Malice and Co.

Malice and Co. (The Nobel and the Noble)

            When my wife and I were living back on the West Coast we knew a retired teacher who not only had the grace to read my first short fiction collection but also the generosity to extoll my ‘genius’ in an hours-long conversation afterward. During this too-pleasant evening he told us of an encounter with one of his youthful students. Then twelve, she had become attached to him in the classroom, and what do you know, the first day of summer had brought her newly minted teen self to his front door, unannounced but promptly revealing every intent to intimately engage with him. To his credit, he gently ran her off, never to return. But indeed, such a moment must force every man to ask of himself a challenging question, ‘what would I have done in his place?’. Writ small, this is the same question that history poses to each of us, man or woman or other, and the usual contents are ‘would I have worked in a death camp or been one of its victims or, in turn, done nothing at all?’. As an ethicist, in fact I cannot say what I would have done. Like an ominous version of the contextual jest, one would have ‘had to have been there’ to really get it.

            I doubt very much many of us could know, given the hypotheticals of alternate biographies and all that such might imply. Certainly, as a young professor, I had a conga line of young women at my door – brazenly so since all of them were of legal age or older – and while I was still single, I acted upon many such calls. But twelve or thirteen seems a different matter. So, when it was revealed that Alice Munro’s daughter had been molested by her second husband at all of nine years old, with him claiming it was merely a scene out of Lolita after all, I cringed. No, the character in Nabokov was twelve, not nine, and there is a world of difference at that age. Lolita also had already been placed in a criminal circumstance by Humbert, and the reader is left with both having to trust his account of things thenceforth as well as presume that the young woman was hoping to ease her predicament; ‘well, at least he won’t kill me if I have regular sex with him’. And while it is highly unlikely that any nine-year-old would be the initiator of such circumstance, at twelve or thirteen, it might be a different story. As indeed it should be, barring intimacy. I say this because by adolescence a child needs to have that sense that she is becoming her own person. In many families with whom I have consulted, there was an ‘Electraic’ tension between mother and daughter, beginning around that age: ‘She mocks me, hates me even, is jealous of my looks and freedom and thinks dad admires me and not her. Maybe he does. She attempts to control me, and yet she still gets to sleep with him. I know how to fuck her over big time, just watch me’, and so on. Of course, the father is still culpable if he enables such desires, but the desires themselves are perfectly understandable and, as an assertion of nascent selfhood, even laudable.

            But not at nine. This fellow, who served no jail time, was clearly a villain, but such proved as well to be the case for the Nobel novelist. It is this latter fact which is causing conniptions in so-called cultural circles, but once again, there is much evidence to vouchsafe the authenticity of Munro’s feelings. Upon divorce, the child who remains from this now moribund union is often subjected to resentment, even hatred. She is a reminder of a bond now sundered, the once gift of love become the spawn of bitterness. Munro’s daughter was abused twice over, first by her step-father and then by her mother, who wholly bought into the Lolita idea. This kind of thing is no odd slap in the face, also not to be countenanced of course, but rather constitutes an outright betrayal. But does any of this impinge upon Munro’s creative works, and if so, how so?

            Somewhat akin to the proverbial death camp question, such a relationship ambiguates established legacies. One thing I do know is that its not a problem for me. I always disdained Munro’s work; nostalgic navel-gazing from gloom and doom baby-boom. But intriguingly, and perhaps ironically, the discovery that the author herself was a villain with real feelings and conflict in her existence, which it appears she tried to suppress for decades, might well make her work the more interesting. It would have to be something big to do so, at least for myself as a fiction writer and a scholar in aesthetics. Yet culture history is replete with villains, many of such standing as to make Munro, Woody Allen and like company look themselves like nine-year-olds. The most important case must be that of Richard Wagner, whose towering genius is often seen as tainted by his vehement political anti-Semitism. It could be argued that Wagner himself had a role, however cameo, in the murder of twelve millions in the camps and sixty elsewhere around the globe. ‘Go big’ must have been his mantra, given the Ring cycle and many other grand artistic works. But even here, his personal sensibilities, presumably reflected or at least refracted in his creations, we are left with ambiguity. His call to his Jewish musicians to ‘lose their Jewishness’ since otherwise they were ‘the perfect human beings’ might be interpreted as simply a reminder that ethnicity of any sort is both window-dressing and crutch, and decoys the noble soul away from his authenticity as a superior human being. If that was the case, I would wholly agree.

            Other famous cases of the handwringing at history remain at our newly gnarled fingertips. Heidegger, also no fan of ‘The Jews’, nevertheless saved both his mentor and his lover, both Jewish, from the Nazi onslaught, suggesting that it was not ethnicity itself that he disdained but rather simple inferiority. Husserl, being one of the great modern philosophers and the founder of phenomenology as a serious discourse, as well as Hannah Arendt, who went on to become arguably the most important female thinker of the twentieth century, were certainly neither of them inferior in any way. Richard Strauss was pushed out of his job as the Reich’s Art Director because he defended working with Jewish writers and musicians. Uh, yeah, Wagner, Heidegger, Strauss. Who is Alice Munro again?

            But aside from the wider historical context and career of what has to be by now a cliché – ‘I found out my hero was a villain, woe is me!’ – we must, as with the problem of history in general, turn the critical lens upon ourselves. That there exist people who might well wish me dead simply tells me I have lived my own life, and without reserve. One owns one’s own iniquities, and I am fortunate, equally simply, that my list contains nothing overly villainous, such as molesting children or, for that matter, running a death camp. But facts and fancies are ill-matched, and just as Nietzsche slyly reminded us that pride ultimately triumphs over memory, the critic’s own desires might well be able to vanquish history itself. For instance, I have been referred to as a child pornographer, and by someone I grew up with no less. Given the commonplace and wholly fictional idea that an author must always be culling from his own personal experience, I had to blink at the implications of such an outrageous charge. Disgusted by Lolita and Romeo and Juliet alike, for my first published fictional work, I wrote something more inspiring and in fact, more real to life, if not actually my life. To my mind, this is what a good fiction author does. They don’t just look, as one of Munro’s peers has done, at Heinlein’s If this goes on…, or yet The Odyssey, and say, ‘well, how about telling the same story but from a female perspective?’. Uh, how about it? No, rather they take up a famous trope and completely redo it, from the inside out, making it once again our own, instead of the piece of comforting nostalgia it has over the centuries become. This, by the way, was the entire intent of Queen of Hearts. Both Camelot and Calvary are now once again authentically our own stories, and not those of our distant, and dreary, ancestors.

            For distant and dreary are, at last, perhaps the two things that link Munro’s personal villainy and her cultural works. In both sets of narratives there is much suppression, much decoy behavior. That she knew these very human errors personally, and not simply by way of a creative imagination, both makes her writings more real and at once less artistic. Since never the twain completely meet, each of us must then decide for herself whether we prefer art, or rather life.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of sixty books in ethics, education, aesthetics, health, social theory and other areas, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Authorship and Authority

Authorship and Authority (Consider the Source)

            ‘Arguments from authority are worthless’, declares Carl Sagan, as he famously defined science near the end of the epic Cosmos (1981). This is surely an element of any research field, where there is not only always the next experiment and the next, but as well, the sense that our knowledge, however cumulative, is always both partial in the sense of being incomplete, as well as in that second, deeper sense of being biased. We are not only children of our own times and no other, we are also subject, as mortal beings, to the degradation of memory and the flight of fantasy. Beyond all of this local flavor, reality is, its ‘realismus’, itself subject to change given cosmic evolution. What once were constants have been shown to be relative and discursively, we cannot be certain that it is our own history that is at least a partial source of the enduring mysteries we encounter when we do inquire into the universe at large. The most obvious such link is that diverse antique civilizations and their moralities appeared to endure, almost timelessly, and thus in their worldviews, corresponding to their perduring quality as understood from the point of view of each short generation of mortal denizens, their ideas about the cosmos were also timeless. In a word, the politics of humanity spills historically into the human understanding of nature.

