Elijah’s Burnt Offerings

When our son Michael was ten years old, he’d been given a school assignment to find two poems. When I saw what Michael had found I was a little shocked. Soon after that, his teacher reported to us that Michael’s choices weren’t appropriate for 5th grade.

They were both Jeffers poems. If memory serves, one of them was Shine, Perishing Republic—let’s just say not exactly the Pledge of Allegiance. The other poem began with a woman torturing a horse. Admittedly, I was amused that our son had got into a bit of trouble because I’d left Robinson Jeffers lying around the house. Not Hustler magazine—Robinson Jeffers: environmental visionary, nature mystic, prophet, poet of California.

The poem with the woman torturing the horse, titled Apology for Bad Dreams, is reportedly based upon actual events, but that’s really beside the point. People are sometimes cruel. We know that. Why, then, is Jeffers so tenacious about telling these stories about sin and mayhem? Is it just that sensationalism sells? Sex and violence, after all, had been good to Jeffers. This is the critique of his work that this dark poem seems to answer.

It is important to keep in mind that much of what Jeffers wrote was written in the aftermath of the Great War, now known as World War I. The Great War was perhaps the watershed event of the 20th Century. It changed everything, including Robinson Jeffers. It transformed Jeffers into a radical anti-war poet, and it seems to me it brought out his demons.

There was some lag-time involved. So far removed in idyllic Carmel, war reports must have lacked immediacy. During the actual event, Jeffers appeared to have been something of a war enthusiast at times, having more than once expressed a desire to enlist. But the grim dawn of the modern age did finally arrive over Bohemia-by-the-Sea, and in the blood-red light of the new era, Carmel ceased to be a pretty place, and Jeffers stopped writing pretty rhymes.

Apology for Bad Dreams is a poem in four parts (I–IV). It can be summed up thus: beautiful places, like capricious gods, call out for tragedy; they must be appeased with cruel sacrifices, real or imagined.

The voice of the poem is of a man who lives in the cultural wasteland left by the Great War, looking out across a beautiful landscape, thinking about God.

Part I. Beauty has turned dark, evil. In all its power and profundity, it wishes us ill. You don’t feel it? Remember the War. Think about the trenches full of corpses. Remember the poison gas, the deformed faces and bodies. Let your eyes pile up the dead, brother by brother, until you have piled millions upon millions. Now, look at the beautiful landscape, in the purple light, heavy with redwood. Look—the beautiful Pacific: it resembles a stone knife-blade. See? And look: a farm, there—so miniscule against the mountainside, so insignificant, there: a woman is punishing a horse

… The ocean
Darkens, the high clouds brighten, the hills darken together.
Unbridled and unbelievable beauty …
… What said the prophet? “I create good: and I create evil: I am the Lord.” (CP 1:208–9)

Part II. So there you have it: all this is the Lord’s doing: the beautiful, the grotesque. But this Lord is not Yahweh or Allah. This is Jeffers’s spirit of place, the coast crying out for tragedy like all beautiful places. The beauty comes up from the core, as does the evil. The beauty has now become grotesque:

… The dykes of red lava and black [demand] what Titan?
The hills like pointed flames
Beyond Soberanes, the terrible peaks of the bare hills under the sun,
what immolation? … (CP 1:209)

The poet sees the evil in the world; ancient, primordial evil—Biblical evil. He sees it in himself, his humanity. He sees it in God. He cannot defeat it; he must appease it. No, this is not a rational response to evil. There’s nothing objective or rational about the world that the poet sees. Reason is no comfort, no help, no use. All we know is that the God of the land craves cruelty. This deep, divine cruelty calls for a primitive response: sacrifice, burnt offerings.

Part III. The former people of this land, all killed off, were a sacrifice. They remain a sacrifice so long as they are remembered. Once forgotten, the sacrifice expires. So long as that memory survives it protects us, reminds us of the cruelty of God, and satiates His appetite for misery.

