Friday, January 07, 2011

Notes on Mysticism: Madness, Directness, Tears, and Contingency

*NOTE* The internal page links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.
I. Madness
II. Menus and Maps
III. Tears
IV. At a Loss for Words
V. The Feeling of Reality
VI. Madness and Directness as Contingency
VII. Spiritual Exercises

I would like to add a few notes about the surface of mysticism, which is to say the language and discourse that surrounds the mystic experience. The rhetoric of mysticism has often dovetailed with the rhetoric of madness. “Enthusiasm,” often used in older ages to describe the Western mystic, comes from the Greek entheos, which means quite literally “full of God,” and is often interpreted as “divine madness.”[fn.1] The rhetoric of mysticism also often uses the diction of directness, such that our common, conventionally appreciated reality is really an appearance behind that which is the real reality (think of maya from the Hindu tradition). A direct appreciation of the real reality, then, will appear mad or crazy to those still within the conventional modes of appreciation. This creates a problem, for we use the epithets “insane,” “mad,” or “crazy” to identify exactly those who are out of touch with reality. So who is right?

So direct of an antithesis is there between the two that rather than go straight at this question, we should perhaps first contemplate their agreement: variance with conventions. Reality or madness lies beyond conventions—perhaps such a consequential gulf embodied in this disjunct is what creates a sometimes thrilling anxiety. Since at least Foucault’s Madness and Civilization (though Freud’s description of neurosis surely got the ball rolling), Western intellectuals have become increasingly aware of how the position of an “outsider,” specifically in this case the “crazy person,” is created by how we count “insiders”—the conventional canons of inclusion. In order to approach the problem of what’s beyond conventions, I should like to briefly investigate how we break conventions, and thus occlude ourselves.

Menus and Maps
To do this, I will recur to two analogies used by Robert Pirsig. Pirsig’s most famous book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZMM), did yeoman’s work in bridging typical Western divides between mysticism, art, science, and technology. Its success lay in combining a sophisticated genealogy of the modern scientific mind back to the Greek logos (in the vein Heidegger pioneered) with a down to earth mapping of that mind in the everyday lives of us passive technological consumers. Part of his success, in fact, lies in the fact that he is not a pioneer in any of the vast areas he rambles through, but rather in his vast powers of distillation, synthesis, and communication, using tropes that have floated through the public consciousness but now become welded together as part of a single thematic. As Emerson said, “the artist must employ the symbols in use in his day and nation to convey his enlarged sense to his fellow-men.”[fn.2]

The two analogies I should like to use come from Pirsig’s second book, Lila. The first establishes for Pirsig the mystic sense of reality he seeks to do justice to, which is difficult because for mysticism “the fundamental nature of reality is outside language”—“Metaphysics is not reality. Metaphysics is names about reality. Metaphysics is a restaurant where they give you a thirty-thousand-page menu and no food” (72). What is nice about this figure is that it illustrates how the menu can get between you and the food. It also illustrates nicely the linguistic feature of what is between us and reality, and hooks up with the anxiety Plato inaugurated between onoma (name) and eidos (form) in which the lack of a link between the two eventually led to Saussurean declarations that language is conventional and thus arbitrary (because the names are instituted by us and not by reality).

Pirsig shifts his hold on this structural motif by moving to a second analogy: the map. Pirsig’s purpose in Lila is to create an alternative metaphysical understanding of reality (a “Metaphysics of Quality,” or MoQ) to the dominant understanding, which he calls the “subject-object metaphysics” (SOM). One problem with SOM is that it can’t recognize itself as conventional, and thus cannot have an alternative. The SOM version of the history of inquiry is a gradual unfolding of the single, correct understanding of reality. Pirsig doesn’t want to avoid the notion of a “gradual unfolding,” but he does want to say that our metaphysical assumptions are due for an upgrade:
“saying that a Metaphysics of Quality is false and a subject-object metaphysics is true is like saying that rectangular coordinates are true and polar coordinates are false. A map with the North Pole at the center is confusing at first, but it’s every bit as correct as a Mercator map. In the Artic it’s the only map to have. Both are simply intellectual patterns for interpreting reality and one can only say that in some circumstances rectangular coordinates provide a better, simpler interpretation.” (114-5)
Pirsig, following a conceptual move prepared for by Mill and James, implies rather that it is the utility of particular conventions that should weighed, instead of thinking of an omnivorous Convention that is whatever is correct. The latter leads to the unhelpful circular logic of “whatever is correct is the Convention; and the Convention is correct, so you must be wrong.” This short-circuits inquiry, for every trendsetter was wrong before they set the new right.

