From Kant to Chomsky (with a plug for Fr–d)

h/t Matt McManus on Noam Chomsky’s Theory of Human Nature (04/16/20), from which much of this is taken

Descartes famously argued that all our empirical knowledge may be an illusion, so it can never provide a basis for absolute certainty. By contrast, we can be certain that we are thinking (“I think, therefore I am”), and so glean some certainty about the nature of cognition.

Kant goes a step further. True, all empirical knowledge may be an illusion, but there is a universal structure to the human mind by which we all perceive the empirical world in more or less the same way. E.g., all human beings see the world in terms of space and time. And since we see the world in the same way, we can gain knowledge that would be accepted by anyone. However, this doesn’t mean we gain knowledge of the world “in itself.” Our knowledge is only of the world as it appears to those structures of the mind (what Kant calls the “phenomenal world”). The world of actual things may or may not match the phenomena we experience, but we’ll never know.

Chomsky applies this toggle from empiricism to Kant to linguistics. McManus mentions how Chomsky’s linguistic theory (beginning in the late 1950s) pushed against such behaviorists as B. F. Skinner. Skinner and the behaviorists assume, like the old empiricists, that the mind is initially a blank slate, and only learns things like language from the experience of being taught. To Chomsky, this behaviorist/empiricist approach falters if we look at language acquisition. If we accept the blank slate premise, he argued, it leads to the conclusion that if one left a rock, a tomato and a baby with a family in London each of them would be equally likely to learn English, since each of them would experience being exposed to that language. The reason that a baby can pick up a language—even several languages—very quickly is that her mind is a priori capable of learning a human dialect. This language faculty also explains why human languages have many deep similarities. Not only do we largely perceive the world in the same way, as Kant points out, but our language faculty generates universal grammars, and much of Chomsky’s linguistic theory is about unraveling those universal grammars.

As with Kant’s theory, this position implies an upside and a downside. The upside is that human beings are capable of understanding one another, and even translating their various languages between each other. The downside is that we are still operating exclusively in the phenomenal world, as our mutual understanding, including cross-cultural communication, is based on the universal structures of how our minds process the world, not on any direct experience of the world “out there.”

I will go the extra step here and align Chomsky in this way with Freud. (As my loyal readers know, I am always eager to shore up Freud’s place in the history of ideas over and against his pitiful detractors, albeit with an occasional concession to those detractors.) What Chomsky rejects in the field of linguistics, Freud rejects in the field of psychology. The behaviorists shunned Freudian psychoanalysis, shunned talking about the internal structure of the mind as if there were something in there anterior to our experience of the world. As in Chomsky the mind has an a priori structure that facilitates language acquisition, so in Freud the mind has an a priori structure that facilitates similarities in development of the psyche across human populations. Whether you see that structure in terms of primitive drives along with mechanisms that develop to inhibit those drives, or as a gradient structure moving from the conscious mind down deeper and deeper into unconscious layers of motivation, Freud’s psychology and Chomsky’s linguistics both defy the “blank slate” theory by positing some internal structure, something intrinsic about the human mind, what Kant might call subjective universals that shape how humans process the world, irrespective of the range of individual human experiences.

In neither Freud’s case nor Chomsky’s, it seems to me, does this leave us with an either/or dilemma. Chomsky’s theory might well elucidate the universal grammars that provide the a priori capacity for language acquisition without demeaning the contribution of behaviorist methods on the other side. Likewise, behaviorist psychology might well provide a stimulus-response model that works quite well as a mechanical operation for changing behaviors, but I see no reason (other than that academics must endlessly produce us vs them models and show the superiority of their side over the other as a way of securing tenure) that this should preclude psychoanalytic investigations of the internal structures of the mind that might underwrite human possibilities, human creativity, and human pathways of dysfunction more generally.

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Approaching cosmic oneness

The opposite of oneness is categories. The human mind sorts the chaotic flux of reality into categories to render it intelligible. But pull out the dividers that sort the categories and what you have is oneness, or rather one continuous cosmic gradient. (In my experience, psychedelics like LSD and mushrooms are one way of pulling out the dividers but not the only way.)

Some cognates:

Before Freud, there was faculty psychology. The human psyche was composed of faculties: passion, reason, appetite, etc. – like separate boxes on a shelf. Freud (not alone but he’s the one that pulled it together) switched out this category-based model for something more fluid and dynamic – a gradient moving from the conscious mind down deeper and deeper into unconscious drives and mechanisms that exert enormous though unseen influences on our behavior. Though dismissing Freud is something of an international pastime these days, I think his model of the psyche, where old and unconscious impressions continue to affect behaviors later in life, was a remarkable paradigm shift that shaped the direction of psychology. It is still perhaps the prevailing model today, and indeed Freud’s detractors often use Freud’s depth psychology model in waging their attacks. Feel free to demur in the comments.