            Sagan was himself an authority in both astronomy and physics, and he was a decent interpreter of history and culture as well. In spite of his credo, he too was a moralist, and in spite of the framework of his chief vocation which he correctly outlined in what remains the most watched documentary series of all time, he too mustered arguments ‘from authority’ from time to time, no less than in defining the merits of science as the ‘best tool’ humanity possessed. It is of more than passing interest that Max Weber, arguably the greatest authority  and expert on society of all time cautioned us against relying upon expertise for any serious decision in or about that same society. What are we then to make of major figures who seem to bely, or even outright deny, their authority in matters we have already ceded to them? This is more than a question of modesty in the face of the vastness of cosmos and the daunting diversity of even our own species, parochial as it must be against the wider backdrop of indefinite infinity. To my mind, it seems more about the sense that when one does in fact dig into the human conversation, things quickly become more complex then one might have bargained for.

            Which in turn begets the question of authorship as source. It is not so much that certain persons are not entitled to their opinions unbridled and unlimited, and thoughts remain yet free in at least the sense of being able to have one or the other pending one’s imagination and education. Rather, it is the recent ability for anyone to create his own venue, especially one digital, to broadcast such opinions far and wide and begin to construct his own authority out of that which is in fact mere authorship. Examples are, regrettably, far too abundant to enumerate, from misogynist bigots who happen to have Super Bowl rings, to anti-communist journalists who imagine they are experts in dialectical materialism, to Jewish comedians who are suddenly political scientists and experts in the history of the Levant. But by far the most dangerous authors who imagine they also have authority in some more profound sense are the many politicians who, because they wield power but that without non-legal authority, deliberately and diligently confuse serious discourse for mere politics. Here, names would be superfluous, because almost all politicians, whose very reason of being is to pander to any and all those who might vote for them – or, in anti-democratic conditions, support them either through their silence or their willingness to engage in precipitous conflicts upon their leader’s behalf – engage in the calculated conflation of authority and authorship. A fashionable favorite is that ‘parents know what is best for their children’, and apparently, everyone else’s as well. Teachers and mass media, the usual rivals to parental authority, have come more and more under fire, consistent with the parent-pandering craze – though with nothing else regarding the actual confluence of youth, anxiety, and hopelessness – and the ease of which targets can align against two fronts with which we are either generally suspicious – media sells things to us and little more – or have some resentment against – we all recall our poor teachers and perhaps too much so.

            But teaching is, for one, a vocation, a trade, and a profession requiring training and expertise as well as the wisdom of experience, cliché as that sounds. Stating that ‘education should be returned to parents’ is much the same as saying that ‘gas-fitting should be returned to the parents’, or that ‘hydroelectric dam-building should be returned to the parents’, and so on. So far, I have yet to hear that my own vocation, philosophy, should be ‘once again’ a parental purview, but then such parents, who would certainly be incapable of even the slightest musings in that direction, would also likely baulk at the very idea. Not quite sincerely, however, as parenting, seen as a Gestalt of mentorship, guidance, resource allocation and even love, for goodness sakes, would certainly include much moralizing if never any real thinking of any note. Yet in spite of all of this faddish and hypocritical nonsense about ‘parent’s rights’, the wider question of expertise and authority remains. And when major authorities suggest that arguments from authority are either worthless – as they are in the experimental sciences – or to be taken with a grain of salt – as those emanating from the behavioral sciences – then, with some irony, we feel we must take such statements seriously.

            I have chosen the two most important cautions that have appeared in discourse during the course of the twentieth century. Yet more well-known ones, such as Einstein’s ‘God does not play dice with the universe’ – Hawking reminded us decades later that he himself took ‘God’ to mean the same thing he understood Einstein to mean by it;  the whole of cosmic forces as known to us and not as some inveterately anti-gambling moralizer – are statements of scientific position in the wider history of ideas. For Einstein, arguing against some of the more outlandish implications of the quantum theory at the time, this was simply his non-scientific way of refuting another such position, or at least, exhorting caution about it. But Hawking himself went further than this when he warned of extraterrestrial contact and the annihilation of the human species; this was an opinion uttered by a physicist who was anthropomorphizing alien morality; and as such one with absolutely no basis nor scientific evidence behind it. Hawking had made the mistake of playing on his bona fide authority in other areas; he  was, in a word, borrowing status from himself.

            When any discursive figure does this, no matter their contributions to other fields, they immediately fall from authority into mere authorship. Unfortunately, many of the rest of us do not at once make that vital distinction, or do not care to. Perhaps one is a Hawking ‘fan’, seeing the scientist in the same way as one holds any other kind of celebrity to heart. In this, we are being as dishonest as is the figure in question being disingenuous. How then to resist both the unguarded abrogance of the expert who is too-enamored of his own authority to remember its limits, often severe, as well as our own penchant for adulation which is born of, and borne on, the sense that this or that figure really is smart and thus anything he says must have some merit to it? One can begin to reverse this troubling trend by looking at oneself and those around us.

            My father was a structural engineer and ended his career as the chief building inspector for the City of Victoria. He was a master carpenter and a decent renderer of still life and nautical scenes in oils and watercolors as well as an expert model-builder. He played golf and hockey until his mid-70s, winning his club championship at age 73 with a handicap of 10. He knew little of culture and nothing of thought, he had been propagandized during the war and as a veteran he remained so until his death. His surpassing weakness was that he rarely spoke of things he actually knew a great deal about, and yet would borrow from this tacit status – of which almost none were aware in any case – to issue declarations of the most ignorant sort upon almost any other subject. These were not stated as opinions but rather as if they had some factual basis, or, at the very least, the weight of ‘wisdom’ behind them. He was, as a parent, typically sound for the younger set, typically incompetent for those older. For his generational demographic, he was amazingly progressive and enlightened, as was my mother. As I have before japed, both my parents were philistines but they were not barbarians. My father was no discursive figure and never would be, but he nonetheless represents the commonplace error of mistaking one’s personal experience for actual knowledge. This almost-universal human error is grievous enough in itself – most of us find, as we live on, that our experience is itself often found wanting after all – but that this selfsame error is deliberately targeted by politicians as the best way to manipulate franchise is nothing less than a patent evil.

            My father’s only son is a philosopher. But he is not a cognitive philosopher, or ‘philosopher of mind’, as this once wholly archaic designation has recently made a comeback, he is not an analytic philosopher of language, an epistemologist, an ancient scholar or a medievalist, he his not a philosopher of science nor a Marxist, nor is he by any stretch a logician. And so I do not, even within the genres of my own painstakingly studied vocation, assert any serious claims adhering to any of these departments and have never done so. The stuff I do know something about – phenomenology, hermeneutics, ethics, aesthetics, critical theory, education and existentialism, religion – casts a broad enough net for any thinker to never want in topic or subject. Far beyond this, I do not spout off about gas-fitting, hydroelectricity, or even parenting for that matter – I have consulted as an ethicist for many families over the years and always explain to them that I am expert in human relations in the abstract and not a ‘parenting’ expert, whatever that last might mean – in order to maintain my serious game and nascent name within the wider conversation which is our shared species legacy. And though it may be the case that those lives deemed outside of circles meritorious are all the more likely, through ressentiment, to try to gain access to them through a combination of outright fraud and feigned ignorance as to their truer motives, it falls to the rest of us to exercise a more existential and ethical version of the caveat emptor in their face. Otherwise, we risk becoming as the politician alone, who, as a darling dapper doyenne of the system within which he must work, is compelled to become a huckster, a shyster, a conniver, a narcissist. Each of us has each of these and others within our breast, so this is not a matter of directing our disdain afar. Rather, it is more simply a matter of learning how to recognize the authorship-limitations of what we know today as who we are right now, and thence perhaps coming to a better understanding of the authority-limits of what we can know as a human being and thence as a species entire.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 59 books in ethics, education, social theory, religion, aesthetics, and health as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Self and Afterlife

Self and Afterlife (an exercise in existential extension)

            While not all conceptions of the afterlife have as their outcome a continued existence of the same selfhood, nor do all boast that a new form of existence will be conferred upon it if it is conceived of as the same, all have as their essence the idea of the extension of life in some form. The afterlife is therefore an exercise in existential extension. When my book On the Afterlife (2012) was published, I realized that though I had provided a chronological and cross-cultural analysis of the structure of the afterlife itself, I had paid scant attention to the vehicle which was supposed to undergo these surrounding alterations in ontological space. I deferred to my title quite literally and thus overlooked the entire reason why such a concept should have taken its enduring place in the human imagination. With some sense of this, let me now make a brief attempt to further the relevant investigation.

