May 26, 2010

The Cellular World

I always enjoyed the story of how Ludwig Wittgenstein, after delivering a four-hour lecture to his class in Cambridge on the intricacies of some logical problem, would then go to a movie in town (his favorite genre was the American Western) and sit in the front row, letting the images inundate his overheated brain. Intuitively, it makes sense, the need to turn off the intellect and immerse oneself in fantasy for a while. Now it turns out that it makes scientific sense as well. In her recent book, The Philosophical Baby, psychologist Alison Gopnik notes that magnetic imaging studies show that the occipital cortex, which is very active in the infant brain, lights up in adults while they are watching a movie, while the prefrontal lobe shuts down. In short, there is a reversion (if that is the right word) to pre-critical thinking, which adults often experience as a relief from the “tyranny” of the prefrontal cortex. This latter part of the brain is undeveloped in infants, and doesn’t fully form in most individuals until they are in their twenties. The implication is that imagination precedes rational analysis; to do art, be creative, or imagine hypothetical worlds, one has to play, to tap into that preverbal substrate of the mind.

In his review of Gopnik’s work (New York Review of Books, 11 March 2010), Michael Greenberg talks about how elusive and shadowy the infant’s consciousness really is. Tolstoy wrote that it was but a slight step from a five-year-old boy to a man of fifty, but a huge distance between a newborn and a five-year-old. Greenberg says of the first five years of life:

“Mysterious and otherworldly, infancy and early childhood are surrounded later in life by a curious amnesia, broken by flashes of memory that come upon us unbidden, for the most part, with no coherent or reliable context. With their sensorial, almost cellular evocations, these memories seem to reside more in the body than the mind; yet they are central to our sense of who we are to ourselves.”

Proust immediately comes to mind, of course: the scene with the madeleine in Du côté de chez Swann, where the taste of the cookie suddenly opens the door to a flood of childhood memories, long forgotten but still latent in the body. “Cellular evocations…central to our sense of who we are to ourselves.” If the phrase “human identity” has a meaning, surely this is it. And yet that fundamental cellular identity gets papered over, as it were; as we grow older, we become someone else. But it is not clear that the archaic self ever goes away completely.

In his autobiography, the psychologist Carl Jung tells the story of a man who comes to him for therapy, apparently at the insistence of his wife. The man is dull as a stick: a Swiss high school principal of about sixty years of age, who did everything “right” all his life, and never experienced a moment of ecstasy or imagination. Jung suggests that he keep a record of his dreams, which he does, showing up at the second session with something potentially disturbing. He dreamt that he entered a darkened room, and found a three-year-old infant covered with feces, and crying. What, he asked Dr. Jung, could it mean? Jung decided not to tell him the obvious: that the baby was himself, that it had had the life crushed out of it at an early age, and was now crying out to be heard. Exposing the “shadow” to the light of day, Jung told himself, would precipitate a psychosis in this poor guy; he wouldn’t be able to handle the psychic confrontation. So Jung gave him some sort of neutral explanation, saw the man a few more times, finally pronounced him “cured,” and let him go.

One wonders if the good doctor did the right thing. Is a living death preferable to a psychotic awakening? On the other hand—and I have a feeling Jung would agree with me on this—aren’t we all that man, to some degree? Perhaps not as wigged out, but it may be a question of degree, nothing more. Abandonment of that cellular identity is the abandonment of life itself; the abandonment of the part of ourselves that is in touch with the “miraculous,” as some have called it.

A couple of poems come to mind. One is by Antonio Machado (my translation):

The wind, one clear day, called to my heart
with the sweet smell of jasmine.

“In exchange for this aroma,
I want the scent of all your roses.”
“I have no roses; the flowers
in my garden are gone; they are all dead.”

“Then I’ll take the tears from your fountains,
The yellow leaves and the withered petals.”
And the wind left…My heart bled…
“My soul, what have you done with your poor little garden?”

Who, upon reading this, can’t feel a sense of guilt, a sense of something having been betrayed, and now faintly stirring, knocking on the door of consciousness, asking to be heard, at long last?

The same theme comes up in “Faith Healing,” by the British poet Philip Larkin, which describes a “workshop” being held somewhere in England by a visiting American guru. Undoubtedly, he is something of a charlatan; but even (or especially) charlatans know how to press the right buttons. The women in the workshop line up to be held by him for twenty seconds, to hear him ask, “Now, dear child, What’s wrong,” before he moves on to the next person. Most just come and go, but some start twitching, crying,

…as if a kind of dumb
And idiot child within them still survives
To re-awake at kindness, thinking a voice
At last calls them alone…

What’s wrong! Moustached in flowered frocks they shake:
By now, all’s wrong. In everyone there sleeps
A sense of life lived according to love.
To some it means the difference they could make
By loving others, but across most it sweeps
As all they might have done had they been loved.