Pirsig’s alternative seeks to include both conventions and mystic reality (which we might define simply and antithetically as “not conventions”). It has to do so in something like this manner: “this conventional understanding of reality includes both an understanding of conventions and of not-conventions, but because understanding is conventional, it can only indicate obliquely where not-conventions are, i.e. at the breakages.”

This is where the power of the map analogy comes into its own, for the notion of a map moves to alleviate anxieties about arbitrariness by tying us to a surface. In Pirsig’s vocabulary, Quality is the primordial, mystic reality from which all unfolds. After the unfolding begins, the locus of any individual object as this particular object is defined as a static pattern of Quality—a rock is an inorganic static pattern, a person an entire rainforest of patterns, at the top of which are our intellectual patterns of conventional understanding. These intellectual patterns are our map. The map qua map does not respond to its environment, the person does. And the person has a pencil, and can keep erasing and adding topographical marks to better negotiate the environment as the person sees fit given the person’s experience.

In the Kantian version of this analogy that Pirsig aims for, however, though we are reacting to the environment, our face is always planted in the map—our mind is conventional, constituted by/as intellectual patterns. So how does one account for the mystic reality, for not-conventions? Not-conventions, in Pirsig’s vocabulary, are Dynamic Quality. Following the old mystic saw about pointing at the moon, think of the mystic reality’s inclusion as the words “Dynamic Quality” written on the map with an arrow pointing at a tear in the map it is next to. This gives us a way of interpreting the diction of directness: when you “look” at Dynamic Quality, perceive the mystic reality, you are actually looking through the map at the ground below. This is one way of describing how Dynamic Quality helps one change the map to evolving circumstances: it describes how we must perceive a hole in which we can fill in new conventions. No tear, nothing new; nothing new, no evolution. On the analogy of maps, one central concern of Pirsig has been to write into our maps a notion of change, of openness, of the element that will always escape Platonic encapsulation (what I've previously called "Quality as an anti-essence").[fn.3] Pirsig wants to bring back down to earth the notion of mystic experience, and one way to do this is to begin the rapprochement at the level of what we all do everyday without thinking: occasionally modify our habits of interaction with the world according to a world that is not our habits.

If this seems to eliminate a lot of the spice of mysticism, I’d like to move back the other direction by considering two basic kinds of tear in the map: perceptual and conceptual. By “perceptual” I mean considerations of reaction based on a novel stimulus from our nonlinguistic environment. Western mysticism has filtered down to us in large part through the Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment, which is more or less analogous to Pirsig’s reaction to SOM. Consider the similarities between Wordsworth, Thoreau, and Pirsig’s apotheosis of nature and the landscape (Pirsig carries, in fact, on his trip in ZMM a copy of Walden). The modern notion of “aesthetic sublimity” developed by Edmund Burke and Kant came about at the same time as the rise of landscape art as a popular medium. As artisanal technological grasp increased, alongside the spread of democratic egalitarianism (which consequently led to the rise of a customary, polite society), anxieties over a mechanized, conventional life increased. In reaction, we began to conceive of “nature” as an alternative.[fn.4] Though this has had a long tradition in the West, encapsulated by Plato’s antithesis between phusis (nature) and nomos (convention) and Virgilian pastoral, our specifically modern notions are nearer in development. Nature was to be both loved and feared—the sublime, as Burke and Kant conceive it, is scary for the exact reason that it spills over our conventions. “Wild” nature can still kill you. And we can easily see what they mean. Consider the Grand Canyon: the common experience of it is as a “blowing away,” leaving a person “at a loss for words,” “stunned.” These are conventional indications of how the experience of nature can evacuate your sense of how to respond, overflow or tear what Dewey called the “crust of conventionalized and routine consciousness.”[fn.5]

