Tag Archives: Goethe

“Like Kittens Given Their Own Tails to Tease”

Vaclav Havel was a playwright, poet, and artist who became the first president of the Czech Republic in 1992 after helping lead a successful revolution against the Communists.  His involvement in politics was not the route that most men of his artistic persuasion would follow but his voracious reading in religion and the arts led him to action, not idle thought, or as pointed out recently in the Times Literary Supplement, “working for social and political improvement, not for glory, but to put his soul in order.”  Havel had a hunger in the heart that led him into the ethereal, even the occult, but he also was grounded in reality and recognized that the lure of intellectual and spiritual escapism must not be allowed to capture him.  He recognized that passion, that as Hamlet put it, “the native hue of resolution, sicklie’d o’er with the pale cast of thought…(would)…lose the name of action.”  Or, to put it in New Testament words, “Faith without action is dead.” (This was from a book review of “Vaclav Havel” by Kieran Williams.)

Havel lived through social and political turmoil in his youth during the Communist Revolution when his comfortably ensconced family suffered loss of wealth and status making the young Havel “self-conscious about his social origin.”  This “self-consciousness” produced what the book reviewer, Lesley Chamberlain, described as “productive friction” in his soul which simultaneously created or affirmed a belief in a soul and the insight that engagement in the human endeavor was an important part of “putting his soul in order.”  This “productive friction” will not take place in anyone’s life without some unsettling experience at some point in life as otherwise one will just bumble along life’s way comfortably ensconced in one’s view of the world, like “kittens given their tail to tease,” as Goethe put it.

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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/

Emily Dickinson & “Internal Difference”

In one of my favorite Dickinson poems, quoted a few days ago, she describes a descent into the interiority of one’s soul where is found “internal difference where the meanings are.” In modern terms this descent is an openness to one’s unconscious which is given us if we start paying attention to the whims and fancies that pass through our mind…including those that are unsavory…as well as to dreams.  It also involves enough “self” awareness to begin to ask, “Why does this always happen to me” as we recognize repeated patterns of behavior in our life and find the courage to tolerate the suspicion that it is not necessarily someone else’s fault. But focus on this subterranean dimension of life is dangerous to those who have spent their life on the surface, busying themselves with the baubles that life tosses their way, “like kittens given their own tails to tease.” (Goethe)

This adventure was described by Dante at the beginning of The Inferno as a journey into “the deep forest” for in the forest conveys a childhood fear of getting lost; and, on this journey one pretty well has to “get lost” at sometime.  Here is an excerpt from a W. H. Auden poem which describes this risk:

Heroic charity is rare;
Without it, what except despair
Can shape the hero who will dare
The desperate catabasis
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.

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ADDENDUM–I am about to diversify with this literary effort of mine.  In this blog I plan to focus more on poetry and prose.  Below you will see two other blogs of mine relevant to spirituality and politics which have lain dormant for most of the past five years.  I hope some of you will check them out.  However, the boundaries will not be clear as my focus is very broad and my view of life is very eclectic/inclusive/broad-based.  Yes, at times too much so!

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

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

 

I am a Writer

I’m a writer.  It has taken me 65 years to make this bold assertion though this blogging experience of the past five years has been a very tentative, left-handed way of making this announcement.  And “endeavor” was a deliberately chosen term as it has been and always will be a struggle as writing of any substance must come from the heart; and anything that flows from that bastion of “beastly little treasures” will be a struggle.  The heart is the innermost recess of our being, so “inner most” that, if you will let me slip into Zen for a moment, it is a “No Thing” and can best be described as emptiness.  Therefore, if you “know” what your heart is…that is if you cognitively grasp your heart, or think that you do…I would beg to differ with you.  For the “heart” always lies beyond our conscious grasp.  And this “emptiness” is very much related to the Christian teaching of “losing your self to find your self” and finding our “self” in the sense that Jesus had in mind is much more than a cognitive, rational, linear-thinking enterprise.  You could even say it is a “work of the cross” but not in an intellectual way but in the constellation of archetypal energies which will often feel like a crucifixion.

