On the Act of Understanding the Other

On the Act of Understanding the Other

            “…we must remember this, that the art of understanding adversaries is an innovation of the present century, characteristic of the historic age. Formerly, a man was exhausted by the effort of making out his own meaning, with the help of his friends. The definition and comparison of systems which occupies so much of our recent literature was unknown, and everybody who was wrong was supposed to be very wrong indeed.” (Dahlberg-Acton 1906:202 [1895]).

                The great challenge of our own age, that which imagines itself as verging upon post-historical, remains an historical challenge. The shock of the other, her very existence, both promotes this challenge into an orbit that appears dauntingly distant, but also demotes the value of taking up this challenge as something unworthy of our collective efforts. For the other is at first no friend. And yet the stakes could not be higher. Even in Lord Acton’s period, which is still very much our own as modulated from imperial colonialism to economic neo-colonialism, from biopower presumed to biopower desired, from sex to gender, from race to ethnicity, from labor-based classes to those status-based and so on, people were well aware of the historical cost, not so much of misunderstanding, but of deliberate disagreement for the sake of political opportunism and messianistic adoration. Like moving to the relative minor from the nineteenth century’s dominant major key, our own time has been modulated by these structural forces so that the otherness of the other is much more apparent to us, and much more troubling. There no longer is a ‘white man’s burden’, and if anything, fashionable discourse says to us the opposite: that the white man has imposed a burden upon the world that reaches out from beyond his own recently dug grave. Yet it was this very personage who invented the concept of understanding, after many painstaking millennia. Almost all of our philosophical ideas which aid us in coming to both the understanding of the other and what is also of the utmost, one’s own self-understanding, emerge from the ethics of the West, authored and thought out loud by the best of what is often considered a bad lot.

            If this sounds apologetic in any way, it is because abandoning this discourse means that we are thrown back over into a pre-modernity that is too sure of itself; its religious beliefs, its sense of social order, its political reason, its morality. The Enlightenment, the penultimate fruit of the tree of reason that was first planted some 2.6K years ago in Greece, is the source of historical understanding and also that ethical, for it goes beyond the sense that tolerance alone is a good enough showing to otherness as a principle, just as it makes larger the compassion that was to be shown, in Christian ethics, to the other as an individual. This is one of the reasons why Acton refers to understanding the other as an ‘art’. Art simultaneously participates in the universal and the individual. It brings the cosmos to the person without presuming to personalize it. It allows the intimate to experience the infinite without aggrandizing what occurs between persons into a universal force. Similarly the art of self-understanding, which too must attain a new intimacy in the face of an overwhelming and anonymous world, let alone the incomparably larger cosmos.

            If this is an ideal, let me suggest that before one can attain art, one must task oneself with the more modest act. The act of understanding the other is a beginning, but in our own day, even this appears to be often absent. We hear popular writers speaking of ‘reaching out’ to one another, of tolerance, compassion, even acceptance, but are any of these, or can any combinations thereof, truly generate an authentic understanding of the other as a vehicle for otherness? Here, I am using the term to connote neither the untoward nor the uncanny as such. Yes, both are present in the encounter with the other insofar as the first may be the case if we fail to understand something of her – she may end up presenting a threat to our own parochialism, which is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself – and the second occurs simply because of the shock of realizing that another human being can in fact be so different from me that I am stretched to recognize her as human. The untoward is what we seek to avoid, but the uncanny cannot be expunged. We simply have to accept this in ourselves through the other as part of the act of understanding. For otherness also resides within, from the metaphoric rhetoric of the unconscious life, to the role stress and conflict that occupies our waking hours. It is quite enough most of the time and for most of us, to nod again to Acton, to ‘make out our own meanings’, oft enough without any help at all, from either friend and certainly not from foe.

            Just so, just now, we see that friend and foe are becoming all too clear, so much so that if one is not the one, one is the other. This is the very essence of pre-modernity in all of its diverse organizational forms. From hunting and gathering, through horticulture and agrarian means of production, the stranger could not be one of us. It is a long-germinating resonance of the second Great Awakening period (c.1790-1840) in the USA that American politics – ironically heralded as the most ingenious, reasoned and liberating if experimental dynamic in world history by De Tocqueville at the very moment it was about to turn inward and fold back upon itself – has seemingly regressed into a bipolar pre-modernity; one is either friend or foe and there is nothing, and more importantly, no one, in between.

            The art of understanding is the culmination of a series of acts which direct themselves toward a sense of self-recognition, thence further, toward a more risky comprehension that the other really is her own person who is under no obligation to agree with me about anything at all. Coming to terms with the other is at first a mere political exercise, but right now we appear to be lacking even this. Such terms are necessary in order for a society to function in its basic sense. We do seem to be starting at a zero point, or rather, restarting. This is due to the fact that what were originally very small populations west of the Alleghenies – it is important to note that the first railhead through this range was only accomplished in 1857 – grew at a rate similar to their political disenfranchisement. When agriculture and ranching became themselves marginal to the emerging industrial economy, these Americans had already girded themselves with a century of ‘awakened’ ideas. If the Puritans were intolerant and neurotic, those whom they pushed westward were idealistic and victimized. This victimology, present from the moment the new republic recognized itself in a post-colonial core, urban, commercial, capitalist, and seeking its own culture, has come down to us as a wider Western culture as the song of all those who suffer from yet larger forces; chief amongst them, globalization. But while Western economies are downshifted by the intense competition afforded by yet further others – those yet more distant and far more strange than even the neighbor who votes for the other party – the deeper source of marginality is the very history of internal colonization and the sheer geography of a land unlike anything one’s ancestors could have imagined. A big land required a big god, required a big man, required a big stick. But did it require a big State, a big heart, a big purse? Perhaps in contradiction with itself, the USA got all of those aspects of largeness, amongst others. ‘Very well, I contain multitudes’, Whitman famously writes at the moment the Alleghenies were pierced by the new industry. Whitman is known as the first truly modern American artist precisely because he recognizes the other inside of himself. In our own age, and contrary to any idea that emanated from that previous, otherness is not something distant, obscure, inhuman, and necessarily defined by existential threat, of whatever nature the corresponding variables may have been in one historical context to the next. But both the language and the countenance of this Great Awakening promoted the old ideas once again to the fore. With just as great an irony, the nation that was once the radical hope of the enlightened world in two centuries would risk becoming a caricature of itself.

            This is why the act of understanding the other must come before that very other, in reaction to our malicious mocking and vindictive vitriol, makes herself into the very caricature we had all along presumed her to be. The rioters at DC were the self-fulfilling prophecy imagined by all those who had marginalized them over the decades. We tend to make our own enemies, most especially, of ourselves. This is why the act precedes the art, just as an apprenticeship comes before any supposed mastery. We are not asking each other to become such masters overnight. Rather, we are proposing the modest endeavor of authentically trying to comprehend what the other really needs, what they think of the world, who they imagine themselves to be. That this is the essence of any human relationship should not be lost on us. For the others are also married, are also working, are also trying to ‘make their own meaning’ in the face of powerfully anonymous forces which are far beyond any individual’s control. The sense that globalization is alone the wedge that drives the West apart from itself is simply another way of pushing off on a yet stranger other the responsibility for self-understanding. If my neighbor is, after all, not my enemy, then the Chinese person is, the Indian person, the Muslim. These ‘strangers at the gates’, to allude to Kipling once again, have, like the rioters, found their way into our way of life. But they are who they are, and not caricatures, not neighbors in the narrow sense. So we must extend the sense of self-understanding, and the only manner of doing so is by augmenting what was originally a religious ethics with that of post-religious thought.

            In book three of my new trilogy, the newly conjoined Queen Guinevere’s final words to the major narrative heroine, telling her at once of the state of her own lover as well as the state of our contemporary love in general, are as follows: “She is alive but you must not delay. The power she has is munificent, but the power they have is not based on one soul, however great. It is known that Dvorak said of Brahms, ‘such a great man, such a great soul, but he believes in nothing.’ Take heed of this mischance, modernity, and choose carefully your nothing.” Our conception of love, and who is worthy of it, are endangered. It is because we have severe doubts regarding our own worthiness and on both counts; are we deserving of love and our we the ones who can love? ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’ always carried this deeper caveat: it assumes one can love oneself. This is the ‘as’. Then again, to imagine that only we are worthy of love, our own or that of another, is to conflate the abstract ethic with the practical act. It is to submerge a revolutionary sensibility back into a revelationary discourse. What is appropriately ‘revealed’ by relatively freeing ethics from metaphysics is not religion but rather otherness, both internal to self and external in the other to self. Loving oneself includes the task of understanding that we are not one thing, singular, stable, secure in our knowledge of the world. Our global rivals have shed their own parochiality enough to step onto the world stage. Is it either reasonable or ethical that we shrink back before their example and turn inward, replacing what they were with ourselves?

            Enjoin then the act of understanding, which discloses to one’s own being not merely the presence of the other as if she were a distraction or an annoyance, a threat mortal or otherwise, but in fact the authenticity of humanity in its diversity and in its similarity. For in the end we are both like and unlike the other. We may also like and dislike them, just as we already know that we too are likeable on one day, the other on another. Choosing carefully our unbelief includes the ability to comprehend that belief of some sort remains relevant. Even so, of whatever ethic it may promote, the otherness of the other, the difference within, must become a part thereof. The currently faithless faith in ourselves travels with us only until we reach the limen over which otherness dwells. Today, that threshold is what separates the neighbor that must be, and not the stranger that she has previously been.

            Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty books in ethics, education, aesthetics, health and social theory, as well as more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for two decades.

The Problem of Allegorical Distance

The Problem of Allegorical Distance

            “A pathway which is long ‘Objectively’ can be much shorter than one which is ‘Objectively’ shorter still but which is perhaps ‘hard going’ and comes before us as interminably long. Yet only in thus ‘coming before us’ is the current world authentically ready-to-hand.” (Heidegger 1962:140-1 [1927]).

