...and one or two other things.
This started as a response in a comment thread to a previous post, and quickly evolved into its own post. So, um, here it is.
...Well, first of all, the post in question: a quote from Joanna Russ, which some folks apparently found more cryptic than others. I'll just requote the whole thing:
"Faith is not, contrary to the usual ideas, something that turns out to be right or wrong, like a gambler's bet: it's an act, an intention, a project, something that makes you, in leaping into the future, go so far, far, far ahead that you shoot clean out of time and right into Eternity, which is not the end of time or a whole lot of time or unending time, but timelessness, the old Eternal Now."
When asked for clarification, I took my best guess (I don't know the original context for the quote either, am extrapolating partly from what I know of Russ but mostly my own spin):
I read it as: you don't take a "leap of faith" because you're hoping/calculating it'll land you where you want to go; you do it, not knowing -where- the hell you're going to end up. You maybe do it without even thinking about "ending up" at all; you do it for the sheer sake of leaping; that's what faith -is.-
the zen parable about "eat the strawberry" also is probably related. (You're clinging to the side of a cliff, losing your grip; there's a tiger on the ledge above you and another one waiting at the bottom of the cliff. Next to you is a wild strawberry growing out of the side of the cliff; what do you do? "Eat the strawberry.")
So then, the two comments i started to respond to (and then took off from there):
What really struck me is that Joanna Russ is saying that faith doesn't feel like a choice but like a path. This strikes a huge jumbo mega-cathedral chord with me (I'm currently practising in the zen tradition of meditation & mindfulness). That's why the tiger thing isn't about choice either: you don't choose the tiger at the top or choose the tiger at the bottom. Instead, in both cases, the idea seems to be to dwell solidly in the present moment: with the strawberry, or with your Faith, not worrying about the future. The future takes care of itself.
"with the strawberry, or with your Faith, not worrying about the future. The future takes care of itself."
That is a very Christian philosophy.
"So do not worry, saying, 'what shall we eat?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first His kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of it's own."
Jesus teaching about worry in Matthew 6:31-34.
The whole bit is long, but it's the famous "consider the lilies" speech He gave when his apostles were fretting about material stuff. "Pagans" are non-believers, not necessarily what 21st century Americans call pagans.
My response(s), or started as:
Natasha: exactly. it's not whether the tiger is or isn't gonna kill you--hey, maybe it won't! well, huzzah, then, that's nice. but really it's about -right now.- a shock to the system (real or imagined) can jolt you back into realizing that: ultimately, there's always a tiger waiting at the end of the day, one way or another.
rt: yep, consider the lilies. I've always wondered how the "gospel of wealth" folks managed to reconcile that one with the basic teachings of their purported Savior. well, along with pretty much every other admonishment to not dwell on the material, the literal, the concrete, and oh yeah, (as one possibility), give away all you have to the poor (i.e. not "punish yourself" or even necessarily "you must be ascetic" but "don't cling/you can't take it with you, and here's what's holding -you- back" is always how I read that one).
and sure, there's no doubt a way in which to reconcile material comfort with the Gospels, (hey, Jesus liked good food and wine as well as the next mortal, or so I understand; and i -guess- you could take the Parable of the Sower literally [too], why not), not to mention the rest of the Bible...but I still cast kind of a jaundiced eye on people who basically seem to believe in "Supply-Side Jesus." more to the point, who have no charity (in the real sense; who cleave to themselves, who clutch, who -grasp.-
and now I'm thinking of this Orwell essay, "Lear, Tolstoy, and the Fool" (I was just rereading or rather reskimming "Lear"), wherein he's commenting on this obscure pamplet Tolstoy wrote. Basically, he's complaining because what's the big deal about Shakespeare? nothing, that's what. and he focuses on Lear, Orwell speculated, because, funnily enough, Lear's story resembles Tolstoy's own rather uncannily, i.e., a bad-tempered man who late in life decided to give away all his lands, and, well, it didn't go so well for him. ...