Or how about the four sheaths in Vedantic philosophies: physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual. They seem like four separate categories but isn’t it more intuitive to see them as part of one rainbow continuum? Think of the emotional and physical registers during sex. Surely they are part of one gradient of response and not separate categories, unless we deliberately separate them for the purpose of analysis.

Or how about space and time. They were generally considered two separate categories – either objective categories defining physical reality or subjective categories, as in Kant, by which we organize our experience of reality. But categories. Then Einstein. It turns out space and time are not categorically separate but are part of the same continuum. Same with energy and matter in Einstein. No longer separate categories but part of the same continuum. E = mc2.

There are probably a million other instances in the history of ideas, but the point is that categories help us sort, evaluate, and make sense of things, but the categories are not the things. In fact, there are no things. Just the one big cosmic Thing. The kaleidoscope of cosmic oneness, which is of course the same thing as the kaleidoscope of cosmic consciousness. The objective world and the subjective world fold into each other at the cosmic level. There is no other way. You don’t need LSD see your way through to this vision. Well, in my case maybe that LSD trip to a remote Mexican beach helped just a little, but that was almost an accident. Almost an accident. Maybe that’s the window to the next level of discussion 😊

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The Plumed Serpent: Race, Gender, and Primal Consciousness

Review and analysis of The Plumed Serpent, D. H. Lawrence (1926)
by Gary Gautier

First, the gorilla in the room. As The Plumed Serpent tells of a white woman (Kate) who finds herself in early 20th-century Mexico, a strange, frightening, and exhilarating place for her, many reviewers bog down in race/ethnicity/colonialism. Kate in fact gets mixed up with two Mexican men, Ramon (of mixed blood) and Cipriano (pure Indian), who seek renewal for Mexico through its ancient pagan cultures. The shallowest of reviewers see D. H. Lawrence promoting the “white man’s burden” of civilizing the savages, while the better ones remain ambivalent, sensing something different going on in the novel but fearing being tainted as enablers of the racist Western master narrative.

In fact, anyone not cowed by the politics of academic criticism can see, on the contrary, that The Plumed Serpent is Lawrence’s specific refutation of “the white man’s burden” narrative. Especially at this late point in his life (he died a few years later at age 44), Lawrence despised the place to which white man’s Western culture had brought us, with its deadening Christianity and its machines and its dehumanizing political ideologies. The cultural spread of The Plumed Serpent can be roughly divided into the white Western world, the modern Mexican world, and the pre-Hispanic world of ancient Mesoamerica, and Lawrence fleshes out a rich, writerly ambivalence toward all three, but his ultimate allegiance is clearly with the pre-Hispanic pagan world view. The whites have a world of “mechanical dominance” (2145*) and “mechanical connections” (2406), but even Kate is “weary to death of American automatism” (2145) and its deadening effects on the human soul. Lawrence doesn’t mince words about his view: “White men brought no salvation to Mexico. On the contrary, they find themselves at last shut in the tomb along with their dead god and the conquered race” (3110). The modern Mexican fares not much better, “divided against himself” (1461), torn between envy and resentment in both directions – toward the encroaching white culture and toward their repressed pagan roots. For all practical purposes, they – the modern Mexicans – “are swamped under the stagnant water of the white man’s Dead Sea consciousness” (1486). The only hope – and Lawrence had become increasingly misanthropic after the Great War, though his journeys in Mexico and southwest US after 1922 had lifted him somewhat – lies in “that timeless, primeval passion of the prehistoric races” (2686), of Quetzalcoatl and Huitzilopochtli, back when humans lived breast-to-breast with the cosmos, before Christianity tore the soul from the body, back when one’s allegiance to the greater community was visceral and human, not ideological and abstract. “We must go back and pick up the old threads. We must take up the old broken impulse that will connect us with the mystery of the cosmos again” (3154).

Thus, those moderns who chafe at the “white supremacist” aspect of Lawrence’s work are sort of like those who see racial slurs in probably the most impactful anti-racist novel in history, Huck Finn, and absurdly conclude that the novel promotes racism. Such reading requires a degree of resistance to critical thinking that can only be found at the graduate level of US universities today. These are exactly the people Lawrence is fighting against. Wearing their ideological blinders, they miss the whole point of both books. Are some of the racial expressions unacceptable by today’s standards? Of course, but if we are to appreciate cultural history at all, we must resist rejecting past works that fail to meet present standards, and, as Bill Maher says, “just grandfather in all the shit that you would have done yourself if you were alive then.” We don’t need to approve of a past era but we do need to read with a little context if we are to get at the nuance. In terms of the racial spread of characters, do I wish Lawrence had given more rounded Mexican characters in the novel? Sure, but then again, we have no range of white people either – only the struggling (Irish) Kate and the two unlikeable American men in the opening chapters. The novel is less about individual characters than about primeval forces working through the characters. Lawrence connects with the pagan roots and hidden blood of Mexico at a depth that “woke” critics can never know, since their analytic approach sees Mexicans and Mexico as flattened out caricatures of oppressor and oppressed in their political metric, which precludes their engaging at such a depth.

