longing for the real

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Month: May, 2012

Lava Lips

Out walking with my twelve-year-old yesterday crossing a busy street in Rome, we were forced to step around a couple standing directly in our path, half on and half off the curb. Tall-ish, stylish, and twenty-ish, they were caught up in a major lip lock. I have never used the term before, but that ugly phrase actually does seem apt here. In the split second before my daughter and I consciously registered what we were seeing and could look away, we were treated to an un-sought-after, all-too-close-up image. Their lips literally seemed unable to get free. The kiss resembled a large lava-lamp globule slowly pulling apart as if to separate into two but then, as if through rewind, re-merging. In other ways, it was reminiscent of that childhood experience some have had (or heard about) of putting lips on a frozen pole in winter or on an ice cube. This causes lips so painfully stuck that it would take an outside substance–in this case, warm water–to separate them from the object in question. The hope is to keep the delicate skin covering one’s lips intact, without too much bleeding.

In another time and place, or for a different couple, the outside substance, in this case, might be self-consciousness (with embarrassment as the emotional trigger) at being observed in public in such a private activity. Our half-laughs and shared observations once out of earshot indicated that my daughter and I agreed it felt too close for comfort.

The initial stage of infatuation, we all know, often causes the usual barriers to drop, and even afterward, true passion for someone can make us lose that ordinary workaday self-consciousness we exercise when preparing ourselves for public consumption. Love, or lovers anyway, can be shockingly self-important in acknowledging no bounds, sometimes wrecking everything in sight–either without even meaning to or knowing full well they are doing so. Of course the trappings of love aren’t always the real thing, for performance of something is not the same as the thing itself. Passion’s publicity is always a bit suspect. As anyone who has ever experienced the genuine article knows, love needs no audience. It is itself, regardless.

The question of love aside, witnessing this Super Size kiss between two strangers made me think of the way we experience life. Of time. Of the quality of a given moment of our lives. Of the relation of self-consciousness to that quality. Of the nature of human interaction–and the strangeness of the physical aspect of it.

Isn’t this moment of the merging of the lips just one variant of what we all spend so much of our time seeking? A kind of apex; an exemplary moment; the desired loss of self; intense connection with something greater than ourselves; the longed for absence of boundaries? Surely we seek something like this when we go to the ocean, walk in the woods, worship the divine, drink wine, and the list goes on ad infinitum…right? No, but we think we do.

In his posthumous book, My Life among the Deathworks, the classical sociologist Philip Rieff gives a searing condemnation of precisely this breaking down of interpersonal boundaries which my daughter and I witnessed in the overly publicized, inside-out intimacy. Rieff discussed this urge between lovers to collapse their separate selves into one, the tendency not only in love but also in politics and culture that is the psychology of our age. This merging helps explain why, when we have arranged a consumerist world ostensibly catering to every whim, we can be so anxious and depressed.

Rieff explained that it is not the disappearance of the distance between our selves and what we want that brings us closest to the divinity and infinity of loving or being loved. Rather, it is in the “sacred space” between ourselves and the desired one that true fulfillment lies. Only by carefully maintaining and treasuring this space can we sustain the sacredness of our connections with one another.

There is no other way to explain how someone can possibly endure without the one he or she loves actually present. Yet this feat can be and is achieved as a kind of everyday heroism, usually unacknowledged, taking place as it does completely under the radar of today’s collective life.

This runs contrary to the thinking of our age. And I am not ready to condemn public displays of emotion as always a case of more is less. Naturally the particulars matter. Far be it from me to cast dour judgment on those swept away by genuine feeling for one another. Strong feeling of so many kinds seems to be lacking in the affective desert we seem too often to inhabit now.

Yet the oasis, according to Rieff, is not in the possessing, or the absorbing of the other into onself. This is sheer infantile fantasy, in which we want other people to serve as mere extensions of ourselves and our every need and wish to be gratified thusly.

