Smoke and mirrors

All political power is primarily an illusion… Mirrors and blue smoke, beautiful blue smoke rolling over the surface of highly polished mirrors… If somebody tells you how to look, there can be seen in the smoke great, magnificent shapes, castles and kingdoms, and maybe they can be yours.”

American journalist Jimmy Breslin. In his Notes from Impeachment Summer.

my real self wanders elsewhere

“My real self wanders elsewhere, far away, wanders on and on invisibly and has nothing to do with my life.”

Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

“What could I say to you that would be of value, except that perhaps you seek too much, that as a result of your seeking you cannot find.”

Hermann Hesse, Siddharta

Certain books one read as a youth seem to make a fatal imprint upon one’s life, or to remain with one like the memory of a young love. Long afterwards, even as we move on with our lives and we change both within ourselves and our relationships, something of this first love remains like a lingering scent.

I discovered Hermann Hesse in my mid teens: Narcissus and Goldmund, Damian and Siddhartha were significant books for me. In one sense they reflected my own discontent with the Scheinwelt, a sense that there was an unknown path to be walked, that “my real self walked elsewhere”.

Hesse’s Buddhist sensibility was – at least to me then – free of overtly Buddhist parlance – it was expressed through beautifully told stories, an easily accessible idiom.

It was the opposite of the sort of de rigeur nonsense that passes as Buddhism in a self-obsessed capitalist-consumerist West, where even the way of enlightenment becomes one more commodity, an exercise in self-branding, a way to serve at the altar of Self.

To have been exposed to Hesse in an oppressive, late-1970’s South Africa was a liberating experience for me. In a conservative patriarchal society ruled by an authoritarian spirit, and in a family dominated by an authoritarian father, Hesse represented a window on another world for me, a world where kindness and gentleness prevailed, where the coldness and sterility of life was challenged by an altogether different spirit of peace and – for fear of sounding “New Age” – for want of a better term, a spiritual expansiveness.

I suppose that as I grew older I grew away from Hesse, much as his Siddhartha found his own way apart from the Buddha. It is not a platitude to say we are all making our own journey, even if we are unaware of it, even though it’s beginning is forgotten and it’s end beyond the horizon of our comprehension. Perhaps it is a journey to awakening, to a knowing, to authenticity. I don’t think it is a journey in any way like the journeys that the guru, life coach and motivational speaker would have us make.

As a result of your seeking you cannot find”. 

Counterintuitive perhaps, or perhaps it reflects the Psalmist’s words:
Be still, and know I am God.”

SMOKE AND MIRRORS

We are so much like the seafarers of old, insisting that we are captains of our own ships, forgetting that the wind and ocean currents may force us from our charted course. And yet at every turn we encounter the belief system- so intimately linked to the capitalist metanarrative – that we can be in control. Life’s vicissitudes prove otherwise: death (the discussion of which is practically anathema in a society which fetishizes youth and “the new” and which displaces death into movies and videogames where once again it becomes a servant of our own self-interest) is the ultimate negation of our conceit. Death scrambles our radar, eviscerates our charts.

Scheinwelt

Every weekday evening on the radio financial “experts” discuss “the markets”, confident they can turn it’s volatility to profit. Financial experts remind us how under-insured most of us are, and we feel a twinge of resentment towards this elite few with their offshore investment portfolios. The advertising industry ensures the sense of anxiety is sustained at fever pitch, constantly reminding us that if we only buy this or that we will be more loveable, more acceptable, that our worth is somehow directly correlated to our ability to aquire “stuff.”

But all of this is Scheinwelt, maya, a world of illusions, smoke an mirrors.

A BRIEF DIGRESSION

What are we to make of Christ’s words to the rich young man, “Go, and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me”?

Too radical for us, too challenging to our shabby egotism and our obsession with money, we casually ignore and explain away Christ’s words. Fetishizing money, lost in our own idolatrous phantasms, we easily pervert Christ’s teachings to endorse our own avarice. Creflo Dollar (Google him if you really want to get depressed) is but one example of such aberation: the Word of Faith movement shows us how insidiously widespread heterodoxy has become, how the moneychangers have crept back into the temple with their rickety tables, tatty doves and their grubby coins.