At a Loss for Words
We might call being “at a loss for words” the state of being unable to constitute linguistic meaning. Another kind of experience of the world aside from the perceptual, nonlinguistic variety is the conceptual or linguistic. If regular, conventional, routinized linguistic communication is based on the mutual, correct transference of “what I mean” to “I understand what you mean,” then we can understand a breakdown in communication as itself a kind of tear in the map of understanding. On the Eastern side, we might understand this as the purpose of a Zen koan, what the Greeks called an aporia (literally: “with no way out”). Socrates’ elenchus, his dialectical method of cross-examination, functioned by taking conventional meanings and driving a person using those meanings to their natural ends, where they crashed against walls of conflicting answers—and that was it. Our best accounts of Socrates are that he never moved beyond his professed ignorance, even if Plato did. Partly, no doubt, from his masterful and obsessive use of elenchus-directed-at-aporia, but partly too due to the mask of irony he always kept over him, one of the recurring descriptions of Socrates is of his strangeness: atopia, “being out of place.” Pierre Hadot says of Socrates, with adjectives every one of which link with what I’ve been talking about, “he is atopos, meaning strange, extravagant, absurd, unclassifiable, disturbing.” Hadot then quotes Theaetetus 149a: “I am utterly disturbing [atopos], and I create only perplexity [aporia].”[fn.6]

Socrates’ strangeness is distinctively in language. The tear in the fabric of the map that Socrates represents through irony is a linguistic tear—what has been described as his “silence” is a distinctive kind of linguistic silence, constituted only by the language that surrounds it.[fn.7] Alexander Nehamas heightens this tear when he emphasizes that the peculiarity of irony is that it does not simply “mean its opposite,” but rather more difficultly “not this.”[fn.8] Socrates will always remain a mystery because we will never know what he meant because he never came out from behind his mask. In fact, Nehamas argues that it is the irony—the mask that hides meaning—that produces his reality to us:
“Incomprehensible and opaque, to his author as well as to us, Plato’s early Socrates has acquired solidity and robustness few literary characters can match. That is why he appears more real than fictional. Plato’s implicit admission that he does not understand him, his amazing success in reproducing Socrates’ irony not only toward his interlocutors but also toward himself, is the mechanism that explains why generations of readers have inevitably returned to these texts, convinced that they provide a transparent window that opens directly onto the light of reality.”[fn.9]
The Feeling of Reality
How can this be? How can a conventional creation feel real? This conundrum for literary artists gives us a good window onto the general problem of conventions and mysticism. For “reality” becomes a creation. “Reality” becomes something people sense, and the pattern of that sense becomes the earmarks of a conventional understanding of reality. The gradual unfolding of a better conventional articulation of our sense of reality is partly what a metaphysics is for. As Nehamas points out, we have come to see that it is because Socrates is ultimately unclassifiable, which is to say something that will always escape classification, that we feel he is real, a “transparent window.” This gives us a sense of reality as unpredictable—Socrates lives like a real person because like them he will respond to you occasionally in ways you did not expect.

Frank Kermode charts something analogous to this in narrative fiction. Narrative fiction functions on plot, on the “transformation of mere successiveness” into a meaningful temporal unfolding. The latter is “our way of bundling together perception of the present, memory of the past, and expectation of the future.”[fn.10] Mere chronicity, the mere succession of one damn thing after another (as the old bit about history goes), has no meaning: it is just one thing after another. What creates meaning is a tie between one thing happening and another, causal or otherwise. This creates a past, and as human life moves forward in time, we are always looking forward to another thing happening, and not just any thing (like the endless myriad of occurrences we don’t even register as happening to us everyday) but something we are tied to.

