Saturday, May 27, 2006

Words and How they Get that Way

To post or not to post.... Sometimes I wonder if I should continue posting something every day, especially on a holiday weekend, when there will be fewer readers anyway. A number of people--both readers and fellow bloggers--have counseled me to slow down, predicting that I’m going to burn out. Plus, if you post less often, the posts will have more impact.

However, I’m afraid that the reverse will happen--that if I slow down, then I’ll burn out. For one thing, it would give me too much time to ruminate about what I’m writing, and probably paralyze me. There’s something to be said for just sitting down at the same time each day and banging something out--just making it a part of life, like flossing or exercising.

The disadvantage I have, of course, is that I am not actually a writer, nor would I ever claim to be. Nor are most bloggers writers (not that there's anything wrong with that). In my case, I simply try to convey ideas as clearly as possible. I have too much respect for real writers to call that writing. Lileks is a writer. Van der Leun is a writer. Iowahawk too. They are exceptions. For example, because Lileks is a writer, he can write about the most mundane and trivial details of his life and lift them to a higher plane, making them humorous, touching, provocative, even spiritual--all those magical little things that writers can do with words.

And when I say “magical,” I mean that literally. This was one of the themes of Joyce’s work: that through the magic of language, we can alchemically transmute the lead of our mundane, day-to-day existence into the gold of transpersonal experience. Perhaps more than any other writer, Joyce realized that the world is not made of atoms, or quarks, or molecules. Rather, it is composed of language. Therefore, changing our relationship to language can change everything.

“Epiphany” was Joyce’s word for those everyday moments when we are able to perceive the rays of the transpersonal sun shining through an object or experience. In reality, it is happening all the time--it can’t not happen--but we can miss it depending on the depth of our relationship to language. Without language, experience simply rolls off of us like water off a duck. (See--if I was a real writer, I could come up with a fresh metaphor.)

Language deepens our subjectivity, which paradoxically extends both within and without. For example, when you learn the language of psychoanalysis, you have tool for extending your consciousness into the deeper regions of the great within of consciousness, both in oneself and in others. It allows your own consciousness to literally extend like a probe into the recesses of another person’s mind.

But there is nothing special about psychoanalysis. In reality, any genuine expertise involves esoteric knowledge that allows the person to see and experience things that the uninitiated cannot. For example, when I had my stress treadmill done last week, the doctor obviously saw things in the EKG which mean nothing to me. For him, a whole world of meaning opens up before his eyes, whereas for me, it’s just squiggles on a piece of paper. For me, it is an impenetrable object. For him, his subjectivity extends into the squiggles and illuminates them from within.

I guess I’m writing about this subject because it came up just last night. Up until then, my son--who is now thirteen months old--pretty much treated the world as an object. Toys--any toys, no matter how complicated or elaborate--were merely for banging or “throwing overboard.” He was basically confronted by a world of endlessly diverse noisemakers.

But last night something suddenly “clicked.” I suppose most parents notice the obvious external markers, such as when a child first crawls or walks. But I am always on the lookout for interior markers--those signs that show that his consciousness is extending, both within and without.

Anyway, last night he suddenly got the point of one of his toys, and sat there mesmerized by it for about fifteen minutes, quietly playing by himself. Normally he’s incredibly restless, active and energetic, but suddenly he was calm, focussed, and attentive. This is a microscopic version of what it means for our subjectivity to deepen.

Theoretically, there is no limit to this deepening process. In my opinion, growth--especially spiritual growth--involves an ever-deepening extension of this interior horizon. Again, this horizon extends in both directions, inside and out. The deepening connections in my son’s mind allowed him to see the deeper connections, or “withinness,” of the external world. Subjective growth involves "colonizing" more and more of this withinness.

For again, what is the external world if it isn’t language? It’s just nothing, a brute object that confronts us. Even the most materialistic science is nothing more than a special language that allows a physicist to peer more deeply within the realm of matter. This is never something the scientist sees with his physical eyes. Rather, the equations of quantum physics are a probe, analogous to the stick that the blind person uses to navigate while walking. The blind person deploys the stick forward into darkness, and it sends messages up his arm and into his brain, allowing him to form a picture of the space around him. It is no different with physics. Physics is just a stick in the dark, like reaching around for your shoes in the back of a dark closet.