It's a brilliant essay. Orwell posits that
"However, Tolstoy is not simply trying to rob others of a pleasure he does not share [in turning all his guns on Shakespeare]. He is doing that, but his quarrel with Shakespeare goes further. It is the quarrel between the religious and the humanist attitudes toward life..."
Semantics are an issue, though, maybe; or, well, Orwell the (decidedly secular) humanist has his own feelings about religion, clearly. Yet what he's really talking about here, as he often does, is the difference between the would-be saint (the puritan) and the human who accepts hir humanity in all its flaws. (more on this later). Here he pins down the problem:
"According to Tolstoy, the aim of every human being is happinesss, and happiness can only be attained by doing the will of God. But doing the will of God means casting off all earthly pleasures and ambitions, and living only for others. Ulimately, therefore, Tolstoy renounced the world under the expectation that this would make him happier. But if there is one thing certain about his later years, it is that he was -not- happy. On the contrary, he was driven almost to the edge of madness by the behavior of the people about him, who persecuted him precisely -because- of this renunication. Like Lear, Tolstoy was not humble and not a good judge of character. He was inclined at moments to revert to the attitudes of an artistocrat, in spite of his peasant's blouse, and he even had two children whom he had believed in and who ultimately turned against him...His exaggerated revulsion from sexuality was also distinctly similar to Lear's...And though Tolstoy could not forsee it when he wrote his essay on Shaespeare, even the ending of his life--the sudden unplanned flight across country, accompanied only by a faithful daughter, the death in a cottage in a strange village--seems to have in it a sort of phantom reminiscence of Lear.
...Renouncing power, giving away your lands, was a subject on which he had reason to feel deeply. Probably therefore, he would be more angered and disturbed by the moral that Shaespeare draws than he would be in the case of some other play--Macbeth, for instance--which did not touch so closely on his own life. But what exactly -is- the moral of Lear? Evidently there are two morals, one explicit, the other implied in the story.
Shakespeare starts by assuming that to make yourself powerless in to invite an attack. This does not mean that -everyone- will turn against you (Kent and the Fool stand by Lear from first to last), but in all probability -someone- will...If you turn the other cheek, you will get a harder blow on it than you got on the first one. This does not always happen, but it is to be expected, and you ought not to complain if it does happen. The second blow is, so to speak, part of the act of turning the other cheek. First of all, therefore, there is the vulgar, common-sense moral drawn by the Fool: "Don't reliquish power, don't give away your lands." But there is also another moral. Shakespeare never utters it in so many words, [but] [i]t is contained in the story... It is: "Give away your lands if you want to, but don't expect to gain happiness by doing so. Probably you won't gain happiness. If you live for others, you must live -for others,- and not as a roundabout way of gtting an advantage for yourself."
Obviously neither of these conclusions could have been pleasing to Tolstoy. The first of them expresses the genuine, belly-to-earth selfishness from which he was genuinely trying to escape. The other conflicts with his desire to eat his cake and have it--that is, to destroy his own egoism and by so doing to gain eternal life..."
in other words, (this might make yet more sense in the Buddhist or even Jungian worldview, perhaps), he's trying to destroy his "ego" and cling all the more desperately to it at the same time. Which never works. And, sure enough--it didn't here either.
"Of course, Lear is not a sermon in favour of altruism. It merely points out the results of practising self-denial for selfish reasons. Shakespeare had a considerable streak of worldliness in him, and if he had been forced to take sides in how own play, his sympathies probably would have lain with the Fool. But at least he could see the whole issue and treat it at the level of tragedy...
