News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: Commentary (2)

Friday, June 17, 2005

Commentary (2)

Ancient Rome, US southern slavery are excellent examples of times when nurturing the soul proved extremely difficult, if not impossible, as you point out. I have no disagreement with you there. Indeed, Simone Weil writes about the spiritual repercussions of slavery in ancient and modern times. For, as she sees it, the modern proletariat are in a similar situation as the ancient slave. Weil martyred herself for this idea--to empathize and live as a slave in sympathy with those others. Yet, Weil also recognized the uniqueness of modern times in this regard as well, a time which she characterized as the time of the Beast (using the Revelation image to symbolize the modern authoritarian nation state).

The distinction I have been trying to make is that, at least in these times you speak of, people had the primitivity (this is not meant in any pejorative or colonialistic sense; it is meant simply as a way of describing a sense, a capability that all humans everywhere are born with; in this case, it is primitivity as it relates to an awareness and potential for having a soul) to potentially be aware of, concerned for, and sensing that they could be selves.

What I maintain (following Kierkegaard) is that the modern, nihilistic, postmodern age (say from the late 1700s on) has been on a course on which this primitivity has come under attack. That this very basic condition for _any_ spiritual awareness, self-consciousness is quickly disappearing under the onslaught of _ratio_ or what has become known as "reason." Now, several questions present themselves: first, what is this primitivity, beyond the simple generalization I have presented; how could reason subvert and destroy this aspect of the spirit; and perhaps more detail must be added to the bare bones statement that the modern age is distinctive in this regard.

By way of introductory remark: consider the effort by scientists and philosophers of various schools to reduce the "soul" or consciousness to simple brain chemistry. Many of these reductionist models "explain" consciousness away by stating that there is no such thing as consciousness and, by extension of the assumptions within the theory, a soul. Any such concept is simply empty and meaningless after the adequate empirical data is acquired which explains brain function and physiological phenomena usually ascribed to something that has been called an ego that has consciousness and therefrom a soul.

The preceding is an overly simplistic description of some very sophisticated and complex theorizing. It also does not do justice to the growing body of data that seems to support these theories. If this picture of the human psyche (something of a senseless phrase in this framework) is correct, then it is obvious that any such notion of a self or primitive awareness of a self cannot even get off the ground. It is short-circuited right at the start because to talk this way is, according to the theory, hyper-blown metaphysics or even religious superstition.

Given the context in which I have placed this description--i.e., the elucidation of the concept of a primitive awareness of oneself as a consciously independent being that seeks to nurture and grow its awareness of itself--it would seem to prove my point. That is, the modern age has developed a theory that simply disputes the existence of a soul or consciousness of the kind assumed by many religious and wisdom traditions. However, simply is not true that this view is unique to the modern age per se: certainly one can point to Epicurus, Aristotle, and others who do not see humans as in any way autonomous beings in the way I have described. What the modern age has done is to simply flesh out these earlier theories with greater facts and a more consistent theory that fits the facts, paring away vestiges of "consciousness" type concepts from these earlier theories.

So, it seems that the modern age is no different than others in this regard. Yet, this is not what proposal I am making maintains: it maintains that the modern age is such that humans are quickly becoming incapable of seeing themselves as anything other than biological, cultural, or socio-political units that perform a function defined purely in terms of their identification with and as a part of group. The angle of perspective here is focused on the individual and existential dimensions of human life.

Rationality contributes to this erasure of primitive self-awareness, because as it promotes objectification of life, people begin to view themselves and their place within the universe simply in objective terms, functionalistic terms. Certainly, the objectification is only enhanced as science undertakes to demolish the unscientific assumptions made by various traditional cultural matrices by denuding of value the traditional concepts and categories that provide these matrices with their ideological foundations. The scientific spirit, however, does not simply undermine concepts and categories--it also lays out plans by which a society is to be organized and plans carried out by that society. Based on rationalistic and objevtivist principles, these procedures create structures and environments within which the human is channeled and formed, as well as socialized into a way of thinking that literally is antipathetic to any inkling of a spiritual dimension to one's individual life.

I am going to digress here to illustrate my point. The possibility of such a state where the individual has no inkling of anything spiritual or anything like a self was presented to me several years ago. I once took an evening class from a Soviet emigre. He had emigrated to the United States twenty or so years before the final collapse of the Societ Union. In the course of a discussion I had with him, the subject of religion came up. (Perhaps it had to do with Dostoevsky, one of my favorite Russian writers.) I do not recall the exact conversation we had or the words we spoke, but I do remember that he seemed confused when I spoke about religion (I was something of an agnostic then, although gravitating towards Catholicism). When I say confused, I do not mean that he was a unclear or dazed in his thinking skills. The man had been a highly educated engineer in his own country. He spoke well and was well read. What I mean by confused is that he emphasized over and over to me that the words I used about religion simply meant nothing to him--he understood the words, understood that they meant something to me, but he was dead to their possibile meaning, either for himself or for me. I remember trying to explain this to him--I don't mean that I was proselytizing or spouting theological doctrines--I mean I was trying to explain to him the basic category of religion itself; the basic notion that there was something inside a human that might want to respond in some way to "something" above, beyond, outside of, (what are the words we can use here?) oneself that is of a reality and truth. This simply did not make sense to him.... the words were meaningless and beyond his comprehension--again, not because he was a stupid or insensible human being--but simply because anything related to religion had been "schooled" out of him by his life and upbringing in the Soviet Union.

Now, in the talking with people there are certain things you tend to take for granted. One of these is the notion or concept of a dimension to life that is somehow open to other realities, other ways of being that have been characterized as "spiritual" states. This man simply had "no clue" as to what I was talking about, what I might be talking about, or what I could possibly mean by the words I used. Even such a person as Bliss seems to be aware of the meanings that I or you or others might mean by "the spiritual."

I believe that this man was an ethical person--he had assimilated the idea that members of a society should act and nehave a certain way. No doubt, the way he felt and acted were highly intelligent and thought out. Yet, he lacked this one dimension to his self that you and I appear to take for granted in this discussion and in others. He exhibited no despair about this at all--as far as he was concerned, he was neither for or against any such views since they simply made no sense to him. You could see in his eyes and in his voice that there was simply a blank there (not blankness), where I assumed there should be at least "an interest," a clue, a hate or some other emotion. There was nothing... plain and simple. (BTW I have encountered this "blankness" in others from our own culture; you are speaking to them and the conversation turns towards even something remotely "spiritual" and you see that light go out of their eyes and time seems to take on the feel of blank noise; white noise perhaps. It is as though one is speaking Martian.)

To make an end to this posting which has gotten very long: when I first saw the Soviet director, Andrei Tarkovsky's film, _Stalker_, it simply made no sense to me. I had no idea what he was trying to say. While the imagery was breathtakingly beautiful, the meaning of the action in the movie simply escaped me. After numerous times watching that film, I now realize that what Tarkovsky was up to was a chronicle of a time and place (read 60s Soviet Society) where spirituality simply had disappeared in the existence of the characters. Its literalistic rendition of this blankness is what is so disconcerting--for what Tarkovsky accomplishes (and what other stories and plots on this topic fail to do) was to depict in real-time what such an existence would feel, taste, and look like.

I hope that this provides at least some indication of what I mean when I say that the modern age differs from other times in the way that it threatens to extinguish the very primitivity that is the condition upon which a self is built.

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