Saturday, July 24, 2010

And on the Fifth Day of July, Elvis Rocked

For music Saturday, I'd like to be a champion of the obvious and highlight a tired banality that has been insufficiently beaten to death. I'll begin by rebleating a passing thoughtlet Lileks extruded a couple years ago. He was referencing a series of records that came out in the early 1970s, called Cruisin', which attempted to recreate the top 30 radio of the late '50s and '60s, not just with music, but with the original DJs and vintage commercials. There was one for each year, from the mid '50s to the late '60s:

"The Cruisin’ series, incidentally was released in 1970 -- which meant 13 years between the original broadcast and the record’s debut, and 38 years between now and then. The distance between now and then seems half the distance between ’57 and ’70. It’s not just my own subjective perspective -- not entirely, anyway.... If you showed a kid a movie about 1995, they’d laugh at the hair and the big primitive computers with slow modems, but the culture would be recognizable. There was a reason people in the early 70s romanticized the 50s, but at the risk of making the usual fool of myself with platitudes and banal generalizations, I’ll leave it there."

The point is that as early as 1970, people were nostalgic for the 1960s, but this was only possible because it was already a distinct and recognizable era (for example, American Graffiti came out in 1973). And I would say that as early as 1964, when the Beatles crossed the Atlantic, it was possible to be nostalgic for the 1950s, since that is exactly when they became a recognizable thing of the past. Almost no artists who were popular on the charts prior to January 1964 were popular after. Countless musical careers were over.

The revelation of rock can be fixed at a particular time and place. It was late one night on July 5, 1954, when Elvis launched into an unplanned and spontaneous performance of That's All Right:

"The session... proved entirely unfruitful until late in the night. As they were about to give up and go home, Presley took his guitar and launched into a 1946 blues number, Arthur Crudup's That's All Right.

"Moore recalled, 'All of a sudden, Elvis just started singing this song, jumping around and acting the fool, and then Bill picked up his bass, and he started acting the fool, too, and I started playing with them. Sam, I think, had the door to the control booth open... he stuck his head out and said, 'What are you doing?' And we said, 'We don't know.' 'Well, back up,' he said, 'try to find a place to start, and do it again.'

"Phillips quickly began taping; this was the sound he had been looking for. Three days later, popular Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips played That's All Right on his Red, Hot, and Blue show. Listeners began phoning in, eager to find out who the singer was. The interest was such that Phillips played the record repeatedly during the last two hours of his show. Interviewing Presley on-air, Phillips asked him what high school he attended in order to clarify his color for the many callers who had assumed he was black" (wiki).

No one would suggest that Elvis's approach had had no precursors. But this style of music had never crossed over to any kind of mass popularity, and was confined to the "race market." Indeed, it took until early 1956 for Elvis to cross that threshold to mass popularity, so one can really say that rock as a cultural phenomenon began then.

But it didn't last long, and no one at the time assumed that it was anything more than a passing fad to be cashed in on while it lasted. Very similar to Louis Armstrong's revolutionary recordings of the late 1920s, no one at the time imagined that they were producing "art," of all things. Records were ephemeral things to be tossed into the marketplace and then disposed of.

Which is precisely one of the reasons why those primitive Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings endure, because they were completely un-self-conscious. The same can be said of Elvis's earliest recordings, since he was doing them for the pure joy of doing them. He was doing it for love. Indeed, no market yet existed for what he was doing.

And yet, it did. The people were obviously yearning for a musical messiah who would not just liberate them from the pharonic constraints of the pop blandscape of the day, but rock their souls into the promised land. Elvis didn't invent anything, but just happened upon the key to a musical archetype that was already there. Once people heard it, they recognized it as something they couldn't live without -- not just in America, but all over the world. The same thing had occurred with jazz. People talk about "world music," but the only true world music is Cosmo-American black music.

Now, I don't want to get into the question of what rock eventually devolved to, in terms of both the music and the culture. I agree that that is all to be deplored. Rather, I'm talking about that pure, ecstatic impulse at the origin of it all, uncontaminated by fame, money, narcissism, exhibitionism, and infantile sexuality. Those can occur with anything, from politics to literature to religion. That's just man doing what he does and being who he is.

