Gaia is the word for "unity-of-life-processes". The experiment here is to unify the various threads of voice and sense of self together into an undivided unity. Spirituality, economics, politics, science and ordinary life interleaved.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Cicero On Friendship, aka, De Amicitia

I'm reading the Great Books syntopically on the subject of friendship, and Cicero's number came up to receive a jolly good reading.

The essay on friendship by the Cice honors a great mutual mancrush between one Scipio Africanus and Gaius Laelius. Laelius extols his dead buddy Scipio (aka 'Skip the African'), shares his definition of friendship, and gives rules to be observed in regard to said ship.

Cicero's On Friendship contains a preface where Cicero dedicates the essay to one of his dear pals. Then two younguns suck up to Laelius to extract the good oil from him.

Cicero's a straight talker. Virtue equals friendship. This means never asking for an unethical favor, not letting passion, politics, or pain intervene in virtue practices, and learning and sharing knowledge together. S-weet.

It's about that simple. The Cice ends with another extolatory clusterfuck and some sweet words to the effect that virtue practice is the be all and end all of friendship. It's an inspiring read and unlike this piece of writing contains absolute zero percentage of hot chicks.

A hard man but a fair one that Mister Cicero.

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On Two Classic Novels: Moby Dick and Tom Jones

Ah, Tom Jones and Moby Dick. Henry Fielding and Hermann Melville; hm!

Reading Melville I feel like he had written four or so sea tales of the commonest kind, stories strictly for men of the mediocre make, perhaps, and one day woke up and decided that if he didn't quit playing it straight this very instant then he might actually explode from lack of sincerity. So he quit pleasing paltry readers and wrote a sea story that revealed to the whole world his amazingly oddball personality.

Let me be very clear: Hermann Melville is a very strange fish. Just as Flaubert (pronounced 'Phallus-butt' in English, fyi), used to say "Je suis Bovary", so Melville can justly say "Je suis Moby Dick".

And after all, you know, after all, I mean, WTF? What is a reader to make of a book in which the writer's inner self appears to be symbolised by a spermaceti whale, and the reality principle seems to be represented by an insane PTSDed sea captain named Ahab? The really funny thing in this read is to notice how tremendously Melville enjoys himself. Like a carrion wind, Melville's good cheer never ever lets up. Laughter streams through the tone and transforms the horrid plot into a fearful symmetry such as would make Mister Blake quake.

Now to Tom Jones. Don't you think there is something snivelling and shabby about a world where everyone is a hypocrite except the hero and his missus? And when I see how tawdry Tom himself is even in his boldest conceptions of virtue, it quickly goes from discouraging to disgusting.

Yeah, I GET that Fielding wants us to clearly see how variable, moonish and instable a thing is virtue. And it's funny for a few hundred pages; but then it's not.

It doesn't help that Fielding's emotional life doesn't engage me. Here is none of the delightful sinister laughter of Dostoyevsky, and even less of the gallows good cheer of Melville. I like Henry Fielding best in legal and ethical questions, in which the disquisitions of his lawyerly mind find their field of muster.

I dug the allegorette (that's to say, the mini-allegory) of the Christian Thwackum and the platonist Square. It reminds me of William James' pragmatism. But I think the problem here is that I just don't care enough about Fielding, Jones, or their respective girlfriends.

Bottom line: Only the English find hypocrisy funny, but evil amuses forever.

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Asimov's Foundation and the Great Books of the Western World

The Foundation Series and Great Books of the Western World have many common points. Both Foundation and GBWW are concerned with the preservation of the civilizing influence of reason and Western culture. Both address theories of knowledge and power. Both attack ethics and the sentiments with great feeling and strong views.

But as the Great Books of the Western World is a real life conversation spanning the ages, it is about true things and actual stories, which even though fiction are based in true cultures and times. The Foundation Series is fiction through and through, fiction in the best, the Aesopian, sense of the word. The world of Foundation cannot and could not ever exist.

But in a deeper sense Asimov's Foundation is poetry; it is a fiction that shows more truth than a history can.

