Friday, April 23, 2010

Promissory Gnosis in the Cosmic Treasury

For today's repost, I have selected an ancient and venerable blast from four years ago. I have edited it quite a bit, since the subject is rather tricky, and when I first wrote it, it was hijacked by a unifying thread of wordplay centering around money and banking, sometimes at the cost of fungible clarity. I've tried to better explicate the plain meaning, but probably haven't fully succeeded in backing up my promissory gnosis.

I was moving some stuff around my office and found an old post-it on the floor, under the desk. On it was written the marvelous sentence, I was beginning to sense that the night had written a check that the daylight couldn't cash. Those aren't my words. I lifted them from Lileks, who was quoting another writer whose name I can't recall. I found the sentence arresting enough to file away for future abuse.

In a way, that's the big question, isn't it? We're only alive and in the light for a brief period of time between two dark vaults of eternity. In that brief span of time, can we shed sufficient light on our murky past to comprehend it? Even scientists who are otherwise blinded by the literal daylight recognize that our origins are obscured in a figurative mystery that the worst of them only abuse in order to simplify.

After all, anyone can make a mystery go away by imagining what's in it. In this regard, scientistic fantasies are really no different -- and serve the identical function -- as the most primitive tribal stories of cosmic and human origins. We forget that "Big Bang" was originally a term of ridicule. Which it should be, if it is taken to be a sufficient explanation of creation in all its dimensions and modes, vertical and horizontal, exterior and interior.

So the question is, in being inexplicably conceived and burped out of the cosmic voidgin, has time written us a bad check that eternity cannot cash?

Looked at strictly temporally, our lives are a culmination, the detritus left by 13.7 billion years of meandering evolution, just the cosmic effluvia deposited along the banks at the terminal moraine of the now. If our existence were truly limited to this temporal line of credit, it would be nigh impossible to account for the miracle of the human subject -- not just that it is, but what it knows, for radical contingency could never know absolute necessity.

For really, all adolescent scientistic kidding aside, how, while drifting along in the stream of mere material shuffling, did the cosmic current somehow raise itself above the plane of matter, and awaken to a non-empirical dimension of immaterial space? That’s some evolutionary currency. The question is, is it backed by the full faith and credit of the Divine Treasury, or is it only a rubber check issued by the Bank of Darwin located in Fort Hard Knocks?

Some 3.85 billion years ago, the evolutionary stream defiantly wrapped around itself and created a tiny loophole amidst the greater whole. Up to that point, the cosmos was truly “one.” But it was a purely material one whose circumference was everywhere and center nowhere. With the emergence of Life as such, the cosmos now had a center, a center with branches in every living thing. In having a center, it now had a here and a now, whereas before, it only had a featureless everywhere.

For Life itself is not a spatial center but a hierarchical and therefore vertical center. Whatever else Life is, it manifests something that mere matter does not. To paraphrase E.F. Schumacher, it is more fruitful to think of matter as “life minus x” than it is to think of life as “matter plus x.”

This is why it is hopeless to defer to biology as to the nature of Life as such. As I mentioned in the book, a biologist knows no more about the nature of life than a watchmaker does about the nature of time. As I have noted before, although it is obvious to me that the cosmos manifests intelligent design, I do not rely on this to inductively leap the conclusion that God therefore exists. This is like proving the existence of time by studying watches.

Etymologically, the word evolution is linked to the word for “unroll,” as in the way an ancient manuscript was unfurled. On the one hand, we see that the unrolling tide of evolution has been accompanied by increasing novelty and complexity which is tucked away in that evolutionary data bank known as the genome. But where does the compound interest come from?

In other words, accompanying the horizontal course of evolution has been a vertical liftoff as well. As human beings, this is the only horizon we are really interested in. This vertical horizon is an area of increasing centration, following in the wake of that first declaration of vertical independence represented by Life. Life is that narrow slot we have all leapt through in order to have our precarious subjective existence, like a little eddy formed in the stream of time.

But instead of being swallowed up by the tide, that little primordial eddy grew in strength, widened, and gained increasing vertical centration. Still surfing atop the precarious flow of matter and information -- a little whirling dance on the knife edge between immaterial being and material non-being (paraphrasing Hans Jonas) -- mere animals eventually awakened to humanness.

And that is not all, for the centration and widening of vertical evolution did not end with that first proto-human primate looking around and thinking to himself, “Hmm. I’m alive. I am screwed.” Rather, it seems that, immediately upon awakening to his humanness some 35 to 40,000 years, our distinguished furbear pledged allegiance to the vertical order that had sponsored him. Admittedly, he sometimes did this in awkward and gruesome ways, such as human sacrifice, self-mutilation, and suicide bombing. But he also did it in some preternaturally beautiful ways, such as the cave paintings at Lascaux and Alta Mira.

