Category Archives: epistomology

The Perilous Safety of “Hunkerin’ Down”

There is a pale.  And there are those who spend their life beyond the pale, some so far beyond the pale that they merit the term “deviant.”  And then there are those who live very close to the pale, hovering just short of this boundary or just beyond it and do the work that offers art in its full gamut to the human race.  This pale is what defines reality and “reality” must have some definition if there is to be any civilization at all.  But there are times when the “energy” that has constellated at and just beyond the pale appears threatening to those who hover near the center of “reality” and then there is a tendency to “hunker down” and fiercely resist the precious offering of those “pale dwellers”—opportunities for change.  But the “hunker downers”, if they find a chieftain around whom they can rally, often will become adamant about maintaining the status quo and the social body will suffer, especially those who do not have the comfort of the “in crowd.”  Often those in the “out crowd” are easily manipulated and intimidated and can be convinced by their chieftain that it is in their own best interest to oppose the changes that would be good for the entirety of the social body, including themselves.

Change is scary.  As Shakespeare put it, “We cling to these ills we have rather than fly to others we know not of.”  The Bard knew that often we will prefer to maintain our misery rather than dare to take the risk that would be entailed in taking actions that might alleviate our suffering.  A psychiatrist I worked with in a psych hospital one time quipped in a staffing about a patient that we both worked with, “She clings to her mental illness with the same tenacity that most of us cling to our mental health.”  “Hunkering down” gives one, or the whole of a group, the illusion of safety.  As W. H. Auden noted, “We have made for ourselves a life safer than we can bear.”

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Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

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Knowledge is Capricious

Daniel Boorstin, a noted American historian declared in his book, “The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself,” that, “More appealing than knowledge itself is the feeling of knowing.” Boorstin in this quote had gleaned from his study of history that the comfort of “the feeling of knowing” often, if not most of the time, would triumph over knowledge itself.  Throughout history we have records of cultures in which “the feeling of knowing” proved to lead to their demise while letting that “feeling” give way to some critical thinking could have allowed them to continue, though with a moderated view of reality.

It is comforting to feel that one knows, permitting one to “know” that one knows.  It is so comforting that human nature has hard-wired us to prefer “knowing that we know” in the interest of preserving our tribe.  But when the world grows so small…as we are now experiencing…then “knowing what we know” begins to compete with other tribes who “know that they know” with equal conviction. Then violent conflict ensues unless leadership is available which will direct us to tolerate the notion that diametrically opposing ideas of reality can co-exist. There is no need to attempt to obliterate “them” just because we see “them” as, “not knowing correctly.”

The core issue is the comfort of “feeling that we know” not understanding the wisdom of poet W. H. Auden who told us that, “feeling knows no discretion but its own.”  Auden knew that our view of the world is not a rational matter, but one whose origin lies beneath the surface in the murky realm of feelings, closely akin to the unconscious.  But to recognize this truth is to take away the certainty that we can have in believing our beliefs and discounting anything or anyone that threatens them.  Another word for this realm of feelings is the heart, that center of our being which is unlocked only when we are willing to forego the tyranny of rational thinking and permit the grace of a non-tyrannical rationality which is quickened with the intuitive wisdom of the heart.

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Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

Emily Dickinson and John Donne Speak to Us

Emily Dickinson knew the human heart, as do any poet who is worth their poetic salt.  Therefore, she knew about meaning and understood that it was obtained only in the inner most depths of the heart which she captured with the following poem:

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –

None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –
Dickinson knew that meaning comes from “heavenly hurt” and that it leaves, “no scar” to the casual observer, those who look only on the surface of things; but those who can withstand the pain will find, “internal difference—where the meanings are.”  This “internal difference” allows an ephemeral “certain slant of light” to daunt the citadel of the heart and bring into question certainties which had, to that point, been biases and premises unsullied by the “certain slant of light” of conscious awareness.  It is in the resulting disarray, confusion, doubt, and fear that “meaning” can surface in our heart and allow “words fitly spoken” to flow from our inner most being.

To borrow from another line of Dickinson poetry,  she called this intrusion into our consciousness of this, “slant of light,” a “splinter in the brain.”  This “splintering” is a violation, a penetration, not unrelated to what the famous poet John Donne had in mind when he noted that God would not be able to penetrate the stubborn rational fortress of his egoic self, “except thou ravish me,” which would come only after the answering of his prayer, “Batter my heart, three personed God.”

