Archive | October 2010

Narcissism: The Human Condition

I will always keep coming back to this theme, over and over again, because it is fundamental to our situation. If man is the sick animal and his world is a sick world, it is because of narcissism. And narcissism is, fundamentally, the attempt of the ego to ground itself in something permanent, which is unreal because this world of our experience is a world of flux, transience, relativities, and impermanence. Most especially narcissism is the attempt of egoic being to ground itself and sustain itself in a self-image, summarised and focussed in the named entity we are as social beings.

This is idolatry. Yet, it is the very meaning of the myth of Narcissus and Echo. Because the narcissist feels inwardly dead and empty, he compensates by seeking “to make a name for himself”, as they say. He believes that to be is to be perceived and to be recognised, even if it is only as notoriety. The fame he craves, even as notoreity, is his narcissistic attempt to ground his sense of self in and through an external or phenomenal — even as honour or reputation — by making a name for himself that he can then lodge in because he has no inner life of his own.

This is the meaning of the “vampire” theme so prevalent today — a dead thing that can only be revived and resuscitated by continously feeding off the life-blood and energies of others. It is the golem of Jewish legend. His “handle” becomes his identity. He is moved, but he does not act. People fret anxiously today about “identity theft” because one’s identity has been invested in externals. (And such “identity theft” is a problem in a society where identity is externalised, and the impersonator can function because society has become impersonal. But impersonation is not literally “identity theft”).

Idolatry is unsatisfactory. It is another form of dukkha (dis-ease, malaise). The idolator suffers from a lack of an inner life through attachment to the phenomena, particularly as possessions. He requires external stimuli to feel animated. Divesting oneself of one’s possessions, in whatever form these may take (private property, ideology, self-interest, self-image, “honour”, “dignity”, “reputation”, “principles”, etc) is the hardest thing for the egoic being to do, because it is experienced as diminishment and as a little death. A rich man loses his possessions, like the lover loses his beloved, and he commits suicide. He jumps off tall buildings or throws himself in front of speeding trains.

The narcissist invests himself in his possessions, which he calls his “interests”. He flows out into them and these then become his power objects and idols (he may even call these his “principles”). These idols are sustained in their power by this efflux and influx of energy, which is called “sacrifice”.  As the idols become more powerful and more demanding, the energies and resources of the inner life are correspondingly diminished and depleted (apathy). This is often cited as a common symptom of narcissism — feelings of deadness within, feeling like a computer or machine, an inner emptiness, weariness, fatigue. These feelings he then calls by names like “absurd” or describes in terms of “meaninglessness”. This was Andy Warhol’s paranoia, too. He dreaded waking up one morning, looking into the mirror, and seeing nothing there.

A rich man once came to Jesus for instruction. Why did the rich man come to Jesus to seek instruction? Because he felt spiritually, inwardly unfulfilled. He felt a deficit in his life despite his wealth and possessions. Jesus gave him his first lesson. “Give up all you have”. The rich man went away sorrowful, because he was very attached to his wealth. He didn’t realise that Jesus had given him the most powerful spiritual lesson he could have. The rich man had invested himself in his possessions, and that was the cause of the absence of a rich inner life, his sense of deficit. The richer he became in externals, the deeper the deficit in internals. Jesus diagnosed the man’s “dukkha” or malaise precisely — his attachment to his wealth, in which he had invested his being and identity, was his obstacle to entering into the Kingdom of Heaven right then and there.

Ernst Becker once wrote two books. One was called The Denial of Death. The other was called Escape From Freedom. I have not read these books (except in brief summaries) but I can already determine from the titles that the one follows from the other. The false self falsifies, because it exists through continuous self-deception. Everything that people today call “freedom” is the exact opposite of its meaning and is itself tainted by human narcissism, particularly where freedom is defined through the institution of “private property” in which egoic being invests itself, which then becomes “sacred” principle. More self-idolatry.  At best, in the social context, we can speak of certain “liberties” (personal possessions being one of these) but not of freedom in the fuller sense, which is the meaning of absolution (and Absolute). It would be good if we distinguished between liberty and freedom, because they are not the same (and that confusion, too, is a result of narcissism).

Private property is not sacred. It is a secular institution. It is even the opposite of sacred. Anxiety and paranoia are the inevitable fate of any soul that tries to ground itself and its sense of being in and through external things, for all these things pass away in time.