Acknowledgement that anything is beyond the grasp of our conscious mind is frightening to most people, especially those of us in the West.  Since the Descartes dictum, “I think, therefore I am” the West has been worshipping thinking or reason and we have slowly come to be convinced that the whole of life can be reduced to linear thinking, i.e. reason.  And this has made us technologically and scientifically great but left us with a spiritual emptiness that will soon leave my country, the United States, with a man who is egregiously mentally ill as its President.  “They call it Reason, using Light celestial, just to outdo the beasts in being bestial.” (Goethe)

But writing and all artistic enterprises can only spring from a heart that novelist Toni Morrison described as “petal open.”  That is where spirituality flows from, other than the “letter of the law” variety which is only what the Apostle Paul called a “work of the flesh.”  My favorite description of this vulnerable heart was written by Shakespeare whose character Hamlet, with great intensity lamented to his mother that he could never unburden his heart to her because it was, “bronzed o’er with the damned cast of thought so that it” is a barrier against “sense” (or feeling) and thus not “made of penetrable stuff.”  Shakespeare knew that an open heart can be “penetrated” while a closed heart, one shrouded by an enculturated verbal patina will be reduced to mindless palaver, “the well worn words and ready phrases that build comfortable walls against the wilderness.” (Conrad Aiken)

But words do have the capacity to furrow into the depths of our heart and there we can use them to “unpack our heart.”(see footnote below).  But the unopen heart will only reflect from its patina a slough of jargon and packaged, formulaic speech in accordance with what the speaker perceives will gain him the greatest approbation.  Here is the opening stanza of a poem by Irish poet W. R. Rodgers who in 1942 recognized the “post-truth” dimension of language that is currently plaguing our world.

WORDS (an excerpt)

By W. R. Rodgers

Once words were unthinking things, signaling

Artlessly the heart’s secret screech or roar,

Its foremost ardour or its farthest wish,

Its actual ache or naked rancour.

And once they were the gangways for anger,

Overriding the minds qualms and quagmires.

Wires that through weary miles of slow surmise

Carried the feverish message of fact

In their effortless core.  Once they were these,

But now they are the life-like skins and screens

Stretched skillfully on frames and formulae,

To terrify or tame, cynical shows

Meant only to deter or draw men on,

The tricks and tags of every demagogue,

Mere scarecrow proverbs, rhetorical decoys,

Face-savers, salves, facades, the shields and shells

Of shored decay behind which cave minds sleep

And sprawl like gangsters behind bodyguards.

(FOOTNOTE:  For you Shakespearean scholars, I am misapplying this line of “unpacking my heart with words” to describe something useful, when in the play “Hamlet” it described prostitutes deliberately plying their trade knowing that they could then go and perfunctorily confess their sins.  Hmm!)

Embedded in our Own Thoughts, Part 2

Embedded thinking, part 2

We are naturally embedded in our own thinking because thinking…at least in the West…is inherently linear.  But it is possible for those steeped in this “linear-thinking” to find the courage to “step back” a bit from that comfortable cognitive grasp of his world and in so doing find that his world view is finite but nevertheless valid.  This “stepping back” is the exercise of a meta-cognitive muscle that we have the capacity for but is frightening to use for one who has made an inordinate emotional/spiritual investment in the world view that circumstances has given him.  This is precisely what Jesus had in mind when he chided those who have “Ears to hear but hear not, eyes to see but see not.”  Jesus recognized that being conscious, that is being spiritually alive, involves more than simple regurgitation of a mind-set and view of the world that one acquired by accident of birth.  And, if I might speak for Him now, he is telling people like me who were “Christianized” by accident of birth that mindless regurgitation of Christian dogma and teachings…and doing so with like-minded souls…can easily find us amusing ourselves in an echo chamber, which, borrowing a line from Goethe, is  “like kittens given their own tails to tease.”