            In the cosmology of the social contract, insofar as it can be known today, the soul’s immortality was cyclical, mirroring the concept of both time and seasonal nature. An indefinite number of corporeal lives had been lived, with the same stretched out ‘ahead’ of one, constituting the future. Intensely logical and even rational, the sense that since life itself exhibited no change over mortal memory and far beyond, pending upon how primordial this first concept of the afterlife was – we can only remind ourselves that the toolkit of Homo Erectus remained unchanged for approximately two million years – just so, the life of the soul should be an exercise in the eternal return of the same, in Eliade’s sense of course and not so much in Nietzsche’s. It was of especial moment when an elder passed just before an infant was born, as this was taken as a sign that the same soul had willed itself to return almost immediately. There was thus also inferred that the pool of souls was quite limited, because the population load in material life never seemed to grow beyond a certain amount; one that could, if not be known exactly, predicted most proximately. A moment of witty scripting in the indigenous Haida film Edge of the Knife (2018), has a youth asking after who were the past lives of so-and-so, and an adult relative replying with, ‘oh, you don’t want to know’.

            No doubt, one might suggest. And for perhaps ourselves as well, presuming that the ontological structure of life and death has not been further transformed by the appearance of history proper. This original idea, that of unevaluated return, must have animated the imagination of the vast majority of our species existence heretofore. But with changes to the population structure, the appearance of surplus, and thence the growth of communities, social hierarchies, and their alteration of subsistence strategies, the realm of ideals as well shifted. In the East, some twelve thousand years ago, the early emergence of agricultural sedentism propelled an alteration in the afterlife’s conception. The soul still returned, but this time, in its sojourn in the afterlife, it was evaluated. This is the basis for both reincarnation and the caste system. One’s ‘karma’ may not be sufficient to rise in the stratigraphy of life as a whole, nor yet in the social hierarchy of cultural life. The jape about one ‘coming back as a dog or a rat’ must have been well taken. But by the time sedentary settlements and agrarian subsistence patterns had fully emerged in the Near East some ten thousand years ago, the conception of the afterlife underwent further and even more major changes. No longer did the soul return at all and, after being evaluated, spent the remainder of its own indefinite existence either in the underworld or in a better, lighter space. The first agrarian conception, that of evaluated return, is most famously associated with Hinduism, while the second, that of evaluated continuation, with ancient Egypt.

            It was this second idea which, historically, became predominant, with the spread of Near Eastern irrigation civilizations and their associated and serial empires, and thus inspired a raft of variations on its basic theme. Who was to do the evaluation, the character of the rewards and punishments accruing to its outcome, the framing of the contrasting spaces adjoined in the afterlife, heaven versus hell, for instance, and so on, were all subject to a great deal of improvisation and alteration, given that all of these ideas were first to be found within still oral cultures. Only with the advent of written script, some seven to eight thousand years ago, did these notions begin to take on a more definite and detailed form and formulation. By the time we enter our own historical period, with the appearance of the three great second-age agrarian world systems, the conception of evaluated continuation becomes quite well known. The radical shift occurs in how one is evaluated, and not that one is or one is not, nor that one’s soul does not return in any case, with the appearance of forbearance as an ethical precept in the East and its Western equivalent, forgiveness. These kinds of ideas are, in a sense, reverberations of the primordial sentiment that whatever one was or did in this or that specific life, that one should begin again with a clean slate. The difference is that one does not return to an embodied state to start anew, the soul rather being ‘cleansed of its sins’ and entering a new form of extended existence elsewhere.

            The career of this most fascinating concept does not, however, end there. Even in modernity, our finite and godless cultural sensibility has taken the afterlife to yet another self-conception, that of unevaluated continuation. Not only does this fill in the final cell in the four-square model proposed and detailed in my 2012, it suggests that we are still willing to stake our claims to consciousness itself, at least in part, upon the idea that it somehow continues bereft of body and freed from the mind’s sole manufacture. Or perhaps this is after all the difference between brain and mind, and thus for this same reason they cannot be precisely ‘mapped’ onto one another. There is now no judgment of any kind, which also implies that the structure of the spaces of the afterlife has also been changed, collapsed into a single undifferentiated plenum where the ‘sky’s the limit’, as it were. The final line of script in what for many remains the best of science fiction fantasy entertainment speaks to this only half-rational and utterly unempirical sensibility, thereby contradicting, at least somewhat, the modernist ethics of the Star Trek franchise. That it is set in the context of the weekly upper decks poker game serves the contrasting reality that only within known existence can one attain one’s ideals, and that ‘fate is just the weight of circumstances’.

            Yet that weight itself must have been known as soon as our most antique ancestors, presumably perhaps even the Australopithecines and yet before, were able to consciously cognize the difference between the quick and the dead, and thence reflect upon its existential implications. In that we are not ontologically superior to those our first incarnations tells us of perhaps both elements summing each of our conceptions of the afterlife; that the this-life must end and yet life itself continues. If we are romantics at heart, we might somehow will ourselves to an active role in the next-life, and the next, or, if we are, as I imagine the species to ultimately be, not content with merely human form, we might by contrast will ourselves to become in fact something more than we have ever thought to be. It is by way of this more that humanity has evolved and progressed alike to both possessing a sense of the indefinite, the futural, as well as the infinite, the cosmic. Only by holding onto past conceptions of the afterlife do we continue to flirt with the apocalypse, for the unexpected fifth wheel in our house of existential extension is the one in which we are reduced to the star-stuff from which we originally came.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 59 books in ethics, religion, aesthetics, education, social theory and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

The Pursuit of Unhappiness

The Pursuit of Unhappiness: Entanglement and the Ethics of Öffentlichkeit

            The disclosedness of the ‘anyone’, that which is made publicly or yet made for publicity, even if this is personalized, may be thought of as the converse to Eigentlichkeit, or authenticity. One is of Das Man, the other is of Dasein. Öffentlichkeit is that which exposes everything as the amalgamated nothing that it is. This is not of course Nothing, which is the presence of the uncanny and which is, moreover, the source of anxiety for Dasein, and neither is it nothingness, which is, in turn, an imagined state of non-being for which there is no real-time equivalency. As long as I am conscious of my own existence, even as part of something which seeks to negate me, I am something, or something-or-other. This aspect of Heidegger’s self-seeking is only an aside, as it were; a kind of throw-away category that puts up the pretense of seeking the self whereas it is actually a symptom of the search for a selfhood entangled. One cannot be disclosed as either a non-being or as a public thing – one a nothing and the other a ‘something-or-other’ – in the same sense as we have just noted. This ‘or-otherness’ exposes me as nondescript, as unworthy of further examination because I could just as well be anything, or anything else.

            We do say to the other, ‘it was nothing’, when she notices we have been rattled by indeed something, but in such cases, if authentic, the ‘something or other’ is a space-filler designed to provide a moment wherein I can try to discern just what it was that was disturbing to me. For it cannot have been simply nothing – which is why Heidegger capitalizes this term; to make it into a thing or a something – and yet if we cannot identify it in either the panoply of the world-as-it-is or even in our imagined worlds, let alone as the nondescript anything of the Öffentlichkeit, then it must have been the Nothing of essential anxiety, the fullest presence of non-presence, which itself presents to us an overfullness of Being. In this second term, the capital denotes not so much a transcendental otherness which is alien to us and radical to history, but perhaps instead, and in its stead, the Gestalt expressing the entirety of our life, held in a moment which brushes by us and does not linger. The publicity of being as part of the anyone, the self which seeks to be nothing like itself but rather anything else, sometimes quite literally, also does not tarry but instead malingers. The shadow of being, what I have analyzed as the ‘penumbra of personhood’, tarries alongside us as does our actual, physical shadow, when the light is right. Note too that Heidegger refers to the ‘lighted space of being’ implying that only here will we be accompanied by our authentic shadow, rather than being engulfed by the umbrous atonality of the public way.

