Realizing the Unthought

I’ve been reading about the 20th Century philosopher Michel Foucault, a truly enigmatic Frenchman preoccupied with thoughts of death. It wasn’t just death in general he thought about.  He seemed intent on taking his own life.

Suicide or near-death experiences he believed would reveal the ‘unthought’, conceptions beyond imagining, not to be found even in dreams. Extreme behaviors, sadomasochistic indulgences, which carried one to the brink of insanity, had the potential in our philosopher’s view, to reveal what lay beyond the capacity of the rational human mind. Foucault thought of madness as a potentially positive occurrence, as a category of being realized by those, artists and such, stretching the envelope of societal propriety that, he believed, in the future, be accepted as a pathway to the ‘unthought’, to a deeper knowledge beyond the limitations of conventional reason.

I have to admit it all seems a bit much to me; my daily workouts are about as masochistic as I ever want to get and I have few acquaintances that inspire in me any sort of sadistic imaginings. I guess I’ll just have to leave the unthought unthought.

A Richer Existence

I’ve been reading a treatise by the much respected religious historian Mircea Eliade that offers the theory that religious man has a richer existence than someone without religious beliefs.

As Professor Eliade sees it, those who see the physical world as an embodiment of the sacred will more often be able to rise above the profane world to a spiritual plane, basking in and identifying with the sacred. Non-religious man, on the other hand must exist without such a dimension, limited to the hard reality of a profane existence and the anxiety of ultimate mortal extinction.

But, he says, even non-religious man hasn’t completely eliminated the structures of the spiritual from his reality. As religious man may, through ritual passage, be symbolically reborn to greater awareness of the sacred, so too non-religious man will likely transition between life-styles, new living locales and changing occupations, and will experience a sense of newness akin to spiritual rebirth.

I guess we can never completely discount our deeply embedded spirituality.

Mythical Thinking

I’ve been trying to understand, lately, what exactly perpetuates the fairly widespread ideas of conspiracy theory surfacing these days in the political sphere. It occurs to me that perhaps many of us are being visited in our thinking by a deep-seated primal intuition: that appearance and reality are intertwined.

The problem with such thinking is that appearances change; what appeared to be one thing one day takes on different meaning at another time in another context. For mythic believers, a rigidity develops. The idea that once an ‘appearance’ is defined and locked in and what is thought to be the case must be the case, any sort of subtle change in or redefinition of what appeared to be the case can only be thought of in terms of conspiracy. Someone or something must be manipulating Truth.

I suppose one who engages in mythical thinking does realize a richly imaginative existence, one that can be shared with other like-minded conspiracy theorists, of which, it appears, there are many. One would hope, in the interests of a healthier society, reality will make an appearance at some point.

A Balanced Nature

I’ve been reading a very interesting article about the tiger population in India. Bengal tigers, considered a threatened species, have been given protections against hunting as well as a large protected reserve in the jungles of Madya Pradesh were they share the land with the indigenous forest villagers. To the east, in the Sundarbans mangrove swamps between India and Bangladesh the growing tiger population, facing a scarcity of traditional food animals ( due in part to human incursions exploiting resources), have turned to humankind as an easily obtained substitute, killing and eating one or more villagers a week.

This got me thinking about the food chain. While we may entertain the notion that we, humankind, have an advantage, a superior position among our animal neighbors in securing our piece of the environmental pie, upsetting the natural balance would seem to be a dangerous ignorance. Logic would have us focus on providing necessary habitat and resources for survival of all species. When one species grows and exploits the earths finite resources beyond what is fair to all, perhaps limits should be imposed.

Just wondering if we might not have a moral obligation, you know, in terms of the health of all earthly inhabitants to encourage the tigers to eat the villagers.

A Playful Adolescent

I’ve been reading about the idea of man as a perpetual adolescent, forever youthful (in mind anyway), playfully making and thereby discovering and inventing. Given time to play without the pressure to produce, the theory goes, valuable discoveries and innovations may very well result.

History informs us that, indeed, such a process has been the impetus for quite a number of important innovations. Brilliant people engaged in playful thinking (Isaac Newton, Leonardo DaVinci among them) have produced profound concepts that have contributed to our collective knowledge. Sometimes invented toys become practical machines: the wheel may have first appeared on a child’s toy in Pre-Columbian America.

I guess it’s the unique nature of humankind to have a prolonged childhood unlike many of our animal relatives who must be ready to hide or fight, defend or flee almost immediately after birth. As annoying as the perpetual adolescent may be to our adult pragmatic selves, with a bit of encouragement perhaps the slacker living in the basement might conceive an idea that will improve life for us all. At the very least it might get her into her own apartment.

An Impractical Dreamer

In the winter of his eighteenth year this young man fell madly in love (well, it was a serious crush anyway). The object of his unrequited affection was a demure sweet young lady who turned the young man, usually easygoing and affable, into a tongue-tied moron (or so he thought and was in fact true).

The episode was simply reflective of the young man’s nature. He conjured imaginings of romantic scenarios; of heroic stances he might take. He lived in a world of fictional narratives reinforced by the heroic storylines he regularly indulged: good triumphs, tragedy is overcome.