Thinking is linear because of our “fall” into the time-space continuum, or that which is known as “reality.”  In fact, in the Genesis Creation story, eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is an illustration of falling into “thought” which always bifurcates our world even as it “bifurcates” our selves.   At that point we have been “categorized” and begin to exercise a “categorical imperative” to carve-up into dualities what had been a unified field, creating “good and evil,” male and female, right and wrong, and…yes…even Democrats and Republicans!  Linear thinking has created this world we live in and perpetuates it….and may it ever be!  For without linear thinking, our world would crash and burn immediately.  But when linear thinking runs amok without the God-given gift of “the pauser Reason” the world will still face calamity; for, any phenomena carried to an extreme becomes problematic and even dangerous.  Ideological extremism illustrates for us daily what can happen when someone or some groups gets too carried away with their “noble” and “enlightened” ideas.

Meditation has helped me immensely on this issue.  And though my “monkey mind,” incessantly running to and fro and chattering without cease, it has been given pause and this “pause” has been pregnant, allowing me to open my heart to hidden dimensions of life.  With even my lame success at meditation I have learned more intimately that “embeddedness” in my own thought has been a cognitive prison and this insight…cognitive and emotional…has been redemptive.  And that “redemption” has allowed me to experience being “out of control” which has come to me as simple anxiety.  Of course, this “simple” anxiety is not “simple” at all as it brings me face to face with my own human-ness which is always experienced as vulnerability; Norman Brown noted, “To be, is to be vulnerable.”  And it has been fear of this vulnerability that has kept me locked in this cerebral prison, the escape from which is still in progress and will be in process for the rest of my life until at last I cast off this “mortal coil” and return to my Source.

I’m planning on this “transition” not taking place for decades!  For, “fallen” though this world may be, it is a beautiful world and I am increasingly delighted with the simple but profound beauty which surrounds me every day.  The only issue is, and always has been, “Will I pay attention?”  And, paying attention is relative to the meditative lesson of looking beyond the end of my nose, peering outside of that “small bright circle of my consciousness beyond which lies the dark.”  It is in that “darkness” that I see glimmers of light and these “glimmers” are the best that we can hope for. For these “glimmers” are the brilliant flash of light that we are blessed with when we find the humility to simply “see through a glass darkly.”

Breaking news! GOP Hates President Obama!

“We wage the war we are.’ I use this W. H. Auden quote so often because it so vividly describes my life. But I think the quip is relevant to each of us, individually and collectively. American politics has been demonstrating this “warfare” in a vivid fashion since Barack Obama became president. Senator Mitch McConnell announced upon Obama’s election, that the “primary goal” of his party was to “make Barack Obama a one-term president.” And this Republican game plan has sought egregiously to undermine the President each step of the way, even to the of bring harm to the country and the threat of devastation to the world economy.

sThis single-focus is often good for any group as it provides coherence when otherwise there might be none. But this “single-focus” often goes beyond the pale at times and eventually lead even to internal conflict in the group itself. This is because this “single-focus” is so intense that “reality” is disregarded, the “reality” in this case being the welfare of the country but also the welfare and integrity of the group itself. This “single-focus” can galvanize such intense emotions that actions result that are so short-sighted that the long-term outcome of the actions leads to  catastrophy. The resulting autistic frame of reference is vividly illustrated today on the world stage with Islamic extremist group, Isis. And, sure enough, there are signs that the Isis organization now is experiencing internal conflict.   When your subconscious need is to project your violence on others, eventually “others” will not suffice and the group  begins to have conflict within; it begins to feed upon itself.

The Republicans have graphically demonstrated their antipathy to the President so many times, most recently when 47 Republican senators signed a letter by Senator Tom Cotton which sought to undermine complex negotiations between the White House (and other world leaders) with Iran on nuclear disarmament. A few weeks earlier, the Speaker of the House John Boehner intruded in Obama’s purview on the same issue by inviting Benjamin Netenyaho to speak to the Congress without the customary formality of going first through the White House.

But the seething hatred has even gone to comical at times. In Obama’s second inaugural address, one Congressman interrupted this very formal very event with a cry of, “You lie!” This Congressman had imbibed his party’s hostility toward the President to the to the point he could not control himself, and felt he had the liberty to behave so rudely. He lacked the self-awareness, or meta-cognition, which would have given him impulse control and the realization that such an outburst would be so egregious that both parties would later chide him for the offense.. Another event even more clearly illustrated the childish nature of the hostility when one Republican Senator during intense discussions with the President over the budget, told the President to his face, “I can’t stand to even look at you!” To make this even further comical, when the Senator was “outed” on this rudeness, his response was a fervent denial, followed by a threat, “If anyone was tape recording that meeting, they will be reprimanded for violation of the rules.” The lack of self-awareness kept him from realizing that he was then tacitly admitting guilt.

