Sunday, April 29, 2012
Being is examined in western theology and philosophy and in various eastern spiritual traditions but, surprisingly perhaps, it hasn't been commonly considered. That is, you have to search more diligently than one would expect to find perspectives on Being.
The two most famous western teachers who address Being are both very controversial in their own right. But that does not concern me. Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger, two of the 20th Century's most globally influential philosophers, both wrote a great deal about Being. And they serve as my starting point because I have read them all my adult life.
Heidegger, to be honest, is dense and so difficult to understand that I can't grasp him directly. I have to read what others say about Heidegger. His primary philosophic work was Being and Time. In a nutshell, Heidegger writes of Dasein (There-Being). Human beings are thrown into a world not of their making and forced to deal with influences beyond their control.
Being is a question unto itself and possibly unanswerable. Being cannot escape itself and is limited to the boundaries of the world. As such, it is forever Becoming, caught in the forward drive of the "I" that orients itself within a public life. Heidegger frames Being with a dread of death and with personal guilt that is nevertheless suspended in a complete freedom into a life that is forever pressing into a future tense.
For Heidegger, Being takes place within the "darkening of the world" in the sense that Being has lost connection with itself. Being is completely a part of our humanity and yet we modern humans are isolated directly from Being. This the existential situation of human beings. Being is out there but modernity distances us from it. Being remains out there, near, tangible, but untouchable in a knowing sense.
There is much I find agreeable with Heidegger's rather sobering, melancholy perspective. Sartre built off of Heidegger with his own masterwork of modern existentialism, Being and Nothingness. Like Heidegger, Sartre's approach to Being is completely selfish, human-centric, and reflective of World War Two European era angst and passion. Sartre suggested that there are only two modes – Being-in-Itself and Being-for-Itself. Sartre’s ideas are part of the foundation for contemporary existentialism.
Being-in-itself represents: "The things which are the objects of consciousness we regard as independent of consciousness, as independently real or as things-in-themselves. Things are subject to casual laws and are causally determined to be what they are. They have no consciousness and thus no awareness of anything other than themselves." (Lavine, page 353)
Sartre spends only a few pages on Being-in-itself compared with the hundreds of pages he writes about Being-for-itself. This is the realm where human Being primarily exists for Sartre. This is self-aware Being that, ironically, oozes nothingness into Being. But this nothingness simultaneously reveals a vast freedom for Sartre.
Human Being is "condemned to be free" and for Sartre this meant a sense of Being inside a moral, ethical, and factual openness. "Just as my past does not determine what I am now, so what I am now does not determine my future." (page 357) Human Being is so free that anything goes and you are completely responsible for your private behavior because you made all your choices in the present tense.
Sartre is as brilliant as he is depressing to read. The guy is obviously this post-WW2 extremist thinker, reducing Being to a specific case of Being trapped in your own freedom. There is some insight in this view even though I consider it absurd, neurotic, and myopic. For example, Sartre limits Karma (a subject he never addresses in his writings) to the "casual laws" of Being-in-Itself.
I fully agree that Karma works by causal laws (among other forces) but Sartre gives no such causality to Being-for-Itself. He isolates human Being by placing that Being in a non-casual vacuum. This is an interesting first-step toward understanding the Buddhist project of Emptiness, the subject of a future word doodle.
But, both Heidegger and Sartre succeed in pointing out a sphere of experience that can be classified as Being, even if their view is limited. It is not limited in the sense that it is completely blind to Being. No, it has relevance as it gets you to the point where you see how Being works. I would merely argue that both philosophers limit Being too severely in their obsessively rational approach.
It took some time and consideration since my last word doodle on Karma before I began to articulate the rather obvious fact that Being is rational but there is so much more to Being. Sartre and Heidegger point the way to something that is far bigger than either of them could understand from their limited perspectives.
It occurred to me that Being is best expressed in Art rather than by rational discourse. This might seem an unenlightened and even dangerous perspective, putting Reason under the foot of Art. But, that is precisely what I intend. So I wish to introduce what my favorite living author, Milan Kundera, presents in Immortality regarding Being.