What if the young man had followed Jesus? What would have become of his ‘financial planning’? What of the navigational charts he’d carefully prepared for his life? We know that the Shepherd was soon to be crucified, his sheep scattered, and terrible persecution was to follow. Would the young man not have been ill-advised to follow the Teacher? And as for the aforementioned Mr Dollar: would he put the persecution of the early church down to their lack of faith?


A definition: Scheinwelt: illusory world, a world of appearance.

 

“Words do not express thoughts very well. they always become a little different immediately they are expressed, a little distorted, a little foolish. And yet it also pleases me and seems right that what is of value and wisdom to one man seems nonsense to another.”

Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

On (not) radiating boundless love like the Buddha

After an altercation yesterday with an obstructive security guard who refused to allow me to photograph the rather grim-looking SABC building in Auckland Park, (Jo’burg, South Africa), I read the following words of the Buddha:

“Radiate boundless love towards the entire world — above, below, and across — unhindered, without ill will, without enmity.”

(The Buddha, from the Metta Sutta)

To further flagellate my un-Buddha-like (and un-Christ-like) self, I trawled through some cyberspace Bibles and found the words of Saint Paul, “Repay no person evil for evil, but be concerned with doing good before all people.”

Well, I did recently post a quote by Cioran in which he writes against Saint Paul’s “unbridled sanctity”!

Why then do I demand unbridled sanctity of myself?

I need to prod the occasionally superating wound of my own mad rage, examine what it is that festers there, which prevents healing. The issue here of course is precisely not the petty official, the simple-minded security guard following crackling orders from his unseen master on the other side of his walky-talky. It is not the rude waiter who disallows a canine companion on the terrace of his master’s restaurant. The issue is my own rebellion.  I suspect that ultimately it is a rebellion against what I sense as life’s suffocating boundaries – and perhaps a sense of impotence to effectively resist petty officialdom. My unchristian and unbuddhist response to the security guard was really a toxic amalgam of anger towards perceived illegitimate authority, obstinate and obstructive petty tyrants – their seeking to limit and diminish our freedoms believing they serve the common good in doing so. The guard is simply a sad little minion in a fallen, objectivised and unfree world. He is as much a victim as any, as unfree as a slave in a galley. I have witnessed the perpetuation and enforcement of so much illegitimate authority: in my father’s house – a cruel and petty tyranny. In the church: legalism in the guise of Christianity. At school, caned for petty misdemeanors that at best demanded a reprimand. In a society deformed by petty-apartheid: bureaucratic and institutionalised nastiness. A girl prevented from continuing attending my school when it was discovered she was “coloured”. The bus driver who prevented a black woman from entering a “whites-only” bus; the khaki-clad official who demanded a black businessman traveling with his white colleague exit the “whites-only” carriage. People beaten and arrested by policemen for not being able to show their “dompas”. People beaten and arrested for being Gay. Or for being on the wrong beach. In the wrong toilet. Using the wrong entrance. And few courageous – or foolish – enough to speak up on behalf of the voiceless. Oh there have always been those prepared to plant a bomb and run away for their beliefs; always those to shoot their enemy in the back from a safe distance. But few to face their enemy squarely with a simple “No”. So it is inevitable I react in anger at the merest hint of illegitimate authority, just as it is unsurprising that in true Orwellian irony, those who have been oppressed by petty bureaucracy, the victims of petty securocrats, should themselves manifest the same dismal characteristics of their former oppressors.

Well that’s a whole lot of anger for one wretched security guard to have to face. When I told him that his nefarious bosses in the evil tower o’er yonder did not have jurisdiction over a public street or over myself, that in fact God owned this space, the view of the building, the trees, me, and even him – well I think at this point he believed he was dealing with a lunatic, and he may not have been far from the truth.

So, reluctantly, I return to the words of the Buddha:

“Radiate boundless love towards the entire world”.

Fail. (However, The Dalai Lama said, “In the practice of tolerance, one’s enemy is the best teacher.” So at least the Buddhists provide some hope for me.

