Category Archives: consciousness

Tennessee Williams Had Boundary Problems!

Yes he did!  For example, read this thoughtful and provocative wisdom that flowed from his heart, “Nobody sees anybody truly but all through the flaws of their own egos. That is the way we all see …each other in life. Vanity, fear, desire, competition– all such distortions within our own egos– condition our vision of those in relation to us. Add to those distortions to our own egos the corresponding distortions in the egos of others, and you see how cloudy the glass must become through which we look at each other. That’s how it is in all living relationships except when there is that rare case of two people who love intensely enough to burn through all those layers of opacity and see each other’s naked hearts.”

My clinical mind, not quite completely dormant yet, read this and immediately diagnosed, “Porosity of boundaries.”  For this man saw too deeply and felt too deeply and when one is that open he is susceptible to what poet Wallace Stevens described as, “The fatality of seeing things too well.” Life, including relationships must also be lived in a perfunctory manner, on the surface of things, for to dive too far into the depths of life is to risk opening Pandora’s Box.

But my viewpoint of Williams is not as critical as it might seem.  Insight about existential issues requires “boundary problems” otherwise one is confined to living life oblivious to reality, opting to keep on the surface of things. Yes, boundaries are important, even vital, and it is important to be able to maintain involvement and investment in the surface of life even when one’s heart is as open as was Williams’.  And Williams managed to do this, more or less, as he was a successful poet and playwright which usually requires an ability to function in the structure of life and of the art world.  The quoted passage demonstrates what novelist Toni Morrison described as having a heart that was “petal open.”  It was this quality which made his plays so rich and powerful as he was able to reach into the depths of his heart and put on our collective table wisdom that most of us do not have the courage to find on our own.  “The Glass Menagerie” and “Street Car Named Desire” are almost too painful to watch as Williams put human vulnerability right before us and then even rubbed our nose in it!  He put the repressed pain and vulnerability of family life, and of social life as a whole, right before our eyes.

The wisdom of the above quotation is humbling.  We prefer the comfort of being ensconced in our view of the world, including our view of other people including those who we love.  But, Williams displays here the wisdom that W. H. Auden had when he asked the question, “Suppose we love not friends or wives but certain patterns in our lives?”  This same wisdom can be applied to collective experience and pose the question, “Are those ‘bad guys’ actually that bad or are we contributing to their ‘badness’ to accomplish our unacknowledged purposes?  I remember in the 1960’s when the Viet Nam War was raging as my country passionately subscribed to the domino theory about Communist desire to take over the world when now it is quite apparent that there was more to it than we thought.  And what about destroying the Native American culture in the interest of Manifest Destiny only to now see clearly that it was merely an example of “might makes right” so that we were able to accomplish our greedy ends.

Life is complicated.  It is important that we wrestle with the issues that people such as Williams have written about.  But it is also to not make the mistake of taking ourselves too important and allowing the ugliness that is upon us to eat on us to the point of being consumed by bleak despair.  There is always hope.  There is “method to this madness.”  There is “a Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”

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Two other blogs of mine are listed here which I invite you to check out:

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

Shakespeare, Madness, and Trumpism

Sometimes I’m tempted to focus on Shakespeare alone in this blog.  His work offers us more wisdom than I’ve found anywhere else, if one has the courage and discipline to explore it.  As I’ve argued recently, I think his work reveals that he thought that madness inflicted the whole of this human endeavor and that even the “consensually validated reality,” if closely examined reveals this to be true.  Freud probably had this in mind with his book entitled, “The Psychopathology of Everyday Life

One line from the play, “Hamlet” that has always intrigued me on this subject is, “What’s mad but to be nothing else but mad?”  Shakespeare was telling us, “We are all ‘mad’ but the label ‘madness’ belongs only to those who are ‘nothing else but mad.’”  Yes, everyday life is “psycho-pathological” but to waste much time and energy calling it that is kind of, well, kind of “nuts.”  Labels like “psycho-pathological” or “mad” must be reserved for those who go beyond the pale of everyday insanity and illustrates for us what is really going on with our daily grind of “consensually validated reality.”