All of [Shakespeare's] tragedies start out with the humanist assumption that life, although full of sorrow, is worth living, and that Man is a noble animal--a belief which Tolstoy in his old age did not share."
and here we come to Orwell's own definition of "sainthood:"
"Tolstoy was not a saint, but he tried very hard to make himself into a saint, and the standards he applied to literature were other-worldly ones. It is important to realize that the difference between a saint and an ordinary human being is a difference of kind and not of degree. That is, the one is not to be regarded as an imperfect form of the other. The saint, at any rate Tolstoy's kind of saint, is not trying to work an improvement in earthly life: he is trying to bring it to an end and put something different in its place. One obvious expression of this is the claim that celibacy is 'higher' than marriage. If only, Tolstoy says in effect, we would stop breeding, fighting, struggling and enjoying, if we could get rid of not only our sins but of everything else that binds us to the surface of the earth--including love, in the ordinary sense of caring more for one human being than another--then the whole painful process would be over and the Kingdom of Heaven would arrive. But a normal human being does not want the Kingdom of Heaven: he wants life on earth to continue. This is not solely because he is 'weak,' 'sinful,' and 'anxious for a good time.' Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or the very foolish imagine otherwise...The humanist attitude is that the struggle must continue and that death is the price of life..."
I agree with Orwell on all of this.
Here's where I don't. Or, well, I do and I don't:
"Often there is a seeming truce between the humanist and the religious believer, but in fact their attitudes cannot be reconciled: one must choose between this world and the next. And the enormous majority of human beings, if they understood the issue, would choose this world."
...Actually, you know, I do agree with what i would call the spirit of this sentiment, if perhaps not the letter.
Here's the deal: what Orwell calls "the religious," it seems to me, in fact doesn't particularly have to hinge upon "belief" in the "supernatural" or not. It's true that the context he knows, and frankly, that most of us still understand, that is pretty much how it breaks down. This world or the "other world." Either you buy it or you don't.
But in fact, to me the salient point here is not about cosmology per se; it's something moer ineffable. It's what Eric Fromm (who could probably be categorized as a "religious humanist," which to many people on both sides of the aisle, presumably including Orwell, is an oxymoron), riffing off both Freud and Christianity, would call "biophilia," or the "life instinct." In short: the key point is: you're hanging on the cliff. We all are. Ultimately it isn't whether you get eaten by the tiger, cleverly avoid your fate by your own volition or get rescued by a deux ex machima. The point is: you're here, now. On the cliff. In life. What do you do with it? To begin with, says Orwell (among others), you accept that it is a good thing that you have even this fleeting moment, painful though even that fleeting moment might be; that enjoying the strawberry is worthwhile all by itself. Whether you believe that you're on the cliff for a "reason" or it's just sheer blind luck that you ended up here, and whatever you think might happen to you next (if anything)--kind of doesn't matter. The important question is: what are you going to do now?
And, corollary: if there's someone next to you on that cliff, also trembling with terror, how do you respond? Well, whatever you do: with compassion. Because they're you, too, or they may as well be.
And that, it seems to me, is (as rootietoot notes) the message of Jesus; that is the message of the heart of all the major religions; and that, as Orwell posits, is, indeed, the heart of humanism, secular or otherwise.
So, yeah, I guess I am saying: I do believe there can be a truce between the humanist and the religious believer...but it depends. (For one thing: is it about "belief?" Is "belief" a useful term? Is "faith" the same as "belief," much less "religious belief?" I wonder).
And on the flip side: one can go for the world-rejecting position without any particular supernatural beliefs whatsoever. Orwell, I think, would very much agree with this; this is actually one of his main, if not the main theme(s) of all his work: the hollowness of dogma, of doctrine, of orthodoxy, without actual humanity--i.e. giving a crap about your fellow creatures; being connected to them, to the world you live in, to life. As anyone who's at all familiar with his writing knows, one of the greatest subjects of that critique is in fact not "religious" in the sense of "supernaturalism" at all: totalitarianism, as represented by Stalin (among others). Contrary to the wistful (and hilarious) beliefs of a disheartening number of people, this rejection of the travesty some people had made of socialism, his own "faith," did not mean that he was not, in fact, still a socialist; that was his way, his truth, his life, his path. His connection, you might say. What he pits himself against, ultimately, are, as he puts it elsewhere, "all the smelly little orthodoxies...contending for our souls."
