Saturday, January 31, 2009

The True Foundation for Religious Belief

First Things First
Reflections on John Kelly’s A Fine Mess, (Vol. 22, Number 1, p. 9 ff.) on the Realist/Anti-Realist dispute.

In the beginning was the void. But not the one you think.
'One reasons from, not to existence.' 'Man is the measure of all things.' 'Thought and Being are one.' Kierkegaard, Protagoras, and Heraclitus, qualified by all the history intervening, thought more deeply for us than even they could have imagined. There is a prephilosophical, pretheological reality that engenders faith. And most important, this reality exists before belief itself!
One reasons from existence, not to existence. This insight, in spite of Kierkegaard’s nearly two hundred year old warning, is at the bottom of a common error made by intellectuals, philosophers, theologians, believers, and ideologues to this day.
John Kelly in his important summary leaves us with two options: The Realist and the Anti-Realist. The dilemma he describes is how we think about religious issues. That’s the rub. Thinking itself.
The most frequent mistake made in trying to make sense out of religious language is in regarding it as a closed system, that it is a tertiam quid existing independently somewhere between the domains of science and art. Because of today’s inroads of a critical rationality that erode religious belief, it is thought that each major religion is somehow a thing unto itself, a community of faith that exists in isolation from others, in isolation from art and science; that the language of faith is the language of faith communities only, with no interrelationship with others possible. Kelly’s article in ‘The Fourth R’ strives to clarify this Realist/Anti-Realist dispute.
Religious Realists, those who espouse more or less traditional religion, declare ‘some [or all] affirmations found in scripture, prayer, liturgy, and doctrine as referring to a reality that exists independently of ourselves (p. 9).’ God is a Being ‘out there.’ Conservative and Fundamentalist religious, and probably most people, especially those of us raised in the traditions, will tend to think this way.
Anti-Realists, responding to the failures of Realist religion, hold that ‘our religious affirmations do not refer to a God, or any other sort of supernatural reality, existing ‘out there’...religious affirmations are not descriptions of the world that can be true or false but rather the expression of values created by human beings (p. 11).” This is a point of view espoused by longtime Westar Fellows Don Cupitt and Lloyd Geering, among others.
The latter postmodern and deconstructionist view comes close to believing that entire language cultures may have their own internal points of reference not to be trespassed upon by others, and that mutual tolerance must therefore be the order of the day. There is little chance for communication between them, since each is a system unto itself. That there is no such thing as objective truth or inter-subjective agreement as a way to the truth. Everyone is apart from the continent, distinct from the main. We are all islands.
Witness the discussion of the treatment of women between the humanist traditions of the West cited in Kelly’s article on the one hand, and the radical patriarchal structure of much traditional tribalism, not to mention fundamentalist Islam, Christianity and Mormonism on the other. These latter are thought to be communities sufficient only unto themselves. This notion presumes that there is little, if no, connection between the various communities of faith, and that the growth of the Enlightenment humanism of the West is merely but another parochial language community. (If it were, then science would not be possible in India, China, or Japan, or in any place other than the European West.) As a consequence, there can be no criticism of the wretched treatment of women in the extreme patriarchies. It is not the legitimate concern of enlightened morality. A weird and frustrating Prime Directive is invoked. The moral codes of one planet are not the concerns of another. The Starship, alone in space, does not interfere, no matter the moral imperative to do so.
That a father upholding the honor of his clan is justified in killing a daughter in love with a man not of his choosing is simply and absurdly not supposed to be our business. It is currently politically correct not to condemn behavior in traditional societies.
The supposition behind this is that there can be no such thing as objective truth. Even scientific enterprises are thought to be dependent on, and the outcome of, social conditioning.
Enter Bertie Pollock.
Bertie Pollock is the creation of Alexander McCall Smith in his 44 Scotland Street books. Bertie is 6 years old, the son of a terrifyingly grim and ambitious mother and a self-effacing father. The boy is a genius who has a wonderfully ingenuous and heedless way of telling the truth, both to power and ignorance.
He, with his saxophone, has been on tour to Paris with an Edinburgh orchestra and, by mistake, left behind. He is befriended by some university students who, on a lark, take him along to a lecture given by a famous scholar schooled in the philosophy of Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault. This speaker drones on and on his postmodernist nonsense, one part of which is the assertion that science is the result of social conditioning only.
