Tuesday, June 25, 2013

All Real Living is Meeting

Masters of the interior life teach that it's inadvisable to dwell on one's own mystical experiences, and especially to speak about them with others. As John of the Cross has it: The Bride says in her heart, my secret for myself. Part of the danger is that we come to regard them as a species of personal property or, worse, as spiritual cosmetics; still more dangerous is the fact that true contact with the divine takes place, not on the plane of concept or feeling or experience, interior or exterior, but on the plane of relation. To speak of experience is to savor the peel and throw away the meat.
O secrecy without a secret! O accumulation of information!
So I will not attempt to quantify my own experiences (insofar as I've had any). But any writer's mystical and metaphysical outlook inevitably colors his writing; my own has been profoundly affected by I and Thou (1923), the slim but rich volume by the great Jewish religious philosopher Martin Buber.

Buber begins by asserting that man's twofold attitude toward the world accords with the two "primary words" that can be spoken by man.
     Primary words do not signify things, but they intimate relations.
     Primary words do not describe something that might exist independently of them, but being spoken they bring about existence.
     Primary words are spoken from the being.
The two words, he says, are compound words. Each involves the I; when I speak a primary word, I enter it and take my stand in it. Any use of the word I is really a use of one or another of these words.
     The one primary word is the combination I-Thou.
     The other primary word is the combination I-It; wherein, without a change in the primary word, one of the words He and She can replace It.
He goes on to say:
     The primary word I-Thou can only be spoken with the whole being.
     The primary word I-It is never spoken with the whole being.
To speak I-Thou is to be in mutual relation. To speak I-It is to objectify. Think of talking to a person you love, of looking them in the eyes and addressing them as You, and how different this is from talking about someone not present as He or She. The thing is, you can use the word You and still mean It; there are people out there—narcissists and flatterers and manipulators, objectifiers and personifiers and conceptualizers—who are incapable of speaking in any other way. Such people never really live; the present is to them not the realm of eternal being, but the infinitesimal endpoint of the past.
The present is not fugitive and transient, but continually present and enduring. The object is not duration, but cessation, suspension, a breaking off and cutting clear and hardening, absence of relation and of present being.
     True beings are lived in the present, the life of objects is in the past.
Our relation with other men stands in the middle place. Below it is our relation with the world of nature; above it is our relation with the divine. Our address of I-Thou to (say) a tree may be somewhat mysterious, and take place on a dark, subliminal level, but it is real for all that. The I-It analyzes the tree according to utility, or form and color, or chemical composition, or what have you; the I-Thou sees it as it is in itself.
It can…also come about, if I have both will and grace, that in considering the tree I become bound up in relation to it. The tree is now no longer It. I have been seized by the power of exclusiveness. […]
     The tree will have a consciousness then, similar to our own? Of that I have no experience. But do you wish, through seeming to succeed in it with yourself, once again to disintegrate that which cannot be disintegrated? I encounter no soul or dryad of the tree, but the tree itself.
When we speak Thou on any plane, says Buber, we address the eternal Thou. But there is an attempt to evade this dichotomy between the past and the present, It and Thou, object and subject, by appealing to a world of ideas, by raising up a conceptual structure and dwelling in it as a bulwark against the onset of nothingness.
But the mankind of mere It that is imagined, postulated, and propagated by such a man has nothing in common with a living mankind where Thou may truly be spoken. The noblest fiction is a fetish, the loftiest fictitious sentiment is depraved. Ideas are no more enthroned above our heads than resident in them; they wander amongst us and accost us. The man who leaves the primary word unspoken is to be pitied; but the man who addresses instead these ideas with an abstraction or a password, as if it were their name, is contemptible.
When we erect such a framework and dwell in it, we barricade ourselves from relation with nature, with man, with god. Yet how frequently do men try to scale the divine heights by such means! There will come a time—in the afterlife, if not sooner—when doctrines and confessional differences will fade in significance. For there are two fundamentally different ways of approaching the divine, and the dividing line cuts right across the world of ideas, confessional boundaries, and the human heart. It isn't the division between polytheism and monotheism, but between what I (for lack of better words and at the risk of being misunderstood) will label the pagan and the mystic. It is possible to be a pagan and yet believe in one god; it is possible to be a mystic and believe in many gods. Every person is at least part pagan. A pagan is someone who speaks only I-It. To him the gods are objects to be acted upon; to him a tree is nothing unless it be fictively personified, or conceptualized, or dissected and analyzed.
[W]ithout It man cannot live. But he who lives with It alone is not a man. 
Think of the old atheists' myth about the ebbing of belief. In the beginning, the legend goes, man believed that spirits inhabited trees and springs and other such things. As his familiarity with the world in which he found himself grew, he moved the divine agencies to the relatively inaccessible mountaintops. Further exploration forced him to relegate the gods to the distant heavens. And now, enlightened by precise astronomical observations, man has to locate god in the realm of abstraction.

Whatever the historical merits of this myth—asserted by some people with the ardent faith of the fundamentalist—I would counter it with a myth of my own construction. I would say that the peopling of hill and dale with rational spirits represents an attempt to deal with a fall. (Perhaps this is the source of the myth of the Fall, as hinted by Buber.) Man, alienated from the life of things, sought to regain his place by superimposing fictive animating agencies on the world of nature. No longer able to address the tree as Thou, at least on a subliminal level, he created the dryad. The impatient atheist is indeed fighting against one front when he denounces dryads and intelligent design. He is fighting paganism. But a pagan is really only a dishonest atheist; and there are atheists who, without realizing it, are mystics.

I've written a number of posts about how my perception of nature became warped when I was a teenager, due in part, perhaps, to my cognitive disability. At the time, I sought desperately to people my increasingly empty and meaningless world with minor gods. With all the data-acquisition-lust of my autistic mind, I pored over books about nature deities, demigods, elementals, fairies, and the like, collating and cataloging. I actually sought such beings in the woods and rivers. I sculpted goddesses from clay; I began the construction of a pagan shrine in the backyard, never to be completed. (My parents finished the garden after I went to college, but without the statue that was to have crowned it.) My point here is that my alienation from the world of nature went hand in hand with my retreat into paganism.

When man fell, Our Father Who Art in Heaven became Jupiter; literally, the names mean much the same thing, but I speak in terms of connotations. Again, I'm not opposing monotheism to polytheism. Certainly the objectification of the divine lends itself to a multiplication of gods, which is always a movement of rationalization and conceptualization. But who could argue that the polytheist Socrates lived exclusively in the world of I-It?

I have some thoughts about how these two primary words, these two attitudes, play out in art, especially in the fantasy novel. Perhaps that would best be relegated to a second post. For the time being, you, my reader, who find yourself trapped in the world of objects, consider the following, as I have, and find hope and a path to life:
Believe in the simple magic of life, in service in the universe, and the meaning of that waiting, that alertness, that "craning of the neck" in creatures will dawn upon you. Every word would falsify; but look! round about you beings live their life, and to whatever point you turn you come upon being.

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