And as per those smelly little orthodoxies, while, again, Orwell is best known for his take on a couple of very particular ones (and often his words are used, disingenuously, in the service of someone else's smelly little orthodoxy), clearly they can be and are literally anything, content-wise. As I was just saying not long ago.
and if I'd remembered when writing that earlier post on "thought reform and totalitarianism" I might have added this passage from Orwell here in this piece, as it's quite relevant:
"A sort of doubt has always hung round the character of Tolstoy, as round the character of Gandhi. He was not a vulgar hypocrite, as some people declared him to be, and he would probably have imposed even greater sacrifices on himself than he did, if he had not been interfered with at every step by the people surrounding him...But on the other hand, it is dangerous to take such men as Tolstoy at their disciples' valuation. There is always the possibility--the probability, indeed--that they have done no more than exchange one form of egoism for another. Tolstoy renounced wealth, fame, and privilege; he abjured violence in all its forms and was ready to suffer for doing so; but it is not so easy to believe that he abjured the principle of coercion, or at least the -desire- to coerce others*. There are families in which the father will say to his child, 'You'll get a thick ear if you do that again, while the mother, her eyes brimming over with tears, will take the child in her arms and murmur lovingly, 'Now darling, -is- it kind to Mummy to do that?' And who would maintain that the second method is less tyrannous than the first? The distinction that really matters is not between violence and non-violence, but between having and not having the appetite for power. There are people who are convinced of the wickedness both of armies and of police forces, but who are nevertheless much more intolerant and inquistorial in outlook than the normal person who believes that it is necessary to use violence in certain circumstances. They will not say to somebody else, 'Do this, that and the other or you will go to prison,' but they will, if they can, get inside his brain and dictate his thoughts for him in the minutest particulars...For if you have embraced a creed which appears to be free from the ordinary dirtiness of politics--a creed from which you yourself cannot expect to draw any material advantage--surely that proves that you are in the right? And the more you are in the right, the more natural that everyone else should be bullied into thinking likewise."
(And does that ring any bells for anyone here, Gentle Readers?...)
But it's all too easy to say what one is against, after all; that's perhaps sort of the whole point, here.
What Orwell is for, then, clearly, is what he sees in Shakespeare:
"[H]e loved the surface of the earth and the process of life--which, it should be repeated, is -not- the same thing as wanting to have a good time and stay alive as long as possible."
Key word there: "love."
Orwell goes on to talk about the real reason Tolstoy doesn't "get" Shakespeare, perhaps: Shakespeare's sheer pleasure, his -love- of language for the sheer sound and shape and sake of it, the music of it. Partly of course something is probably lost in the translation from archaic English to Russian; but that's not all of it; Orwell is probably right when he says that "poetry is to be judged by its meaning, and that seductive sounds merely cause false meanings to go unnoticed."
And although the following comes from an entirely different worldview, certainly is authored by a man who's the very epitome of everything Orwell claims to be against, in his framing of the issue as being "this world against the next," I still can't help but think it's on the same page with the real issue here, for a'that and a'that:
1Co 13:1 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity [love], I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.
1Co 13:2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.
1Co 13:3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.
If you know the words but not the tune. If you have the structure but not the animating force.
Why, then, you're missing something rather key, aren't you.
Whatever you want to call it.
Shakespeare, Orwell posits, had it; whereas Tolstoy did not.
Personally, I'd call that "it" "spirituality," regardless of Shakespeare's actual beliefs (as Orwell notes, we don't really know, but it's hardly an orthodox Christian worldview in his plays; there are streaks of "paganism" as well as plain ol' "worldliness"), or indeed Tolstoy's Christianity, his religiosity. Orwell presumably would not. He calls it "humanism;" I call it that, also, sure.
But ultimately, what's in a name...
Monday, November 13, 2006
Lear, Tolstoy, the Fool, Orwell, Shakespeare, Joanna Russ, Jesus, Zen, "humanism," "spirituality" and/or "faith"
Posted by belledame222 at 9:48 AM