Which brings us to the very special language of religion. For religion is also a probe that we, in our metaphysical blindness, may use to illuminate the space around us. In fact, if your religion is “working” for you, this is what is happening. Naive secularists always think that the primary purpose of religion is faith or comfort or morality. Yes, it is all of those things, but for me anyway, it is primarily a way of knowing. By immersing oneself in it, it extends in magical ways into regions that are otherwise inaccessible to the psyche--for example, into the realm of the sacred or holy. The realm of the sacred that is illuminated by religion is every bit as real as the weird quantum realm that is illuminated by modern physics. Except that it is more real. Indeed, the conviction of the ontological priority of the sacred is one of the things that accompanies the experience of it.

In certain respects, the invocations in the Book of Genesis and the Gospel of John are parallel commentaries on one another. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” and “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The former statement has to do with ontology, the latter with epistemology. For the separation of the heavens and the earth forms the deep structure of all being; it is the separation of the horizontal and vertical, thereby making the experience of experience possible. Without this primary duality, there is only God. But with this bifurcation, the world is split down the middle into object-subject, quantity-quality, eternity-time, form-substance, and other primordial complementarities.

But the divide between these complementarities is not unbridgeable. This is because the the Word is anterior to that primordial creative act of God (it was "with God" and "was God"), and is therefore present in each of the complementarities. The world is intelligible because it is thoroughly infused with the same Word that inheres in our consciousness. Thus, the world is structured as a pair of mirrors reflecting back upon themselves through a deepening relationship to language.

This is what is meant when it is said that we are “made in the image of God.” This is the anthropology that inevitably follows from the above ontology and epistemology. This is why the more human we become, the more divine, and the more divine, the more human. And it all happens in the magical space between the two mirrors, where language carries messages back and forth, in an ever deepening and ascending spiral. We don’t evolve. The Word does.

And the Word is God.


Anonymous said...

Tom Wolfe's recent riff on homo loquax: man in inextricable relation to language/culture. The word and its powers and nature bridge more deeply into mystery than I -- the presumptuous product of a literate and auditory and impotently jawboning culture -- can easily grasp: the variety of self- and Self-expression.

Stephen King On Writing: Language, especially written language, as telepathy.
--Proust: Language <> Memory <> Soul.
--Flaubert: the mechanisms of language > inevitable disappointment.

In the twilight of these cultural flourishes, a particularly ill-educated teaching assistant in a course on information design regularly refers to the actual writing of something as "wordsmithing," the spreading chestnut tree presumably supplanted by a flickering overhead projector.

On the other hand, an "Aw shucks, I'm not a writer" disclaimer doesn't make someone not one, when he wields regular posts with the proficiency that generates inspiration and quotable (and quoted and quoted and quoted) turns of phrase.

dilys said...

Anonymity B I.

Hello out there.

Sal said...

Dilys, as if we didn't know it was you...

Bob - as Flannery O'Connor points out in the foreword to "A Memoir of Mary Ann"*, the ability to write *some* things does not mean the ability to write *all* things.
And the inability to write some things, doesn't mean the inability to write anything.
You carry your own little bag of limes just fine. And we are most grateful.

* speaking of the Left, it was in this piece that O'Connor used the phrase about the sentimentality that leads to the death camp. My copy is gone, or I'd quote it properly.

Gagdad Bob said...

Wow. That lengthy talk by Wolfe is well worth your attention. Must digest.

will said...

Good morning, all -

In some ways I think the "purpose" of this blog, along with those readers who find in it a spiritually resonating language, is to preserve, protect, and defend the sanctity of the "primordial complimentaries". I think that many of those with conservative bent can intuit the sanctity of such but can't really articulate it. And it is vitally important that it is articulated, if only for increasing our sure-footedness, our confidence. And of course, because the sanctity of the primordial complimentaries is under constant attack.

Maybe that's the basic m.o. of the left and all modernistic thought - divide the primal complimentaries, starting with Man and God, and then conquer. The issue of gay marriage, for example. Quite a few conservatives, I've observed, can't really articulate their opposition to the concept all that well and have to moreless rely on political and sociological reasons for their opposition. But if we understand the very basic root of the issue, which is a *sacred* one, then we can articulate it, to ourselves, to others. At root, it's a matter of the primordial complimentaries, yang and yin, positive and negative, male and female. The left views this sacred polarity as being "arbitrary" and "relative" but of course it is not. It's the basic building block of Creation. And that's why marriage between male and female has traditionally been regarded as "sacred", even if that regard has only been a matter of intuition.