This doesn’t mean I am all-in with Lawrence. As he re-envisions what it would be like for the old pagan world view to break through the crust of deadened modernity, he never quite sorts out, e.g., what to do with the brutality of blood sacrifice and the violence in general that cannot be easily separated from the old world view. But at least he does not sweep it under the rug. Much like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Lawrence’s Plumed Serpent finds a cultural pathway, exotic and primeval to the European mind, that brings him to a depth in the collective unconscious that is a place of both fascination and horror. Lawrence seems certain that the old pagan ways offer the only hope for renewal, but seems not quite certain of how to account for the blood violence in those ways. Kate feels the full weight of the ambivalence, as she “felt she had met the mystery of the natives, the strange and mysterious gentleness between a Scylla and Charybdis of violence” (2162). Indeed, the Homeric reference is no random allusion. Cipriano’s treatment of the prisoners near the end echoes The Odyssey’s slaughter in the great hall, where the generally admirable Odysseus dispatches the traitors with a brutality that gives the modern reader pause. Through Kate, Lawrence deals with the pagan world view of the ancients as honestly as he can, not with the philosopher’s eye on closing the syllogism, but with the poet’s eye on opening the vista with all of its beauties, its horrors, and its ambiguities.

Critics of Lawrence on gender are partly subject to the same rebuke as those in the postcolonial category above, but not quite as completely. Throughout his corpus, and The Plumed Serpent is no exception, the archetypal struggle of male and female forces, cosmic in scope, play out through individual characters. Such a binary may not be de rigueur today, and indeed may not be an accurate representation of gender in any universal sense. But the transcendental struggle of opposites, often cast as male and female, played out through the subjectivities of individuals, holds a large place in the history of ideas and has given rich food for thought, populating the landscapes of some of our most creative minds, from the visionary poems of William Blake, to Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, to Camille Paglia and Virginia Woolf. If someone wants to complain that this archetypal struggle is too binary, I have no rebuttal. If someone wants to complain that the female principle in Lawrence’s particular iteration comes up short, I have mixed feelings. He frequently says and dramatizes that male and female are cosmic forces equal in potency, “the mystery of the Two Ways” (8284), Kate’s “woman’s greater self, and the greater self of man” (3011), a “slow wheel of dance” between “two great streams” (3019). Each needs the other to complete itself but each must remain in some way opaque, its strangeness forever intact. At times, the female ideal as pondered by Kate indeed seems a bit too aligned with passivity or submission. But she always makes her own final decisions, she is never eclipsed by the male potency (“though her woman’s nature was reciprocal to his male, surely it was more than that,” 9427), and it is she who saves Ramon, the hero, with the physical force of her own will. So there are legitimate bits to pick with gender, but it would be a mistake to let those bits negate the fantastic archetypal dynamics worked out in the novel.

Besides the risk of some infelicities in gender representations (a risk taken by any creative work of this magnitude), there are perhaps larger risks to Lawrence’s social vision. I do not mean the “white man’s burden” risk formulaically raised by woke critics, as this risk only applies if one skims the barest surface of the novel. But in his eagerness to strip away the ideological clutter of modernity and get back to human-to-human based structures of power, Lawrence leaves the dangers of hero-worship and fascism intact even at the depths of the novel. Ramon, with all of his good intentions regarding the spiritual renewal of a world become deadened, emerges as the cult leader par excellence. If Lawrence’s social vision differs from Ramon’s, this is difficult to decipher from the actual text on the page.

An interesting cinematic equivalent to this phenomenon might be Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (with Kris Kristofferson, James Coburn, and Bob Dylan). In that fine film, Pat and Billy wander villages separately, but each is clearly a man of power. The people in this frontier setting intuitively recognize what Lawrence calls “the voice of a master and authority” (6196). Whether they are breaking the law, helping a stranger, or killing someone who stands in the way, it matters not. There is an automatic allegiance to Billy when he is in town, and an automatic (though perhaps more grudging) allegiance to Pat when he is in town. To people in this outlier region, the laws of the state or ideological alignments are impossibly abstract. They recognize a man of power when they see one, and their allegiance naturally alights upon that man. One recognizes the phenomenon in the film, and it seems quite natural in context, but, as both Pat and Billy show by their moral ambiguity and unpredictability, there is a dark side to this natural expression of human bonding into power relations in a pre-state, pre-ideological manner. What if the man of power is Charles Manson or one of the fascist leaders who darkened the 20th century?

