Archive for the ‘history’ Category

“Unnatural”

December 21, 2014

“My dear, I did not doubt that you would acknowledge I was right in much that I have said. Indeed, I am so bold as to think that presently you will come to agree with me, if not in every detail, at any rate in the main. But as yet you still scoff, and take the view that three-fourths of my ideas arise from contrariness of spirit, and that of the rest, at least half are to be put down to my sadistic nature. “If you are to be believed,” you write, “we must abandon the accepted idea that there are unnatural lusts and adopt the view that what we are wont to call perversions, masturbation, homosexuality, sodomy, or whatever these things are named, are innate tendencies of man, the common property of everybody’s nature.”

Have we not already had a talk about that word “unnatural?” To me it seems an expression of man’s self-glorification, that he likes to feel himself lord of creation. He divides the world into two parts; whatever pleases him at the time is for him natural; what he has an aversion to he calls unnatural. Have you ever yet seen anything at all that lay outside the realm of nature? For that is what is signified by the word unnatural. I and Nature, that is how man thinks, and never once is he troubled at the thought of his presumptuous self-deification. No, dear scoffer, whatever is, is natural, even if it seems to you to be contrary to rule, even if it goes against the law of Nature. Natural laws are the creation of men, one must never forget that, and if anything appears to be contrary to a natural law, that is only proof that the law is wrong. Strike the word “unnatural” out of your vocabulary, and there will be one stupidity the less in your speech.”

From Georg Groddeck, The Book of the It. Intro. Lawrence Durrell (New York: Vintage, 1961[1923]), 65-66.

Birds

November 25, 2014

Birds. They embody the un-embodied. They are as the very wind, a zephyr. Almost pure spirit — if not for the feathers. My attraction to them is echoed in all my worldly attachments, most of which aren’t that worldly. As you may have gathered by my photography and writing, I am drawn to the sky and stars.

I am also drawn to birds for this same — in alchemical terms — overabundance of spirit. I have been in turmoil, mind and body in a tortured battle for supremacy. This blind dualism has been further reinforced by a tumultuous and destabilizing romantic relationship. No doubt my Achilles heel, and as a Freudian analyst would say, yet another reason I like “birds”. The Id is a real pun-y guy.

Yesterday mind and body just collided…Bits came apart and things curled off in wild orbits, lacking any cohesiveness. The body was damaged — scarred but still fully functional — and the mind shifted uncomfortably.

And where was spirit? Somehow in the midst of all that spirit appeared. And it brought calm to what could have been an even worse situation.

This morning, after it was all over, I went outside. And there were the birds. There was a wet, foggy, quiet over everything, what one might call the ideal bird environment. It’s in those times when I think birds remember their deepest Jurassic roots. One might even say life remembers. Dinosaurs with feathers has always seemed like an apt phrase.

The birds were everywhere. Little songbirds — sparrows, finches, juncos — fluttered in and out among the leafless branches in the garden. The air was alight with “bird-ness”. A Stellar’s Jay, boisterous and bold, chased the smaller birds away from the neighbor’s feeder.

I decided to do more than step outside briefly and actually immersed myself in the space. I grounded myself, took a few breaths and found Malkuth very deeply…

And just as I opened my eyes an eagle soared across my field of vision and perched on one of the highest nearby trees. He displaced a companion, who settled on the top of another tree beside him.

As I just watched (I often ask now…When do we “just watch”?) these two regal incarnations of spirit I thought of a quote from a book I am currently reading — Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth — that reminded me of why I — and in some way we all — like birds:

“Since time immemorial, flowers, crystal, precious stones, and birds have special significance for the human spirit. Like all life-forms, they are, of course, temporary manifestations of the underlying one Life, one Consciousness. Their special significance and the reason why humans feel such fascination for and affinity with them can be attributed to their ethereal quality.

Once there is certain degree of Presence, of still and alert attention in human beings’ perceptions, they can sense the divine life essence, the one indwelling consciousness or spirit in every creature, every life-form, recognize it as one with their own essence and so love it for themselves. Until this happens, however, most humans see only the outer forms, unaware of the inner essence, just as they are unaware of their own essence and identify only with their own physical and psychological forms.

In the case of a flower, a crystal, precious stone, or bird, however, even someone with little or no Presence can occasionally sense that there is more there than the mere physical existence of form, without knowing that this is the reason why he or she is drawn towards it, feels an affinity with it. Because of its ethereal nature, its form obscures the indwelling spirit to a lesser degree than is the case with other life-forms. The exception to this are all newborn life-forms — babies, puppies, kittens, lambs, and so on. They are fragile, delicate, not yet firmly established in materiality. An innocence, a sweetness and beauty that are not of this world still shine through them. They delight even relatively insensitive humans.