Larkin goes on to compare this moment to the thawing of a frozen landscape, a weeping that spreads slowly through the body—just from the fact of being asked the question, of having someone recognize that there is even a question to be asked. As with Machado, it’s hard not to identify with the emotion that is being pulled out of a deep cellular memory. What is the “poor little garden,” if not the “sense of life lived according to love” sleeping within us, the cellular memory that never really goes away?

There is, of course, in virtually every society, a kind of conspiracy to keep that memory out of conscious awareness. We need to ask why that would be the case; but meanwhile, it’s clear that if it emerges at all, it is by “accident” (the madeleine that triggers a kinesthetic memory, e.g.), or in a therapist’s office, or in a dream (or a poem). If the cellular world is repressed within the individual, it is also repressed within society. Hence, to study human psychology is really to study abnormal psychology, and to study sociology is to really to study a kind of institutionalized insanity; or weirdness, at the very least. But it is hardly an accident that the two go hand in hand. Observing the phenomenon in the United States, the psychiatrist Thomas Lewis remarks that “A good deal of modern American culture is an extended experiment in the effects of depriving people of what they crave most.” “Happiness,” he concludes, “is within range only for adroit people who give the slip to America’s values.”

A grim assessment, but I doubt there is any way of denying it. Nor is it limited to the United States, of course; if Freud was right, there is no civilization without deep discontent. It just takes a different form in different cultures. And in any case, it is hard to imagine what a society based entirely on cellular memory would be like—although figures such as Rousseau and Nietzsche did their best to sketch it out. True, the results are less than impressive, but one would like to think that more can be done in this direction beyond individual initiative. It is very rare for a society to literally stop, for a moment, and collectively discuss what an authentic way of life might consist of. Indeed, I can barely imagine such a thing, except that it actually happened in France in May/June of 1968, and for those who were privileged enough to have been at the two-month “teach-in” held at the Sorbonne during that time, it was like breathing oxygen. What is man? What is the good life? What are we doing here? And: Why aren’t we asking ourselves these questions all the time?

“Come my friends,” wrote Alfred Lord Tennyson; “’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.”

What a thought.

©Morris Berman, 2010


Blogger Russ said...

Entries like this should be collected and published.

8:21 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Russ,

Man, I can't tell you how hard I've been trying. For the last few months, I've been writing publishers and agents alike to see if anyone would be willing to put my collection of essays into print, and no one is interested. The bottom line is the bottom line: they sense they can't make a bundle, so either they don't reply or they find some dubious-sounding reason for bowing out. A couple have actually been honest, said, There's no money in this. But I shall keep working at it; maybe someone will eventually give me a break. Stay tuned.


9:06 PM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...

It wasn't so long ago that collections of essays like this one could be published -- in the 1980s, for example, a book like Lewis Thomas' Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony could even be a modest bestseller, if I recall correctly.

MB, I've read this post several times already, and I keep getting more out of it. You make the reader stop & think, contemplate, reflect ... perhaps the exact things publishers are sure the public doesn't want, I guess!

But as Neil Postman pointed out in Amusing Ourselves to Death, in talking about the news, ""What we want is not the same thing as what we need." (Paraphrased from memory.)

And your words here are the perfect response to those who ask, "What positive suggestions do you have to offer?" Just this: the thoughtful, civilized mind regarding the world & our place in it, and struggling to understand more than a shiny, flashy surface. Going into the depths, the wellsprings.

Because there are still a great many people hungry, starving for this very thing, even if they don't always know it. I've seen it when someone reluctantly reads a poem & is startled by its beauty & truth; or when a painting, or a piece of music, or a philosophical idea, has the same effect.

There has to be a way for material as good as this to reach more people!

8:17 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Tim,

Thanks for yer feedback. Yeah, it's frustrating, no doubt abt it. Right now, all I can do is keep plugging away, hoping that somebody's gonna say yes.


9:40 AM  
Blogger JL1980 said...

