Tuesday, January 05, 2010

On Blowing Up the Temple in Order to Save It

I'm recovering from a cold this morning, so it would be taxing the Gagdad constitution were I to attempt a new post. In searching through the arkive, I tried to find an old one that was neither too good nor too bad, but something I could work with in order to get it up to speed. This one seemed to have some untapped potential, some hidden innerstices where I could inject some new thoughts....

As I have mentioned before -- not merely for autobobographical reasons, but to illuminate a principle -- I didn't move through the educational ranks in the usual way. I couldn't have been less interested in school until I was maybe 23 years of age, after returning to college subsequent to spending two years on a blue collar job, a job I happily held until obtaining my Ph.D. in 1988, 12 years in all. I had to leave the supermarket at that time, because I couldn't bear the thought of the manager broadcasting over the intercom, "Dr. Godwin to checkstand three."

I was initially a business major, but only by default. Since my only interest in being there was to defer adult employment for as long as possible before bowing to its inevitability, a degree in business seemed vague enough that it would be a ticket to the adult world when the day came for me to reluctantly turn myself in to the Conspiracy and "grow up."

I won't review all of the subsequent events. The point is, I came to the academic world as an outsider in every way. As a result, I never came to learn the ways and customs of this world -- its dogmas, unwritten rules, its conventional wisdom, its many preconceptions. I also came to it without ambition, agenda, or commercial motive, only sincerity and curiosity.

But a person with no ambition and no agenda is always a threat to the establishment. Bear in mind that when I say this, I am not trying to elevate myself to some sort of romantic "outlaw" figure; rather, I am speaking purely generically of certain principles that apply to any established institution or culture.

The psychoanalyst W.R. Bion spoke of it in terms of what he called the "establishment" and the "messiah." The establishment -- by virtue of being one -- eventually becomes sclerotic, predictable, and rule-bound, and loses contact with the original impulse that brought it onto being. Eventually it serves only its own interest, which is to go on being and to grow in power.

This occurs in politics, in business, in the labor movement, and even in intimate relationships. I am certainly not excluding the GOP from this process; to the contrary, that is its whole problem -- that it is mainly composed of a bunch of weak-willed, unprincipled, and self-interested cowards and mediocrities whose only "conservatism" involves conserving their own power.

On the micro end of the spectrum, a marriage can become stale and predictable, with the two partners taking on utterly predictable roles that then seem to dictate and "contain" them. It is as if they are no longer free, but living within psychic grooves that guide every thought and action. Reality -- O -- is slowly eclipsed, often, ironically, because we cannot tolerate the disturbing intimacy and openness of contact with O. In these cases, love doesn't die, but is killed by mind parasites that cannot tolerate intimacy because it undermines their own power over the psyche.

Sound abstract? It isn't, not by a long shot. I'm thinking of a patient who failed to bond with his parents, and then carried on a sexual relationship with another boy between the ages of 7 and 13. This became his primary attachment to the interpersonal world. But there was no real human contact between them except the sex. Aside from that, hardly word passed between them. Thus, his model for relating to the human world was almost "hydraulic" in nature, split off from any feelings of warmth, tenderness, or intimacy.

As an adult, he was never able to have a meaningful relationship of any kind. His only outlet consisted of anonymous sexual encounters every week or two. Although he was able to work, away from work he lived in a little "sanctuary" as he called it, safely cut off from the demands of the world. He would venture out of this shell only in order to work or to engage in the anonymous sexual encounters.

Consciously, this lifestyle was simply his "preference," but he also had enough insight to know that he was actually terrified to step outside the narrow boundaries of the little world he had created for himself. Such a person generally thinks they are "protecting" themselves from being hurt by others.

But more often than not, they are protecting the other from themselves, specifically, from a kind of devouring love that is primitive and violent in its intensity. That is, if his true infantile needs were to be expressed in a relationship -- remember, they were fixated at the earliest stage -- they would experience overwhelming anxiety about what would be unleashed from the unconscious chains. The key point is that they unconsciously identify love with danger and destruction, so they end up "protecting" others from their love, not their hate.

Now that I'm on the topic, Bion also wrote about how the child functions as the messiah to the couple. The couple wishes for a messiah to "save" it, and places this hope into the child. Thus, the poorest people in the most abject circumstances nevertheless greet the arrival of a new child with hope and joy. The infant is a sort of psycho-spiritual poultrice that draws us out of ourselves and puts us in touch with the infinite. As I expressed it in my book, they give us "a touch of infanity." They are a means of escape from ourselves, back to ourselves, in that, in order to properly relate to an infant, you must get in touch with your own unconscious infanity. This can be both liberating and/or dreadful, depending upon one's personal biography.