“Defining Yellow”…and Our Political Mess

Japanese author, Haruki Murakami, has offered wisdom to this moment in United States history.  He notes that regardless of how high we build the walls, that which lies beyond artificial structures will still be present and a “danger” to the illusory safety found within. W. H. Auden offered a hint at the dark side of life within walls that are too tight, declaring, “We have made for ourselves a life safer than we can bear.”  (Yes, all walls and boundaries are “artificial.”)

Boundary issues arise from the simple phenomenon of definition.  The definition of anything includes the exclusion of “everything else” so that a particular “thing” can be given attention, can have an identity.  For example, a blogging friend of mine has entitled her blog, “Defining Yellow.”  This young woman appears to understand that even a simple phenomenon as a color requires the ability to distinguish it from the rest of the color spectrum.  From the “ancient” memory of my own youth, I want to cry out, “Why hell, yellow cannot be defined! It simply is and attempting to define it is crazy!”  But yellow would not exist without the “supporting cast,” of the rest of the color spectrum which our conscious mind is able to shut out. To illustrate, imagine that everything in the world was yellow.  If that were the case, then yellow would not “exist”; for, the very word, “exist” means to “stand out” from a context.  (The word “exist” comes from the Latin terms “ex” and “stere,” “ex” meaning to stand out of and “stere” that which means, “pure.”)  If everything in our world was yellow, we would not be able to recognize yellow as it would be taken for granted.

Murakami explained the subtle peril of definition in this historical political moment we live in:

…no matter how high a wall we build to keep intruders out, no matter how strictly we exclude outsiders, no matter how much we rewrite history to suit us, we just end up damaging and hurting ourselves… just as all people have shadows, every society and nation, too, has shadows, (and) if there are bright, shining aspects, there will definitely be a counterbalancing dark side. If there’s a positive, there will surely be a negative on the reverse side…at times we tend to avert our eyes from the shadow, those negative parts. Or else try to forcibly eliminate those aspects. Because people want to avoid, as much as possible, looking at their own dark sides, their negative qualities. But in order for a statue to appear solid and three-dimensional, you need to have shadows. Do away with shadows and all you end up with is a flat illusion. Light that doesn’t generate shadows is not true light. You have to patiently learn to live together with your shadow and carefully observe the darkness that resides within you. Sometimes in a dark tunnel you have to confront your own dark side.

NOTE:  See “Defining Yellow” blog at—https://definingyellow.com/

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Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

Marilynne Robinson on Subjectivity, Dissent, Rationality, and Faith

Marilynne Robinson is one of the most astute social critics and feminist writers in our contemporary world.  In the current edition of The New Republic she has an article about Martin Luther and the dissent that he introduced which led to the Protestant Revolution.  She points out that Luther was a very conflicted soul, certainly “haunted” and driven by forces he was not aware of, but appearing at a ripe moment in history and has proving to be a pivotal figure in Western Civilization.  I also can see how one could even argue that the direction he led us was not even in the best interest of mankind, given our present day capacity to allow “dissent” to become such a way of life that even a “rational” body like the U.S. Congress is anything but rational.

Even in her youth Marilynne was a thoughtful sensitive soul, very “aware” of her own subjective experience and the world in which she lived, even that of flora and fauna. The following is from an article in Christianity Today magazine about Robinson’s keen spiritual sensitivity.  The writer pointed out that she developed a keen sense of observation, including the Ineffable, recalling that she could sense God’s presence there long before she had a name for him. “I was aware to the point of alarm of a vast energy of intention, all around me,” she writes, “barely restrained, and I thought everyone else must be aware of it.” Perhaps they were, but in a culture in which “it was characteristic to be silent about things that in any way moved them,” the young Robinson was, in her deepest experiences, alone.”

“There were mentors, though. She remembers her grandfather holding an iris blossom before her, quietly commending its miracle of form, and the “patient old woman who taught me Presbyterianism,” offering Moses’ burning bush and Pharaoh’s dream of famine as wonders to contemplate. In their reticent attention, both mentors gave Robinson a way to stand before mystery and gradually behold it. “It was as if some old relative had walked me down to the lake knowing an imperious whim of heaven had made it a sea of gold and glass, and had said, This is a fine evening, and walked me home again.”

Her subjective “aliveness” is best illustrated in her first novel, “Housekeeping” in which an Aunt cares for two young nieces and leads them into her eccentric, “hippy” world of myth and magic.  One of the nieces eventually rejects this life for the “normal” while the other takes off with her aunt for a vagabond life of adventure in an ethereal world of which most of us are oblivious, where distinctions are nebulous.  The most memorable line in this novel for me is, “Emptiness can blossom into all the compensations it requires.”  Robinson knew, and still knows, that the realm of the imagination holds riches untold for humankind if we are but willing to find the courage to venture there, allowing our intellect to be refreshed by the energy that lies there.

