Tuesday, March 8, 2011

"Sacred Interpretation" an essay

I’ve worked on this essay for a few weeks now. My eyes finally gave their last light for it, and I won’t be able to edit it for a few months. Nevertheless, is has propelled me into a new space for what is up and coming. Its about how to interpret the world from a set text. When you take something as sacred, and imagine it speaks to all life’s problems, then what must you do mentally to make it work for you? And what can be taken as sacred in life. The true thrust of this essay with the subsequent two essays I’ve been working on is the idea of Interpretation as a basic process of daily life.


Daniel Christopher June



Sacred Interpretation

            You can’t interpret a text until you already know what it means. Just as you can’t formulate a question until you know the answer, so you can’t know what a book means until you know what it must mean. All reading is reading for. Since we read, talk, eat, think always within context of the needs which necessitate these, there can be no disinterested reading. Don’t look at, look for. And know what you are looking for.

            What is the limit of interpretation? Pick up an ad from the paper. Perhaps a pizza restaurant is offering coupons. Put on your critical glasses. What is the limit of meaningful things you can say about the pizza ad? With unlimited time and interest you could fill encyclopedias over this skimpy ad. The photographs required skill, the execution of which perhaps reveals the university that photographer studied at, his nationality, perhaps more.  The pixels of the paper historicize it, suggest the price of printing the ad, indicate the technology involved; moreover a chemist could discover when and how it was made. The style of the ad, what font they chose for their name, what name, would tell us what the restaurant owners think of themselves, how they want to appear; the ideal customer might be depicting eating the pizza. And such a catalog could continue. But then the coupon uses monitory units, and these represent our economical system, as well as perhaps the psychological and intellectual canniness of a marketing team which chose the amount to offer, the expiration date, etc., presumably to boost sales both in the short term and long term. The fine print on the bottom of the coupon implies a legal system. The significance of the context of the ad appearing in such and such a paper on such and such a date might fill volumes. And we could then hit the add with all the prefabricated interpretive models they teach at the universities: a feminist reading of the ad might look for how sexual relationships are represented; a Marxist reading might wonder who is placing the ad, and what class it is aimed at; a Freudian reading might ponder how it manipulates our unconscious desires; etc. And so the ad can be infinitely interpreted, though it has limited meaning.

            All that is boring. What matters to us in our day to day lives is not in analyzing junk in the paper, but in analyzing our boss, why is he angry? how does he feel about me? is it safe to ask for Tuesday off? what will land me a promotion?; analyzing our wife? why is she angry? or what will make her happy? or at least keep off my back after dinner so I can get this project done?; analyzing our kids? are they developing correctly? are they acting appropriately? are the making the right friends? are they hiding something?; analyzing ourselves – and this is truly endless! – am I overweight? why did I say that thing that I now regret? why don’t I exercise? should I be more bold with my friends? should I be less bold with my coworkers? Interpreting life is the chief business of the mind. And knowing how to interpret gives power.

            Imagine there were a bold hero who wished to stand for his people and to kill a wizard, and the wizard in turn wished to turn the hero back against his own people. Now imagine that the wizard was a mind-reader, and the full extent of his powers is in the placement of his words. The hero storms the wizard’s quarters, and the wizard casually looks up from a tome. No matter how the hero attacks the wizard, the wizard speaks the right words, perhaps some evocation of a repressed memory, or a threat that wouldn’t phase anybody but hits the hero at his hidden weakness, or some temptations that just happen to appeal to him. Being omniscient, as only a mirror can, the magician would assume that no matter who barged down his door, if there were any possibility that he could turn the hero back against his hometown, he would have the right words. Would the hero not be doomed?

            Or take the same parable from a theological angle. Imagine being trapped within the mind of either God or the Devil (Descartes was correct to present the possibilities as pragmatically equivalent). Now imagine that this deity were omniscient. Would any force be required to control you, or could the right combination of words bring you to it? The logical conclusion of any theism when faced with such gods is that we are all, inwardly and finally, also gods. There must be something in us that is not interpretable, predictable, calculable, for the mind to serve as a mind at all. For the ego to exist it must at least own itself; if anything in the universe owns, it is the ego, and behind that the needs that own through the ego.