Instead, it is through the deep, loving discipline of appreciating the space between us that one paradoxically finds the ultimate union. Rieff’s example is the scene of Adam’s creation in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes, in which the fingertips of God and Adam do not actually touch. For Rieff, in this miniscule gap lies all mystery, all that is sacred, and all potential for human communion. Where we realize two beings cannot be one, the capacity for mutual respect for all that is precious in the other person is generated; this results from the recognition of another person as a being whose uniqueness, integrity, and dignity are inviolable and irreducible. There is no genuine bridging of the vast chasm that can exist between us without diligent preservation of this other, sacred space between us. Without this protected space, love is not love, but just a distorted form of self-obsession, in which all that seems valid is the satisfaction of one’s own needs and desires.

Appreciation of the sacred space between people, even–or especially–by those passionately in love with one another, makes one realize one can forego satisfaction of even the most urgent needs and desires. This may be why silence, sacrifice, and solitude, more than inseparability, might be necessary to make us realize most fully the divinity of love.

-Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

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The Will to Believe

A sordid solitary thing,
Mid countless brethren with a lonely heart
Thro’ courts and cities the smooth Savage roams
Feeling himself, his own low Self the whole;
When he by sacred sympathy might make
The whole ONE SELF! SELF, that no alien knows!
SELF, spreading still!  Oblivious of its own,
Yet all of all possessing.
 
-Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1794

Everyone in my family is now a yogi.  Except me.  I’m still holding out, guarding the gates of rationalism against the onslaught of what I presume to be fanciful belief.  Is it an excess of decorative sentiment I object to?  The blighting earnestness of pious people pretending things could really be that simple?  I don’t know anymore.  I used to be so sure when I was 20 years old.  Now I’m a little older, and a little less inclined to argue with my mother during the holiday season (at least about whether or not God exists).  In my spiritually fruitless early adulthood, I am little more than an agnostic in search of an elegant synthesis, a humble nonbeliever hoping someone will still want to be my friend.

*

Growing up, I don’t think my step-sister and I fully realized that we belonged to a legitimate religious minority.  We lived in a nice part of Phoenix, Arizona, and going to “church” always felt natural.  The chanting, the energization exercises, the brief spurts of meditation we learned to tolerate in Sunday School were merely things that came before the occasional ice cream social afterwards.  In form and content, enough of our parents’ religion was relatable to Protestant Christianity that we could feel normal when the topic came up with friends at school.  Our parents had jobs; they drove cars; they dressed and spoke like ordinary white middle-class Americans.  But they also happened to meditate between 1-2 hours a day and believe that the universe is governed by immutable cosmic laws like Karma and reincarnation.  In the course of any given dinner conversation, the word “Master”—the traditional Hindu designation for one’s guru, or spiritual teacher—would issue from our parents’ lips as effortlessly as the words “work” or “school” or “discipline.”  The world our family inhabited was at once secular and deeply religious, and this happened to align perfectly with the spiritual principles my step-sister and I imbibed from a young age.  In a certain light, though my mother may object to this, we were New Age Protestants, only slightly more culturally distinctive than the Evangelical Christians she and my step-father vehemently disagreed with politically.

According to the “Aims and Ideals of Self-Realization Fellowship As set forth by Paramahansa Yogananda, Founder,” SRF—the acronym everyone in the church uses—seeks what all millennial faiths seek: to change the world for the better.  Its founder’s mission was “To disseminate among the nations a knowledge of definite scientific techniques for attaining direct personal experience of God.”  In his words, SRF, founded in Los Angeles in 1920, taught “that the purpose of life is the evolution, through self-effort, of man’s limited mortal consciousness into God Consciousness.”  That’s right: the evolution of God Consciousness.  Most profoundly, Yogananda sought to “reveal the complete harmony and basic oneness of original Christianity as taught by Jesus Christ and original Yoga as taught by Bhagavan Krishna; and to show that these principles of truth are the common scientific foundation of all true religions.”