Bertie is puzzled by this. He has studied the Venturi effect applied in aerodynamics--a tall order for most six year olds, but not this one. He whispers something in the ear of one of his adult companions. The man stares at him in surprise. And laughs. He turns to another student to repeat Bertie’s message. Who, in turn turns to others. Soon Bertie's words have traversed the entire audience. There is much sniggering, much laughter.
The message? Bertie has flown from Edinburgh to Paris on a jet airplane that reached an altitude of 33,000 feet. All truth is relative and socially conditioned? Why then does the airplane not drop out of the air and kill everybody if it flies only by virtue of social conditioning. How does it get off the ground at all? There is, after all, the Venturi effect. And science.
The laughter becomes raucous. It isn’t long before the poor lecturer is driven out of the room.
The truth of science, at its core, is not the result of social conditioning. It is not a fad nor is it customary behavior. As anyone with the least scientific literacy knows, good science is based on careful observation, the use of evidence, the careful employment of language tools (the most exquisite and difficult of which is higher mathematics), and the repeatable experiment.
Gravity is gravity. This needs no discussion from religious or ideological perspectives. The formula, inverse square and all, fits the evidence of our senses. The legend of Newton’s falling apple, though apocryphal, is an image of the power of simple scientific observation. A well-designed experiment yields the same results whether done at SLAC or CERN, Madison or Tokyo. That the results are identical posits that there is a reality ‘out there’ that the passenger on a jet flying at 33,000 feet can depend on. The truths of Nature are outcomes of experiment and observation and are not socially conditioned.
Bernard Brandon Scott once told the Fellows of the Seminar in my hearing that ‘science is our first magisterium.’ This is Westar’s reason for being. Applying a form of the scientific analysis to the evidence yielded by a close textual criticism of the documents on the historicity of Jesus has run counter to the received standard belief of religious Realists in our own time. The Fundamentalists are unsettled and even furious when confronted with the Seminar’s suggestion that perhaps only eighteen per cent of the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels can be traced to him. Everything else is spin, from Antioch, Tyre, Edessa, Caesarea Phillipi, and other ancient communities of faith.
Is literary criticism to be banished to the subjectivity of mere opinion? Not at all! A good case can be made, as Professor Onellion and I do in our book Seeking Truth, Living with Doubt, that the equivalent of the scientific experiment in literature is the enduring image. How a work of art lasts is the difference between a Classic and a Period Piece. The power of Lear can be audited in 2009 with the same intense fascination as it was by Shakespeare’s 17th century audience. An argument can even be made that we understand more of that play than its original audience did by virtue of over 400 years of the study of and the playing of that great text. The poetry of Samuel Daniel and Phillip Freneau and the dietary laws of the Torah are to be understood in their own historical context and not so much, if at all, in ours. A Classic is a work that has passed the test of time.
Classic works of art in all art forms endure because some human truth works in their images, whether in painting, music, dance, literature, or the most primal of all arts: poetry. Art is a way in which truth happens: truth's being is fixed in place in the image. And the image of this truth is successfully transmitted from age to age. The radical egalitarianism of the historical Jesus disclosed by the consensus investigations of the Jesus Seminar is no less relevant today than it was 2,000 years ago. The insights of the Buddha endure as powerfully as they did since he uttered them 2,500 years ago. The poignancy and pain of human mortality in Gilgamesh is as sharp to us as it was to its audience over four millennia ago.
The objectivity of the images of art is the objectivity of our inter-subjective agreement about those images. As with science, the truth of art as it is uncovered and described by critics in their Wisdom literature must be careful and precise. As with science, this objectivity is constantly qualified by various uncertainty principles whether enunciated by Heisenberg or John Keats’ negative capability. There are absolute truths in mathematics (2 + 2 will always equal 4 by definition) but only proximal ones when dealing with nature, human or otherwise. Nature does not speak English. Poetry points like a finger points to the moon, to the truth. The finger, the word, is not the moon. The moon is the moon. But we can usefully point to it. The images of poetry are transparent to transcendence.
Religion is a subset of Art. It is not the third something existing between or beyond science and art. The Religious experience is an aesthetic experience. All of the trappings of religions are works of art, some of that is art from which history has departed. Some of the utterances of all religious traditions have therefore become period pieces. One need not become anxious because of that fact.
An intense experience of a blooming rose gave Robert Burns his poem, My Love is a Red Rose. An intense observation of nature and the human condition gives us Shakespeare’s plays. Both classic works of art.
But what is the source for religious imagery? To answer this question it is necessary to look at the history of religions and the science of neuroanatomy.
