Friday, May 23, 2008

The Meaning of Meaning, or Nihilism and How it Gets that Way

Impossible blogging conditions today. Therefore, another stale bobservation from over two years ago.


Our boneheaded, literal-minded elites typically fail to appreciate the truism that spirituality is of necessity full of paradoxes. God exists, but without human mirrors to reflect him, he disappears. God is both the light and the light by which he is seen. The eye with which we see him is the eye with which he sees us. True gnosis restores our freedom that has been partially or totally squandered, but we are only “set free” by surrendering it. The more one becomes truly human, the more one manifests the divine image and likeness. God is the source and sovereign of the world and yet submits to the world that murders him.

A while back, in response to an essay by Vanderleun on the film United 93, I impulsively typed the cryptic comment, “there are no messages, only messengers capable of understanding them" (you could also say recipients capable of sending them).

This was in reference to an earlier post on American Digest, which provided an excerpt of the New York Times review of United 93. In it, the reviewer confessed that she “didn’t have a clue” what the film was about. To her, the film was devoid of any meaning, high or low. It was just nonsensical. Why would anyone make such a film? What was the point?

Why an apparent leftist should object to a lack of meaning is a bit of a mystery to begin with. But one senses that she was being willfully disingenuous as a way to pre-emptively attack what she felt was an objectionable political agenda of some kind. In other words, she did recognize the meaning, at least unconsciously. She just didn’t like what the meaning meant.

In other words, we aren't talking about a cognitive failure to "connect the dots," but a passive aggressive success at dismantling them. This is one of the left's specialties -- you see it every day -- which is why one marvels at their "intelligent stupidity." The same reviewer would probably have no difficulty appreciating the deep meaning of the new four-hour hagiographical biopic of Che Guevara.

Indeed, the wholly secularized mind cannot in good faith object to nihilism. After all, a nihilist is simply a good faith atheist, humanist or secularist -- someone who has drawn the implications of their impoverished philosophy to their logical endpoint. A nihilist is simply someone with the courage of their lack of convictions (which isn't courage at all, being that it lacks prudence and temperance, among other virtues).

For one person, United 93 is flat, empty, lifeless, devoid of meaning, perhaps a “mistake” that should have never been born to begin with; she might say the same thing about the image of those marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima. To another, it is rich beyond the ability to even discuss it in less than sacred terms.

The poster for the film says it was The plane that did not reach its target. But Vanderleun -- who has connected the dots -- notes that, “it reached something unintended and much higher. It became and will remain a legend; an integral part of the tapestry of the American myth from which we all draw what strength remains to us, and, in the future, will surely need to draw upon even more deeply.”

He continues: United 93 shows “how ordinary people... refused at the last to be cowed or frightened and, knowing full well that all was probably up for them, still fought to save their lives or, in the end, thwart the designs that evil had brought on board.... I like to think that the men and women of United 93 had their souls set upon, in those last moments, the refusal to die as passive victims with seatbelts fastened as the monsters in the cockpit pushed their evil mission to its appointed end.... to take the controls back from thugs and the cut-throats and the mumbling fanatics of a wretched and burnt-out god."

Ultimately, the film poses a question: “What would you do, an ordinary person in an extraordinary moment when life and death, good and evil, were as clear as the skies over America on September 11? Will you, as so many of our fellow citizens yearn to do these days, stay seated? Or will you stand up?” (Vanderleun).

The psychoanalyst W.R. Bion developed a concept he called attacks on linking (perhaps the pithier "deconstruction" was already taken). Bion is a notoriously abstruse thinker, and yet, his ideas are at their core quite simple and exceptionally fruitful. Once you are aware of the concept, you will see how pervasive it is. Certainly it is something the clinician encounters all day long, for it is one of the primary mechanisms involved in most neuroses and any kind of deeper character pathology. It operates at the crossroads where emotional pathologies become cognitive ones, irrespective of one's native intelligence.