            All of this is not to say that the self is not inherently both social and historical. In this other sense, its own undertaking to be other than itself involves the othering of the other, specifically, and not ‘the others’ as stand-ins for selves within the open space of the public, and not the Other, which is an expression of Nothing personified in some cursive manner, in a nocturnal arabesque or a suffering serenity. I cannot grasp the irruptive force of the Nothing, and it presents ‘itself’ in a way to which even my imagined state of non-being cannot cleave. This is not mine ownmost death which has appeared before me like some vivisected visitation, but perhaps it is more like bearing witness to myself as I might yet be; what is the character of my own dead soul? Enduring some torpor of tantalus, I blink at an apparition; shrouded in black framing a face grotesque with expressionist neon, sorrow alone in its gape, but fury in its maw; is this who I am at base, and in baseness? What kind of parallax does such a scrying mirror possess? I look into it with the proverbial darkling aspect and see nothing other than myself as both the nothing and the other at once.

            And just as Weber intoned that charisma cannot appear authentically in modernity, so too we are given the sense that the Nothing cannot be part of the public. Hence anxiety as well will never assail us as long as we forget ourselves within the midst of an entangling skein of publicity. Das Man has neither a self nor is a person. It appears to be the answer to the Other for it too has no gender, no age nor exterior aspect which can be said to be fair or handsome, ugly or repulsive. It is the fraudulent Shadow just as is the Other the one authentic. Just so, any intimacy we gather round ourselves in the open space of the public is as the false Syzygy. Anyone will do, and especially so, the anyone who will do anything. In no way am I transfigured by this general disclosedness of ‘the others’; no, I am merely transposed, becoming one of these others without the directed demand of a liminal otherness and outside of the rite by which I pass over into the now lit space of other-worlding.

            Unhappiness is better than sorrow; it feels easier. It is something rather than a lingering presence of the Nothing, and it is unrelated to joy, which I cannot ever feel lest I feel ‘all sorrows as well’. So, I pursue unhappiness by being other to mine ownmost beingness, but only through the anonymous tranpositional dynamic which is both the herald and hallmark of Öffentlichkeit. Media confirms my ‘participation’ in this hallows, taste regimes vouchsafe its consumption, the formal functioning of the generalized other abets it – even if this essential selfhood in its more informal and thus less conscious manner is also necessary to become human and be ‘in’ a society at all – and my flight from mine ownmost presence-unto-death absolves it of its patent fraudulence. It too constitutes for Dasein an ‘evil of evil’, for its entanglement of what is closest to me, making it seem that it is only a part of what the anyone can grasp in its entirety and within which the anything can occur at my desire but against my will. One might rationalize at this point by noting that any time I ‘pursue’ something or other I fall into the need for the something-or-other, and this could also be interpreted as part of Heidegger’s sense of what ‘falling’ is about. Here, as a converse to the above, anything will do and especially the anything that will do anyone.

            But the very fact that anxiety can be decoyed from the Eigentlichkeit of its own irruptive presence – anxiety is the interiority of Otherness in its mode of being and being-expressed – reminds us that we cannot lose it, just as we cannot be without our own shadow. Anxiety is in fact the key to authenticity, for it knows that even sorrow is passing just as joy can resonate beyond the equally passing public, turning action into act and thus Dasein back into its own thrown project.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 59 books in ethics, aesthetics, religion, education, social theory and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

This is War

This is War (The difference between forgetting and suppressing)

            At seventeen, my father left his home in Winnipeg for Halifax, lied about his age, and signed on with the Royal Canadian Navy, participating in the tail end of the Battle of the Atlantic. His act was one of both liberation and defiance, given his directly Mennonite heritage. Serving in the military was the most radical thing someone like him could have done at that time. The navy nonetheless gave him a non-combat position on the supply ship HMCS Provider. Still at mighty risk, her crew was not expected to fight per se. This satisfied the faith requirement of a background he had sought to reject, not on any theological grounds of course, but rather those filial, for youth, a much more common conscientious objection. We are fortunate today in Canada and elsewhere that our youth do not have to make those kinds of decisions in that kind of way, at least for now.

            But the filial bond-cum-bondage yet weighs heavily upon youth. The available response of the moment are the protests on university campuses scattered around much of the democratic world. To participate in them must make young people feel like they are standing up for something, as well as for themselves, which is likely the deeper import of such actions. And while it is true that war is a horrifying thing that no wholly sane person would ever wholly endorse, protesting against Israel, in this case, might be likened to someone who protested against Britain just before the time my father joined up to defend her and her allies. And to those who suggest that Israel has ‘gone too far’ in their response to being attacked, we can only remind such persons that there is in fact no such thing in warfare.

            Indeed, history tells us that the mistake is always the converse; not going far enough at the right time. The Reich made several of these errors, incomprehensibly though indeed, thankfully, when their usual tactical acumen seemed to break down. But in each case something else was at work. Their first mistake – such a phrase might have been a lesser title in a multi-volume Churchillian history epic – consisted of not annihilating the Allied Expeditionary Force hemmed in at Dunkirk, something the German forces could easily have accomplished, Their general ground command thought it unworthy to engage in such slaughter – though Göering and his air force did not – and refused to finish in this way, since the actual fight was over. The second occurred when, on the face of it, inexplicably, the Luftwaffe stopped attacking at the very point the RAF was out of resources, thereby ending the Battle of Britain. Here, Hitler had suggested moving air units to the East in preparation for Barbarossa, and also had new planes and pilots sequestered for this larger affair to come. The decision was premature, and would come back to haunt the Reich soon enough. One can say the entire campaign tactic, attacking from the air, was flawed in the first place, given that Britain would have succumbed through an all-out U-boat embargo and undersea attack on its large naval surface ships, thereby opening up the channel for an amphibious assault. The third error was directly attributed to Hitler himself, in disallowing Guderian to take Moscow before Kiev had fallen and the seasonal weather changed, abruptly and radically. The fourth and final error was also Hitler’s alone; attacking Kursk in Operation Citadel. Preserving what was then still the finest and best-equipped army in the world, even if also by then with no prospect of striking themselves a decisive blow against Russia, would likely have given the Reich enough lag time to develop their own atomic bomb.

            These are all errors of omission, if you will. To leave one member of Hamas standing is, for the Israeli Government at this juncture, both an admittance of a kind of defeat, but as well, an invitation to restore and restock that military group, patent enemies of Israel and of the Jewish people in general. And so their assault continues unabated, with the reality of both heightening suffering and misery, but also the risk of creating the image of becoming a political pariah in the eyes of the world. But the world is not at stake in Palestine, and it is perhaps too easy to stand back and direct as if it were. What is rather at stake is, aside from the existence of the Jewish state itself, is our perception of what constitutes war once it is well underway. If a young person were to ask me, does anything then go, anything at all?’ both the short answer and the long answer consist of one word. Only through either a dated sense of honor – Dunkirk – conflicting goals – Britain – or deliberate incompetence coupled with narcissism – The East in general – does warfare pause itself. Originally a local error, the expelling of payload over London because the Heinkels involved couldn’t find their assigned targets, rapidly degenerated into a town-for-town destruction, culminating in the firestorms of Hamburg, Cologne, and Dresden amongst other lesser lights. Did Hamas not understand, when they struck first, that they would invite a terrible reckoning upon the people they claim to represent? And unlike a few air commanders of one specific bomber group, Hamas never supposed it made an error.

            If the human conscience tells us to stop, history tells us to finish. History is not merely written by the victor, or at least, political and military history tends to be, so it is also lived, or at least, lived better. The Reich was a few tactical moments away from world domination, their stated goal. And Israel itself has been the lucky winner in at least one other historical moment of its own short history, the moment wherein the Syrian armored columns actually broke through all Israeli lines in the 1973 war. Their commander was so astonished that he disbelieved his own sudden, and total, success, and therefore turned back instead of barreling straight into Tel Aviv. The history of warfare is filled with ‘what ifs’, hence providing endless fascination for the dilettantes who enjoy war gaming, but this is a mere aside afforded by backreading. Yet given this iterative theme, modern states have equipped themselves with foolproof, failsafe, weapons which, once launched, have both no need of, but also no recourse for, second-guessing decisions in medias res. And this condition, in which every member of the human species lies and is compelled to live, as well as all life on earth as collateral, is surely more profoundly protested by the youth of today, who have apparently bodily forgotten it.