Then there’s ol’ Marcus Aurelius:

“(Do not) display anger or other emotions… be free of passion and yet full of love.” and “Tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own—not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work to together… To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.”

Am I upbraided by these pearls of wisdom? Or simple demoralized by them?

Well its hard to take moral instruction from Marcus Aurelius considering he initiated a violent persecution of Christians in The Fourth Persecution of AD162 (http://www.libertymagazine.org/article/marcus-aurelius-enlightened-persecutor) – so I’ll stay with the Buddhist injunction to kindness for now.

Jesus is a little more enigmatic and hard to place. Apparently The Lord of Peace
“… went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves.” He may have been a pacifist, but he was not afraid to physically confront illegitimate authority Jewish or otherwise.

But why bring Jesus into it at all?

Is He my standard, my measure?

Then I must fail, and thus  inevitably bring His holy name into disrepute!

Like the dog that has bitten and senses somehow it’s own wrongdoing,  yet which cannot but act according to its nature, I slink – ears back and tail down – back into my lupine growlery.

So much for gods and men, sages and fools.

There’s a passage from Pulp fiction I rather like:

“Jules: Well there’s this passage I got memorized. Ezekiel 25:17. “The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of the darkness. For he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you.” I been sayin’ that shit for years. And if you ever heard it, it meant your ass. I never gave much thought what it meant. I just thought it was some cold-blooded shit to say to a motherfucker before I popped a cap in his ass. I saw some shit this mornin’ made me think twice. See now I’m thinkin’, maybe it means you’re the evil man. And I’m the righteous man. And Mr. 9 Milimeter here, he’s the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or it could mean you’re the righteous man and I’m the shepherd and it’s the world that’s evil and selfish. Now I’d like that. But that shit ain’t the truth. The truth is you’re the weak. And I’m the tyranny of evil men. But I’m tryin’, Ringo. I’m tryin’ real hard to be a shepherd.” (Source: http://movies.stackexchange.com/questions/242/explanation-of-jules-ending-monologue)

I guess I just don’t know if I’m a shepherd or an “evil motherfucker”.

*****

This tawdry meditation “On (not) radiating boundless love like the Buddha” is written with a strong sense of the triviality of the incident. The war in Syria with its millions of victims, the plight of child soldiers, the atrocities of “The Lord’s Resistance Army”, massacres in the DRC, abductions by Boko Haram, beheadings by ISIS, drone attacks by the Pentagon, the suffering caused by disease and famine and political injustice, complicity and indifference – all these cause my “altercation” to pale into inane insignificance.

But there we have it: to rummage in the rubbish of insignificance seems the fate of mortals: How significant is most – or any – of our activity on this little planet? To take myself so seriously, an altercation amidst the aeons and the infinite reaches of space! How pathetic,  how egotistical, what myopic madness!

Dirigible

Stieglitz-Dirigible

The photograph above is by Alfred Steiglitz, titled Dirigible (1910, source: Wikipedia).

There is something haunting about this image of a lonely airship in a cloudy sky.

I have always liked Steiglitz’s work. In my twenties I had a postcard of one of his nudes. It had the same pathos as this picture, a sort of stillness. I read recently that Steiglitz was “… an immensely charismatic person, (and yet) amazingly egotistical and narcissistic” (From: Stieglitz And O’Keeffe: Their love and life in letters by Susan Stamperg). But this does not take away from the powerful beauty of his work.

*******

The Ineffable

The ineffable finds a way to us through the image. Where dry philosophy, polemic and argument may create a kind of obstacle to understanding (here I have in mind Richard Dawkins and his barren, atheistic intolerance of religious people), the ineffable finds its way to us through dance, art, music, beauty, literature and poetry, friendship and love. In some sense I see this “ineffability” as an expression of the apophatic, the via negativa, perhaps even the ineffable Name of God (יהוה). Divinity is expressed, felt, suggested, encountered, but cannot be named, delineated or measured.

