Tuesday, March 12, 2013

on spiritual myopia

Apparently, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who are not death-haunted and those who are. Art has a chance of taking place among the latter group. The former are too oddly situated within a sober existence to be genuine makers or deep appreciators of art.

Art is a form of attempted transcendence. Any attempt at art -- music, painting, dance, sculpture, poem, novel -- that doesn't have death somewhere in the foreground or background will yield pedestrian results. That's an assertion. So be it. And here's another one: the genuine work of art is one in which consciousness knows that transcendence is only a fleeting possibility -- a something available only during moments of creation. Knowing that permanent transcendence is unavailable will texture or imbue the creative work with a sense of the tragic.

What got me to thinking about this stuff is an article I read this morning:

"Evolution and Existentialism"

I come across this attitude often, and it remains a baffling thing to behold. In this case, the fellow is trying to amalgamate evolutionary biology and rational existentialism. Oddly, he is not the least bit concerned with the macabre fact of death or with expression toward transcendence. This fellow is way too well adjusted. Art didn't even appear in his article about life.

But maybe his way is just one of the ways of being in the world. One in which art doesn't much register as a possibility of living and coping. Each to his or her own, right? The problem is that this fellow is preaching a preferred way of being. For all of us sentient human creatures. He says that the blending of scientific and philosophical rationalism will put us on a better path of life. And to that I say "Balderdash."

There's an unsettling blitheness to the article writer's construal of being and time: life overall is meaningless so our job is to lose ourselves inside little meanings. That won't cut it. A greater response to overall meaninglessness is called for. Art is the deeper form of life. The tragic sense is the called-for tonality.

Reality is not explainable, nor is consciousness. Another grand assertion, which is fun for me to make. So we are ensconced in a permanent mind-bending mystery. The fact that biological entities evolve or that old French guys in cafes prescribe free choice does nothing to quell the big problem: human consciousness and mortal existence are incompatible. We are located in a compelling paradox. That's where and why the artistically tragic takes center stage.

Mahler's symphonies make the article writer's attitude seem myopic and rather air-headed.

That's all I have to say right now. I need some more tragically existential coffee.


  1. From the article:

    "For evolutionary biologists, all living things have a purpose. It is neither divine nor Platonic. It is also not a choice, at least for nonhuman species, because their purpose is generated, quite simply, by the reward that natural selection provides for creatures that succeed in projecting their genes into future generations. Living things are survival vehicles for their potentially immortal genes. Biologically speaking, that is what they are­­—and all that they are."

    It's stuff like this that gives the theory of natural selection a bad rap.

    Imagine that you go to switch on the light and it doesn't work. You check the bulb in another socket and it works. You unscrew the light panel and find a lose wire. You now have discovered why the light isn't working. But do you now know why the light works? Of course not.

    Imagine a pond freezes over one winter. A boy discovers it and decides to get his ice skates and go skating. He's having a great time. Someone else sees him and does the same. Soon a small group is ice skating on the pond. If we could gain a bird's eye view from above we'd see these really cool patterns the ice skaters are making. An *order* has emerged dependent on each of their individual actions, yet unplanned by them. Who can explain why the skating is so fun? Who can explain the intricacies of the order?

    However, consider now that one boy decides to start skating against the natural flow of traffic that had developed spontaneously at the pond. The others get upset and tell him either he goes with the flow or get lost. We now have a rule.

    That rules tells us something negative about what's happening at that pond. Science is like that rule. It tells us something negative. We now know a little bit about what is *not* happening.

    The presumption that some people make though is that science can tell us what *is* happening, which in a sense is sort of absurd. The way science is described, it's presumed science can tell us something *positive*.

    Natural selection, likewise, doesn't tell us what works. It only sorts out what doesn't work, leaving the question of what works a mystery. It's *very* hard to talk about this in a non-teleological manner. We lack a proper vocabulary for really talking about natural selection.

    If you read _Art and Illusion_ by E. H. Gombrich he doesn't ever even approach explaining what art *is*, its purpose. But he clearly notes that that artists do make use of a selection process that resembles natural selection in that they constantly weed out that which doesn't work to achieve their goal.

    That is, the presumption that an artists communes with something, and then puts this on the painting would be strange. Instead, he has this notion, paints the picture – and then via the mistakes, he's better suited when he does the next version. Such a process is not incompatible with art – in fact, artists themselves are making use of it.

    What people tend to want is for a theory that explains where the artists creation came from … but even the artists doesn't know this. He only knows when he's not getting it.

    What people tend to want is for a theory of science that explains where the scientists creation came from, but even the scientist doesn't know this. He only knows when he's not getting it.

    See the cool parallel.

    I don't care for evolutionary psychology as so much of it is pure bunk. Moreover, as far as fear and trembling at life – the Buddhist seem to suggest that life is so horrific, that this gives rise to compassion, which is what grants us salvation. I'm not sure about that, but it strikes me as better than pure fear and trembling.

  2. Fear and trembling is too strong a description for what I intended. By "death-haunted," I meant something more like angst. The article writer can't be bothered with angst and its expression (art). He's too busy accumulating little meanings, thinking they will all add up to a sufficient whole and somehow offset the fact of mortality. I find his attitude in so many books and articles that try to touch on human meaning -- a pathological blitheness. His attitude is immune to a sense of the tragic.

  3. Yeah, but I think any of us have a clue about that stuff, which is why I write poetry. Death is omnipresent ... it touches us all. So does lust, love, breathing, hunger, time, greed ... psycho-analystis were good at seizing on one or the other of these and then describing our entire psychology in these terms. You had Freud, Jung, Adler, even Otto Rank, and each one was different yet claiming to have found that skeleton key which unlocks it all.

    I think art is the best way of dealing with this stuff, and here I include poetry and fiction. Science is public oriented, as it should be, but in our private lives we need something more, and I think art serves this purpose well.

    I mean it like this, which one of these rules is more important:
    1. Don't drive faster than 55 mph.
    2. Love your neighbors as you want to be loved.

    Now ask which one you want the police to enforce? In the public sphere science should predominate, but in the private sphere art is what we need most. It's when this separation is ignored, and people try to push off art as science that we end up with Nazism, I think.

  4. None of us have a clue about that stuff, but to shove it aside like this guy does is odd to me. He seems oblivious to angst. Good for him, I guess.

    Maybe he *is* trying to speak to a public, as opposed to a private, sphere of meaning. But his attitude to being as such is trivial, dry, "textbook," myopic. A form of philosophical air-headedness.