The underlying context of Foundation occupies the same epistemic space as Plato's ideal republic. Socrates insists that reality can be measured; how much more does the fictional Hari Seldon force nature to yield up her secrets through psychohistory! The Encyclopaedists of the Foundation represent the Platonic educational ideal, and the various scurrilous derring-do of the first book of Foundation represent symbolically much of the political dialog that followed in the wake of Plato's work these last few thousand years.

Finally, in the annoyingly analytical smugness of the psychohistorians, starting with Hari Seldon himself, we can see Aristotle's rational and dry wisdom at work.

The key point of dissimilarity between the Great Books and Asimov's Foundation is simply that Asimov has a far more narrow view of knowledge than the Great Books. Asimov's Foundation, when exposed to the harsh, humane, realistic light of the Great Books, reveals itself to be marred by a narrow scientism and cramped by reductionistic cliches.

Nevertheless, as Harold Bloom would put it, the Foundation Series expresses considerable anxiety towards the centralized authority of the Western tradition. The Empire is doomed, but the Foundation will endure through the dark age of irrational faith and mystical, magical thinking. Asimov's effort to assert reductionist scientism makes the Foundation Series (at least in the first three books) vital and genuine.

Finally, comparison with the Great Books casts a new light on the latter books - ie, 'Foundation's Edge', 'Foundation and Earth'. If the heroic effort to ward off the forces of gaian wholism in the latter books of the Foundation Series is not entirely convincing, then the fault is perhaps not in the vitality of the writer but in the weakness of the material.

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A New Nonlinear Way to Read Dante Alighieri.

You can get at the nonlinear and visual construction of Dante's Commedia can be got at by the mind by just reading from start to finish, if you want, passing through Inferno to Purgatorio to Paradiso.

But what tends to happen as the reader traverses Inferno is that they stop short somewhere. Perhaps they pause at the gates of Purgatory to watch Venus rise. Or perhaps they stop half way up the mountain at Vergil's second lecture of free will. The mind falls short of the passion of Dante's design. Failing to grasp the beating heart that is the whole piece, intellect grows cold at the foot of the mountain where it ought to fall silent in the transcendent presence of Beatrice at the crown of the summit.


The answer is the failure to invoke the vegetative soul in the recitation: or, in less Aristotelian terms, the failure to extract the juice and excitement that comes from getting the whole work in a single hit of image, light and song.

Here's the problem: Dante's Commedia is nonlinear. The book unfolds in an acausal structure: Inferno mirrors Purgatorio illuminates Paradiso and back again. And that is on the most gross level of the plot: at the deeper level every image calls to image, like three friends chanting at one another from three mountain peaks in perfect harmony and consonance.

So the Commedia of Dante forms a single field of inspirational power, a matrix of image and idea that must be sensed whole in order to be "read" in any realistic way. In a word, you only begin to read Dante once you have read the whole poem from start to finish and have closed the book and started reflecting.

With that in mind, here's a fresh new nonlinear way to read Dante Alighieri's Commedia:

Start with the three books of the poem in front of you.

Read through Canto One of Paradise, then Canto One of Purgatory, then pass through Canto One of Inferno.

Stop, reflect; then repeat.

Continue moving DOWN from Paradise to Purgatory to Inferno, canto by canto, until you get to Canto 15 of Inferno.

This is the pivotal point in each of the three books. In Canto 15 Inferno Dante is about to ride Geryon into the Abyss to meet those who are actively vicious and aggressive against God. In each book at this point we move into the zone of heightened aliveness after this point.

Now there's a small hitch: the same pivotal point I point to in Inferno 15 occurs in Purgatory in Canto Sixteen and in Paradise in Canto Seventeen. In Purgatory Sixteen Dante ascents on an Eagle's back to the midway gate of the actively virtuous and pure. In Paradise Seventeen Dante attains the vision of the Heaven of Mars, of the warriors for God.

So the suggested nonlinear path is as follows:

Read up to Paradise 15, Purgatory 15, Hell 15.

