January 19, 2007

1. Pater’s New Religion

In the last issue, I discussed John Ruskin. I’d like to continue that “train of thought” with some remarks on Walter Pater.1

Pater was born in 1839, twenty years after Ruskin. Pater and Ruskin were colleagues at Oxford. While Ruskin was losing his faith, and sinking into despair, Pater was developing a new faith, a new worldview. Pater broke with traditional religion and morality, and began to think “outside the box.”

Instead of focusing on the goal of life, the meaning of life, he focused on life itself, experience itself, the present moment. Though he probably never heard the word “Zen,” his worldview has a striking resemblance to Zen. Pater said that his approach to life “might come even to seem a kind of religion... by virtue of its effort to live days ‘lovely and pleasant’ in themselves, here and now.”2 Zen’s two favorite words are “here” and “now,” and it urges us to “be here now.”

While Thoreau approaches the present moment through nature, such as the crowing of a cock, Pater approaches the present moment through culture, such as a poem that sharpens his awareness of a winter landscape, or a painting that sharpens his awareness of an urban scene. If Thoreau’s Zen is a “nature Zen,” Pater’s is a “culture Zen.”

Pater finds Zen currents in Greco-Roman thinkers, especially Epicurean thinkers; one of his chief works is a historical novel called Marius the Epicurean. Pater doesn’t seem to have studied Eastern thought. I suspect that Greco-Roman thinkers were just a prop for Pater’s own Zennish tendencies, as Eastern thinkers were just a prop for Thoreau’s Zennish tendencies. There is an Eastern drift in Western thought, and this Eastern drift is evident even in writers, like Whitman, who didn’t study the ancients or the Orientals. As Alan Watts said, “Zen lies so close to the ‘growing edge’ of Western thought.”3

Though Pater was attracted to the Epicureans, he wasn’t a hedonist: “Not pleasure, but fullness of life, and ‘insight’ as conducting to that fullness.”4 Pater’s worldview isn’t hedonism, Zen isn’t hedonism; meditation aims at awareness, not pleasure. But if Zen doesn’t seek pleasure, neither does it avoid pleasure; Zen isn’t asceticism.

Younger intellectuals grasped the importance of Pater’s worldview. Oscar Wilde called Pater’s study of the Renaissance his “golden book.” Pater influenced the Aesthetic Movement of which Wilde was a leader.

2. Miscellanies

A. Our book group recently discussed Swann’s Way. Some members of the group enjoyed it, some found it difficult to read, some found it impossible to read. Now we’re reading Gombrich’s Little History of the World — a very popular choice, though it may be better for reading than for discussing. Next we’re going to read a bestseller called Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Blink has aroused interest among Zennies because it discusses intuitive, non-rational knowledge.

B. President Ford died recently. There’s an interesting parallel between Ford and a president who seems poles apart from him: Bill Clinton. Both Ford and Clinton came from broken homes, and were raised by single mothers, and later, step-fathers. Throughout history, eminent men have often come from father-less households; such a household seems to breed sturdy independence, precocious maturity, and a gregarious nature.

C. I recently spoke with a young woman from China who said that many of her friends have one or two siblings. China’s One Child policy has always been loosely enforced in the countryside, but now it seems to be loosely enforced in urban areas, too. A city-dweller who has a second child is fined, but many Chinese can afford such fines. If you’re an only child, and you marry someone who’s also an only child, then you can have two children without paying a fine.

China’s fertility rate (children per woman) is 1.7, compared to a world average of 2.6. China’s fertility rate is slightly higher than the 1.6 of Taiwan, and significantly higher than the 1.3 of Spain, Italy and Russia. The U.S. rate is 2.1 — about what is needed to replace the current generation. The highest fertility rates are in Africa, where many countries are over 6. India is 2.7, Pakistan 4.

D. One often hears the phrase “fog of war,” which refers to the confusion and chaos that surround a battle. War seems much neater and more orderly when described in a textbook, or on a blackboard, or in a “war game.” Stendhal and other writers have tried to describe the fog of war in literary works.

What is true of war is also true of basketball: a diagram or practice doesn’t prepare one for the confusion of an actual game. A novice — in war or basketball — may be dazed by this confusion, this fog, whereas an experienced player/soldier may be accustomed to it. A clever coach/general may try to “manufacture fog” in order to maximize the enemy’s confusion. Nolan Richardson, who coached at Arkansas, tried to create chaos, manufacture fog; he called his style “40 Minutes of Hell.”

E. Richard Noll is The Great Jung Debunker, so if you don’t like Jung, and you want to hear someone bash Jung, then read Noll. Jung has many critics, and they applaud Noll until their hands hurt; Noll’s books have won various awards. I suppose every great thinker has a debunker; Freud, for example, has Jeffrey Masson. My advice is, Read great thinkers, read the classics, life is too short to spend time reading debunkers.