But there is a continuum to this madness that we are all inflicted with by virtue of being “mere” humans.  There are occasionally people, even prominent people, who come along and illustrate for us madness though manage to avoid institutionalization and possibly even become powerful political leaders.  In my lifetime I can think of people like Idi Amin,  Sadam Hussein, and their predecessors, Hitler and Mussolini. And, you guessed it, there’s Donald Trump.  Though Donald Trump was “freely” elected in a democracy, his election proves the speciousness of any notion of “free will.”   Trump is a good example of someone who Shakespeare would describe as mad but he would also note that with him there is definitely “something other” than mad, meaning he really doesn’t deserve the label “mad,” but he sure comes close to it!  He is pretty far down on the spectrum toward madness but he lives in a culture that has found what he offers valuable enough that they are willing to overlook words and deeds that would disqualify most people from the White House and from the entitlement of the word “sane.”

It would be so helpful if my country would use this moment in its history for self-reflection and consider the wisdom that Shakespeare offers us here.  If we were mentally healthy as a culture we could contemplate our “madness” as Shakespeare challenged us to do and not be daunted by the task, realizing that to contemplate the notion does not make us “mad.”  For, most of us in this exploration would learn to chuckle, or even guffaw at things we began to discover about ourselves, quirks and oddities which reveal merely the conflicted nature of human experience and do not mean that we are mad.  But one dimension of the human ego which can tyrannize one into madness is the fear of having any flaw, and of having any flaw coming to the light of the day.  That fear often drives us not acknowledge our conflicts even if this lack of acknowledgement causes these conflicts to worsen to the point of mental illness or even to the point of validating one who is mentally ill and electing him President of the United States.

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Two other blogs of mine are listed here which I invited you to check out:

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

Marginality, Boundaries, & Racism

Marginality is a commonly used term in modern culture, referring to pushing certain people into the “margins” of our social body because of reasons that often amount to the simple fact they are “different.”  And I’m glad this term is on the table as it has produced such abysmal ugliness in our culture as racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia.

But here I want to emphasize the importance of margins even in the face of their common gross misuse.  These margins I’m speaking of are merely boundaries and without boundaries an individual, or a group of individuals, cannot cohere.  Boundaries, in the social terms I’m speaking of here, are at root the ability to draw the distinction between self and not-self, between “me and thee.”  The ability to draw this distinction is one of the most important phases of our development and only to the degree we have done this will we be able to function in society with some degree of success.

However, when this distinction-drawing has gone awry and is overly valued, the emphasis of boundaries will be excessive and the result will be an excessive push to marginalize people who are different.  This problem stems from existential insecurity as those whose grounding in reality, in the inner-most depths of their being, will find themselves overly emphasizing who is “them” and who is “us.”  Let me illustrate with the simple illustration of the immigration issue in my country.  Immigration policy is a legitimate and even moral need for the welfare of a tribe.  But when social tension is pronounced, often by socio-economic pressures, a matter like immigration policy will become a political football and rather than be resolved will be endlessly quarreled about. In present day, it gives rise to cries like “Build that wall” and “Keep those Mexicans out” which often amounts to nothing more than overt racism rather than the simple and legal right to set a boundary and control who can enter our country.  The foolishness of this “Build that Wall” cry was demonstrated with another Republican Presidential candidate, Scott Walker, responded immediately to Trump’s suggestion with notion of building a wall between the U.S. and Canada also!  “Trump got a lot of applause, so I’ll say the same thing,” Walker must have thought!

We are not rational human beings.  Never have been and never will be.  We are human beings driven primarily by emotion and our reason is subservient to these emotions.  That does not mean we deserve the label “irrational”…necessarily…it just means that our reasoning must be taken with a grain of salt, thus allowing for other perspectives.  Cooperation and dedication toward a common good would then be possible.  But it is easier to just go along with unexamined prejudices, biases and premises about life, giving to them by drawing distinctions rigidly when they could be drawn more graciously.

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Two other blogs of mine are listed here which I invited you to check out:

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

Epistemic Closure in Poetry

The political impasse in my country with the hijacking of the Republican Party by hyper-conservative voices has brought to my focus the topic of epistemic closure.  This is the idea of an idea, or group of ideas, that so captivates a group that any disagreement is forbidden as it would threaten their unconscious need for certainty.  Carried to an extreme this phenomenon always produces a figure head, someone extremely immune from feedback from external reality like Donald Trump.

