do that, the less control you actually have. It's a bit like trying not to think of pink elephants--as soon as you decide that, you can think of nothing but pink elephants. It is also not an argument for "controlling" what children are exposed to--these girls were 12, which is really more adolescence than childhood. The best you can do is to allow children and adolescents to express themselves without judgment--especially with adolescents. You can't tell them what to do meaningfully, so it's better to say, "Yeah, I get what you're saying--but did you also think about this?" Teaching how to balance what is felt with what is reasonable behavior goes a long way.

Of course, this could all be a lot of BS. We don't know all the circumstances surrounding this case. But I would still say it is prudent to not take an individual case and turn it into a nationwide epidemic. There is more going on here than meets the eye, and it is best to reserve judgment until all facts are known. Slender Man is no more responsible for deaths than heavy metal music, Chthulu, Satan, or anything else deemed monstrous or rebellious. If Slender Man is symbolic of anything in this case, it is fear of the future and the unknown. Work on improving that instead of trying to suppress or eliminate fictional, mythical, or religious characters.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

The Value of the Negative

I've been seeing a lot lately about the value of "positive thinking", and the destructive and painful influence of hate and negative thoughts. This is hardly a new idea; books like "The Power of Positive Thinking" and "You Can't Afford the Luxury of a Negative Thought" are classics of self-help literature. "The Secret" and its discussion of the "law of attraction" certainly correlates to this idea, by suggesting that what you affirm comes to you. If you think positively about an outcome, that outcome will happen. In general, I have no disagreement with this approach. It's healthy to see loss and setback as opportunity for positive change, and a positive outlook on life generally makes you happier.

However, there are some difficulties with this approach. First--life is not all "positive" experiences. We tend to define positive experiences as those that make us emotionally happy, or at least as those experiences that do not harm us. Negative experiences are seen as traumatizing and harmful. While there are probably some black-and-white examples, these terms are often subjective. As my guru has said, "A rash of deaths in a town may be bad for the families but good for the undertaker." A lot of it has to do with perspective.

A little side note about myself--I am extremely emotionally sensitive. This might surprise you if you know me, because I don't come across that way a lot of the time. I often take my father's approach to tragedy--I say "Hmm, that's too bad" and go back to whatever I was doing. Some people therefore assume that I am uncaring. In fact, the opposite is true--I'm in danger of caring too much. Some people have defined me as "empathic", and that could be true. I am like the house on the hurricane-battered coast; in order to defend my house, I build a wall around it. I take a somewhat stoic view of life, because I am intellectually aware that life is paradoxical in that it always brings death, whether I like it or not. But I do listen to others, and I am genuinely interested when students or friends come to me with issues, either to have someone help or just to have someone to listen. I am very wary of those who I feel manipulate and take advantage of my good nature--that is the fast track to being on my permanent sh*tlist.

One thing I don't share about myself often to the wide world is that I read Tarot. I have read Tarot since about 1986, and the reason has to do with what it tells me about the unconscious. It is a psychological tool. Jung believed that Tarot worked through the principle of synchronicity--the order of cards is technically meaningless, yet in looking at them, they seem to give a message about something that has bothered me, or gives me a sense of where I'm at when I feel at a loss. In this way, they work the same as dream symbols--they are something to be interpreted that tells us about what the archetypes are doing in our lives. There are Jungian therapists who use Tarot in this way. If they tell you about the future, it is also through the synchronicity principle, as accessing the collective unconscious means accessing something not bound by space and time.

I almost never do public readings, and I've never really done them for money. One exception was a charity event where a friend asked if I would read, and donate the proceeds to the charity. I agreed to do it, and I was stunned by the long lines of people who wanted me to read for them. They were all people hurting terribly--suffering with cancer, having lost close family members, etc. By the time we were closing up I was STILL finishing readings. I went home that night feeling dizzy, and spent much of the next morning throwing up. I absorb people's grief like a sponge. This is also why I don't watch many movies--anything that hits my senses directly is like a raw hit in the gut, even if others can laugh it off. It's never been easy for me to do that. Academia and analytic thinking has served as a barrier for me against raw emotion. I think of it as a balancing act. Some rational distance from emotion is a good thing, just as having a small creek or pond is nice, as opposed to be threatened by ocean waves at your front door.