The Plumed Serpent runs the same risk as the Peckinpah film. There is something tantalizing about breaking through the crust of deadened modernity with a renewed spiritual energy based on the forgotten pagan ways, based not on ideological abstraction but on breast-to-breast contact with fellow humans and with the physicality of the cosmos. But there is a risk there that I’m not sure Lawrence addresses adequately. Ramon and Cipriano lead the renewal in this novel, but who will the leaders of power be tomorrow? To cast this back into psychoanalytic terms, note that Lawrence is contemporary with Freud as well as Jung. Besides the book’s rich exploration of the collective unconscious and its call to find redemptive energy in the primitive roots of consciousness, one can cast it in Freudian terms as well. Lawrence is a creature of the id, always trying to tease the dark power of the id into breaking through the soft tissue of the ego and the hard crust of the superego. Therein lies redemption for Lawrence, but I think it is safe to say that there is also a danger in giving the reins to the unregulated drives of the id.

One final note worth mentioning, just on the formal elements of fiction. As with the other novels of D. H. Lawrence (and those of his modernist peers like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce), The Plumed Serpent advances not along a linear plot with a strong throughline but rather by circling deeper and deeper into the subjective and intersubjective spaces within and between the characters. Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is perhaps the most successful example of this kind of narrative structure, but D. H. Lawrence does it and does it well. And Lawrence is perhaps better than Woolf at filling in the physical landscape, creating a scene, in this case rich with the specific flora and fauna of Mexico, night sky and night rivers, villages and villagers, a sense of wonder and a sense of foreboding. It is wonderful indeed in that regard, but readers beware if you are looking for a suspense-driven novel with a strong plot. Also, be ready for a bit of long-windedness as Lawrence has Ramon create his own cycle of hymns and myths for the return of Quetzalcoatl. Lawrence was a formidable poet in his own right (see, e.g., Birds, Beasts, and Flowers), but it was a bit much in this context.

By the way, if you doubt my assessment of the novel’s themes, you might look to Lawrence’s non-fiction Apocalypse, written just a few years later (on his death bed) and published posthumously. Stripped of the powerful ambivalence and intersubjective force fields that make for great fiction, Lawrence goes straight to the point in that extended essay and makes his case. In his own voice, he speaks of the dead end of modernity and of the need to rejuvenate the old pagan world view, which we indeed still carry within us just as we still carry the primeval archetypes of Jung’s collective unconscious.

Thus, rightly or wrongly, smugly or humbly, I claim the man himself as my number one backup 😊

*Citations are to Kindle version locations. Most paperback editions are around 450 pages.

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(Click below for reviewer’s links)

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The sublime in art and self-actualization

Blogmate Paul Adkin recently posted about “purposiveness and becoming.” The simplified gist of it – I partly conjecture, as Paul is ahead of me on some things philosophical – is that purposiveness is teleological or end-oriented. We get a sense of purpose by directing our attention at something “out there/not here yet” toward which we can strive. Thus, purposiveness is wedded to our process of becoming, of transforming ourselves. And if that process of transforming ourselves is in a predetermined direction, we have “purpose” in life.

After a bit of free association, I started correlating Paul’s ideas to some art shows I’d seen recently. In the arts, there is the age-old distinction between the beautiful and the sublime, sometimes cast as the classical and the romantic. Beautiful/classical is associated with symmetry, framing, a delightful rational pleasure; the sublime/romantic is associated with excess, passion, feelings of awe or of being overwhelmed by something that cannot be adequately grasped or framed.

So my tie between Paul and the arts becomes this: Beauty relates to being, the sublime relates to becoming; beauty is static, the sublime is dynamic. The beautiful artwork or musical composition comes to us framed neatly, symmetrically; it is calming and delightful, not disruptive or disturbing. Indeed, it is calming and delightful specifically because it ratifies our sense that we can frame things neatly, symmetrically, rationally, hold them in our hands and view them in wonder.

Knowing nothing of musical history, I think of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik as beautiful, the perfect expression of that delight that comes with rational pleasure. Then I think of his younger contemporary, Beethoven, composing his 5th symphony 20 years later. The 5th is sublime right from the 4-note opening, the “fate motif” that everyone knows. The ominous motif itself seems a warning shot that what is coming is not beautiful but sublime, not an invitation to relax in delight, but something disruptive, full of passion that is not easily confined or domesticated; indeed, something a little bit frightening, breaking the comfort zone of being and expanding it in a way that causes existential angst, as the listener goes beyond their capacity to keep the response within pre-ordained limits. The capacity falters, and one is overwhelmed.

Though my examples might be faulty from the viewpoint of music history, I can still take the point about beauty and the sublime and apply it to self-actualization. Beauty resonates with our stages along the path, it resonates with the pleasure we get when we can pause, look around us, and appreciate the wonderland we happen to be in at this stage of life or of reality. The sublime resonates with our moments of transformation, disruption, the struggle between stages, where one fixed stage is lost and the new not arrived. It is a period of angst – frightening, dizzying, and exhilarating at the same time. The self that has existed up to this moment is overwhelmed and swept aside and the new self not yet formed. It is not unlike what ancient civilizations must have felt at the winter solstice, when the old sun seems dying but the new sun uncertain. It is the breaking of the snakeskin as the old self is shed, its boundaries shattered, but the new self not yet secure.