One: A brief phenomenological pedigree of the concept of distance

            What ‘occurs’ to us is brought before us in the manner of an encounter. We take it to be part of the living world, just as we ourselves are taken by that world to be at least alive, sentient, somewhat conscious, perhaps also conscientious and even beholden to conscience. The ‘coming before’ does not reference history directly. What has objectively preceded us concedes nothing to our presence other than the dumb luck of happenstance. So it must think, if it is to be able to remain present without having itself such presence. Instead, this phenomenological occurrence at once occurs and is presented. The first is seemingly of its own volition, as in the unexpected or even, after some deliberation, the untoward. It stops short of the uncanny because it is not irruptive. It remains an encounter and not an outright confrontation. The second is an event that takes into account our presence and thus must realign, or even reassert itself. The new ‘presents’ itself in this second sense. It comes to be present in our own time and space, and it also performs an introduction for itself, as if it had in its possession and old-fashioned calling card, served up to us on a silver salver. Persons can of course, deliberately ‘put in an appearance’, and the more commonplace understanding of what it means to present oneself is thus called forth. Even so, we are not generally thought of as metaphors for ourselves. Nor are we mere likenesses, presenting ourselves as if we were but a simile, worse still, a facsimile, of some other and more ‘real’ being.

            Since this is mostly the case – one might suggest that we are all ‘actors of our own ideals’ in presentation perhaps more than in any other social instance; coming before another does mean some kind of adjustment in our own subjective ideals as no other person will precisely conform to our self-understanding – one aspect of the puzzle of distance in narrative as well as in living-on occurs to us precisely as does the otherness of the presentation, of selves, of events etc. At first we would balk if we were to understand ourselves as living allegories of the Dasein which we are and within which we dwell as the subjection to others, the subjectitude to the world, and more pleasantly, one would hope, the simple subjectivity of our imagination. Let us not decide prematurely that all relationships that involve some distance must necessarily be violent in this way. We too subject the next person to our presence, some more than others. We too manipulate and reconstruct the world, mainly through material technology and yet also through a more ‘symbolic’ history. Subjectitude is phenomenologically diverse if not ideally value-neutral. Subjection, a harder term that has commonplace connotations, is at least symbiotic if not particularly dignified. And apart from the Diltheyan problem of boundaries in subject-object distinctions – though our ‘much vaunted subjectivity’, to again refer to Nietzsche, may not be all that it has been cut up as being – it remains a profound ethical conception along the simple lines of being-able-to–be-with another or the others. In a word, this fragile aspect of auto-epistemology – and not ontology, to respect one key difference between Dilthey and Heidegger – allows us to maintain ourselves by maintaining our selfhood in the face of knowing that another to self has her own sense of what this must mean. This shock also ‘comes before us’ in both senses we have been touching upon. She exists already, in the world, and thus also in my world given that I too inhabit this space, and as well, she also presents herself to me as an event of ‘intersubjectivity’, an occurrence that is too personal to be overlooked as one might think about measurable distances. Here, Heidegger desires to speak about the experience of distance and not its physicality. Even when we do measure, as when comparing our speed with the mileage signs on a freeway, it still remains for us to flesh out that basic framework in terms that will be more familiar to us having undertaken to actually drive it. At first, we might consider such aspects of world such as road conditions, weather, speed limits, construction, proximity to towns, curves in the road and all of this. We then might bring forward to consciousness the amount of time we have already been driving, our relative fatigue or freshness, and whether or not we have a second driver with us. Are we under a deadline? Must we stop to refuel? Could there be an accident up ahead, or might we ourselves be prone to become involved in one? Yet further, we might then factor in more personal aspects to such a journey and its corresponding conception of distance. Is the terminus sought a desired one? What kind of welcome might we expect upon reaching it? Indeed, whether there is room at the inn or no, what others might have also arrived with whom we would generally not wish to spend time or be in proximity to?

            If, after all of these ruminations, none of which are yet phenomenological in scope, we find our right foot failing on the throttle, we will have begun to access a more potent meaning to our undertakings. We are at the threshold of asking more important questions of ourselves, ones that are ethical, even existential, in their notice. What is the merit of such a trip? This is more than asking ‘what will I get out of it?’ which is often a standard part of consideration once again, ‘coming before’ we actually set out. This ‘more’ touches upon our self-understanding in a metaphoric way. Here, we skirt the boundedness of both limits that are, or can be, placed upon human life in general – in this case, objectively, driving remains the most dangerous statistical risk with which we engage in the everyday – as well as the value we place on our own lives in particular. Indeed, the simile at work is an imagined doppelganger, a ‘stand in’ for ourselves, who undertakes the same trip in an ideal fashion and arrives just as we thought he would, on time and intact. In a well-known analysis, Schutz states that we engage in ‘projects of action’ in order to more objectively comprehend the idealized occurrence which we might plan to undertake or yet undergo. A road trip might be closer to the former, a medical operation closer to the latter, for instance. Either way, because Dasein is a being which is always ahead of itself as part of its ontological structure, I must visualize, so to speak, a future which not only does not exist but in fact will never exist. This is so because there will inevitably be some diversion from the ideal in practice. Even when a surgeon sums her work up as ‘textbook’, no two operations are exactly the same. Projects of action are, however, not decalogic in character. We always allow for some variation, insofar as we can imagine it at the time. This is the equivocal chestnut of experience, of course, and also the chief reason why young people are apt to sniff at an older person’s view of the world. On the one hand, the world has changed, so that I cannot in all certainty explain what will happen to a youth if she decides to apparently follow in what have passed for well-trodden footsteps. On the other, experience does mitigate variation, and so it is never itself completely at a loss to engage even a changing world. That one can only test the apparently wobbly balance through the undertaking itself in turn presents its own two-souled premise: one, there is the anxiety of trepidation; will I be able to complete this task within a reasonable variation from my ideals? And two, the very uncertainness regarding this question presents me with a liberating freedom of decision, improvisation, spontaneity; perhaps I will innovate and surprise even myself.

            Projection in this quasi-temporal sense is the most common manner of constructing some distance between the real me and the future of what I will become through and after the next undertaking or undergoing. It is sourced in an imagination specifically turned to the future and just as specifically tuned to my action within it. Thus phantasms, in Schutz’s language, or actionable ‘daydreams’, are the most common form of allegory. Each of us is also a ‘writer of our own ideals’ as it were. The specter of failure is always present, but we deem it far less misery to have thought things through as best we can, no matter mice nor men, and given it our best shot, than to have gone off ‘half-cocked’ and promptly made a hash of things. In the first instance, we can always ‘plan it again’, with more experience and thus hopefully more foresight. Schutz is himself keen on maintaining this distinction: though we can never ‘swim in the same river twice’ – both the river and ourselves have been altered by the more or less simple passage of time – yet we can ‘do things again’ because doing again does not mean doing over. Just as Freud poignantly notes that lost loved ones can never be replaced, he equally emphatically asserts that we can find substitutions for them, and indeed, must find such substitutions, not only to honor our love for those passed on but also to live on. Just so, living again is not living over.

            Understanding this, Dasein nevertheless finds itself already and always within its ‘primordial spatiality’. The beloved, present or absent, found or lost, past or present, remains as part of the intimitude of ‘closeness’. I here use the term ‘intimitude’ to suggest another kind of space that is the phenomenological obverse of infinitude. Heidegger himself now: “That which is presumably ‘closest’ is by no means that which is at the smallest distance ‘from us’. It lies in that which is desevered to an average extent when we reach for it, grasp it, or look at it.” (ibid:141). This aspect of worldhood is ‘severed’ from our being-in at a number of levels, including its thingness, its lack of sentience, its abruptness, its silent objection to a presence it cannot understand or undertake in any way recognizable to me, as well as its relative age – many things in the world outlast by far a human life, for example, though perhaps equally others do not – its cultural value or absence thereof, and so on. ‘Desevering’ in phenomenology includes all of these aspects of distance, resulting in a composite ‘distanciatedness’ which can be then accounted for. Along with projects of action, another quite commonplace function of the individuated imagination is the series of questions which follows from such encounters. Why was this thing built? Why does it exist, and exist here? Who built it? What is it made of? Does it still have a recognizable function? What is it worth as infrastructure, artifact, even as aesthetic object? These too are allegorical versions of similar questions we might – though we tend not to – ask of ourselves.

            We now begin to sense that though simile is generally a value-neutral exercise – I am going to travel from here to there and what might I expect to encounter along the way? – the function of metaphor is not so lightly regarded. Metaphor is, in a word, pregnant with meaning in a way mere simile is not. Just as doing again does not mean doing over, so ‘asness’ is not ‘isness’. It is more than old hat to recall classroom definitions at this point: a simile suggests that one thing is like another, but a metaphor states that one thing is another. The first is prosaic, the second poetic, as Bernstein, in his 1973 Norton lectures, frequently points out. The casual distances between Dasein and World, or, more experientially, between myself and the world, are given to simile first, before metaphor can occur to us or place itself before us. One place reminds me of another; perhaps it is my home I am missing. But at the end of the day, this new place is not my home in any sense, let alone that poetic. In order for a new experience to actually be some other that I have already had, it appears on the face of it that we must refute both Freud, Schutz, and many other thinkers. This is, however, not absolutely the case. In substitution I recognize that simple sameness is not the same as metaphoric consubstantiation. In simile, there is resemblance, not exactitude. But as sameness itself cannot in fact be – what is lost is lost, past is past, dust is dust – we forgive our casual language in contriving in the face of asness a sense of ‘just like’. Here, embedded in the meaningfulness of our use of such a seemingly trite phrase, lies our ability to merge phenomenology with ethics. Likeness, or asness, need only remind us of the other. But consubstantiation, while not ever being exactly the same river, is yet more than a simple likeness. It has, through devotion, experience, or even time served, attained the just value and status in our existence to connote a certain kind of justice when it is present. We may be warm if we think of vindication, valediction, even veneration if we were so adoring of what is now forever absent. Yet, just as with the composite whole of distanciatedness we encounter when coming into or up against the world as it is and thence the unshared cosmos arcing out into infinitude, we also now are immersed in a holism of closeness that plunges into the shared existential arc of intimitude.