Is it possible that the artist may reach into an “unnamed something” to access and express the thing we call “truth”? Here we enter the territory of “spirit” (itself a term too widely used, often abused and replete with an excess of meanings). The Christian mystic Jacob Boehme wrote of “the tranquil groundless God.”  The Hindu “Satcitānanda” is an epithet for existence, consciousness, bliss, truth and an experience of the ultimate, unchanging reality. The Christian mystic Meister Eckhart wrote, “We must learn to penetrate things and find God there.” The Dirigible” in my view shows this “penetration” of things by the artist. Steiglitz’s airship, with its pathos and lyricism penetrates the clouds of our own lives. Perhaps the artist himself is penetrated by what what lies beyond.

*****

Steiglitz was among the first photographers to see photography as more than a mechanical recording process, but rather as an artform. Dirigible is not merely the record of an event over a hundred years ago (which is itself a magical thing – this captured moment, this miraculous imprint of light on a glass plate, captured in a mechanical box); but the image is also the trace of the artist’s seeing. John Berger writes with far greater skill than I about seeing, about how what is seen is not simply some sort of objective “fact” (is there such a thing?) – no mere biochemical function of the optic nerve – but that seeing is a going out –  towards the subject: the artist looks out on the world in a certain way: an alchemy occurs between the inner world of the artist and that which is perceived. What is more wonderful still is that a hundred years after this airship drifted above Steiglitz’s creative gaze, we can share not only in the recorded moment, but in the unique way in which the artist perceived it. We are united with him beyond time. Just as when listening to a Bach Cantata we enter the emotional, intellectual and spiritual realm created and inhabited by the long dead composer, we enter into the picture and meet the artist there, share his experience of the seen. And I believe the mystery expands further from there: in a mysterious correlative process I go out from my own inner landscape to his image, to the airship in the sky, and to Steiglitz’s apprehension of it. I take the Dirigible into myself where it is knit into my own experience. Here it becomes a part of my mythos, my narrative, my metaphor (of sadness, hope, alienation, freedom, longing) and it may become a part of yours too. The airship, with it’s journey across the sepia sky long over, it’s aeronauts long dead, is paradoxically still moving silently across a sky of ink and paper, and now, forever, in a digital sky.


Notes

יהוה

The tetragrammaton (from Greek Τετραγράμματον, meaning “[consisting of] four letters”,) is the Hebrew theonym יהוה, commonly transliterated into Latin letters as YHWH. It is one of the names of God used in the Hebrew Bible. The name may be derived from a verb that means “to be”, “to exist”, “to cause to become”, or “to come to pass”.

The thing that steals our love

“Publicity is effective precisely because it feeds upon the real. Clothes, food, cars, cosmetics, baths, sunshine are real things to be enjoyed in themselves. Publicity begins by working on a natural appetite for pleasure. But it cannot offer the real object of pleasure and there is no convincing substitute for a pleasure in that pleasure’s own terms. The more convincingly publicity conveys the pleasure of bathing in a warm, distant sea, the more the spectator-buyer will become aware that he is hundreds of miles away from that sea and the more remote the chance of bathing in it will seem to him. This is why publicity can never really afford to be about the product or opportunity it is proposing to the buyer who is not yet enjoying it. Publicity is never a celebration of a pleasure-in-itself. Publicity is always about the future buyer. It offers him an image of himself made glamorous by the product or opportunity it is trying to sell. The image then makes him envious of himself as he might be. Yet what makes this self-which-he-might-be enviable? The envy of others. Publicity is about social relations, not objects. Its promise is not of pleasure, but of happiness : happiness as judged from the outside by others. The happiness of being envied is glamour.
Being envied is a solitary form of reassurance. It depends precisely upon not sharing your experience with those who envy you. You are observed with interest but you do not observe with interest – if you do, you will become less enviable. 
… …
The spectator-buyer is meant to envy herself as she will become if she buys the product. She is meant to imagine herself transformed by the product into an object of envy for others, an envy which will then justify her loving herself. One could put this another way : the publicity images steals her love of herself as she is, and offers it back to her for the price of the product.”

― John Berger Ways of Seeing