This entry was a great read, and it reminds me how sometimes when I am bored I will try (mostly in vain, but not entirely) to recapture the unbridled enthusiasm of my own youth... of course childhood memories are the most vivid for us all aren't they? But like today for example, I went for a drive through the countryside, listening to some Graham Parsons and I could sort of lose myself in the carefree feeling of being 18 again, remembering driving around with my friends in the back of a pickup singing classic rock, which, I'm pretty sure no one does anymore (and it was only a decade ago!) Carefree and irresponsible, before I worried about words like "career" and "economy." I have to wonder, as funny as it sounds, is this the ideal state of man? I still enjoy much of course, but the enjoyment is somehow less vivid, less inspiring, more restrained and in smaller doses.

When I think about the guys writing the songs that I belt out when I'm driving around, these singer songwriters from decades ago and how they lived in this perpetual adolescence that fueled their creativity and enabled them to write all this deep, creative, multi-dimensional music that I haven't heard from too many modern artists, it reinforces this idea that as a society we seem to be losing touch with the...maybe... innocence we once had? Was that enthusiasm and childlike wonder about the world able to fuel artists and musicians for so many decades, to compose works with so much staying power? Maybe I'm just biased toward older music and art, I don't know. Is it cynicism and jadedness that stifles creativity now, or is real talent flourishing somewhere that I haven't found?

3:03 PM  
Blogger Mike Cifone said...

Dear Morris (may I?),

You have done it again, struck that chord in me that goes right down through to the root, which shakes me whole, and, like a flash of lightining illuminating a long-darkened cavern, calls forth all those details that lay covered over in darkness (nature loves to hide, indeed).

I'm sitting in a typically drabby academic enclosure, an office commons, after teachincg my students something about old Chinese Buddhist schools of thought. I told them everything that I thought they should hear, after talking about the doctrines (emptiness this, interdependence that): I told them to watch out for the great Vacuum that sucks the life out of what I am doing (educating), and what they are trying to do (learn), and renders the teachings and the learning utterly soulless (good intentions aside). I spoke about the difference between "form" and "essence". And I told them how utterly ineffective all this talk and wranggling is. I don't know if they got the ultimate point, the paradox right here in front of our faces.

Reading so much of this ancient stuff, being confronted by truth, and then accepting the diagnosis one gets occasionally and unexpectedly in articles like this one, or in poems, or in the dark moments of your soul, what elese is there to do? Let the imagination free. Breathe air, finally. I know that if I do this, then my whole life will simply implode. Same for my students. If we were able to do this for real ... I would certainly be out of a job. So, do I take my committment to philosophy, professed as it is daily, for real?

What the hell am I doing here?, I ask continuously. The short answer: stuck, like a bug in molasses. The inertia of the technological-commercial surround weiging down my imagination.

Who is to blame? Only myself, and I have only myself to free (a message, too, of the ancient Chinese Ch'an masters ... today's lesson).

My freedom is my poetry, sadness transformed into an utterly free and imaginative sweep across a great black Night of mystery.


3:25 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Thanks to all for yer comments, as usual. Mike: friends actually call me Maury; feel free.

Enjoy, enjoy! It's over b4 u blink!

4:07 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

One page huh. O.K., I’ll try. Greetings fellow searchers.

Most of us will not/cannot make the leap to non-locality. I did, with little outside help, many years ago, but it has been a struggle. There is no “archaic self” to go away. There is interpretation of substance, part of which we term “self.” Our interpretations and language change coherent info into the decoherent. There is no “cellular memory.” Consciousness is not local.

We continue to attempt to use a western, scientific and mechanistic belief (Newtonian physics, psychology, biochem, etc.) to explain the quantum information/energy field. That does not work! Until they accept non-locality, brain scientists will continue to hit the same brick wall.

(If that link does not work I’ll write again with a super-abbreviated account.)

If you can give me credit for not lying to you, and hold the common idea of bodily or cellular memory, (as I did, for 20 yrs) where’s the biochemical process for the image of a silver plant inside a woman’s leg? Furthermore, what’s the method of transmission of the image from her leg to my brain? There are other stories like this one. I chose it because it is so tidy.

There is always a tiny minority of humans who have their doors open to this quantum field of coherent information, some by choice, many unintentionally. Most of them start some sort of religion, which immediately attempts to exclude others from what Laszlo terms the “Akashic Memory Field.” Religion, of course, is all about power, your “conspiracy to keep….memory out of conscious awareness.” (The mystics, shamans, healers, etc. by the way, are not “better” or “nicer” or higher up some scale. In fact, they tend to quickly turn into egomaniacal …..) I sometimes wish the universe would do some sorting.