This morning I ran across a beautiful poem in the Times Literary Supplement which illustrates this phenomenon.  It then brought to my mind two other poems, all three of which I will now share:

Sleeping Dogs by Stephen Dobyns

The satisfied are always chewing something;
like eternal daybreak their smiles remain constant.
They think they travelled far to get here. In fact,
it was two or three steps. Their definitions
surround them like a kennel contains a hound.
Let’s say you rattle their gate. Let’s say you became
a flea nibbling the delicate skin of their belief.
One eye rolls up, a raised lip reveals a tooth.

Like a thrown stone imagining it will not fall
their explanations work to keep the world fixed.
And here you’ve come with your trumpet. Did you
think they would like your music? Your accusers
are blameless. They press their paws to their soft ears.
Why share their kennel if you won’t let them sleep?

And here is one of my favorite poems by Emily Dickinson who uses vivid, concrete language to describe the emphatic closing of a mind against any feedback from one’s private frame of reference:

The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —

Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —

I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —

And finally here is an excerpt from “New Year Letter” by W. H. Auden who poignantly captures the duplicity of the social contract and the courage it takes to explore beneath its facade:

…only “despair

Can shape the hero who will dare

The desperate databases

Into the snarl of the abyss

That always lies just underneath

Our jolly picnic on the heath

Of the agreeable, where we bask,

Agreed on what we will not ask,

Bland, sunny, and adjusted by

The light of the accepted lie?

 

Where Your Treasure Is, There Your Heart Will Be Also

Jesus once noted, “Where your treasures are, there shall your heart be.”  In the fundamentalism that I grew up in, I certainly understood that this teaching meant that the true “stuff” of life was not to be found in “this world.”  But now, I’ve aged a bit and I value this and His other teachings even more as I approach them from less an intellectual manner and more with a combination of intelligence and intuition (i.e. affect).  Aging, and the “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” have done their work on me and I approach the whole of life, including spiritually, with more personal involvement.

One main difference in my understanding of this wisdom now lies in what back then was my culture’s distinction  between “this world” and “the other world” which I guess was heaven.  I think that the treasure that Jesus had in mind was something which we can find during our tenure on earth, a treasure which certainly is “eternal” but I don’t think “eternity” is a quantity of life anymore.  I think that Jesus was offering us an early version of the Shakespearean wisdom, “Within be rich, without be fed no more.”  Jesus was teaching us the lesson of other great spiritual teachers that there is a quality of life that is missed if we make that  what Alfred Lord Whitehead called, “The fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”  Misplaced concreteness is taking that which is ephemeral and perceiving and thinking it to be “real.”  This is very much a version of the Platonic cave allegory about what is “real” and what is “unreal.”  Jesus was telling us that if our “treasure” was in the material realm, we were missing the primary purpose of life which was, and still is, to “shuffle off this mortal coil” while still living and discover that we have something inside which satisfies where that which is “outside” only leaves us empty.  Furthermore, this is what he had reference to when he posed the question, “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul.”

The emptiness of our modern day is so apparent in that we have allowed the mandate of capitalism to drive us into trying to fill that internal emptiness with “stuff.” And very much related to this, the “thing-ification” that we have acquired from our culture’s emphasis on “stuff” has turned even “god” into an item of “stuff,” meaning he is only a sterile concept. Technically our “highest value,” ( i.e. “god”) is “stuff” which is illustrated in the rampant consumerism.

Shakespearean Wisdom for Trump

Shakespeare’s sonnets were probably the key to the birth of “literary lew” in the mid-eighties.  A friend gave me a copy of the Bard’s sonnets and my confinement in a linear world began to crack immediately, a “cracking” which continues! I remember Leonard Cohen telling us in song,  “There’s a crack in everything, that’s where the light gets in.”

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 16 begins with, “As an unperfect actor on the stage of life, who with his fear is put beside his part…”  Shakespeare saw through us all.  He did this because he saw through himself and realized that in so doing he had insight to the human predicament, that we are merely actors on a stage playing some role that we were given early in life.  His grasp of the human heart is a gift that some poets have, a gift eloquently put into words by Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) who wrote, “The poet, in whose mighty heart, heaven hath a quicker pulse imparted, subdues that energy to scan, not his own heart but that of man.”