It would seem in retrospect such an imaginative reality would soon be repressed but it was maintained far longer than it might have been by avoiding unpleasant confrontation, keeping a distance from uncertain challenges and living in an (overly) protective home environment. As a college student our young dreamer immersed himself in studies of an impersonal nature, solitary endeavors not requiring excessive personal connections. He had friends of course. College life teems with unassuming young people of an accepting nature, all thriving in an essentially responsibility free environment.

Eventually, over time, even an impractical dreamer will have to face harsh realities. The awakening for our young man came with the threat posed by the draft lottery and the likelihood of involuntary military service. Basic training was eye opening. The young man found himself verbally assaulted. Name calling the likes of which he had never previously encountered (but guessed often referred to perverse sexual acts) was common.

Military service didn’t cure the young man, didn’t redirect him toward a more functional pragmatism. Even now as he passes middle age the man finds himself playfully toying with ideas and entertaining flights of fantasy. He has somehow been able to navigate through life being sufficiently useful as not to be a particular burden on society, you know, has basically paid his own way.

It’s good to know, I guess, that sometimes life provides a path for those who need to live an alternative reality.

An Educational Dilemma

I’ve been reading about knowledge boundaries and the idea of island as metaphor. Within the island, our body of knowledge, we pursue lines of thought, traverse the island, and eventually reach the shore beyond which lies the unknowable. The island grows as the breadth of our knowledge increases, the shoreline expands, and we are confronted with more mysteries and incomprehensive considerations that, when the island was smaller, were beyond our wildest imaginings. I guess the idea is, the more we know the more we don’t know.

For those of us who are not inclined to add dilemmas to the one’s we already struggle with, perhaps limiting knowledge is a preferable strategy. We gain the peace of unquestioning acceptance of things simply being the way they are as opposed to living the uncertainty of constantly seeking answers; the problem the chronically curious must deal with.

Maybe it doesn’t have to be either/or. I can appreciate peaceful contemplation and still entertain intermittent bouts of curiosity. I think, these days, my island is still slowly growing. I’m just not venturing to the beach as often as I used to.

A Chosen Leader

I’ve been reading about how mass movements are started, what exactly is required for people to unite in a collective opposition to the status quo. Such a phenomenon is often brought about, I guess, by economic insecurities and perceived loss of status which sometimes results in a breakdown of the social order. A lot of frustrated people find themselves treading water without a worthwhile goal to swim toward.

What these folks want, I suppose, is hope for a better future. They seek a leader who can spin a believable narrative promising improvement; someone to thumb his/her nose at the established ways, one who has little regard for prevailing institutions, one defiant in word and deed.

Usually such an individual emerges in response to the cries of the disenfranchised. Sometimes, though, a talented ambitious man may insight the masses through coercion and false narrative to rise up against their own best interests, to champion change for the sake of change, fed by the energy of their common opposition to perceived injustices and identification with their chosen leader. They rally for their side to win at all costs, but in so doing threaten in their vehemence the integrity of the institution allowing them the free expression they exercise.

An unsettling scenario, it seems to me.

The Twisted Contradictory Mottos of Totalitarianism

I’ve been thinking about the George Orwell novel “1984”, how the totalitarian regime in the book implemented catch phrases to secure the minds of the populace. ‘War is Peace’ is used to establish a permanent enemy, a scapegoat, that can be blamed for any and all ills that befall the citizenry. ‘Freedom is Slavery’ discourages individualism, promotes tribalism in order to keep everyone bound to the collective. ‘Ignorance is Strength’ encourages the subservient populace to forego intellectual reflection, follow the dictates of those in power, not think about things to hard and they will realize contented peace. The message is, I guess, that given such ideas along with sufficient deterrents a totalitarian regime turns people into sheep without them realizing it.

It does seem a bit familiar these days but I guess as long as a free exchange of ideas remains in place reasonable responses can happen.



Queen of America

I’ve been thinking lately about what it means to have a national identity: how we might imagine some sort of consensual, some unifying set of shared values in our diverse population, an identity, we might imagine, manifesting itself in the actions of our chosen leaders, our elected representatives who we see putting into motion actions we consider important to maintaining our moral visions. Of course, as the political winds blow, half of us will be upbeat knowing our chosen leaders are heading the country in the right direction while the other half will passionately believe the opposite.

This conundrum has me thinking about the British. The Royal Family, having a centuries old heritage, provides a national identity for a pretty fair number of British citizens judging from the crowds one sees in photographs of various state rites and national observances. No longer wielding political sway the Royals serve as a unifying symbol for a population whose politics has produced the divisive likes of Margret Thatcher and Boris Johnson.

So, maybe we need a King or a Queen, someone to focus on in these days of extreme partisan division, some apolitical demi-god (or goddess) who represents the values our diverse population can agree upon, someone to reign over our national holidays as a symbol of unity.

Personally I can’t think of anyone who might adequately fill the bill but I’m open to suggestion.