So there’s work and intention involved. I’m a big advocate of the careful, intentional (“sacred”) ( hate the word) use of drugs, sound, motion to blow the doors open, whilst respecting defenses and avoiding habitual rituals and power like the viruses they are.

Mike: the results of breathing air may not be as bad as you think and even if they are, if you keep the window open the air will nourish you until your biological end which is where you’re going anyway. The danger is opening the window, breathing again and then letting others make you close and lock it. Your issue will most likely not be the air coming in, but rather how wide to open the window and how to control the process.

This is getting fun. I think we should all drive down to Morris’s place and have a chat. How much room y’all got down there, man?

12:49 PM  
Blogger Russ said...

Ah, well, no one ever accused me of being economically savvy. I'm too easily distracted by things like creativity and insight.

7:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The hidden reality to which you allude, blocked by socialization, calls up quite a few reference points for me, not the least of which are your own books and blog posts. Almost everyone I know intuits something lost from the childhood sensorium and seeks to regain it, like attempts to regain the intimacy and connectedness of the womb. And in fact, there may be multiple entry points for brief excursions there, but the noise of the dominant culture manages to blot it out again. Joe Bageant calls this soul-destroying overlay the hologram.

Stories of feral children who are "rescued" from their state of nature typically reveal how deadening civilization is to those children. They communicate a luminous feeling of awareness in their lives among the other animals. Aldous Huxley tried to show this in the character of The Savage in Brave New World, but I doubt most of us know how to recognize it or relate.

Borgmann's focal practices are portals for some of us. Music is mine; for others, things like drugs, alcohol, religion, sex, athletics, and dance suffice. I don't for a moment believe the quantum consciousness espoused by some, but its adherents are undoubtedly convinced. We yearn for a spirituality (not the same as faith) that seemed innate in childhood but is suppressed as intellect grows. This is why I those who would have us all be rational, logical beings -- in short, machines -- are barking up the wrong tree.

10:26 AM  
Blogger Mike Cifone said...

Dear Dave,

I wrote to you personally, but I wanted to simply say: yes, that's exactly how I feel. I am told, sometimes forced, to shut up the windows and get on with "reality". I got into an argument with my friend here at my suburban bunker, complaining about how I noticed all my friends going comatose (I can hardly keep awake anymore with many of them ... there's so little intellectual life going on that it is an effort to keep from falling utterly asleep right in their presence). What he said to me, seriously, is: well, all that stuff about money and prices going up and work etc. etc. is reality; don't criticize them for caring so much about it. My response was: but I have to think about that stuff too ... it's just that those things are not terribly interesting or important as topics of conversation between friends as far as I'm concerned. Then, of course, we got into a little dispute about "elitism" ... well, I said, quoting (is it?) Lyotard: elitism for everybody.

In any case, I second Dave's suggestion for a gathering. It could be a disaster (we might hate each other!), but maybe we could make something of it anyway. No organizing idea, nothing at all. We might just cook, bake and talk, play a game, sit, read something we want to share, and see where things go.

10:23 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

A Gathering: Perhaps over a few days in restaurants in Mexico City, say in September? I can recommend a cheap hotel, very well located, and 10% off if u pay in cash...

4:35 PM  
Anonymous Art said...

Dear Friends,

These tentative plans for getting together are making me nostalgic. Back in college, I was the "social director" among my friends. It was up to me to urge them out of their dorm rooms to go out to eat. But nowadays, chronic illness keeps me close to home. I certainly wouldn't stay put in Daytona Beach if I didn't have to. Strange how things turn out.

P.S. Dave, you're welcome to swing by for a shamanic healing, though!

2:34 PM  
Blogger Mike Cifone said...

Dear Art and Friends,

Well, we could do roving gatherings, and come to each other's town or city. As the Japanese Zen master Dogen (d. 1253) recommended: travel widely.

... having visions of Leibowitzian monks wandering through the deserts of the (former) USA. Though, what would be on their shopping lists?

By the way, Maury: something keeps bugging me about the final book in your Consciousness trilogy, and I've been meaning to ask you something about it. I am really curious about how to extend your analysis.

Throughout the Trilogy, you hint at how Eastern religion/philosophy might be looked at from your basic point of view. In WG, the most essential idea is the distinction between nomadic consciousness or paradox vs. the SAC, and the parallel distinction between horizontal and vertical modes of thinking -- the latter being primarily visual and the former being primarily kinesthetic. I think that Indian and Chinese traditions here might provide an interesting study on precisely this score. I'll be brief.