            And so the finally ineffable element of the universe must be the interpreter, not the methods of interpretation, since they can be analyzed, and not full mind, since the mind can be analyzed, but there must be a certain nothingness, the transparent eyeball, who casts no reflection in the mirror, and this entity we typically call “free-will.”

            The Buddhist idea that such a thing doesn’t exist can readily be countered that it also doesn’t not exist. If it is nothing, it is still needed, still situated, and still agent. Though the ego owns itself, it doesn’t own itself for itself, but for the needs that create and necessitate it. We believe in free will because we must. We make choices because we must. We choose this or that religion because we must. Not that we need anything in particular, but we need something. The ultimate center of all life is in the necessity for its existence, in the needs that allow it. “Pure freedom” is meaningless. If freedom lacked necessity, it wouldn’t need to exist, and therefore could not.

            The interpreter, or pure mind, offers us the sacred text – handy to have! We have a set of needs that, say what we wish, we can never escape, as a self can’t transcend itself, and the final reward for every action and word is that you will always be the one who did it.

            So now we have a text. Sacred texts are lovely, they offer the believer powers he would otherwise lack. I don’t mean that any sacred text is empowering in and of itself (whatever that could mean!) but because it is possible for a believer to hold it as sacred. Not everybody can. Most Americans cannot hold the Quran or the Dhammapada, the Torah, or even the Gospels, as a final authority. If you cannot, there will inevitably be some thing that is taken as sacred – and what it is proves less important than that is it. By sacred I mean something indubitable, trusted at all costs, something one has faith in no matter what. To be able to have such a thing is useful because it gives unique opportunities for interpretation. The Jew who believes everything worth knowing is in the Torah can therefore interpret all the important things that aren’t in it as if they already were. The Christian can interpret every problem as if the red-letters of Christ had foreseen it and spoken directly about it. The Muslim can believe that his Quran in some way embodies Allah. Of course all this leads to a lot of stupidity, but is stupidity really so bad? Its when we think we are smart that we are easily tricked. Where we know we are stupid, and hold fast anyway, we can’t be tricked. Human stupidity has improved the species as much as human ingenuity. What better way to make a decision than to say “for better or worse, I’m going to do it,” and close your ears and eyes to reasons thereafter.

            Emerson countered the worship of sacred texts with his “Nothing is at last sacred except the integrity of your own mind.” And to make the point extreme, he said that the integrity of this mind was worth hell, since if such a mind were demonic in the first place, better to be near your father. When a Christian or Muslim or Jew faces a problem, is it not also his mind, and not the scripture itself, that is sacred? Or has the Scripture replaced the mind? This would be true, it seems true, regrettably true, except that nothing can be properly called “mind” or “pure consciousness” that is a from habit or education. The interpreter must mediate between the scriptures, the sermons, even the very words of God made audible, to present the language as personally intelligible  and so no man is mindless.

            “Truth, beauty, and goodness” make up a philosophical triad. Goodness means good for life, for a particular life – nothing could be “universally good”— so we would do better to talk of goodness in terms of virtues and goods; virtues are what seek and gain good objects. Truth and beauty are also goods, are they not? Yes, though not in themselves, for they are qualities that characterize certain goods. An idea can be true or false, yet there can be no truth without an idea. Any sensual form can be beautiful or ugly, but there is no formless beauty. And yet there can be goods things that are not beautiful, and good ideas that are not true. It could be said that most of our important ideas are not “true” to most the rest of the world; the ideas of samsara and salvation strike me as superstitious, but even if I liked them, a dozen others annoy me. An idea can only be true for you if it works for you, and since you are part of a larger context, it must also work in the world. Truth is an interpretation of the facts, not the facts themselves. While we would say “the world is round, and always has been round, it is false that it was ever flat,” few people would dispute the facts, but many would dispute the interpretations. The world does seem rather flat. What an ancient meant by “the world is flat” is strictly true in that it worked for him, it described the facts, he was not lying, he was not deceived (nobody tricked him), and most important of all – it didn’t matter. And that is crucial. Nowadays, to believe such a thing would be wrong, but not before.