"The woman might be sixty or sixty-five. I was watching her from a deck chair by the pool of my health club, on the top floor of a high-rise that provided a panoramic view of all Paris....she was alone in the pool, waist-deep in the water, and she kept looking up at the young lifeguard in sweat pants who was teaching her to swim....I watched her in fascination. She captivated me by her touchingly comic manner. Then an acquaintance started talking to me and diverted my attention. When I was ready to observe her once again, the lesson was over. She walked around the pool toward the exit. She passed the lifeguard, and after she had gone some three or four steps beyond him, she turned her head, smiled, and waved to him. At that instant I felt a pang in my heart! That smile and that gesture belonged to a twenty-year-old girl!" (Kundera, page 3)
This passage teaches us that Being is simultaneously physical (the older woman is there to be seen) and metaphysical (the woman waves with energy and gesture inspiring the Platonic Idea or Jungian Archetype of a younger girl). In another section of the novel...
"When the moment of giddiness passed, Agnes said, 'Laura, you mustn't do anything foolish. Nobody is worth suffering over. Think of me, and my love for you.'
"And Laura said , 'But I have an urge to do something. I must do something!'
"'Something? What sort of something?'
"Laura looked deep in her sister's eyes and shrugged her shoulders, as if to admit that for the time being a clear meaning of the word 'something' still eluded her. And then she tilted her head slightly, covered her face in a vague, rather melancholy smile, and placed her fingertips between her breasts, and pronouncing the word 'something,' once again, she threw her hands forward.
"Agnes was reassured: the expression 'something' didn't suggest anything concrete to her, but Laura's gesture left no doubt: that 'something' aimed to soar to beautiful heights and had nothing to do with the dead body lying down below, on the ground, on the floor of a tropical living room." (pp. 159-160)
What is important here is not the interpretation of the gesture. What is important this that the gesture makes something happen. That something, the opening of your arms wide from having your fingers between your breasts, that is Being. When a sixty year-old woman becomes a young lady again, that is Being not "just" imagination nor metaphor.
In typical Kundera style, however, it turns out that Agnes misinterpreted Laura's utterance of 'something' entirely. "When she said that, she had a vague idea of going to bed with another man. She had often thought of this already, and it didn't contradict her longing for suicide. They were two extreme and quite legitimate reactions of a humiliated woman. Her vague dreaming about infidelity was rudely interrupted by Agnes's unfortunate attempt to make everything clear:
'Something? What sort of something?'
"Laura realized that it would have been ridiculous to admit to longing for infidelity right after talking about suicide. That's why she became flustered and only repeated the word 'something.' And because Agnes's gaze demanded a more concrete answer, she tried to give that vague word some meaning, if only by gesture: she put her hands to her breasts and then threw them forward.
"How did this gesture occur to her? It's hard to say. She had never used it before. An unknown someone prompted her to do it, the way a prompter prods an actor who has forgotten his lines. Even though the gesture did not express anything concrete, nevertheless it suggested that doing 'something' meant to sacrifice oneself, to give oneself to the world, to send one's soul soaring toward the blue horizon like a white dove." (pp. 162-163)
The differing interpretations of the gesture and its relative concrete-ness are important to these characters and to the narrative of there occurrence. But in a larger sense Kundera is showing you Being, which transcends both interpretations. Regardless of whether these perspectives are accurate or not, they both reveal something as Being. This is what I mean by Being and this is what Sartre and Heidegger could not grasp with their rich and vast understandings.
My approach to Being is multi-faceted. I was a drama minor in college and learned of kinetic projection of force on stage, which originated with Constantin Stanislavski. I have practiced yoga and meditation for years at various times in my life. I have had many religious experiences, mostly Christian with some Hindu, that I feel were my touching of Being at different points in my life. I have read what philosophers say of Being. I appreciate great Art in many of its manifestations and I feel Being in Art. Music and Literature have Being.