Have you ever thought that there might be "horizontal" movements *within* Hinduism and Buddhism, that the SAC was what Buddha, for example, was reacting against and what Chinese Buddhism continuously tried to establish (that is, a mechanism, as it were, of paradox within Buddhist methodology that would prevent the emergence of the SAC. I'm thinking of radical Chinese Buddhist movements like Ch'an, esp. the "Southern" Ch'an tradition which claims Hui-neng (c. 600s CE) as its 6th Patriarch, the tradition precisely famous for its paradoxical methods).

In the Indian tradition, paradox doesn't really show up until the Upanishads (which borders on Vedic heresy by always criticizing the purely ritualistic approach to the Vedas and the priestly caste). In Buddhism, you get paradox pretty clearly when you hit Nagarjuna's "Middle Way" school in the 2nd century CE (abt 700 yrs after Buddha), and the Prajnaparamita lit (e.g. Heart and Diamond sutras) a couple centuries before that. In the Chinese tradition, paradox and indirect suggestiveness (rather than analysis -- a characteristic trait of Indian thought from earliest times, it seems) seems to have been as Chinese as boiled rice (at least from the end of the Ch'in and early Han dynasties, that is, 400 to 100 BCE, perhaps earlier).

The question as to what dynamics (along the vertical/horizontal distinction, etc.) play out in South and East Asian culture (mentalite & corporalite) really intrigues me, and provides, I think, fertile soil in which to continue your really fantastic study of (mainly Western) human consciousness.

Just some things to think about, and hopefully, some new and interesting things to be seen about homo sapiens.

Would love to get your thoughts.


7:29 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Mike,

I'm going to hafta leave it up 2u and other scholars of Eastern thought to wrestle with the questions you raise, because I'm way out of my depth here. I have read some of the relevant material in English translation; but in general, the language barrier (and questions of time!) kept me from a deeper understanding. You would hafta decide, of course, whether you want to address the general lay public or other scholars of Orientalia; but I fear I just can't help you in this area.


7:48 PM  
Blogger Mike Cifone said...

Dear Maury,

Thanks for the quick reply ... I'm writing you between gardening, having a Mojito and cooking, so let me be brief:

Well, the trouble is that I also have the language barrier problem (tho I've taken up Sanskrit ... it'll take a long time to be anywhere near competent to read a text ... and I only plan to be reading-able, nothing more, with dictionaries and compendia in hand). As for classical Chinese: I don't think I could do it.

So, the question is: do you think that this can be done -- yes, for the audience you wanted to reach, that is, the general reading public (such as it is or will be!) -- with just a basic/elementary language ability? I think the answer is: look, do it well or, at least, find someone else with whom to work.

I got my Ph.D in philosophy of physics (I worked with a student of David Bohm's actually, and I sometimes correspond with his collaborator, Basil Hiley on foundational issues in contemporary physics; I've published in foundations of physics as well), so I am also out of my depth, but I have read quite a bit (though only a bit of the academic journal-type stuff). I'm also still wading through some of the Western phil that wasn't taught to me in my heavily analytic department, but that's a good thing, largely, as there is plenty of consonance (yet another issue, to be sure).

Anyway, all that I am really saying is: perhaps this is a joint project. Any takers? Suggestions?


8:07 PM  
Anonymous Mark Notzon said...

Dear MB:

"Man, I can't tell you how hard I've been trying. For the last few months, I've been writing publishers and agents alike to see if anyone would be willing to put my collection of essays into print, and no one is interested."

I have heard Andrew Lloyd Weber is turning Lucretius' "De Rerum Natura" into a stage musical, and Twyla Tharpe will be choreographing the closing "Plague of Athens" scene. So there may be hope, as it appears public taste and sensibility are changing.

(Kidding, of course.)


I am most ill-read in Spanish literature, and had not heard of Machado, but the lines you translated brought to my mind the famous sign that appears in Malcom Lowry's "Under the Volcano," denoting gardens lost, both external, eaqrthly and the inward ones of soul:

Le Gusta Este Jardin?
Que Es Suyo?
Evite Que Sus Hijos Lo Destruyans?

Best light--Mark N.

9:19 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Related to discussions of memory, consciousness, etc., this article by Jensen is interesting.

12:09 PM  
Anonymous Art said...

Dear Prof. Berman,

Dave recommended Robert Jensen's article on neuroscientist David Eagleman. I followed several links to Eagleman's video presentation, "Six Easy Steps to Avert the Collapse of Civilization". It could just as well have been called, "How the Internet Will Save the World". But later that day, I read an editorial by Nicholas Carr, author of "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains", which acknowledges the shadow side of technology.