Again, I think it's critically important at this particularly time in history to be able to articulate that which may previously have been only intuitional. So Bob, sorry, but that's why you really *are* a first-rank writer - through the magic of words you're giving form, semblance, and life to that which was "floating around in the air", waiting for someone to officially give birth to it. And that is Heap Big Magic, no less than Lileks and Van der Leun.

will said...

Sal -

Another Southern writer, Percy Walker, commented similarly to O'Connor re the left (this through the character of the priest in the novel The Thannatos Syndrome) - "Compassion leads to the gas jets."

seeker said...


I listened to your WIE interview and was quite impressed with many of the things you had to say. I came to your blog hoping to hear more of the same, but am disappointed that most of the topics revolve more around politics that vertical growth and evolutionary spirituality. The post today was nice. I enjoyed your discussion of language and deepening and you have some very good and deep insights on this matter.

So it in reflecting on some of your brilliance that I find it troubling to read some of your political commentary. It sounds like something more from a radical right wing media talk show in this country than it does a guy who is interested in meditation, inner spirituality, and growth towards God. You and I can agree - the radical left in this country has some serious flaws in their thinking and philosophy. Excessive relativism (i.e. there is no higher Truth) and materialism blocks vertical growth. But why do you prop up or implicitly support the equally unhealthy far right wing philosophy? Is it the enemy of my enemy is my friend?

But it goes beyond that. You talk about the importance of the language and tie it back to the Word and Christ. Yet, your tone is divisive, if not hateful, when you go after the left. Homosexuals as queers? Wackademics? Looniversity bins? What type of language is this? Am I being too politically correct? Honestly I have very little interest in PC and believe it goes too far at times (a flaw of the left). Just writing a constructive criticism or sounding too sensitive probably makes me a leftist to you and many of your followers. But one can form a political philosophy beyond left and right in this country and I personally don't need to choose one completely over the other. Is the political spectrum so black and white to you? I prefer to transcend both and see the strengths and weaknesses in both positions. Ken Wilber calls this second tier consciousness or awareness. Where is your balance? Where is your concern about the 10-15% of the far Christian Religious Right who would ban your Aurobindo and mysticism books and condemn you to their Hell (if only they had the power)? Is it even so far out to assume that a good amount of them would have you imprisoned or executed for promoting a mystical, personal growth path to God?

The sad part is, if Wilber and the spiral dynamic model of vertical growth is correct, then the leftism you hate is still a dangerous pothole on the vertical road towards growth and second tier for a large number of people, but your rhetoric makes it sound like the entire pluralistic\relativistic\green road is not a road with some potholes, but one complete pothole. How does that help vertical growth and transcendence and integration that you say you cherish?

Its not accurate to paint 50% of the left\liberal population in America with the words and extremism of the most dysfunctional 10%. No more than its accurate to say that all right wingers are Christian fundamentalist who hate homosexuals and are repressive towards woman. So why paint the picture? In your world the left is evil and the right is good. In my world, the problem is first tier thinking and I'm not going to prop up the likes of say George Bush or Rush Limbaugh or Fox News that has very little interest in transcendence and whose idea of religion is generally legalistic and translative, not mystical or transformative.

Whether the left or right in this country is all right or all wrong (and siding with one completely pretty much is a clue to me that a person has some major psychological blinders and blocks to growth) all the major religious traditions, especially the most noble and contemplative and mystical parts of those religion emphasize the importance of Love and Compassion. May I recommend the metta meditations and Kalama Sutta or 1st Corinthians 13 on this topic? Are you a man with a great “gift” of “knowledge” and “faith” but ultimately just a “noisy gong”? Your political writing seems to be a path of intellectual violence instead of a constructive and encouraging criticism. And, to borrow the words of the Buddha, seem to ultimately promote “ignorance” and “delusion” and “hatred”. In order to transcend the world and the bounds of sin and ego, one must clear themselves from these fetters.

For someone on a vertical growth path towards God, I just don't know how you get away from the emphasis in all the great wisdom traditions of Love and Compassion and Humility and Equanimity. In the language of the psychologist, maybe the hatred that one has for a certain political group is simply a projection of hatred to a part of themselves that they need to make peace with and integrate?

But ultimately its your life and your blog. I just thought I would point it out. It could be major stumbling block for your growth and those here who read you who seem to mirror your same hostile tone and pat you on the back non stop. Are they really helping you in your growth or just reinforcing your ego?