A Zen master, returning from a night-time stroll, discovers his house has been burglarised. “Too bad I couldn’t give the thief this beautiful moon”, he muses. That man is free, which is why he is a master. A lesser man would take offense at being so violated. Did the Zen master forgive the offense? No and Yes. To forgive, in human terms, means, first to take offense, but afterwards relent. In the case of the Zen master, there was no self left to be offended, so there was nothing to offend and therefore nothing to forgive. The covetousness and avarice of the thief was his own slavery and dukkha. While the theft may have caused an inconvenience, it did not cause a sense of loss. No one, for example, could steal anything from a man like Rumi.

Here is the fundamental paradox at the root. If one becomes nothing, nothing can be stolen from nothing and there is nothing to take offence or suffer violation.  At the same time, in becoming nothing, one becomes everything (the “One”). And where one has become everything, also nothing can be stolen.

(In the meantime, though, the practice of forgiveness is necessary until such time as one reaches the station of total freedom (the Absolute) where one realises that, where there is no-thing to take offense, there is no offense to forgive. This station is called “innocence”, which is different from what people normally understand as “innocence”. This is a divine innocence which knows nothing of sinners and guilt, for as is said, God has forgiven your offences already even before you ask).

Here is another description of this, already familiar from Rumi’s poem cited in the last post. This describes a satori of a Buddhist monk,

“Ztt! I entered. I lost the boundary of my physical body. I had my skin, of course, but I felt I was standing in the center of the cosmos. I saw people coming toward me, but all were the same man. All were myself. I had never known this world before. I had believed that I was created, but now I must change my opinion: I was never created; I was the cosmos. No individual existed.”

This is the realisation of the Buddhist teaching of anatman or No-Self. “No individual existed”, and yet “I was the cosmos”. Although some call this realisation “cosmic consciousness”, it is the result of losing the human form and escaping beyond the boundaries of the self. This has been called “becoming nothing” or “empty mirror” (or the perfection of wisdom, or “stopping the world” or “stopping the wheel of time”).

And yet, “I was the cosmos” would seem to be the ultimate expression of a thorough-going narcissism (and some critics have called this “cosmic consciousness” precisely that, without much understanding). This paradox exists because of Omar Khayyam’s insight that “only a hair separates the false from the true”. This is why Almaas (Hameed Ali) writes of “the transformation of narcissism in self-realization” (in his book The Point of Existence). You are the world. The truth is very subtle (but so is the falsehood). It is very easy to confuse narcissism and self-realisation, or false self and true self, because they are closely connected as (little b) being is with (big B) Being. You cannot really separate the one from the other. It is the very attempt to do so that makes for human narcissism.

The paradox, the ironies of it all, are captured by a wonderful Zen proverb I (re)discovered today

Ten years of dreams in the forest!
Now on the lake’s edge laughing,
Laughing a new laugh.

“Ten years of dreams in the forest!” — This is narcissistic existence. The image of the forest is also Dante’s “deep, dark woods”.
“Now on the lake’s edge laughing” — Entering the clearing. This lake is the sea of awareness. It is Rumi’s “ocean”. It is self-realisation in the form “I am the cosmos”.
“Laughing a new laugh” — this “new laughter” is the free laughter of the self-realised, not that of the narcissist. This is “the laughter of the gods”, as it has been called. It is the laughter of Nietzsche’s “free spirit”, the bemused laughter of one who has suddenly realised that “only a hair separates the false from the true”, and that Man has ever played a great joke upon himself. What we call “happiness” (or pursuit of happiness) is just a shadow of this kind of joyous laughter that comes from the depth of Being. Happiness is only the shadow of the joy, which shadow we call “the unredeemed”. But it is “unredeemed” because it is but cheap coin compared to this “pearl of great price”, as the Sufis call it.

Narcissism is shadow-boxing taken all-too seriously. Our image of God is quite mistaken. God’s Being is laughter from end to end. The man who stood by the lake’s edge laughing, and laughing a new laugh, was the laughing God’s laughter. We call that kind of real laughter “belly laughing” because it comes from the depth our being.  Have you ever seen the image of the Laughing Buddha? He has a huge belly. That’s what it means. His joyous laughter comes from the depths of Being. He must laugh. Our image of God as stern and heavy is because we are ourselves heavy with our own self-importance. In fact, we are so heavy with our own self-importance that we even believe that the eye of God is on us all the time. That’s how self-important we think we are. Self-important people take offence at everything. Consequently, our God mirrors our own sense of self-importance by glaring back at us — offended.

It would be far better for the world if God were perceived as the Joyous God. “The Laughing God” should be one of the names of God. God’s creativity is his eternal joy and laughter. Our world would change immediately if we were to know God as this eternal laughter as did that Zen monk.