Lately, I've come across quite a few books on the neuroscience of happiness, with titles like "Buddha's Brain". "You can decide to be happy", they say. I want to believe them. I want to be happy. But they hardly ever talk about the social dimension. They seem to tune out the impact that a more sane and beautiful life would have on our emotional well-being.

8:40 PM  
Anonymous Gramoflanz said...

Mike Cifone,

I think we tend to look outward (to Mr. Miyagi) for experiences we want to attain within - not that Hindu or Taoist writings are not intellectually stimulating. As a musicologist, I wrote my Master's thesis on the analysis of structures pertaining to mysticism in music. Hindi material is very direct in its discussion of ragas that will induce sexual ecstasy; it induced my committee to travel, en masse, to the music library to hear these ragas for themselves. Needless to say, they found themselves unmoved. If this subject speaks to your soul, then you are the one who must undertake its study. It takes years of immersion (literally), driven by passion, to master; otherwise, we can't hear what is plainly set before our ears. I strongly suspect that members of the Asian studies faculty would be willing to help you, too.

3:34 AM  
Anonymous Susan W. said...

Dear Dr. Berman and friends,

I really enjoyed this post and have reread it several times since I returned from vacation. A strange thing happened to a woman on our tour (I went to Spain)in a church in Seville. We were in a beautiful chapel that contains a statue of The Weeping Virgin and the compassion and pain in her face is truly moving. Gail, a woman in her early 50s and very down to earth, no nonsense but very nice (and not religious), started sobbing uncontrollably. Her husband comforted her as she cried and when we talked later she said she had no earthly idea why she started crying b/c she's not in any way a weepy person. Something hit a very deep chord in her and she was flooded with emotion. You're right when you say there's an archaic, nonrational part of us that's ignored or repressed until accessed by means that seem mysterious and make no sense to our rational minds.

As I watch my two grandchildren grow up I see how the spontaneous, unself-concious people that they are to begin with is slowly and destructively eroded. And it's being replaced with Miley Cyrus, hand held video games and other quite literally mind-numbing crap. Their mom is doing a good job of allowing and encouraging them to be kids and shielding them from this as much as possible but the culture is there and won't be held at bay forever.

I hope you find a publisher for your essays but if you don't, you could always write an insipid "inspirational" book, appear on Oprah, have an instant best seller and THEN publish your essays. But you must hurry up---she promised to retire in a few years and I want nothing to stand in her way.

6:54 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Susan,

Thanks for that story; how marvellous. In that vein, you might want to read "The Dream of Scipio," by Iain Pears.

Re: my publishing prospects etc.: check out my last reply on my last post (on Debt).


10:23 AM  
Blogger Mike Cifone said...

Dear Gramoflanz,

Thanks for the advice. I know, I know ... you gotta do it solo, in the end. But what if the work were not a basically solo gig; what if philosophies and histories and all other studies were not pursued individually? In the West, it seems that once you go from the individual realm to something else, you get caught up immediately in some kind of revivalist dynamic -- a cultish aggregation of those who're looking for a slice of the salvation pie. As soon as we leave ourselves behind, the Basic Fault reemerges collectively. How can *that* cycle be broken?

I'm in San Francisco for the next few weeks (after a horrifying mutilation of the travel experience at the hands of Virgin America and the FAA) ... paradise in a sense; but: what a cultural cacophony! They're struggling to break through the insanity of our civilization, but they do it with a cultish fervor out here. You have the bike-people (New Urbanists), the pot-people, the hippies and the vagabond-like hipsters ... I feel like I'm at a wake of some awful sort, inside the Bohemian cafes, raising up the dead soul of the '60s back from the nether world, only to bring it back into an atmosphere so toxic that the only chance for its survival is to seal it inside cults of this-or-that "thing": localism, New Urbanism, pot-smokerism, musicism, and so on and so on ... so dizzying!

When I think about the academy, Asian studies, this-or-that-studies ... it simply reproduces our cacophonous culture, this cultural incoherence which is the last gurgling of our dying civilization. So, I don't think what I want to do, and how I want to do it, can be really done in that environment. It has to be done on the outside, slowly, at a different pace and from a different perspective, one that finally *provides* perspective. I guess I need fellow loners to give me some assurance?

In any case, I have a sense of what I need to do; I just pray for the strength to do it. My problem is that my writing and thinking are so damned aesthetic ... probably not going to be all that academically sound, in the end.