I have enjoyed the multiplicity of Being in Nature all my life and perhaps first felt an awareness of Being in solitude and play, in hikes and camping parties, deep in the heart of wooded Nature sprinkled with open pastures and fields. I have tasted Being through the diverse lenses of various controlled substances, particularly before I married. I have experienced Being existentially, beyond but not excluding rationality, for virtually my entire adult life. I have always had an awareness of what I call Being and the triangulation of my intimacy, as just outlined briefly, gives it focus for me.
As with Karma, Being is best understood on a mundane, physical level. Though Being vastly transcends this level its diversity does not reveal much more of its inner nature. In the diverse, Being shows itself to be central to all manifestation. It is in the mundane, physical world that Being is most understandable and pristine. The crispness of a fresh pressed shirt, the sound of childish laughter, the churning of fresh water from a massive river into the salty ocean vastness creating patterns of brine.
But, it took me a long time to reach that appreciation of Being. For years I approached Being from a philosophical perspective or through Art or yoga or Nature. It is true that Being can be approached by these paths and many others. But, if one loses connection with the routine of Being then your experience of Being becomes ungrounded and tends to take on rather grandiose and overly-inflated interpretations of Being – or, worse, become lost and disoriented within Being.
This is what happened, once again, in the philosophic projects on Being by Heidegger and Sartre. A better philosophic approach is to go back before Reason trumped everything and Intuition was more of a driving force in thinking, back to the Platonic Ideas or Forms as later expressed by St. Augustine. Through this Saint I discovered Beauty in its Platonic sense. This, too, revealed Being to me.
Plato writes about "true being" in Phaedo. Things as they "really are" are "...the essences of things, and Socrates gives examples of justice itself, beauty itself, and goodness itself, abstract equality, etc. These essences remain always the same, while particular objects of sense do not." (Copelston, page 171). Plato points in less sophisticated logic toward the same thing that Sartre and Heidegger struggled with from this differing perspectives.
For me, Carl Jung's psychological work is a deeply rooted part of my thinking. His Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious, is one of the oldest, marked up books in my library. Cherry-picking Jung, I find his archetypes to be marvelous examples of Being, albeit from a specific perspective.
But, regardless of the perspective I find about Being, these all remain human perspectives. Being is not exclusively human, otherwise the Platonic Forms would be purely rational and they are not. Plato appreciated the spirit and soul of things beyond his fancy thinking and reason, not unlike Jung I might point out. In some respects Ideas and Archetypes express emotional and intuitive knowledge that is beyond humanity.
Being does not require humanity to Be. Being does not even require organic life to Be. So, to inquire about Being from a strictly human perspective is impoverished. It might be contended that you and I have no choice but to approach Being as human; we cannot escape our humanity to consider Being any other way. This is certainly what Sartre and Heidegger would argue. This is true of chimpanzees, probably, but it is not true for humanity. Distinctively, our awareness allows for awareness outside and beyond a self to a large degree. Culture and language cluster selves in extra-personal Being. Nature is pregnant with Being outside of human experience.
That moment in Alaska in June 2008, that “splendid moment of Being," will Be there sometime this summer, maybe many times. I will not be there physically to witness any of the many times. But, all the multiple aspects that make that experience of Being possible at Denali do not need me there to Be. Being happens there whether any human is there to appreciate it or not.
Being is not the awareness of Being nor the appreciation of Being nor the dread of Being nor anything other representation of Being. Being happens. It is subtle-arrogance to believe the human element is required or even important.
Sartre defined Being various ways. "Being is simply the condition of all revelation." (page 8) That seems acceptable, if we can agree on what all those words mean when used together in that utterance. But, fundamentally he wrote: "Being is. Being is in-itself. Being is what it is." (page 29)
That is not very exacting even though it is an accurate assessment of Being. Being is is an insufficent statement, however. Certainly, from a rational perspective Being is. But, there is far more to Being than rationality just as there is far more to the Electromagnetic Spectrum than what human beings can see with their human eyes.
A more complete expression of Being, in my opinion, is this: Being happens. Being is an objective, physical, material, theoretical, emotional, instinctual expression. Being does not require consciousness or self-awareness. Being does not even require biological life. Being can be molecular, jewelry, shrubbery, whales, a simple song or animal call, a marketing campaign, pheromones, political alliances, a meditation, an argument, arthritis, fine wine, the pain of hunger, pollution, birth, death, laughter, rocks, gamma blasts from star bursts, love, weather patterns, everything that happens is Being.
