Archive for the ‘academe’ Category

The Cathar Trail 11: 7 June 2010 (On the Edge of the Temple)

January 11, 2015

7 June, 2010, Paris

And so, what became of my peripatetic attempt to understand the Cathars? Well, fairly little. But perhaps I have come, as much as it’s possible, to understand all outsiders a bit better. So much of the human character tends towards the social — people want to succeed, in the sense they understand that word, within a given relational paradigm. To excel in the eyes of their peers, to be loved, admired, etc., etc…To, in essence, “fit in”.

But not everybody’s built that way. Some challenge the assumptions of their world as if by instinct. They are oft labeled “anarchists” but in truth they’re just outsiders. These were the Gnostics, who insisted on ideas outside the developing doctrine of the Roman church; a permutation of this view was witnessed with the Cathars, who wanted to live in peace in their mountain realm, inured to church and emerging state, more interested in eros and the ideals of romantic love, ultimately suspicious of the perfect deification of a clearly corrupt and flawed creation.

These were also the Knights Templar, who because of their battles with the French crown were forced to wall themselves up in Paris proper, before being scattered to the four winds by greedy nobles. I write this as I sit with my back to the old wall of the Templar enclosure, looking over the Templar Square (Carreau du Temple), now an old abandoned warehouse of sorts. The city seems so disinterested in doing anything here. Is it because all states know that clear and rigorous limits must be placed on any anarchic, independent, nominally organic form of social and cultural life? Lest it get out of hand? Is this why the managed, mechanized and controlled creation of “synthetic” life forms seems like such an abomination, an affront to the unyielding, unchained aspect of spirit, human or otherwise?

Probably.

The Cathar Trail 4: 31 May 2010

January 7, 2015

31 May 2010, Toulouse to Foix

Seem to have stepped off the map. Train doesn’t go to Foix anymore. It’s a bus. Trying not to let this dissuade me. Skies are grey as I set off — matching an off-colour mood. Still not sure how much I’ll actually hike, although I’m not sure there is much else to do down here. Countryside around Toulouse to the south is fairly tame, but I expect a change getting into the mountains.

Almost missed the connection this morning. Nothing is explained in regards to the whole “autocar” system, it’s assumed if you are traveling here you must know the area. Local knowledge is always a precious commodity. I’m hoping to absorb some as I go…

It took only a few moments in the town of Foix to understand a key characteristic of the Cathars. They were mountain people, uninterested in the larger power struggles of church and state that swept them up. The stunningly gorgeous medieval town of Foix hugs the river Ariége, and is nestled in a valley between two steep hills. The valley itself is a vein into the heart of the Pyrenees, and beautiful beyond description.

Upon arrival, I wander the narrow twisting streets, happening upon one of the town churches, an abbey actually, devoted to St. Volusian. He’s the patron saint of Foix. Volusianus of Tours was the Bishop of Tours in the late 5th century before being forced from his see by the Visigoths. He might also have been martyred. Bummer. The church had a quiet, stoic, peaceful air, quite different from the more lugubrious cathedrals of Paris.

After a light lunch, I march up the hill to the Foix castle. It’s remarkably well-preserved and sits proudly atop a steep promontory. Some of the castle is clearly restored and “like new”. There is a bed in one prominent room that, it is said, was once used by Henri IV. I discover here at the castle’s historical markers that his noble lineage can be traced back to the aristocracy in Foix. I wonder if perhaps this is an insight into what were mercurial religious beliefs.

At the top of the castle taking in the stunning panorama I ran across two couples from Yorkshire, and fell into an impromptu history lesson as I am prone to. They didn’t seem to mind.

Today I also realized, sadly, that I probably won’t be able to do much hiking. My knee is still quite weak, the load is too heavy, and the terrain is a bit more rugged than I imagined. But I think I will nonetheless make the trip to Montségur tomorrow. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity I’d be foolish to pass up.

The realization came as I climbed a nearby hill — St. Sauveur — this afternoon. The terrain around here is very rugged. Phenomenal, even. The view and experience at the top of St. Sauveur, however, was really beyond description. The whole of the Ariége vale lay before me. I was surrounded by a scintillating incarnation of the Pleroma. Shards of spirit seemed to shine through the valley. I thought, for a moment, that nothing could compare.