Time to go work on my own planks. Wherever you are on this long vertical ladder may Grace find you and draw you Higher.

Sal said...

Paul Elie recently published a multiple biography of O'Connor, Percy, Day and Merton:

Very interesting indeed.

Hoarhey said...

>>"In my world, the problem is first tier thinking and I'm not going to prop up the likes of say George Bush or Rush Limbaugh or Fox News that has very little interest in transcendence and whose idea of religion is generally legalistic and translative, not mystical or transformative."
"In the language of the psychologist, maybe the hatred that one has for a certain political group is simply a projection of hatred to a part of themselves that they need to make peace with and integrate?"
"Time to go work on my own planks."<<

"Seeker" here is a telephone pole you might start with.

Sal said...

Sorry - had to post that last before it was finished, to go look something up.

Back to "Life you Save":
Elie examines how the lives of those four writers (Day was primarily a journalist) develop personally and intersect with the other's. The comparisons and contrasts are striking. Very much worth reading, as a change of pace,
especially if you like biography.

The "Memoir" to which O'Connor wrote the forward was a life of a child patient who had lived with the Hawthorne Dominicans* most of her life, and had died at 12 from an inoperable tumor of the face. O'Connor's remark was about those who would have questioned what value, if any, such a life might have.
I wonder if they were both just stating the obvious or if one borrowed the thought from the other?

* a nursing order that cares for indigent incurable cancer patients. Their founder, Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, was the daughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Gagdad Bob said...


As if I don't know who you are and what you're seeking.

Respectfully, I am not going to respond to your comments, simply because I already have, many times. You will find each of your points more than adequately addressed in the archives, if you are interested.

If you do not see that typical new-age spiritual nonsense isn't loaded down with a leftist political message, then you are terribly naive. I am simply a corrective to that systematic error.

You also made so many willfully boneheaded statements in your comment that I don't have time to deconstruct them all. For example, I never referred to homosexuals as queers--that was the New College professor who said that.

I am not an acolyte of Ken Wilber, so I don't know what to say about that. I'm sure we probably disagree on many things.

I don't know much about "spiral dynamics," but from the little I've read, I am not impressed. Seems rather new-age to me.

The notion that the "far right" would "ban Aurobindo books" is paranoid nonsense. The only bans on speech in this country come from the left, not the right, such as "campus speech codes" that simply serve to ban language that is critical of the left.

Executed? Please. Seriously, you are a nut. Perhaps no one has taken the trouble to tell you that because they do not have the compassion I possess. Accurate diagnosis must precede effective treatment. You are a champion of what Buddhists call "idiot compassion," not to be confused with the real thing.

will said...


The Elie book does sound very interesting. I like to think I've got something of a lock on what Merton, O'Connor, and Percy were about as writers and spiritual questers, but I've never been certain as to what Dorothy Day was about - I mean at least in terms of the mystical clarity that the aforementioned writers evidenced in their work. I'd be curious as to how Elie fits Day into that continuum.

jwm said...

Thanks for the link to the Tom Wolfe piece. Damn, he's good!
It strikes me as wonderfully ironic that with the advent of microchips, personal computers, and the internet that now we are able to communicate with one another instantaneously across all geographic boundaries by...
passing written notes. Furthermore, in order to take full advantage of this technological wonder the skills learned in primitive ol' English class have become far more important than those in computer science. Technology has brought us full circle and returned us to an updated form of what was once almost a lost art: letter writing.
It's amazing too, the extent to which we communicate something more than just the words that we type and post.
Lines of text on a monitor screen- what could be more impersonal? We don't even have the subtle clues that penmanship might deliver. Yet somehow we seem to be able to sense something of the soul of the persons behind the words they post.
Last summer I got together with a couple of guys I'd been trading posts with on the toy collectors' BBS. We arranged to meet at a collectibles swap meet. It wasn't until I was on my way over there that I realized we hadn't given one another much of a clue as to how we were going to recognize each other. Nonetheless, we did. We scoured the place for goodies, all managed to find stuff that we couldn't live without, and then went to grab a burger. What followed was four hours of the best conversation I'd had in years. What was amazing is how accurate the impressions that we had formed of one another were. JB, and Mazinkaizer were excactly the people I had expected them to be.
I don't want to get all new age here, but it strikes me that there is something rather mystical at work.
What is it in the words of the Bible that causes such profound reactions in some of those who read it? From whence comes the deep resonance of truth? There must be something beyond the text, something more than the collective definitions of particular words placed in a particular order. As Bob has pointed out, meaning is not reducible to syntax. Words are more than words. And I don't live by words or bread alone. Time to sign off and fix dinner.


dilys said...

