For 40 years I’ve been keenly tuned into literary wisdom, often memorizing tons of poetry and prose, some remnants of which remain today but only those which resonated with the deepest recesses of my mind/heart. Facebook offered me one gem yesterday that will stick with me, from Gore Vidal, “The unfed mind devours itself.” That took only seconds before it fluttered down into the inner-most depths of my being and I understood what he was saying. All of us have a mind and it is always incorporating “stuff” from our world but by nature this “stuff” is then incorporated into our reality by our ego’s self-serving grasp and thus we skew it to merely reassure ourselves of our premises. For example, when the earth was assumed to be flat, any “rational” intellectual of the day took this as an unquestioned assumption just as when I was a youth in the South I never doubted my culture’s wisdom that blacks were inferior to whites and should “get back in their place.” This does not make practitioners of conservative tradition “bad”; it just makes them human and therefore capable of “badness.”
But Vidal was challenging us to consider that a mind trapped within the premises that constitute its “reality” can metastasize, and slowly eat away at its very core, devouring itself, or as Shakespeare put it, “feeding even on the pith of life.” A mind imprisoned in this dark world has not ventured to explore its parameters, its boundaries, and to tippy-toe into the world of the liminal where “what is ‘out there’” and “what is ‘in here’” is not so clear and distinct. This is the very heart of spirituality but when “spirituality” consists of dogma (“well-worn and ready phrases that build comfortable walls against the wilderness”–Conrad Aiken), even spirituality has drifted into the domain of the ersatz and is the very antithesis of the teachings of persons like Jesus Christ.
This is the “willful ignorance” spoken of in the New Testament (2nd Peter). Terry Eagleton, reviewing “The Limits of Critique” by Rita Felski in the current edition of London Review of Books declared, “The closest one can come to the truth is a knowledge of one’s self-deception.” This knowledge is the awareness of a penchant to be “wrong,” that one “sees through a glass darkly” and inevitably will lead to inevitably to the pain of disillusionment occasionally as the flicker of light burns through some of our ego’s obfuscation. This is related to poet John Keats’ term negative capability which is the ability of some individuals, usually writers or artists, who can delve into the realm of ambiguity and uncertainty and not live enslaved by religious or philosophical certainty.
But the willful ignorance noted by St. Peter is an unconscious blindness to even the possibility of knowing that one might be deceived. One cannot handle even the notion of being wrong. This problem is relevant to the Dunning-Kruger effect though I’m hesitant to use this that term because it refers to “stupid people” and my focus here is people that are often very bright and not stupid in the least. These are merely people who lack some version of “negative capability,” their “non-literary” version being my recognition that negative capability is not for everyone and that in fact the world could not with function with too much of it!
But when “negative capability” is squashed to the extent that all vestiges of it are obliterated, the result will always be an arrogant certainty which will be some version of, “Let’s Make America Great Again.” And when this ego need metastasizes to some point, some version of Isis will appear on the stage be it Nazi Germany or the extremism of the hinterlands of modern day evangelical Christianity.
I want to include a brilliant observation by Hannah Arendt from her book, “The Origins of Totalitarianism.”
Just as terror, even in its pre-total, merely tyrannical form ruins all relationships between men, so the self-compulsion of ideological thinking ruins all relationships with reality. The preparation has succeeded when people have lost contact with their fellow men* as well as the reality around them; for together with these contacts, men lose the capacity of both experience and thought. The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.