So many thoughts have come and gone today, but I am also very tired. The way of travel and adventure, I think.

The Cathar Trail 3: Would You Like Pleroma With That? Of Toulouse, the Cathars and “McDo”

January 7, 2015

Would You Like Pleroma With That? Of Toulouse, the Cathars and “McDo”

30 May, 2010, Toulouse

Sitting on a prominent corner of the Capitole in Toulouse is McDonald’s, that universal guilty pleasure of the French. After the US, France is the largest consumer of Big Macs, fries and McNuggets. And let us not forget un coca. In my lengthy travels in Paris, I’ve often wondered why Ray Kroc‘s hellspawn is so popular with the French. Struggling to find an explanation, I’d go through a routinized list — it’s cheap, a “burger” and “frite” is a popular Parisian café option, you can bring the kids, and, in Paris at least, you can access wireless (“wifi”) for free without hassles.

But none of this captures the essence of the love affair between the French and their mistress — McDo. Today, as spitting rain came down on the twisting ancient streets of Toulouse, it came to me. It’s about complexity.

It’s simple. Or rather the formule at McDonald’s is simple. No matter if you are in the Marais or the Midi, you always know what you’re going to get. This in contrast to all the local knowledge required to navigate a meal at a café or bistro. Meals in France are a complex process — an arcane ritual. McDonald’s reduces all this to a few simple motions. Dinner becomes a dégustation devoid of deep doctrine. A to-go theology.

It’s this universal nature, this crispy, deep-fried Catholicity, that parallels the actual fact of the country’s religious history. Thus Toulouse, as a centralizing, crusading, inquisitional force, adopts McDonald’s into its very heart. C’est comme il faut.

I suspect there will be few signs of McDo in the wilds of Cathar country. The bizarre and obscure heretical traditions of the Cathars would seem immune to universalizing charms. Besides, the towns and hamlets are tiny — there’s no market for it. I wonder what the Perfect would have thought of McDonald’s. Not much. For one, many of them were vegetarians. And the fries at “rotten ronnies” were never that good.

McDonald’s, in its deep corrupting influence on the physical world (nutritionally and naturally) seems an ideal confirmation of a dodgy Demiurge. And like the Inquisitioners of old, seeks to eliminate or destroy all competitors. There can be only one.

Espousing a dualism that doesn’t go beyond diet or regular, McDonald’s is a gnostic nightmare. The basest of existence and pleasure wrapped in ready-made garbage. But until they start serving McNuggets at the top of Montségur, it’s safe to say that pockets of resistance, sparks of the One — the Pleroma, still inspire this country so passionate about its pour emporter.

And for this we can thank not only the flawed French, but God himself.

Whatever that means…

The Cathar Trail 2: 29 May 2010

January 7, 2015

29 May, 2010, Toulouse

Quel surprise! Not knowing what to expect is perhaps best, even better when expectations you don’t have are far surpassed. The countryside flattens out after one reaches the outskirts of Toulouse, and some of the surroundings, including the gare, are quite functional. But the city! What a lovely place. Marked by the influence of the south, the city seems an ideal synthesis of French and Spanish influences (even street names are marked bilingually). Classic Spanish and southern European elements mark the Pallazo of the Capitole, while winding little streets seem untainted by the Haussmanization that so changed Paris. Charming doesn’t even begin to describe it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Another divide is the old and new; lovely early modern architecture and traditional French space sits discontinuously with the taint of globalization; chain stores, mass culture and its associated charms. But overall it just seems to work. There is a stronger schism of class than in the center of Paris as well — street people mingle civilly with eurotrash in a Toulousian truce within all its lovely and plentiful public squares.

Religion too is obviously a formative and foundational element of the city. Cathedrals abound. But here, at least so far as I can see, the trail of the Cathars has gone cold. For now…

I will explore the city further in the coming day or so, but could imagine spending even more time around here. Judging from tonight’s lovely dinner in an alleyway resto spot only conceivable in Europe, the food alone could sustain even a conflicted dualist like me. There was more Pleroma than Demiurge in my honey soaked salad de chèvre, the goat’s cheese lovingly wrapped in delicate bits of crepe. Yum!