But yer right: immersion is the only way.

Thanks for your comment.


4:02 PM  
Anonymous Gramoflanz said...

Dear Mike,

Yeah, I think you've really got to delve into a subject to find or to convince allies to help you. Of course, academia, on the surface, doesn't look too promising, but there are always those who lurk beneath the surface, probably in search of allies themselves.

Still, there is the romanticization of Eastern thought, when it expresses much of the same disgust for the human condition and the same false promises of transcendence as does Western thought.

Even though we use catch-all terms to describe ‘modes of consciousness,’ this, too, is a form of atomization. Thinking is an integrated experience; the question is really how much information is integrated and/or what is the optimal amount of information (yes, we are victims of too much information/sensory input, so much that the brain is forced to reconstruct all perceived realities after the fact). From PET scans, we know that musicians’ brains light up differently when hearing music, i.e., more information is integrated into the experience. Can we say that musicians appreciate music more than non-musicians? No. In fact, pleasure centers in the brain light up in the same way when musicians or non-musicians listen to music they particularly like. This kinesthetic/bodily mode of perception is integrated into the brain as a whole (even parrots boogie), but it is strongly downplayed in the logical, objectivist mode that dominates (coincidence?) our world.

I think both Eastern and Western thinkers constantly rediscover the ‘nomadic’ mode of perception, because it never truly goes away (and I do think the Eastern thinkers are much more manifest in their descriptions; most Western sources have to be decoded). It is always there in the body and mind. It is hugely ridiculed or ignored because it is counter to the expressed morality of our societies, a morality which produces disintegration to a life-hating degree, as your SF experience would indicate.

12:57 AM  
Blogger Mike Cifone said...

Dear Gamoflanz,

Thanks again for your comment.

Agreed, but the interesting thing is to work out the specific character of the Eastern dynamic, that is, emphasize the difference *in order to* see the similarities with the West (romanticization notwithstanding) in regard to SAC vs. paradox. Paradox gets "rationalizied" into a system of cooptation at the social/cultural level through various mechanisms (the sort of thing Marcuse et al. were on about -- from this point of view, art, philosophy, etc. have power only to the extent that they can *negate* the process of cooptation without becoming absorbed by it. Quixotic, but that's the name of the game. Heresy here is what you get in the end. And this shows up in the academy in various ways.

On the individual level, it (heresy, i.e., the deeply kinesthetic) shows up in the various *cracks* in the civilized theatrics we engage in each day: awkward silences, encountering the terminally ill or chronically homeless, outbursts of existential rage (on the highway rushing, at the supermkarket flooded by options, sitting in traffic trapped).

Last night the cracks became entire gulfs: I had a rather extreme experience with pot, with anxiety, paranoia and something like the "schizoid" experience documented by R.D. Laing: severe inner/outer dissociation. My body wanted to do and be more than my mind could or would allow, but at every turn I felt trapped in by the things and shops and people of the city; only natural objects and moments of nature herself were quiet enough for me: the wind was a voice to me, the rustling of the leaves against themselves was some comforting verse, the deep midnight sky, drenched in an inky substance, with glimmers of light dancing, seemed to be my own consciousness undulating and gathering into the morning's mist ... and so on. But I was going "insane", I felt; yet the world was flooding in in a way that was overwhelmingly beautiful and terrifying at once (read DeLillo's The Body Artist, for an example). But the cultural surround was so very against this profound erosion of the body/world divide. I wanted to touch and connect, but only the wind and the night and the moon seemed to soak into me, a great endless lover who showed me how very much a nothing my person really is, in the end, like a kind of ice-figure: shaped for the moment into a definite, solid form, but slowly loosing itself to the heat and to time (DeLillo's main character says, over and over, "time is the very stuff of you whole body!").

12:02 PM  
Anonymous Art said...

Dear Mike,

Your experience reminds me of a beautiful song by Sam Phillips, "Reflecting Light".

"Now that I've worn out, I've worn out the world/ I'm on my knees in fascination/ Looking through the night/ And the moon's never seen me before/ But I'm reflecting light"

11:15 PM  
Anonymous Gramoflanz said...

Dear Mike,

Now that you say it, yes, I think you are looking for fellow heretics. Still, the problem with ideas like co-optation is the introduction of a dialectic between purity and impurity. You are either free (but in the process of co-optation) or co-opted, you are either wholly in the nomadic mode or you are in the SAC club – and must be ever vigilant for any backsliding. I don’t think embodied existence should have to be so difficult, although I understand why it is – and you’re right, it’s heretical to talk about it.