Two: Allegory in Popular Narrative as an attempt to obviate infinity and intimacy

            However revelatory this newly recognized holism may occur to us as, it presents itself before us neither as an objection nor as an intended subjection. Certainly, the range of human charm and gloss may be fraudulently intending us as its next victim, but even so, such is eventually detected and cast aside, or it may yet ennoble itself confronting our presence, or that same may occur to us. In fact, this is in itself a narrative oft given over to sentiment; the usurious – or at least, the relatively ignoble, and this known to themselves or no – are redeemed by love (Winston Smith), by fate (Oedipus), by charity (Scrooge), and so on. And yet in each of these examples redemption is itself only partial. Orwell’s hero is not so heroic after all, giving into his material fears, Sophocles’ regent is blinded so that he can see the better, and Dickens’ caricature remains a caricature, even though he’s now suddenly a decent fellow. Rather than any of this, what we do in our own lives is experience the partiality of largesse and egress therefrom along the way, at each moment and in each encounter. R.D. Laing’s difficult and disconcerting dialogue ‘Knots’ speaks to the first without necessarily providing the second. And we do know that much of what is lost in living narrative is so because I and Thou have not been able to come to meaningful terms about what each of us holds as indeed meaningful. This said, there are enough, once again, living examples of egress that allow us both to simply live on without an overwhelming self-mockery, as well as undertake the self-understanding that relies not so much on experience alone but rather in the just likeness of the next.

            This ‘next’ is raised beyond her mere instrumentality. Though we place a great deal of import on events and things, other persons remain for us the most fulfilling, as well as the most inscrutable, encounters and presences over the life course. We may understand the mystery of the non-conscious cosmos well before we attain the same facility with human consciousness, let alone that of prospective other species. But in undertaking the second task, we bring to it some in-built existential advantages. One is our ability to circumspect: “When something is close by, this means that it is within range of what is proximally ready-to-hand for circumspection.” (ibid:142). Here, closeness is itself concerned-with ‘concernful Being-in-the-world’. It is an apprehension regarding intimitude. Once again, this experience is two-souled: we are apprehensive about such an encounter, especially if we have, in our phantasms, projected an imaginative sequence upon the to-be-lived narrative in which we emerge heroic or at least redeemed. Yet we are also apprehended by it; one, we may be ‘caught out’ either in our daring dulcissimo  – I’m not her type after all, or more widely, not God’s gift to women et al – or two, we may become entangled by her own wiles, however contrived or authenticating. We keep to ourselves as best we can the first, but in both species of the second, all becomes known. Hence the gift and task of circumspection. How will I avoid being apprehended? How can I accept my apprehension? How might the other seek to avoid apprehending me in the manner of an ethical vivisection – we are not generally ‘out to get’ one another in this sense, for instance – and how might she as well overcome her own trepidations about any potentially ensuing closeness with me. Our casual language betrays these ethical bemusements. We say ‘there is a certain intimacy between us’, or that ‘the two of us are like one thing at times’. Inherently contradictory, such phrases and many others exemplify our equivocal understanding of both ourselves and the others involved in any ‘coming before’. The terms ‘intimacy’ and ‘between’ are at odds, and the simile of the two-in-one is always to be taken as a kind of passion, or at best, a compassion, and not a reality to be discovered as one might discover a way to ‘observe’ the Big Bang. Though we are not desevered from another being in the same way was we are with the world’s elemental presence let alone with our own presence upon the planet as physical world, we nonetheless are aware of the proximal relations between objects in the world and the thou. In the end, we are not one thing. With sobriety, there is a between after all. So redemption is but partial in real life as well as in story, and heroism is just as human, if not generally as hyperbolic, as it is narrated to be.

            This is not a resignation. Only novels and epics have patent endings. Dasein is completed not when it ends but when it no longer exists. I am completed in my personal death. I am made complete by it. I am not a creation of another, and thus I am also not a character let alone a caricature, that is, unless I permit myself to descend to such a level. Personhood has its penumbra, certainly, but nevertheless its authenticity remains in its concernfulness, in its care. It cannot be ‘written over’ though it can write itself again and again. Through circumspection, we might identify with a fictional figure and recognize in him an aspect of ourselves. Writing is like waking dreaming in this way. Akin to therapy but with both a more noble and a deeper concern and outcome – this second due to its generalizability and its occurrence in the lives of others whom we otherwise would never touch – writing is the isness of being. Yes, poetry, as mentioned, attains a loftier height because it no longer feels the recursive pull that recourse to simile exerts upon meaning. But because we are beings of language first and history only following from this – the instance comes before the circumstance, as it were; we encounter one another through language and only then do we place ourselves in a history towards one another – writing overcomes what is at first only likeness by virtue of reading. The reader becomes what the writer only suggests. This of course may be a passing encounter, kindred to all those we would have loved if only we had made more intimate contact with them. Even so, the key to de-severing what is at first almost as desevered as is the world is to engage in the language of self-understanding; taking the isness of metaphor ironically quite literally. I am Thou. But equally so, she is me. Much of western ethics travels from this point of self-recognition. Yes, the currents of our contemporary river state that we must recognize the other for herself, and this too follows therefrom the moment of self-recognition. But even so, we are compelled to primordially accept that what can happen to one can happen to all.

            I thus direct my being not to the world as something which objects to me or to that which makes me into an object, but rather a being who is subjected to my presence inasmuch as I am to her own. I may not intend such subjection in any darker sense, but my coming before the other is at least a two-souled prospect into which my Dasein is at first desevered. My very subjectivity – itself a distanciated composite of subjection, of becoming a subject in another’s narrative, as well as perhaps more obliquely, the sometimes shocking subjectitude of being merely another and neither hero nor redeemer – confronts her own and forces upon it a self-recognition. If not, we risk the holocaust of fatal deseverance, where the other is no different from the object alone. Enter once again Dasein’s ability to not only engage in circumspection, but also to be circumspect: “Both directionality and de-severance, as modes of Being-in-the-world, are guided beforehand by the circumspection of concern.” (ibid:143, italics the text’s). Often enough thus far, I and Thou are beholden in degrees to this ethical process that the nominal sharedness of the world is at least seen as an impediment to its self-destruction.

            Not so in fictional narrative. In the main, contemporary allegory is shamefacedly in avoidance of self-recognition, and by this I mean it seeks to do the very opposite. Whenever current disquiet is addressed, whether it be ethical iniquities or material inequities, entertainment fiction distances the world portrayed far enough from us so that the audience can ultimately dismiss it as ‘mere fiction’, which it unfortunately is, or at best, ‘a good metaphor’, though in fact here it is neither. It is not good because it does not participate in the ‘just likeness’ with enough ethical proximity. It is thus also not a metaphor because it remains stuck in asness. Yet it is more than a mere fiction, for the injustice of such narratives comes before us because in fact they were planned ahead of time to be just that. Their projects of action included the caveat that the reader or viewer must not take the story metaphorically. It cannot be real; it cannot possess the isness of intimitude. ‘Three Percent’, an oddly glamorous Orwellian dystopia, is set into the future. ‘Game of Thrones’, an unsophisticated Shakespearean political melodrama, is set into an alternate world. ‘His Dark Materials’, Paradise Lost meets Harry Potter, is at once set into 1950s Britain and into the warmed-over theatrical settings of an imperial nostalgia, if not as well a nostalgia for imperialism; of the world, by the word, for the idea of truth. Once again, distancing, calculated and cynical, attempts a composite of distanciatedness in mimicry of that which Dasein brings to the world of objectifying encounters. Popular narrative is but a simile of existence.

            If this were unplanned we might take it apart and adjust it the better. We might simply rewrite the tired sophism of plot and the mechanical inevitability of plot device. We might engender a new respect for our shared weaknesses, or yet we might even engage in circumspection. But because popular allegorical narrative is deliberately distanced from reality in a manner no classical epic would have tolerated, we instead must interrogate the motives for such undertakings that in reality eschew metaphor all the while proclaiming themselves to be ‘only metaphorical’, that is, not to be taken literally or at face-value. The dishonesty of such works is both patent – in that it repeats itself without end in streaming, gaming, novels and film – and potent – in that it seeks the impotence of the agentive interlocutor by turning him into a mere consumer of sentiment. If it is the reader/viewer who brings the isness to the narrative, the story must first be set at such a distance as to sabotage the existential metaphor. We cannot become overly concerned with a fictional character who must, after all, act in a world which does not in fact exist. We cannot overtly care for a factional cause that animates a community or organization that is not real. We cannot truly empathize, within the ambit of Dasein’s authentic self-undertaking, with a hero who betrays his chorus by reaching for a zenith of excitement about, or desire for, or camaraderie with, yet another heroine who in her turn, makes false the lie that we viewers are forced to live. This screening over of reality is popular allegory’s dominant task. Its function is to distance ourselves from ourselves, decoy us from our shared lot. It does so by at once pretending to show us our condition ‘at a distance’ so that we can reflect upon its reality in the world as it is. But the allegory is too distant, the characters too villainous or too heroic, or perhaps yet sometimes even too introspective, to be ultimately believable. They might be believable as characters, yes. They have, in their best moments, attained the asness of simile which reminds us of ourselves. What we so desperately need is, however, characters who are ourselves and narratives which intend the isness of concernful being in the world. The distanciatedness of composite metaphorical narrative in allegory must give way to the authentic metaphor of a playing out of actuating circumstance that in turn seeks concernfulness in the world.