This, actually, Nietzsche tried to do. He called this new God by the old name Dionysos — the Laughing God. But, by any other name, Dionysos is just another one of the names of God.


That, actually, was the beauty of yesterday’s rally in Washington — the Rally for Sanity (and/or Fear). It was held in the presence of the laughing god. The reactionaries were offended, of course. They take themselves very seriously (and they expect you to take them just as seriously, too). Comedians, they declared, should stay out of politics. But actors, it seems (Ronald Reagan, Schwarzennegger) are OK because they’re conservative actors.

Well, that’s just narcissism for you.

(I tried to find an image of the Laughing Buddha on the web. I couldn’t find any good ones. I think that just goes to show that we aren’t yet there, when we can’t effectively depict or symbolise divine joy imaginatively. It would still seem to be beyond our capabilities.  No man can look upon the face of God and live…. because he would die laughing).


Heidegger and Post-Enlightenment Anxiety

Although I had intended to post something this evening about John Donne’s poem An Anatomy of the World, while I was looking up some reference material online I happened upon this essay by David Rosner “Anti-Modernism and Discourses of Melancholy“.  Rosner’s essay touches upon some of the things that I wrote about in the last post, and I recommend reading it in light of those themes.

Nonetheless, you may discover (as I did) a number of shortcomings in this essay.  Rosner defines “modernism” only as the period after the first World War. This is far too constricting a definition (for it is actually post-modern). You will also note that Rosner’s “melancholy”, associated with the Angst of the human condition after the Great War is not historically broad enough given our discussion of the epidemic of Melancholia that attended the beginning of the Modern Era almost 500 years ago. As a result, Rosner’s essay, while valuable, suffers from a too narrow contraction of historical horizons.

And a third point to consider while reading this essay: Heidegger’s anxieties about groundlessness as homelessness (the “unheimlich” in German) contrast very starkly with Buddhism’s (and Rumi’s) embrace of groundlessness as emancipation and realisation of the Absolute. This is very important insofar as there is no ‘ground of Being’. Being itself is the ground. Heideggers anxiety and melancholy — the modern condition as we also find it expressed in John Donne’s poetry — was a result of trying to ground the modern self and identity in itself as a for-itself and an in-itself. This is futile. And this futility in the ego’s trying to ground itself in itself (or in its possessions) is the cause of anxiety and homelessness (alienation).  Rosner is actually describing Heidegger as being the Prodigal Son.

The other word for “groundlessness” is “formlessness”. Groundlessness is total freedom. Groundlessness is the meaning of don Juan’s encounter with infinity, for infinity is groundlessness. It is also formlessness. And that very groundlessness and formlessness is what allowed Rumi to write,

“I am the morning mist,
and the breathing of evening.
I am the wind in the top of the grove,
and surf on the cliff.
Mast, rudder, helmsman and keel,
I am also the coral reef they founder on….
Both candle and the moth
crazy around it…
I am all orders of being,
the circling galaxy,
the evolutionary intelligence,
the lift and the falling away.
What is and what isn’t…”

Do you see the error in this modern anxiety and malaise about groundlessness and homelessness? For Rumi, “home” is everywhere, not just somewhere or anywhere that the ego can ground itself in. Rumi’s groundlessness is the result of having abandoned mere egoic being in exchange for becoming everything.  Rumi’s groundlessness and formless is the precondition for the absolute freedom of his consciousness to assume any form it wants to be or become. This is what it means to become “infinite”. It also means to become groundless and formless.

To know the thing you must become the thing you want to know. And you can only come to know all by becoming nothing in yourself — by becoming, egoically speaking, groundless. This is non-attachment. This is absolution in the realisation of the Absolute as groundless Being itself.




Preview of “An Anatomy of the World”

‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,
All just Supply, and all Relation;
Prince, subject, father, son, are things forgot,
For every man alone thinks he hath got
To be a Phoenix, and that then can be
None of that kind, of which he is, but he.

2011 will mark the 400th anniversary of John Donne’s poem, An Anatomy of the World. It’s not really a significant anniversary (there won’t be any parades or commemorations — apart from this one), but it is significant in one respect. After reading the poem, written in 1611, and noting the resemblance of its complaints about modernity to those still being made, 400 years later, you may ask yourself then: “what then has really changed in the Western historical experience? Has anything really changed at all?”

