Quotes & Commentary #34: Dickens

Quotes & Commentary #34: Dickens

‘Why do you doubt your senses?’ said Marley’s ghost.

‘Because,’ said Scrooge, ‘a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!’

—Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Recently I read a book about yoga by Swami Vivekananda. In it, the swami puts forward the common argument in favor of mystical truth: that direct experience of the super-sensuous realm—the spiritual plane—can attest to its existence. That is, the existence of the spiritual plane, while it cannot be detected with any technological device, deduced from any scientific theory, or proven on any philosophical grounds, can be known for certain to exist via direct experience.

I have no doubt that, through yoga, meditation, and prayer, people have had extraordinary experiences. These experiences may well have been far more intense than day-to-day life. On occasion these visions may have left such a lasting mark on a sage’s mind that he was forever transformed, perhaps much for the better.

Since experiences such as these are uncommon and unusual, these gurus will then be faced with the impossible task of capturing their private sensation in words and conveying it to somebody who has never felt anything similar. It would be like describing the color red to a blind man. This is why mystical writing is so often poetical. This also explains why it so often strays into metaphysics.

For my part, I am very fond of mystical poetry. But I have little patience for any epistemology that considers fleeting, incommunicable, and private experiences to be valid sources of insight into the nature of reality. Science works because its methodology does its very best to shun these sorts of visions. Science is effective because it treats knowledge as a social product, not a private hallucination, and because it treats experience as prone to error and in need of interpretation, not as a direct window into reality.

Ebenezer Scrooge was wrong about many things. But he was right to distrust his senses when he thought he saw a ghost. Luckily for him, the reality-status of the ghosts he saw does not make their moral message any less true. Likewise, even if mystical visions and meditative ecstasies may not be valid sources of knowledge about the universe, they can lead to valuable personal transformations.

Quotes & Commentary #31: James

Quotes & Commentary #31: James

In mystical literature such self-contradictory phrases as ‘dazzling obscurity,’ ‘whispering silence,’ ‘teeming desert,’ are continually met with. They prove that not conceptual-speech, but music rather, is the element through which we are best spoken to by mystical truth.

—William James

William James’s book on religion, The Varieties of Religious Experience, is of mixed quality. Penetrating insights are buried in mountains of redundant quotations, and a mass of anecdotal evidence is substituted for a coherent system. After putting it down, the only chapter that made a deep impression on me was his chapter on mysticism.

Before that, I had no notion of mysticism as distinct from organized religion; and yet it is quite discrete. Instead of focusing on external rituals, communally observed, the mystic focuses on his own private experiences; and instead of attempting to translate religious experiences into a mythology or a dogma, the mystic more often reverts to poetry or song to convey the intensity of his private rapture. Mysticism is naturally antipathetic, or at the very least indifferent, to organized religion. A mystic needs no clergyman to access the divine. No intermediary clerics, priests, or theologians are necessary to translate the voice of God into profane speech.

One especially striking feature of mysticism is its ubiquity. While dogmas, creeds, rituals, and mythologies vary greatly, the basic notions and motifs of mysticism are encountered across the world. I have encountered Islamic mysticism in Al-Ghazali, Catholic mysticism in St. Teresa, Hindu mysticism in the Upanishads, and Neoplatonist mysticism in Plotinus. The Tao Te Ching of ancient China is full of the self-contradictory phrases described by William James, such as the famous opening: “The Tao that can be spoken of is not the Constant Tao. The name that can be named is not the Constant Name.”

The common theme running through these works is that the mystic, through intense focus, can look past the world as we know it and gaze upon a higher reality, a divine vision normally invisible to earthly eyes. Right now I am reading a short book by the Hindu monk, Swami Vivekananda, in which he describes a method for attaining exactly this. Once you experience this higher reality, religious doubts become irrelevant; your religion becomes a matter of experience and not of faith.

So if mystics have experienced the divine, why don’t they tell us about it? The problem is that the vision is ineffable. This is why, as William James points out, mystic poets often resort to contradictory language as a way of evoking this mysterious essence. The mythologist Joseph Campbell says almost exactly the same thing: “The person who has had a mystical experience knows that all the symbolic expressions of it are faulty. The symbols don’t render the experience, they suggest it.” St. Teresa of Ávila, for example, had to resort to metaphor after metaphor in her manual on mysticism in order to communicate the experience.

In capturing the mystical experience, visual art would have the same problem as does language, since the artist would be attempting to picture the invisible. Music has the advantage of being neither symbolic nor representative. As sound, it is purely sensuous, perhaps a direct expression of emotion. At the very least sound does not tempt its hearers into confusing the symbol for the symbolized, as language and painting might, and so it can be more safely used to transmit ineffable experiences. Music doesn’t communicate emotions, it evokes them in its audience; it doesn’t represent feelings, it re-creates them in its hearers.