            Contemporary and urban fantasy genres in their most realistic instances have the greatest chance of providing this more authentic metaphor, if only in principal, and not necessarily in actual product. Here, outré elements are secondary to both plot and character development. The setting is our own world, not some other distant in time, space, imagination, or all three. The concerns are our own concerns, not those of Milton, Orwell, or Shakespeare, let alone Marvel or DC Comics. It is still somewhat sage to nod to perennial human conditions, that Sophocles still tests us, though in a different way, even as he tested the Greeks of his own era. This much remains true, and it is also, after all, enough. But even dramatizations of the canon cannot save us. What needs be done is that the kerygma of concernfulness that exists in literature and art be ported into the reality of worldly concern. Art should no longer ‘imitate’ life, for this is but another asness, another simile. That human life cannot be art in any literal sense is also not what is at issue. Rather, it is the lack in popular culture of what art itself interrogates us with that allows us to blithely go on watching as the wearied world passes us by and along with it, any sense that caring, concern, circumspection, and justice should continue to animate our once-shared consciousness.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty books in ethics, education, aesthetics, health and social theory, as well as more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for two decades.

The Religion of Criminality

The Religion of Criminality

            With the news that various faith-based organizations across the nation are flouting by-laws regarding mass assembly, the old tension between church and state has resurrected itself, apropos, given the time of year. For me, it was always to be expected that so-called evangelicals would be at the vanguard of this kind of passive-aggressive resistance to both civility and citizenship, but when Wheatley Ontario’s Mennonites began to jump in, my own quasi-ethnic background surfaced to bite on my own conscience. Not in a serious manner, but just enough to both condemn these erstwhile brethren as well as wonder why they might be engaging in what amounts to a public health menace. No true Christian would ever knowingly put his neighbor at risk. And while it is easier to dismiss the neo-fascist fake Christians as being simply that, when it comes to Menno Simons’ followers the issue appears more nuanced. Why so?

            My own father left home at seventeen, lied about his age and joined the RCN to fight in the Battle of the Atlantic. For the pacifist Mennonites this was more than a scandal. Not only was one engaging in violence but also doing so at the behest of the state, the historical victor over the church, all churches. This paradoxical effort at liberation in part allowed me, decades later, to become who I now am, a critical social philosopher, something that in the rearward facing climes of warmed-over old world beliefs would simply not have been imaginable. I owe my father much on that account. Even so, it is an odd paradox that the one who seeks freedom from the state shares much with the thinker, whose loyalty is also to something other than ideology and citizenship. The Greeks replaced myth with science, language transitioned from mythos to logos, and thus the gods were supplanted by thought itself. Sophia, herself the goddess of wisdom, was kind of like a mole in Greek mythology, unraveling the mythic tapestry from within, unlike Prometheus, who suffered endlessly because though he was also humanity’s ally, he pushed the revolution along from without.

            My father was an insider who went outside. I would never return to complete a personal circle, as it were, but at the same time, I understand the confluence that lies between those whose loyalty is to some higher being, however imaginary or no, and someone like myself, whose loyalty is to what I take to be a higher sensibility; ethics, rationality, reason, interpretation, reflection, critique. Philosophy is, after all, the child of religious thought, just as science is the child of religious myth. The Wheatley group have been engaging in the critique of the state even if they have also been engaged in unethical, even criminal, activity. This is no mere ‘civil’ disobedience on their parts. It is manifestly uncivil to place others at a health risk, especially those who do not agree to be so placed. Is it too much to believe that every single person in this or that congregation would only and ever associate with the remainder of said congregation, day in day out, forever and ever, or at least, until all are vaccinated? This kind of leap of faith is actually more of a chasm than even a belief in God, whose being, after all, is not disproven by science, merely rolled back, much in the same manner as is religious explanation curtailed in its territory by that scientific.

            It is not a leap that I am willing to make. The local public authorities must get much more serious about stopping such assemblies. They can even use Christian ethics to support their legal efforts. Why do the vast majority of churches meet on-line, when all of them would ideally meet in person? This alone dispels any far-fetched rationale that only a very few churches – say in the rural Fraser Valley of BC and in similar areas within Ontario and Quebec, for instance – have the ‘true’ message of their God in their hearts. No, these folks are simply using religion to commit a crime, and in doing so, have placed themselves on the same spectrum as the likes of the Taliban. How far will they go in their delusion of being persecuted? Maybe we should ask the average Afghani to predict what the thin edge of the wedge can really mean when people use their fraudulent faith as a cloak for their more naked desire for power.

            Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty books in ethics, health, education ,aesthetics and social theory, as well as more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for two decades.

In Defense of Pornography as a Theater of Human Freedom

Senator aims to curb ‘violent’ porn, pitches mandatory age verification for online sites | CBC News

In Defence of Pornography as a Theatre of Human Freedom

            In the Mad-TV satire ‘What Men Want’, a woman steps into the original Mel Gibson role as the gender-reversed script ambles along its expected course, this time with the woman being able to hear the men’s innermost thoughts in her own head. The answer is simple, and in one scene, where the narrator says farewell to her dying grandfather, she intones: ‘I’ll miss you grandpa’. He replies, ‘I’ll miss you too, sweetie – (then silently) But not as much as I’ll miss porn!’. For men in particular this could be interpreted as a ‘me too’ moment, but however that may be, I will argue in the following why society as a whole might well miss pornography and erotica more than we may at first imagine.

            My experience with pornography-erotica, call it what you will, tells me I am consuming an aspect of base culture. As theatre, mostly plotless and with acting culled from an underground high school yearbook activity, it receives a solid ‘D’ rating. As sex itself, it is dull, stereotyped, unimaginative and attempts to win one over – whatever that may entail – with grandstanding (mostly) youth showing off. It is no surprise that, as with athletics, anything that so intensely involves the body as a physical vehicle should be the basic preserve of youth. And sadly, in our society, this is mostly what youth have to offer; their pristine and charming physiques. Pornography is in all aspects juvenile, from its representations of youth by those far older to its motives. It is at source about money and not about sex, so it is also essentially dishonest. Given this, why defend it at all?

            Though it cannot be defended as an aesthetic object, I suggest that it must be defended as an ethical one. At first, this seems a contradiction. While art is likely the highest expression of human freedom, attaining a status that transcends even history by communicating perennial truths of the human condition to and from diverse periods and variations thereof, the portrayal of sexuality alone speaks at best only of desire and passion. What is missing in pornography is the Gestalt of humanity; its passions, some certainly present, but also its compassions, which are wholly absent; its desires yes, but also alongside, its anxieties. It is therefore also not an ethical ‘object’. But what pornography does contain is a potent ethical objection to the self-imposed limitations we humans have a tendency to exert upon ourselves and others. Working from the simple premise that if thine eye offends thee, pluck it out – turn off the e-device but only for thine own self – any ethical objection to that which serves to place social norms and institutional orders into perspective must be applied first to one’s own self-understanding. As soon as it attempts to dictate what others shalt or shalt not do it strays over the line of ethics and into the space of fascism. And this is precisely the line that any call for the policing of the viewing of pornography based on age-related limits is doing.

            Creeping fascism always plays the same tired game, and it is astonishing that, given recent history, we are still attracted to it. ‘I’m not trying to shut the porn industry down, I’m only trying to protect our children.’ In Canada, anyone twelve years old and above is legally entitled to have actual sex. There are a few reasonable age restrictions between twelve to fifteen, but the principal is clear. Youth (12-17) is its own category under Canadian law, as distinct from children (2-11). The fact that youth are no longer subject to being forced into surrogate sex with adults through corporal punishment underscores this separation. France remains a rare European country that has not banned this practice, so is it surprising that it is one country cited in the above article that seeks to ban viewing of sexual material by minors? For the French, apparently, youth are to remain sexual objects in the service of adults and can have little or no sexual agency of their own. Canadians are better than that, and by ‘better’, I mean, more ethical. The call to criminalize youth sexuality is both a regression and an expression of adult ressentiment specifically against the hard fact of the loss of our own youth and the future of humanity more generally. But by calling attention to the nostalgic and altogether deliberately naïve idea that young people are somehow not sexual beings and need to be ‘protected’ from sexuality until they are eighteen, the fascist attempts to take on the guise of guardian angel. ‘Save the children!’ He cries, from themselves, from evil adults, from evil itself!

            Anyone who agrees with this kind of suggestion is committing the ethical error of projecting one’s own vain desires onto young persons. Pornography too exhibits these desires – ‘discipline’ sites are the most obvious expression thereof; why else would we be attracted to the idea that youthful looking actors should portray the very minors we are supposedly seeking to protect? Why would such roles always be those that require such discipline: physical, sexual, and political? – and in so doing it provides young people with an important insight: we adults want to harm you because you represent all that we have lost, including beauty, guilelessness, openness, and spirit. We might even hate you, but alas, direct hate crime is already illegal in Canada and thus we must express our dark passions in another way: limit your freedom, your sexual liberation, your mischievous fun. Portray you as disobedient pests who, if you can no longer be beaten in reality, at least you can be allegorized as being beaten in virtuality. Just so, to suppress your knowledge of how we actually think of you is one of the core reasons for banning youth access to pornography.

            All fascists fear exposure of their true desires. These include ultimate control and the possession of a singular authority. They too know God is dead, but unlike more modest persons, they’re quite willing to fill in with the hope of making it a permanent situation. Hence the real ‘creeps’ in our society are not so much the relatively rare on-line child ‘groomers’ or molesters but rather the much less rare closet fascist who shows us just enough flesh so that we are distracted from noting the bones in behind him. He always begins with seemingly the most reasonable premise and this ‘foot in the door’ technique is also dishonest: ‘our children are vulnerable’ (And why so? Because we tend to control and baby them beyond their years lived). He uses seemingly reasonable analogies which turn out to be spurious: ‘films have limited access’ (In public only. Anyone can view an R-rated film without the fear of invasive criminalization in private and internet viewing is always already in private). He leaves out his true demands: ‘I’m only talking violent porn, here’ (in age-restricting porn sites you lose access to all porn, not just the minor percentage of it that might qualify as ‘violent’). He represents himself as reasonable: ‘I know this is a delicate topic’ (So was the so-called Jewish Question). The limits which are in place walk the actually delicate line between impinging upon hard-won and truly fragile democratic freedoms and the advice of child development experts and discourses: here’s some warnings and judge accordingly; some children might be disturbed by this or that material, others not, or yet some parents themselves might be warned off. Indeed, if I were to support age-restrictions on sexual material I would place them between the ages of 12 and 40. Anyone under or over those ages would not be permitted to view it. On the one hand because, according to the American Psychiatric Association, childhood ends at age 12 in important and specifically sexual ways – their definition of pedophilia, for instance, runs as ‘having a prurient interest in children under twelve’ – and on the other, mature adults need to focus on saving the planet and its life, including one another. Enough distraction, enough fantasy. Pornography is an education, of sorts, and it is at best trite to state that reality and fantasy are seldom the same thing. The world is in the shape it is in not because youth cannot distinguish between the two of them. Ask yourself why it took a sixteen year old with a disability to call our wider attention to the climate crisis? Ask your very much adult stockbroker, financier, captain of industry, or wonder of wonders, politician, why it wasn’t they who provided such an alert, amongst others. And then we can ask why yet other adults willingly take on the role of domineering Lydias – a role that is, with ironic relish, only barely admissible within the fantasy of discipline-oriented pornography – intent on correcting our bad habits without respect to our freedoms. An educative pornography might well include titles such as the all too obvious ‘Handmaid’s Tail’ by Marguerite Göttwood, in which such self-proclaimed defenders of ‘morality’ can bare yet more of their sorry selves.