I know that Slavoj Zizek, whom I admire for his politics, has had something to say about the sublime. (Full disclosure: I have not read Zizek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology, but I have read The Parallax View and a few other bits, and hey, as I said at the outset, this is free association time.) If I had to tie my thesis about the sublime to politics, the easiest point of entry would be in royal lineage. “The king is dead; long live the king.” In that paradox is the anxiety of the sublime in its political aspect. That moment between the death of one monarch and the coronation of the heir must have been one of tremendous anxiety for the body politic, the opening for bloody war and massive dislocation in the fragile civil society, the sublime moment of transformation in all its terrible possibility. Best to try close the gap to the single breath indicated by the semicolon: “The king is dead; long live the king.”

For Zizek, I know, it’s probably more of an ideological thing. Perhaps the self gets overwhelmed and lost in the totalizing ideology that swamps it. This seems especially relevant in totalitarian societies. But I like my king example for how it resonates with those transformative moments in self-actualization.

Just to finally touch on Zizek’s psychoanalytic (Freudian) angle on the sublime, as I am told that he goes there, too. Freud’s superego, of course, relates nicely to the sublime. Let’s briefly say that Freud’s tripartite schema consists of (1) the id, which refers to the dark, primitive drives; (2) the superego, which relates to the inscrutable, all-powerful (father-) figure to which the infant psyche is subjected (and which the infant psyche introjects), the enforcer of prohibitions but also the source of higher ideals for which to strive; and (3) the ego, where the rubber meets the road in terms of the id’s reckless drives and the superego’s controlling function. In Zizek (or so I’m told), ideology functions as a superego. This, to me, opens an interesting dichotomy in the sublime. In one variant, the subject is overwhelmed by the inscrutable power faced and is humbled into in state of awe by the objective power. The second variant comes with the exhilaration of resisting and thwarting the Law – “jouissance” Zizek calls it. To stick to the political framing, the first variant might be the “conservative” variant (cp. Edmund Burke), insofar as the subject is humbled, resistance impossible, and the objective power source reaffirmed. The second variant might be the more “radical” variant (cp. Kant), in that the subject breaks down the objective formations of power and proclaims its own dominion.

Back to self-actualization. Beauty and the sublime. An endless series of steps, each step a pleasant resting place, with the movements between fraught with danger and transformation, fraught with the possibility that that self might be utterly lost, humbled, overwhelmed (Burke), or that the self might be exhilarated and transformed, ennobled into some entirely new being who can look back in wonder at all the steps below, enjoy the delight of the moment, and then feel the pull of purposiveness and turn the gaze back upward.

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Doublewoke: The Next Countercultural Explosion

Recently searching neighborhood live theater in Chicago as I was passing through, I stumbled across 5 or 6 venues online without much searching at all. All but one featured tales of the suffering engendered by white privilege. Honestly, I was a bit disappointed at the narrowness of theme (no knock on Chicago per se, whose beautiful people and cultural vitality continue to amaze). Don’t get me wrong. I sympathize with the underlying politics of “woke” culture. My “doublewoke” (or woke against woke) conceit is not a full renunciation of wokeness, but an encouragement to take the next turn, to take the potential for good that lies slumbering in the woke movement and wake it up to a brand new day.

I start with the assumption that the “woke” set and I share a long-term progressive ideal of a society that is equal and open, uninhibited, comfortable with diversity, and rich in human contact. But I fear the machinery of “woke” is going about it in the least efficient way, relying on two shaky strategies. First, it relies too heavily on negative reinforcement; i.e., search the people you encounter not for the good that is in their hearts but for any faux pas, past or present, that can be used to scarlet letter them as racist, sexist, etc. Sure, no one is perfect, but this approach suggests that we can right the ship with sufficient shaming and scolding. Unfortunately, shaming as a means of betterment just doesn’t work. Self-loathing among black men becomes a subject of academic scrutiny from time to time, and the consensus is always that self-loathing does not help their lot. Self-loathing, which Freud might call the introjected form of shaming, does not build character for blacks and does not build character for whites. Shaming may not be the intent, but if this is the reception you get from all who fall outside the “already woke” category, which includes many ordinary people who might otherwise be allies, you might reconsider your rhetorical strategy. Save the accusatory tone for the select few malicious racists who deserve it, and discard your broad brush with the other solid waste. Using the broad brush always places the “us versus them” line at a spot that gives far too much to the other side.