THEN, reverse the order of readings to put Paradise last instead of first, thusly:

Read Purgatory 16, Paradise 16, Paradise 17.
Read Hell 16, Purgatory 17, Paradise 18.

At this point you will be able to compare the three pivotal points (Hell 15-16, Purgatory 16-17, Paradise 17-18) in the plot. All the threads will come together in the martial action of the midpoint of all three books.

Reflecting on the midpoints, note that Dante deals respectively with vengeance, anger, and courage - the vices and virtues of Mars, and the uses and misuse of the vital energy of the vegetative soul. Notice your gut level reaction to the images and feelings. And notice especially how much Dante has grown as a person from the start of the book to the midpoint.

These are also the points in the poem where the personal psyche ends and the transpersonal realm of begins. From these three midpoints in the poem, Dante the man becomes less important than Dante the Everyman. The universal Dante shines forth.

These pivotal points are a great place to pause and check in, get an overview of the poem, and really stir up a bit of passionate motivation to finish the adventure by taking it all the way to the finish. The Mars archetype acts as a spur to motivation to complete the recitation of the poem.

So, to summarize: we read from Paradise DOWN to Hell through the personal realm, correlating all the expressions together of Dante's individual psyche as it expresses in all three realms, then at the midpoint of each realm we reverse the order of the books and begin the ascent into the transpersonal:

Read Hell 17, Purgatory 18, Paradise 19.

Continue until the end:

Read Hell 34, Purgatory 33, Paradise 33.

The latter half of the three books gives a sort of transcendent play of image and idea that, to my mind, best resembles the leisure of the Olympian gods.

I firmly assert that only readers who have first grasped Dante the man are equipped to make sense of Dante the visionary poet-prophet. In my opinion, we meet Dante the man himself in the first half of each of the three books and Dante the poet in the last halves of the poem.

By reading the first half of each poem to become acquainted with Dante, we motivate ourselves to read the entire poem and discover the entire "good of the human", as Dante puts it.

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

How Reflection Creates the Past: On Reading Conrad's 'Youth'.

Joseph Conrad writes with great style and heart!

I just read aloud 'Youth'. Into this little book which Conrad wrote as a youth of 24 years he poured all the experience of aliveness and joy from his formative years.

Reciting 'Youth' disclosed the breath and the silence and the difficult play of words in the author's throat. So when the narrator, old Marlow, asks his listeners to pass the bottle of claret, I reached over and sipped my cup of peppermint tea, and mindfully breathed a moment. Conrad means you to rest when Marlow rests, because he requires you to work when Marlow remembers. If you do not rest when Conrad/Marlow rest, you will probably miss much of the meaning of the story, which is encoded in the emotion and style. This kind of reading is great fun, too!

"...the whole terrestrial globe had been one jewel, one colassal sapphire, a single gem fashioned into a planet."

See how Marlow piles up the three clauses on one another? He uses this technique for three quarters of the text. It happens whenever young Marlow, the hero of the story, is powerfully moved. The effect when recited is rhapsodic - it builds complex waves of feeling and image - it crests and foams into the last quarter of the story, which is written very simply. If you do not follow the waves, you probably will not feel the impact of the simply written last scenes. That is why recital is best for this story. But it also expresses the emotional rollercoaster of being young so very well!

If being young is like being asleep, or like being in a dream, then becoming an adult is like waking up and remembering the dream even as it fades from memory's lips and leaves a faint bitterness. Likewise, I didn't understand 'Youth' until I had slept on it. When I woke up all of a sudden the mind cleanly took hold of the whole story as a single object, and I understood what Conrad is up to.

This is not a coming of age story at all. This is a dream of youth and age, as mythical as the sport of the gods, and as golden. The sweetness of immortality and the bitterness of age come together and heighten one another. The authentic taste of the passing of time is here in these pages, intangible and subtle.