Even as children we got wind of the fact that this was heady stuff.  We absorbed the mundane trappings of Protestant morality, recognizable to any American child touched by the shared legacy of Cotton Mather and Benjamin Franklin.  (SRF emphasized “plain living and high thinking,” “the superiority of mind over body, of soul over mind”; it sought “To overcome evil by good, sorrow by joy, cruelty by kindness, ignorance by wisdom,” etc. etc).  But there was always something grander, dare I say more modern, just beneath the surface of each Sunday School lesson.  In keeping with his view of the fundamental affinity between original Christianity and original Yoga, Yogananda aimed “To unite science and religion through realization of the unity of their underlying principles.”  He was in some sense another American pragmatist, though certainly a more devout one than the likes of William James.  As soon as he arrived in the United States in 1920, he began advocating “cultural and spiritual understanding between East and West, and the exchange of their finest distinctive features.”  He came as India’s delegate to an International Congress of Religious Liberals taking place in Boston, and he became something of a religious celebrity almost overnight.  As kids we heard the story of his first speech in English many times.  Spontaneously, we were told, the words just came to him on the ship; he electrified his audience without knowing a word of English, and from then on he wrote and spoke in an eloquent English vernacular for the rest of his life.  This was God Consciousness in action.  We believed the story when we were young.

By whatever logic, my step-sister and I distanced ourselves from SRF as we grew older.  I think we’d both stopped going to church by the time we were 16.  She became something of a young leftist, picketing Paradise Valley Mall with anti-consumerist pamphlets and dabbling in the writings of Valerie Solanas until she fell in love with French midway through college, while I pursued a less auspicious route.  What became my mature (18 or 19-year-old) rationalism evolved slowly over the course of many warm summer nights sitting outside my friend Jeff’s garage.  Through our philosophic wanderings, I began to piece together the makings of a secular worldview, the details of which I filled in haphazardly over time.  I wasn’t entirely comfortable confronting my mother with my unbelief while I still lived in her house.  But by the time I’d spent a semester in college I had become a very arrogant young man.

The details of our arguments are fuzzy now.  Everyone would leave the room.  We were never angry, exactly.  Just committed to the truth of our respective positions.  She had been meditating for upwards of 35 years when I was just discovering Nietzsche, but she had never read Nietzsche.  Hence the stalemate.  I could never get past the knowledge claims embedded in her spiritual assertions; she could never get past my insistence on boiling everything down to knowledge claims and rational assertions.  Around we went, to the chagrin of my step-sister, my step-father, and anyone else who had to listen to us at length.  Thanks in part to my mother’s quasi-Protestant work ethic, this became an irrepressible part of our dynamic after I went to college.  She was of course helping to pay for my education every step of the way.

We were usually hiking in the desert just the two of us when we got closest to resolving our basic disagreement.  Especially at Christmas time, when it was relatively cool out, we liked to take long walks that allowed our common verbosity to vent.  The bleak expansiveness of the desert terrain proved an ideal setting for the dialectical match that would inevitably get lit, and we may have been on one of our familiar trails when we finally decided one fine day to stop arguing about God.

However the realization came, it settled things once and for all.  It was so simple that we (or maybe just I) had missed it for years.  My mother and I were speaking two different languages.  Our terms were incommensurable.  There was no way for us to agree, and no way for us to convince each other without agreeing to the terms of each others’ specific language and worldview.  She was arguing from the experience of meditation; I was arguing from the crush of largely impressionistic intellectual musings.  There was little common ground between us and even less willingness to budge.

So it was futile to argue.  We might as well agree to disagree and talk about things that brought us closer together instead of repeating the same loop of discord.  That was that, and forevermore holidays were happier times (for everyone concerned).  We could all accept the epistemic/spiritual rift between our two family factions in the same way we accepted that there were divergent opinions about art and film—until the holiday season three years ago when my step-sister announced she was going to an SRF retreat in Switzerland just after the New Year.