On December 10, 1996, Jill Bolte Taylor describes in her book, My Stroke of Insight (Viking, 2008) a nearly fatal stroke that happened that day. (For a wonderful live account on YouTube of her experience, Google her name). This massive stroke virtually shut down her left hemisphere. She got a research opportunity few brain scientists will ever have: as a scientist she was able to observe her brain functions collapsing.
As moving and interesting as the account of her eventual recovery to this insult is, for our purposes, what she experienced when she fully inhabited her right hemisphere is very much to our point. Her stroke left her with the ability to migrate easily through the thick nerve fibers of the corpus callosum between the right and left hemispheres of her cerebral cortex. She reports that the experience of the left hemisphere brought her to the world of language, linear thinking, her isolated ego. So far this is a truism of contemporary brain research.
No less a truism is her experience when dwelling in the consciousness of her right hemisphere, and in her case richly stated. She says that once ”...I left the intellectual mind of my left hemisphere... [I found] that I was the miraculous power of life....I was simply a being of light radiating life into the world (p. 71)...The energy of my spirit seemed to flow like a genie a great whale gliding through a sea of silent euphoria...was one of glorious bliss....dwelled in a flow of sweet tranquility (p. 67)....The essence of your energy expands as it blends with the energy around you, and you sense that you are as big as the universe....the richness of this moment, right here, right now captivates your perception. Everything, including the life force you are, radiates pure energy. With childlike curiosity, your heart soars in peace (p. 79)....”
“My right mind is open to the eternal flow whereby I exist at one with the universe. It is the seat of my divine mind.... It is my intuition and higher consciousness (p. 140)....My right mind understands that I am the life force power of the fifty trillion molecular geniuses that craft my form! (And it bursts into song about that....) My right mind proclaims “I am a part of it all. We are brothers and sisters on this planet. We are here to make the planet a more peaceful and kinder place.”(p. 141)....Our right brain perceives...and recognizes that everything around us, about us. Among us, and within us is made up of energy particles that are woven together into a universal tapestry (p. 168)....”
Anyone with but a passing acquaintance with the mystical traditions of the world will recognize this language. It is the report of enlightenment experience, samadhi, kensho, satori, mystical rapture the world over. Indeed in her speech Jill Bolte Taylor declares that she has experienced something very like Nirvana.
So, in the beginning was the void. This one. Here is Agehananda Bharati’s account in his seminal book on mysticism, Light at the Center, The Context and Pretext of Modern Mysticism, of his own mystical experiences:
“One night when I was about twelve, it happened for the first time. I was falling asleep, when the whole world turned into one: one entity, one indivisible certainty. No euphoria, no colors, just a deadeningly sure oneness of which I was at the center--and everything else was this, this and nothing else. For a fraction of a minute perhaps, I saw nothing, felt nothing, but was that oneness, empty of content and feeling (p. 39)....I was one with all in me, but this time there was euphoria...that was unsensuous.... it corroborated the canonical text....Aham Brahmamsmi, I am the Brahman (p. 40).....I did not walk, but I was the universe moving itself. I saw my legs and all, but these were just two rather unimportant instruments among millions of unseen instruments that made the universe move; but I was the mover (p. 42)....I was again all that, with nothing whatever excluded...there was no god to speak of, except myself....I was it--not again but always (p. 43).”
The congruence between Jill Bolte Taylor’s and Bharati’s description of the mystical event cannot be more obvious. There are several images in common here: a sense of unity with the Cosmos, an inflation of the self to occupy the All that Is, a monism, euphoria, a certain comfort and sense of security in which an alienated ego is transcended. Moreover these enduring images occur in countless accounts of enlightenment experiences the world over in every kind of human discourse. The fly fisherman:
“I sat there in the hot afternoon....I knew I was going to have a long time to sit here and forget, because my brother would never quit with three or four fish, as I had, and even he was going to have a hard time getting more. I sat there and forgot and forgot, until what remained was the river that went by and who I watched. On the river the heat mirages danced with each other and then they danced through each other and then they joined hands and danced around each other. Eventually the watcher joined the river, and there was only one of us. I believe it was the river.” Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It, University of Chicago Press, 1976, p. 61.
The transcendentalist:
“Almost I fear to think how glad I am....Standing on the bare ground,-- my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space--all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental. To be brothers, to be acquaintances--master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, famously in Nature.