            For nuclear weapons represent the ultimate ‘all-in’ approach. With their possession, there is no holding back, no lack of finish, no quarter given or taken. And they serve another, perhaps more symbolic purpose; to represent the essence of warfare without the need to express its reality. For this lack of care, this radical recklessness and this revolutionary ruthlessness, is war, and thus each of us might heed the always sensible option not to start one in the first place.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 59 books in ethics, education, religion, aesthetics, health and social theory, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Valkyrie Eleison

Valkyrie Eleison (The Ultimate Narcissism)

But slight are they, unworthy a word;

still whole are my limbs and trustily knit.

If but half so well as my arm

shield and spear had availed me,

ne’er from foe had I fled;

  • Wagner, The Valkyries, Act one, Scene one

            Of late, with visions of the human apocalypse a major theme in entertainment fiction, the mystery of our collective end made commodity and just in time, the wealthy among us seek to transcend their destinies by constructing heavily fortified villas in remote places, staffed by select groups of trusted friends and what-have-you, to be driven around – touring the wasteland which they believe to be our future – in equally adept vehicles, armored, with six wheels and powered by, well, whatever rapidly dwindling fuel supplies remain. Corporations which actually build these latter-day Babelian monsters report more business than they can handle, not that they are sorrowful in the least. For the bottom line of the dread-mongers trade is the ecstasy of an ejaculation of blood.

            It is a central tenet of Calvinism to imagine that if one is materially successful in this world, that it should be taken as sign of one’s elect status in the then novel Protestant soteriological doctrine. Salvation was always a mystery to this point. One did not know, and could not know, who was to be saved and who was to be damned. Now that the wealthy can save themselves, so they think, their investment in a bedamned future severs any Gordian knot traditionally associated with the divine mystery. And this not only in Christian belief but also in numerous Pre-Christian cultures, including those Nordic. The Valkyries, the choosers of the slain in battle and thus also, by definition, choosing those who will live to fight another day, are famously celebrated in the Wagnerian epic Ring Cycle. One of the most gripping scenes in film history has their ‘Ride’, from Act III of Die Walküre, providing the soundtrack for a vicious helicopter gunship attack in Apocalypse Now! (1979). But none of this has any relevance beyond the framework of the conflict between the happenstance of death in human life and the human aspiration to live on in its face.

            Whirligig Valkyries or no, death, sudden and irretrievable, is the daily potential lot of anyone who lives. What the wealthy have decided, in their flight before this essential condition, is that they will build for themselves an impenetrable shield against not death per se, since even after the end of the world they too will still die, likely alone and starving in their obscure castles, but rather against chance itself. So it is not the idea that one has attempted to cheat death that is so despicable about their actions, but rather that they believe themselves to be worthy of life alone, outside of death; that they are superior to the rest of us simply because of the ‘signage’ of their logistical capacities, their entrepreneurial genius, their work ethic, their dumb luck, their inheritances, their elite marriage circles or any combination aforementioned. Instead of channeling their wealth and skills back into the world which gave them their fluky birth, in order to help save the species from itself, they, with a calculation both patent and precise, turn their backs on we lower forms of life. In interview, their contractors – who of course do not name their clients, some of whom are celebrities after all – say that these people seek escape not even from disaster of whatever type, but from other human beings. This is what they actually state as the reason for hiring such shadow-builders. The wealthy elites are quite aware of our resentment towards them, quite understanding of the dynamics of capital, and quite shy about fully trusting governments and their policing forces to ensure the longitudinal protection of their wealth. They not only build redoubts, they assuage their own recurring doubts by also contracting private militia, ex-military retirees turned post-imperial soldiers of fortune. Call their cliques night watchmen on amphetamines, perhaps. Will these trusty, if well-paid, dogs also benefit from being housed inside the structures they must risk their lives, supposedly, to protect?

            The entire enterprise would be laughable if it were not the case that these elites see the world-joke being placed squarely upon us. Their utter lack of conscience, social or ethical or yet historical, places they themselves in the role of the court jester; observant, unwilling to commit, saying the things no others can say, for which of the rest of us would not choose as they have done, if we could only do so? But in fact, there are those whose concern is with the authentic human future, whose care is for the species-essence and for their human fellow. The idea of the apocalypse makes for thrilling fiction, apparently, but only the most cynical sociopath wills its reality. Even a Putin does not will it, and seeks to avoid it by bluff and bluster as well as by old-fashioned hammer-and-tongs combat over which the truer Valkyries still range. The sociopaths, including both the mock-Christian evangelist who sloughs off the responsibility for the ‘end times’ on an unwilling deity, as well as the neurotic and self-absorbed celebrity or entrepreneur, who feels strongly that the rest of us can really well go to hell, are fortunately few in number and tend not to seek political office. Even so, their presence constitutes an undergrowth of amorality that any sane society would shun. We have, in our ardor for fantasy both epic, as in that religious, and vulgar, as in that capitalist, indeed created this elite ourselves, and thus must bear the burden of its deepening legacy.

            For those elites who do not seek egress from the responsibility they share with all those who live today, we might ask that they engage in their own capitalist combat and take out the companies whose leadership promotes self-seeking evil; whose directors hide themselves away from the too-public eye; whose founders imagine themselves immortal at our expense. Can one think that a Warren Buffet or a Bill Gates has a Wolf’s Lair awaiting their last call? A William Shatner, a Patrick Stewart? Perhaps we do not know, in any real sense, the famous and the celebrated. But what we do know is that increasing numbers of lesser lights are becoming more and more obsessed, not about the survival of the species, but rather about merely their own, paltry shadow-sylphs, half-souled dwarves whose only comfort is to live again within the penumbra of personhood, dwelling in a world made the darker by their narcissistic madness.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 59 books in ethics, education, health, religion, social theory and aesthetics, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

The Odyssey of Theodicy

The Odyssey of Theodicy (A Metacriminal Career)

            For the theist, a theodicy of some sort is generally required in order to resolve the apparent contradiction between a benevolent divinity and the existence of that which is deemed evil in His creation. Leibniz coined the term in 1710, but Levinas, amongst other contemporary writers, have stated forcefully that theodicy is, not a false problem, as the atheist would have it, but rather a kind of ‘blasphemy’; an insult to Godhead, given that one is imagining that God is Himself ultimately responsible for evil. Of course, it depends on the kind of God one invokes, for even Yahweh, the object of Job’s resistance as well as that of the post-Holocaust Jewish writers in the history and philosophy of religion, is not a God of love and grace, but rather one demonstrating some kind of vengefulness and ‘jealousy’. Certainly, the Hebrews had placed themselves in a liminal condition, by first electing a specifically ethnic mascot God but without giving Him the moral scope to ethically wax and wane along with human action in the world. Yahweh was still a God beyond history, a divinity of the Act, and not of action. It is only with what is referred to as the ‘new covenant’ that we see a God, not only on earth for the first time, but also one that declares only the good and only love and those for all, through the enlargement of grace and the mechanism of forgiveness.

            It is with this later advent that the problem of theodicy more truly arises. For the antique Gods, evil was something that humans dealt with, even if it was itself dealt by the Gods themselves on a regular basis. Good was rare, and so the bad, if not the outright evil, was something one could generally expect. The barbarian was beneath good and bad, and thus could be considered evil simply in his presence in the world. For the Greeks, this amounted to almost everyone else. They excerpted the Egyptians from this blanket indictment simply because they are aware of this civilization’s astonishing accomplishments. But for the Egyptians, the only evil which did exist was the soul’s recidivism, expressed as one not having lived up to one’s innate abilities over the life-course. For the Greeks, the greatest evil was hope, since it proffered a sense of false consciousness to anyone who maintained it overlong. It is of great interest, given the historical career of humanity’s inhumanity, that something such as hope has retained not only its significance in our collective imagination, but also its very being in a world of evils. For the theist, this is a sign that God is Himself not dead, at least not yet. For the atheist, hope is presumably a more evolutionary designed trait, though equally proprioceptive in its oft tacit presence in our lives.

