A Hidden Optimism: Going On from the Last Essay

From Funny Times

In the last essay I seemed to compare people to primordial mud. Of course, I wrote it as a comedy, which is to say, the entire essay is excessively optimistic about people, and is only making a generously indulged joke on behalf of a gifted species at the verge of developing into a new form of life and intelligence. But if people approach it pessimistically (I don’t see how they can, given the parameters of my essays in general), then it would be received as ridicule. But I was writing this in resonance with Beckett’s approach. He also tempts people to read him pessimistically. But everything he wrote was a double-entendre. A different kind of humor is revealed when you discover his hidden optimism.

These essays presume several optimistic things (and I don’t expect agreement and I’m not looking for debate, only the willingness to entertain the angle of vision as long as it lasts):

1) that human beings are troubled, but gifted animals; and

2) That human beings are at the verge of realizing a new form of intelligence, a new way of being.

Hence, the metaphor of a primordial awakening.

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Giving Up and Going On: Probing the Alchemical Frequency of Beckett’s Comedies (Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable)

“This cursed first person, it is really too red a herring.”

“Keep going, going no, call that going, call that on”


Dear reader: In your presence, I find a wider vantage point, not just this isolated center drowning in a soup of conflict and useless chatter, which is myself. If I’m only talking to myself I get lost in my Self. But with three of us, there is space enough for reflection.

Writing adjusts the frequency of attention. I don’t believe in myself too literally when I write. I probe rather than believe. The personal voice becomes a transparent drama. So I can see the Self with less vested interest, which means a little more honestly. Here, chains of meaning are still too short to be declared a lively intelligence. I’m mostly stagnant immaturities, a primordial ooze. The brain is bubbling with small sentiences, the grim grammar of a force that can’t quite commit to living with a longer attention span.

But here there is space to make these broader linkages and begin crawling to solid ground.

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“That’s the Show, Waiting for the Show”: The Mysterious “Subject” that Hides in the Shadow of Attention

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Some might think I’m dawdling over preliminaries. Like I’m endlessly adjusting my coat and tie, but never actually going out on stage and performing anything. All backstage banter.

That’s not wrong. In these essays the subject itself is backstage banter – the behind-the-scenes mumbling in our own heads.

It’s very hard to find anyone raring to talk about the way we frame reality back there. It throws unpleasant light on our habits of denial, repression and justification, which keep us consistent if nothing else. So this subject is almost inherently “uninteresting” to anyone who considers themselves already sane.

Thankfully I don’t. And neither do some of you. However, you’re almost unlocatable as a group. No demographic defines you. So I’m not even addressing you directly. I feel like we’re sitting side-by-side under a tree together, sharing a slightly psychoactive substance. What we have in common is the willingness (I suppose) to recognize a certain insanity in ourselves and not push the subject aside as a dull complacency. We’re willing to see our condition as abnormal, which is a surprising relief. Because if this way of life isn’t “normal”, then we can begin healing. Otherwise it’s just a condition defining us in some conclusive sense. I guess I’d rather be considered insane than evil.Read More »

Optimistic Despair: Why there Are No Real Problems in the World, and What to Do About It

“Teach us to care and not to care/Teach us to sit still”

“Ash Wednesday”, Eliot

There is no problem with the world. Only thought makes problems. Every single human problem is only the result of how we imagined things in a crazy way.

Life does have challenges, but every stubbornly knotted predicament, such as mass hunger, war, greed, selfishness itself (internecine competition), are responses to a problematic way of imagining things.

Dropping bombs is not a quality of the earth itself or of life itself, but only a quality of human imagination. War doesn’t exist until we imagine borders, identities, competitive economic systems, hierarchy and status. Mass starvation doesn’t exist until we imagine competition, ownership, and hierarchies that undermine sensible ways of distributing food, as well as monocultural, soil-depleting, destructive ways of growing food.

Even selfishness itself is only a radicalized response to the world, not a quality of the world or of humans by nature. As soon as we begin to imagine the world, and create stories to make sense of it, we have left behind a static vision of human nature and have entered the realm of an infinite plasticity. We can’t hide behind the excuse of nature. Nature is not causing our problems. The imagination is doing that.

Our needs are not problems either. I’ve heard people say that testosterone is a terrible chemical. But testosterone is not a problem. It’s the way this natural energy, this necessary desire, gets perverted into bizarre shapes by our vision of the world, our ways of thinking.

The need for shelter, love, food and sex doesn’t necessitate the problems of identity (pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth). The infamous seven deadly sins derive directly from a staked identity (from taking our self concepts too seriously). These seven varieties of selfishness are only secondary qualities of the way we’ve fetishized those simple necessities through an overpowerful or too literal sense of identity. A fetish arises only because something has gone haywire in the way we imagine ourselves and our relation to the world.

