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.

The Quest of the Question

The Quest of the Question (Well, you asked)

                                    Greater glory in the sun,

                                    An evening chill upon the air,

                                    Bid imagination run

                                    Much on the Great Questioner;

                                    What He can question, what if questioned I

                                    Can with fitting confidence reply.

W.B. Yeats (1928)

            The ability to question is the residuum of faith. It is a uniquely human attribute, unknown to us in any other known creature. One presumes, upon asking a question of any variety, that there will at least be some sort of response. Even the proverbial ‘rhetorical’ question, favored by those who actually desire an absence of response, know that the queried has in fact already responded, and perhaps in kind. This is the element of faith in the question itself; that you will respond. And even if there are a variety of ways to characterize such responses as there may be, from answer to explanation, from retort to explication and so on, the essence of dialogue has been initiated. We are ‘throwing words across’ to one another, and more importantly, contributing, even in some minute manner, to the human conversation which is us.

            I have spent my life asking questions. I was fortunate to have no memorably authoritarian teachers nor suchlike mentors, no mockery the result of my childhood, no lasting censure the lot of my adolescence. The one downside to all of this encouragement was that youth, as a matter of course, does not always know how to frame a question, nor even to ask ‘the right’ questions, as long as that is taken in the sense of there being more perceptive means at our disposal than at first glance, and very much not in any narrow sense of what is ‘proper’. For questioning is an act radical to deportment of all kinds. In a life phase where the internalization of the generalized other is front and center most of the time, the ability to question must be honed almost in the shadows. Long live the mentor who can guide a young person through these spaces, at once so close to our beings and yet distant in their dreams.

            When I think of the over fifteen years of ethnographic fieldwork I accomplished, the hundreds of interviews both formal and informal, the sense that within each about another hundred actual queries may have been made – that’s ten thousand questions right there – I am struck with the forbearance shown by so many ‘informants’, as they used to be called in traditional methods courses. Now that said, it is the case that most people enjoy, or are at least willing, to talk about themselves, and who better to do so, we naturally imagine. Even so, the human scientist, pending his tenure, is ever edging closer to aspects of existence which most people take to be ‘personal’. And so the usual etiquette must be observed: ‘Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?’, which is, perhaps fittingly, already a personal query. Never have I had the response ‘You already have’, which the Mark Twain or Groucho Marx like wit would engender. But other, much more expected responses do abound: ‘Well, it would depend on what it is.’, or ‘Sure, but don’t expect me to answer it, or give you the answer you want’ (meaning that one’s answer might be incomplete or irrelevant), or, very commonly ‘Of course, fire away’ or the like. The response to this personal prequel depends very much upon the depth of one’s relationship, and this is so for both professional and private circumstance. The ungrammatical quality that typically characterizes the open response – ‘do you mind? Of course (I mind) – is brushed aside by both parties. Sometimes, pending class background, one receives a grammatically correct ‘not at all’, instead of an ‘of course’, but this too is trivial. When I taught methods for many years at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, I called attention to the picayune minutiae of interview technique only because that was what was called for in training, as it were. In the field, much of this drops away, as it tends to do for all strictly academic professionalization, be it in teaching or researching. This is the first lesson of fieldwork, in a sense; that what you already know will only return to aid your quest after the intensive disillusion of you knowing anything at all has concluded. Sometimes, this process takes years.

            At the same time, I myself was trained in the generation after the classic if also ludicrous ethnographic pith helmet perception that all one needed was a pencil and a pad of paper and off you go! Yes, there’s always something to be said for adventure, and my sense of my student peers in graduate school was that the desire for excitement, one of the prime motivators for even engaging in fieldwork of any kind, was certainly present. But there is a line between having an adventure and ‘going native’, just as there is a corresponding line between asking an open-ended question in good faith and asking a leading question, the latter occupying a good deal of time in class, explaining to students how not to do so. In general, however, fieldwork produces discussion, dialogues, conversations, interlocutions, and never interrogations. Only the most incompetent researcher or journalist, police officer, doctor or other health care worker – and I have taught numerous of all of the above in my classes – distinguishes himself by his ineptly procedural questioning. Throwing words across is something primordial, and, as stated, makes human existence something distinct from any other known form of life. And while it might take a little bit of cajoling, or even some good-natured chicanery, to bring such a process out in the other, once this has been accomplished, the fieldworker always gets far more than she ever needed or indeed ever bargained for.