So the birth of rock as a cultural phenomenon can be traced to early 1956. Even as it was occurring, the seeds of its subsequent rebirth and transformation were being sowed, for it was at the St. Peter's Church Hall fête in Woolton on July 6, 1957 -- almost three years to the day that Elvis had revealed it in the studio -- that John met Paul. Like early Elvis, there was a purity to what the Beatles were doing at the time. In fact, I would say that they were motivated by the identical spark that animated Elvis that day.

Eventually the spark was extinguished and the fire put out. Elvis entered the military in 1958, at which time he was taken into captivity and replaced with the "false Elvis" who put out all that lame music and made all those crappy movies. Buddy Holly in the grave, Chuck Berry in jail, Little Richard in the ministry, Jerry Lee Lewis in his fourteen year-old cousin. The music business quickly "contained" the messianic revelation, so that by the early 1960s, popular music was again almost as banal as it had been prior to Elvis. (Of course, there were exceptions.)

But then the Beatles arrive in early 1964, eight years after Elvis, and just eight years later the Beatles are already a thing of the past.

Now, eight years ago is 2002. Has anything in music changed since then? Does 2002 feel like a different era? Is anyone nostalgic for 2002? How about 1992? 1982? I mean, people still listen to U2 like they're contemporary, but their first album came out over 30 years ago. 30 years! I sometimes listen to music that came out in the early 1980s, say, early REM, but it doesn't feel at all like nostalgia. But very few people in 1975 listened to the music of 1945. And if they did, they were certainly aware of how different it was from contemporary music. No one confuses disco and swing.

And yet, to listen to Elvis in 1964 was already nostalgia, just as to listen to the Beatles or Beach Boys in 1973 was already nostalgia.

What does it all mean? I have no idea. Just an excuse to blah blah blog some Coon droppings, I guess.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Identity and Eternity

I suppose none of this will be new to Christian readers. Nor is it entirely new to me, but I'm trying to work it all out again from the ground up and the top down, so you will forgive me if I'm behaving like some third century Father who is confronting these riddles for the first time.

And I hope this doesn't totally alienate non-Christian readers, because I believe there is something here for everyone, if you can only grasp the deeper principles involved. When Christianity is presented only as a historical narrative, then it's quite difficult to abstract anything more general, since even profane history is a chronicle of unique and unrepeatable events, with no general laws guiding it.

But if I'm not mistaken, sacred history is not like this, for it is archetypal and therefore knowable in a more abstract way. I believe this is because, just as human beings write in words, the Creator "writes in history," so to speak.

Therefore, sacred history does not consist primarily of events, people, and objects, but of words that we may unpack and understand. And this is, of course, why the Gospel narratives are "historical," but if they are only historical fish stories, then I think you're missing the bait, since they are the quintessence of divine history and therefore susceptible to inexhaustible layers of meaning.

Think of the difference between history and a great novel: the former attempts to simply describe "what happened," while the latter creates the happenings in order to convey a much larger point. Then just think of God as the greatest of all novelists. (And this analogy is not as kooky as one might imagine -- cf. Balthasar's Theo-Drama.)

So, the second birth from above allows one to overcome the infirmities of createdness and to participate in the divine existence. For the Christian, this is only possible because God became man -- and not just a man, but Man. In other words, the effect was to undo a problem that afflicted man as such, so that all men could participate in the accomplishment of the one man.

This is the deeper meaning of the I-AMmaculate conception, in that it means that Jesus suffers from createdness, just like anyone else, while also sharing in uncreatedness. If he were only a creature, then he'd be just like any other prophet or guru. No matter how high he ascended, he would still be infinitely distant from the goal.

But as Zizioulas points out, it is of the greatest metaphysical significance that Jesus is a union of two natures in one person, and that this person is freedom and love. As a result, "the perfect man is consequently only he who is authentically a person... who possesses a 'mode of existence' which is constituted as being, in precisely the manner in which God also subsists as being..." Thanks to Jesus, we not only "know" how God "is," but can also succeed at the spiritual business of this isness without going blankrupt at biological death.