            If one wanted to construct a genuine ethical argument against the decoys of contemporary social life, pornography included, I would be the first to entertain it. It would first have to outline the activities sanctioned by society that distract us from both the existential profundity of human life as well as the future of our collective existence. These are: organized sports (ironically a ‘must’ for youth, supposedly), all non-critical entertainment fictions and video games (Atwood not included), erotica/pornography, holidays both consumer and religious – and, speaking of reality and fantasy, is it really the case that we can distinguish such days? – conspiracy ‘theories’ of all kinds, obsessions with speculative, if, in principle interesting, topics such as extraterrestrial intelligence and ‘paranormal’ events, and the like. At the top of such a list of unethical attempts to divert our attention from serious global conditions would be our neurotic compulsion to rationalize our resentment of youth.

            If made, such an argument would be valid across the ethical board. But the message we send to both present-day youth and future society alike is that we, bereft of both conscience and foresight, have instead opted to suppress the curiosity, the spirit, the very existential verve of young people who, robbed of their nascent capacity to think for themselves through schools, media, and portions of the legal apparatus perhaps to be extended, will be unable to avoid the very fate we have already set out for them. This satisfies us as well, for it will not be we ourselves who have to live in the denuded future of a well-raped Earth. Youth will pay simply for being young.

            The call to limit youthful experience of the world in any way, no matter how juvenile the material or knowledge, only adds to the sense that we have given up on an ethical human future. Shutting it down ahead of time, exerting a pre-emptive strike against the coming freedom of world youth, is the evil privilege of adulthood. And adults are, in fact, old enough to know that we either use it or lose it. We betray our truer selves as maliciously resentful oversized children in its use.

            Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty books in ethics, education, aesthetics, health and social theory, and more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for two decades.

Who was that Unmasked Man?

Who was that Unmasked Man?

            The concept of authority is a much troubled one for we moderns. In the previous age, power amongst human beings was certainly brandished in a more subjective fashion, often based on personalist traits including the apparently vanished ‘charisma’, which the social scientist Max Weber implied could not exist in modernity. There was a corresponding paucity of rational mechanisms for the exertion of power by way of achieved or accrued status. Heritable station, even caste, was enough to endow some and deny many the necessary stakes in social life with which to maintain a viable existence. Though we are suspicious of authority in all its forms, we do pride ourselves in leveling the field to an extent that most persons in wealthy countries can at least live without daily fear of sickness and death.

            Why then, if we are aware of this transformation from what now appears to us as the patent unreason of a culture masking itself as a fraudulent nature – perhaps the final residue of this older worldview pertains to eugenics and ‘race’ theory, though any reductivist applied science skirts it at its peril; neuroscience, sociobiology, cognitive therapy – do we also consistently maintain an oft unreasoned skepticism regarding the space and status of modern authority? Why, given the seemingly obvious sensibility that an illness can be transmitted in this way or that, would some of us shun the equally obvious precautions? More than this, immediately declare that such passing modifications to daily life are a symptom of a deeper and darker recess within which authority conspires to dominate the world at large?

            The ‘strange bedfellows’ of politics aside, the resistance to the wearing of masks and practicing the so-called ‘social distance’ hails from the margins of mass democratic statehood. Small time evangelicals, neo-fascist militias, conspiracy ‘theorists’ of many stripes and streaks, even some neo-conservatives who feel abandoned by their chosen political representatives populate this pastiche. Who, exactly, are these fellow citizens, and why do they appear to differ from the vast majority of us along these sudden lines? Is the anti-mask affair merely a convenient hitching post where a number of unrelated horses may be tied during a tavern tabernacle? Is it a question of metaphor; a mask denies part of our identity, for instance, or is likened to a political muzzle? It certainly hasn’t taken long for advertisers to take advantage of this additional apparel ‘accessory’, given many masks now sport logos of various kinds. If there is a semi-conscious sense that a mask inhibits my personhood, many people have taken to creative work-arounds that still proclaim something about themselves they think it is worth others’ while to know, kind of like a removable tattoo.

            But not everyone. Authority in its contemporary issue is at once loosed from above and below alike. Above due to the apparent absence of godhead, and below, due to the problems of direct political representation. One the one hand, there is no ‘higher’ authority than the State, a difficult pill to swallow for many of us, myself as a thinker included. I would like to be able to say, ‘no, truth is itself the highest authority’, or more murkily, ‘art’, or ‘the good’. That the neighbor takes precedence over the socius, that my justice overtakes that of the law, that my ethical life exists beyond the general ken of rationalized morals, and so on. Aside from its claim to possess a monopoly of force, the State also declares itself to be the final court of both accusation and appeal. On the other hand, its presence, like the Leviathan, is to be taken as given and might only be indirectly questioned through regime change by way of the electoral process. Seen in its naked fraudulence, already less dressed than its predecessor the Church, the State is easy to unmask. That we understand our governments to wear the mask of responsibility – and sometimes even live up to this general theater in a convincing manner – is to also comprehend that they are not what they seem to be. So if the one who already wears the mask and is known to be other than it is demands that we too now don this same article, is that not to tell us that we must become yet more like the State in our private lives?

            We do hear the cliché refrain about the ‘nanny state’ within the fragmented voices of the anti-mask huzzah. Ask the same people about EI and healthcare etc. and there might be a different response. But bracketing this ever-present irony, I think that these protesters must view the State as something that is mysterious, a persona like Zorro or the Scarlet Pimpernel, to use some old-fashioned examples, but one which is magnified into a monstrous form. The Lone Ranger, from whose juvenile script the title of this piece is paraphrased, is, with further irony, a persona who would in fact appeal to the anti-maskers. They appear to see themselves as more individual than the rest of us, more self-reliant, more heroic, and evidently also more immune, even to non-human forms of life. If we were merely jaded, the entire affair would appear only as an ongoing cliché, the evil state making yet more demands upon freedom-loving individuals.

            Not only is this dull it is also dimwitted. One, no member of mass society can claim to be free in this way. Our individual freedom in the public realm is immensely limited, simply because of the existence of others. Respecting this is in fact an act of free will and a recognition of it as a principle of human life, as in doing so, we grant the freedom of others to also reassure us of our human status. To do otherwise is to set oneself apart from one’s fellows, however and otherwise strange they may be, and claim that only a certain few should be ‘free’ and the rest of us can go to the wall. Two, if there truly is a serious concern about civil liberties that too is addressed by not by making exceptions but by giving the other the courtesy to live with the best chance of being unassailed by health concerns. Freedom, in its ethical essence, consists of being a vehicle for the freedom of others.

            That the State must demand this of us can only be put down our own lack of ethical awareness. But organizing a symptom of such interaction amongst citizens is not the same as defining what freedom is or is not. A mask is metaphoric also in this way; it does not pretend to be the reality of mass society, only its appearance; anonymous and impersonal, generally non-responsible and always flirting with authoritarianism. The reality of our existence remains, as ever, within our own conscience. No decisions are being taken from us. When I forget my mask in my car on the way to the grocery store I duly return and retrieve it. I have done so uncounted times already as we are creatures of daily habit. Why I do so is another matter. I want to be one momentary vehicle for the freedom of the other. I do not want to ‘set an example’, ‘toe the line’, mock the other or chide her for her own neglect. And I do not desire to make myself mysterious; indeed, I am the less so because others observe my action as consistent with the otiose demands of the day. I have nothing to hide in wearing a mask, in the same way I might wear clothes, or that I might drive defensively, or that I limit my glance at an ‘attractive’ woman to a good-natured and discreet one-off. Perhaps I could do yet more to this last regard and many others, but the mask-wearing should be seen in the same light as all the other trifling things we do to make life easier and to let others know that we’re on their side no matter how ludicrous the effect.

            Freedom is itself a modern conception. One cannot imagine that modernity turns its back on its own native child. It is true that this birth, so cherished, has not lived up to its expectations, but what child does? Freedom is such a recent idea that one cannot expect it to manifest its historical genius overnight and over against the countless eons within which even its herald could not exist. I would suggest that anyone who has doubts about authority and feels his freedom impinged upon examine the critical threshold over which conformity becomes truly dangerous. I’d also like to say, ‘I’ll let you know’, but in fact each of us is charged with the task of confronting authority at every turn. It’s only the professional job of the thinker to do so; more profoundly, it is the birthright of all human beings. More than this, it is the working side of human freedom, which is absolutely not a given, as is the State, and which can only be made real through our being’s resoluteness, its being-ahead, and its receptivity to the call of conscience. Freedom, like history more widely, is both a gift and a task. The unmasked man of resistance in reality resists the work necessary for freedom to become authentic. Only in this authenticity can we in turn unmask any fraudulent attempt at truth, the enforced freedoms of institutions, for instance, or more personally, the beliefs we imagine overtake those same institutions, almost all of which arose in ages wherein human freedom was non-existent. The unimpressive irony of the anti-mask associates betrays its lack of historical consciousness precisely along these lines; that it seeks freedom from modern authority through the use of older and likely imaginary authorities that would, if left unconstrained, demolish every last bit of human freedom we have painstakingly attained over the past four centuries. Thus the mask I wear protects me from far more than just a virus.

            Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty books in ethics, education, health, aesthetics and social theory, as well as more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

My Encounter with Leni Riefenstahl

My Encounter with Leni Riefenstahl

            The deep contempt with which the still noble world of antiquity treated the Christian belongs just where the instinctual repugnance for the Jews belongs today: it is the hatred of the free and self-confident classes for those who make their way forward unobtrusively and combine shy, awkward gestures with an absurd sense of self-worth. (Nietzsche, notebook 10, Autumn, 1887, italics original).

            In the spring of 1995 I shared some BC ferry seats with German film-maker Leni Riefenstahl and her long time partner Horst Kettner. They were simply two unobtrusive members of a large tour bus filled with Germans visiting Vancouver Island. What little of the language I had at the time told me they were discussing local scuba diving and underwater marine film, which was then the vogue in her varied film making career. We stared at one another for a few moments when we debarked but I was far too shy to say anything, assuming her English was as poor as was my French. I had seen, a few months beforehand, the documentary ‘Power of the Image’ which was an awkward biography of her professional life, though it allowed me to immediately identify them aside from the conversation at hand. Knowing who she was imparted to her a presence that no one else in my experience has possessed. Of course, this was as much a projection as anything to do with a larger history. I was so taken aback at this encounter that I spoke of it with no one for many years, and it faded from memory.

            But it ‘never goes away’, just as Sir Ian McKellen’s character in Stephen King’s ‘Apt Pupil’ reminded the young protagonist regarding fascist yearnings. That hour or so on the ferry was silently awkward and in the end, irrelevant to anything in my personal life at the time. Now, a quarter century later and some seventeen years after her death in 2003, I only find myself returning to it given my own recent work on the fascism of meanings in fantasy writing and in liberal humanistic philosophy. I never had agreed with Sontag, whom I use regularly as a source, that Riefenstahl’s directing somehow embodied the so-called ‘fascist aesthetic’. No, we do, as a whole, embody such a form. The sub-title to the 2-part ‘Olympia’, Riefenstahl’s film devoted to the 1936 Summer Games – the version that invented the torch run, amongst other ongoing things – is loosely given as ‘festival (or celebration) of peoples, festival of beauty’ which is essentially what the Olympics are and have always been. Riefenstahl nailed it because she herself as a youth had embodied these qualities, as judged by the esthetics of the time. Not, aesthetics, which is the more serious and formal term for the philosophical study of art forms. There is no fascist ‘aesthetic’, even as there remains an undeniable fascist esthetic – the look of beauty, its identity, its genders, its glamor and the ressentiment that attends to its every move. The supermodel of today is the Christian of the first century Levant, the fashion critic, the Jew.

            Nietzsche’s texts were notoriously reconstituted by the Reich, but not all his work needed such over-writing. Hitler was both shy, awkward, and oddly unassuming, in both his sensibilities and in his gestures. They come across today as absurdities, and John Cleese makes a better ‘Mr. Hilter’ than did Hitler himself. Daily overcoming social anxiety, Hitler memorized his speeches, endlessly practicing his body language and facial expressions in front of the mirror, and one can only imagine resenting his inconsequential stature, provincial birthright and all the rest of it. It is a feeling that many of us must also overcome, for who is born at the center of things who then seeks to become the center of everything?

            Man to woman, someone like Hitler could never have landed a date with someone like Riefenstahl, one of the dream-girls of her day. And yet history brought them together and sometimes in close quarters. Hitler, with just that ‘absurd sense of self worth’ imagined he understood art, and he certainly put much energy into what abilities he did have – his watercolor renderings were decent for an architectural student though very much out of fashion when in 1907, he was rejected in favor of Oskar Kokoschka in the entrance competition to the Vienna art academy – and ‘aesthetics’ dominated the Reich from its attempts at stolen nobility right down to its very uttermost depths of human evil. Yet this too, the ‘saving’ of the world by eliminating those who stain it, remains with us. In this current era of renewed naissance of nationalism and patriotism of party, are we not embodying something rather more than just the look of what is deemed to be beautiful?

            It almost seems that none of the larger geopolitical lessons of the second World War have stuck with us, and we are approaching a biographical threshold over which an absence proclaims itself: that no one living will have lived through that now alien period. It is a limen that creates history out of what was until that point still memory. It is, from the perspective of human experience that can be personally and intimately shared, a most dangerous moment. The only response we have to confront this aleatory lacunae is by way of art. Riefenstahl’s service was more than regrettable, but her films themselves remain as relevant as ever. But not in that they in turn served to help convince many Germans of the time that their path had become one of super-destiny and that the ‘natural’ form of response to any ‘lower’ form was contempt, just as Nietzsche had suggested some half-century earlier.

            Though in the intervening decades it was the German social scientist Max Weber who corrected Nietzsche’s perhaps metaphoric language regarding the origins of Christianity and its relationship with the ancient Hebrews – in the Roman Mediterranean, Christianity was actually sourced in the artisan classes and spread upwards from there, not downwards; it was not a ‘slave religion’ in any real sense – such an understanding could only direct further obloquy against the ‘pariah community’ of the nascent Jewish diaspora. With further irony, Hitler’s movement was limited to awkwardly skulking along politically for over a decade. Historically, one can as ever hope that the same may be said of it; a moment when human reason took a recess. But this is naïve.

            What are the movements of the margins in our own time? Who is attracted to them and why? Where do they arise and how? And are they merely nostalgic retreads of lost historical causes or are they rather symptoms of a society and a world that continues to structure its life and consciousness too closely to that which allowed fascism to grasp the center of things to its paltry self before being superseded by the slightly more subtle neo-colonial ambitions of the victorious powers?

            At once, we can do two things, each of us: one, the next time we are tempted to look with contempt at another human being, step back from doing so. No one person can be the lightning rod for historical ressentiment. Riefenstahl neither as an artist nor as a person can be accountable for the way that I might stare down my nose at the so-called ‘ignoble’ of humanity. And two, we must recognize that our shared contempt for those whose marginal existences has driven them to entertain the worst of our humanity can only aid their cause. Instead, we can yet take both core principles of Judaism and Christianity to be our guides; the one, that we as a species are and remain the ‘chosen people’, and the other, that we are thence placed in the existential position of having to choose one another through the act of the neighbor. It is only through this act, the ‘libertinage of compassion’, that our world will survive itself, let alone its lack of memory of the chance encounters through which historical consciousness is in majority made.

            Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty books in ethics, aesthetics, education, health and social theory, and more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Gandalf Hitler: on the Fascism of Fantasy

Gandalf Hitler: on the Fascism of Fantasy

           “The will to pleasure and the will to death also live with one another, even within one another. Is one only angelic and the other only demonic? Hardly so. Pleasure induces a great suffering, second only to that of love, and death could well be its merciful release. She is an angel, yes, but angels too have needs. They are not exactly human but all this presents to me is a challenge.” (from Loewen 2020c).

                A cursory view of the fantasy genre suggests a puzzle which might engender a quest of its own: which is more phantasmagorical: The reality from which we desire escape or that which we use as an escape? On the one hand, the novels, the cycles, the screenplays, the scripts; on the other, and adding to their simultaneous simulacra, the actors, the directors, the producers, the publishers. Akin to Bartok’s ‘The Miraculous Mandarin’, fantasy as entertainment and escape present to society a massive decoy game which outlasts political regimes and the ebb and flow of wealth. Yet this kind of fantasy is not ancient in the manner in which religion, for instance, is understood. We moderns have replaced deistic religion with that civil, but the State remains all too real, in spite of its presentation of self as our guardian angel. So the enchanted element of religious belief, its sheer demand for a faith rather than for a proof – there can be no ‘proving’ magic, as it were – is left to the culture industry.

            The very phrase is a contradiction in terms. Not only by virtue of modern redefinitions of what constitutes ‘production’ – something that generates capital directly; and yet how can a Tolkien or a Rowling not be seen as producers of impressive capital? – but as well by equally contemporary aesthetic standards; culture as Kultur or Kunst cannot be ‘produced’ in this way. Art either transcends the mundanity of productive history or it presents itself as an horizontal egress from it. The one is sometimes still referred to as ‘serious art’ and the other correspondingly ‘popular’. Fantasy writing etc. occupies the latter, and hence – or is it thence? – so does fantasy itself.

            With approximately 55% female readership, fantasy writing nevertheless has been historically written mostly by men (though one study states that in the first quarter of 2019 female authors accounted for about 60% of the more current publications). Of the women writers covering the last fifty years or so, bracketing possible pseuodonymy either way, about 80% of publications etc. which contain female leads have as their plot a romance centering around that heroine who is from the beginning already fully equipped for the task at hand but has been unfairly denied the opportunity to press on with the necessary quest. She may have been betrayed by her mentor (Sarah Maas’s eight volume cycle is likely the most known example), or she is absented from an important male who actually turns out to be the rightful heir dispossessed (Crusader Kings 3 and other such digital media), or her love interest is driven by the desire to wield power from behind the scenes (Game of Thrones). The ‘Lady Macbeth’ trope dies hard, and that amongst women who should know better.