F. My daughter and I are now reading Huck Finn together, having finished Tom Sawyer, Lassie Come Home, and Old Yeller. If we were to make a list of Great Writers, and put them into two categories, “Friends of the Occult” and “Critics of the Occult”, then Mark Twain may belong in the “Critics” category. Much of Huck Finn deals with the superstitions of uneducated people, and all these superstitions are described in a mocking way. Twain is a first-rate intellectual, though, so I suspect that if one studied his life and work closely, one might find that he’s sometimes receptive to the occult. Huck Finn, however, could be described as a satire of occult thinking.

G. Just as one can write a satire of occult thinking, so too one can write a satire of rational thinking. Though I can’t think of a book that satirizes rational thinking, I’m sure someone has written one. Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground and Crime and Punishment might be called critiques of rational thinking, though they may be too serious to be called satires.

I recently spoke with a friend who studied under Steven Levitt, the Chicago economist who burst into prominence with his bestseller, Freakonomics. Levitt applies statistical methods to social phenomena; his approach is highly rational. A statistical, numerical, rational approach seems to be respected in academia, and seems to be growing in popularity; when economist Larry Summers became president of Harvard, he said he wanted to make numerical studies as important at Harvard as word-based studies. Perhaps rational thinking is growing in popularity, at least among the un-enlightened.

When we asked our friend if he had a girlfriend, he said that studies have shown that one should date thirteen different women before settling on one; one should learn what the most important traits are, then look for someone possessing those traits. In short, he took a statistical, numerical, rational approach — as an economist should, as a Levitt student should. A statistical approach to romance could be used in a satire of rational thinking.

When the economist Milton Friedman wanted to buy a summer home in Vermont, he took a rational approach, spent lots of time, looked at lots of houses, etc. On the other hand, when the political thinker Ed Banfield wanted to buy a summer home in Vermont, he made a decision in just a few minutes.4B

H. When I discussed The Sound and the Fury, I argued that Protestant morality is a morality of unselfishness, in which virtue means thinking about others, and vice means thinking about oneself. An example of the morality of unselfishness can be found in Huckleberry Finn. Huck prays for fish hooks, but doesn’t get them.

I went and told the widow about it, and she said the thing a body could get by praying for it was “spiritual gifts.” This was too many for me, but she told me what she meant — I must help other people, and do everything I could for other people, and look out for them all the time, and never think about myself.

While Protestant morality means thinking about others, the Philosophy of Today focuses on the inner life, on finding one’s own center.

3. Proust

I’m still reading Swann’s Way, and I’m also reading Proust commentary, such as A Reader’s Guide to Marcel Proust (a useful summary-and-analysis of Proust’s work), The Cambridge Companion to Proust (a collection of essays), and a Proust essay in the Scribner Writers Series (an excellent introduction to Proust’s life and work).5 In the Reader’s Guide, I found the following quotation from a letter that Proust wrote to his mother; the letter was written while Proust was living with his mother.

As I’m unable to speak to you, I’m writing to tell you that I simply can’t understand your behavior. You know, or must guess, that I’ve spent every night since I came back in weeping, and not without good cause; and all day long you say things to me like: ‘I couldn’t sleep last night because the servants didn’t go to bed till eleven o’clock.’ I only wish it was nothing worse than that that keeps me from sleeping! ....Thanks to you I was in such a state of nerves that when poor Fénelon came... I went for him with my fists... and without knowing what I was doing I took the new hat he’d just bought, stamped on it, tore it to pieces and ripped out the lining. As you might think I’m exaggerating I enclose a piece of the lining so that you can see it’s true.

Proust must have realized that such behavior was bizarre and not at all admirable. Small wonder that Proust was eager to separate a writer’s everyday self from his “greater self,” his literary self. The separation between the “everyday person” and the “creative person” is one of the themes of Proust’s work; Proust depicts great artists like Vinteuil and Elstir as ordinary people, un-impressive people, and other characters are surprised to discover the hidden greatness of these ordinary people. Indeed, Proust goes further, and says that great artists are not only ordinary, they’re worse than ordinary. In the following passage from Within A Budding Grove, Proust describes the artist as “vicious” and “wicked,” and he distinguishes between the artist’s “personal life” and his “true life”:

Perhaps it is only in really vicious lives that the moral problem can arise in all its disquieting strength. And of this problem, the artist finds a solution in the terms not of his personal life but of what is for him the true life, a general, literary solution.... Great artists, while being thoroughly wicked, make use of their vices in order to arrive at a conception of the moral law which is binding upon us all.6

Elsewhere Proust describes the modern artist as “hopelessly enslaved to sin,” and as regarding his own behavior as “scandalous.”7 Perhaps the tension between Proust’s personal life and his “true life” fueled his creativity; it’s difficult to imagine Proust without his vices and sins. In an earlier issue, we discussed Luther’s advice “sin boldly.” I don’t know whether Proust was familiar with Luther’s maxim. At any rate, Luther’s maxim was also Proust’s maxim.

