A Brief History of Slack
What we mean by this is that the animal has no slack. Again, it is constrained to do what it does, limited by what the genes permit.
But at some point, a protohuman said to himself, "hmm. I believe I am in the mood to do this instead of that." It doesn't matter what this was. The point is that this sets the human as far apart from animals as life is from matter. The distance becomes infinite -- as infinite as the abyss between truth and falsehood.
But with slack necessarily comes antislack. This is because once we are aware of having free will and preferences, we obviously know when they are not being fulfilled, which brings frustration and pain. "I believe I am in the mood to do this instead of that. But circumstances do not permit me to do this. D'oh!"
It's very difficult to know how much slack there was for primitive man. There has been a strong tendency over the last couple hundred years -- beginning with Rousseau in the late 18th century -- to project our own perceived absence of slack onto premodern peoples, as if they had it in abundance. But the more we learn about them, the more we see a demon-haunted imagination swimming with mind parasites.
Myth (in the non-vulgar sense) takes shape at the horizon of history. These are akin to collective dreams that embody a kind of vertical recollection of "events" that are (note the present tense) before and beyond written memory.
Analogously, no one doubts that their own infancy happened, even though one cannot consciously recall it. There exist means, however, of finding out about it. One can never know the "thing in itself," but it is possible to decode certain effects, including dreams, symptoms, mysterious but overwhelming preferences, and most importantly, the disorienting experience of falling in love, when we are plunged into a dimension that obliterates the psychic membrane between self and other.
Someone once said that a myth is a collective neurosis, while a neurosis is a private myth. This isn't too far from the truth, except that one shouldn't necessarily pathologize the myth.
Than again, doesn't our is- and ur-myth, Genesis, diagnose a kind of enduring pathology in man? It is indeed like a physician's SOAP notes. Peek into your own mythic chart, and you might find something like this: Subjective: wants to be God, desire for infinite slack & absolute independence. Objective: ate something bad, shifts blame to reptilian charmer. Assessment: narcissism, self-centeredness, infantile omnipotence. Plan: find out the hard way -- banishment; toil; marital discord; labor pains.
With the help of Dr. Ratzinger, let's look a little more closely at these notes. First, as alluded to above regarding the nature of myth, he writes that the text proclaims a truth "which surpasses our understanding."
Myth -- as are dreams -- is highly imagistic, and the images are always dense with meaning that must be unpacked. The images are like facets of a gem; turn it this way, and one theme emerges, turn it that way, and another pops out. Merely manmade stories tend to be rather "flat," shallow, and linear by comparison.
Ratzinger turns his attention to "two great images in particular -- that of the garden, to which the image of the tree belongs, and that of the serpent."
Garden and serpent. What is a garden? On the one hand, it is a cultivated area, something made by man. On the other, it is something man could never have made without the "nature" that precedes him. A garden is a pleasing arrangement of nature.
More broadly, it is "an image of the world, which to humankind is not a wilderness, a danger, or a threat, but a home that shelters, nourishes, and sustains." It embodies "two movements," one from the Creator (↓), one from man (↑). The created world clearly "bears the imprint of the Spirit," while man becomes co-creator, building and developing it "in keeping with what it was created for." (For there is no "creation" without a "for," i.e., end and purpose.)
But a third movement enters the picture, by way of the serpent. Ratzinger links this movement to ancient fertility cults which essentially conflate nature and God; worse yet, these pantheistic religions actually elevate nature to God. Their dionysian prescription is very different from that of the Bible: "Plunge into the current of life, into its delirium and ecstasy, and thus you will be able to partake of the reality of life and immortality."
In short, the serpent is proposing an alternate means of acquiring slack. Does it work? Of course it works. Until the delirium and ecstasy wear off. One morning you wake up, look at the person sleeping next to you, and ask, "do I know you?" This inevitably leads to the question, "do I know me?"
Listen to the SlackMeister: true slack cannot be an escape from self, but only a finding thereof. Nor can it be an escape from the world as such; rather it is a transformation of the world.
The would-be master of slack leaves the world in order to allow the world to take leave of him. This leaves a space, a psychic womb, for a "new birth" to take place. The new man lives dialectically in a new world. It is the same world, only seen with a new I.
Now the serpent is symbolic of that "wisdom of the world" that is folly to God. This worldly wisdom is a temptation, a seduction, and ultimately a kind of hip gnosis that leaves God out of the equation. It is so easy, even the tenured can do it -- i.e., convince the impressionable soul that he is being had, and that true freedom can only occur with a radical rejection of gods, of tradition, of superstitious myths that cash in this life for an illusion.
Freed from such constraints, man may finally soar as high as his mechanical reason -- or as low as his mercurial passion -- permits.
But is it true? In other words, is it true that man is radically free, independent of any supernatural constraints? Because if he is not, then pretending otherwise cannot be real freedom. Again, it will just be a fleeing-from disguised as a running-to. To the extent that there is an Absolute, to pretend that one is it is to live in delusion. One way or another, an epic fall awaits you. Frankly, it has already happened, but you will simply be the last to know.
For Ratzinger, man's primordial sin results in a "topsy-turvy" world that necessarily changes oneself with it. There is no being without relation, so this new relation to the world results in a new self. But this is a derivative self, a kind of side effect of the imaginary world one has created and entered.
Thus, "sin is, in its essence, a renunciation of the truth" -- the cosmic, ontological, and metaphysical truth of our situation. Such persons "are living in untruth and unreality. Their lives are mere appearance."
What then is our "real" situation? This, we believe, is revealed in the Trinity, which we will, for the moment, attempt to treat in a more metacosmic sense than a specifically Christian one.
The essential point is that the human person is not an isolated monad. Rather, a person is always in relation, not just objectively -- which doesn't matter much, for one could say the same of any animal -- but subjectively. We are intersubjective through and through, meaning that we are members of one another, in a space that is clearly transcendent and immaterial.
As a result of this entanglement of consciousness, human beings "live in those whom they love and in those who love them and to whom they are present.... I alone am not myself, but only in and with you am I myself. To be truly a human being means to be related by love, to be of and for."
Conversely, "sin means the damaging or destruction of relationality." It brings into being the diseased maninfestation -- which is really an adolescent peter pandemic -- that tries to be its own cure.
To be continued...
Check out American Digest for some ancient new riffs on the above (and as we know, Cohen means "priest"):
And everybody knows that you live forever / Ah when you've done a line or two.
And now the wheels of heaven stop / you feel the devil's riding crop / Get ready for the future: / it is murder.
And I just don't care what happens next / looks like freedom but it feels like death / it's something in between, I guess / it's CLOSING TIME.