These experiences of the perception of alternate reality and a sense of unity behind the multiplicity of nature are found in countless other places as well, Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, much of the rest of Romantic Poetry, in sport, in William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, even detective fiction (such as in Boris Akunin’s Fandorin series, especially the recent Murder on the Leviathan), not to speak of the vast mystical literature of the religious traditions of the world. In the East these experiences are normative and common in Hinduism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Now the hardest sciences we have, quantum mechanics and organic chemistry, attest to the unity of our being with the Being of the Cosmos. We are not separate from nature.
In beginning to answer the question as to the origin of religious belief, let us state the central premise of this thought piece as clearly as possible: The ultimate foundation of the authentic religious life is the mystical event, what Bharati calls the Zero Event. This is prior to all religious life and thinking. This and only this!
Bharati calls it the Zero because the experience in its purest form is innocent of cultural content. That the images are common in all cultures, in all human activity, attests to that fact.
We can experience the mystical event dramatically as our examples above do, or we can, by a variety of yogas, sense the unity of our being with Being more prosaically. Joseph Campbell often said that he was not a mystic, that his only yoga was underlining passages in books. Karen Armstrong reports that every once in a while she experiences deeper and transcendent insights when in intense study or in the act of composition itself. Soldiers sense it while in heavy combat: time slows down and the warrior, and his non-lethal equivalent, the athlete, acts with a perfection unavailable in ordinary consciousness. The ordinary Joe or Jane can feel this while taking a walk, experiencing la petite mort, the ‘little death’ of lovemaking, selfless acts of service, or the beauty of nature. The sense is in fact quite common. But the mystic attends to and treasures and consolidates these experiences. The philistine brushes them off as temporary nuisances, and gets back to the real business of life, getting and spending.
In our book Onellion and I illustrate the prior nature of the mystical experience to its culturally derived expressions with the following image.
Imagine a glass of distilled water. That is the Zero, the basic mystical state. Then imagine a glass of lemonade, iced tea, tomato juice. Each is water, yet each has added to it nutrition, color, flavor, matter. Tea, lemonade, tomato juice represent areas of the world called mythogenetic zones. As pure water is the foundation of these and other liquids, so is Zero the foundation of all religions. Basic to Buddhism is Zero. Basic to Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam and every other less universal religion is the Zero. Basic even to all art and science and action insofar as the Zero can be construed to be pure consciousness, and as these expressions to some degree reflect man's ultimate concern, is the Zero. Each drink has its foundation in water, yet each differs by what matter is added; by what psychology and culture it is filtered through. To extend this image into some darker corners: some drinks appear to be disgusting to others. Some are even poisonous. Water is the foundation of blood, and some myth, action, and religion is bloody. The Watusis drink a mixture of blood and milk. It nourishes them. The religion of Kali, expressed recently in Islamic Fundamentalist Terror, has a bloody aspect. Some liquids that were benign once can turn into poison. Some myth and religion, particularly if they were left to stand still a long time and spoil, can have dramatically harmful effects. But a fundamental truth remains. Humans cannot live without water.
The Hindus, those psychologists of the religious experience par excellence, describe the two phases of religion as Religions with form and Religions without form. Religions with form are all religions tied to a specific culture. Religions without form are all based directly upon the Zero. The two modes of realization are called saguna brahman (the qualified absolute), and nirguna brahman (the unqualified absolute). The two related orders of meditation are savikalpa samadhi (discriminating absorption) and nirvikalpa samadhi (undifferentiated absorption). Deliverance through the first is accomplished through the mediation of creed, saint, avatar, or savior. Deliverance through the second is by direct insight. (See Campbell, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, p. 68.)
The philosophy of the void (Sunyatadavada) as developed by Nagarjuna is not a nihilistic philosophy, Eliade asserts, it is an ontology, paralleled by a soteriology that seeks to free itself from the illusory structures that are dependent on language. This second century Indian genius criticizes and rejects any philosophy by demonstrating the care which must be undertaken when expressing truth in language, of which there are two kinds: conventional and ultimate. Most theology that claims to convey ultimate truths in fact really works with conventional knowledge. Theology, because of its constant proliferation of definitions and categories, which are basically the products of the imagination, in fact obscures the way to deliverance. From the perception of the voidness of the Zero, Nagarjuna demonstrates that all the language of theology is void. Even the difference between illusion (samsara) and reality (nirvana) is only a fabrication of the mind. Even the Tathagata (the Buddha) himself does not enjoy an independent ontological condition. In addition, everything in the phenomenal world is empty, without any nature of its own; and it cannot be inferred from this that there is an 'absolute essence.' There is no implication that there is in existence a transcendent reality. Eliade says, 'Ultimate truth does not unveil an ‘absolute’ of the Vedanta type; it is the mode of existence discovered by the adept when he obtains a complete indifference toward 'things and their cessation.' This is equivalent to deliverance. It is a practice of salvation, which enables him to obtain imperturbable serenity and freedom. (Eliade History of Religious Ideas, Vol. II, section 189.)
