The Beauty of the Incomplete

I’ve been thinking lately about how one determines beauty. Arguments can be made for the primacy of the ‘eye of the beholder’ in such a determination, but one can’t discount cultural or experiential factors in defining the quality. I’ve been reading that the beauty of classical sculpture may lie to a great extent in the imagined perfection that the damaged remnants still in existence conjure in one’s mind. The figurative Greek sculpture that has over the centuries suffered abuse and intentional destruction still represents what many consider the ideal of physical beauty despite its fragmentary existence.

This idea has me thinking that maybe the greatest beauty, that which is most aesthetically pleasing is beyond physical manifestation; an argument for the existence of God.

Silver Creek (October)

Medieval Entertainments

I’ve been reading that entertainment in late medieval France involved, for many of the unlettered inhabitants’ activities and performances we today might find a bit disturbing.

The Church was always on the lookout for those among the population whose behaviors might suggest possession by the devil (or devils, I guess). Exorcisms were a popular occurrence attended by the citizenry who looked with rapt attention as devils were extricated from the possessed by various means sometimes involving holy water enemas.

Women who were known to employ magic were considered in league with the devil and so declared witches subject to burning at the stake or drowning unless she floated in which case she would be burned. Such events were another well attended attraction no doubt.

These uneducated medieval folks saw most everything in terms of the supernatural. Fear of the Devil was a significant aspect of their reality. Satanic power begets respect leading many to participate in Black Sabbaths where the Evil One was worshipped, moral abandonment the rule, promiscuity encouraged, and great fun was had by all.

I guess for the average medieval townsfolk all was not pain and hardship, entertainments were there to be had if one could avoid becoming the focus of attention.

A Light at the end of the Tunnel

I’m a little concerned with my near obsession with the writings of the Romanian Philosopher Emil Cioran; he was a most egregious misanthrope who wrote with great profundity, drawing me into ideas I fear would feed the innate skepticism I harbor and would find not particularly useful in keeping my demeanor sunshiny. I try to keep in mind the post-WWII world he lived in, one he must have seen as a moral low point in the history of western civilization.

Anyway, in his aphorisms, E. C. vehemently condemns mankind’s false distractions (mainly religious idealisms) the obsession with which dooms man’s existence to inconsequence. Fear of the nothingness of existence, he writes, compels man to conjure beliefs, champion absolutes, to impose on others’ Truths in the hopes of gaining reinforcements sold on the delusions of life’s meaningfulness. What can man expect to gain were he to overcome such delusional thinking? Well, not a whole lot. Life will still be a painful experience, suffering the rule; slow physical deterioration and the realization existence has no meaningful worth must be expected.

As I process E. C.’s reasonable lines of thought I happened upon a big But: maintaining imagination, creating inventive scenarios, reveling in the beauty of nature will (while still a distraction) provide a means of surviving an otherwise disgusting existence. The fluidity with which the aesthetic mind can flow, travel between imaginings, provides the basis for hope. I’m sure E. C. wouldn’t agree.

Trickster Gods

I’ve been thinking, lately, about the trickster gods polytheistic religions have conjured or otherwise discovered among their myriad deities. Tricksters like the Nordic Loki and Kokopelli, God of the indigenous tribes of the desert southwest, are known to be instigators of chaos, are blamed when life’s routines are interrupted or seen as tempters when one strays from the straight and narrow. Deceit, betrayal and treachery are the domains of the tricksters.

In contrast the monotheistic religions, who, of course, do have Satan to blame when things go awry, have the dilemma of reconciling their infallible, all-powerful Deity with the idea He would allow evil to occur, that He is unable to thwart the Satanic demons mortals struggle with.

On the one hand we have the pagans, who, keeping things simple, perform rites to solicit favor from gods they recognized as having faults as well as attributes, who may or may not perform as desired. On the other hand, the intellectual discrepancies monotheists are continually confronted with in order to sustain faith in an Infallible God must consistently be addressed.

When it comes down to it, though, I guess the real issue isn’t about specifics of belief but the mystery of belief in the unknown itself.

I Recently Discovered that My Brain is Shrinking

The science section of the Sunday paper often has an unsettling item or two, usually involving reports by researchers who have determined the dangers of various common behaviors that will likely shorten one’s life. The article that caught my attention most recently warned that alcohol consumption will shrink the brain. Researchers apparently measured brain sizes of some several hundred people and determined that as little as one drink a day will cause one’s brain not only to stop growing but to actually reduce in size.

As I think about this and being aware, as I am, of my forgetfulness as well as the consistency of my inability to come up with the word I want in a conversation, I’m led to believe the researchers may be on to something. The fact that I’ve been consuming alcohol for probably fifty years has me wondering whether dementia may be just around the corner. After all this time it probably wouldn’t make any difference if I quit my daily glass of wine or not; how much smaller could my brain get?

I guess I’ll just have to add alcohol consumption to my other life-shortening behaviors: too much coffee will give me cancer and I can expect diabetes from the sweetened sodas I drink. Such thoughts dim the brightness of the generally healthy lifestyle I see myself living. I guess the realization of life’s fragility will keep me reading such reports even though I won’t be thinking about them too long: shrinking brain, you know.