As Proust’s creativity was enhanced by his vices, so too Odette’s charm may be enhanced by her vices. As M. Verdurin says of Odette, “Does it matter so very much whether she is virtuous or not? You can’t tell; she might be a great deal less charming if she were.”8 We recall that Proust himself possessed a good deal of social charm.

I’m now reading one of the most celebrated sections of Proust’s work — the Saint-Euverte party near the end of “Swann in Love.” Proust’s party scenes are filled with scathing remarks about people; Proust’s descriptions of people are satirical, if not sadistic. I’d like to quote one such satirical description, which includes Proust’s favorite kind of metaphor — the culture metaphor, in which something mundane is compared to something from the world of high culture. Describing Mme. de Gallardon, Proust says that she was very proud of her kinship with the Guermantes family:

When she found herself seated next to someone whom she did not know... she suffered acutely from the feeling that her own consciousness of her Guermantes connection could not be made externally manifest in visible characters, like those which, in the mosaics in Byzantine churches... inscribe in a vertical column by the side of some Sacred Personage the words which he is supposed to be uttering.

4. Hitler’s Silver Hammer

In the last issue, I discussed parallels between Hitler and Ibsen, including “a curious mishap during the dedication of a Munich art museum, and Hitler’s speech at that event.” I recently saw a webcast of a lecture by Steven Sage, who wrote about the Hitler-Ibsen connection. In this lecture, Sage expands on the museum incident. He says that Hitler was using a ceremonial silver hammer, and the hammer broke, leaving Hitler holding just a handle. In Ibsen’s play, Julian’s shield breaks for no apparent reason, leaving Julian with just the handle.

In my view, there are two skeptical explanations of this parallel, and two occult explanations:

Skeptical 1 The first skeptical explanation is that the hammer was designed to break; this is the explanation that Sage prefers. Sage says that German metalwork isn’t that bad, implying that Hitler’s silver hammer must have been designed to break.

But why would Hitler fabricate a faulty hammer? The hammer scene wasn’t flattering to Hitler; rather, it was unfortunate, even ominous. True, Hitler spoke afterwards, and said it was a propitious event, but regardless of what Hitler said, it still strikes me (and probably struck onlookers) as unfortunate, even ominous.

The only way to put a “positive spin” on the hammer scene is to say “it shows that Hitler was anointed to fulfill the Ibsen prophecy.” But it’s hard to believe that a broken hammer would be seized on as the fulfillment of a broken shield prophecy. Only the most hard-core Ibsen cultist would make such a connection, and why would Hitler fabricate a hammer to impress a hard-core Ibsen cultist?

Was Hitler the sort of person to fabricate a hammer? Hitler was many things, but he wasn’t petty. You can call him a madman, a mass-murderer, a sadist, but I don’t think you can call him a fraud, an imposter, a charlatan.

Skeptical 2 The hammer broke by chance. Hammers break every day, somewhere in the world; on that particular day, a hammer broke in Munich. If the hammer had been built for a ceremonial purpose, perhaps it wasn’t “built to last.”
Occult 1 The break is significant, not accidental, hence those who saw it as a bad omen were right to do so. Hitler exerted some sort of negative energy that was responsible for the break. The mind can affect external objects; evidence for this can be found in Radin’s Conscious Universe, etc. Students of Jung will recall the broken knife, the pieces of which Jung preserved until his dying day.

But though the broken hammer is significant, it has no connection to Ibsen. Perhaps Julian’s broken shield is part of the historical record, not Ibsen’s invention.9 And even if it was Ibsen’s invention, it can’t be linked to a broken hammer. Hitler wouldn’t have willed the hammer to break to fulfill Ibsen’s prophecy, and Ibsen couldn’t have foreseen the breaking of the hammer. So while the hammer incident is occult (mind affecting matter, an omen of future calamity), it has no connection to Ibsen.

Occult 2 The break is significant, and was foreseen by Ibsen. The broken shield is a prophecy of the broken hammer; they’re analogous events. The broken shield has no place in the historical Julian, it was an invention of Ibsen’s. The broken hammer should be grouped with other examples of Ibsen foreseeing Hitler — such as the death of Hitler’s niece, and her burial in Vienna. Ibsen’s foreknowledge is a matter of small details, as well as large events. If Nietzsche and others could foresee Hitler, why should we regard it as impossible that Ibsen foresaw Hitler?