This is interesting, for it shows the dialectical nature of our humanness, which always revolves around the axis of knowledge and infinite mystery -- or O and (k). The reason I place the parentheses around (k) is to evoke this idea of containment and of tentativeness. Whatever little bit of (k) we possess, in the end, it is like two little parentheses in eternity.

Or, imagine standing in the ocean and cupping your hands together, measuring the water between them. As we win a bit more (k) from the formless infinite, the distance between our hands increases. But as compared to the ocean, our (k) is but a drop. And it is always preliminary, on pain of being dysfunctional. In other words, the moment knowledge becomes saturated, it no longer performs the function of gaining more knowledge. It cannot be used as a stepping stone to vault one further into O. Rather, it is simply "dead" from the psychic point of view, like a dusty old book taking up space on your shelves.

In formulating his model of the mind, one of Bion's central goals was to forge, as he called it, a "language of achievement." In short, he wanted to create a way to "think about thinking" that would spur creative advance into O, rather than merely being some sort of dry academic theory that one could memorize once and for all. This is why I say that Bion was not only one of the greatest psychoanalysts who ever lived, but one of the world's greatest mystic-philosophers, even though few people outside a certain subspecialty of psychoanalysis even know his name. Perhaps others have touched on the problems he addressed, but I just haven't heard of them.

Because Bion's is a "language of achievement" -- he is literally attemting to simultaneously formulate and demonstrate his ideas -- different people come away from his writings with quite different conceptions. In other words, Bion does not so much "teach" as "provoke."

In my case, I felt that I had understood him perfectly, and yet, when I began reading the secondary literature, I soon realized that others did not necessarily share my understanding, or what Bion called "vertex." The vertex is the point at which an axis meets a surface, in this case, the point at which our (k) intersects O. Thus, in the end, you cannot be a Bionian. Rather, you can only become yourself through an encounter with his writing. And if this or that aspect of my writing accomplices anycrime like the same thing for this or that Raccoon, then this masked pandit will have achieved his purpose.

I am reminded of something that Dr. Grotstein once wrote. He mentioned that he had gone to hear Bion lecture for the first time. Now, from his side of things, Bion never spoke from prepared notes. Rather, he spoke "from O," as it were, meaning that each lecture was an adventure, a sort of fishing expedition in the formless infinite ocean. Let's just see what we can pull out!

Grotstein said that he came away from the lecture not only understanding little of what Bion had said, but even being a bit perplexed and annoyed. However, before he went to sleep, he furiously jotted down ideas for about five papers he was to eventually write. That is the language of achievement. It doesn't so much place content into your mind as little "depth charges" that generatively blast away at the existing framework. It doesn't so much generate "secondary literature" but a new primary literature, something like, oh, I don't know, this.

Now, perhaps it won't surprise you to know that at this very moment, I am attempting to "write from O," as I always do. I have almost no idea what I have written so far, nor do I have much of an idea of what's over the verbal horizon. I'm just "following the music," as a jazzman might say. Does that sound strange? Most readers of blogs don't read very carefully, but for those of you who do, we are holding heads together in this very moment, unknowing where any of this is going to lead -- indeed, if it is going to lead anywhere. In the language of King Crimson, it may simply end in a "train wreck," which is the price one must pay for trying to collectively improvise within O. For if there is to be achievment, there must be the possibiliy of failure.

Bion called this open and expectant attitude "faith." Once again, as with "messiah" and "establishment," he is not using the word in any conventional "saturated" way, but in the most abstract way possible. Faith is simply a prerequisite for any generative encounter with O.

Can you see why? If we come to O with too many preconceptions, we will merely be taking a plunge into the known, not the unknown. We specifically want to win a bit of (k) from O, not superimpose (k) over it. When we do the latter, we are more or less in the conventional world that extends from caveman to tenureman. Obviously, there is nothing unavidably retarded with the latter world. Far from it. It only becomes so when it eclipses O, as in the case of scientism, or materialism, or atheism, or Marxism, or Darwinism, which all superimpose an abstract and dead model over the living O.

And please, I am not suggesting that only ideologies I reject can eclipse O. Far from it. Religion, which is all about the language of achievement, can obviously become as dead, saturated, and "contained" as anything else, mere "churchianity." For example, it is no insult to Judaism to say that Jesus arrived at a time when it had -- apparently, since I'm sure there's another side to the story -- become overly saturated and rule-bound, in the same way that Buddha reanimated Hinduism from the outside.

In fact, to set aside any possible charges of anti-Semitism, let us just say that the dialectic between Jesus and the "scribes and Pharisees" is there to teach us a more general lesson about the relationship between establishment and messiah, or spirit and letter. The same principle applies to both new and used testaments. A Jew can appreciate the underlying lesson no less than a Christian, for it is obviously possible to reduce the infinite Torah to some manmade dogma, when the whole point of Torah is to have a generative and living encounter between the word of God and the soul of man.