            Even where ‘enchantment’ in the purely phantasmagorical sense is irrelevant, the fantasy itself continues apace. In the recent Millie Bobbi Brown affair ‘Enola Holmes’, the teenage heroine is again a displaced genius with all of the skills of an unlikely Ninja but with none of the opportunity. Yet the already famed Holmes brothers’ much younger sister, in spite of her tactical heroics, ultimately favors the conservative path of lesser resistance, in disregard of her mother and mentor being a political radical. What the heroine does resist is love, for it is, though authentic, apparently too paternalistically in the way of her chosen vocation. She tells the camera that her name spelled backwards is, after all, ‘alone’, and thus she follows in Sherlock’s footfalls, alone and aloof if not entirely inhumane. The message for youth, especially for young women, is to simply get your due piece of the action as it is, and not to alter anything structural about the system of belief or of production as it is. The unreality of the heroine’s skill set is only matched by that of the plot – there is a moment where she could have, given her martial arts abilities, simply thrown Lestrade out of a third story window and thereby taken her cause into the authentically political; another wherein she is slapped in the face by her oncoming finishing school governess and then cowers before her instead of snapping her neck, and so on – which hurtles along its ludicrous path while purporting to inspire young people to ‘become who they are’. The individuated sense of heroism overtakes the social reforms that occur through her saving of the rightful male (again), a young lord whose vote facilitates a progressive bill for the era, and this in a currently neo-fascist UK that remains nostalgic for empire and tirelessly promotes its historical literature, both serious and popular, as part of its equally tired civil religion. Where female youth continue to attend schools in pleats and where corporal punishment in the home has yet to be outlawed. One is tempted to reply to the Russian minister of defense when he commented that the Royal Navy’s new carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth II was ‘simply a large target’, that England itself is in fact a much larger one. The fantasy of Britannia as the ocean-ruling-sword-wielding Atlantis is also ‘simply’ the expensive version of Hogwarts. It is furthermore a masculine fantasy that itself wields the topless pale nymph upon its nautical escutcheon as a kind of ironic talisman. Fittingly, we do not see even a hint of Ms. Brown’s cleavage let alone the other, setting the tone for a church-mouse chastity that reminds one of a Victorian Emma Peel. Dame Diana Rigg, herself schooled in a harsh religious institution which she later felt ‘built her character’, resigned from the projected panache of sexualized violence of ‘The Avengers’ after only two seasons. No doubt the role clashed with her own sensible sensibilities which are after all, also Britain’s very own. Male viewers of the time were nevertheless transfixed.

                Male readers of fantasy as revealed by social media studies complain that fantasy heroines are ‘too perfect’ and ‘unrealistic’, though it should be immediately noted that there is no such concern if the leads are male (‘The Witcher’, for example). But patent sexism aside for the moment, the vast majority of fantasy heroines are indeed portrayed as if they were members of some occluded suffragette movement with the quest to take back the prematurely gifted grail of ‘just give us the tools, and we’ll finish the job’. In fact, in the scripts at least, they are already well in possession of the tools. What they lack, so we are told, is the job, any job.

            In spite of the compelling necessity to exeunt from the penury of wage-slavery as well as from the equal pressures of familial piety, consumers of fantasy, no matter the media of presentation, succumb to narratives which only reinforce the very systems from which they seek relief. And within competing brands of fantasy there is also to be found the fraudulent Sturm und Drang of male heroes who exude a toxic masculinity (James Patterson’s ‘Harry Bosch’ must be the recent paragon of this vile type, to stick within the detective genre for a moment; a ‘man’ who threatens to assault his handsome adolescent daughter, perhaps in lieu of having actual sex with her) as if to provide a bellicose balance to the heroines who in their turn exhibit a strangely disloyal selfishness. The customary sensibility that women should be automatically altruistic and engage in self-sacrifice is at first subverted. These ready-made legends carry all before them but even so, their entire redemptive purpose is to restore the male to his rightful place. This too is a tired real-world fantasy that many women have found, with experience, to be both unworthy of whatever skills they do in fact possess, but also, in these days of dishonor and unchivalry, with most men, quite impossible.

            The other 20% of female-authored fantasies which also have female leads are, however, much more realistic. Here we find the young women ill-prepared for the task at hand, unknowing of either the goal of the quest or of the skills necessary to undertake it. This is the model I use in my own epic, by the way. These superior plots recognize that the phase of any quest which is at least of equal importance to the epic action is the learning curve itself, taken on without promise and sometimes even without premise, for the mystery only gradually unfolds before her as she becomes more of an initiate into the other world. Indeed, there is much less fantasy overall in such texts and thus, correspondingly, much more reality, the kind within which persons are faced with in the day to day. Rather than abruptly excerpting the consumer from their sordid mundanity, they impress upon the reader the necessity of self-understanding, which is a form of love, and which as well can only arrive at some kind of authenticity from within the call of conscience. What inhibits this human process is precisely the fascist fantasy we make daily of social reality as it stands, and which has a far greater consumption rate than do even the most famous fantasy cycles or series. Almost all of us consume it, and any escape therefrom – given that it mostly occurs not by virtue of virtuous wizardry but rather through a doubled-over expanse of distracting entertainment ‘events’, from sports to politics to parenting and ‘even’ to education, voluntarism and worship, all hard-ruled by fascist forms and norms whose goal is control Über Alles, and that together seek to define what the human being is and thus what we are capable of being – is had at the cost of changing that world which is at present our own into one more humane in both its scope and meaning.

            My sense of a true heroine who learns to love herself outside of the objectification of ordered obsolescence (James’s ‘Portrait of a Lady’), outside of the glare of glamorous Glasglocke (Plath’s self-portrait), and eschewing the too-educated senses of an Austen or a Bronte, the duet of female fantasists of the preceding age, is one who first overturns filial piety, through parricide if necessary, then overtakes the lead male and cuts him down from behind, unexpectedly, ruthlessly, but also with pleasure, the undressed redress of all ‘discipline’ that has been suffered upon young women as the theatre of surrogate sex. My invocation of the true heroine of the nearest future is an orison not to the beyond but to the coming birthright of the days of decision, wherein humanity as a whole will be forced to confront the effects of its own self-made cause. For

                “The unpolished edge of futurity will draw our collective blood. If it must be spilled, then let the one who holds the sword be a visionary and not a reactionary. Let her raven eyes be the windows of our collective soul. Let her joyous judgement be the compassion of our call to conscience. Let her unknowing be but innocence and never ignorance. Let her knowing become the working wisdom of light before heat”. (from Loewen 2020c).

                Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty books in ethics, aesthetics, education, health and social theory, as well as more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor in the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

In Memoriam: Edward Van Halen

A musical virtuoso whose shared humanity came across in every note, Edward Van Halen 1955-2020.

In Memoriam: Edward Van Halen

                                    Turned out the simple life, weren’t so simple

                                    When I got out on that road. (Van Halen 1978).

            In his Smithsonian Institution interview, Van Halen spoke of the immigrant story, of a family thrown into an alien world, back in 1962 when the to-be-virtuoso guitarist was a mere seven years old. Not speaking English was the greatest barrier at first, but there would be others. A study in contrasts that nevertheless ended up making eminent sense, Van Halen’s life was defined at the outset as an American dream; unlikely, hard-working, persistent, celebrated, resented, and ultimately cut short by the perennially pallid penury of professional entertainment. He spoke of their debut album, which went on to sell more than ten million copies and usher in a new kind of popular music that blended the angst of punk and the romance of the dance floor, as being the beginning of experience, of lost innocence: ‘we cut a best-selling album, went on a sold-out tour for a year, and when we got back the record company told me, congratulations, you owe us a new album and three million dollars.’

            No life can be said to be simple, no matter what it might look like from without. A musical hero, however brilliant and with an impulsive and improvisatory genius however breathtaking, remains human. And yet that is what I always felt was so compelling about Van Halen’s guitar playing; its resonant humanity. Hendrix was god-like, and one could be forgiven if one imagined that he was something more than human. Howe is distant, unforgiving, beautiful in the way great art is and yet oddly removed from the heart of things. Clapton guttural and bitter, abrasive and sometimes even smug. McLaughlin a single strike through the conscience of consciousness, transporting the listener quite literally to ‘visions beyond’. Metheny cool, even chill, the perfection of a sculptor who renders his music as if it could retain its sonic solidity indefinitely. Of all the virtuosos that come easily to mind, only Eric Johnson, like Van Halen, comes across as a great human being first, his humanity guiding the music and creating an over-souled bond with the listener.

            But Van Halen’s perfection came in the midst of mayhem, banality, and a musical form that would not, at first glance, be a likely birthplace for virtuoso genius. Compared with the other great electric players in the above paragraph, Van Halen as a band was the bread and butter, meat and potatoes variety of music. This too made Edward Van Halen stand out without forcing him to stand apart. Millions showed to see him first, as the feature, the lead, the hero, the star. In the most unlikely of places we are struck by the exactitude of his solos – perhaps the most obvious example would be the utter perfection exhibited in ‘Somebody get me a Doctor’ (1979) wherein we are transfixed by seemingly the only series of notes that could elevate a throw-away song into something we would play over and over again; but there are many others – and if Van Halen as a performing act often came across as rock and roll’s answer to Barnum and Bailey, its bombast always had the good graces to never take itself so seriously as to vanish up its own posterior, as did many – if not all – of the biggest acts previous to them.

            I was one of uncounted teenage guitar players fascinated by Van Halen’s technical innovations, attempting to mimic them and feeling inordinately proud when I even came close. And though we are aware that both Hendrix and Hackett regularly used the right-handed ‘hammer-on’ move, for instance, it was Van Halen who perfected it and let it transform the guitar into a broader musical palette. His instrument was inseparable from his person, prefiguring the relations of production in the as yet mythical communism of Marx and Engels, when they speak of the ‘authenticity of the product of labor’. In this too Van Halen was a visionary, and the intriguing mix of juvenilia and critical politics to be found in the actual song-writing of the band is suggestive of a manner of speaking to youth of the difference between things that matter now and those that matter for all time, of some things that matter as much to a mature human life as we as young people might imagine does romance, sex, relationships, money and fame. The band and its blueprint appear to be an essay in confrontation, but by now, after long having the entirety of their catalogue within easy grasp, the whole of what Van Halen was really about appears without such blur.