In ancient Israel the Zero gives rise to Judaism. Jesus’ universality is modified by the fact that he was a Jew. In India Siddartha’s scope is filtered through his Hinduism. LaoTze is, after all, Chinese. The classics of Dante and Milton in the context of Christian Europe. That catholicity of Shakespeare by the altering turmoil of the Renaissance. Of Newton and Einstein by the Enlightenment. Of Jill Bolte Taylor by her studies in neuroanatomy.
Inspiration, like voice, is universal. The expression of inspiration, like each individual language, is particular to a time and place. Inspiration based on the Zero, is common to all human experience. Of course, one does not make either the close observation of nature common to both art and science, and the results of experiment, and the commonality of the enduring images of art into anything like doctrine. Creeds are language. Creeds are not the Zero. The Hindus warn the West never to mistake the finger that points to the moon for the moon. The modesty of doubt, that ‘chastity of mind’ (in Heidegger’s phrase), and uncertainty must always be invoked. The tentativeness of science and the negative capability of poetry does not allow the dogmatic nor the fanatic to rule in these domains.
The Zero-based religiosity is inwardly addressed. The subject of effort is the miracle within our deepest consciousness. Mediated religion, especially in the three monotheisms of the West and Levant is outwardly addressed. The object of worship is a God ‘out there.’ All culturally based religions are worth the effort if their casuistries of theology, liturgy, ethics, practice are consistent with the Ethics Proper of the mystical experience. The unity of being contains the golden rule of the radical egalitarianism of the Kingdom as opposed to the hierarchies of Empire. We are brothers and sisters on this planet. We are here to make the planet a more peaceful and kinder place. This is the most brilliant insight of Jesus and Siddartha. Everyone is the Buddha. All are the Christ. Caste is abolished, women are accepted as fully human. All may banquet at the Father’s table. We are all the offspring of the Cosmos, each Immanuel, all equally as precious as we as individuals regard ourselves to be precious. We are all lilies of the field. Each of us is enjoined to watch and care for fallen sparrows.
The religious praxis of Zero-based faith is the inward prayer: meditation in all its forms. Because in our right minds, our immaculate consciousness, we cease to fear pain and death: the universe, our origin, our maternal nexus, suddenly becomes glorious, and beautiful, and safe! That is the faith of universal religion. When we treat each other as Gods visiting (the Hindu greeting, namasté, is an acknowledgment that the light within the other is identical with the light within ourselves), that is the ethic of universal religion.
“The aim of meditation is not to see, but to realize what one is, that essence; then one is free to wander as that essence in the world.... furthermore the essence of oneself and the essence of the world: these two are one. Hence separateness, withdrawal, is no longer necessary...there is no separateness....exile brings the hero to the Self in all....The question of selfishness or altruism disappears. The individual has lost himself in the law and has been reborn in identity with the whole meaning of the universe,” Joseph Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces (p. 386, edited.)
The Golden Rule in all its forms follows logically from our insight of the unity of all beings within Being, between little i to big I, to cosmos within Cosmos. Each separate personality, in the Christological language of Chalcedon, is of the same substance with the universe.
If this line of reasoning has any validity, then the various communities of faith the world over cease being islands suspended, or boats floating, sufficient only to themselves. We are not a craft floating on water. We are now water swimming in ocean. However they have individuated themselves by virtue of their unique cultural history, all religions at bottom connected to the sea of faith. Their craft, since it is a human artifact, as is anything made with human hands and minds, is not immune to criticism and judgment. Reason, evidence, and universal and enduring imagery, can evaluate whether or not a drink is healthful. They can determine where the poisons are. A reasonable and pragmatic and progressive mind can judge the treatment of women by the radical patriarchies to be wicked and evil. The liberated mind can criticize absolutist ideologies to be foreign for the health of the critical mind, and dangerous to it. It can criticize the Old Ways and explore the opportunities for a rich spiritual life that depart those conventional expressions.