            Facts are absolute, but getting at them and knowing how to interpret them takes thousands of years. Perhaps ten thousand years from now, every one of our scientific laws will be proven contingent, and all that will remain will be the process itself which discovered and formulated those laws, and moved past them. It is conceivable that our very method is so flawed that we have painted ourselves in a corner, and would have to back up to make progress. It seems unlikely, we should act as if it were unlikely, but it is at least conceivable. A good science fiction writer could make a convincing novel out of the possibility. And so? We still ought to believe in our method, and that ought is not contingent, but absolute, for we need to. Having this, acting from this, we are centered, we stand in the center, we can be happy and stable in our lives. Lacking this, being unaware of it, nevertheless, we still feel the need for it, and cannot resist it, only change its path from this direction to that, but always some direction, till the moment of our extinction, if indeed there is such a moment.

            All knowledge derives from experience, indeed experience is knowledge, even derived experience, the experience of hearing stories, for hearing a story is also an experience.

            The sacred integrity of the mind that Emerson spoke of may at last not be the only sacred text. Human needs could be objectified as a sort of personal sacred text as well, one each of us ought to take as Eternal and Immanent.

            Beauty and Truth are the structures of objects: beauty gives us a sense of pleasure, truth gives us a sense of certainty. Ultimately, both beauty and truth are emotional experiences, possible under certain conditions. I can feel certain of an actual falsehood, but I can’t force myself to feel certain of what I don’t understand nor agree with. “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so” quoted Twain, and he was right. For here believing means “acting as if something were true,” but not necessarily feeling that it was. And this is how myth works. Jesus did die for our sins, if we take “sins” to stand for a mere idea that organizes a set of experience, ditto “Jesus,” ditto “died for.” The structure of the myth, much older than the historical Jesus, is an archetypal story that shapes memory. It doesn’t matter what you or I think of the story. It is enough for any of us that “somebody somewhere consciously believes this”; the rest of us unconsciously believe. Memories structure themselves into stereotypes, but the time we are most receptive for those archetypical stories are the age when they are given: childhood. Children can’t handle complex stories the way adults can’t handle simple ones. Each of us lives a mythic structure, we each have a personal myth, a self-fantasy.

            All we need feel when we hear a story – and how we tell them endlessly, through art, through gossip, through serious conversation, it never ends! – is amusement.Being amused, we are hypnotized, and the unconscious is setting stories in place. Entertainment is never quite mindless, it just doesn’t require conscious focus.

            And so we find Beauty at her old games again. Beauty the seducer! That is all she ever was. Beauty eases the mind to let the desires take over. When I enjoy an essay, I set down my pen. When I read the essay of some blackguard who rubs me the wrong way, I mark his essay with all sorts of diacritical grumblings.

            Entertainment feels unimportant to the conscious mind – who would bother to quote it? – yet meaningful things feel most important. Meaning itself is a feeling of importance, a sort of pleasurable desire to engage an object with the critical mind. And so meaning is an aspect not of beauty but of truth. We want to contain the truth, master the truth, internalize the truth; truth is a weapon, truth is a tool. We prefer to be contained within beauty, as the man in the sexual act, the child in the womb. The religious feeling is the desire to be contained in something eternal, the same herd instinct that leads us to join clubs, groups fraternities, etc. The properly religious feeling is not the mystic alone with God, but the community praising together. What the mystic feels requires a stronger imagination, and therefore more discipline, to let the idea of God enclose him like a womb – and this is again the impulse to beauty, a variation of the aesthetic feeling, of surrender. Enlightenment, at least in the Western sense, is not about beauty, though they could be confused, both being variations of pleasure, but is instead the feeling of mastery, of power, of will-to-power, of having imposed an order on chaos, the feeling of being a God rather than being part of a God. Enlightenment is of the mind, but mysticism of the heart.

            It is peculiar, is it not, that because the mind is a container, it cannot experience the outer as outer, but must again represent that outer from its own substance with a sense of its being “out there.” Just as a memory differs from imagination in a sense of it “having happened such and such a time,” so the world and the needs, are not part of the mind, and yet we cannot act as if they didn’t exist.