            It does seem a tad irresponsible to ascribe to any sort of divinity the origin and malingering presence of what is called evil. Indeed, Ernst Becker suggests that very term is now archaic, made anonymously ‘banal’ by Weberian dynamics, including and especially  Entzauberung, of which such banality is presumably a part. It suggests that the good as well becomes, if not utterly banal, at least blithe and circumstantial, and following from this, uninteresting outside of the specific action in which it occurs. Was this then the social and historical destiny of the neighbor figure, one may ask? However this may be, the idea that it is a God’s fault that evil exists seems to me to be pathetic, a kind of avoidance behavior, so if theodicy were an ethical issue rather than simply a logical problem due to the presence of a certain kind of ontological model, I would be inclined to agree with Levinas and company. But just as we cannot murder any God based upon a Theoditical condition from which we appear unwilling to ourselves egress – such and act would be a mere rationalization set up against historical forces, as well as way in which to preserve our human ego in the face of those same large-scale and discursive dynamics – we cannot be content simply to kill ourselves either. For a human death does not meet either the design specifications, or meet up with the higher drama, of a deicide. If we ‘decide to deicide’, if you will, then it must be due rather to an acceptance of a different kind of human insight and perhaps also maturity. Somewhat ironically, the death of God has everything to do with the life of Man.

            In this, theodicy belatedly becomes a false problem, since it rests in the belief that there is not only Godhead but that this same divine presence is for the good, and is itself the good. These are two very broad assumptions, and anyone who attempts their dual leaps of faith, since they involve two quite different questions, must immediately also acknowledge that the human heart is rather the seat of evil, and thus sets itself up in opposition to that divine. More clear-headed is, I imagine, the idea of godhead but without any specific ethical rider placed upon it. Another form of being, certainly, but without an historical interest, human history being so defined by ethical action in real time. This is a more contemporary view of divinity, and it is expressed in popular culture through the science-fantasy professional ethic of the ‘prime directive’ and like policies, which specifically disallows advanced cultures to influence their more primitive cousins, though in theory it would apply to any kind of cross-cultural encounter. But more seriously, it is also expressed in psychopathology, wherein the person who imagines God is speaking to them, or equally so, extraterrestrials hounding them, is labeled as schizoaffective. In a word, we are not, in our modern scene, to think ourselves favored in any manner imaginable, for it is this idea, lending itself to the sense of both a superiority soteriological as well as material, which is the very root of all evil in the social world.

            And so we circle back, in a sense, to the Hebrew critique of those who seek to escape from the confrontation with their own character, exemplified in Babel. As Sherlock Holmes put it, ‘those who attempt to transcend their own nature tend to fall below it’, and in the context of that particular adventure, this epigram would apply equally to a Darwinian world as to one Augustinian. The Babelian aspiration, to find a way not only to be like the Gods actually are, but also, and as a necessary outcome of this false dialectic, to escape the problem of internecine theodicy – why is a being such as myself given to both good and evil, and sometimes at once? – is equally a rationalization of our finite powers as it is a hoped-for egress from our human finitude. The recognition that we are not Gods, at first a deflation and even an embarrassment or yet a shamefulness for antiquity, becomes in our own day a way in which we understand that the Gods also are not us. It is perhaps this converse statement that, more than anything else, provides the opened space wherein which deicide can eventually occur. When it does, we also gain a fuller comprehension of the Christian autohagiographic similitude; that the God of love is no longer divine but has become human, though in a way only a God could effect. It is this act-into-action, no longer metaphoric but quite real as defined by what one can know of history by definition, that should provide for us the role model given the stakes; we too must become human. Only in so doing will we gain a lasting appreciation for our finitudinal condition, one by which a fragile future for our species becomes much more plausible than it is at present.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 59 books in ethics, religion, education, aesthetics, social theory and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

The Divine Sodomy

The Divine Sodomy (You might think it very God of me)

            Imagine if Dante had written Meet the Feebles instead of Peter Jackson. According to Auerbach, one of the founders of comparative literary criticism, a literary triptych based on a complete fantasy both inaugurated realism in Western literature and beyond this, the image of the self in contemporary fiction. Seen in this light, Dante’s seemingly semi-satirical vision of the Thomistic afterlife was stunningly successful in convincing the very few readers it must have originally had – remember, this is 1308-1321 – that somehow as vile a figure as Bernard of Clairvaux would be the best guide to Paradiso. Yeah, right. Even the more plausible idea that the work helped establish the Tuscan language as the general Italian vernacular is a bit of a ‘so what’? Clearly the merit of religious fantasy lies not so much in any allegorical narrative but rather in the art of the writing itself; in this case the High Medieval poetry which is unmatched in any similar epic. Otherwise, it’s simply the author, under the guise of the divine, doing us up the collective, well, you know where.

            It wasn’t until 1472 that the qualifier ‘divine’ was added, by none other than Boccaccio, subsequently to appear in print under the title we know it today by 1555. It is within this period, the High Renaissance this time, that the work took hold, not of the growing humanistic imagination, but rather of the world of arts and letters. On the one hand, the first-person of Dante as disembodied pilgrim lends itself to the idea of self-portraiture, but one might be forgiven – term used advisedly – if he was rather testing his own idea of personhood in the light of values that he as author had already rejected. Why call such a serious undertaking, ahem, a comedy in the first place? T.S. Eliot’s own cantos on his own age of modernity, seemingly so dryly driven, mark the author as a critic after all, though one in the lineage of John Donne and to a certain extent, William Blake as well. But there are a number of ways in which to engage in literary KulturKritik. Today, at least, we can appreciate the underside of Dante’s vision, the nether regions whereabouts good things happen to bad people, speaking of forgiveness.

            But this piece is supposed to be about types of Godhead, perhaps pace its introduction. In Amy Tan’s The Hundred Secret Senses we find some most valuable cross-cultural perspective: ‘What kind of God listen to you complain all day?’. Precisely. The Christian God, apparently open 24/7 to entreaty and plaintiff, would not rate as divine at all in many other civilizations. Certainly, in so doing, He takes out his frustrations upon erring humanity through the tortuous pilgrim’s progress in this version of the afterlife. The original Egyptian idea of posthumous evaluation, momentary as it was in their underworld, not even lasting long enough to perhaps have felt violated in some intimate manner, has been distended apace. This suggests that while the ancient Egyptian was no bottom and Horus no top, it is quite otherwise by the time we get to Christianity. Of course, no one could beat the ancient Hebrews – likely the scions of the displaced Akhenatonites – for unbending themselves to a God who was perpetually wearied of their lack of attentiveness to his wisdom. Much of the Jewish testaments is a repetitive accounting of ‘Look, I told you guys to do this and you didn’t do it, and look what happened! And now you come braying to me to fix it! God!’, and all this to be mouthed in a Brooklyn accent, of course.

            But more seriously, folks, the attempt by historical Christian writers, beginning with Augustine and perhaps ending just before Thomas Merton, to maintain a metaphysical aspect to their Godhead is no divine comedy at all, but rather its opposite. This human tragedy misses entirely the point of both the radical new ethics Jesus made manifest, as well as the equally historical fact of His presence on the earth, as one of us, living and dying, working and loving, and placing Himself at risk on an almost daily basis, even though He too was understood as being a Hebrew. Perhaps this was where the truer tension lay, however, for if He had been Greek, the Jews would have ignored Him, not seen Him as a threat. How could a Greek be ‘King of the Jews’? Ask Jacques Derrida, maybe, for in his terms ‘Greek-Jew is Jew-Greek’. Hmm, what was that again? I take up this obscure quote only to provide a bridge back into the topic at hand, right or left it matters not; the Greek gods were disdainful of their mortals and to the point of outright hatred, while the Jewish god was merely offended by them: ‘Hey, I try to love you guys, but really, what’s in it for me?’ When Nietzsche suggests that a number of these pre-Christian dynamics held such peoples to be in the ‘correct relationship to their God’, he is reminding us of the crucial difference between the divine and the human, the transcendental and the historical and so on: a God, by definition, cannot have a human interest.

            That we also have imagined a different narrative, one in which the divinity actually recasts Himself as a human being, is nothing less than revolutionary. But even now, some two millennia after the facts, we do not own that narrative, preferring to place this new form of being at a similar distance as had been occupied by earlier guises of Godhead. What kind of God, again? And while we do not need to agree, in the least, with any potential implication of Nietzsche’s logically accurate reminder – for one, that the only authentic kind of God would be happiest coming at us from behind, as it were, with all the divine oversight that might be had from such a position – we do need to get a different grip on the one God whose earthly presence shatters the whole edifice of what could constitute divinity at all, West or East. Buddha was a man ascending, Mohammed a prophet divinely inspired, so of the three second-age agrarian world systems, only Jesus was a God who had descended to become one of us, in the flesh. To take a step back even today and contemplate the implications of this version of Godhead gives one pause.