*

In all honesty, “What?!” was my first thought when I heard the news.  But I was understanding by then.  I had grown to appreciate the fact that people thought about faith differently than I did, and I had intellectual reasons to justify my view that this was OK.  I’d also come to recognize that SRFers are some of the kindest, warmest, least dogmatic people I know, and that meditation involves a very profound effort to discipline the mind.  The loving dynamic we’d developed as a family was partly the result of work we’d all put in to get to know one another.  But it also followed from the spiritual practices they sought to realize in their lives.  So we proceeded; I watched as our parents delighted in the steady growth of my step-sister’s conviction in the tenets of SRF, and slowly I was enveloped in a new alienation.  What was I missing?  I wondered.  Why did I lack the capacity to believe in what they believed?  Deep down, I wanted the accolades of parental acceptance too, and fewer seemed to be coming my way for reading books and scratching at the surface of historical knowledge.  By this time I was a graduate student, and my ego strength had diminished considerably after weathering the storms of that particular form of modern existence.  At my most desperate, I wanted terribly to belong to what they did; there were even moments when I felt my commitment to Nietzsche wavering.

Last weekend, my step-sister and I Skyped across the Atlantic ocean.  She’s lived in France for years now, and although we don’t talk as often as either of us would like, we catch up at considerable length when we find the time.  We talked about various goings on in our lives, our parents, and the recent French election.  After about an hour and a half I thought to ask how her meditations were going, almost in passing.  She knew what I was asking (we know each other pretty well), and in the kind, thoughtful voice she always describes her SRF practices, she told me all about them.  Just before we ended the Skype call she said something she’s said before, also almost in passing.  “You know you should really read the Autobiography of A Yogi some time.  Just to see what you think.  I mean you might really find something in it.  Something you might not expect, you know?…”

For some reason that day, the thought was oddly terrifying.  I knew I had a copy on my shelf.  This was the book that everyone in SRF read at one point or another, often as a prelude to entering the spiritual life Paramahansa Yogananda teaches.  It is his autobiography, after all, and I can’t help but regard it as a quasi-sacred text.

This was Mother’s Day.  I’d not read the autobiography before and something felt right.  I decided I’d take it down from the shelf and just start reading.  Just read it.  What else did I have to do that day?

Lying comfortably in bed, I opened my copy for the first time since my mother and step-father had given it to me as a Christmas gift in 2007.  I read the note they wrote in the front flap and felt a mix of warm nostalgia and firm resolve wash over me.  Yes.  I was going to do this.  I was going to start reading the first chapter, “My Parents and Early Life,” word for word.  The way one reads a book.  Not to get the argument, but to read the book.

OK, so the writing wasn’t very good.  The impressions of his childhood sounded like a bad Victorian novel, and his piousness was already starting to grate on me.  I continued, growing frustrated.  This wasn’t working.  I had other things to do.  There was “real” reading I was putting off.  I started to skim, then skip ahead.  A few minutes later I reread the table of contents to see which sections of the book might be especially worth reading.  I flipped through “I Go to America” and found the part where he describes his experience spontaneously learning English.  It wasn’t very convincing.  It was overly sentimental and clearly embellished.  Why was I reading this?  This is why my parents and step-sister believe in miracles?

I put the book down; my room was quiet.  Remorse wafted over me.  I was incapable of joining them still. Whatever they had I lacked, whatever I had they lacked.  The two were incommensurable.  Nonetheless I felt alone.  My intellect intact, my soul…

“What?!”

-Michael Fisher

Debt and Work

I’m in debt. Somewhere in the neighborhood of seventy thousand dollars, although I still don’t know the exact amount. In fact, I recently took out another loan to live for the summer, before my teaching assistantship begins again in the fall, simply because I’d rather spend the summer reading and writing than working forty hours a week to make ends meet. Like millions of those of my generation, I look forward to a lifetime of paying this money back, a perpetual bill unto death, most likely. Thankfully, the enactment of president Obama’s student loan legislation will make bearing this burden mercifully less painful. But this still won’t unhinge that chain, the barrier to so called financial freedom.

I repeat, I’m in debt. And somehow I don’t care. Not really. Because somehow there’s comfort in the fact that I know I’ll never pay it off. Ever.

