Monday, February 4, 2019

Glass-bottomed Bridges

For this is usually how religions die. It happens when the mythical presuppositions of a religion become systematized as a finished sum of historical events under the severe, intellectual gaze of orthodox dogmatism, and people begin to defend anxiously the credibility of the myths while resisting every natural tendency within them to go on living and to throw out new shoots -- in other words, when the feeling for myth dies and is replaced by the claim of religion to have historical foundations.

Nietzsche. The Birth of Tragedy. (Trans. Ronald Speirs)


An essay in brief, a mere outline of thoughts I've been carrying about in my pocket the last year plus.

Let's see if this works:

On December 23 a year ago China broke its own record for the longest glass-bottomed bridge. A casual stroll around the web gives the idea that China has become somewhat obsessed with building glass-bottomed bridges, walkways, and observation posts. Which is a curious thing, to me. This particular bridge crosses the Hongyagu Scenic Area in Pingshan county, is 1,600 feet long (that's shy a third of a mile, people) and is suspended 700 feet above the ground, which is a long way down. It is, says the article I link to below, designed to swing as people cross it, I am sure for engineering purposes. That in itself would be enough to keep me off it, glass-bottomed or not.

But it is glass-bottomed. And if you watch any of the videos on the web of these places you see that stepping on such a surface, over such a height, is not an easy thing. For some people a nearly impossible thing. And no wonder: humans are born with only two innate fears: loud noises and heights. We are hardwired to be afraid of heights. We are hardwired not to step on glass-bottomed bridges. To do so of your own free will requires an act of overcoming.

This seems to me a demonstration of the idea of faith. A person who fights through the fear and anxiety of walking across a glass-bottomed bridge is demonstrating faith: faith in the engineers who designed it, in the construction workers who built it, or in the park rangers (or whatever the attendants are called) who have themselves overcome the fear and assure everyone in their own act of walking, jumping, skipping upon the bridge that it is quite safe. A visitor steps on and walks across the bridge having faith in its safety despite their own minds screaming to them that it is absolutely not so. Indeed, the faith exists only because their minds are speaking so.

Because when you have achieved the point reached by those park rangers, where there is no fear whatsoever, there is no longer faith. To put it technically, the safety of the bridge has become for them a fact. And a person cannot have faith in something that it has been accepted as a fact. One does not have faith that two plus two equals four. One does not have faith that the distance to the moon at perigee is about 221,500 miles. One does not have faith that the sky is blue or that the sun will rise tomorrow. Those are things the mind accepts as facts, and facts neither require faith nor generate it.

Let me pull four points out of this, the first three of which are already present in the above.

First: I'll repeat myself, there is no such things as faith in facts. When walking upon a glass-bottomed bridge is no different than walking upon terra firma, then there is in the act no faith whatsoever. This can be said another way: facts, and acting upon facts, is spiritually a null event. Facts have zero faith value, zero spiritual value. When something becomes a fact, it no longer involves faith. Which is an interesting – and potentially profound – thought when you come to ideas of religious dogma.

Second: That faith exists for those walkers on glass-bottomed bridges overcoming their fear, opens up the curious recognition that faith only exists when there also exists its opposite: doubt. Faith is the overcoming of doubt. Without the latter, there cannot be the former. This to me is a big thing that I am saying very quickly. But we do see in it how, again, facts evince no faith.

Third: And again we also see something else inherent to faith: the overcoming. Faith requires action. A person does not demonstrate faith in a glass-bottomed bridge by waving to people on it from secure ground. You have to go out and walk on it yourself.

Finally, something that needs to be said just to be sure no false ideas arise: Faith is not in itself a 'good' thing. That is, just because a person has faith in something, does not mean either the faith itself or that something in which the faith is placed is spiritually positive. One might have 'faith' that the story of Noah's ark actually occurred despite the doubt created by the, shall we say, overwhelming obviousness that it did not. But that does not make you or your faith a spiritual positive. Though, to be honest, I am hesitant to call it spiritually negative. Perhaps, at times, it is merely spiritually immature. But, then, to the other side, if you accept Noah's ark as a fact, there is no faith to be found, is there? Ferventness in such a belief would really only be zealotry, which is never a good thing. (Which also raises interesting questions as concerns religious dogma.)