The mystical potential of music was memorably illustrated for me in the autobiography of Bryan Magee. A logical, educated man, and one constitutionally antipathetic to religion, Magee nonetheless describes being so transported by music that he felt he was experiencing another plane of reality, one where there is neither time nor space. This experience was so strong that he felt sure it provided him with some clue about the ultimate nature of reality. But he was frustrated by his inability to translate this feeling into a logical argument. Once again, the mystic insight eludes symbolic expression.

Philosophically, the interesting question is this: to what extent can these intense visions can be trusted? It is beyond doubt that mystics can have ecstatic experiences; the question is what causes them. The sensation of divinity and rapture is so intense that the mystic usually cannot bring himself to doubt its veracity. But this subjective feeling of certainty is a poor guide, to say the least, of what can be safely trusted. This is not just a scientific principle; the Catholic Church was well aware of the unreliability of private visions. This is why Saint Teresa’s book is full of strategies for determining whether your vision is from Satan or God, and careful instructions about how to proceed within the Catholic hierarchy once you have a vision.

Occam’s razor would seem to demand that a naturalistic explanation be preferred for mystic visions. The simplest explanation, and the explanation that most easily harmonizes with our current scientific understanding, is that these ecstatic experiences can be traced to something happening in the brain. Nevertheless, I find it difficult not to sympathize with mystics. If I had an experience that was more intense than anything I’ve seen or heard in my waking live, I think that I would also be unwilling to doubt what I saw.

Review: The Power of Myth

Review: The Power of Myth

The Power of MythThe Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have bought this wonderful machine—a computer. Now I am rather an authority on gods, so I identified the machine—it seems to me to be an Old Testament god with a lot of rules and no mercy.

Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces is a book that, for better or worse, will forever change how you see the world. Once you read his analysis of the monomyth, the basic outline of mythological stories, you find it everywhere. It’s maddening sometimes. Now I can’t watch certain movies without analyzing them in terms of Campbell’s outline.

But that book had another lasting effect on me. Campbell showed that these old myths and stories, even if you don’t believe them literally—indeed, he encourages you not to—still hold value for us. In our sophisticated, secular society, we can still learn from these ancient tales of love, adventure, magic, monsters, heroes, death, rebirth, and transcendence.

This book is a transcription of conversations between Campbell and Bill Moyers, made for a popular TV series. It isn’t exactly identical with the series, but there’s a lot of overlap. Moyers is interested in Campbell for seemingly the same reason I am: to find a value for myths and religion without the need for dogmatism or provinciality.

The book is mainly focused on Campbell’s philosophy of life, but many subjects are touched upon in these conversations. Campbell was, in his own words, a generalist, so you will find passages in here that will annoy nearly anybody. (A good definition of a generalist is somebody who can irritate specialists in many different fields.) Personally, I find Campbell most irritating when he talks about how bad the world is nowadays since people don’t have enough myths to live by. It seems obvious to me that the contemporary world, more secular than ever before, is also better off than ever before (Trump notwithstanding).

Campbell sometimes shows himself to be a sloppy scholar, such as his quoting of a letter by Chief Seattle, now widely believed to be fake. And I certainly don’t agree with his adoption of Jung’s psychology, which is hardly scientific. Indeed, to reduce old myths to Jung’s psychological system is merely to translate one myth into another. Perhaps Jung’s myth is easier to identify with nowadays, but I reject any claim of scientific accuracy. In sum, there is much to criticize in Campbell’s scholarly and academic approach.

Yet his general message—that myths and religions can be made valuable even for contemporary nonbelievers—has a special relevance for me. I grew up in an entirely nonreligious household, and I’m thankful for that. Nevertheless, I sometimes wonder whether I have missed out on something precious. Religious is as near to a human universal as you are likely to find, and I have no experience with it. Often I find myself reading religious books, exploring spiritual practices, and hanging around cathedrals. Although many beliefs and practices repel me, some I find beautiful, and I am fitfully filled with envy at the tranquility and fortitude that some practitioners seem to derive from their faith.

Campbell has been most valuable to me in his ability interpret religions metaphorically, and his insistence that they still have value. Reading Campbell helped me to clarify many of the things I have been thinking and wondering about lately, so I can’t help mixing up my own reflections with Campbell’s. Indeed, there might be more of my opinions in this review than Campbell, but here it goes.

One of the main lessons that art, philosophy, and religion teach us is that society imposes upon us superficial values. Wealth, attractiveness, sex, coolness, success, respectability—these are the values of society. And it’s no wonder. The economy doesn’t function well unless we strive to accumulate wealth; competition for mates creates a need for standards of beauty; cultural, political, and economic power is distributed hierarchically, and there are rules of behavior to differentiate the haves from the have-nots. In short, in a complex society these values are necessary—or at any rate inevitable.