"Allegory" is a dead word for a living form. According to wikipedia it comes from αγορευειν, agoreuein, "to speak in public". Wiktionary tells us that allegory is "the representation of abstract principles by characters or figures". I see many problems with the use and meaning of the word (too many to go into here), because it presupposes a break between presentation and representation, between the abstract principle and the concrete image.

In my experience, sometimes the abstraction IS the character - these is no difference between Achilles and vengeful wrath, is there? Likewise, in Conrad's 'Youth', there is gap between abstract and real, presentation and representation. The thing is the idea is the thing.

And in this case the thing is Youth and Age. The story shows the essence of both so well, so powerfully, that is is almost jejune of me to speak of it with ordinary words. It is a very powerful presentation of poetic truth!

The entire story of 'Youth' is an allegory for the nature of youth, complete with invocations to Jove, the god of juveniles. The moments when Marlow uses the triple repetition signal the efforts to hold back the unconscious contents of the actual event - the twining repetitions of threefold horrors are gorgonic snakes of words that ward off the actual experience of youth from Marlow's weather-beaten consciousness.

Marlow's story, with its rhetorical flourishes, is old Marlow's defense against the authentic experience of youthfulness. The story is not just about a sea adventure, but about the life Marlow has lived since then. That is why the first three quarters of the story are charged with such sorrow and sagacity.

And what about the actually young Marlow? We remember pumping water til the cook goes mad, waiting in dry dock til the rats abandon ship, and sailing til the ship burns and sinks. But what do we feel about all this stuff we see of the young Marlow?

We feel the moody turbulence of adolescence in the constant rain and water pumping. We feel the sense of waiting to become an adult in the social embarrassment of dry dock. We feel the fiery concupisnce of puberty in the smouldering invisible fire beneath the vessel which bears a freight of fragile human lives to a new unknown world in the East.

Conrad's 'Youth' is a precise allegory for adolescence! Every detail provides an exact imagining-forth of the essence of being juvenile. So 'Youth' is immortal. And so what? Every adult of character has been through the same transformation in her or his own way.

Old Marlow's perspicacious warding-off of genuine feeling breaks down at the end of 'Youth'. This is signalled by the loss of complex language when young Marlow wakes to see the faces of the East, loses the repetitions altogether. It is simply written. The faces of the East are an image out of dreamtime; consciousness has been broken down by the storms of adolescence, but in being broken, has become adult.

And so what? We wouldn't want to repeat the ordeal of losing these sweet illusions so bitterly, nor would we want to forget the pleasure that the delusions of youth brought us.

For old Marlow in his drink youth is a bitter illusion, until the moment when he breaks through to the direct experience of young Marlow once again, and for a moment the old man is soft and vulnerable once again.

But Conrad seems to be saying also that as adolescence dreams of the man he is to become, so the adult who reflects on her adolescent dreams can always take the opportunity to make them real... reflection is the work of a well lived life.

This is the greater attainment of 'Youth': Conrad through the voice of Marlow realizes his own adult self through reflexively investigating, probing, testing and deepening his perceptions of his own youth.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Place To Meet Milton: On Re-reading Paradise Lost

I just finished re-reading Paradise Lost.

My impressions? It's very Christian. The end goes all prophetic. Really it's like four poems.

Paradise Lost Poem One tells Satan's comeback from his wee setback of eternal damnation.

Paradise Lost Poem Two is Archangel Raphael and First Human Adam's chitchat about this and that - war in heaven and the creation of the universe and sundry other cosmick gossip.

Poem One and Two are the great science fiction style parts of Milton, and show what he learnt from the speechifying of the Ancients and Mr Shakespeare's productions.

Paradise Lost Poem Three is the Action: vis, Eve and Adam eat and Fall. It's, um, a psychosexual drama with angels.

Last we get Paradise Lost Poem Four, the prophetic wrapup where God judges, the Son sacrifices, Heaven hurrahs, Eve repents and Adam hallucinates the future on a hilltop with Archangel Michael. Then it's out of the garden and into the book of Genesis.

What to think? It's hard to appreciate deeply enough the science-fictionality of Milton's Paradise Lost in context of a world where SF didn't yet exist.