But the earth itself, life itself, has no problems, only challenges. These challenges are presented to us open-endedly. How we respond to the conditions of life is up to us.

This is why it’s a waste of time and energy to try solving human political, social and technical problems one at a time. Problems are only getting more complicated because we’re empowering illusions by trying to solve them. It’s the imagination that has to be resolved (clarified). We have to unearth our own compulsion of making a fetish out of simple necessities, step out of the momentum driving us to imagine ourselves in such isolated and alienating forms, as if we were each individually the center of the universe.

By spending so much energy working to solve specific problems we spread the virus of fetishistic thinking, which merely grows the canopy of problems and never digs towards that root, which is in our confused relationship to the imagination.

Turning attention to thought is far more practical and leads to far quicker changes than attending to every problematic symptom of thought. The practical approach to life is sleepwalking into a maze of ever-growing problems.

Looking more honestly at our confused relationship to the imagination is the only chance.

But chance for what? For personal salvation? Hardly.

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“And I said, with rapture, Here is something I Can Study All My Life and Never Understand!”

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Here’s something very hard and extremely simple at the same time. A beautiful paradox. But it’s not an idea, that’s the hard part in a sense. Because we’re oriented to wanting some static knowledge that we can claim as ours. But knowledge is actually very difficult to process or really understand. To hold the idea that I’m selfish, for instance, isn’t the same thing as really facing my own selfishness. Real intelligence is honesty, not intellect.

Sometimes self-knowledge is a false cover, confirming our tired old convictions. But real self-knowledge is critical self-awareness.  No firm conviction can survive the irradiation of critical (or negative) awareness. After all, I’m only being honest when I recognize that I can’t actually know anything for sure. The world is infinite, and my brain only measures a few measly inches. So being certain is a way of lying to myself, saying “reality is here in my grasp.” What I grasp is already past-tense, static and artificial.Read More »

What Is Real?

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“All is a Question of Voices” (Samuel Beckett)

I don’t know what is real. I know only stories. Reality itself is obscured behind an interpretive film. But if there was a way to remove these perceptual “cataracts” I’d blind myself, because I can’t make sense of reality without a story. Story and reality are impossible to separate. But I need to find a way to distinguish them. Otherwise I’m delusional. And this delusion has real and deadly consequences.

Stories create every objective thing and Other I encounter. Nations and races, for example, are highly selective distinctions that settle over the world like transparencies over a drawing. And when these fictional separations are conflated with reality, real national and racial divisions erupt. These divisions are not facts of nature, but what physicist David Bohm called “artifacts” of the story, of my own imagination.

There’s something electrifying here. Against a fact of nature I’m helpless. But my own agency is revealed in artifacts of the imagination. It suggests that much of what passes for human nature, including aggression between groups, is not inevitable.Read More »

Leaping into the Deep End

Duke at the Saw Mill swimming hole
Our dog Duke at the Saw Mill swimming hole, Butternut Crick, circa 1967, near Morris, NY

“The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.” – W.H. Auden (Leap Before You Look)

Narcissus is the “Dreamer”: In Honor of Ta-Nahisi Coates

I’m privileged to be a dreamer. I live in a cloud, which rises from the smoke of guns and bombs. My world is made possible by war. We are all here. Our collective voice is the Web and the media. The voice is growing harsher. It’s Narcissus reacting to his suddenly uglier image. He squirms in discomfort. What does he do when he comes face-to-face with his own vainglories of racism, war and hyper-rational control of nature? How will he peer through the dream, and turn away from his beloved?Read More »

A Moment to Drift

WhaleEye9-JeanLuc

One Last Preparatory Post

It’s been interesting to reflect on the change I’ve felt after posting that long introductory “manifesto.” I’m tremendously grateful to the people who read the thing closely. (Special thanks to Tony Dias, Jeppe Graugaard and Brian Shampnois). It feels like a great privilege to have found even one person, let alone a half-dozen, who rigorously engaged the piece. And I suspect that the ideal size of this pool of perceived readers corresponds to David Bohm’s ideal pool for dialogue – between 5 and 25. I can’t realistically picture more than that without the voice becoming vague and almost political in character (as if I were making a public speech).

I never used to think I needed anyone to read anything I wrote apart from the one person to whom I was writing. But that person’s attention has been wavering of late (it was my dog). And I know now that the quality of attention I’m able to put into this thing is dependent on the quality of attention of the reader. And this is a strange thing to realize: I can’t say certain things unless I know there’s someone there who understands what I mean.Read More »