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Rational and Spirituality

This is half a response to a statement I recently read. Half also (the greater half) me taking another opportunity to organize these thoughts and words (this time through Jung). Beginning in the Definitions chapter of C.G. Jung's _Psychological Types_:

"IRRATIONAL. I use this term not as denoting something _contrary_ to reason, but something _beyond_ reason, something, therefore, not grounded on reason. Elementary facts come into this category; the fact, for example, that the earth has a moon, that chlorine is an element, that water reaches its greatest density at four degrees centigrade, etc. Another irrational fact is _chance_, even though it may be possible to demonstrate a rational causation after the event.

"The irrational is an existential factor which, though it may be pushed further and further out of sight by an increasingly elaborate rational explanation, finally makes the explanation so complicated that it passes our powers of comprehension, the limits of rational thought being reached long before the whole of the world could be encompassed by the laws of reason. A completely rational explanation of an object that actually exists (not one that is merely posited) is a Utopian ideal. Only an object that is posited can be completely explained on rational grounds, since it does not contain anything beyond what has been posited by rational thinking. Empirical science, too, posits objects that are confined within rational bounds, because by deliberately excluding the accidental it does not consider the actual object as a whole, but only that part of it which has been singled out for rational observation." (¶ 774-75)

And then, the complement that gives the whole of the picture:

"RATIONAL. The rational is the reasonable, that which accords with reason. I conceive reason as an _attitude_ whose principle it is to conform thought, feeling, and action to objective values. Objective values are established by the everyday experience of external facts on the one hand, and of inner, psychological facts on the other. Such experiences, however, could not represent objective 'values' if they were 'valued' as such by the subject, for that would already amount to an act of reason. The rational attitude which permits us to declare objective value as valid at all is not the work of the individual subject, but the product of human history." (¶ 785)

"Beyond" rationality, not "contrary to." The irrational encompasses the whole of being, whereas the rational isolates out of the whole of being, assigning to the thought, feeling, or action an objective value. Nothing is rational unless it is perceived to be so, which is an historical event. When in primitive medicine (say) there is recognized a relationship between a tooth ache and the beak of a woodpecker, that relationship was at that time a rational relationship, even though today it would be considered irrational. The objective value assigned to the relationship in the past is no longer held to be of value: it has fallen out of the realm of the reasonable, replaced by other objective values.

"The earth has a moon" is an irrational statement, there is no rational relationship, no objective value assigned to the statement. We can create a rational context, and describe how it came to be that the earth has a moon (a context that has changed over time as the accepted rational explanations have changed), or we can abstract mathematical relationships in regards to orbits and revolutions and such, but in doing such we are pulling the moon (and the earth) out of the greater context of their being in the cosmos, making of them facts, and putting those facts into rational relationships possessing objective values. That the moon changes in appearance over time, or that Venus appears sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the evening can be set into rational contexts of explanation.

It is only in engaging the morning star and the evening star irrationally, engaging them in their Being in the Cosmos, in their relationship to all things, that _myth_ arises. It is only when the unconscious is engaged that true universality is found. A somewhat ironic term in that that universality is two fold: to one side the universal substrata that lies within the unconscious of all humans, the substrata that has developed over ages of evolution and development; on the other side there is the recognition that an engagement with the unconscious is always experiential, and thus always also personal to the individual. It is universal in its individuality: but then the symbolic is the coincidence of oppositions.

When religious ideas are concreted into rationally held beliefs -- through dogma, tradition, historicization -- is when they lose their universality. However much it might be denied, conscious, rational beliefs are always historical, are always ideological. They have no -- offer no, and permit no -- personal engagement: their objective values which established rational relationships exist outside the domain of the individual. At the most fundamental levels, rationality is the death of spirituality. It is only in the union of the conscious and unconscious, through the self as a psychic entirety, where spirituality can thrive.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Something I Read #21 – C.K. Stead

C.K. Stead on Eliot, literature, and morality:

Yeats in his maturity returned to a position comparable with that of Blake, in the sense that his poetry seems to have behind it a 'philosophy'; but Yeats prevents any simple test of his poems according to what they 'mean' by the assumption of a series of dramatic masks. Eliot is more radical even than Yeats in his refusal to consider poetry as a discursive medium. He insists, for example, that the activities of poet and philosopher are 'better performed inside two skulls than one', that 'neither Shakespeare nor Dante did any real thinking – that was not their job'.