            But there are other kinds of questions than those professionals need ask. There are literary questions, historical questions, questions of conscience, questions about the nature of existence and the perhaps overdone ‘cosmic’ questions to boot. It would be bad form to simply move from one to another as if in the end they could be so distinctly descried and ahead of time as well, but what I can do is speak to them as if I were speaking to their source, thereby mimicking the ethnographic process but better realizing the De Profundis of its meaning. The literary question revolves round the idea that what is not real can simulate reality so closely that the reader feels like they are living another life. This is the same question that animates ‘immersive’ video game scripts, something I have come to as a writer quite recently. Literature is not living in the same way that art is not life, but the fact that we desire it to accomplish an ‘as if’ for us and time again, speaks in turn to how we perceive our own actual lives. Thus the literary question opens itself onto that existential, and that historical, and through both wider apertures repeats itself with some essential insistence. The question of the future of the world, and we in it, is very much the same question as that of the world’s history as it can be known. But at once we are made aware that we have only asked of this history a certain kind of question, and perhaps it is time to change tacks. Feminism, at its best, is a shining example of this kind of movement, and phenomenology bases its entire discursive presence upon this same perception.

            By far the most personally pressing type of question is that of conscience. Conscience is the ethical aspect of consciousness, a kind of interactive compass which, quite aside from marking out moral directions in their ideal cast, responds to the ways of said world and points ad hoc toward directions anew. Just so, for all the adventures a literary cast of heroes may have, ultimately the quest undertaken tests their respective consciences, far more than it does their combined skill sets or slowly evolving knowledge and experience. The lesson in the quest is thus a moral one, or, perhaps, an amoral one, but either way, it is not the world which is finally at stake but rather one’s conscience. Mostly unspoken, questions of conscience require self-reflection, meditation, and a kind of musement which departs from that aesthetic. This ‘silent dialogue’ within each of us as human beings participatory in the wider aspect of species-essence in language and language use, employs anxiety as a catalyst toward concernful being. But because that being must always be ‘in’ the world and at once in itself it must eschew the easier response of simply residing as an ‘in-itself’ – ‘its your world, I’m only living in it’ – and confront the much more challenging sense that I am in-dwelling as a Dasein in that world and thus also the world is of the closest-to-me without quite becoming a ‘mine ownmost’. If this is too turgid, think of it as a way of ferreting oneself into the puzzle of living in a world which is not our own, but to which we must cleave our desires and dreams alike. We do make the worlding of the world kindred to our thrown projects, just as we, as historical beings, write some small part of that world into its holistic history.

            Any question promotes a momentary Gestaltkreis. It asks  the other to focus her attention on it alone. It invites her into its solemn circle, and commits itself to hearing whatever response there may be. Because the question itself does not shy away from this indefinite finitude, my reply can indeed be uttered with a fitting confidence.

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

The New Mythology is Demythology

The New Mythology is Demythology

     “Life as a whole appears as a fragment insofar as each particular piece of it is naturally only a splinter relative to its form as perfected in autonomous creativity. From this comes the further fact that we can speak of defective art in two entirely different senses. There is defective art, insofar as the work is indeed entirely formed for the sake of the artistic invention and remains within the strict bounds of autocratic artistic forms  – but does not satisfy that immanent demands of art, and is uninteresting, banal, and powerless. And there is defective art, when the work, though perhaps not showing the latter impairments, does not yet fully free its artistic forms from their existence as means to their existence as values in themselves has not yet taken place in absolute measure. This is the case where a tendential, anecdotal, sensually excitative interest resonates as one somehow decisive in the presentation. Here the work may be of great psychic and cultural significance, since for this it need not be bound to the conceptual purity of a particular category. However as art it remains imperfect as long as its formative elements still display something of that significance with which they fit in with the currents of life – however deeply and comprehensively they may have assimilated these currents.” (Simmel 2011:48 [1918] italics the text’s).

            Kristen-Seraphim is defective art. That is, the second of Simmel’s categories. It is so because it does not, and cannot, stand alone as a work of art or as an aesthetic object. Nor was this ever my intent. On the one hand, the conceptual impurity of the work – falling as it does across the fantasy, science fiction, adventure, quest saga, thriller and even romance genres – was only what was necessary, not for the sake of literature, certainly, but for the sake of what Simmel refers to as ‘psychic and cultural significance’, however great or nominal. And second, my sense has always been that adventure fiction can never be art. By definition, because even the idea of adventure itself is bound to content and does not elevate its form beyond itself. Long before I ever sought to become a writer I knew this given my own youthful reading, Enid Blyton, John Buchan, Robert Louis Stevenson, Conan-Doyle, C.S. Forester, Jean le Carré, Arthur Clarke, H.G. Wells, Kurt Vonnegut and others. Excellent writers all, but not artists. Then again, matriculating a little later later to Balzac, Dickens, Lawrence, Twain, Stendhal, Cervantes and de Sade et al, I didn’t really understand why these guys were somehow better than their middle-brow cousins.