I might also add that human beings (and other lifeforms) usually experience and express multiple Beings. Being is in no way, shape, or form singular. Throat cancer certainly is experienced as Being. As is desire, hate, fear, frustration, compassion. Playing a game of cards has Being. Dreaming is Being. To clarify dialectically, happenings are not Being in totality. Happenings innately have Being. Being is what happening possesses.
The word "Becoming" can substitute for "happening" but it is a dangerous substitution. Becoming implies agendas and purposes and movement, as Heidegger put it, into the future tense. Happening seems to fit the Now better. Yet, Becoming is a primary exhibition of happening and is deserving of a separate blog post.
But let's not get hung up on Being as life. Materiality happens as well. Take the Delicate Arch in Utah, for example. It clearly happens to Be the result of centuries of erosion. But, creation and imagination are also happenings of Being. So, when an imaginative person sees the rock in Utah they see a natural sculpture. Art happens in that moment. Art is Being.
The important thing is that the Delicate Arch would have Being even without being observed. Creation (erosion in the case of this rock) is not a sole possession of humanity. Being is an expression, whether comprehensible or not, whether comprehended or not. Being requires no life form to understand or appreciate that the Delicate Arch is Being. Sartre would call this purely Being-in-Itself. I would say it is Being, a gesture of rock existence no greater or lesser than the gestures so wonderfully expressed in Kundera's novel.
Sunday, April 15, 2012
With Rick Santorum’s final “Gettysburg Address”, the contested part of the Republican primary process has come to an unofficial end. Mitt Romney will almost certainly be their nominee and will face President Obama in the fall 2012 election. What, if anything, have we learned?
First of all, the republicans are a fragmented bunch. Roughly speaking, Romney's support came from “the establishment” republicans, what’s left of the traditional Eisenhower-Reagan core of the party which, judging from the primary results, makes up roughly 30%-40% of the party depending upon the state. Then you have the evangelical Christian republicans who firmly supported Santorum, roughly another 25%-35%, given the primary/caucus. Then there are the Newt Gingrich supporters, roughly another 10%-25%, who are mostly (ironically) tea-party enthusiasts. Finally, Ron Paul brings up the rear of the pack with the Libertarian component of the party at a paltry 5%-15%.
Ron Paul is the candidate I voted for in my state's primary. The Paul campaign began with a lot of optimism and hope in the pre-Iowa days. Then the primaries and caucuses started and it soon became clear that the Libertarian component of the Republican Party was trivial and meaningless. So, I guess the media was right and proper to largely ignore him.
My vote for Paul was along the lines of applauding the guy's integrity, consistency, and willingness to stick to his ideas regardless of what the latest political polling might dictate. That is a rare thing in US politics today. Being a democracy of uneducated, unsophisticated common voters (the opposite of the Jeffersonian Ideal), candidates dumb everything down and flip-flop by necessity to get the votes they need to win. There are no other lofty principles or visions of hope, despite the cleverly scripted rhetoric. It's all "tell them what they want to hear" rather than lead them based upon personal conviction. Perhaps it was always this way.
I have some concerns about Ron Paul and his brand of Libertarianism. I am pro-choice, he is not. I am generally pro-environment, even above the liberties of individuals. He would never go that far. I think the National Park System is probably America's crowning governmental achievement. Paul would rather the parks be privatized. I am in favor of certain wars. I support the current timetable for the war in Afghanistan and believe we were right to kill Osama bin Laden. Paul would disagree with me.
Still, I have to consider Ron Paul in total. There is more that I agree with him on than disagree. He understands the US Constitution better than any other candidate. Much of our trouble today comes from straying too far from the balance of powers and specific structure of the original crafted document. Paul would strive to correct this. Paul has a rare, broad vision. He would protect the rights of gay people (though he does not go so far as to endorse gay marriage) as well as gun owners. He would protect our individual privacy in opposition to greater government surveillance of the private sphere. He would deal directly with this country's most fundamental economic problem - fiat currency by, among other things, abolishing the Federal Reserve. For these reasons and others Paul is the most interesting politician in the arena today. He confuses many voters because he votes for and advocates policies that transcend all two-party lines.