The other shaky strategy is dividing people by race, gender, etc., instead of by ideology. We should be bringing black, white, gay, straight, etc., together in a rainbow coalition to fight for that progressive vision mentioned above. The enemy is not white, black, male, or any other such demographic grouping. The enemy (at least the short-term enemy, as there are no long-term enemies, for, like it or not, we all travel the spaceship earth together) should be defined ideologically, as those whose ideas continue to lock in the disequilibriums of late capitalism. The woke folks, however, too often represent the struggle as if it were women against men, black against white. They too often suggest we should vote for, value, or pronounce someone guilty or innocent based on skin color or sex organs or gender. Drawing the battle lines along race or gender is counterproductive if your goal, again, is that “society that is equal and open, uninhibited, comfortable with diversity, and rich in human contact.” By drawing battle lines between and building walls around specific genders and races, you are impeding, not advancing, the long-term progressive vision.

Despite the problems that woke culture has in engaging all but the choir, it is rapidly becoming hegemonic in the arts. I suspect that my experience searching venues in Chicago is not unique. Wokeness can no longer claim any countercultural banner. It is, for all practical purposes, the Establishment in arts and humanities. And it is particularly damaging in the arena of authorship and the arts. Racial purity tests for who can write or paint about topics based on an increasingly granular identity politics is becoming the progressive norm. To my progressive friends I say be careful what you wish for. When creative identifying with demographics other than your own becomes the number one cultural sin, we will have pretty much lost everything the Civil Rights movement fought for.

But once any establishment becomes fixed in place, conditions are ripe for the next countercultural movement – in this case the “woke against woke” movement. It will begin in satire, and we may indeed see such a beginning in works such as those of the fictitious Titania McGrath, who turned out the be spiked columnist, Andrew Doyle. First subject wokeness to satire – but without giving any succor to conservatives. Indeed, conservatives must also be subject to the barb, else the movement is not countercultural at all but merely reactionary. When the satire starts to hit – who knows – it may trigger a Cambrian explosion in the arts, where after a (woke) period of narrower and narrower definitions of “acceptable,” the dam bursts open. Rather than circling the wagons around race and gender, restricting who can write what, suddenly everyone is encouraged to artistically explore everyone else’s point of view, everyone participating in every culture in a frenzy of mutual celebration not unlike the middle panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights.”

It will be a new Age of Aquarius. Thus spoke its prophet.


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Evil bastards

What do we do with evil bastards in literature? Not every work of literature includes them, but those that do seem to gain a particular purchase on the reader’s attention. Writers love to dream up evil bastards, and we love to enter the dream. But why are we drawn to representations of evil? Maybe because consciousness evolved as a practical adaptation, a problem-solving mechanism. If there’s a small flaw on a large canvas, we tend to zero in on the flaw. If twenty kids are playing nicely in a playground and one is misbehaving, all attention turns to the miscreant. Where there is no problem, consciousness relaxes; where there is a problem, consciousness engages in an urge to explain, to determine, to get our arms around the problem for future reference.

Whether you buy that intro or not, you might find it interesting to explore how fictional evil occurs as a problem we urgently want to explain, to learn from, to pin down for further reference. Below are a few templates for how to explain evil in its fictional deployments.

Social conditions

I might also call this the “materialist template”, and it is big in the age of realism. Evil is a result of historical conditions. Dickens novels might best exemplify this on the literary side, Marx on the philosophy side – human nature is neither good nor evil, but social conditions make it so.


Evil is part of the great cosmic struggle that is larger than any human life, an absolute that must be faced on its own terms. This model dominates not only overtly religious stories like Paradise Lost, but also heavily symbolic ones like Melville’s Billy Budd, where the human struggle of good and evil seems a shadow cast by some larger eternal archetypal or cosmic struggle.


Evil results from a deformation in the individual psyche, some repressed psychological trauma from the personal past that emerges in a destructive form. Poe’s psychopaths, for example: Montresor’s evil in “The Cask of Amontillado” is that of a mentally ill individual. There are no signs of poor social conditions or interventions of spiritual entities from some religious outer frame. There is just the nameless “injury” in Montresor’s personal past that rearranged his mind into that of a monster. (Note: If I were to separate a Psychoanalytic/Jungian version, I would fold it back into the metaphysical/religious. Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, e.g., is essentially a  Jungian/archteypal quest, and any good and evil Milkman encounters along the way are not just realistic details in the life of a man but plot points in an archetypal struggle. Again, the Jungian/archetypal model is my metaphysical/religious model recast into the language of psychoanalysis.)


Here, evil is irreducibly inexplicable, absurd, too arbitrary to be explained via any diagnostic metric. When Meursault kills the Arab in Camus’s The Stranger, we might call this evil in its existentialist aspect. Indeed, it is so inexplicable that we can hardly call it evil. It may be that the existentialist world view, following Nietzsche, is better relegated to the territory “beyond good and evil.” Let’s try Shakespeare’s Iago. He seems to represent a version of evil that is unmotivated, unexplained by a bad childhood or poor social conditions or metaphysical/religious interference or any other rational explanation. He just expresses evil as a random and fundamental force. Of course, his evil is recontained in Shakespeare’s world – not before harm is done, but the moral framing in Othello is not existentialist in tone. There is a moral order to the universe that we can glean from the tragedy. So perhaps Iago shows evil in its absurd or irrational aspect as something that can be recontained in a moral universe, whereas Meursault shows evil in the same aspect but with little or no moral framing.