Here is the context from, “Housekeeping,” in which the aforementioned quotation occurs, “For need can blossom into all the compensation it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing-the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.”

John Masefield, Stanley Kunitz, and “Continuity of Being”

John Masefield, the British poet laureate from 1930 until his death in 1967, is now running a close second to Shakespeare as my favorite sonneteer. He was a bookish lad, an addiction which his aunt, his guardian when his parents died in his childhood, sought to break by sending him to sea at age 13. But he there found lots of time to read and to write without the interference of the unappreciated aunt and also developed a lifetime passion for the maritime life. “Sea-Farer” is one of his best known poems and the sea, and water themes, are common in his work.

His adventures at sea, including the foreign lands he visited, gave him a global approach to life and made him an observer of the human situation which is a gift many poets have. In the following sonnet, he started with a line about the ephemeral nature of identity itself, noting a wish to “get within this changing I, this ever-altering thing which yet persists…” Masefield’s natural curiosity and educational accomplishments helped him see life as every bit turbulent and capricious as the sea, always changing yet persisting nevertheless.
Modern life in the late 19th century (he was born in 1878) was teeming with scientific discoveries and theories, including the work of Charles Darwin and Karl Marx. To those exposed to higher education, life was not a static phenomenon but a dynamic process and even one’s own identity was an evolutionary process. But later in the sonnet he did recognize a “ghost in the machine” which some of us like to describe as “god” (i.e. “God”) which appeared often to be effecting some direction to the caprices of our day to day life. Even “in the brain’s most enfolded twisted shell,” he saw, “The King, the supreme self, the Master Cell” providing some mysterious teleology to our often-mischievous path. This notion brings to mind one of my favorite lines from Shakespeare, “There is a Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”
If I could get within this changing I,
This ever altering thing which yet persists,
Keeping the features it is reckoned by,
While each component atom breaks or twists,
If, wandering past strange groups of shifting forms,
Cells at their hidden marvels hard at work,
Pale from much toil, or red from sudden storms,
I might attain to where the Rulers lurk.
If, pressing past the guards in those grey gates,
The brain’s most folded intertwisted shell,
I might attain to that which alters fates,
The King, the supreme self, the Master Cell,
Then, on Man’s earthly peak, I might behold
The unearthly self beyond, unguessed, untold.

Here I want to append an excerpt from another poem, by a United States poet laureate, Stanley Kunitz, entitled, “The Layers” in which he too recognized some mysterious “center” in the depth of one’s being from which one, “struggles not to stray” even in the infinite vicissitudes of life.

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.

Here is a list of my blogs. I invite you to check out the other two sometime.
https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/
https://literarylew.wordpress.com/
https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

Language & the Existential Abyss

There is some way in which we don’t have language, but language has us. To put it differently, in our youth we don’t “acquire” language but language “acquires” us. We are born into a verbal field and the matrix of that field consumes us…in a sense…as it shapes our identity. To illustrate one dimension of its formative influence, in English we say, “I see the book” while Eastern languages would say, “The book is seen.” In the West language has shaped us so that we see ourselves more separate from the object-world while in the East the subject-object relationship is more nebulous. Language, infinitely subtle and complex, makes us human. It allows us to communicate, to reach a hand across the existential abyss that would otherwise separate us.
Here are two Carl Sandburg poems which illustrates the mysterious complexity of language:

JABBERERS by Carl Sandburg

I RISE out of my depths with my language.
You rise out of your depths with your language.

Two tongues from the depths,
Alike only as a yellow cat and a green parrot are alike,
Fling their staccato tantalizations 5
Into a wildcat jabber
Over a gossamer web of unanswerables.

The second and the third silence,
Even the hundredth silence,
Is better than no silence at all 10
(Maybe this is a jabber too—are we at it again, you and I?)

I rise out of my depths with my language.
You rise out of your depths with your language.

One thing there is much of; the name men call it by is time; into this gulf our syllabic pronunciamentos empty by the way rockets of fire curve and are gone on the night sky; into this gulf the jabberings go as the shower at a scissors grinder’s wheel….

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PRECIOUS MOMENTS by Carl Sandburg

Bright vocabularies are transient as rainbows./Speech requires blood and air to make it./Before the word comes off the end of the tongue,/While diaphragms of flesh negotiate the word,/In the moment of doom when the word forms/It is born, alive, registering an imprint—Afterward it is a mummy, a dry fact, done and gone.