Obama’s response to the Republican intrusion into negotiations with Iran revealed a truth that is too painful for most members of the Republican party—the extremists who have so much power in their party is ideologically similar to Isis.   Obama noted, “I think it is kind of interesting that the GOP is aligning themselves with the hard right of Isis. I think it’s somewhat ironic to see some members of Congress wanting to make common cause with Isis. It’s an unusual coalition.”

I have wanted to liken these hardliners to the Isis myself. But it is important to note that this is an over statement as our system of government and our culture will not permit this radical extremism to lead to overt violence.   But the subtle violence in their collective heart just two years ago led them to jeopardize the world economy when they tried to shut down the government rather than compromise with the White House on a budget deal. As that political battle approached denouement, the extremists (i.e. Tea Party) began to realize that their childish intransigence was not going to succeed. At one of the conferences within the GOP, two of were quote as they came out of committee meetings exuberantly avowing, “We are rightI”

Hardliners who venture into extremism cannot be negotiated with. One cannot negotiate with any individual or group who is desperately convinced they are “right.” Furthermore, this being “right” is very much related to the conservative religion of that contingent of the GOP who are convinced that God is leading them. It is hard to negotiate with anyone who so desperately believe God is on their side. This issue is a demonstration of the danger of ideology I have blogged about recently. Anyone who is so invested with any idea…even those that might be “good and noble”…cannot approach any issue on the table with reason. Oh sure, they have reason but their reason is blinded by the hatred which is the underlying unifying force of their group. As Goethe so pithily described it, “They call it reason, using celestial light celestial, just to outdo the beasts in being bestial.”

These people are so deeply embedded in their own thinking that they cannot see beyond “the small bright circle of their consciousness.” This is called narcissism.  Emily Dickinson described it as a “mind too near itself to see itself distinctly.”

 

 

 

But Faith Must be “Nuts”!

Yes, religion has to be “nuts” if it has any value…or, to be more precise, if it offers any Value. By “nuts”, of course, I do not mean insane but I do mean an approach to a dimension of life that lies beyond the grasp of reason yet paradoxically is an essential dimension to life. This dimension is “meaning” and meaning always poses a challenge to our rational mind and a meaningful religious discipline will pose that challenge. Paul Tillich said, “A religion within the bounds of reason is a mutilated religion.” And he was not advocating irrationality, but merely noting that religion needs to direct us beyond ourselves. But we know that if we can keep our faith “rational” then we will not face any challenges to the basic premises that guide our life. And thus we are so often guilty of “bestial behavior” as Goethe warned us when he noted, “They call it reason, using light celestial, just outdo the beasts in being bestial.”

Now it is easy to focus this argument on the faith of other people. The challenge for all of us….certainly “moi”…is to always recognize the presence of premises in our thinking, “basic assumptions”, and listen to reality when it deigns to challenge us. Personally, I’ve spent most of my life with blinders on and merely dismissed any of these challenges. I think W. H. Auden had me in mind when he noted, “We have made for ourselves a life safer than we can bear.”

Rabindranath Tagore’s Prayer for His Country

 

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls; whee words come out from the depth of truth;where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection; where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit; where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action–into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

This beautiful prayer from the thoughtful Indian artist/poet/musician of the early 20th century reflects such wisdom and insight about the human predicament.  I really liked that thought about the “stream of reason” needing to not “lose its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit.”  Reason is such a gift but it can sure be misused and often is; in fact, usually is.  When reason is devoid of Spirit, “dead habit” always takes over and we then become arrogant, overbearing, and even violent.  This reminds me of a word of caution from W. H. Auden re the peril of “mere habits of affection freezing our thoughts in their own inert society.”  And then Goethe noted, “They call it Reason, using light celestial, just to outdo the beasts in being bestial.”