I could probably think of more, but that is enough to chew on for one day. Feedback welcome.

The fascinating brain of teen girls

I don’t really know much about the brain of teen girls. As a man, the female psyche must on some level remain for me, as it was for Freud, “a dark continent” (The Question of Lay Analysis, 1926). Freud was prescient enough to know that the mechanisms he studied were the objective mechanisms of identity formation — not the subjective experience itself (the dark continent). He was also progressive enough to warn his fellow analysts against “underestimating the influence of social customs” in discussions of gender and to emphasize that “the proportion in which masculine and feminine are mixed in an individual is subject to quite considerable fluctuations” (Essay on Femininity, 1933).

But enough about Freud. After all the psychology and philosophy and literature I’ve read, I think my daughter (I believe 14 at the time) most succinctly expressed, by accident one day, exactly what it feels like to be a teenage girl. We were wandering a city in Spain — Barcelona, Madrid, I forget which city — and were in a green space filled with monuments. I had momentarily lost her, and then I heard her voice near a monument and came back up to her.

“Hey there. What ya doing?” I asked her.

“Singing. And thinking about how weird I look.”

She tossed the line off casually, but I thought that that was it. The rich and contradictory inner life of the teenage girl in a nutshell.

Now I welcome feedback from those of you who actually were teenage girls (and from those of you who weren’t — unlike some of my younger liberal friends, I reject all restrictions on what you are allowed to say, think, or do, based on your demographic identity).

Freud’s Wolf Man and Joyce’s Dubliners

It’s hard to read Freud’s case histories of the Rat Man (1909) and the Wolf Man (1918) and not be fascinated. Most intriguing of all is how Freud slowly pieces together the patient’s unconscious backstory using what little the patient gives him, small memories that have stuck with the patient for some reason: he was holding his mother’s hand as a toddler, and she was lamenting her illness to a doctor she was seeing off at the train station, and her words made a deep impression; he was standing with his governess in front of the house watching a carriage drive off with his father, mother, and sister, and then walked peacefully back into the house with his governess; there was a picture book with a wolf standing upright that his sister had used to frighten him. Each snapshot seems insignificant but left its mark, and indeed these “insignificant” moments become defining moments, albeit unconsciously, that shape all the subsequent life of the patient’s psyche.

Notice the similarity to James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914). Joyce spearheaded a turn in the history of the novel away from the perfectly crafted plotlines of Dickens toward something more subjective. What happens when you can no longer rely on plot milestones and neat closures to frame the flow of meaning? What happens – at least if you are in the early 20th century – is you stumble into a Freudian frame of meaning. In Dubliners, each story captures a moment with no big drama but with an impression left on the protagonist’s mind – the character’s disappointment in “Araby” when he arrives too late at a fair and is unable to get a gift for the girl he secretly loved, the child’s sense of the corpse’s presence at an in-home wake (“The Sisters”), the sense of something peculiar and transgressive in the old man’s approach in “An Encounter.” These moments have the same kind of vitality as the memory-scenes in Freud’s case histories. No bells and whistles, but they capture an impression that leaves a deep mark on the psyche.

I don’t know how deliberate Joyce’s Freudian ground of meaning was, but history makes some cross-pollination inevitable. Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press was offered (but declined) Joyce’s Ulysses for publication around the same time that they were publishing English translations of Freud’s on-going works (and poems by the likes of T. S. Eliot). Certainly all these towering early modernists – Joyce, Eliot, Woolf, Pound, D. H. Lawrence – were moving in the same circles, with Woolf’s Bloomsbury Group as one of the nuclei. But however tenuous the cross-connects, there is no doubt that Joyce’s Dubliners participates in reshaping the form of fiction away from the organizing principles of plot and climax. (Woolf’s To the Lighthouse [1927], to me, would be the greatest example of the modernist novel built around subjective points of reference, but Dubliners is closer to the kick-start.) Joyce thus helps to reshape modern identity – first by changing the form in which we see these human stories transacted, and secondly by changing the role of the reader. The reader must orient differently to Dubliners than he had to Dickens. No more of the objective markers that make Dickensian characters so memorable (one thinks, e.g., of Gradgrind, “whose head was all covered with knobs, like the crust of a plum pie”), or of the dramatic climax that brings all the plot threads together. In the trajectory of fiction from Dubliners to Woolf, the reader herself is cast into the role of psychoanalyst, peering into the minds of minor characters, looking for how lasting impressions are made of seemingly trivial events. It’s not about what the characters are doing so much as it is about the dynamics of being.