Bion had an epistemophilic theory of the mind, in that he thought that our minds not only intrinsically seek truth, but grow as a result of "metabolizing" it. (As usual, I’ll have to give the short version in order to move the argument along to its presently unknown destination.) Various exigencies of childhood can derail or pervert this process, as there are certain emotional truths that are too painful to bear. As such, our truth-seeking mechanism can become compromised at its foundation, so to speak. “None so blind as he who will not see,” and all that.

Meaning involves the bringing together of diverse details into a higher unity. In reality, it is a sort of “vision” that sees through the surface to the inner unity of a mass of data. It is very much analogous to those “magic eye” pictures, which look like a bunch of random markings on the page. But when you relax your eyes, out of nowhere pops a three-dimensional image. The image was “there” all along, but was buried amidst the phenomena. You might say that it was a message awaiting a recipient capable of seeing it, like all of the beauty in the cosmos that was unnoticed before the arrival of man.

Of course, if you are a strict materialist, then you will insist that only the random dots are ultimately real -- they are more "fundamental" than that toward which they point, just as the atoms of which we are composed are more "real" than our bodies or minds. Although the three-dimensional picture might be nice, ultimately it is something we just “made up” or invented. It is foolish -- not to say an act of existential cowardice -- to suggest that the random dots actually mean anything beyond what we project into them (which leaves one wondering how the materialist can know this -- or anything, for that matter -- but we'll leave that to the side.)

To the materialist, the three-dimensional picture results from induction. That is, it is simply a generalization that we arrived at by carefully analyzing the particulars. But to a Platonist -- which all spiritually-minded people are to one degree or another -- the three-dimensional picture is more real than the dots. The dots are actually a declension from this higher dimensional object, which is both the meaning and the truth of the dots. In fact, it is also the being of the dots.

Nevertheless, where is the three-dimensional image, if not in the dots? That is, the materialist will correctly insist that if you remove the dots, the picture will disappear as well. But the dots do exist, and the picture is “in” each one of them. You might say that the dots are the “invisible picture made flesh.” From the perspective of the ignorant dot, it is a proudly independent entity, just going about its business, separate from the other dots. It has no idea that it is actually participating in a higher dimensional image, any more than an individual cell in my body is aware of the fact that it is now participating in a thing called “blogging.”

Again, most knowledge on this side of manifestation is a synthesis of particulars converging on a nonlocal Truth (I don't want to discuss revelation at the moment, which you might say is a "whole truth" sent from the other side). There are some truths that people, for one reason or another, do not wish to know. One way to rid the mind of unwanted truth is to “attack the links” that allow the truth to emerge.

This is exactly what the clueless New York Times reviewer did in watching (but not seeing) United 93. Again, I do not believe she was consciously being disingenuous. In reality, all sorts of vital meanings were no doubt subliminally occurring to her as she watched the film. But these inchoate meanings were beaten down, attacked, and strangled in their crib before they could emerge as a full-blown Truth that she knew but didn't want to know. Knowledge of truth must always precede the Lie -- which is why, for example, all tyrannies pretend to be democracies, or why leftists always pretend to be "for the little guy."

As a matter of fact, this cognitive pathology is a microscopic reflection of envy (which is a psychoanalytic term of art with a slightly different meaning from the common usage; it is a defense mechanism that "spoils" a good it does not possess, in order to eliminate the pain of not having it). It is the worst and most cognitively debilitating form of envy, for it attacks and spoils truth and goodness before the conscious mind even has a chance to entertain them.

Thus, the envious person is condemned to a living death in a mass of meaningless particulars that make no sense. But, as always, the mind will covertly elevate this cursed condition to a courageous virtue: “I’m better than you, because at least I’m courageous enough to realize that the world is random and meaningless.” This kind of envy is really "winged death," or a caricature of Life. Our trolls never stop reminding us of this.