            And what this whole is, is a kind of freedom from needless and mindless restraint, rule, form and norm. It isn’t simple, just as a human life can never be. To attain a sense of one’s life is to have the courage to get past what has been the past, something that Van Halen never ceased to accomplish. This is the greater freedom of historical being; that history is not yet done. It is a freedom that celebrates its true cause by singing the praises of its passing effects. A freedom that speaks to each generation when it is most receptive of listening, but one which also hopes that in a more sober stage of existence all of us will begin to heed its call and take life itself to be the open and powerful instrument of popular art that Edward Van Halen took to be his own.

            Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty books in ethics, aesthetics, education, health and social theory, and more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor in the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

A Speculative Spectrality

Purported ghost image near deer feeder with buck attending. On the right, a closer view without other objects.
Purported image of alien or unknown species (known colloquially or in ‘fakelore’ as ‘the rake’), on deer cam. The camera was discovered the next morning destroyed but the chip survived, suggesting a limit to the creature’s acumen and knowledge of current technology.

A Speculative Spectrality

            In a world with much jostling and grinding daily, one can easily overlook the older anxiety that concerned itself with ‘bumps in the night’. Of late, however, several nocturnal images have appeared that attempt to suggest that these our latter days are not fully free of our ancestors’ imaginations as well as, perhaps, their fears. Though the images reproduced here presumably could have been faked – and we also presume most persons would simply presume that they have been so – the question that remains is why such imagery? This is not a question about why would someone fake an intriguing image, but specifically, why this kind of image, one that purports to represent either ethereal beings or creatures ‘unknown to science’, to use an antiquely appropriate period phrase.

            The first image, which one would think was a vintage doll of some kind – though the deer seems transfixed by its presence; perhaps the doll was sprayed with an attractive scent – represents a ‘ghost’ or spirit. The use of a child is meant to promote a willing sympathy, a female child a sense of vulnerability or yet incompetence. If such a child were really lost in the woods most persons would attempt an immediate rescue. But how do you rescue a ghost? And from what? Having suffered the most grievous crisis known to mortal being, what more could have befallen her? And from such questions, however rhetorical, comes the more pressing question: what is to happen to us? What, in other words, is the meaning of my death?

            It is to this existential anxiety that such images seek address. Not in any abstract manner, since the doll or whatever it may be represents a singular vision and, along with the other creature, an alternative to known beings. I am neither a child nor female, and I am from our own time, when girls are not normally dressed in such vestments. If the first image is anything, it is personal. Even if it is a material fraud, we are forced to identify with its spiritual implications. We know there have been those who have passed before us. Into what? Where? Or if nowhere, what is the zero character of nothingness? We know we too will pass before our youth, other things being equal, and thus we also have already seen, in life, our own autobiographical youth pass before us. I doubt I’ll end up lost in the woods, ethereally incarnated in some regressed form. Indeed, those were the halcyon days of my childhood, wandering in the woods, unmolested by anyone or anything, long before deer cams were invented. Given that, if each of us tends towards their own paradise, an eternity on the beaches and in the forests of my homeland awaits me.

            Seeking attention in life, creating a sensation, committing a prank just for the sake of it, are some humanly material activities that the advent of digital communications have augmented. In the day of the proposed child in the image, a campfire story would be the result of a chance encounter with the unexplained or yet-to-be more lucidly understood. These are minor expressions of the basic will to life that mortal being accrues over that very life course.

            But what if what animates this questioning consciousness also has its own evolution? What if the existence of ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ were not at all perennial but rather a ‘secular trend’? This phrase, a term from evolutionary biology, refers to factors which influence the adaptation of regional populations, such as sickle cell anemia. Here, let us propose a species-wide secularity, one that separated us from our more indirect hominid ancestry. We know, for instance, that memorial rites date from the earliest period of anatomically modern human’s existence, some three hundred millennia ago, first discovered, I think, in Anatolia. Durkheim suggests that the work of mourning is the origin of all human memory. In recalling those now passed to themselves, early humans, our most ancient direct ancestors, had made the connection between existence and its trademark conscious and acting life. What they did not do was to extend that logic to non-existence. Instead, ‘inexistence’ was imagined as being the other state into which being could enter pending the completion of materiality. We do not know any details of the thinking of these first fully human beings. It is something we can never know, and in that, this absence of the origin of thought mirrors the absence of thought’s ends. Just as we cannot experience our own deaths, yet we must experience the abstraction of death through the lives of others who confront it before we ourselves must. Both the beginning and the end are obscure to us. We do not choose to be born and, in any general sense, we also do not choose to die.

            If the spirit exists – this is a different, though obviously related, question to that of whether or not ‘spirits’, like the ones purported to be in the images in question, exist – its existence is something that should mirror our understanding of how we ourselves exist, since our spirit is said to be the very essence of our being. Humans are an evolved creature, like all others of which we know. Each part of our complicated and holistically interacting systems has evolved, in current understanding, ‘directly’ for something over seven millions of years. We, perhaps with some vanity, attribute to humanity a soaring spiritude, something that is complex and evolved, however mature it has become or may yet become. Such an ‘organ’, such an aspect of being which partakes of evolutionary Being, could very well have a lengthy pedigree, which might also include other states. Yet if one’s own spirit develops as does one’s own body, then we truly cringe at the possibility – not necessarily ever captured by technology – that a child’s soul, cut out of its living mass before its time, wanders alone and lonely across the exsanguinated expanse of an anonymous world.

            Such imagery that sources itself in our existential questions has a unique, even uncanny power. It is this that we react to, if such haunting or poignant pseudo-portraits give us the spine-tingling moment of sudden self-recognition. If it were the case – and we must remind ourselves that there is no empirical evidence either way regarding such mysteries – that not only the spirit exists but also develops and continues, then we too as living spirits must seek to undertake our own ends. By this I mean that we not only should be prepared to risk our current comprehension of the cosmos in order to widen our conscious aperture, but we should also begin to critically entertain the ancient idea that though there can be nothing larger than life whilst life exists, that there may be more to life than our extant life is willing to admit to itself.

            Without dwelling on the phantasmagorical, the most searching interrogative that such imagery confronts us with is the ethical question of the character of our existence as it is known. How do we live and why do we do so in this way? What is the meaning of my existence, and why do I generally avoid asking such a question? The proposal that we may be more than we can know can be taken quite literally, and without resort to other states or ideas of an afterlife. We each of us is indeed more than we merely have been. The pressing and rather material question concerning whether or not we can be that being, the being of the future and not of the past, is quite simply the most important question of our shared existence.

            Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of forty books in ethics, education, religion, aesthetics, health and social theory, and more recently metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

In memoriam: Julian Bream

Julian Bream 1933-2020.

In Memoriam: Julian Bream

            The post-war period was fraught with both a sense of liberation and one of alienation. The first due to what appeared at the time to be a resounding victory over fascism, the second due to the sober, and sobering, second thought that such a victory had cost us our very understanding of its opposite, our sense of human freedom. It was left to the sacred aspects of consciousness to breathe anew upon the embers of an incinerated culture. The most enduring light of the sacred represenced itself in art.

            The vehicles for that perduring power in music turned out to be many; Glenn Gould, Isaac Stern, Leonard Bernstein, Herbert Von Karajan, Maurizio Pollini. Their collective human past, their singular biographies mattered not a jot, in the end. That is, mattered only insofar as their art overtook what it had taken to create it. Such a list is graced by a musician whose instruments remain marginal to serious music. My own instrument, the classical guitar, chief amongst this relative obscurity. So all the more, Julian Bream, the most important guitar player of the post-war era, stands out. It is one thing to be a transformative vehicle for art new and old, but to do so without a baton, piano, or violin, is more than astonishing. Bream accomplished this feat, recording around one hundred albums, listing four Grammy winners, and leaving a legacy that shaped contemporary music well beyond his instrument.

            My student life was hallmarked by being a student of the students of greatness. Partly demographic, partly region of birth, partly class and social background, I was never in any position to personally encounter the top tier of anything. There is no bitterness in this commonplace. Indeed, my own deafness is the nominal version of Beethoven’s; to listen too much is to be bequeathed only the greatness of what already has been. I studied with Bryan Townsend, now a composer, who in turn studied with Michael Strutt, who himself was a student of Bream. In my professional career, I studied with students of the likes of Goffman, Lévi-Strauss, and Parsons. Generally I never think of this pedigree, as it is of no public moment and is not a conscious influence on my own work.

            But when one does encounter the presence of the sacred, the wider universe opens up. Wider, deeper, farther, and with more mystery than any history can encompass. This was the effect of witnessing Julian Bream perform in Victoria in 1985. On stage, Bream always cut an ethereal figure. Not due to any self-conscious theater on his part, but rather because of his execution. Never one for fashionable mannerisms, styles, or pedantries, Bream played everything his own way; the Frank Sinatra of guitar, perhaps. From John Dowland to Benjamin Britten, from Philip Rosseter to Hans Werner Henze, Bream didn’t just record and perform the history of music before one’s senses, he threw open the very space and time in which that music had been created. He opened the portal of the collective soul.

            I felt like I was abruptly there, in an Elizabethan court, in the heated romance of a nocturnal Madrid, or yet in the stark glare of a glass-worked post-war Geist, our own modern moment, shared and unshared alike. Bream was not merely a master of all genres, he was a native to their unabashed birthright. He understood that art enacted had the ability to travel in time and space, but also, and at once more intimately and more infinitely, to transpose one’s own experience with that of the radical otherness of this or that fellow human; a being somewhat like ourselves but with a most necessary message to impart to us.

            Like a Daemon with a human interest, the artist provides the scandal by which history can dismantle morality.  Like a God with a self-interest, the artist recasts morality so that it too, along with ourselves, cannot rest inchoate and bloated amongst the shards of principals and the bad faith of a self-righteousness of neglected responsibility. The presence of artists like Julian Bream is both a reminder of the character of human interest – we seek to overcome our finiteness through the legacy of Works – and that of the world’s ongoing character – one that provides the broader perspective that human finitude alone cannot. Bream represenced the world as an aspect of the being of humanity. In his art one could find the most human of arts, the arts of living and dying alike.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of forty books in ethics, aesthetics, education, health and social theory, and more recently metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor in the interdisciplinary human sciences for twenty years.