Wow, rich thread. Yep, Jetc., especially e-mail seems to me leaving a post-it for a pal -- often a pal I've never met in The Daily Country of the Flesh. And the cyber-pals I've actually met, well, some of The Best. On the internet you don't always know they're a god. Occasionally they look like movie stars and think like scholars [you know who you are :-) out there]. Women over 40 don't often find that in the grocery store!

Sal -- Do you know O'Connor's letters, The Habit of Being?

FOC was completely unimpressed with early PC, said somewhere that if overpopulation pushed us all into the ocean, it was still better than all our little prudential maneuvers. And of the Eucharist, "If it's just a symbol, I say the hell with it." Whew. Something about her radically facing solitude & mortality young and hard, and clinging to living doctrine rather than interested in meditation, inner spirituality, and growth towards....

She was uncompromising (I've compared her to Yeats' radiant, blank, and pitiless gaze), though, pulled no punches, her treatment of country people and their response to The Displaced Person fleeing the Nazis. Well, you have to have been there, I expect. What a philosophical and rhetorical pistol that gal is. The conventional were begging her to write "nice" things. Remarkably patient she was with the naive and with true seekers :-)

Speaking of variations on which, the first-tier/Second-Tier competition in Spiral Dynamics-Wilber circles is IMO ab-so-lute-ly toxic. Even if the schema has anything to it (I use'ta think it might), the constant posturing to make one's chosen cohort the advanced Second Tier and the assumption that political or temperamental non-compliants are lagging along in First Tier -- slippery analytical tools to diss the bourgeoisie.... Silly to think that one will know what "Second Tier" might look like before it arrives. Well, the front-row seat got darn hard, and I sneaked out with a few pals under cover of Green Babble and am embarked on living happily ever after.

The Big Shift contemplated by those guys almost requires an earth-wide Katrina to the power of n, and I frankly think it an abomination to cherish that idea so that one can be vindicated or entertained. So, in short, don't wave SD and AQAL as rallying flags while I can stagger to the table, it won't wash. One more grab for controlled-by-me utopia. Been there, saw the movie, changed the channel.

And I had meant to chime in on will's recent theme -- I call it "levels." It became clear in Jung's work that what is required or inevitable on one "level" is toxic dissoluton on another. One example is royal incest in some ancient societies, not very pretty there, but as "gods" a different proposition than the drunken gap-toothed cousin-shagger down the road. So, IMO what is going on at SD Green, or any other Idiot Compassion outpost, is a Lust for Premature Oneness, a failure of appetite for this odd material, moral, and mortal reality in which we find ourselves for now.

Somehow, and I can't develop this properly philosophically -- dogma enshrines it nicely, if that flew around here -- we have to live out the This and That, the Yes and the No, Virtue and Vice, the Two ways of the ancient Didache ["There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways....My child, flee from every evil thing"].

And I'm terribly disappointed that I can't skulk as anonymous. Is it the handwriting? The garlic cloves suspended around my neck? The crazed cackle?

Sal said...

Um, no - it's the terrible and lethal articulateness, silly girl.

Love "The Habit of Being". About time to check it out and read it again. "A Good Man is Hard to Find" literally gave me goose-bumps. Her take on Day and some of her activities in the bio I cited is a hoot - let's just say it's trenchant.

Looked up Wilber out of curiosity re: the WIE tie-in and find your assessment very interesting - not that I've got any real basis for judging his ideas.

Just returned from youngest child's H.S. graduation, so we're feeling very "mission accomplished" and end-of-era-ish.

Alan Kellogg said...

Post when you feel like it, and a plague of pundits upon the head of fussbudgets who say, "Nay."

But, never confuse verbosity for erudition.

Anonymous said...

I wish to be reincarnated in my next life as Kevin James Lisle, a death row inmate at Nevada State Prison, Ely. Nevada Department of corrections # 49948, born December 13, 1970. Since 1994, I have been trying to swap my soul with his.I freely and willingly sacrifice this "my" karma, and will take over that "his" karma, so that both karmas can equalize and vibrate at the same exact rate, thus allowing our energy forces to fuse, becoming one, "past" and "present", placed correctly back on course with the infinity of the Cosmos.