Expanding the Mind

I’ve been reading, recently, about the experiments with the drug mescalin Aldous Huxley performed in the 1950’s. He determined that the drug will ‘open the door’ of one’s perceptions, allow one to pass through the wall of harsh reality and for most everyone with proper introduction and guidance, will produce expanding insights, an increasing ability to see more deeply and observe the world ego-free. Being able to embrace the ‘isness’ of our visible world, the stuff of experience that has by survival instinct been reduced to labeled objects, would make everything we see more significant as the drug inhibits self-consciousness.

There are caveats. A sound, stable mind grounded and free of anxiety is essential. AH points out the drug may induce schizophrenic response, scare the user into interpreting his surroundings as cosmic malevolence, begin viewing experiences as conspiratorial, as a plot to destroy him.

Which has me thinking about the alternative realities so prevalent in the public sphere these days. How so many of us have caved to conspiratorial narratives, have fallen into the dark world of the ‘deep state’ even without experiencing the negative effects of a mind-altering drug.

Even so, it seems to me cracking open some of those ‘doors’, gain at least a glimpse beyond our limiting realities would gain us a worthwhile perspective. Maybe, if one really tried one could will the expansion without the drug.

Vision Serpent

The World Without Us

There’s a lot of discussion these days about whether or not humankind is putting excessive pressure on our earth’s finite resources. Population growth, new technologies for extracting fossil fuels, depletion of forest lands, loss of clean fresh water sources, garbage in the oceans, over fishing, the list goes on and on.

I was reading an interesting commentary on what would happen to our world if humankind was suddenly to disappear, how quickly it would rebound, become healthy again. Such a scenario, human extinction that is, is not all that unthinkable in view of international tensions these days.

Such thinking made the book, The World Without us, by Alan Weisman, compelling reading. Mr. Weisman suggests that, in his believable future world, infrastructures would begin to fail, the New York subway tunnels would flood almost immediately and within a few hundred years our most solidly built brick, mortar and concrete structures would crumble. Native vegetation would push up through asphalt roadways hastening nature’s reclamation of the earth. Coral reefs and sea life would rebound as the resilient oceans healed themselves.

Even 500 years later the earth, it seems to me, would be a much more attractive place to be; except, of course, I wouldn’t be here; unless I could somehow live in the future. But, I guess that’s a whole other issue.

An Alternative Civilization

I’ve been reading about an ancient culture of copper smelters that lived in what is now Southern Israel some 3000 years ago. Archaeologists excavating the site of an ancient copper mine have determined these people developed sophisticated smelting techniques, had domesticated animals and traded for food items that originated hundreds of miles away. But other than the information deciphered from the mine site the archaeologists know nothing of these people: no village sites or even single building structures have been found in the vicinity leading to the conclusion these people must have been nomadic.

Such information has me wondering how many other ancient cultures might have existed but are undiscovered; people who might have acquired knowledge, possibly had learned truths about planet Earth that hasn’t come down to us. Maybe these unknown people learned how to live in harmony with their environment, how to nurture and be nurtured. Maybe material acquisition wasn’t important to these ancient, enlightened people who worked together to forge healthy, satisfying autonomous existences, being of the land rather than seeing the earth as a resource to be exploited. This idea has me thinking the values and beliefs we associate with an ‘innate human nature’ may be other than the linear progression of civilization which is our heritage has led us to believe them to be.

It all makes me wonder if we might have become a kinder, gentler people had we followed a different evolutionary path.

The Attraction of Authoritarianism

I’ve been trying to understand the fluctuations in the world order these days with populist movements arising around the world ushering in strongman politicians, spinning narratives of restorative nostalgia, remembrance of times past when everything was better than it now is despite the relative affluence most of us realize.

There are always, I suppose, folks of ambition but mediocre talent who don’t achieve desired advancement, who might seek a less competitive structure than the socio-economic system that promotes the best and most able and insures the system functions as effectively as possible. And then there are those of modest ambition who may fear disenfranchisement and the disfavor of the strongman who climb on the bandwagon.

The problem is that the strongman, assuming free reign, may begin to make up his own rules, begin suppressing opposition, placing restrictions on access to information until there’s only one narrative. And, with only one narrative truth can be stretched, people demonized, scapegoats created to be blamed when things go awry.

Better I think to have a sometimes messy and chaotic pluralism where everyone has a say even if considerable energy may be required in public debate.

Liberty and Justice for All

After reading a definitive, in-depth account of the conflicting narratives between the various parties involved in the American Revolution it occurs to me how amazing it is that any sort of resolution was ever reached, deeply flawed as it was.

Liberty and justice for all was far from the truth of what occurred during and after the war. Moneyed interests controlled the economy to the detriment of the small landowners, Native American populations were pressured off tribal lands, Black Americans were returned to forced servitude. Widespread unrest prompted the founding fathers to push for a restrictive democracy, granting increasing power to the federal government. Congressional checks and balances negated sought after control by special interest groups.

200 years later I guess a certain equity has obtained. Many, assured as they are of equal treatment under the law have freedom to speak their views and can realize a reasonably stable existence even though ‘liberty and justice for all’ is far from a reality.