Which raises an interesting question. Just what was this new subjective dimension that human beings had stumbled upon? Most mysteriously, why was it not an empty vault? In other words, why did it contain such riches as aesthetic standards? What’s the point of beauty? For that matter, why is the world that we awakened to so beautiful? Is it really beautiful? Or do we just see it that way? If the latter, why?

So human beings erected an altar. The purpose of the altar was to further “widen” that same little slot that was initially opened up by life. By widening that slot, human beings obtained increasing awareness of other inexplicable vertical characteristics, forces, and luxury capaxities: a sense of the sacred, the penumbra of holiness, love of truth, understanding of good and evil, refinement of the heart. Each of these represented a subjectively objective reality that was discovered, not invented.

For proto-man to become mankind proper, it was a matter of assimilating more and more of what was discovered in the vertical, all of these traits and capacities that have no Darwinian utility at all. For vertical evolution does not involve becoming a better animal, but a better human. And the standard of humanness is not found in the horizontal world bequeathed to us by Darwin, nor by naive scientism in general. Mankind owes nothing to Darwin for those things that lift us above the tide of animal evolution.

For there are only two absolutes; or a relative absolute and an absolute Absolute. Everything else is a matter of degree and scale. At one end -- call it the lower vertical -- is pure insentient matter. The secularist Sons of the Earth have pledged their allegiance to Omnipotent Matter, Mother of All Mamafestation. This is Horizontal Man. He is indeed made in the image of that which he reveres and idealizes. He is king of the lowerarchy, a prince in hell.

At the other end of the spectrum, at the toppermost of the poppermost of the cosmic hierarchy, is the true Absolute, the Sovereign Good, the Alpha and Omega that radiates its All-Possibility down into the herebelow. This is the transcendent peak toward which Sons of the Light fix their gaze. For we are neither dirt nor divinity, but somewhere and someone in between.

And that is not all. For in a hierarchical cosmos, each created thing is superior to something below it and inferior to something above. As such, "ye shall be godless" is logically equivalent to the primordial lie, “ye shall be as gods." Thus, secular man is his own god, albeit the petty flatland god of an ontologically diminished horizontality. In his relativism he pretends to feel no better than anyone else, but in elevating his relativism to an absolute, he secretly knows that he is superior to everyone, especially God. He has no way of knowing his place in the cosmic scheme, his proper caste.

This represents a small triumph for darkness, the primordial darkness accompanied by belief in the serpent’s promise of horizontal self-sufficiency in the closed circle of animal existence. You may have noticed that the serpent has insufficient funds to back that check written in the cosmic dark. As such, there's no way to amortize your lifeloan.

21 Comments:

Blogger Rick said...

This is a superb post.
Bob, I still read everyday. One of these days I hope to find the timeless and go back and read the ones I didn't know I was missing before I found this place in Jan of 07.

Also... just received: Battling to the End the latest by Girard. First pages of the into already have 2 flags on it. So far, so good I'll say.

4/23/2010 12:21:00 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

Guess I didn't get the memo.

4/23/2010 05:06:00 PM  
Blogger julie said...

Memo?

4/23/2010 07:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Cousin Dupree said...

The memo about conserving comments in honor of Earth Day.

4/24/2010 07:33:00 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

Oh. I'll subtract 3 comments from the next post.
Just like everybody else does on Earth Day -- "push it to the next day". Whether they realize it or not.

4/24/2010 08:54:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

I missed it too, then - if it came from Cuz, I'm guessing the memo was something about how we should be making extra comments for Earth Day.

4/24/2010 08:57:00 AM  
Blogger Van said...

Cuz said "The memo about conserving comments in honor of Earth Day"


Why anyone would want to celebrate Vladimir Lenin's birthday is beyond me... but speaking of,

"I was beginning to sense that the night had written a check that the daylight couldn't cash."

It does go pretty well with that.

4/24/2010 09:14:00 AM  
Blogger Van said...

"... a biologist knows no more about the nature of life than a watchmaker does about the nature of time."

Nor than a footnoting philosophist knows about either Wisdom or Love.

4/24/2010 09:18:00 AM  
Blogger Van said...

"Which raises an interesting question. Just what was this new subjective dimension that human beings had stumbled upon? Most mysteriously, why was it not an empty vault? In other words, why did it contain such riches as aesthetic standards? What’s the point of beauty? For that matter, why is the world that we awakened to so beautiful? Is it really beautiful? Or do we just see it that way? If the latter, why?"

And how did it not only come to exist all at one and the same time... but 'out there' as well as 'in here', as any philosophical spelunker will soon discover. Which may be why, once discovered, the first step towards the realizaton was obvious... find a cave and put Art upon the walls.