            Myths spread themselves through our minds, the gods live through us, just as each of us lives within the matter of our body – matter is all there is, yet it has so many layers that worlds coexist on top of each other – and so we all believe in all the religions upon hearing them, we cannot doubt them, not in our memories, they take their place, they do their deed, because belief and doubt need not even touch noses, they are different functions over different materials. In the same way, thoughts think themselves throughout the centuries, thinking themselves through our heads, giving each of us a little fame, a little credit, for what in their eyes is their own self-unfolding. The great philosophers gave us questions, and knew the secret of how to keep them open. Their fame is deserved. The poets gave us metaphors. Poems are pure metaphor. An entire poem could be entitled, “variations on a mood,” so that each syllable, each word, each rhythm pattern, each disruption of that pattern, each word, each trope reflects back on that same poetical mood. Poems are concrete moods, their truth value matters nothing at all, only what they feel – and that is why most poets have mood disorders.

            The poetical tongue speaks the metaphor mind. The metaphorical mindset sees an essence in a thing, for all things contain many essences, and to hold the essence like a cat’s cradle, till the next thing can take it from your hands, holding the shape of the essence. The essence is only known when it is seeen as something else. Nothing is fully itself until it becomes something else. This is the principle of metaphor, and the justification of human death.

            The mark of genius is the ability to make metaphors. Yet we all do so constantly, automatically. For instance, we each need a set of entities to plug into, a circle of friends, a set of books, a series of activities, so that all our needs are expressed and fulfilled. From one perspective, these are all similar, a book, a hobby, a friend: you engage it, you give, you take, you release it.     And each of us needs a certain array of objects; perhaps  a father figure, a wife figure, an enemy figure, and lacking what we need, we would need a substitute. A good substitute requires only a good metaphorical fit. Combine this with the problem that each particular friend we have invites new needs, and we must balance this one against the rest, as with having an overbearing mother, so the man needs a certain wife, friends, or hobbies to compensate; and this in the same way as when, say, we have as sick kidney, and all the other organs must do their work to compensate.

            We seek out essences in accordance with what is essential for our desire. Every bit of discourse is mere thread of sterile math, but so many threads add up, so many folds of logic, that it comes to mean many things at once, and we take it for language, rich and manifold. You can slice reality from any angel, each is essential and absolute.

            Emerson read to collect the least part of the text “the inspired glimmers,” the few oracular moments, not knowing that the whole mess is oracular, according to what you seek. Every sentence is relevant to the system that made it, just as every person in a country makes up the national character. You cannot deconstruct a text using the text, because no part is single enough to be removed. The logic of the part is the whole, nobody can contradict himself, everything fits, and even the sense of a misfit fits in with there really not being one.

            Deep interpretation requires years of familiarity. Learn to sink into a text. It is like the goddess who went to hell to win back her murdered lover. Before she could enter, she had to remove her necklace. Then her dress. Then her undergarments. Then hell’s mistress, jealous of her beauty, adorned her in decay, pestilence, lice, old age. Imprisoned in hell, with no lover in sight, the goddess waited. Above, the heavens raged against hell, till in fear, the mistress of hell took off the decay, and added strength; took off pestilence, and added health; took of old age, and added eternal youth; returned the goddess’s clothing, and adorned her in a finer necklace; and frightfully sent her back to heaven. In the same way, we must read a text again and again, each time becoming more naked before it, losing our intellectual independence – the greatest of virtues! – slowly becoming sick with the text, in love with it, unable to leave. The text will never quite give us what we came for. But it will give us more of ourselves. In this way, even enlightenment should learn to submit. The friend is my best friend who makes me more myself, let him keep his money and favors.

            Anything can be a reading, anything can be a writing. Anything can be a medium of meaning. Meaning is the sense of importance, a slowing down of the mind. It gets direction from desire. Desire pushes an idea to the center of focus. Meaning makes it feel like it should stay there. Meaning thus is a form of pleasure, or a pleasurable species of pain, unlike beauty, rather than relaxing the mind, tightens it.

            Ultimately, what we need from the world, from our spouses and friends, is a few material things. Why all the talk? Because words are magic, and charge objects with meaning. Perhaps a jar of sand is a stupid gift, but when I learned you travelled five days to retrieve it for me, the story is the spirit of the gift, and sand the body. So much talk goes in to aligning two pairs of lips. All the talk in the world is merely to orient the eyes and situate the hands, and it is worth it. It takes a full heaven to animate each speck of dust. And so language condenses emotion into liquid words, speech is fluid desire. Speech is the oil of society.

