Wednesday, July 26, 2006

blue longing or yellow laziness?

I was shocked to find, in my daily reading of My Way of Life, Thomas Aquinas (albeit paraphrased) saying:

"As far as public revelation is concerned—that is, the revelation which God has entrusted to His Church to be proposed to all men for their belief—the age of prophecy ceased at the time and with the work of Christ and His Apostles. But God still sends private revelations to men as signs of His continuing love and care for them.” (431)

Put as simply as I can think of: Nein! Not that I go along with the analytics who say that that statement alone is true which can be empirically falsifiable, but I believe that human beings are too prone to phantasie for the responsible use of any private revelations. This topic is raised quite effectively in “The Code Breakers” an article by Wheaton College professor Alan Jacobs in this month’s First Things (165 (Aug/Sept. 2006): 14-7) in which Jacobs is all about the attraction and absurdity of “code breaking,” meaning the discovery of secret knowledge about the future, past, or present. He writes:

There’s a wonderful passage in Tolstoy’s War and Peace where one of the main characters, Pierre Bezukhov, discovers that if you assign a number to each letter of the alphabet, the words L’Empereur Napoleon add up to 666—the number of the Antichrist. Then Pierre, because he imagines himself as Napoleon’s great antagonist, starts trying to write his own name in such a way that it also adds up to 666 and finds that he cannot, even after he changes the spelling in several different ways. But finally, he decides not only to alter his name’s spelling but also to indicate his nationality, and finally to abandon correct French usage: “L’russe Bsuhof,” astonishingly, yields 666. “This discovery excited him,” Tolstoy notes with the straightest of faces. “How, or by what means, he was connected with the great event foretold in the Apocalypse he did not know, but he did not doubt the connection for a moment.” (14)

If you begin by supposing something to be true that there is simply no reason even to suspect is true and then look for any evidence that might be construed as supportive of that supposal while resolutely ignoring any evidence that might be construed as refuting that supposal [“code breakers have an interest in eliding them and in rushing quickly past inconveniently slippery information”]—well, then, you’re quite likely to find yourself in the position of Pierre Bezukhov, amazed by how a scarily intricate story holds together.

Mathematicians—striving, often unsuccessfully, to remain calm-voiced and to soothe the frenzied thumping of their temples—reply than an elementary knowledge of probability will reveal that such correspondences aren’t surprising at all. Logicians reply that not only have these code breakers cooked the books by manipulating the data but they have also overlooked hundreds of far more likely correspondences. Skilled literary critics reply that if you define a character or a thing or an event in a story vaguely enough, it can become a symbol of almost anything. (15)

All dismissals aside, I was caught up by some of the reasons why Jacobs thinks code breakers do what they do. They do it to be special, seeing what others do not. They do it for the rush. They do it “to become part of what C. S. Lewis called an Inner Ring—the Ring whose goose-bumps-inducing catchphrase is always ‘We few’.” And they do it in order to discover meaning, whether to fix oneself into place within a comfortable matrix of private meaning or to find one’s actions writ into “a vast world historical event, into pure meaning.”

Of course, Jacob's analysis reflects some of the discussion that has been going on here with Charles Taylor's book, and especially Taylor's investigation of the loss of the sacred and the quest for authenticity. Taylor is an optimist to the code-breaker's pessimism; and confident where they have only self-doubt.

“We can never return to the days before these self-centered modes could tempt and solicit people.” He says confidently, where "the days" are days before individual identity was always daily up for grabs.

“Like all forms of individualism and freedom, authenticity opens an age of responsibilization, if I can use this term. By the very fact that this culture develops, people are made more self-responsible. Authenticity points us towards a more self-responsible form of life. It allows us to live (potentially) a fuller and more differentiated life, because more fully appropriated as our own . . . a richer mode of existence. It is in the nature of this kind of increase of freedom that people can sink lower, as well as rise higher. Nothing will ever ensure a systematic and irreversible move to the heights." (The Malaise of Modernity 74, 77)

Still, despite his confidence, Taylor is also honest. Taking up the yoke of one’s own authentic becoming is no picnic. Aspiring to the ideal and the ethic of authenticity is a good thing, but it does require a great deal of effort. Modernity’s gift—the individual—is a gift given the way the world gives, with strings attached: the heavy burden of being, of feeling held out over the Abyss (das Nicht). It is easy to see why some may wish to escape![2]

Phantasie offers an easier out, and one that at least feels richer than the other way of authentic becoming. “The sense of suddenly being plugged into a vast world-historical event, into pure meaning, remains enormously appealing—especially when it’s a meaning others cannot see” (Jacobs 15; emphasis mine).[3]

Jacobs calls such romantic escapsism laziness.

