The Knight Aberrant; or, Perverse Enlightenment
“Human beings are quite perverse aren’t they? ” So remarked an acquaitance quite casually — out of the blue — as we were riding together in his automobile. The remark took me by surprise for it was quite out of the context of the conversation we had been having up until that moment. I had to ask him if this sudden, unexpected observation and conclusion about humanity was confessional and autobiographical since “human beings are quite perverse” would necessarily have to include him and me also. But with that, he dropped the issue completely.
What is perversity?
My acquaitance I happen to know fairly well through an association of long-standing, so I have become familiar with some of his quirks. His conclusion about human beings — for it was conclusion and even a definition, not a genuine probing question — runs deeper than it may appear on the surface. His issue about human “perversity” is about human deviancy, aberrancy, even human sinfulness and “the original sin”.
My acquaitance prides himself on being fully secular. He doesn’t believe in a god (or so he says), but he certainly believes in a devil. This devil expels him daily from Eden, condemning him to “work by the sweat of his brow”. He is what they call “a workaholic” and he has a rather delusional self-image as being someone who is productive and efficient, whereas the truth is that his activities are usually pointless busy-ness for the sake of busy-ness. He is what they call “driven”, and I once commented to him that he acted as if he was always and everywhere feeling the compulsion of the devil’s whip on his back. He was visibly taken aback by that remark. I could tell from the look on his face that it had struck home. Although he said nothing at the time, a few weeks later he confessed to its truth by casually remarking on one subsequent occasion about how he was feeling the devil’s whip on his back. As if to prove it to me (and perhaps deliberately to prove it to me how he was hounded and driven by a devil) he removed his shirt one very hot work day — the only time he has ever done so — to reveal numerous blotches on his back. And at that moment, it was my turn to be taken aback.
There is a fundamental spiritual difference between those who are merely driven and those who are drawn — a difference that corresponds equally to Nietzsche’s distinction between those who seek “freedom from” and those who seek “freedom to“. The drawn are those who sense and respond to a calling — a vocation — to fulfill, or even create, a destiny, while the driven merely endure a fate. One has a purpose; they other, merely a task. To be driven from behind — by the past; or to be drawn from ahead, by the future — these are, spiritually speaking, quite different human types. The driven human being merely produces; the drawn type creates. At root is a certain attitude towards the meaning and value of time.
This difference in orientation and mood often translates into political ideology, as conservative or revolutionary respectively. It is the push from behind or the pull from ahead which also often gets expressed as the “nature versus nurture” controversy. The sense of being driven from behind, like Adam and Eve daily expelled and propelled from Eden, finds its formal justification as belief in the notion that one cannot escape something called “human nature”, invariably deemed as wicked, and which is often merely code for a sense of “original sin”.
This is the now subconscious context for my atheistic associate’s judgement of human perversity. In order to even judge such general human conduct as being “perverse”, one must harbour a standard of righteousness and perfection by which to come to some conclusion about perversity, deviance, and aberration as being such. That subconscious standard is still, for my associate, Jesus. His condemnation of human “perversity” was merely a massaging of the sense of inherent human “sinfulness” into a sanitary secular idiom that glossed over the theological content of it. The monkey on his back that he felt to be the devil’s whip — his own often pointless workaholism and mere productivism — is constant metaphysical guilt. The real devil and the monkey on his back is a decayed and now unconscious residue of a perverse form of Christianity. The man is still “religious” in all the worst senses, for he still clings to obscure theological dogmas as hidden assumptions of life by which he perceives and judges the world and others despite himself. And although he prides himself on being rational, secular, practical, anti-religious and matter-of-fact, he is in truth merely superstitious. He is, in other words, perverse, aberrant, and somewhat fanatical himself. He remains a slave to the past, to unconscious dogmas and motivations within himself of which he is completely unaware. Consequently, he feels like a puppet on a string and a plaything of a devil and hidden conspirators.
So, yes, his judgement on human beings as being perverse was quite confessional and autobiographical, for his ego nature behaved completely at odds with his now unconscious ideals, dogmas, pieties to which he no longer consciously subscribed, but which nonetheless continued to operate through him and judge him and others from an unconscious level. And these self-contradictory stresses give rise to occasional bursts of irrationality on his part. And his workaholism is his way of avoiding introspection about the sources of his self-contradictory soul’s conflict.
Ironically, I agree with him that human beings are perverse creatures, and for that reason he values me as a sympathetic and agreeable soul. But my reasons for holding human beings as being aberrant are completely different than his.
A couple of years ago I read Brian Victoria’s Zen at War. It is a history of Buddhism in Japan during the fascist period and the chauvinism of “National Buddhism” or “Imperial Way Buddhism” as it was called, when (with very few exceptions) ostensible enlightened ones and Zen masters became Holy War Buddhists and made common cause with fascism, militarism, and the expansionary Japanese Imperium. After the war, when these enlightened ones were called upon to account for the apparent aberration and perversion of fundamental Buddhist tenets, D.T. Suzuki gave, by way of justification, that “enlightenment” in no way prescribed whether one were to become a liberal, a conservative, an anarchist, a socialist, a communist, or a fascist. This was simply a matter of the predilection of the practitioner. Another rationale was that the Buddha had provided no guidance for dealing with the issue of war and imperialism. After the war, the Buddhist community even buried, covered over, or rationalised the history of Buddhist complicity in Japanese fascism and imperial Japan’s atrocities.
One can rightfully question the value of such “enlightenment” if it provides no guidance to a higher resolution of social and spiritual contradictions, or if it is so easily bent and submits to the service of power and violence. Some Japanese Buddhists argued that had the Buddhist community not compromised itself, it would have been completely expunged from Japan and wholly replaced by the official state religion — Shintoism. But that seems, again, to subordinate the “Ultimate Truth” to matters of expediency and of the servility of enlightenment to power. “Nothing is forbidden. Everything is permissible”. It seems to make a mockery of the claims made for the value of enlightenment if the unmoved mover is indeed so readily movable, or cannot find guidance in his/her enlightenment for a superior way of life and conduct amongst his fellow men.
It raises the question, therefore, whether there isn’t even also a “perverse” or aberrant form of enlightenment that still leaves men and women blind to their own darkness — a kind of Luciferic enlightenment rather than a Christic enlightenment (for the name “Lucifer” also means “light bearer”). It was a distinction made by one of my teachers at one time, by which I assumed he meant to distinguish between the European Enlightenment and Buddhist Enlightenment.
It is an interesting question: what is the value of enlightenment?
Of course, “clarity” (which one may assume to be equivalent of enlightenment) was the second of the “four enemies” of the man of knowledge in don Juan’s practice, as described by Carlos Castaneda. One could revel in one’s new-found mastery of clarity for a while, so hard won, but had to even assume a skeptical stance in regard to one’s clarity eventually or be defeated by it, holding this clarity to be something like a mistake. Why? “Because it forces a man never to doubt himself”, was don Juan’s answer.
Something like that seems to have been the problem with Japanese Buddhism, too. It assumed its own finality and this sense of finality became its own blindness, darkness, and deficiency. When challenged by power and issues of power, it could not handle it.
Power is, in fact, the third enemy of the man of knowledge. That would make “clarity” as described in Castaneda’s terms as the second enemy, the same as what my teacher called “Luciferic light”. Enlightenment, so-called, may come with an aura of finality about it which may be, ironically (if not perversely) completely deceiving.