Indeed. The themes of his times that arise in Donne’s poetry, and this poem in particular, are very much the same as we explored in The Dark Age Blog earlier. Here they are again, 400 years further on. Donne could just as well be our contemporary in his sentiments and observations. Someone is bound to say, therefore, that there is nothing unique about our times and our alarms about its symptoms of Age-Ending decadence and nihillism are misplaced. It could well be charged that, as Donne himself put it, ‘Tis Labour lost to have discovered the world’s infirmities” all over again. It has ever been thus.

The charge would probably stick, too, were not one thing overlooked. Donne was writing, 400 years ago, during his own Age-Ending experience in the rise of the English Renaissance. He is contemporary with Shakespeare (and some lines from the poem recall similar lines in Shakespeare, including the one just cited about “labour lost”). There is a certain malaise that attends this transition from Age of Faith to Age of Reason (and of Revolution, too), and that malaise was epidemic in its time, when it was called “the black bile” or “melancholia“. The great German Renaissance artist, Albrecht Dürer, even depicted it in an etching by that name. It, like Donne’s poem itself, expresses the experience of that feeling of torn-to-pieces-hood that attends transitional ages. Something is being lost. Something is being gained. There is a death and a birth. This is much the same sense in which Gebser speaks in his Ever-Present Origin of our “progress” being simultaneously a distantiation from our roots — an alienation from origin. It is, once again, the perpetual theme of the Prodigal Son and Daughter.


Albrecht Dürer: Melancholia

The disintegrating Era in which Donne penned his verses was blood-soaked. It is the last gasp of a dying Christendom dissolving in schism and sectarian strife: Reformation and Counter-Reformation; 100 Years War; 30 Years War; the rise of the Nation State and subordination of the Papal Church; of individualism, utilitarianism, and the rational pursuit of self-interest (originally a religious imperative, not a secular one). Reading the poem, you might think that Donne was already familiar with Rene Descartes, John Locke, and Adam Smith, but in 1611, Descartes was still a youth (1596 – 1650) and Smith will only appear on the scene over a century later (b. 1723). Isaac Newton will appear on the scene only in 1642. It is principally from Copernicus (1473 – 1543), Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626), and Galileo (1564 – 1642) that Donne understands “the new philosophy” mentioned in the poem (and that philosophy, also, emergent from out of earlier Renaissance perspectivism and “point of view” perception. It was the Renaissance artists who first invented the method of analysis of space). The Scientific Revolution is now underway, only, it hasn’t yet become fully self-conscious. It is still incoherent and inarticulate (mixed up with alchemy and magic, for example), awaiting the words of a Newton and a Descartes to give it a clear voice and a secure identity. There’s an snippet of poetry from Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744) that captures this sudden awakening of the Age of Reason to self-consciousness,

“Nature and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night
God said, Let Newton be! and all was Light.” — Alexander Pope

But with Donne’s poetry, we are not yet there. It is all still a labrynthine incoherence that he finds around him. The motif of the labyrinth (which Donne renders as incoherence) is actually quite common at this time, and it was given by Descartes as the goad for secluding himself away (somewhat like a Buddha) until he discovered a new organon or method, which he laid out in his famous Discours de la Methode. Cogito, ergo sum became Ariadne’s thread through the Minotaur’s maze.  Descartes really did not invent anything. He gave voice to what was already a presence around him, but which was still unconscious of itself. That’s the significance of Pope’s snippet about Newton, too. Ever since, the man of the modern type has been called (until lately anyway) Newtonian man or Cartesian man.

We are actually in the same situation today relative to our own invisible environment — the technologically, artificially constructed built-environment of our “Second Nature”, and our anxiety, confusion, and perplexity about our circumstances is just as great today as it was in Donne’s time. The actual time we live in and experience in its incoherence has not yet become self-aware or conscious of itself. It is, as yet, “unmanifested” in that sense even though it is invisible presence.

There is another aspect to Donne’s poetry that must be taken into account, here, before diving into his world. Donne was a Catholic in Protestant England, and it was a precarious existence for a Catholic. The Catholic invasion of England by the Spanish Armada had only been destroyed in 1588, and the loyalties of English Catholics were suspect. Some of Donne’s poetry is cryptic, in consequence. But Donne’s “catholicism” isn’t orthodox. It’s quite existential. The word “catholic” means “universal” or, precisely, kata – holos — “thoroughly whole” (which, in Latin, could be rendered by the meaning of “perfected”, per + factus — thoroughly made or made entire, ie, fulfilled). This is Donne’s “catholicism” in effect, as captured in the famous meditation,

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every
man is a piece of the continent, a part of the
main. If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory
were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or
of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes
me, because I am involved in mankind, and
therefore never send to know for whom the bells
tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, no. 17 (Meditation) 1624

Donne’s “humanism” is actually his catholicism, and much of this appears equally in his poem An Anatomy of the World where to be “catholic” in the existential sense is to be “well” — ie whole, entire, complete, universal. It is not a creed, or credo, (which today we would call an “ideology”). It is this catholicism as kata-holos that infuses the fuller meaning of “An Anatomy of the World“. There is something of the spirit of Rumi in Donne, in that respect.