The Cathar Trail: 29 May 2010

January 7, 2015

[N.B. This is the first in a series of blog posts planned in the coming hours and days. It was a project I have toyed with for a while, but today’s events in Paris have pushed my experiences and reflections of France to the forefront. Not sure what these very personal travelogue recollections will have to say about what has occurred, but I suppose that doesn’t matter. This is about nostalgia and the past and grief. This is also about catharsis, the process of cleansing or purification, and of emotional transformation, a process that was first described in Aristotle’s Poetics as analogous to the impact tragedy had on an audience. The word catharsis has a similar etymological root to “Cathar” — the purified or “pure one”. Catharism was a heretical Christian sect which existed in opposition to the Catholic Church, protesting against what they perceived to be its moral, spiritual and political corruption. The Albigensians and Cathars became targets of a crusade and their persecution began elements of the early Inquisition. This trip in 2010 was an attempt to more clearly understand dissent, gnosticism and “counter-narrative” in European and French history. I make no clear contemporary political claim in this project, nor do I express direct solidarity with the magazine that was attacked, whose views are dubious at times, but rather a solidarity with the principles of free journalism, free thought, and free expression.]

29 May, 2010, Train from Paris to Toulouse

Not so sure about this travel epic. Voyage began inauspiciously, with pigeon droppings on my shoulder at Austerlitz. Unclear about where all the wariness comes from; maybe I still feel unsettled in life and am tired of all the transitions. I’m struck by lack of enthusiasm for this journey. Alas, perhaps a reflection of all my dulled enthusiasms.

Countryside between Paris and Orleans is fairly somber, not helped by dull and grey weather. Land is flat and utilitarian, with limited sights. A few modern wind farms, a lone shattered castle on a small hill (in Etampes). Train was late out of the gare and I wonder what I will do about connections. Anyway, I don’t have anywhere in particular to be…

Reading the Saturday Times I’m struck by the grim, almost decaying state of the world; economic crisis in the EU; an enormous attack in Lahore (even as I mentioned the possible prospect to D yesterday); Maoists in India; and a serial prostitute killer in Bradford who studied Jack the Ripper for his Ph.D.! Quel bordel!

Maybe this has always been the way of the media. Jack the Ripper, after all, was made famous by the press. Plus ça change.

In seeking out the old paths of the Cathars, Gnostics, et. al. I seek to move away from all this. To find love in gnosis — knowledge — and in the living world itself…

“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.

The Way

November 3, 2014

“…The individual must devote himself to the way with all his energy, for it is only by means of his integrity that he can go further, and his integrity alone can guarantee that his way will not turn out to be an absurd misadventure.”

From C.G. Jung, Psychology and the East, Trans. R.F.C. Hull (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), 20.

Anapanasati

October 18, 2014

“To some extent the rigid distinction between ego and environment is equivalent to that between mind and body, or between the voluntary and involuntary neural systems. This is probably the reason why Zen and yoga disciplines pay so much attention to breathing, to watching over the breath (anapanasati), since it is in this organic function that we can see most easily the essential identity of voluntary and involuntary action. We cannot help breathing, and yet it seems that breath is under our control; we both breathe and are breathed. For the distinction of the voluntary and the involuntary is valid only within a somewhat limited perspective. Strictly speaking, I will or decide involuntarily. Were it not so, it would always be necessary for me to decide to decide and to decide to decide to decide in an infinite regress. Now the involuntary processes of the body, such as the beating of the heart, do not seem to differ very much in principle from other involuntary actions going on outside the body. Both are, as it were, environmental. When, therefore, the distinction of voluntary and involuntary is transcended within the body, it is also transcended with respect to events outside the body.”

From Alan Watts, “The Way of Liberation in Zen Buddhism.” In The Way of Liberation: Essays and Lectures on the Transformation of the Self (New York: Weatherhill, 1983), 13-14.


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