Plot, however, is something artists create: it is a convention. Human meaning, once again, becomes conventional. Kermode recognizes this pattern and calls chronicity, “mere successiveness,” our human sense of reality. As I said, the amount of things we don’t notice and tie are infinitely greater than that which we do, and those unnoticed parts are the overflow of reality over the borders of our conventions. As human culture has progressed, we’ve become more self-conscious about how we are creating the meaning, and this stage is “marked by an understanding that this play of consciousness over history, this plot making, may relieve us of time’s burden only by defying our sense of reality.”[fn.11] So our articulated conventions of meaning “will be humanly serviceable as models only if they pay adequate respect to what we think of as ‘real’ time, the chronicity of the waking moment.”[fn.12] At the same time, we cannot go too far the other way, and Kermode marks both with metaphors of madness. “Schizophrenics can lose contact with ‘real’ time, and undergo what has been called ‘a transformation of the present into eternity.’”[fn.13] This is the collapse of temporally demarcated moments into one single enduring moment, eternity. But too: “To see everything as out of mere succession is to behave like a man drugged or insane.”[fn.14] To see no connections is to behave like no normal person, to function without meaning.[fn.15]

Madness and Directness as Contingency
Partly as a response to triumphalist stories of all kinds, especially of liberalism and its converse Marxism, Foucault theorized and attempted to write his intellectual histories in a way to emphasize the disjuncts, the radical ruptures, of history—to eliminate the connections other histories emphasized. In a Kuhnian vocabulary, this gave the sense of paradigms shifting from one to another for no internal reason (a misunderstanding once foisted on Kuhn that he always had difficulty rubbing away). In an Aristotelian vocabulary, it reinjected what were seemingly accidental features of the essence of a subject (like the history of psychiatry or jails) and showed how they played a live role in their constitution and evolution. In Rorty’s jargon, Foucault emphasized the contingency of events on vast vicissitudes that are only uncovered by the use of a particular vocabulary—and now, after years of recorded history, we can see quite clearly how these particular vocabularies come and go and uncover and recover (both senses) new and old things. Rorty once said that Foucault gives you “a kind of know-how, a way of looking askance and obliquely at contemporary institutions and practices.”[fn.16]

If we put together Kermode’s sense of “mere successiveness” as a kind of madness with this sense of contingency, I think we have a philosophical map for what directness is in the map analogy. What is often qualified as “brute” or “sheer” contingency is the impress of the unclassifiable—you have never encountered it before, but you must encounter it. A vocabulary, on the Kantian version of the map analogy, plots (topographically and in Kermode’s narrative sense) what you see, what you are aware of, but moments of evolution are moments when the map breaks down, when something tears itself through the map unavoidably into your sight.

All of this emphasis on the metaphor of vision will make many post-Heideggerians suspicious (a well-earned suspicion). If we shift from the mode of considering both perceptual and conceptual rifts in a vocabulary (in which it makes perfect sense to say that the sight of the Grand Canyon startles you), we can consider Rorty’s way of describing conceptual contingency: metaphor. In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Rorty famously follows Shelley in saying that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World.”[fn.17] Rorty expands this notion of poet (Greek for “maker”) to include any “person who uses words as they have never before been used.”[fn.18] This allows him to follow Nietzsche in seeing intellectual history as “the history of metaphor.”[fn.19] So—what is a metaphor? Rorty here follows Davidson in describing metaphor as sheer noise—complete meaninglessness.[fn.20] Pure noise is sheer contingency, a linguistically unclassifiable experience. You can talk about noises, of course, but they don’t mean anything in the sense that you can’t talk with noise. However: talking about the noises, and increasingly with them—as in using them for particular purposes—crushes the metaphor under the weight of intelligibility, thus eventually making it a “dead metaphor” (like the foot of a mountain or the mouth of a river or the purity of a soul). Metaphors, like irony, are linguistic silences, tears in the fabric of meaning, dynamic introductions into a static topography. In terms of our map analogy, the death of the metaphor is the sewing up of the tear in our map, the dynamic, new classification used to pattern our experience.