But of course, these are the values of the game: the competition for mates, success, power, and wealth. In other words, they are values that differentiate how well you’re doing from your neighbor. In this way they are superficial—measuring you extrinsically rather than intrinsically. One of the functions of art, philosophy, and religion, as I see it, is to remind us of this, and to direct our attention to intrinsic values. Love, friendship, compassion, beauty, goodness, wisdom—these are valuable in themselves, and give meaning and happiness to an individual life.

How many great stories pit one of these personal values against one of the social values? Love against respectability, friendship against coolness, wisdom against wealth, compassion against success. In comedy—stories with happy endings—the intrinsic value is harmonized with the social value. Consider Jane Austen’s novels. In the end, genuine love is shown to be compatible with social respectability. But this is often not true, as tragedy points out. In tragedy, the social value wins against the personal value. The petty feud between the Capulets and the Montagues prevents Romeo and Juliet from being together. Respectability wins over love. But the victory is hollow, since this respectability brings its adherents nothing but pain and conflict.

Art thus dramatizes this conflict to show us what is really valuable from what is only apparently so. Philosophy does this not through drama, but reason. (I’m not claiming this is all either art or philosophy does.) Religion does it through ritual. This, I think, is the advantage of religion: it is periodical, it is tied to your routine, and it involves the body and not just the mind. Every week and every day you go through a procedure to remind yourself of what is really worthwhile.

But these things can fail, and often do. Art and philosophy can become academic, stereotyped, or commercial. And religion can become just another social value, used to cloak earthly power in superficial sanctity. As Campbell points out during these interviews, religion must change as society changes, or it will lose its efficacy. To use Campbell’s terminology, the social function of myth can entirely replace its pedagogical function. In such cases, the myths and rituals only serve to strengthen the group identity, to better integrate individuals into the society. When this is taken too far—as Campbell believes it has nowadays—then the social virtues are taught at the expensive of the individual virtues, and the religion just becomes another worldly power.

Myths can become ineffective, not only due to society co-opting their power, but also because myths have a cosmological role that can quickly become outdated. This is where religion comes into conflict with science. As Campbell explains, one of the purposes of myths is to help us find our place in the universe and understand our relationship to the world around us. If the religion is based on an outdated picture of the world, it can’t do that effectively, since then it forces people to choose between connecting with contemporary thought or adhering to the faith.

For my part, I think the conflict between science and religion is ultimately sterile, since it is a conflict about beliefs, and beliefs are not fundamental to either.

When I enter a cathedral, for example, I don’t see an educational facility designed to teach people facts. Rather, I see a place carefully constructed to create a certain psychological experience: the shadowy interior, the shining golden altars, the benevolent faces of the saints, the colored light from the stained glass windows, the smell of incense, the howl of the organ, the echo of the priest’s voice in the cavernous interior, the sense of smallness engendered by the towering roof. There are beliefs about reality involved in the experience, but the experience is not reducible to those beliefs; rather, the beliefs form a kind of scaffolding or context to experience the divine presence.

Science, too, is not a system of beliefs, but a procedure for investigating the world. Theories are overturned all the time in science. The most respected scientists have been proven wrong. Scientific orthodoxy today might be outmoded tomorrow. Consequently, when scientists argue with religious people about their beliefs, I think they’re both missing the point.

So far we have covered Campbell’s social, pedagogical, and cosmological functions of myths. This leaves only his spiritual function: connecting us to the mystery of the world. This is strongly connected with mysticism. By mysticism, I mean the belief that there is a higher reality behind the visual world; that there is an invisible, timeless, eternal plain that supports the field of time and action; that all apparent differences are only superficial, and that fundamentally everything is one. Plotinus is one of the most famous mystics in Western history, and his system exemplifies this: the principal of existence, for him, is “The One,” which is only his name for the unknowable mystery that transcends all categories.

Now, from a rational perspective all this is hard to swallow. And yet, I think there is a very simple thought buried underneath all this verbiage. Mysticism is just the experience of the mystery of existence, the mystery there is something instead of nothing. Science can explain how things work, but does not explain why these things are here in the first place. Stephen Hawking expressed this most memorably when he said: “Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes universe for them to describe?”

It is arguably not a rational question—maybe not even a real question at all—to ask “Why is there something rather than nothing?” In any case, it is unanswerable. But I still often find myself filled with wonder that I exist, that I can see and hear things, that I have an identity, and that I am a part of this whole universe, so exquisite and vast. Certain things reliably connect me with this feeling: reading Hamlet, looking up at the starry sky, and standing in the Toledo Cathedral. Because it is not rational, I cannot adequately put it into words or analyze it; and yet I think the experience of mystery and awe is one of the most important things in life.