So there is much to support and certainly Ron Paul has generated much enthusiasm in the 2012 campaign, especially among younger voters. But, nevertheless, his campaign is a dud. It never really took off. His delegate count is laughable for someone as well organized with the ability to raise funding as he was in the beginning. Of late it is difficult to even find Paul mentioned anywhere. Of course, the mainstream media has always treated him as illegitimate. He has more or less suspended his campaign without announcing as much. Everything just sort of faded away for Ron Paul.
So, the Paul campaign turned out to be a big dud; along with the campaigns of Gingrich (the ultimate Washington insider) and Santorum (the anti-progressive Neanderthal). What we are left with is an even bigger dud. Veteran readers will recall that I was anti-Romney in 2008. I am still anti-Romney. Not because he is Mormon. I have no such prejudices. I am anti-Romney because he is the republican's most plastic candidate. His "grooming" for the presidency is almost as nauseating to me as that of another former Massachusetts governor back in the 1980's - Michael Dukakis. Dukakis was a huge dud. Every time I hear Romney speak I think this guy is a wax figure from a museum or a cardboard cutout of too many conflicting focus groups. He is a nothing man. I can’t tell that he believes in anything that matters.
Apparently, the Republican Party itself has the same issue with their soon-to-be nominee. He has never generated the degree of enthusiasm among his supporters that either Paul or Santorum have among their constituents. His support among a number of voting segments is lack-luster. Now, given the fact that Romney is challenging a president that is teetering on the edge of illegitimacy (yes, Obama is a dud too but more on that in a moment) maybe the blasé take on Romney isn’t that big a deal. But, Obama still has a strong, enthusiastic base. I’m not sure the republican Libertarians and evangelicals will back Romney with the enthusiasm sufficient to offset the energy Team Obama will ultimately generate.
Right now, the fragmentation and lack of fervor within the Republican Party is Obama’s best chance for re-election. But, certainly Obama has problems of his own. What has he accomplished in his first term? Well, he did give the order to kill Osama bin Laden. That will play well in the fall I’m sure. He got us out of Iraq with dignity – easier said than done. He has focused us appropriately on Afghanistan and we have fought a pretty good war there to date (if only US troops had not burned many copies of the Koran - an unforgivable sin- and if only a murderer had not run amuck killing innocent Afghans, America seems to have perpetual difficulty in not pissing off the locals over a prolonged indigenous struggle). He has appointed two liberal judges to the Supreme Court, which I support even though most people either don’t agree or are clueless on the issue.
America has seen nothing tangibly positive come from the Obama Administration. The economic stimulus may have lessened the Great Recession but that was started by George W. Bush and was ultimately a waste of money anyway. It will prove to be a revealing flaw of Keynesian economic philosophy. His signature domestic program, Obamacare, could very well have the rug jerked out from under it by the Supreme Court. I will blog more on that important subject another time. The fact is, if Obamacare is taken away or watered-down then the president has nothing really to point to in terms of domestic accomplishments except an anemic economic recovery and that is what wins or loses presidential elections. It truly is the economy, stupid. Do enough voters believe his decisions have saved the economy? I doubt it, especially if economic momentum slows before November.
I get the feeling that the American public is non-plussed by any political choice. Which is strange given the fact that we live in extremely polarizing political times. It is almost as if there is no “mainstream” America anymore, everyone is driven to extremes at precisely the moment that we have nothing but a bunch of duds as presidential options. Perhaps this is the ultimate symptom of democracy. Over time the voting population votes themselves a bunch of entitlements and leaders reach ever lesser levels of mediocrity.
Saturday, April 7, 2012
I walked out of the main exhibition area and upstairs with Jennifer. It was four flights of very wide but austere, concrete steps and we went up one level. The ceilings, obviously, are high at the High. Upon entering the new exhibit level, I immediately appreciated that there were far fewer visitors up there. It was a bit quieter in that instead of a steady roar of voices you could hear specific voices and they echoed.