Laing talked about it when he said the genesis of schizophrenia was a bodily inability to accept the Lie or the falsity under which the world operates (“Insanity - a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world”). We do not integrate the kinesthetic because of the pain and fear, shame and guilt that our bodies store. Eastern traditions do not seem to fare much better in this regard; there is a strong impetus to condemn and to transcend the raw human state itself (except by the heretics), which is yet another form of insanity.

I have never had psychedelic experiences under the influence of drugs, sad to say. Back in the day (the 70’s), I dropped some acid and hallucinated cigarettes burning in ash-trays. Oooh, neither was really there! Call Joseph (of Technicolor Dreamcoat fame) to come interpret that one. I understand that pot, these days, is mightier stuff, but my job features random drug screening, so I suppose I will never know. Ayahuasca sounds like a high ol’ time, too, but I believe it is now criminalized as well. I think there is a lot to be said for entheogenic knowledge, as your experience shows. I don’t doubt it has been the customary gateway, for millenia, to access other realms of consciousness or to access embodiment, even though it can be scary when the body tells its truth. My internet handle, Gramoflanz, means “talking plant.”


7:26 AM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...


Thank you for these most recent posts. It helps to be reminded there's more to life than helplessly watching the collapse of empire ... one that really needs to end in any case. Whatever is happening around us, however much or little we can do about it, there is still life to be lived, and beauty to be enjoyed, and wisdom to be savored.

And there is much to be saved in the living our our lives -- saved not only for ourselves, but for others as well.

If you haven't seen this, I think you'll appreciate Robert Jensen's article at Common Dreams, "The Anguish of an Age," found here:

The posts in response are fascinating, thoughtful reading. There are a lot more of us out there than we suspect.

8:31 AM  
Blogger Mike Cifone said...

Dear Friends (from an outpost of heretics called "CRIC"),

Just finished McCarthy's The Road and sat in a big quiet barn and wept tears I haven't wept since I was a young kid, getting swept up by the final Aria of Bach's Goldberg set; big sad tears that try to weep for all of mankind in each drop (though I didn't really put it like that back then).

Having found myself in this heretical enclave of people looking to cultivate something better (looking, not always finding), things are different. Less options. You have to do the things you want for yourself or with the help of others. Anything you do do opens you up to nature's terrifying embrace, nurturing you and pulling you back down to her long quiet sepulcher, from whence you came. I saw a barn gate thrown into the side of a hill of cleaved earth and moss and dangling branches, roots swollen with death, long dried, filled with the sleep of time itself. The moss clung to the barn door, like so many hands pulling it back into the soil. I said to my friend, "will I be as lucky when I die?". He laughed and we moved on. We soon came upon something of such magnificence, a great ancient Redwood, standing tall, high, up through the forest grove, out to the hot light of the sun above. I thought it moved in another dimension entirely, outside of my time, filled with the time of endlessness. It was impossible to comprehend my being there, at that moment, with the Redwood. But there I was. I moved on. Now I'm here. And that's the way it goes.

If this is heresy, then I'm burning on the flaming tinder of Time.

On The Road, I have gone a thousand miles from my home. I forgot that the compressed wood of those little soft boxes filled with text and inky heft could take you so far. I have restored some vision to my eyes. Will it be ok, I ask myself when the bleak landscapes rush back in behind me as my wake is lost. It'll be ok. Just look and do and feel and think and hold. Love and strife will do their own work, no need to bother them much. Just keep your eyes on The Road.

9:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

MB is idealistic to the last. Nitwits vote and permit the bureaucracy and corporations to run the U.S. I like MB's essays and agree with him. He does, however, assume that there is a politically acceptable "cure" for the decline of America. In that, he is wrong. America is doomed, as is any democracy that allows morons (the majority) to vote. Morris, I'll met you in Galt's Gulch, our only refuge. We appreciate your efforts, but they are futile.

6:31 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Rod,

I'm guessing you've got the wrong MB. This MB has said over and over again that there is no cure, and we are doomed. It's in practically every essay I write. I'm happy that this other MB, with whom I have no acquaintance, is optimistic; but I don't share his world view, which (I agree with you) is futile. Do give him my regards, however.


7:08 PM  
Anonymous E. E. Heart said...

Dear Dr. Berman,

Thinking of your essays: have you heard of: Narrative Magazine(on-line) based in SF?

Sincerely, E.Heart

8:53 PM  

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