            Or at least it should. For the model of more humane, compassionate, concernful, human relations had thus been written. No allegory, no comedy, no tragedy, no satire of itself or of others, it simply told the truth of things and that truth was not at all a divine one, but human through and through. And yet we, who are human and remain so, have almost entirely ignored it. Clearly, perhaps allegorically speaking once again, we are more comfortable being metaphysically sodomized, which in the ‘end’ can only be a plug, excuse me, for the atheists among us. ‘Thank God, finally some people who want to take responsibility for themselves.’, Yahweh mutters sotto voce. Oh yeah, the vernacular, right; maybe its time that we termini di rapporto anale. Or something to that effect. And in keeping with our other literary temporal benchmarks, high time.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 59 books in ethics, education, religion, aesthetics, health and social theory, as well as (sometimes witty) fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decadent decades.

On Self-Loathing

On Self-Loathing (Despicable Me)

            My parents were from a generation wherein it was the norm to project vicariously upon their children. In my case, each wanted their only son to pursue the vocation they themselves missed out upon, also a commonplace filial trope. For my mother, music was the dream. Her own parents, hailing from the late 19th century, forbid it and, at seventeen, steered her into secretary school. She did emerge much later to sing in a university chorus and study music, as well as teach ESL, but she had been destined for far more. Likewise, my father, who dreamed of becoming an architect. The only thing he shared with Hitler, mind you, he left home at the same age of seventeen and joined the RCN, fighting in the Battle of the Atlantic. But though I showed early promise in both music and architecture, and maintain to this day a love for the one and a fond interest in the latter, my own path took me far from anything either of my parents could ever have imagined. At first, with my mother passed, my father questioned academics, and then for the next two decades fostered an utter disdain for it, and secondarily, if not only by implication, myself within it. It was only in 2009, four years before he himself passed, that he began to see some merit in myself as a thinker, after reading my 2009b Becoming a Modest Society. That was my seventh book and I can now hardly recall its themes. But on his deathbed, he was engrossed in my 2013b, We Other Nazis, leaving it incomplete. I was and remain grateful for his change of heart, even though, perhaps ironically, perhaps equally fittingly, I have of late adopted his own attitude toward the academy and those within its faux ivory tusks.

            Is this a way to repay him for his belated loyalty? Most of us, as children, wish to please our parents, make them proud of us, even to point of sycophancy. And though outright mimicry is only for the young child, it is nevertheless a sign of an enduring sensitivity to the idea that one’s parents must be on one’s side no matter what, and perhaps also vice-versa. But then there is a reactive aspect found in adolescence which is the more profound. Necessary for becoming who we are – that is, not one’s parents after all – youth is a time of tension and experimentation. Passion rules the day, and, if one is lucky enough, the night as well. Yet this incipient individuation is also a delay mechanism. A delay which can solidify itself into a decoy. For adulthood, the developmental precursor to mature being meant in the hermeneutic sense of the phrase, is the proving ground for my newly minted selfhood. Casually, we may to ourselves, ‘do I really have what it takes to do what I want to do with my life?’. This question, however informal, is both pregnant with maturity and perspective but also unanswerable as stated and also due to the timing of when it is asked. Only by living on, certainly for a number of decades, can any response be forthcoming. There are many late bloomers even at the highest of cultural levels. Tom Thomson in painting, Anton Bruckner in music, and even less conspicuous age relative, myself at around the same age as a writer. My first book was published only when I was 37 years old, back in 2003. Fifty-nine books later I still do not have a sure answer to that question of worthiness. But to the related query of worth, at least, I do.

            Or I like to think so. For to be a philosopher in a time of polar unthought, as cold and as oppositional as the Weberian term implies, is at best a lonely job. There will be few readers, almost no recognition. And as we humans are sourced very much in the looking glass self as well as guided, even goaded on by the need for community, the lack thereof promotes a gnawing doubt, one that can easily slide into the despondent pool of self-loathing. True to say that the pilgrim walks on by himself and in our godless and finite world, also for himself. Indeed, the very idea of the pilgrimage has been altered at both beginning and end, since we fall into it without the sense of calling, divine or otherwise, and we also recognize that there is no terminus, no Santiago de Compostela but rather, for some, the effort of becoming part of the sainted compost of the history of ideas. Composing this, then composting it in yet another essay collection, might give some bland zest to the sense that it is force of habit alone which generates reflection and perhaps yet self-reflection. No matter, we tell ourselves, for ‘those who have ears shall hear’.

            This Nietzschean poise, which worked well for his books but not at all as well for he himself, is something of a theatre. A cultured autism, a high-minded affect, a transcendental but still shamanic trickery, the critical essayist, falling as he does within the panorama of philosophical work but taking on a dangerous dilettantism even so, is ever at risk that his reasoned loathing of the social world should turn upon himself, no matter what one’s parents might have thought either way. The critic is himself problematic, the wavering target of Shaw’s sneering snarkery, for instance, for the mere critic is a mere eunuch of course. And even if, contra a related epigram, teaching is also ‘doing’ of a sort, in Shaw’s own time his was a much more apt remark than one hopes it is in ours. Even so, when I made the shift from teaching to writing, which I never thought I would, I began to see something through his narrow glance: I have been fortunate that I have also been able to do, and not merely critique.

            Such doings, however. I try to love my work, though I never go back and read my scholarly titles and only read my fiction with others; victims, perchance. But I do understand if someone were to attempt to read either, they might well imagine on the one hand, that the philosopher is unable to communicate his genius widely enough, and the fiction writer is at best, a sociopath. Does my fiction impinge upon my non-fiction? Is my fiction too realistic to bear because of the opposite influence? Or are both merely the by-product of what could have been? For truth be told, I have wasted so much time chasing girls and flirting with addiction that my output would likely be twice that extant today. And surely, one tells oneself, the author with 120 titles could not be so summarily ignored. I am but the author of my own premature literary grave, its stone bearing the longest epitaph in human history.

            This evaluative sensibility is ancient, though hardly primordial, for human consciousness. In the West, it is Horus who first judges the relative weight of one’s acts versus that of the gifts of one’s soul. The much later Christian incarnation of this same idea has our ethical worth measured by how close we approach the moral ideals of the world system itself. It is interesting to note that though Christianity’s revolutionary ethics on the ground promote the gradual development of the individual as her own person along with the subjectivity that defines the personal, its evaluatory mode suggests the very opposite: that the highest human attainment is the same for all. By contrast, the Egyptian original was individuated in its afterlife, even though the concept of the person, and the ‘much-vaunted’ modernist subjectivity, to nod to Nietzsche once again, was absent in that society. But though we owe much to both belief systems, and from afar, they could be seen as glosses upon one another and not only in historical sequence, Christianity is itself unfairly blamed for the disdain not only of the body, but also for the mind and spirit alike. Our own latter-day evangelists are in the main, anti-intellectual at best, as well as shunning the fuller intimacies of the body, electric or even Electraic, if you will. Their spirits too await their collective freedom, perhaps to be had at the expense of the rest of us in some Armageddon made real. This is clearly not our species destiny in any noble sense, and we might well rise to fight against its inertia. And this, by the way, is a major theme of my fictional work, just in case the casual reader mistakes it for something else.

            But however over-ripe is the evangelical obsession with Pauline anxiety, we ourselves are to blame for having adopted too readily the wider Western neurosis of self-loathing. Pre-dating Christianity by far, the Greeks were convinced that their own age was lesser, part of a devolution of culture, and not its Victorian opposite. Hope was, for them, a resident evil, the only thing that did not escape Pandora’s Box. Yes, one can get one’s hopes up and be disappointed. A hundred casual lines, oft repeated in popular song, attest to this lingering fear of hapless harm; ‘hopes are dashed’, ‘hope goes up in smoke’, and the like. And for the Egyptians, insofar as we can know of their perduringly murky doings – were they really reanimating ex-human drones inside their giant pyramidal Tesla batteries? – it seems one rather blindly walked forward onto the scales of Horus with only then finding out if one’s acts were of equal measure to one’s gifts.