That being the case, man may slip through the net of "the ontological necessity of his biological hypostasis," the latter of which being responsible for "the tragedy of individualism and death." Our unique identity is no longer an ambiguous (at best) gift of nature, but takes on a new meaning in solidarity with Jesus and in relation to our "adoptive" Father.

You might say that the second birth activates our latent or potential hypostasis as authentic person. Should we fail to activate it in this life, then we remain as a bio-psychic hypostasis, i.e., some kind of incomprehensible union of mind and matter, -- a substance that somehow unifies physics, biology and psychology. You might even say that this is the substance of fallen man -- or man minus Christ. In the Coonifesto, I employ the abstract symbols of (•) and (¶) to demarcate this difference between our onceborn soulprints and twiceborn soulprince.

In fact, here is where opinions of the wise divide, for the Christian would not say that man has any innate potential for a second birth in the absence of Christ -- despite Augustine's casual assurance that there was never a time that the Christian religion did not exist, and that Christ's accomplishment affected mankind, irrespective of whether one is consciously aware of it. We have no desire to get into that debate. Let the living disinter the living.

The question is whether or not there is a radical discontinuity between man and God. I say the answer is Yes and No, depending upon how one looks at it. And in my book I spoke off the top of my head from the bottom of my heart and out of both sides of my mouth. Again, this is why the individual chapters are both discrete and continuous, beginning and ending in mid-sentence. This is because if we view the cosmos from the bottom up, it is indeed discontinuous, with radical and incomprehensible divides between matter, life, mind, and spirit.

But if viewed from the top down, these divides disappear, for God is one. So I think it's a defensible position to affirm that this was the case prior to the incarnation of Jesus, which would be consistent with Augustine's view above. Looked at this way, we might say that there was a kind of "general immanence" of God in creation. But with the incarnation, it becomes very particular to mankind and, more importantly, to the person.

In turn, this would mark the difference between well-regarded mystics such as Plotinus, who assure us that it is indeed possible to escape our createdness, except without our self intact. D'oh! This violates Toots Mondello's sacred quip that the Raccoon doesn't mind death, so long as he can be there after it happens. It seems to me that the incarnation of the divine person is what gets us over that ontological hump. The person is the last word only because Christ is the first Word.

I might add that the unique person, since he is a kind of absolute (or shares in absoluteness), must be eternal, since the absolute is by definition infinite and eternal.

No post tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Surfing the Laws of Nature to the Father Shore

I'm going to continue free associating along with Being as Communion, even though it's not generating much interest. Hey, it's interesting to me.

Yesterday we left off in hell, of which Zizioulas writes that "condemnation to eternal death is nothing other than a person's being allowed to decline into a 'thing,' into absolute anonymity, to hear the terrifying words, 'I do not know you.'" It's like being addressed by Travis Bickle, only forever: You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? I'm the only one here. You talkin' to me?

Now, it seems to me that this notion in Christianity of "divinization," or theosis, is about as important as it gets. But if that's the case, why did it take me so many years to hear about it? It's like studying yoga but not learning about moksha, or Buddhism and not hearing of nirvana, or Islam and somehow missing the part about killing infidels.

I consider this is very poor marketing. Either that, or there is some disconnect between what the original Christians thought vs. what contemporary ones think (or at least emphasize).

I'll use divinization instead of theosis, because it connotes the process involved. It is "participation not in the nature or substance of God, but in His personal existence." As we have said many times, the Raccoon path is a descending one. Just so, in Christianity "the goal of salvation is that the personal life which is realized in God should also be realized on the level of human existence" (emphasis mine).

Therefore -- and this is a critical point -- salvation "is identified with the realization of personhood in man." The goal is to become a proper person, and all this implies. The rest shouldn't concern us, and can take care of itself.

The Fathers used the word "person" in a very specific sense, and it is obviously to be distinguished from our mere biological or psychological manhood. Nature and culture give us these, respectively. Man is an open system both biologically and psychologically, which maintains his physical and psychic life.

Obviously it is possible to fulfill one's four score of genetic duty without awakening to one's true personhood, which can only be conferred from above -- again, as we have mentioned in the past, this latter transformation is also the result of an open system, only a vertical one.