There’s a sense, then, in which we’ve now classified the mystic tear in reality, or in Pirsig’s vocabulary, Quality. But what kind of classification is this? I called Quality an anti-essence before, and even in the limited Aristotelian sense in which we can still get mileage out of referring to irrelevant accidents, Quality is still an anti-essence: the sense of directness mystics are talking about is that sense in which your sense of relevance changes, in which you notice that which you had previously been blind to. Quality, in another way, is a pure metaphor: so new that it startles, but always just that—the new that startles, the new that calls for attention. If we have a handle on the reality the mystics are concerned about, it is only in the sense of knowing that it is out there, potentially just around the corner, waiting to leap out at us.

Spiritual Exercises
This leads me to the function of mystic practices, which include such sentential attitudes as Zen koans. These practices are what Hadot calls “spiritual exercises.” Hadot, in turn, links the notion of a spiritual exercise to the Greek Christian term askēsis, which means in that context (in Harold Bloom’s version) “self-purgation” or (in Hadot’s) “self-transformation.”[fn.21] In Bloom’s ratios of poetic anxiety-management, an askēsis is the willed curtailment of oneself. One does this, as a poet (always remembering Rorty’s widened understanding), to avoid simply being the repetition of a previous, powerful poet. This, I believe, is the same basic premise of what Eastern traditions call “beginner's mind.”[fn.22] If we are thrown into the world and socialized, then one way to understand the process of individualizing ourselves to break free of the happenstance education we received is to empty ourselves of that which we’ve learned.

If we think of a literal, perspicuous sentence—a sentence that has a “clear meaning”—as having an inferential path from this particular sentence to another (from the first sentence to its meaning, a second sentence), then we can think of poetic metaphor as a moment of dynamic self-creation, a moment in which all of your education fails you and you are allowed/forced to supply something for yourself. For the sentence “love is a battlefield” has no single clear meaning—many paths are available. And even more, “blue is a tree”—what on earth could that mean? The purpose of a mantra in meditation is to help clear your mind, to eliminate it, by saying a phrase over and over until it loses meaning, until what used to be sounds that had meaning become pure sounds, phonemes qua phonemes, not phonemes qua words. And in that moment, when it loses all public meaning, it attains total private meaning for you and you alone, a completely inarticulate meaning lost the moment you turn to articulate it. The practice of attaining inarticulate meanings is thus a purely private exercise—or rather, an exercise of achieving pure privacy. The public benefit of such inarticulate meanings are not the same as those meanings we get from such sentences as “God is Love” or “America is Freedom,” for an inarticulate meaning is nontransferable. Its only public benefit is on the life of the person as a whole. The notion of “inarticulate meaning” is about as close as we are going to get to a meaningful notion of ineffability, which when push comes to shove is the last conceptual bastion of the mystic notion of reality.


[1]E. R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational, 70-75—and the whole chapter, “The Blessings of Madness,” generally—is invaluable on the Greeks.

[2]Emerson, “Art,” Essays: First Series

[3]See "Philosophical Antiauthoritarianism: A Reply to Johnston," particularly para. 6-8. For "Platonic encapsulation," see ZMM, 388. For an early use in an exposition of a couple Rorty essays, where I articulate some qualms I had about Pirsig's position, see "Hediegger, Dewey, Pirsig" (I'm not sure I still have these qualms). See also my "Introduction to Pirsig" for a short exposition of what I take to be his philosophical fundamentals (in terms of theses he holds, at least).

[4]This summary discussion is indebted to Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden. In particular, on landscape painting see 88-90 and his discussion of Tench Coxe that builds up to his emblematic discussion of Carlyle’s disgust with mechanism 162-80.

[5]Dewey, The Public and Its Problems, 183. This famous passage that Rorty popularized as “breaking the crust of convention” occurs at the end of his chapter, “Search for the Great Community,” in describing the place of the artist in the community.

[6]Hadot, What Is Ancient Philosophy?, 30. See also his Philosophy as a Way of Life, 158. John McDowell translates this as “What they do say is that I’m very odd, and that I make people feel difficulties.” Cornford as: “the ignorant world describes me in other terms as an eccentric person who reduces people to hopeless perplexity.”