But as Plato might have remarked... careful who you hire as caretakers....

4/24/2010 09:30:00 AM  
Blogger debass said...

"Why anyone would want to celebrate Vladimir Lenin's birthday is beyond me"

Because they celebrated Hitler's birthday (420 day) two days before and like all good socialists, it's only fair.

4/24/2010 05:22:00 PM  
Blogger Jack said...

Just read the post and am listening to Bill Evans "Sunday at the Village Vanguard". It was a nice juxtaposition...the complexity and beauty of what Evans, LaFaro and Motian discovered in that subjective space of beauty, goodness and truth. From cave paintings to a Sunday at the Village Vanguard in 1961...quite an evolution.

I've been thinking about what musical experience is and how to cultivate a deeper "musical faith" in my playing. Even after 30 years I am still holding on to the familiar tricks and instead seek to trust that deeper sense of discovery.

Just got me thinking is all...

4/24/2010 06:52:00 PM  
Blogger debass said...

Jack,

What I did was to quit thinking about what I was playing and opened myself up to (the downward arrow, which I can't figure out how to type) and let the music flow through you and not from you.

4/24/2010 11:23:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Jack:

Speaking of which, I've been listening to the final live recordings of Bill Evans, made just a week before he died. As the liner notes say, he was like a light bulb that suddenly burns brighter just before going out. More:

"What mattered most to Evans was not technique, of which he was a master, but expression.... Evans said, 'What I'm trying to do is to say something in the context of my music.... I'm speaking as if its a technical consideration, but when I'm playing, I'm thinking of being in the flow of the music, allowing it to develop over a period of time.... I can tell you that for me, technique is the ability to translate your ideas into sound through your instrument.... What I'm talking about is a feeling for the keyboard that will allow you to transfer any emotional utterance into it.'"

4/25/2010 07:45:00 AM  
Blogger Jack said...

Debass-

Thank you. That is exactly it. I've tried to play my last few gigs and rehearsals that way. Sometimes it is truly surprising what happens (sometimes a whole lot of clams...so it goes!).

GB- I was struck when reading the post and listening to Evans...that there was a certain sacredness to what he was trying to convey, something deeply and genuinely human (in the archetypal sense). There is a sense of hope and tragedy in his music (and his life as well, for that matter).

The process of discovery continues:

"I can tell you that for me, technique is the ability to translate your ideas into sound through your instrument.... What I'm talking about is a feeling for the keyboard that will allow you to transfer any emotional utterance into it.'"

Something for me to consider more deeply.

4/25/2010 09:14:00 AM  
Blogger Jack said...

I am reminded of a guitar lesson I had when I was in my late teens. I was working on a jazz tune with my teacher trying to figure out how to analyze the tune and apply the "correct" scales at the correct time etc. All caught up in my head trying to play AND think it out at the same time. My teacher probably seeing my struggle just said something like "let go and just play"...and for 30 secs or so, I did just that. I was in the flow!!

Unfortunately for some reason I got spooked and turned off the tap. Somehow I thought...it can't be "that easy".

But I've spent the intervening years in that space between technique and flow (probably with a strong inclination to try to cling to technique/theory). But I think debass nailed it in that the music has to flow from a deeper place than me...

4/25/2010 09:23:00 AM  
Blogger debass said...

To quote somebody, "I play better shit by accident than I do on purpose".

Also-You too can be the proud owner of the Debass Clam Filter. For only $9.95 and a small family heirloom, etc.....

4/25/2010 09:39:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Just found a nice video of Evans playing Waltz For Debbie. I don't know if anyone has been able to connect heart, intellect, and spirit the way he could.

4/25/2010 10:00:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

... and make it swing, of course...

4/25/2010 10:01:00 AM  
Blogger Jack said...

I've been pondering this from the tao te ching:

In pursuit of knowledge,
every day something is added.
In the practice of the Tao,
every day something is dropped.
Less and less do you need to force things,
until finally you arrive at non-action.
When nothing is done,
nothing is left undone.

4/25/2010 11:07:00 AM  
Blogger Tigtog said...

"What’s the point of beauty? "

To soothe the soul, inspire the mind and remind you that all things are fleeting. Life is of great depth for the soul divers but unfortunately extremely brief on the horizontal. Thats my answer for now unless someone's got a better one.

4/27/2010 02:55:00 PM  
Blogger ge said...

Lou Reed, it is said, said
"One chord is fine. Two chords is pushing it. Three chords and you're into jazz."
but he'd probably not say that now.

Is silence underrated?
the silent answer is...No

4/28/2010 06:05:00 PM  

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