            Personalities are our speaking aspect, just as characters are our acting aspect. Personalities are strategies, and can be and interpreted as such. We talk certain ways to get certain things; talk plays a game to gain love and power, where even seriousness is a ploy. Without language, without the movement of a few tokens, without the conceptual gridwork of grammar for this infinite game of chess, we could never achieve the complicated arrangement of relationships that characterize this world.

            Each man thinks in a private grammar; he is educated when he can reduce all his learning into his own words. Meaning is the heaviness over an object, a gravity in the center of our focus. How can something unknown be meaningful to me, unless it is packaged that way? I can tell that the foreigner has something meaningful to say, for intelligence shines from his eyes, and he sounds intent. The myth of Babel is rightly answered by the myth of Pentecost: poetic inspiration bridges confusions of language. By making poetical bridges, I have set the rainbow to heaven before you.

            Sinking into your own hell, the innermost aspect of your moods – and maid Satan is the mistress of this mirror-womb-barrier who would strip you down – you will yet gain the artifacts you need. The Nameless is origin of all; named she is mother of manifestations. Only at this centermost, the gate before needs, in the face of the great mirror womb – or to speak directly, only by studying the way your memories are structured, can you gain the tools you need to return to life and interpret again the world.

            Study Freud for years; you will gain all sorts of theoretical apparatuses. Scientifically they are useless, but logically they have place. Now study Carl Rogers for years, read all his books. He hardly gives any theoretical apparatus. Above all, he teaches a certain attitude, principles for an attitude, perhaps reducible to a single artifact, to be worn over the heart like a necklace, just one basic thing, that is worth just as much as the intellectual articulations of Freud. To gain a new heart is dangerous and difficult, for you may lose your love in the process.

            Listen to what is meaningful, it will sink into your mind; pay attention to what is important, it intensifies an object by silencing all others. Importance talks quietly, yet silences the rest. The ego needs to be respected and praised, needs to own, but must be temporarily renounced in your descent into the hell of the heart. The ego neither loves nor hates, is fulfilled by neither, but the heart uses both. And so the heart is dangerous.

            The ego feelings can readily be checked. All emotions are good and useful, but everything needs a vacation, just as a good marriage is made up of periodical fake divorces. There is the arrogance that pretends to be arrogance to hide how arrogant it really is. Let it admit it is ridiculous, so that it may grow proud. Learn to mirror an emotion back on itself, a logic back on itself, a word back on itself, this is the subtle power. Everything tends to do what it needs to do, and needs to do also what the whole needs. Stand in the center, make the slightest change, and the circumference will quake and rage. Then, return.

            And so interpret kindly. What we call “corny, silly, optimistic, stupid,” at a deeper level we call “true,” but it would be better to call it “real,” since it resonates to our myth. We accepted those myths as the first inheritance from our family. Pragmatically, we do not need religious truths, but religious experiences. The myths do their work whether we literalize them or debunk them. For we hear them endlessly. Only some of us can take them so literally as to make them consciously indubitable. The New Testament is sacred in this country. To a literary critic, it seems peculiar. There are four repetitive gospels instead of one biography; there are dozens of repetitive epistles instead of one treatise: the book is shorter than the “Old Testament” yet repeats itself more. Well? The Upanishads seem even more repetitive, and the Quran’s Suras all speak in the same admonishing tone. Perhaps what makes something sacred is endless repetition, so that certain terms become more and more abbreviated, like Orwell’s “Newspeak,” with words that are meant to be readily said, readily felt, but never thought. Perhaps this can be a good thing, to learn to be stupid. And in this country, with our own scripture, with the Holy Spirit of Whitman, who speaks the groaning of our soul, and teaches us only an attitude, only how to pray; or the Oversoul, Emerson, who gives us endless wisdom, and the same variations on the same few themes; and the myth of Moby Dick by Melville, with its hyper-poetical diction; and of course the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers; with the Scarlett Letter and Huckleberry Finn: let us sink deep into these texts, interpreting them until we are quite naked inside them, emerging finally more than gods, but American Gods. And then we will be fit to write the next chapter in the open Canon of our worlds greatest Scripture: the American Religion. This, at least, is the reason I interpret life, friends, and books, and this has modestly become my life’s ambition.











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