I’m fully aware of the fact that I’ve inherited my mother’s inability to deal responsibly with money. I’m not what you would call “financially literate” (though, funny enough, I have a strong interest in the economy). But I don’t consider myself any sort of voracious consumer either: I have no affinity for gadgetry. I hate iPhones. The only new items I like to keep up with are records and books–my artistic and intellectual indulgences. The rest of the time I’m spending my money on experiences, some of which are healthier than others: social experiences like nights at the bar and restaurants with friends, sometimes current or hopeful lovers. I like to spend money on what keeps me most sane-rest and relaxation with others.

But I’m in debt. And by the standards of our legislators on both the right and left, our austerity proselytizers, I should live within my means, not enjoy the possibility of freedom in these experiences with others but work harder, save my money, chip away at my debt like a financially responsible citizen of a fiscally responsible state. But I want to say this: get bent. Because my debt isn’t real to me; my experiences are, my relationships with and feelings for others. My debt is yet another fact of reconciling myself to material necessity, another bill I’ll soon be forced into paying for the rest of my life, soon to resemble my phone and internet and electricity bills, practically appendages required for my normal life, incurred all the while with no sense that my contribution to society will be considered productive or meaningful.

And yet I continue to exist as though I’m not in debt, or anyway as if there might be something more to it.

 Of course, I’m not yet forced to pay back this debt because of the clemency of deferment that higher education brings. But the reality is that this “higher” education of mine will likely land me in the position of an adjunct professor without health insurance, because education does no longer a middle class citizen make. For me, it will make an educated, indebted citizen who will perpetually pay to play the game of life, that best game in town. And throughout the course of this game, paying off my debt will work in an inverse relationship. The closer you move toward death, the more your net worth as a person increases. As your body decays, your financial status improves, as if working to ward off damnation in the afterlife, only paying to ward off the financial damnation of the here and now, for a sense of freedom that inches closer with every payment made, as though it’s truly attainable through my effort and hard work.

***

This feeling, that one is perpetually working to be somehow whole, or free because unburdened from without, speaks to a liberal sensibility that places a premium on autonomy; the sense in which one must struggle in the game of life against material necessity to reach a place of self-sufficiency, the freedom of autonomy. It is the psychology that motivates the desire to own a home rather than rent. It is the psychology that allowed predatory lenders to prey on aspiring homeowners who had been led to believe that home ownership is the key to freedom; translated: the key to paying down a mortgage for nearly the remainder of one’s life, building equity against which to borrow in case of a financial emergency. How ironic.

In any case, the psychology of being in debt as akin to being in chains is not the same as the reality of debt, the reality of individuals and families struggling to pay their bills because their wages have not kept up with the cost of living since the early 80s. But the psychology of being in debt now is different. Given the fact that many of us know we’ll never pay off our debt, we’ll take the burden to the grave.

But what is it we’re taking?

Ok, maybe the reality of being in debt isn’t mutually exclusive from its psychology. Many of my friends struggle to make ends meet; this surely affects their psychology somehow. But absent this unfortunate reality, I want to say that our aspiring to be financially unfettered, motivated by our yearning to hang onto the money we’ve worked hard for is the last thing we need in our dire circumstances, in reconciling ourselves to the reality of debt, the reality of material necessity, and in trying to change that reality. It is this aspiration that underlies the psychology of work, that nebulous activity we’ll (maybe) do to pay down our debt; the thing some of us used to do in the hopes of finding meaning or freedom.

Like being free from financial burdens, work can never bring freedom, despite any and all affinities for what we do. “But I love my job, it brings me great pleasure!” -I believe you might, but many don’t. Many hate their jobs, and will continue to hate their jobs, as those adjuncts with PhDs who find themselves on food stamps, chasing the specter of a “professional” life of the mind are painfully learning. The keyword here is “professional.” And it has to do with the attachment of income to work, what makes so many of us hate that we have to work to live, that we must reconcile ourselves to material necessity in order to prove our worth as autonomous persons, self-sufficient creatures.