Torah is a language of achievment par excellence. Oy vey, just consider the many possible interpretations of Genesis, each no less correct than the others so long as it has been genuinely realized and not merely "learned." The other day I was at the park, when I saw what looked like a rabbi and his teenage son sitting at a picnic table, poring over a Bible together. I intentionally sidled over to try to eavesdrop on the conversation, for I imagined them wrestling with the text, father encountering the finite infinity of Torah again for the first time through the eyes of his son -- the messiah!

Now, it is equally clear to me that Jesus nearly always spoke the language of achievement. Think about it for a moment. So sophisticated was he that he fully understood the paradox that if he had spoken unambiguously of O, he would be misunderstood. Therefore, he spoke mainly in paradoxables that serve the purpose of vaulting the mind out of its habitual grooves. Thus he was also a messiah in the more terrestrial Bionian sense of saving ourselves from ourselves and providing us with a fruitful language to talk and think about O. Yes, his words are "folly to the Greeks" -- which they must be if they are to elude the hyper-rational Greek patrol that polices our interior and tries to contain the Mystery with mere (small-r) reason.


Gandalin said...


With respect to the establishment and the Messiah, agreed that the appearance of the Messiah will be a radically transformative event, changing our ideas and experiences. That being said, I am not aware of anything in the teachings of Jesus as recorded in the 4 Gospels, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount, that is radically opposed to or at odds with the broad main stream of rabbinic Judaism. Indeed, in the Gospels, Jesus is usally addressed as a Didaskolos - Master or Rabbi (never as a Tekton - Craftsman).

Gagdad Bob said...

Yes, like I said, the specifics are unimportant. It's the principle that counts, a principle that applies to all "establishments." It is what Freud called the "death instinct," a term that can mislead as much as illuminate. I would just call it an imbalance between "conserving" and "growing."

Gandalin said...

Perhaps this is like the image of contraction and expansion by which the Creator allows for the possibility of non-Creator and then fills it with Created, an essential essence of which is stilL Creator.

Gagdad Bob said...

Definitely. The principle of Tsimtsum has always appealed to me for a number of reasons.

Anonymous said...

WV: borring


julie said...

Nope. Just food for thought. Some of us actually like to take time to swallow and digest before diving in and sounding, well, like you.

Northern Bandit said...


The anonymous was being perfectly honest. This post -- and probably most others here -- are indeed boring as hell to him (her?).

My puppy is momentarily attracted to the movement on the TV when a basketball game is on, but ultimately he finds it boring because he has no conception of what is actually happening, and certainly no insight into the deeper meaning of the game. Unlike a puppy, anonymous has the capacity to transcend his benighted state by simply letting go of childish intellectual arrogance and making room for a little Gracelight.

julie said...

Good point, NB.
How's the wife, by the way?

Van said...

"Rather, you can only become yourself through an encounter with his writing. And if this or that aspect of my writing accomplices anycrime like the same thing for this or that Raccoon, then this masked pandit will have achieved his purpose."

' - Ding - '
"Dr. Godwin... Dr. Godwin... please collect your Wings on aisle One..."

O yeah. I've learned more about what I think, through reading and commenting on One Cosmos, than through many a Great Book.

And after all, any aninny with a quill or a keybored can tell you what they think... but to enable you to discover more about what you think... that's a talent that is One in the many.

walt said...

Well, pretty far from "boring," I'd say -- although, it's probably true that "interesting" is what appears to the interested.

What could be more fascinating than becoming oneself? Why, even a dedicated narcissist can begin the journey....

You mentioned "depth charges." I was seeing "flowers" scattered throughout the post, which, opening and maturing, generate seeds, which become more flowers, spreading beauty. On a more practical level, like Grotstein, you could expand the ideas in this post into a half dozen more ... and maybe already have!

mushroom said...

I hope you are feeling better, but I am glad, nonetheless, that you were feeling bad enough to rewind this for us.

Thus, the poorest people in the most abject circumstances nevertheless greet the arrival of a new child with hope and joy.

I'm seeing this on a very personal level with my daughter. I'm a little worried (I know better) about what will happen when the child arrives and becomes less abstract.

wv seems to be visualizing whirled peauce. Give it a chance, Nonys, All We are saying.

mushroom said...

Can you see why? If we come to O with too many preconceptions, we will merely be taking a plunge into the known, not the unknown.

I'm going to fill my pool with seawater so I can swim across the Pacific Ocean.

Cousin Dupree said...

Very good! Then, with Obamanomics, you can take water from the deep end and pour it into the shallow end to create wealth and abundance.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Bob.