Yet Eliot came with astonishing dexterity and quickness to perceive what Wilde never, and Yeats in his criticism only slowly, perceived: that the refusal to accept the moralist's role which the Victorians imposed on their poets need not imply a rejection of all commerce between morals and literature. Popular morals are generalized statements which have no place in literature; urgent, argumentative morals compel the poet to debase his work to rhetoric. But a true mimesis, a faithful reflection of experience, implies subtle distinctions between particulars which need never be forced, but simply exist in the work. The aesthetic concern, in short, could be elevated to a higher kind of morals. This, I believe, is Eliot's particular achievement. So we find him writing as early as 1922:

The character of the serious stage, when he is not simply an ordinary person, is confected of abstract qualities, as loyalty, greed, and so on, to which we are supposed to respond with the proper abstract emotions. But the myth is not composed of abstract qualities; it is a point of view, travsmuted to importance; it is made by the transformation of the actual by the imaginatice genius.

The modern dramatist, and probably the modern audience, is terrified of the myth. The myth is imagination and it is also criticism, and the two are one. [. . .]

The most profound moral quality of literature does not proceed from the author's 'conscious moral judgments', for these judgments are of the surface mind, of the 'personality'. Yet 'all first rate poetry is occupied with morality'. How, then, is the poet to achieve this moral quality? Eliot's answer is quite simple: by a total conscious preoccupation with _technique_.

The New Poetic: Yeats to Eliot (132-33). Quotations from Eliot from "The Romantic Englishman" and "The Lesson of Baudelaire".

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Something I Read #20 – Carl Jung

I began re-reading though Jung's works a few weeks ago. Don't be surprised if he shows up here a few more times.

"The sun breaks from the mists of the horizon and climbs to undimmed brightness at the meridian. Once this goal is reached, it sinks down again towards the night. This process can be allegorized as a gradual seeping away of the water of life: one has to bend ever deeper to reach the source. When we are feeling on top of the world we find this exceedingly disagreeable; we resist the sunset tendency, especially when we suspect that there is something in ourselves which would like to follow this movement, for behind it we sense nothing good, only an obscure, hateful threat. So, as soon as we feel ourselves slipping, we begin to combat this tendency and erect barriers against the dark, rising flood of the unconscious and its enticements to regression, which all too easily takes on the deceptive guise of sacrosanct ideals, principles, beliefs, etc. If we wish to stay on the heights we have reached, we must struggle all the time to consolidate our consciousness and its attitude. But we soon discover that this praiseworthy and apparently unavoidable battle with the years leads to stagnation and desiccation of soul. Our convictions become platitudes ground out on a barrel-organ, our ideals become starchy habits, enthusiasm stiffens into automatic gestures. The source of the water of life seeps away. We ourselves may not notice it, but everybody else does, and that is even more painful. If we should risk a little introspection, coupled perhaps with an energetic attempt to be honest for once with ourselves, we may get a dim idea of all the wants, longings, and fears that have accumulated down there – a repulsive and sinister sight. The mind shies away, but life wants to flow down into the depths. Fate itself seems to preserve us from this, because each of us has a tendency to become an immovable pillar of the past. Nevertheless, the daemon throws us down, makes us traitors to our ideals and cherished convictions – traitors to the selves we thought we were. That is an unmitigated catastrophe, because it is an unwilling sacrifice. Things go very differently when the sacrifice is a voluntary one. Then it is no longer an overthrow, a 'transvaluation of values,' the destruction of all the we held sacred, but transformation and conservation. Everything young grows old, all beauty fades, all heat cools, all brightness dims, and every truth becomes stale and trite. For all these things have taken on shape, and all shapes are worn thin by the working of time; they age sicken, crumble to dust – unless they change. But change they can, for the invisible spark that generated them is potent enough for infinite generation. No one should deny the danger of the descent, but it can be risked. No one need risk it, but it is certain that some one will. And let those who go down the sunset way do so with open eyes, for it is a sacrifice which daunts even the gods. Yet every descent is followed by an ascent; the vanishing shapes are shaped anew, and a truth is valid in the end only if it suffers change and bears new witness in new images, in new tongues, like a new wine that is put into new bottles."
– Carl Jung, Symbols of Transformation (356-57)