Certainly the poem compares not unfavorably to Homer's work (Poem One and Two), Dante's (Poem Four), Shakespeare's (Poem One's psychological portrayal of Satan and Poem Three's portrayal of Adam and Eve), and D.H.Lawrence (Poem Three's frank eroticism). In the light of the Western Tradition Milton is indubitably great.

Dante, Milton's opposite in temperament, best shines a light on the artist John Milton. Where Dante's art is delicate, tinted mercurial (being a Gemini as he informs us) Milton's is darkly sensuous, visionary, and monumental art.

Milton's effects strain the imagination; much is left to the reader to imagine, and much of Milton is dark to the moral eye not through obscurity but through largeness of imaginating. These effects become vivid only when the reader's sensual and moral temperament happens to concur with Milton's.

Image making in Milton is moral AND sensual; he sees no break between the two natures of the animal and the angel in a true Christian. This view, so alien morally but so modern in its acceptances of sensual desire, at once endears and distances us from Milton.

We feel he is serious, and noble, and a man disappointed in his sex life, and yet we sense a rich inner life of emotion and sensuality survives the disappointment, an inner life sustained, to our modern consternation, not by healthy adult relationships but by mere moral fortitude! Milton becomes uncanny, heroic, when we consider him as the figuration of the Human. What kind of pragmatism is involved in such a moral-sensual stance? Perhaps outside the author of Paradise Lost we cannot imagine another such man.

Ultimately the greatness of Paradise Lost comes down to incommensurates: I find myself liking John Milton more for himself than for his poem. Paradise Lost becomes the place I meet Milton in rather than the poem I read.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

On the Lysis of Plato: "All will be your friend if you are wise."

If you are wise, Socrates says, all men will be your friends and kindred because you will be useful and good; but if you are not wise, neither father, mother or kindred or anyone else will be your friend.

This is Socrates' juicy snare for the friendship of Lysis.

Just as for Aristotle the chief good is reason and the sum of all goods happiness, so also for Socrates wisdom is the chief good and love between friends the sum of all goods.

How to account for the paradoxes of friend and enemy Socrates lays out in the Lysis? I think he draws the paradox from the biological and spiritual meanings of friendship. A friend may be useful to practical ends but a bad person ideally speaking. Socrates is being sophistic.

Prudent friendships, as Aristotle reveals, combine usefulness, mutual affection, and pleasure in one anothers' character by doing kind services. And even Aristotle fails to observe the developmental curve: friendships evolve from being mostly useful to being mostly pleasant then to being mostly based in affection. A sound friendship has all three aspects, but at any one time only one aspect is dominant: pleasure, utility, or affection. But all three belong, because we are physical beings as well as spiritual.

(Taking the Aristotle cap off...)

Socrates says "God draws like to like" as friends. True enough. But like in what sense? Clearly what makes friends like one another are questions at the core of human nature. Why are we the way we are? To what extent are we like angels and like animals? In the answers to these questions a view of friendship can arise. But again it is between the animal and the angel that human friendships become possible.

I challenged myself to come up with my own view of friendship. Here it is:

"There is no cause of friendship: all friendships arise in accordance to the field of consciousness as expressions of their own self-nature. Different loves arise from different self-natures. Each kind of friendship is incommensurate to another.

"Broadly speaking, there are three kinds of friendship: horizontal alignment, vertical alignments, and mixed horizontal-vertical alignments. Horizontal alignment friends are mostly based in affection and supportive development of one anothers' full potential; they are heart-based. Vertical alignments are mostly based in utility and issues of control, power, exploitation and predation; they are solar plexus based. Mixed horizontal-vertical alignments are mostly based in pleasure.

On the Map of Consciousness, then, horizontal alignment friendships begin above level of consciousness 500; vertical alignment friendships begin below 199; and between 200 and 499 levels of consciousness of the Hawkins Map of Consciousness are mixed friendships, featuring aspects of both horizontal and vertical alignments."

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