Now, religious truths are mostly of the Magic Eye variety (again, some are given "whole"). This is why the envious person cannot “see” God, or meaning, or Truth. In their transtemporal myopia, they "recoil from the simple and seek refuge in a sophistry that is itself laughably simplistic." As someone once said, to live one’s life in this state is to die of miscellany. They are not even superstitious. Rather, they are substitious, absorbed in the hypnotic mayaplicity of an unmeaningable world.

If God is eternal, how do we encounter him among the things of time? Real faith is the “tacit foreknowledge of as yet undiscovered things.” It is the answer that leads us to the clues. For the materialist studies the world in order to try to understand it. The religionist does that as well, but also understands the world in order to study it. Celestial messages are everywhere. But without gifted messengers, they may go unnoticed. Or worse yet, noticed and preemptively attacked by a promethean intelligence turning on itself and become demonic.


julie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
julie said...

Correction: Having now read the post I'd still like to note that your posts are like Twinkies, Bob - properly coontained, it'll be a mighty long time before they go stale. In fact, this one was remarkably apropos of (to?) this week's discussion.

sehoy said...

Cain and Salieri being graphic past examples of that envy you talk about. It's hard for me to see it in contempories.

(Just to jump in very late to the discussion, but I hope you make your posts whatever length they were meant to be.)

lance said...

Bob: What about the idea that an existentialist has even more responsibility then a believer because they are then responsible for all the actions of humanity. I am speaking of the "anguish" that Sarte talks about concerning the freedom that comes rather then when you have all the structure and rules that the church or religion brings into your life. Do you think that is reasonable or just a cop out?

Gagdad Bob said...

Existentialism is not to be taken seriously. It is just an abuse of intelligence, or intelligence used to deny its own object and source, and therefore sufficient reason.

I agree with Schuon that it is the quintessence of the cosmic inversion, or the very opposite of the nature of things, an "esoterism of stupidity" devised by inferior men for whom contingency is absolute; this is the very opposite of wisdom, which seeks the absolute in the contingent.

mushroom said...

While I agree with Julie's point, I would have used something other than Twinkies. Maybe a good single malt.

julie said...

Mushroom - point taken, though I must wonder if even fine spirits have the staying power of a Twinkie ;)

mushroom said...

You're right. When there's no life n the planet except cockroaches, they will be eating Twinkies.

You know what I heard the other day is that cockroaches are essentially tropical creatures and can only exist in places like NYC because people provide them with heat. Which leads to the obvious slogan: "Support Global Warming. Save the Roaches!"

GB says, [the materialist claims ] It is foolish -- not to say an act of existential cowardice -- to suggest that the random dots actually mean anything beyond what we project into them (which leaves one wondering how the materialist can know this -- or anything, for that matter -- but we'll leave that to the side.)

But I've noticed when you point this little problem out to the materialist the response is to accuse you of denying that real knowledge is possible.

Along similar lines, I thought Smoov's Scientific American quote on yesterday's thread was illuminating.

ximeze said...

"Sitting right there where I left them was a 20 year old carton of Hostess Twinkies, still sealed in their original wrappers. All of the preservatives had kept them in better condition that my 8" floppy disks.

I opened a package and broke open a Twinkie. The creamy white center was bigger than a Quarter. It felt much more substantial than the Twinkies of today. I remembered the good old days when Twinkies were the staple of any late night programmer's diet. Only last week I bit into a Twinkie (it was forced upon me by my daughter) and couldn't even find the cream filled center.

Yes, this could be why the quality of computer software and studio maintenance has become sloppier. The Twinkies on which they have depended on for sustenance for a generation, are inferior. Would you expect your dog to fetch the paper or wash your car if you rewarded him with substandard treats? I think not."

"The Twinkie Factor"

Anonymous said...

Existentialism requires a good portion of bravery.

Just try, sincerely, to believe that the universe is meaningless except for whatever arbitrary "meaning" one can inject into it from the mental grab bag of fears, desires, ambitions, beliefs, and motivations.

Yes, says the existentialist, the Cosmos means whatever we want it to mean. There is nothing else.