            I feel their pain. The Egyptian in me worries I have not measured up to my potential. But what is my potential? What is anyone’s? The Greek in me mourns the loss of youth, the ‘good old days’ leitmotif that was never true and that of course animates the false faith of the evangelical as well as that of the more benign nostalgia buffs of all stripes and hues. And the Christian in me steps forward with some trepidation, doubting the future itself and for itself, which in turn acts as a mechanism of self-sabotage both for the person and for the culture as a whole. But as a person, no matter how despairingly weighty this combination of dead historical hands might be, I have in modernity a different kind of agency. What should bear down upon me is not so much an archaic world system, but the lack of insight and experience which, over the life course thus far, has led me to make some impoverished choices. At the same time, this very knowing allows me to do differently. Let me then quote from volume one of Queen of Hearts, andhere’s to it:

            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 judgment 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.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 60 books in ethics, education, religion, aesthetics, health and social theory, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

The Technical and the Ethical

The Technical and the Ethical (what they share, and what they don’t)

            It is commonplace to hear that our morality has not ‘kept up’ with our technology, or that the latter proceeds at a more ‘rapid’ pace than the former. But seen from the perspective of action in the world, morality and technology occupy the same relative place to what is technical, or involves technique, and what is ethical; morality in action or conscience enacted. Both morality and technology proceed from our Promethean humanity. We require external prosthetics, from the simplest of wooden and stone tools of our distant ancestors to the quantum accelerators of our own day, in order to make a culture at all or indeed to survive the night. The domestication of fire was key to these regards. Morality is an idealized prosthetic, an extension of our mental life into the world, just as technology extends the capacities of our bodily form. It is plausible that our very idea of ‘embodiment’, a theological term but also one phenomenological, originates in this early distinction between our physical and mental capabilities and endurances. For to feel ensconced in a material vehicle as something other than is the world might well play on an ancestral sensibility brought about by that very duet of prosthetic extensions; I am more than I seem to be.

            Is this ‘more’ defined only by our evolving extensions, or might it also be the case that embodiment is of the essence of things in this matter; that I have not only made myself into a ‘more’ in the life I know and share with other human beings, but that I am also to be more, perhaps in a further life, or, to extend the logic of extension itself, a further part of this life? Conceptions of the afterlife, in their earliest form, saw it as a mere transition between earthly lives, a kind of eternal recurrence, not necessarily of the exact same thing, as in Nietzsche’s radically life-affirming formulation, but simply as another round of something similar; similar, especially in social contract cultures wherein this earliest idea of existential extension arises. Even with rudimentary social stratification, political power, and the presence of consistent material surplus, this first afterlife is not altered. What we observe is an inclining difference in burial rituals rather than the abandonment of the rites of passage in general. But with the advent of sedentary mass cultures we do see the idea that some have different destinies in the afterlife than others. Yet even here, the essence of the purpose of the afterlife, though altered from its primordial recurrence theme, remains consistent for all who thus enter it; some kind of evaluation is at stake, and that of one’s conscience and not one’s essence.

            By this point, an idea that must have been percolating within our ancestral breast for eons has appeared bodily in the world: the sense that embodiment as a locus for technological and moral extensions has a purpose beyond itself. Not only is life to be extended, but so also is its meaning. In this, we humans are gifted with the fuller sense of the Promethean ethic. Indeed, it was not so much the ability to live in ignorance of our own deaths as did the Gods themselves, though for us as a limited period, that riled the Greek pantheon, but rather that mortal life should have a meaning beyond itself. And this idea, implicated in the gift of the demigod, essentially annulled the difference between Gods and humans; both had now indefinite existences from which purpose and meaningfulness might be gleaned. Worse still, from the divine perspective at least, was that meaning itself for an omniscient and omnipotent being was not truly relevant, or at the very least, occurred in whole cloth as with everything else such a being would bring into being with its own presence. For us, rather, making meaning as we go along, though long the order of the quotidian day, abruptly upshifted itself into the essence of life, the very reason that we lived at all.

            What fills the conceptual as well as experiential gaps between technology and morality and actual human life in the world is, respectively, technique and ethics, the technical and the ethical. What they share is their fundamentally ad hoc basis: both technique and ethics responds to a specific circumstance, as often as not unpredicted or at least, unexpected. And just as there is not a one-to-one correspondence between morality and ethics – the idea that the former contains timeless principles as ideals and the latter is the space of real-time action wherein what is good in one case might not be in the next, and so on – so there is no levels-identity relation between technology, an umbrella term for anything prosthetic in culture, and technique, the actual use of tools and as well the skills involved in the construction thereof. Ethics is not morality simply brought down to earth, but rather moral ideas enacted and thus modified in the world on an ongoing basis. If such an image rapidly becomes blurred, we understand that ‘life is vague’, as Gadamer sagely notes, though it sounds like a mere truism and might even contain a nascent sense that ‘this life’ is vague when compared to some other life. Just so, the very ad hoc character of human life – we are constantly faced with differing circumstance and indeed, the very sense that life is mostly circumstantial both in action and in essence; we often meet our mates by chance, we do not ask to be born, etc. – forces upon us a reckoning: if our extensory apparatus seeks to ameliorate the chance quality of existence, if our extended sensibilities based upon prior experience purposes itself as the assuagement of our limited conscience  – conscience can no more predict the future with due certainty than can technique itself – then might it be the case that because we our aware of ideals in the first place, that there is another kind or form of life within which such ideals actually exist?

            This speculation should be familiar from Peter Berger’s 1967 argument concerning the possible reality of the afterlife, whatever its culturally defined character. It has its germ in James’ legendary Gifford lectures of 1901, wherein ‘the reality of the unseen’ is of great moment in the career of belief. Not just this, but as well, and rather more darkly, ‘the sacrifice of the intellect’, must also be had if one is to authentically adopt a religious suasion. At some point, reflection must cease, reason give itself away, in order for faith alone to carry the day. The idea that due to our ability to at least imagine an ideal way of life, which at once does away with the need for both the technical and the ethical, is suggestive of ‘another’ world or yet an otherworld where the very idea of the ideal is also moribund. We do not of course reiterate any of this argument here. For us, ideals arise through the human ability to make history; though ad hoc in its action, life remains to be lived by a being who is possessed of both memory and anticipation; two sibling, if contrasting, phenomenological dispositions of Dasein. Because of this, we are able to say to ourselves, ‘well, that was different, but it reminds me of the time when I…’ and such-like. Or, by way of comparison, ‘I have never experienced anything the like…’. All culture, all history, is only possible by way of the constant remarking upon the difference between what is similar and what is contrasting, and indeed how and by how much such experiences do in fact contrast. Technique is not only technology in use but also the reflexive process through which the former is modified by having become part of a human life; for now, technology has no life of its own. Ethics, rather, is not only morality lensed by action in the world but is as well its own domain, and this is the point at which the technical and the ethical part ways.

            For what they do not share with one another is autonomous form and thence formulation. The technical, the realm of technique alone, is always enthralled to the task at hand. It cannot compare itself to its ideal. One does hear, ‘well, if all other things had been equal, this would have worked’. Applied scientists, who should be wiser than all of this, are often the source of this plaintiff. But one also hears another refrain, one that only partially quotes the original source, and that is ‘for all action there is an equal and opposite reaction’. Yes, ‘in a closed system’, as the actual text concludes. Human life, history, culture, and the world at large are manifestly not such closed systems as Newton ideally described for his local physics. Those who misuse this famous epigram, speaking in part of his second law of thermodynamics, do so to make simplistic human relations, especially those political, in order to manipulate others. In so doing, however, they have, perhaps inadvertently but nonetheless bodily, moved from the technical to the ethical. They have expressed what is of the utmost for our shared humanity; not at all our ability to extend our physical capabilities through equally material prosthetics but rather our inability to know our ends, both singular and indeed collective. Its is only ethics which speaks, Janus-like but without duplicity, to this human dilemma and not and never technique. In doing so, we are brought face to face with the existential import of being able to at once have an awareness of how we would ideally act ‘if all else was equal’ and the ‘system was closed’, and thus the equal understanding that we must in any case take action without direct recourse to either ideals or to an ideal world.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 59 books in ethics, education, religion, aesthetics, social theory and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.