            I do now. After having completed a work which ran through some six thousand pages, none of them literary – there may have been a few good paragraphs here and there – it is precisely Simmel’s distinction that may be applied. If the agency in one’s work is to address the world, then once again by definition it cannot be art. Yet the older and seemingly very dated wisdom ‘art for art’s sake’ is not quite what Simmel is getting at: “Art is our thanks to the world and to life. After both have fashioned the sensory and spiritual forms of our comprehension, we thank them for it as we create a world and a life with their help.” (ibid:164 [1920]). This realization helps immensely with the at first puzzling issue that is contained in great literary works as the discourse defines them. For they too, including all of the authors mentioned in my second list above, sought to address, redress, expose, explain or even resolve worldly problems and contents. Dickens, for example, is famous for it, but so is Lawrence. And when I had the privilege as an illiterate human scientist to teach Cervantes, Shakespeare, De Sade and others in a Great Books Canon program in the USA, I haltingly gained the understanding that while at once did the work hail squarely from within its historical epoch it also overleapt the ‘bounds’ of its respective period, and in so doing, enacted the incipience of what was to come. No more so than Cervantes, whose ‘errant’ hero invented the picaresque, a genre type that lives on today in popular culture protagonists such as Don Draper of Madmen. It would be a stretch, for example, to call Oedipus ‘picaresque’.

            It’s stock to have stand-up characters juxtaposed with dubious ones, a greying of the simpler design of hero and villain. Even the most ruthless of the heroines of Kristen-Seraphim, Seraphim herself, is in love with more than one other person, balancing out her narcissistic love for herself. More current is the idea of having standpoints; asking the question, ‘who is standing for what, where and when and why?’, and so on. Can this character be relied upon in this situation, under these conditions, in the company of these others versus those? The answer must be given situationally, and in this the work is a refraction of the world at large. In adventure fiction, the heroes are inevitably larger than life, as they exist in their own world, the one we have created with the help of the factical life of the world as it is, as Simmel stated. But this alone does not make them party to the aesthetic object. Their fictional lives, in other words, are no closer to art than are our own.

            Critics speak of the ‘identification factor’, suggesting that a good read allows a reader to identify with the hero or someone important within the narrative, at least some of the time. The response to this for those like myself who do not and likely cannot write literary art is to have many characters, some forty plus in Kristen-Seraphim, so that one can cover the bases regarding the widest plausible readership. Even so, the principals in any narrative must be polymythic enough to appeal to anyone who has lived just enough to understand that, as Goethe noted, ‘the devil is quite old’. Another formulaic trick is to extend the narrative over a goodly portion of the life course in order to chart the career of the characters through different phases of their own created existence. In this, the work takes on a life of its own, but it still does not approach art. But unlike in Gogol or Faulkner, for instance, we do not need to repeat indefinitely generational conflicts and lineage bigotries, cultural customs and the unending circuit of the peasant. Could it be that what once was art descends, given historical prejudice, into mere story, mere image, mere content, ‘mere’ history? The general argument runs that ‘once art always art’ but this is clearly not necessarily so, given the discursive careers of figures such as Vermeer and much of contemporary art from the impressionists onwards. And though it is no doubt correct to levy against philosophy and related work that it so seldom ascends the other way, becomes art in itself, one must resist the inevitable resentment that, as a social philosopher myself, for instance, one feels against the defining character of great art. But if the novelist has the daunting task of facing up to Middlemarch or Don Quixote, then writers like myself have the equally intense gaze of Thus Spake Zarathustra or Being and Time eyeing us and finding us more than wanting.

            What can one do in the face of such works, the work itself, world, life, and an understanding that art is at once from the world and yet overcomes that very world to herald the new and to grasp the as-yet-unknowable, just as science is charged with doing the same to the as-yet-unknown? Simmel again:

     “…that one seeks to give his own life a value such that this value may be something subjective, without any real or ideal connection back to the Ego. This is the practical application of the purely spiritual fact that man can make himself into his own object. When we first regard ourselves objectively, we reach the bridge by which to extinguish the Ego altogether and to exist only for the object. The highest intensification of this is creativity. Here, the Ego has not only repressed and forgotten itself in order to exist in and live from the object, but it is metamorphosed into an object. Its powers have themselves become the object – it is now no longer Ego and yet has left nothing of itself behind. In creative achievement, spiritual objectivity has overcome its opposition to the subject – it has absorbed the subject into itself.” (ibid:172-3).