So was Joyce deliberately deploying Freud? Was Freud perhaps influenced by modernist writers and artists of the day? I’ll let others measure out the exact influences, but I’d recommend this experiment for my own readers: Pick up a copy of Freud’s Three Case Histories, which includes the Wolf Man, notice how reading it places you into the role of psychoanalyst, and ask yourself if the reader is not cast into the same role when he or she reads Dubliners or To the Lighthouse. And ask yourself if that shift in orientation about how we read does not partly reflect and partly implement a shift of human identity into its modern form.

Related: Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon/Sula; Jung on Joyce’s Ulysses

From Depth Psychology to the Akashic Record

It’s commonplace now to hear how modern physics increasingly dovetails with the ancient world view of the Eastern mystics. If this is true of our evolving conception of the objective universe and how it works, it is also true in the vast space of the subjective universe, the space of the psyche.

Before Freud, you had “faculty psychology,” which seemed well seated upon the Western classical world view – a symmetrical row of nice, neat boxes, each representing a “faculty” (appetite, emotion, desire, reason, etc.). Freud’s theories signaled a paradigm shift to “depth psychology,” with layers of unconscious drives and desires and memories folded beneath our conscious awareness, influencing our everyday behavior from invisible, forgotten spaces in the depths of the psyche.

“Depth psychology” is still the dominant paradigm for the psyche, and even Freud’s attackers draw upon Freud for their weapons, but his breakaway student, Jung, expanded the “depth” of depth psychology. Freud’s locus of interest is the individual psyche, and his case histories typically trace back antecedents of adult behaviors to the formative infantile development of the individual. Jung traces the roots of the psyche deeper still, to a place that transcends the individual altogether; hence we get the universal archetypes of the collective unconscious, a deep space of psychic phenomena shared by us all. You can think of it as our common grazing land, or if you prefer a high-tech metaphor, it’s the “cloud” wherein our fundamental data are stored and from which we all download to configure our own machinery. Either way it is here, in this transcendentally deep “subjective inner world,” that Jung finds “the instinctive data of the dark primitive psyche, the real but invisible roots of consciousness.”

It’s a short stretch from Jung to the akashic record of the mystics. The akashic record in the Eastern mythos is the record of everything normally considered past, present, and future (in our clumsy linear sense of time). Every thought, every movement of every leaf, is contained in this vast database, as it were. But the akashic record is more than a database. It is the ultimate reality. All our daily actions are reflections of, or abstractions from, the akashic record. We are right now living the akashic record, experiencing it from one orientation point. Through yoga, meditation, or other spiritual practices, you can almost picture your self-reflection carrying you down to the Freudian depth of childhood and then infancy, then breaking through to the Jungian depth of the collective unconscious, and finally arriving at the level we metaphorically call the akashic record. At this point, we’ve not only carried depth psychology to a point where Western psychology merges with Eastern mysticism, but we’ve inadvertently married the “objective” and “subjective” universes that provided the point of departure in the opening paragraph of this fine blog entry. Cosmic consciousness, as the very compound of the phrase suggests, simultaneously expresses ultimate reality in both its objective and subjective aspects. When you hit that ultimate depth, the inside becomes the outside, the innermost psyche finds itself expressed as the objective cosmos. So om mani padme hum, and I’ll see my physicist friends on the other side.

Tristram Shandy’s Faux Postmodernism

From time to time, my literati friends put forth Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759) as if it were a postmodernist novel 200 years ahead of its time. This is understandable, considering all the reflexivity and discontinuities built into the structure of the text. But on the core issue of human identity, Sterne is no postmodernist.

Human identity, to the postmodern, is essentially fragmented, incoherent, all colliding and discordant surfaces without any stabilizing interior or deep anchor. Sterne may superficially anticipate these postmodern preferences, insofar as human identity in Shandy, more so than in contemporaries in the period from Henry Fielding to Jane Austen, is whimsically determined by each character’s hobbyhorse. Sterne, however, is a man of sentiment, and his sentimental world view is at odds with postmodernism’s intellectually austere view of human identity. In Sterne’s case, the sentimental side wins. Although human identity in Shandy may seem random, even infinitely displaced by hobbyhorsical identity, this arbitrariness is underwritten in the text by a sense of private identity. (And insofar as private identity is perhaps more “private” in Sterne than in other writers of his age, he may anticipate Freud more than he anticipates postmodernism per se.)  It may be true that once we get Uncle Toby’s “military apparatus out of the way . . . the world can have no idea how he will act,” but Tristram suggests that the reader has a clearer vision than “the world”: “You have seen enough of my Uncle Toby” to know his “singleness of heart . . . plainness and simplicity” (italics mine).  For those who would appropriate Sterne for postmodernism, it may be tempting to see no stable identity behind the hobbyhorse.  (Compare to my snippets on Gertrude Stein or Robbe-Grillet.) A careful reading, however, suggests that there is private human identity, and that it is urgent that we recognize it as such, despite appearances, for this private identity is the real locus of the sympathetic passions at the heart of the 18th-century Cult of Sensibility, of which we might call Sterne a charter member.