So when you are alert and contemplate a flower, crystal, or bird without naming it mentally, it becomes a window for you into the formless. There is an inner opening, however slight, into the realm of spirit. This is why these three “en-lightened” life-forms have played such an important part in the evolution of human consciousness since ancient times; why, for example, the jewel in the lotus flower is a central symbol of Buddhism and a white bird, the dove, signifies the Holy Spirit in Christianity. They have been preparing the ground for a more profound shift in planetary consciousness that is destined to take place in the human species. This is the spiritual awakening that we are beginning to witness now.”*

As I continued to turn this idea — the symbolic bird — around in my mind I also tried to get beyond the “I” of it. Of what it means to me. Today, because of the “news” of the world, I thought of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, a book largely devoted to her experiences of racism growing up in the southern US. I reflected on the powerful sway of ego in the world we live in, and of the way it generates notions of race and of identity — both as it is lived and as it is projected onto the living. I think the final stanza of the poem that the book’s title centres around is a universal (that isn’t universal):

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom
.

For much of the last few months I have bemoaned what I perceived as my own loss of freedom, something that has been difficult for me to understand and accept. In truth I have access to a kind of freedom, a kind of privilege, if you will, that many do not have. And yet, in a way as the above quote suggests, we can all have access to that privilege — that freedom. And this is true even when we aren’t free.

I don’t know what that means. It doesn’t mean much.

But it does leave me with a question:

When did we start caging birds at all? And why?

*Quote From Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose (New York: Plume [Penguin], 2006), 3-5.

Cascading Thoughts

October 6, 2014

Someone mentioned synesthesia to me the other day and defined it as the opposite of amnesia. Although that’s not at all what it is, the latter notion stuck with me. The opposite of amnesia; A swirling vortex of thoughts and memories, cascading all at once. This overwhelming mental state I understand, since I’ve lived it time and time again. Some marvel at my recall or the quick and lateral associations I sometimes make, but often it is more curse than blessing. Ideas, concepts, memories, feelings, vague intuitions followed over-enthusiastically — all this blends in an uncomfortable palette of being. Deleuze’s multiplicities. Or nothing to do with post-modern French philosophy at all. Just an assault.

This then is the quest — to tame the brain and find flow, rather than get caught in eddies and backwaters.

Yet as I sit and write this, sitting on a rock overlooking a quiet backwater in the river, autumn sun dipping below the treeline across the shore, the bubbling flow of a gentle waterfall just upriver, I think there is virtue in how I think (imagine the convoluted nature of that). That my ruminations and absurdities amount to meaning. Or at least coherence.

Wasn’t it the “weeping philosopher”, Heraclitus, who said that “No man ever steps in the same river twice“?

Eddies, backwaters or thundering waterfalls…

It’s all flow.

Life and Childhood

September 8, 2014

“Life begins with childhood, and by a thousand devious paths through maturity attains its single goal, once more to be a child, and the one and only difference between people lies in the fact that some grow childish, and some childlike.”

From Georg Groddeck, The Book of the It. Intro. Lawrence Durrell (New York: Vintage, 1961[1923]), 13.

Iron Mine Bay

April 20, 2014

Iron

The Power of Vitalism

April 1, 2014

We exist in a social and intellectual world that is deeply schizophrenic. As the tradition of the Marxists reminds us, society is constructed and constrained by class, economics, and control of the means of production. Thinkers from the Frankfurt School extended the idea of limits and constraint into the realm of the academic and aesthetic, speaking of “instrumental rationality” and “the culture industry.” Philosopher Michel Foucault showed us how our very bodies and minds are disciplined and ordered by dominant knowledge forms, forms that further shape our most basic institutions. His project of trying to intervene into this normalizing process with his deep quasi-psychiatric analysis and treatment of post-Enlightenment society met with mixed results.

Postmodern thinkers like Derrida and Lyotard have added further complications, undermining the notion of grand narratives and even the fixed meaning of text itself. At times it seems we are left in a chaotic, endlessly confusing, frustratingly relativist world. Few still revel in this intellectual morass without any even vague guideposts, much as it at times does provide for dynamic and playful aesthetic outbursts.

And thus we are left with life. Life constantly ordered, organized, constrained, systematized, analyzed, institutionalized, disciplined, proscribed, described, and, sadly at times, senselessly destroyed.

But, despite these factors, life is a constant reminder of the small, essential truth of vitalism. It remains, sometimes only in slight, subtle ways, sometimes only in fits and starts, ultimately unpredictable in any universal sense. No ordered, mechanistic, technocratic system, regardless of its ferocity or scale, can completely consume life’s endlessly unpredictable and dynamic process of becoming.

Power is a heady and dominant notion in our world, but life is, in its essential nature, beyond the constraints of power. To believe in life as life, to accept some small segment of the idea of vitalism, is to, in the final analysis, “fight the power.”

N.B. The original draft of this text is about fifteen years old…It was recently rediscovered and necromantically re-animated and re-purposed as a blog post.

Shameless Self-Promotion Sunday

March 23, 2014

Much of what gets posted on this blog is essentially ephemera — random thoughts, idle speculation, little morsels of meaning, and the occasional snapshot. But I do also produce more cohesive work in my “real life” as a historian and philosopher of science. Believe me, in the age of the corporate university, that’s a lot less glamorous than it sounds.

Anyway, without further ado (well, maybe a bit more ado) here’s a link to a semi-popular piece that I wrote last spring in the literary e-magazine Berfrois about breathing, mindfulness and their simple transformative potential.

So take a deep breath and dive right in!

Hitsville USA

December 18, 2013

Hitsville


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