I was first attracted to a very interesting contemporary painting-sculpture by Anish Kapoor, Marsupial, 2006. After viewing it for a few moments a small group of school children came through the floor's entryway and were immediately drawn to and enamored by a mirror installation that also played with the sound of your voice. I by-passed all that ruckus and went immediately into the room on my right. Jennifer had returned to find her parents. So I entered the room alone.
Only I wasn't alone. There was a small group of either late high school or early college students. They weren't art students. They weren't being serious. They were gathered around an installation of window panes held by pristine steel tubes and wire in a rectangle about ten feet long by four feet wide. On each of the two longer sides one section of pane was missing. The late teens were standing around talking quietly, snickering, and a couple of them were chopping their arms into the installation's open inner space. They thought it was weird and funny.
I turned around to a wall that was hidden from my view when I first entered the room. There in front of me, all alone on the entire length of the white wall of the room, was Richter's 1988 Blau. I immediately recognized it was a Richter even though I had never seen it before in my life. It was an educated guess but it was also an inspired one. I was excited. Richter is the man. I appreciate great Art. The moment was filled with it, all fresh and new and alive with the power of human creativity.
I charged the wall and hastily looked at the small transparent information sign about the piece. It was a Richter alright. I wanted to shout but, of course, I didn't. This wasn't a baseball game. But I felt so invigorated and happy in that moment. It is that moment that I remember later and connect with other similar moments in my memory and character. These are the moments that make life real for me. And oh so totally worth it!
Besides the installation and Blau there was a second abstract that did not impress me as much though it was an excellent example of Richter's more recent technique of scrapping paint off the canvas to create effect. Another installation featured several large panes of layered and leaning glass held in a simple wooden frame against the wall. I struggle with installation art sometimes. The final work in the room was The Reader, which is not easy to make out initially from a distance of about two or three feet.
The room was a standard size for a major art museum. That is, tall ceilings and white walls roughly square and maybe 40 by 40 feet. To have this entire room devoted to five works of art by one artist, one work on each wall with an installation off-centered in the middle, gave Richter a wealth of space that only enhanced the richness of experiencing him first-hand for the first time. My fondness for Richter has grown over the last decade or so through my exposure to his art purely through books and articles. I did not discover him that day at the High, but I did discover the experience of him live rather than in a book. It is the "live" experience of Art that teaches us non-rational things. A few days later, Jennifer confirmed that what we saw was part of the High's premanent collection - Richter's the museum owns.
Jennifer made it back with her parents from downstairs. For awhile we had the room to ourselves. Such luxury.
Thus it went down.
Friday, April 6, 2012
According to various weather radars on my iPad, a large patch of multiple strong storms was moving slowly from around Huntsville toward northwest Georgia. The storms shot towering light-grey clouds thousands of feet into the pristine night sky. The clouds looked puffy and textured in the strong light of the Moon.
The vividly luminous nature of the lunar surface made it easy to walk around outside without the aid of any other light. My body cast a long shadow. I was on the edge of it, betwixt flawless dark clarity and churning natural fireworks. Venus and Jupiter were clearly aligned forming a dagger straight into the storm which now overwhelmed the horizon and tall expanse of western sky.
I walked up to the higher ground on our property and stood as our dog Charlie took his evening walk. I stood there with a clear view over our house back to the west, the Moon casting strong light from behind me. The looming clouds silently but spectacularly puffed and shot with the brief glow or streak of silent lightning probably 60 miles or so away. Orion had just passed the zenith a bit to my left. Many other stars were visible even in the bright moonlight. The clouds were slowly rising higher in my view.
It was like two different nights fused together. The storm crept toward me. Meanwhile, the air was calm and still over my land and back eastward. It felt cool with low humidity. Night sounds filled my motionless woods. I did not move for awhile.
Note: Last night's full Moon means that this Sunday is Easter. I have blogged before about why this is so. The title of this post was inspired by a progressive-rock song of the same name by a group I listened to a lot in college, Yes. I listened to that track off the old album a couple of times today.