For the Fathers, it is the person who is the image and likeness of God. To put it another way, God is the true person. This should be a rebuke to those who imagine that God is merely a psychic projection of the human being, a "man write large." If this were the case, God would be like a man, not a person. And for many religious people, God is frankly more like a man.

Let's begin with the problem of our natural endowment, i.e., the manhood that is conferred by mere existence. The existentialists are correct that we didn't ask for this existence, but rather, are simply tossed into an impossible situation that is full of constraint and necessity. Indeed, there's really no way out short of suicide.

In this way of looking at things, offing oneself would truly be the one outrageously free act, the one complete rebellion against our existential "thrownness," a spit in the eye of Darwin, or whoever you want to blame for this mess. As Camus said, "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide."

Or, even if one chooses to stick around, it is just a vain "immortality project" rooted in the Denial of Death (a very good book, by the way, for at least it doesn't flinch from the reality of Death, and draws out the ultimate implications of the existentialist project).

At any rate, our happy existence as raging animals within a dying carcass is bestowed by Mother Nature. It is "interwoven with a natural necessity and therefore lacks ontological freedom." And everything we think and do takes place in the shadow of Death, the ultimate necessity and last word. All meaning is just a chess game with Death. The game may be brief, or it may last awhile, but you lose every time.

For the Fathers, Christianity throws open a vertical escape hatch from this ontological necessity. It "leads to a new mode of existence" and to a "regeneration" through which we are able to surf over the laws of nature instead of being drowned in them.

You might put it this way, which I did in the Coonifesto: we don't want to discount the importance of our natural existence, for it provides the stable boundary conditions for the emergence of something higher. After all, if existence were not subject to necessity -- i.e., if it weren't stable and predictable -- it couldn't produce anything higher.

Take the analogy of language. We are all born into a language that we did not create, and which constrains us. But it is only because of these constraints that we are able to constantly say new things. Looked at this way, rules of spelling are the boundary conditions for the emergence of words; words are the boundary conditions of sentences; sentences of paragraphs; paragraphs of plot; plot of theme; theme of something perennially true.

Just so, man is a kind of parenthetical boundary condition for the possibility of divinization: he is ( ) for the purpose of (↓↑).

Note that this is the order presented in Genesis: man is first formed from "the dust of the ground." That is natural man. Only afterwards does God breathe into him "the breath of life" (pneuma), so that he becomes a "living being." Looked at esoterically, these two phases should be kept separate, because there are plenty of dust devils blowing around who are not in-formed by that vertical breath of life.

You might even say that our fallenness results in a descent from deity to dust, so to speak. Conversely, divinization results in the reverse journey, from dust to back to divinity. Isn't this the ultimate meaning of the Christ event -- of divinity becoming dust so that dust might become divine? But in order for this to become operative in horizontal man, he must be "born 'anew' or 'from above.'" His horizontal birth must be complemented by a vertical one, so that he may transition from man to true person.

Yeah, it requires a leap of faith, but don't do it half-heartedly. Rather, you should joyously throw your whole self into it, body, mind, and spirit. You know, like a child. But watch out for your neighbor, too. We don't need a lawsuit.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Life, Love and Liberty, Now and Forever

In the Summa Coonologica, Toots Mondello famously wrote that he didn't mind the idea of death, so long as he could be there after it happened.

This is because our unique identity is our most precious "possession" -- if that is the appropriate word, for what would be the nature of the entity that "possesses" itself, or the I who is? In other words, is it possible to separate the form and content of the self, as if we could "be" without being someone?

In fact, nothing can exist without being something. Or, to exist is to be something, a particular thing. But for a human being -- and a human being alone -- it is not enough to merely be some-body, i.e., an object with boundaries.

Rather, a human being only exists as a who, and not just anywho. He is both one -- i.e., someThing -- but also someOne, a unique, unrepeatable, and particular subject. To paraphrase Toots Mondello, this is either of no significance at all or the most significant fact of all, for it is the significance without which there could be no significance at all. If humans aren't significant, then neither is anything else. All meaning passes through man.