Before we cast our vote for any of these four explanations, we should weigh the evidence that Sage presents in his Ibsen and Hitler.

5. Mutual Arising

We’ve discussed Mutual Arising in several earlier issues. I recently tried to sum up my thoughts on the subject, using the September 11 attacks as my starting point:

Was the 9/11 attack the cause of the Iraq War? The 9/11 attack created a mood, a political climate, in the U.S. that contributed to the invasion of Iraq; the 9/11 attack made many Americans feel that we couldn’t be passive toward terrorist threats, we had to be pre-emptive. There were, however, many other causes of the Iraq War:

  1. Bush’s personality, his worldview, his religious and moral views, etc.
  2. Saddam’s personality, his penchant for military adventure, his penchant for cruelty and torture, etc.
  3. The previous Iraq war, the ending of which was viewed by many people as incomplete.
  4. Saddam’s history of developing WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction), and his reluctance to allow international inspectors into Iraq.
  5. The conclusion of the CIA (and other intelligence organizations) that Iraq possessed (or was on the brink of possessing) WMD.

This is just a partial list; the causes of the Iraq War are innumerable. And each of these causes has behind it innumerable causes. For example, the 9/11 attack was one cause of the Iraq War, and there are innumerable causes of the 9/11 attack.

Events can rarely be traced to just one cause; close examination usually reveals a vast network of causes — innumerable causes. As Joseph Campbell said,

A great number of things round about, on every side, are causing what is happening now. Everything, all the time, is causing everything else. The Buddhist teaching in recognition of this fact is called the Doctrine of Mutual Arising.10

Perhaps the old puzzle, “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” can illustrate the Doctrine of Mutual Arising. If one sees causality in a linear way (A causes B, B causes C, etc.), then the puzzle of the chicken and the egg seems insoluble. But if one sees causality in terms of Mutual Arising, then chickens and eggs are no longer puzzling — chickens and eggs arose together, “mutual arising.” The philosophers of India don’t see linear causality, they see everything as part of a huge net, everything inter-connected, everything causing and being caused by everything else.

If you look back at your own life, you can probably find events that resulted from Mutual Arising. When you look at such events, you see a vast number of causes, each of which contributed to the outcome. If you focus your attention on any one of these causes, it appears that this was The Cause — without this the event wouldn’t have happened. In truth, however, nothing is The Cause because everything is causing everything else.

Let’s look at an event from Proust’s life: the death of his beloved chauffeur, Albert Agostinelli, who died in an airplane crash in the south of France, on May 30, 1914. Proust felt responsible for Agostinelli’s death, he felt that he had “willed” Agostinelli’s death — unconsciously or semi-consciously. (One is reminded of Proust’s character, Swann, who hopes for the death of his beloved Odette, in order to free himself from the bondage of passion.) But though Proust felt responsible, there were many causes of Agostinelli’s death besides Proust’s “will”:

  1. Agostinelli was something of a daredevil, who liked fast cars, etc.
  2. Agostinelli didn’t know how to swim, and could have survived his accident if he had known.
  3. Agostinelli’s wife seems to have encouraged him to pursue his flying ambitions.
  4. Agostinelli’s accident might have been averted if his training had been a little better, his plane a little better, etc.

Like the Iraq War, Agostinelli’s death has infinite causes, and many people, besides Proust, could say, “it was my fault.”

© L. James Hammond 2007
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1. What follows is a short version of my earlier discussion of Pater. back
2. Marius the Epicurean, ch. 9 back
3. The Way of Zen, preface back
4. Marius the Epicurean, ch. 9 back
4B. For more on Friedman and Banfield, see “Four Ways of Making Decisions.”

One representative of the older approach to social science, the non-numerical approach, is the Jewish-Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, who died in 2017 at age 91. back

5. “Marcel Proust,” by F. W. J. Hemmings, European Writers, Vol. 8, Pages 545-568, The Scribner Writers Series; this entire series is available online, through libraries. back
6. Quoted in A Reader’s Guide to Marcel Proust, by Milton Hindus, ch. 1, p. 6 back
7. ibid, p. 7 back
8. “Swann in Love,” p. 295 back
9. Steven Sage tells me, “Ibsen reworked the basic incident from Ammianus Marcellinus, Book 21; see the Penguin Classic edition, p. 209. I discuss the [Hitler] analogy on pp. 161-163 of my book.” back
10. Myths To Live By, ch. 7, p. 144 back