            The idea of a ‘legacy’ is the lesser part of this process. Minkowski (1933) has reminded us that to dwell within the ambit of the creative work, once concluded, is to kill both it and ourselves. One cuts off the future and with it the next world, the one that must come, for the old world now contains that which was once new to itself. ‘Moving on’ is the casual if not causal casualty of loss. Indeed, there must be art ‘out there’ that has as yet gone unrecognized, originating in any time period, coming from any culture. New worlds, in other words, are already extant even if their existence in the old world is as yet part of the radically unknowable. So one cannot truly refer to this or that work as ‘radical’ as well as being ’defective’ as art. Such works that address the world and have the fate of the world as their chief content are rather revolutionary, and not radical. The revolution in Kristen-Seraphim consists of the new mythology being in fact a demythology, which in itself can be radical only in the worldly sense. Not only do we find that the definition of fantasy departs from utility into principal – until now ‘fantasy’ has described means and not ends, for instance (the modus operandi of such adventure fiction never attains its own metaphysics, let alone threatens it; phantasmagorical means and characters alike are there merely to either defend or attack the good-evil spectrum) – and thus the ontotheology of the fantasy genre, from Lewis to Pullman, is overcome, we also find that the social order defended therein is itself dismantled. If metaphysics requires of us radicality, then it is the lesser, revolutionary mode that is needed in the face of cultural institutions. Ideas cannot be killed in the same way. Demythology is the halfway house of revolution. Kristen-Seraphim brings home a new world and makes one at home within it, but it cannot claim to have utterly understood ‘nature’ or to have overleapt it. What it has accomplished is to have understood – and vanquished – the nature of morality as one literary genre has supplied it.

            The heroines and heroes of the new mythology are hardly upstanding in the usual sense. Their nobility is restive, their rest unquiet, their deaths equivocal and their resurrections awkward. They eventually triumph, but what is the true nature of their collective victory? “Who claims to recognize surely where the truth of my nature lies?” Simmel asks us. “Perhaps it becomes visible only in one single hour of my existence.” He is here speaking against the usual differences that are connoted by good and evil, and as did Nietzsche before him, senses that our new world, and thus our new myths, must leave them behind: “This whole distinction is most problematic. The person is at one time thus and another otherwise, and only optimism or pessimism about our own value moves us to conclude merely from the more frequent appearance of a specific quality that one resides in principal in a different characterological or metaphysical layer than the other. That this possibility of life, to be really entirely good or really entirely bad, exists; that we are not inwardly divided into layers of different ethical-metaphysical depths of being so that one act falls unalterably into the fundamental, the other into the superficial – this is human freedom.” (ibid:132-133 [1918], italics mine).

            The new demythology is dedicated to human freedom in all of its uncertainty and aspiration, its doubts and its hopes. In book seven, the second Kristen reflects: “For life was not meant to be lived as such. Life not only wasn’t art, as many an artist himself had discovered over time, it also wasn’t meant to continuously be larger than itself, as many a politician and the like had discovered. No, life was meant only to be lived, but in that word ‘only’ lay the secret of the good life. ‘The demands of the day’, she quoted again.” Simmel interprets this proverb of Goethe’s to mean much more than whatever the material day brings to us. It ‘proceeds from the deepest inner life’  which tells us of the next step, and then the next, without revealing what is to come before this point (ibid:109). It is the ‘life of the Ought’, and in this all of us live like heroes. For the Ought is larger than our own life and directs if not our actions per se, then the obligatory nature of the meaning we understand from taking them. Early on in book six we find the same character given pause by her community’s potential complacencies: “The heroes themselves turn into those they destroyed because of their self-centered adoration of the unthought freedom of the present.” Like ourselves, the fictional characters are not always prepared to meet the demands of the day, either on the surface of the world or in the depths of being. Their own beings. Even so, one of the hallmarks of heroism is that when the bell is rung, they do respond because they know, if not the full meaning of their actions to come, horrifying as some of them turn out to be, where meaningfulness must be found in life. In book seven the first Michelle intones: “I can tell you this: we are here in Paris by happenstance, mimicking the great chain of non-being that has brought every one of us to live a human life. Deny that, in any way, shape, or form, and you are denying the basis of life itself, the essence of all life.” Just so, our birthright and our demise is of the moment, a demand of this day like any other. We neither ask to be born nor ask to die, Gadamer reminds us, and it is this combination, to which philosophers refer as being part of the essence of human finitude, that impels the heroic figure to impale herself upon the day, so that what is at hand can be taken into one’s human hands and given both form and meaning.

            If not, if we do not act heroically in spite of the fact that life can never be by itself either art or myth, we are left with musings alone, realizations that limit not only action but living as well. Life remains merely a dream, and as we read in book eight: “Not many people yet realized that the self who dreams is not the same self who then wakes and lives out the day, day after day. And in such dreams from which we do awaken – and indeed, there are those additional to the unconscious from which we never again emerge – what, perchance, remains of the days within which all dreams come to grief?” The heroes are, of course, about to find out, but what certifies their heroism is that they bear up the fear associated with ‘being the new’. This is also what takes them ‘beyond good and evil’ and into the truer, if still human, nature of freedom itself.

G.V. Loewen is the author of over thirty-five books in ethics, religion, education, and aesthetics. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for two decades in both the USA and Canada.