"I think these fanciful tales appeal to what I can only call our plain laziness. The interpretation of literary texts is actually hard work. You have to know a great deal about the history of a culture and about the various forms and genres and techniques of literary writing to have a shot at really figuring out a major work of literary art.

Likewise, the understanding of paintings—especially paintings made centuries ago by people who thought very differently than we think, who lived in a very different social world, whose ideas of what paintings represent and how they represent it are often quite alien to what we take for granted—is achievable only after years, even decades, of scrupulous attentiveness to work after work after work. And the deepest wisdom about the productions of culture will always acknowledge the possibility of error, will always see that subtle alterations in how we think of this detail or that theme can result in quite dramatically different pictures of the work as a whole.” (16-17)

But I think I see something more than just laziness behind it. Something offered by Jacobs himself.

It should be remembered that Alan Jacobs is the author of The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis. He is familiar, then, with Lewis’s doctrine of Joy (Sehnsucht) and the blue flower (Blaue Blume, a central symbol of Romanticism “it stands for desire, love, and the metaphysical striving for the infinite and unreachable” [Wikipedia]) Jacobs explains:

“[Lewis] is thinking of Novalis - the pen name of the German Romantic writer Friedrich von Hardenberg, who died in 1801 at the age of twenty-nine. The protagonist of Novalis's unfinished allegorical novel Heinrich Von Ofterdingen becomes obsessed by a vision of a blue flower, which he first encounters in a stranger's tales and then in dreams:

There is no greed in my heart; but I yearn to get a glimpse of the blue flower [aber die blaue Blume sehn' ich mich zu erblicken]. It is perpetually in my mind, and I can write or think of nothing else . . .Often I feel so rapturously happy; and only when I do not have the flower clearly before my mind's eye does a deep inner turmoil seize me. This cannot and will not be understood by anyone. I would think I were mad if I did not see and think so clearly. Indeed since then everything is much clearer to me.

He "yearns" or "longs" (sehn) for the flower - and yet nothing that he can grasp seems so desirable as that longing itself. This is the paradox of Sehnsucht: that though it could in one sense be described as a negative experience, in that it focuses on something one cannot possess and cannot reach, it is nevertheless intensely seductive. One cannot say it is exactly pleasurable - there is a kind of ache, of unattainable longing—and yet, as Lewis puts it, the quality of the experience "is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction." (40; copied nearly in whole from a now-lost blogpost entitled "The Blue Flower of Joy and Yearning.")

Perhaps there is a value behind code breaking. Instead of dismissing the phantasists as lazy, I wonder whether or not they aren't staging a protest for something else. Modernity requires one to quest for authenticity, and doesn't this quest assume emotional as well as political dimensions? And so I say that Jacobs' lazy code breaking, like Taylor’s narcissistic anthropocentrism, is but a deviant form of a greater value, which Lewis called joy.[4]

[1] I have discussed this phenomenon in other posts, examining it according to Jungian psychology and Joseph Campbell’s popular understanding of myth; as well as its cultic religiosity, including its affinity for modern forms of Spinozism, so-called spirituality, and even investigating it as a form of divination, of which I see modern neo-paganism as the community gathered around the pursuit of this kind of experience, either for personal development or to have or be subject to power, whether this be sadistic, masochistic, or something more benign.

[2] Emile Cioran’s work explores the existential difficulty of living with the burden of an un-meaning’d self untethered in a sea of absolute freedom. I also like sculptor Samuel Nigro’s more direct description of this same experience.

[3] Evangelicals are particularly (and popularly) enamored with this in a way analogous to the neo-pagans. I have discussed this in a post entitled, “You Are Removing God From the Everyday!”

[4] I scratched at the eschatological possibilities in a discussion of an abstract by Freddie Rodem, and especially the categories anxiety and nostalgia as potential responses to the eschatological situation.

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