Yuck. Who could live like that? Hour after hour, day after day?

It seems to me that depression and suicide would be the natural adjuncts of existentialism (which leads to absudism).

And yet, if an individual can achieve happiness under those bleak conditions, as some do, think of what bliss she could achieve under a sunnier set of assumptions!

The functioning existentialist must be regarded as spiritual savant of sorts. An analogy would be that of a daredevil or a tight-rope walker. Sure, they can walk that rope, but why do something so terrifiying?

Perhaps, because once again on safe ground, they are fearless.
Existentialism may well be one of those sources of suffering which can be used as a spiritual springboard, as can addictions, serious illness, and the like.

However, as Bob suggests, existentialism cannot be taken seriously as a truthful philosophy, for the very reason that it is nigh on insufferable.

ximeze said...

Forget the Twinkies, get your popcorn ready & coongregate for real-time cosmos-watching: Phoenix Mars Lander

After a journey of 10-months and more than 400 million miles, Phoenix arrives at the Red Planet just before 8 p.m. EDT this Sunday, beginning its study of water and possible conditions for life.

Phoenix Mission Briefings
May 24, 3:00 p.m. (12:00 p.m. Pacific)
May 25, 3:00 p.m. (12:00 p.m. Pacific)
May 25, NASA TV coverage begins 6:30 p.m. (3:30 p.m. Pacific)
May 25, Landing on Mars at approximately 7:53 p.m. (4:53 p.m. Pacific)

Robin Starfish said...

Unless he's shoved out of the way by Anderson Cooper, I assume Geraldo will be live on Mars covering the event as the lander digs up a Twinkie.

Van said...

Anonymous said "Just try, sincerely, to believe that the universe is meaningless except for whatever arbitrary "meaning" one can inject into it from the mental grab bag of fears, desires, ambitions, beliefs, and motivations."

Now think about that... see if you can find the key issue that excludes any of existentialisms believers from being given any intellectual respect.

'Which of these words just don't go together, which of these words just doesn't belong...' ready? Here we go:
'Believe' , 'Meaningless', 'Happiness', 'Fear'

If the universe is meaningless, if there is no truth, no beauty, no good... the concept of 'believe' is more meaningless than any other word... to be able to say either word with a straight face, or even a centimeter or two of honest mental depth, you not only have to pretend that you don't grasp the meaning of basic words, or whether or not they refer to what you think they do; it takes a willful act of selective blindness in order to ignore the fact that you say "the world has no meaning for me", rather than "the crab marbles twinkies burp, scotch please'... because words do have meaning, you know it and that you can use them correctly or incorrectly only because you choose not to have your words understood as being meaningless; they don't want that, they don’t believe that, they only want to pretend it.

You cannot honestly speak a single sentence, while denying that there is truth. You can only do so as a big fat blatant fraud... and you need a gullible audience to even pull that off.

So what you've got are people who want to glom onto the image of 'a deep thinker', but don't want to go through the intellectual work of learning, integrating and discovering what is true, and the willful tempering of developing the habit of making your actions match what you know and believe to be true (Virtue); the existentialist is one who grasps that they can easily pose as if 'everything is meaningless', 'there's no point to anything at all', 'happiness is an illusion'... which is why they are usually young teens, college students or lazy artsy fartsy types eager for free sympathy and an unearned reputation for being ‘deep’.

"Perhaps, because once again on safe ground, they are fearless."

If there is no point, if there is nothing with meaning, nothing to lose, nothing that makes anything better, then there is nothing to gain, keep or lose - and so nothing to fear. You have to believe in order to have fear - even before you can deny that you believe anything, you must believe It IS, in order to deny that it is.

"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom"

For the existentialist who says that beauty is just an arbitrary arrangement of dots, welllll without humans able to perceive and appreciate Truth and Beauty, they would be nothing but dots - but if there is a 'You' to perceive them, then the Good, the Beautiful and the True are present and accounted for - just waiting for you to admit it.