[7]Stanley Fish argues in an analogous way about freedom of speech and first amendment law in the eponymous essay in There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech, and It’s a Good Thing, Too. Part of Fish’s point is that if silence (i.e., the mystic reality for our purposes) is surrounded by intelligibility, then unintelligibility/silence surrounds intelligibility: “Without restriction, without an inbuilt sense of what it would be meaningless to say or wrong to say, there could be no assertion and no reason for asserting it. The exception to unregulated expression is not a negative restriction but a positive hollowing out of value—we are for this, which means we are against that—in relation to which meaningful assertion can then occur. It is in reference to that value—constituted as all values are by an act of exclusion—that some forms of speech will be heard as (quite literally) intolerable” (103-4). Compare this flip-flop perspective on meaning and unintelligibility to my description of Dynamic Quality as a tear in the map and Pirsig’s picture of Dynamic Quality as surrounding the static patterns in his SODV,13.

[8]The first three chapters of Nehamas’s brilliant The Art of Living are about the different kinds of irony at work in the Platonic dialogues, but see especially on this particular kind 52-7.

[9]Nehamas, The Art of Living, 91. When Harold Bloom discusses the aesthetic power of particular characters he describes them in the same kind of way, as remaining hidden from their authors, which like Nehamas is what then makes them appear more real, as living, breathing personalities than other kinds of characters. The common denominator is that the creation cannot be reduced to this or that description, something always escapes, is unclassifiable. The ability to represent the unrepresentable is the ultimate task, on a Bloomian aesthetics, of every artist—once a culture has learned how to encapsulate a figure or a text it becomes a “period piece.” This is why Bloom argues, for example, that Shakespeare is our mind and that he has not found his “reader”: to be the mind is to do the reading, and to “read” in this sense would be to reduce and thus to kill what was living and irreducible.

[10]Kermode, The Sense of an Ending, 46

[11]Kermode, 57

[12]Kermode, 54

[13]Kermode, 55

[14]Kermode, 57

[15]I would go further and argue that, for all practical purposes, the notion of continued "pure immediacy" is both a feeling of eternity and "mere successiveness." This is too large a subject to wade into, but see my discussion of Wyndham Lewis in "Lewis and Ulysses" about what I call "fish-blink" time. See too my discussion of Jameson in "Theoretical and Empirical Schizophrenia" for another metaphorical use of schizophrenia and the linked notions of intelligibility and unintelligibility.

[16]Rorty, “Reply to Jacques Bouveresse” in ed. Brandom, Rorty and His Critics, 149

[17]From the close of Shelley’s “Defense of Poetry.” Rorty does not explicitly refer to Shelley in this regard in CIS, but it was undoubtedly on his mind and became an explicit invocation in his writings at the end of his life.

[18]Rorty, CIS, 28

[19]Rorty, CIS, 16. The allusion to Nietzsche is of course to his famous passage about truth as a “mobile army of metaphors” (Portable Nietzsche, 46).

[20]For the Davidsonian account of metaphor, see CIS 18-9 and the longer defense in “Unfamiliar Noises: Hesse and Davidson on Metaphor” in ORT.

[21]See his essay “Spiritual Exercises” in Philosophy as a Way of Life, particularly 82. See also the chapter “Philosophy and Philosophical Discourse” in his What Is Ancient Philosophy? If we were to embark on an attempt to distinguish between theoretical exercises and spiritual exercises (such that we take on Nehamas’s note that philosophy is a way of life that includes the having of theoretical theses—see The Art of Living, 1-6), we will want to take note of Hadot’s suggestion that physics, for the Greeks, was a spiritual exercise and not an attempt for greater control (even predictive) over nature. This is one issue that animates Hans Blumenberg’s attempt to demarcate the ancient Greek from the medieval, and thence the modern. See especially his discussion of Epicurus in The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, 145-79.

[22]See ZMM, 291-3.