Part IV. But surely with Jeffers’s pantheistic God all action is ultimately self-inflicted. The God that deforms humanity only deforms himself. Making man self-loathing, he casts self-hate upon himself. Why? There is no making sense of it. There is no reason; only cruelty, power, and passion.

There is a belief among some Jeffers scholars that this poem is a key to Jeffers’s motivation and philosophy as a poet. Even further, it has been suggested more than once that this is his ars poetica, his treatise on poetry itself. The poem does indeed reference his own work and it does strive to justify one of his major themes, but I for one don’t think it definitively addresses Jeffers’s views of his poetry or of poetry in general. There is just too much that this poem leaves out. Refreshingly, Apology does not preach about poetry as some of Jeffers’s other poems do. Alas, I prefer it to anything that might represent an ars poetica. More to the point, I do believe that Jeffers often had the kind of tortured thoughts that this poem seems to reveal, and I find its revelations profound, intimate, and beautiful.

One Guy’s Macrocosm

I just had the pleasure of reading the first volume of Guy Murchie’s Music of the Spheres, titled The Macrocosm, and I can see that a lot has been learned about Earth, the Moon, and planets since I was born. Take this sectional illustration of Earth’s crust for example:

A rather outdated cross section of California

A rather outdated cross section of California

Note the complete absence of tectonic plates. Note that the Sierra Nevada is represented as a folded range, which it’s not. Furthermore, today we don’t think there’s a basalt layer beneath North America, and in fact, we don’t think there’s any root at all beneath the southern Sierra. That last bit has been discovered rather recently.

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Pink Floyd and Thoreau

I was just listening to the Pink Floyd song “Time” the other day, when three lines of the song struck me:

You fritter and waste the hours in an off hand way …
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today …
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way

I had long been cognizant of a connection between the last line and something Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden:

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation

… but this time I suddenly recognized two other connections between this song and Thoreau’s masterpeice:

Our life is frittered away by detail … Smplify, simplify.

as if you could kill time without injuring eternity.

I wonder what Roger and the boys had been reading when they wrote “Time”. Though I don’t see the same depth in the song that can be found in Walden, these verbal coincidences make me wonder what were their inspirations.

The Source

The theme, or motto, of this blog has its source in an essay of Plutarch entitled “On Listening to Lectures.” Here’s a translation of Plutarch’s actual words:

The correct analogy for the mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting — no more — and then it motivates one towards originality and instills the desire for truth.

Love, Sympathy, and Value

The September 13 episode of the Philosopher’s Zone podcast really struck a chord with me. I spent most of the episode mumbling non-verbal cues of non-committal acquiescence, but by the end I was slapping the steering wheel, saying, “that’s fucking beautiful” with tears welling up in my eyes. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

The key, to violate the plot line and jump to the climax, is to recognize the sympathetic and value-conscious aspects of love. Adam Smith came close when he recognized the sympathetic nature of human intelligence, and some Stoics seem to have believed in our natural capacity to appropriate others into our sense of self-consciousness (oikeiosis), but neither party, so far as I know, combined the notions of sympathy and value-consciousness as does Australian philosopher Jeanette Kennett:

What I saw so vividly in the most general sense was my son as a valuer.

Her trembling voice, no doubt, may have influenced my reaction, but this thinking has a deep appeal to me. It is not enough to sympathize with the joy and pain of others (please read Smith before you correct me with the word “empathize”). That is fine, but I believe the word “love” means something more, and the idea that we directly experience—or “see vividly”—the subjective value-consciousness of others is about as close as I’ve heard an idea get.

Thank you for listening, that was very brave of you. People have to learn that underlying business, the message of everything is love. Which is why society sticks together. You and I have love. —Jonathan, in Tell me I’m Here by Anne Deveson

If I’m selling Adam Smith or the Stoics short here, please let me have it. I would be happy to give them their due.

Because I believe love to be an innate inclination, I cannot use this line of reasoning to endorse Christian love, because Christian love is founded on a narrative of divine love. The dominant idea taught by the Christ-myth is that God loves us, therefore we ought to love one another. This sounds nice, but I believe that it undermines one aspect of love that I value most: its innate character. I would rather associate with the Stoics, who likely wielded a great influence upon Christianity, and came very close to speaking what I feel to be the truth.

Still, it seems to me that all classical western models miss an critical ingredient: value. Perhaps they left it out because they took value for granted. Perhaps it went without saying, but I believe that, in this age, it needs to be said. Plato came close in his near-deification of Beauty, but he didn’t develop that theme enough to convince me that he acknowledged the fundamental importance of value. I know that sounds rather circular: of course value is important! But I don’t mean to say that our sense of value is tied to what we find important; rather, I believe that our very existence is value-laden.

In looking for a classical symbol of this point of view, if not a philosopher or a kindred spirit, I cannot think of a better example than Zoroaster (Zarathushtra) for his essential intuition of a value-laden world, though the insights of the Stoic theory of oikeiosis and Smith’s theory of moral sentiments are crucial. … And let’s not forget Kennett!

PS: At the risk of sounding elitist, I’m not sure that I would have ever appreciated such discussions on love had I not become a parent.

Last of the Starry-Eyed Orientalists

Since Iran deteriorated into Islamic fundamentalism in 1979, and the Ayatollahs resurfaced to rid Iran of unclean things such as infidels, heretics, and homosexuals, we haven’t heard much from the starry-eyed orientalist; that scholar who tires of the daunting empiricism, formal scientific process, excessive prosperity, and agnostic materialism of the West, and turns to the Orient of whirling dervishes and flying carpets for a renovation of romance.

It’s rather like stepping back in time.

I can understand the need, but I cannot bear to conflate a feline curiosity for the exotic with the transparently negative escapism of these naive daydreamers.

The last of these gullible scholastic tourists was perhaps Henry Corbin, who died in his native France in October 1978, while Ruhollah Khomeini was living in exile in the very same land. I recently read Corbin’s book Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth (1960), hoping to educate myself further on the thought and culture of ancient Iran.

One of the dominant themes of the book is its continual denigration of the West and its loss of faith. Complementing that theme is the book’s air of absolute certainty with regard to the author’s own gnostic and theosophical doctrines. Fair enough: it would do Corbin no good to appear uncertain or impartial, for it is clearly just that impartiality and “pious agnosticism” of the West that he yearns to forsake.

Corbin’s primary need, next to a general desire to believe and to be a Persian, appears to be to find a foundation for immortality. He finds his beloved eternity in a sort of a world of forms—or images, or more: it’s a world of dimensions, sights, smells, and tastes just like our own—very real. The only difference is that his world of images has no death or deterioration.

Let me guess what you’re thinking: in a world full of unchanging, immortal images, can anything or anyone ever be truly alive?

To each his own. Some people simply cannot see the forest for the trees. They cannot see that a living world exists right before their eyes. All they need do to attain immortality is to loosen their grasp on their idols and let the changes flow. But they refuse to acknowledge the rules of the game, though it be the only game in town.

“Through my meeting with Suhrawardi, my spiritual destiny for the passage through this world was sealed.”
—Henry Corbin, Jambet, 1981, pp. 62-3

Corbin, purportedly following the lead of his idol, the Islamic mystic Suhrawardi, made a fundamental misjudgment of the character of Zoroastrian thought. There appears to be a consensus among scholars of Zoroastrianism that it is a life-affirming religion of this world. It is, in fact, quite the opposite of Suhrawardi’s mysticism. Suhrawardi may have revived a form of ancient thought—Manichean thought perhaps, but his efforts only served to increase the distance between Islamic and Zoroastrian Iran.

I would venture to claim that mainstream Shi’ism is closer to Zoroastrianism than the abstract, world-denying asceticism of Suhrawardi (and Sufism in general). This may possibly discredit Zoroastrianism in the eyes of Western admirers of Sufism, but it remains a fact—for better or for worse—that Zoroastrianism is not a mystical, ascetic religion. It is a religion of community and engagement with the world; in no danger of the solipsism and amoral disengagement that Sufi practitioners have always been hazardously near. Not to discredit Sufism: it offers a lot to admire, but it has little in common with the religion of pre-Islamic Iran.

Now’s it’s peculiar, though not surprising, that Corbin has ample indignation reserved for the religion of most Muslims. Attempting to distance his thinking from the suffocating legalism and orthodoxy of the dominant institutions of Islam, Corbin continually refrains the abyss between “legalistic Islam” and what he calls “spiritual Islam.”

“spiritual Islam, to be sure, … is profoundly different from the legalistic Islam, the official religion of the majority.” —page 52

The majority of Muslims, of course, lack the capacity to appreciate spiritual Islam:

“he who does not possess the inner ear cannot be made to hear …” —page 54

This kind of elitist end-run around reason leads one to wonder whether the rest of us ought to simply take his word for all his gnostic, theosophical mumbo jumbo.

One of the first tasks of this “spiritual Islam” is—of course—to recast the Qur‘an as a spiritual book:

“the ta‘wíl is preeminently the hermeneutics of symbols, the ex-egesis, the bringing out of hidden spiritual meaning.” —page 53

Corbin goes on to assert that it was by means of this methodology that Shí‘a mystics transfigured “the meaning of Islam.”

“In the Qur‘an there are verses whose complete meaning cannot be understood except by means of the spiritual hermeneutic, the Shi’ite ta‘wíl. —page 66

I suppose it would charitable of the Shí‘a to let the Sunni use their ta‘wíl, just so they can understand their own scripture? Of course, that will only benefit those with an inner ear, but it’s worth a shot.

Henry Thoreau’s Moral Universe

I’ve been a wilderness lover since the summer my brother David and I first rode our bicycles into the Sierra Nevada, but I never did think much of Henry David Thoreau, until I suddenly fell in love with him.

To me, Thoreau was just some New England liberal garden-naturalist who might have liked to walk Robert Frost’s “Road Less Traveled”. He was no John Muir.

I’m not sure that I ever really read Walden until I was about 40 years old, after I had just read some Nietzsche and some books on Zoroastrianism.

What an eye-opener! The author of Walden was a mystic, a radical individualist, a wit, and a metaphysician. I was most taken by his usage of the word “moral”, and saw in him shades of Nietzsche and Zoroaster, and maybe a touch of Heraclitus.

Since losing my religious faith, I had become more and more convinced that faith must come from within, as asserted by Emerson in his radical essay “Self-Reliance”. This doctrine was clearly something that Thoreau had taken to heart, but there was much more to him than that.

“Our whole life is startlingly moral,” he said. That is just what I had been yearning to hear. I was attracted to the idea of an ethical metaphysics, that is, a way of looking at the world as fundamentally moral, rather than material or “spiritual” (non-material?). I had begun to understand that everything that we observe seems to be perceived aesthetically. Couple that with our ever-present sense of intention, and you might see a world that “is startlingly moral”; both value-laden and intentional.

One of the great expressions of this idea in human culture can be found in Zoroastrianism. This Iranian religion stood out among the classical schools of thought as one that saw the world morally rather than metaphysically. They saw everything composed of good and/or evil. Their metaphysics, if it can be called metaphysics, is usually called “cosmic dualism.” It is based upon the idea that the world is essentially a cosmic conflict between good and evil.

Thoreau often seemed to see the world as a moral landscape, but he did not view Nature as a moral guide. At times, he would confess that his beloved Nature could be quite cruel, and he could sound a lot like a Zoroastrian:

“Are there not two powers?”
—Journal, Jan 9, 1853

Tauber hits upon this aspect of Thoreau:

Thoreau appreciates the terrifying otherness of nature, an insight that McGregor (1997) has argued was pivotal to Thoreau’s existential and literary development.

Walden startled me. I had just read a work by Nietzsche using the character of the Persian Prophet Zoroaster as the protagonist in a modern moral drama, and next thing I know I’m reading from what I thought was an environmentalist who sounds something like a prophet of ethical metaphysics, like an American Zarathustra!

Curiously, it turns out that Zarathustra (AKA Zarathushtra ), little that we know of him, was also an environmentalist. One of the causes closest to his heart appears to have been sustainable agriculture.

Funny that Thoreau features Zoroaster in one of the paragraphs of Walden:

“The solitary hired man on a farm in the outskirts of Concord, who has had his second birth and peculiar religious experience, and is driven as he believes into the silent gravity and exclusiveness by his faith, may think it is not true; but Zoroaster, thousands of years ago, travelled the same road and had the same experience; but he, being wise, knew it to be universal, and treated his neighbors accordingly, and is even said to have invented and established worship among men. Let him humbly commune with Zoroaster then, …”

Thoreau seemed to think of himself as a prophet of sorts, perhaps the Prophet of Concord. I must admit that hadn’t occurred to me, though, until I read a certain book on Thoreau.

It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I was rummaging through a used book store in Berkeley and stumbled onto Alfred I. Tauber’s book Henry David Thoreau and the Moral Agency of Knowing (2001). My eyes must have popped out. If they did, I was too startled to notice. I had found someone wThe Moral Agency of Knowingho was willing to discuss the ethical metaphysics and epistemology of Thoreau.

Upon doing the reading, I was not disappointed. The book is difficult at times, but it is generally accessible, and quite thorough. Tauber clearly took great pains to address Thoreau’s philosophy of value in the context of the enlightenment, romanticism, positivism, existentialism and phenomenalism.

Tauber’s central theme is Thoreau’s view of science. Tauber presents Thoreau as a Romantic naturalist confronted by the onset of positivism, and the dualistic subject-object metaphysics that positivism rested upon, both of which dominated science before the advent of Quantum Mechanics, and still have a strong influence on the modern mind. To Tauber, Thoreau is a poet-naturalist attempting to rescue science from the new objectivism of his time.

“… a theme explored here, is that objectified knowledge must be made meaningful. This was the program enunciated by Michael Polanyi, and, I have argued, this was also Thoreau’s own project.” —Tauber, Epilogue

The only major theme that Tauber appears to overlook is the central role of simplicity (purity) in Thoreau’s mysticism and philosophy (another peculiar parallel between Zoroaster and Thoreau). This may be because the psychology of simplicity, as important as it was to Thoreau, was off-topic for Tauber as a philosopher of science.

Further Reading:

Robert Kuhn McGregor, “A Wider View of the Universe: Henry Thoreau’s Study of Nature” (1997)

To Believe is Human

My neighbor casually tells me, “Dan, some people are believers and some people aren’t.” Neurologist Robert Burton, likewise, says “some people are naturally doubters, and nothing feels as though it’s certain.” Burton, unlike my neighbor, sees the gap between believers and skeptics as more as a spectrum; a continuum.

I’ve been listening to a fascinating interview with Robert Burton on KQED’s Forum. Give it a listen. Burton appears to be suggesting that faith is a physiological impulse. This may sound reductionistic, and perhaps it is. Less reductionistically, you might say that faith is a “feeling”. I find it interesting because I have such a hard time—how should I put it—believing that believers really believe. This doubt is so strong that I often wonder whether believers are just lying about their belief. It sounds rather like a paranoid fantasy, doesn’t it? Well, so be it. On Being Certain

You see, I used to be a believer. That is, I was raised as a believer. When I was young, I suppose it might have been that I accepted my indoctrination as a factual education. It’s hard to tell, but I do remember having a sense of faith being a willful effort to conform to my upbringing. I considered myself a believer, in a doubtful sort of way. Maybe in an envious sort of way.

Thanks to the testimony of Dostoevsky and others, science has come up with the notion that many mystical experiences are related to epileptic seizures. Can I try one of those? I feel quite deprived. Honest! I wonder what it feels like.

What’s peculiar in my case is that my mother is an epileptic, and she had some bad seizures back around the time she became a Baha’i and married the man who spoke at the first Baha’i meeting that she attended. I wonder how different the world feels to her. Does she really have a sense of certainty about the faith that she seems so overly confident about?

I must admit that this gives me a new sense of tolerance for believers, as obnoxiously overbearing as they can be. Maybe believers aren’t a load of liars. Maybe they really do believe. Maybe belief is just part of being human; or rather, maybe belief is just part of being mammalian?

I Wanna Be Autonomy

Awe, come on! A little anarchy never hurt nobody! Be a devil! Give it a try, won’t you? Just this once.

Anarchy in the NZ.

This here is your real scarlet letter. It stands for some pretty nasty ideas: anarchy, for starters. Likewise, we have atheism, the theological equivalent of anarchism. Then there’s that rarely-employed synonym for anarchy: autonomy. Back in New England it was said to represent adultery, but today it might better represent adulthood.

Thar be fearsome ideas off to port, Captain!

That’ll be the Forbidden Zone, where men are forced to think for themselves.

I recently encountered a rather engaging discussion of anarchism on the Aussie radio show The Philosopher’s Zone, one of my favorite podcasts. The featured guest was Professor Robert Paul Wolff of the University of Massachusetts, a notable philosophical anarchist and author of In Defense of Anarchism.

Listening to Professor Wolff reminds me of reading Henry David Thoreau, who, disgusted with slavery, aggression against Mexico, and other crimes of his democratic government, wrote “Civil Disobedience” and passages such as the following:

Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then?

There comes a time when a man asks himself whether it is moral to submit to an immoral king, an immoral majority, or an immoral God. Most of us seem all too willing to delegate all moral agency to the mob, the state, or to God. Why are we so afraid of grappling with morality? Perhaps we’re too lazy to want to make difficult decisions about right and wrong. Perhaps we are afraid of the responsibility that moral anarchism places upon us.

Isn’t it high time for us to grow up?

Embrace Your Inner Fish

I just finished the book Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin. Though I bought the book with a specific interest in learning just how much bony fish there is within us, I want to say at the outset that it has been an enjoyable read in general as a book about the joy of science. I hear so much about the battles between scientists and those who fear science that it’s nice to hear a scientist simply write about what he loves. I know: there are lots of such books out there to be sure; still, this one strikes a chord that I first remember hearing in Carl Sagan.

I remember my father saying “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” a number of times during my youth. This lyrical slogan-like phrase indicates that our formation in the womb reflects our formation as a species. It wasn’t until several years ago that I finally looked the phrase up, and found it to be quite outmoded. I still like the sound of it, but it does miss an important point: it’s not so much that we evolved from, say, fish, but rather that we remain as fish to this day.

Get the best in evolutionary fin art at TrollArt.com.

Ray Troll contemplates Darwin's passion

The fact that we have undergone a multitude of changes does not change the fact that we are modified fish. Many aspects of our anatomy and physiology bear this out. It’s not like all our fish parts were replaced by amphibian parts when we left the water, but rather our fish parts were generally transformed or even reassigned.

Why fish? It’s not that we aren’t amphibians and reptiles as well, but the fish holds a special place for two reasons:

  • Fish represent the aquatic origins of life.
  • The famous fishiness, albeit temporary, of the human embryo.

It’s not just that we can look at bony fish and note our resemblance to their basic skeletal layout. They do have a spine, head, and limbs. They do have our basic camera-type eye. They do have nostrils. They also have three ear canals that give them a sense of acceleration in three dimensions. Still, it’s much more than that. Remarkably enough, we have retained our gills, in a morphological sense at least. The gills of the embryo are gills that guide the formation of our head and neck.

It’s tempting to think of our inner fish as something we’ve left behind, but who’s to say there’s no going back? Look at our cousins the whales. They stand as proof that the water is not so irrevocably lost to us.

Another less-fishy reflection from the book that resonates with me is the notion that life is self-building. We tend to see creatures as buildings that are built by some builder, but when we look deeply into the formation of creatures, we are struck by how they actively build themselves out of a mere blueprint. And what of the blueprint? That too is continually recreated and redesigned by the living.