Since it is just a feeling, there is nothing inherently rational or anti-rational in it. I’ve heard scientists, mystics, and philosophers describe it. Yes, they describe it in different terms, using different concepts, and give it different meaning, but all that is incidental. The feeling of wonder is the thing, the perpetual surprise that we exist at all. Campbell helps me to connect with and understand that, and for that reason I am grateful to him.

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Review: Interior Castle

Review: Interior Castle

The Interior CastleThe Interior Castle by Teresa of Ávila

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is absurd to think that we can enter Heaven without first entering our own souls

Last week I spend five days walking on the Camino de Santiago. I know, probably that doesn’t sound terribly impressive to anyone who walked all the way from France, but I still had a great time. Every morning we set out before sunrise, when the lush landscape of Galicia was still shrouded in mist and twilight. We walked on and on, guided by the conch shell signs that point the way. We reached our destination just as the heat of the day began to take hold. My back sore, my feet blistered, I dropped my backpack in the hostel and stretched out in my bunkbed. Besides walking, sleeping, and eating, the only thing I did was to read this book: St. Teresa’s book on prayer.

It seemed like an appropriate choice. Both Santiago (St. James) and St. Teresa are patron saints of Spain; and yet they represent two very different periods in Spain’s history. The cult of Santiago dates from the time of the Moors, when Christians needed a figure to rally around during the Reconquista. St. Teresa, on the other hand, lived during the Counter-Reformation. As the Catholic world was coming apart, Catholic officials were understandably skittish at even a hint of heterodoxy. Thus St. Teresa’s mysticism was first viewed with suspicion, and she was even picked up by the Inquisition. But after some investigation, it was decided that St. Teresa posed no threat to orthodoxy; to the contrary, she helped to reinvigorate the faith.

This context is necessary to understand this book, or at least half of it. This is because, although ostensibly guide for prayer, it is also a handbook for avoiding the suspicions of unorthodoxy. It is full of advice for those having mystical experiences on which visions to discount, because they are products of Satan or the imagination, and which visions to accept. Teresa also explains when you should yield to one’s prioress or confessor, and when you should stand your ground. St. Teresa was obviously acutely aware of the paranoid climate, and thus this book is as full of pragmatic counsel as religious guidance. St. Teresa even explains in the beginning that the only reason she wrote the book was because she was commanded to.

As James Michener pointed out, the most striking thing about St. Teresa is this seamless mixture of pragmatism and mysticism. For somebody who reported feeling her soul leave her body, she comes across as remarkably down to earth. Several times, she quotes or references a Biblical passage and then adds parenthetically “Well, at least I think that’s what it says,” as if she couldn’t be bothered to go look it up. She also frequently comments on how inadequate she feels to the task at hand; and a few times she says that she’s unsure whether she is repeating herself, because she wrote the last bit a while ago and she doesn’t have time to reread it. The final effect is really charming, as if she just sat down and dashed off the whole thing between breakfast and lunch.

These interior matters are so obscure to the mind that anyone with as little learning as I will be sure to have to say many superfluous and even irrelevant things in order to say a single one that is to the point. The reader must have patience with me, as I have with myself when writing about things of which I know nothing; for really I sometimes take up my paper, like a perfect fool, with no idea of what to say or of how to begin.

Ironically, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the religious content was what least impressed me. The book is divided into seven mansions within the crystalline castle that represents the soul. Each progressive mansion is one step closer to God. Despite this organization, however, I found the chapters quiet repetitive; the divisions from one stage to another didn’t strike me as very clear. The general tendency is for the mystical experiences to keep growing in intensity, which culminates in the experience of a burning mixture of pleasure and pain that seems to come from nowhere. This is the inspiration for Bernini’s famous, and famously erotic, portrayal of the Saint.

What most bothered me was that the mystical and orthodox strains in Teresa’s thought did not go easily together. Perhaps this is only my taste. One thing I enjoy about mystic writings is their grand conception of the cosmos, the notion that everything apparently opposite and contradictory is one. Thus mystic writers, in my experience, tend not to be especially preoccupied with moral injunctions, since they regard good and evil as a kind of illusion.

But in Teresa, the emphasis on wickedness, on personal shortcomings, on temptation, and in general the whole moral framework of Catholicism made her system as much about avoiding sinfulness and unorthodoxy as achieving a mystical experience. For example, I’ve heard mystics say that each person is a part of God, but Teresa councils that we should contemplate God to realize our own foulness and lowliness. This is just a matter of taste, but I don’t find that appealing.

On the fifth day after we began, at about noon, I found myself standing in front of the two towers of Santiago Cathedral. Later that day, I finished the final pages of this book. I had taken a pilgrimage of the body and soul, and hopefully I’m better for it. In any case, I enjoyed myself and learned something.

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