Shakespeare’s literary gift to the ages is a scanning of the heart.  With modern technological wizardry, we can “scan” the physical heart in ways that Shakespeare could have never imagined but our modern mental wizardry cannot “scan” the heart like Shakespeare did.  For Shakespeare knew that the heart was something intricately subtle and complex, so much so that most people live their lives without any awareness of having one, or at least without any awareness of its infinite depths.  And, it is the experience of “infinite depths” that introduces one to the spiritual realm which people usually prefer to avoid, opting for words instead of the essential realm that words point to.  Infinity is scary which is why T. S. Eliot declared, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality” for in the depths of our heart we are intrinsically aware of this infinity…and, therefore, our mortality.

The social contract is the stage that Shakespeare put on the table for us. This contract is best illustrated for us in today’s world by Donald Trump who flagrantly disregards this contract, refusing simple rules of civility and decorum on the “playground” that we all play on.  Most of us very early opted to “make nice” with each other in return for the knowledge that others would reciprocate.  This “making nice” is upon closer scrutiny, insincere in some fashion as beneath the surface we chafe under the daily grind and would prefer the disinhibition of a tragic figure like our President.  On some level I think that is why so many of the “low-information voters” pledged their troth to him for they sorely resent on some level the lack of freedom that the “social contract” they have signed imposes upon them.

Some hypothesized that perhaps the office that Trump was assuming would modify his whimsical and capricious nature, that he would begin to “act” Presidential as ordinarily one must.  But this ability to “act” to fulfill any role on the playground requires a deep-seated, heart-level restraint that some people lack. Shakespeare described Macbeth penchant for acting out as being wont to “crown his thoughts with acts,” noting later that, “He cannot buckle his distempered (or swollen) cause within the belt of rule.”  Shakespeare knew that some men could not “subdue” or harness the energy referred to in the Arnold poem quoted above.  Shakespeare knew that dark energy of that sort, unleashed, was dangerous to all.

If we could only get Trump see the wisdom of Shakespeare’s advice, through the mouth of Hamlet:

Assume a virtue, if you have it not.
That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat,
Of habits devil, is angel yet in this,
That to the use of actions fair and good
He likewise gives a frock or livery,
That aptly is put on. Refrain to-night,
And that shall lend a kind of easiness
To the next abstinence: the next more easy;
For use almost can change the stamp of nature,
And either [ ] the devil, or throw him out
With wondrous potency. 

 

 

John Masefield and Our Hidden Riches

Poet John Masefield, the British Poet Laureate from 1930-1967 wrote a sonnet which I always think of when I read Shakespeare’s 46th sonnet which I blogged about two days ago.  Masefield also grasped the presence a hidden dimension of reality which is usually overlooked in a world where only the superficial is valued.  In his words, “like lame donkey lured by moving hay, we chase the shade and let the real be.”  Enculturation deprives us of our connection with the real, a necessary step of “joining the human race.”  But often enculturation is so rigid, or our lack of courage is so pronounced, that we spend our lives clinging to the “fig leaves” our culture has provided us and neglect the hidden realm of true Value.

But Masefield’s sonnet noted that this hidden resource, with its immense power, is always there and often is not accessed until the accumulated duress of living on the surface accumulate in our heart and bring us to “our straitened spirit’s possibility.”  But having our spirit, or soul, subjected to “straits” is painful and it is easier to find another escapist amusement to take our attention away from the pain that is necessary in going beneath the surface and drinking from the “well of living waters” that Jesus spoke of.

Before I share this sonnet, I’d like to quote W. H. Auden on a relevant topic, “And Truth met him, and held out her hand.  But he clung in panic to his tall beliefs and shrank away like an ill-treated child.”

Man has his unseen friend, his unseen twin,
His straitened spirit’s possibility,
The palace unexplored he thinks an inn,
The glorious garden which he wanders by.
It is beside us while we clutch at clay
To daub ourselves that we may never see.
Like the lame donkey lured by moving hay
We chase the shade but let the real be.
Yet, when confusion in our heaven brings stress,
We thrust on that unseen, get stature from it,
Cast to the devil’s challenge the man’s yes,
And stream our fiery hour like a comet,
And know for that fierce hour a friend behind,
With sword and shield, the second to the mind.

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ADDENDUM—This is one of three blogs that I now have up and running.  Please check the other two out sometime.  The three are: 

https://wordpress.com/posts/anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/literarylew