In Being as Communion, Zizioulas writes that "uniqueness is something absolute for the person." This is why we stand diametrically opposed to any of our competitors, whether secular or religious -- and there are many -- who downplay our cosmic significance, whether of man as such or of this or that man.

Materialists tend to fall into the former category, for their metaphysic permits one to attach no significance to the existence of man, let alone a man. And many religious folk fall into the latter camp (especially Eastern religions), conflating what they call "ego" and identity, and finding the key to transcendence in eliminating it from the cosmos: no man, no problem.

And leftists are completely confused, since they elevate the selfish and isolated ego to ultimate significance in a cosmos in which it can have none. Workers of the world unite! And then die. We don't need you anymore.

But as Zizioulas points out, Christianity is different. For it posits the person, which "is so absolute in its uniqueness that it does not permit itself to be regarded as an arithmetical concept, to be set alongside other beings, to be combined with other objects, or to be used as a means, even for the most sacred goal." Rather, "the goal is the person itself; personhood is the total fulfillment of being..." It's all about quality, baby, not quantity, and no amount of the latter can account for the former, not even if you juggle the numbers forever.

Here we can gain a better understanding of the conundrum mentioned above, of how it is possible to separate our form and content, the I from the AM. This occurs because the person is at once absolute but also the goal. You might say that there are morphogenetic fields that guide our general development, but also a particular one that guides and canalizes our individual unfolding and development (the cosmic telovator or eschalator -- the Great Attractor -- that simultaneously lifts us up to ourSelves and to God).

Now, if personhood were absolute in itself, this would quickly lead to hell on earth, for everyone would have an absolute right for the world to be as he wishes.

Or as Zizioulas puts it, it is a two-edged sword, in that it can lead "to the denial of others, to egocentrism, to the total destruction of social life." It's very much analogous to the difference between freedom and liberty, in that the former devolves to horizontal nihilism, whereas the latter, because it is constrained by certain perennial boundary conditions, allows for vertical evolution. America's founders believed in ordered liberty, not any kind of radical libertarian freedom.

Only with a Judeo-Christian metaphysic is it possible to get this metaphysic just right. About a week ago I read the most obnoxious editorial by that little leftist twerp Peter Beinart, who, like all leftists, imagines that it is some kind of coincidence that the greatest nation on earth also happens to be the only Judeo-Christian one.

Rather, for him and his ilk, we could just as well be Muslim or Buddhist or atheist or Sikh men, and it wouldn't matter at all. In fact, it would undoubtedly be better, since we're such religious bigots. There is nothing you can say to such people that can't be better said with a cast iron cluebat to the nads, if he had any.

Recall Pieper's comment that Christianity may be reduced to Incarnation and Trinity. There is an implicit meaning to this, in that Trinity cannot be further reduced. Thus, the Incarnation is of someOne, but that someOne turns out to be someThree.

And this little fact makes all the difference, for it means that the human individual is simultaneously absolute and yet in communion, two things that would be at odds if the Absolute weren't also in communion.

Put it this way: God cannot help being God, and in order for God to be God, he is in eternal communion with his own other, the Son, the "only begotten" (and notice how "only" implies uniqueness).

To put it another way, the whole key to our individuality lies in the fact that it is simultaneously one and three, both internally and externally.

To take just one example, the feral children referenced in yesterday's post are surely "one," but that is all. They are not three, because they are barred from any deep interior connection to the human group. Only in plugging into this group does the one become an open system susceptible to dynamic evolution. Truly, it becomes an upward spiral instead of a horizontal dot.

Running out of time. I'll just detain you with an arresting passage by Zizioulas:

"The life of God is eternal because it is personal, that is to say, it is realized as an expression of free communion, as love. Life and love are identified in the person: the person does not die only because it is loved and loves; outside the communion of love the person loses its uniqueness and becomes a being like other beings, a 'thing' without absolute 'identity' and 'name,' without a face."