This is also the main quarrel between my mother and I. My mother is another one who feels grief deeply, but she does not put up barriers, and it is destroying her physically, if not psychologically. And the reason leads to my next point--she feels guilty, as though she is a compassionless person by putting up boundaries.

We are not martyrs, and have a right not to experience painful things all the time. We all develop coping mechanisms. But part of the problem as a society is that our mythology tells us that having negative or bad thoughts is, well, "bad". In religious terms, it is "sinful". In my mother's case, she was raised by a Catholic Church that told her that God read all her thoughts and counted the bad ones against her. She is not alone in this kind of upbringing, though I can't say that was entirely my upbringing. What I say is--YES, you have negative thoughts, and YES it is perfectly fine to have them. The best place to operate from is the Center, and in the Center neither good nor bad thoughts prevail--it just IS. But our lives tend to swing from one side to the other, and that is OK--in a certain sense, we are all trying to achieve Hegelian synthesis, or use what Jung calls "the transcendent function". It is better to integrate the experience rather than to repress it or get hopelessly lost in it.

What we define as "negative" can also vary depending on our upbringing. For instance, some people think that lustful or rebellious thoughts are "bad". It is those thoughts in particular, as well as our genuine emotional expressions when we feel hurt, that I am referring to when I say it's OK to have negative thoughts.

Carl Jung stated that "the brighter the light, the darker the shadow". I am moderately suspicious of people who are positive/happy/loving all the time. If your light is very bright, I sincerely hope that you are addressing your shadow, and not trying to externalize it, offload it, or make it go away. There is only one kind of mythical creature without a shadow, and that is a vampire. All of us feel what is "negative" and what is dark. Why else is Grumpy Cat so popular, the sweet kitty who tells you to go jump off a cliff? Why do undergraduate females in particular love the rage and angst of Sylvia Plath's "Ariel" poems? Why do we love the cynical, dark humor of Dorothy Parker? Because deep down, we all rebel against a world that is a mask of positivity. Like the Christmas truce of the troops in World War I, occasionally we like to play ball with the "bad guys" (who, by the way, are not necessarily "bad"). The deep psychological split between what is "good" and what is "evil" has convinced us that every thought outside of what we deem "good" is something about which we should feel guilty and ashamed. This is a problem.

The "problem" lies in the simple phenomena of psychological projection. If you do not own your own "badness" and feel OK with it, then you only see it in others and never in yourself. This leads to self-righteousness (I'm so good, and that other person is a creep), and sometimes outright persecution of others. In the worst cases, it leads to genocide--exterminating a people because they are full of so-called "negative" characteristics that might taint the "pure" ones. I don't need to tell you how that worked out in World War II Germany. And though many fundamentalists would never commit genocide or murder, there is the sense of avoiding "sinful" people unless you are trying to "save" them. Being the "good" one (or ones) while everyone else is "bad" is a problem, and it comes from not owning your own badness. "God" may be inside of you, but so is the "Devil", and they're not as separate as you would think. If Satan tests Job with God's approval, that tells you something about the nature of that relationship. The "devil" or "trickster" appears in your life to make you uncomfortable, and usually it's for your own benefit, if you have decided that living complacently with something harmful to you is better than confronting it. If one hasn't wrestled with life and suffering to some degree, they haven't lived it.

Alan Watts said in his eulogy at Carl Jung's death that he admired Jung "because Jung knew that he was a villain, and didn't have guilt about it." If you can't embrace your own darkness, then you will judge others, not forgive them. You will not recognize that you too are capable of "bad" things, not realize that someone's hurtful mistake could just as easily be your own.

In this sense, I am against being "positive" all the time, because we need to admit when we're not positive without shame. As I said to someone recently, this doesn't mean that we direct our anger, hatred, and hurt to others in harmful ways. You can be angry at your ex without chucking a brick through his or her window, even if you feel like it. Both ignoring our feelings and getting obsessed with them long term is not helpful. Balance is important.

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.