In another respect, Donne’s own torn-to-pieces-hood, as it reflects his “times out of joint” (he actually uses that phrase which we attribute principally to Shakespeare), is the conflict between “credo, ut intelligam” of the Age of Faith and the emerging “cogito, ergo sum” of the Age of Reason. Credo, ut intelligam (I believe, that I might understand) was Anselm of Canterbury’s formula for the proper conduct of reason, and it makes imminent sociological (and not just theological) sense for its time. Donne, however, already foresees the contradiction arising that will emerge in time as Descartes “cogito, ergo sum” and as the method of radical doubt (the skeptical method) that will negate the basic formula for scholasticism and the Age of Faith. This is the nihilism that he bears witness to in his poem. It could well be compared to Nietzsche’s witness to the nihilism of Modernity, too. For Donne does, in a sense, anticipate Nietzsche by almost three centuries. For the death of the “soul” that is the lamentation in Donne’s poem is only fully realised three centuries later as Nietzsche’s controversial declaration of  “the death of God”, too.  Donne’s catholicism — his entanglement in the life of all mankind — is realised both synchronically and diachronically, that is to say, irregardless of space or time. Donne’s catholic consciousness is what we would today call “integral” or “holistic”.

Change does occur, but at a real donkey’s pace. It’s not that Donne is clinging to a decaying past. Not at all. He feels intensely the allure and promise, too, of the new age aborning. But he is also conscious of its inherent defects and imperfections (from the sense of his “catholic” understanding) that are to become historically problematic in Jean Gebser’s work as “the deficient mode of the mental-rational structure of consciousness”. This describes enantiodromia or “reversal of fortune” — reversal at the extremity of action (called “transgression” in terms of the Abrahamic religions, hubris in Greek humanist terms, or the karmic law in Buddhist terms).

So, why Donne is still relevant today has to do with the action of enantiodromia and the karmic law also. It has to do with an often misunderstood statement in the New Testament: “the stone that the builders rejected has become the foundation stone” or keystone of the new order (words to that effect, anyway). The path not taken at the beginning of the Modern Era, although it was an option and a probable reality not actualised by collective choice and decision, is the foundation of “the world to come”. That is the rule. It is also a discovery made by Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy in his review of history (Out of Revolution: Autobiography of Western Man), as well as by Jean Gebser in his Ever-Present Origin. Donne, as an outsider to his times, belongs to that probable pathway that was not followed, and which is closely connected with the earlier work of Nicholas of Cusa. Although it is broadly (and mistakenly) called “romantic” consciousness, it was later to be called “Counter-Enlightenment” (also, not an accurate term). Usually, the counter-enlightenment is assumed to involve people like Goethe, Blake, Vico, Haman, and some others. But the chief hallmark of those called “counter-enlightenment” is that they frequently insisted on the holistic and integral character of reality and truth against the analytical and dissectional bias of the rationalistic.

This is the path not taken historically that is now becoming the only and even necessary path. Just as the New Testament statement: “the sins of the fathers shall be visited down to the third and fourth generations” is not a religious principle, but a sociological one, so is the statement “the stone that the builders rejected has become the keystone” also a sociological statement, and not essentially a religious one. At that time, though, all truth statements had to be couched in religious language because there was no other idiom in which to represent them, so they took on the garb of theology even though they weren’t that. They are essentially observations about the meaning and action of time, and are very close in meaning to the karmic law.

With this preamble out of the way, I want to devote more time to Donne’s poem directly and dive right into it, now. Donne remains a most significant figure because he is a part of that keystone and archway that was rejected at the beginning of the Modern Era, and yet which must return and recur inevitably as the probable path not taken. At the very outset of the Modern Era, the crossroads leading to an holistic or integralist path or an analytical and dissectional one was present as a choice. The accent, however, fell on the analytical and dissectional, culminating in Descartes. That crossroads, with its path not taken, is still present probability and latency.  And assuming we survive the juggernaut logic of the disintegrative trends of our times, it is the path that will now be taken.