Without science, broadly considered, including the power of enduring images of art (Bob Funk repeatedly declared that the richest outcome of Westar work would be in art and poetry), as its first magisterium, the work of Westar is pointless. This critical methodology is the very lifeblood of Westar. The work of Westar is not in any sense politically correct. Why otherwise does Bishop Spong (and did Bob Funk) upset so many? We rightly offend too many powers too often to fall into that trap. Otherwise we would descend into the horrors of mindless political correctness and the ill-considered foolishness of postmodern tolerance. Kelly concludes his article with the following:
“The question facing us in the United States at this time is not whether religion is to have a prominent role in public life. The problem is how we are to assess and adjudicate between the very different, and frequently conflicting, religious visions, that impact our lives. Realism offers us a promise--the idea of a transcendent standard for assessing religious beliefs--that it cannot fulfill. Anti-realism, on the other hand, has the effect of undercutting any attempt to draw a distinction between better and worse when it comes to religious beliefs and practices. As a result, we need to look elsewhere for intellectual resources to deal with what can only be called the conceptual and practical mess we find ourselves in with regard to the assessment of religious beliefs and practices (p. 24).”
This dichotomy can now be rejected in favor of the relation of religious tradition to its primary fact, that is the mystical experience itself. If language is a closed system, then there is a solipsism to human thinking, a confinement out of which it is impossible to break. If language is thought of as a finger that points outward to a reality separate from itself, then it is certain that there is a real world outside language. This real world for religion is to be found in the profoundest depths of consciousness itself, that right hemisphere, the Nirvana Taylor describes so beautifully. And this reality is common in the mystical literature of the planet.
These new resources are far from merely conceptual. They are aesthetic, not logical but analogical, the wellspring of poetry. They use the whole of consciousness, the totality of being, not only the rationality of the left brain.
Why isn’t the right question ever posed? That is, why is it that humans throughout their long history have always sought transcendence? Have always expressed Ultimate Concern? Sought the Light? Why are we religious at all?
Again, the ultimate foundation of the authentic religious life is the mystical event. This is prior to all religious life and thinking. This and only this.
What are the consequences of putting such first things first? With the fact of the mystical event allocated to its rightful priority, one can have one’s cake and eat it too. That is, one can preserve and cherish the wellsprings of the devout and holy life, the earnest life of the spirit, and feel perfect freedom in assessing, criticizing, and judging the religious artifacts, the man-made poetry, of all the religious traditions of the world. It’s a case of the right brain knowing what the left brain is doing.
In the beginning was the void: the not-nothing of a something that blends the wonders and the depths of human consciousness and the unlimited universe together. Art, science, and spirit unite here, with a fearless capacity for us to exercise critical judgment in religious matters.
It will not be necessary ‘to look elsewhere for intellectual resources to deal with what can only be called the conceptual and practical mess we find ourselves in.’
All we need to do is to look within, to tap into that life-force energy of the universe that dwells there. One reasons from that existence. And then the Laurel and Hardy comedy of this Fine Mess can finally be laughed off the screen.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Poem on the Nature of the Individual

Borrowed Robes

I dressed myself first in my mother’s gowns.
and then put on the full armor of my father.
Then I am garmented by the schools I went to
and by the country where I was born.
My brothers lent me their shirts; my cousins
a skivvy or two. And then there were ancestors
traced to the akemennos, but good Norwegian
farmers, and blacksmiths, and teachers now.

Great grandfather gave me the capes of his
wanderlust, and the six sons and one daughter
that he brought here. My country, my state,
the places that bear our name, costumed me.
The language I speak and that one behind the one
we spoke, dressed me in vestments of many colors.

As good sons since Telemachus, I did not admire
all my father’s uniforms, nor my mothers gowns.
I used school, and criticized the university
I attended. I did not always get along with
my brothers, and my ancestors, those sturdy
Vikings I knew from books were distant beyond
memory. With community I do not commune.

They say we are nothing but the robes we wear;
that there are no great selves or souls beneath.
We are layered in clothing, no supporting center,
nothing within.The language that clothe my tongue,
and in the poetry of the unwords of feeling,
sense outside words, gives me distance even there,
though poet-power can alter the raiment it wears.
I separate myself from all those gowns that scholars
say really house nothing. Irony is distance.

Is it no more than nakedness? If I don’t exist,
who is that nude genius who sees his clothing
as the mere externals they are? In the wilderness
am I not unaccomodated man? And was not
that unclothed wretch a clown? Clowns have
their distance, else they could not make us
laugh uncomfortably. Comedy is the ironist’s
speech. Who is the ironist, who is the clown
who keeps motley at a distance, that
chilly presence beyond concept and cloth?
So why would you dress me in borrowed robes?

World, take back your rags. The clown
crowns him. The King is King, naked or not.