Real ontological death -- or hell, if you will -- is "ceasing to love and to be loved, ceasing to be unique and unrepeatable," whereas our true, living self is created, affirmed, and maintained only in love.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Taking Existence Personally

To review where we left off Friday, we were just saying that the ultimate nature of ultimate nature is ultimately Communion (which I think I'll capitalize to keep it distinct from any colloquial meaning).

This is one of the revolutionary insights of the early Fathers, who were attempting to reconcile revelation with the best that Greek philosophy had to offer. Come to think of it, Pieper made the point that when you get right down to it, Christianity may be reduced to two elements: Incarnation and Trinity. Everything else, you might say, is commentary.

Could this be true? Could be. I'd have to think on it. The former comports with various Fathers such as Clement and Athanasuius who said that God became man so that man might become God -- i.e., the doctrine of divinization.

What I believe this means is that the Incarnation wouldn't necessarily mean much to humans unless it implied its corollary, which is theosis or divinization, not through our own nature, but through participation in Christ.

And just how is it that we are able to thus participate in that divine nature? Why, because that nature must be Communion, which leads directly to Trinity. If the nature of God were not Communion, then we couldn't participate in God "from the inside," only as external spectators, so to speak.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. In the absence of Communion, there would be a kind of radically inaccessible wall between God and man. The only way -- the only way I can think of -- for God to eliminate this wall (for man could never do it unaided from his side of manifestation) is to leap heartfirst into his own creation, and to even "submit" to its constraints. In so doing, he is able to demonstrate in the most vivid way imaginable that those constraints no longer constrain, again, because of the reality of Communion, which bridges God and man, life and Life, time and eternity, etc.

According to Zizioulas, the divine Communion of which we speak is an ontological category, not reducible or prior to anything else. Just as God only exists as Communion, so do human persons only exist as such.

Our genetic endowment and merely biological being cannot cross the ontological bridge to personhood in the absence of Communion. In the course of writing my book, I did some research on the few feral children who have managed to survive without human contact, and despite the best efforts, could never be brought into full communion with the human group (cf. The Forbidden Experiement).

Zizioulas points out that Greek thought created a lovely concept of Cosmos, i.e., "of unity and harmony, a world full of interior dynamism and aesthetic plenitude, a world truly 'beautiful' and 'divine.'" The problem is, it had no real place for man except as a kind of tragic afterthought.

Only the radical change in cosmology ushered in by the Fathers links the being of man to the being of the cosmos -- and of God. In so doing they "gave history the concept of the person with an absoluteness which still moves modern man even though he has fundamentally abandoned their spirit."

To put it another way, man becomes a person -- and therefore infinitely valuable -- only when he is seen to be linked to God through Communion. Otherwise, he's just an animal like any other, with no intrinsic value.

Zizioulas goes on to say that "The person is no longer an adjunct to being, a category we add to a concrete entity once we have verified its ontological hypostasis. It is itself the hypostasis of the being." Therefore, our being is not traced back to any kind of abstract Being, much less to any concrete substance, "but to the person, to precisely that which constitutes being, that is, enables entities to be entities."

Again, person "is the constitutive element of things," the ultimate metacosmic fact. This understanding completely inverts the cosmos -- which is to say, puts it back right-side up -- and helps to explain various otherwise inexplicable and unsolvable mysteries.

Zizioulas suggests that in Western theology -- and I have no idea whether this is a fair and accurate generalization -- theologians tended to start with a kind of unitary divine substance that is then "divided," so to speak, into the three persons.

But again, he says that for the early Fathers, Communion was the substance. Person comes first, and person means Communion. Therefore, God is "Father," even before he is substance: "That is to say, the substance never exists in a 'naked' state," i.e., without a "mode of existence." To imagine otherwise is analogous to trying to separate you from the real person you are. If you could succeed at this, you would be the same substance, but no longer a person.

Again, person is the ultimate reality: if it "does not exist in reality, the concept of the person is a presumptuous daydream. If God does not exist [as person], the person does not exist."

Furthermore, with this understanding, "love ceases to be a qualifying -- i.e. secondary -- property of being and becomes the supreme ontological predicate. Love as God's mode of existence... constitutes His being."

So perhaps we can reduce Incarnation and Trinity even further, to Incarnation and Love. Or maybe just Love.

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