That is, when our lives are constrained based on the need to keep ourselves alive, we internalize the values of productive work as a virtue, alienating us from those around us. Our sense that we’ve mastered material necessity through our own efforts, through our hard work, leads us to value productivity for its own sake, as a virtue we equate with freedom, with autonomy. We derive from our dependence on necessity, and our attempts at overcoming that necessity through laboring, a psychology that leads us to believe that hard work builds a sound character. Herbert Marcuse said as much in his writings about work in his 1933 article “On the Philosophical Foundations of the Concept of Labor in Economics,” and in his famed 1955 book Eros and Civilization. He argued with Marx that our freedom is only attainable when we attain the means to transcend material necessity. Only then can we rethink the meaning of work itself, blur the distinction between work and play, and re-organize society through the release of our libidinal impulses. Such a release is not tantamount to chaos or narcissism, but involves rethinking the psychology that keeps us enslaved to necessity instead of each other, moving toward a psychology that values human creativity through cooperation, rather than the autonomous mastery of nature through hard work. “The true spirit of psycho-analytic theory,” he argued, “lives in the uncompromising efforts to reveal the anti-humanistic forces behind the philosophy of productiveness.”

Productivity is anti-humanistic. Only when we remove the fact of necessity from our lives, through means like a guaranteed income removed from one’s choice of vocation and socialized higher education, can we begin to rethink the nature of work itself, and thus find freedom in our dependence on others rather than ourselves.

***

 But what does this all have to do with debt? As we consider the reality that many of us will be paying back our debt for the rest of our waking lives, we are reminded of the values that society places on education. We no longer educate our citizens for sake of their cultivation, for democratic citizenry, but in order to harvest useful, productive citizens for our technological ascent upon the mountain of progress, students increasingly imbibing the values of autonomy and self-sufficiency rather than cooperation, dependence, and emotion. Those of us who have found recourse to the humanities, and those of us who can’t afford college, are left behind with these effete sensibilities, left in piles, mountains of debt, thrown to the dogs of material necessity.

But if we have, in theory at least, transcended material necessity as a society, we are reminded in our indebtedness of the fact that we can never transcend the necessity of our emotional dependence on others. Paradoxically, some would say spiritually, it is in this reminder that we find freedom in our dependence.

The debt we students have collectively incurred attunes us to the value that the U.S places on education: that it has a high price and you probably can’t afford it. But for this reason we are also attuned to the fact that this experience is now commonplace, we all share it. And it is only in such attunement that we come to realize that this collective experience binds us together; we become dependent on each other to change the reality we’ve inherited, and so the emotional fact of our dependence acts as a moral imperative against the “anti-humanistic forces behind the philosophy of productivity,” the forces that place a premium on autonomy and hard work, the forces that put us in debt in the first place.

This is the point to which we’ve been driven, what fuels Occupy Wall Street, what should lead the Left to find the moral imperative for the redistribution of income away from corporate profits, and toward healthcare, and education, and a guaranteed, livable, minimum income. Then we might begin to reverse the ethos that leaves us all so indebted, left to fend for ourselves, to work our lives away just to live. And so, perhaps, reconciling ourselves to debt, on an individual, psychological level, may be the first step to overcoming it, meanwhile overcoming the compulsion to work. The first step toward a democracy, unlike what James Madison or the Pragmatists had in mind, should not consist in balancing our interests by pitting them against each other. Rather, it should attune us to our interests in, and utter dependence on, our neighbors.

-Erik Hmiel

Make Your Own World

For this week’s post I am presenting the links to two pieces I posted this week on the award-winning U.S. Intellectual History blog that I think might also fit well here and be of interest to our readers. These meditations touch on topics we have been exploring here on our blog, including technology, community, and precarity.

http://us-intellectual-history.blogspot.it/2012/05/new-contributor-introduction-elisabeth.html#more

http://us-intellectual-history.blogspot.it/2012/05/from-rome-with-love.html

-Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn