SHADOWS

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Leop­ards break in­to the temple and drink all the sac­ri­fi­cial ves­sels dry; it keeps hap­pen­ing; in the end, it can be cal­cu­lat­ed in ad­vance and is in­cor­po­rat­ed in­to the rit­ual.
Franz Kafka

Every time we put something into words, we simultaneously pronounce a declaration of faith in the power of language to re-create and communicate our experience of the world, and our admission of its shortcomings to name this experience fully.  Faith in language is, like all true faiths, unaltered by everyday practice that contradicts its claims of power – unaltered in spite of our knowledge that whenever we try to say something, however simple, however clear-cut, only a shadow of that something travels from our conception to its utterance, and further from its utterance to its reception and understanding… Every book confesses the impossibility of holding fully onto whatever it is that our experience seizes.  All our libraries are the glorious record of that failure.

Alberto Manguel, Packing My Library.

ONE, TWO

1936. Aldous Huxley, by Cecil Beaton.

Behold but One in all things; it is the second that leads you astray.
Kabir

That this insight into the nature of things and the origin of good and evil is not confined exclusively to the saint, but is recognized obscurely by every human being, is proved by the very structure of our language. For language, as Richard Trench pointed out long ago, is often ‘wiser, not merely than the vulgar, but even than the wisest of those who speak it. Sometimes it locks up truths which were once well known, but have been forgotten. In other cases it holds the germs of truths which, though they were never plainly discerned, the genius of its framers caught a glimpse of in a happy moment of divination.’ For example, how significant it is that in the Indo-European languages, as Darmsteter has pointed out, the root meaning ‘two’ should connote badness. The Greek prefix dys-(as in dyspepsia) and the Latin dis- (as in dishonourable) are both derived from ‘duo.’ The cognate bis- gives a pejorative sense to such modern French words as bévue (‘blunder/ literally ‘two-sight’). Traces of that ‘second which leads you astray’ can be found in ‘dubious,’ ‘doubt’ and Zweifel – for to doubt is to be double-minded. Bunyan has his Mr. Facing-both-ways, and modern American slang its ‘two-timers.’ Obscurely and unconsciously wise, our language confirms the findings of the mystics and proclaims the essential badness of division- a word, incidentally, in which our old enemy ‘two’ makes another decisive appearance.

Here it may be remarked that the cult of unity on the political level is only an idolatrous ersatz for the genuine religion of unity on the personal and spiritual levels. Totalitarian regimes justify their existence by means of a philosophy of political monism, according to which the state is God on earth, unification under the heel of the divine state is salvation, and all means to such unification, however intrinsically wicked, are right and may be used without scruple. This political monism leads in practice to excessive privilege and power for the few and oppression for the many, to discontent at home and war abroad. But excessive privilege and power are standing temptations to pride, greed, vanity and cruelty; oppression results in fear and envy; war breeds hatred, misery and despair. All such negative emotions are fatal to the spiritual life. Only the pure in heart and poor in spirit can come to the unitive knowledge of God. Hence, the attempt to impose more unity upon societies than their individual members are ready for makes it psychologically almost impossible for those individuals to realize their unity with the divine Ground and with one another.

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So far, then, as a fully adequate expression of the Perennial Philosophy is concerned, there exists a problem in semantics that is finally insoluble. The fact is one which must be steadily borne in mind by all who read its formulations. Only in this way shall we be able to understand even remotely what is being talked about. Consider, for example, those negative definitions of the transcendent and immanent Ground of being. In statements such as Eckhart’s, God is equated with nothing. And in a certain sense the equation is exact; for God is certainly no thing. In the phrase used by Scotus Erigena God is not a what; He is a That. In other words, the Ground can be denoted as being there, but not defined as having qualities. This means that discursive knowledge about the Ground is not merely, like all inferential knowledge, a thing at one remove, or even at several removes, from the reality of immediate acquaintance; it is and, because of the very nature of our language and our standard patterns of thought, it must be, paradoxical knowledge. Direct knowledge of the Ground cannot be had except by union, and union can be achieved only by the annihilation of the self-regarding ego, which is the barrier separating the ‘thou’ from the ‘That’.

Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy.

BELIEF, TRUTH & METAPHOR

Iain McGilchrist

A consensus is emerging from the literature that religious experience tends to be associated with the right hemisphere. This conclusion is supported by a book- length study of spirituality and the brain, by the comprehensive review of Devinsky and Lai (2008), and by McNamara (2009). McNamara largely implicates right fronto- temporal networks, a view supported by Trimble and Freeman (2006) and by Devinsky and Lai (2008), the latter of whom distinguish what they call the ‘religion of the everyday man’, with its characteristic ongoing belief pattern and set of convictions, predominantly localised to the frontal region, from ecstatic religious experience, more localised to the temporal region, both in the right hemisphere. Continue reading “BELIEF, TRUTH & METAPHOR”

A WORD ON THE WIND

Unlike the hidden character of what lies beyond the horizon (the future), and unlike the unseen nature of that which resides under the ground (the past), the air is invisible in principle. That which today lies beyond the horizon can at least partly be disclosed by journeying into that future, as that which waits under the ground can be somewhat unearthed by excavations into the past. But the air can never be opened for our eyes, never made manifest. Itself invisible, it is the medium through which we see all else in the present terrain.

And this unseen enigma is the very mystery that enables life to live. It unites our breathing bodies not only with the under-the-ground (with the rich microbial life of the soil, with fossil and mineral deposits deep in the bedrock), and not only with the beyond-the-horizon (with distant forests and oceans), but also with the interior life of all that we perceive in the open field of the living present-the grasses and the aspen leaves, the ravens, the buzzing insects and the drifting clouds. What the plants are quietly breathing out, we animals are breathing in; what we breathe out, the plants are breathing in. The air, we might say, is the soul of the visible landscape, the secret realm from whence all beings draw their nourishment. As the very mystery of the living present, it is that most intimate absence from whence the present presences, and thus a key to the forgotten presence of the earth.

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The Navajo identification of awareness with the air – their intuition that the psyche is not an immaterial power that resides inside us, but is rather the invisible yet thoroughly palpable medium in which we (along with the trees, the squirrels, and the clouds) are immersed-must seem at first bizarre, even outrageous, to persons of European ancestry. Yet a few moments’ etymological research will reveal that this identification is not nearly so alien to European civilization as one might assume. Indeed, our English term “psyche”-together with all its modern offspring like “psychology,” “psychiatry,” and “psychotherapy”-is derived from the ancient Greek word psychê, which signified not merely the “soul,” or the “mind,” but also a “breath,” or a “gust of wind.” The Greek noun was itself derived from the verb psychein, which meant “to breathe,” or “to blow.” Meanwhile, another ancient Greek word for “air, wind, and breath”-the term pneuma, from which we derive such terms as “pneumatic” and “pneumonia”-also and at the same time signified that vital principle which in English we call “spirit.”

Of course, the word “spirit” itself, despite all of its incorporeal and non-sensuous connotations, is directly related to the very bodily term “respiration” through their common root in the Latin word spiritus, which signified both “breath” and “wind.” Similarly, the Latin word for “soul,” anima-from whence have evolved such English terms as “animal,” “animation,” “animism,” and “unanimous” (being of one mind , or one soul), also signified “air” and “breath.”

Moreover, these were not separate meanings; it is clear that anima, like psyche, originally named an elemental phenomenon that somehow comprised both what we now call “the air” and what we now term “the soul.” The more specific Latin word animus, which signified “that which thinks in us,” was derived from the same airy root, anima, itself derived from the older Greek term anemos, meaning “wind.”

We find an identical association of the “mind” with the “wind” and the “breath” in innumerable ancient languages. Even such an objective, scientifically respectable word as “atmosphere” displays its ancestral ties to the Sanskrit word atman, which signified “soul” as well as the “air” and the “breath.” Thus, a great many terms that now refer to the air as a purely passive and insensate medium are clearly derived from words that once identified the air with life and awareness! And words that now seem to designate a strictly immaterial mind, or spirit, are derived from terms that once named the breath as the very substance of that mystery.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, for ancient Mediterranean cultures no less than for the Lakota and the Navajo, the air was once a singularly sacred presence. As the experiential source of both psyche and spirit, it would seem that the air was once felt to be the very matter of awareness, the subtle body of the mind. And hence that awareness, far from being experienced as a quality that distinguishes humans from the rest of nature, was originally felt as that which invisibly joined human beings to the other animals and to the plants, to the forests and to the mountains. For it was the unseen but common medium of their existence.

But how, then, did the air come to lose its psychological quality ?

David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World

THE SINUOUS CALLIGRAPHY OF RIVERS

Writing, like human language, is engendered not only within the human community but between the human community and the animate landscape, born of the interplay and contact between the human and the more-than-human world. The earthly terrain in which we find ourselves, and upon which we depend for all our nourishment, is shot through with suggestive scrawls and traces, from the sinuous calligraphy of rivers winding across the land, inscribing arroyos and canyons into the parched earth of the desert, to the black slash burned by lightning into the trunk of an old elm. The swooping flight of birds is a kind of cursive script written on the wind; it is this script that was studied by the ancient augurs, who could read therein the course of the future. Leaf-miner insects make strange hieroglyphic tabloids of the leaves they consume. Wolves urinate on specific stumps and stones to mark off their territory. And today you read these printed words as tribal hunters once read the tracks of deer, moose, and bear printed in the soil of the forest floor. Archaeological evidence suggests that for more than a million years the subsistence of humankind has depended upon the acuity of such hunters, upon their ability to read the traces-a bit of scat here, a broken twig there-of these animal Others. These letters print across the page, the scratches and scrawls you now focus upon, trailing off across the white surface, are hardly different from the footprints of prey left in the snow. We read these traces with organs honed over millennia by our tribal ancestors, moving instinctively from one track to the next, picking up the trail afresh whenever it leaves off, hunting the meaning, which would be the meeting with the Other. Continue reading “THE SINUOUS CALLIGRAPHY OF RIVERS”