WHERE I COULD HAVE BEEN

Recovering from a 26-year sleep

Pills, soporific pills to

Keep me out of the psych-ward

Relearning old accomplishments

Looking at my colleagues

Where they are now

Where I could have been

But for . . .

Where I could have been

Asleep

The hospital I never want

To see again

Why I was there

But for . . .

Pills, soporific pills

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Spirit and Matter and Life

Dead matter.  That’s how I saw the material world.  My understanding of Jesus added to this world view, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless” (John 6:63).  I understood this statement of Jesus according to the science I was raised with.  The atoms, chemicals, material compounds were all dead matter.  There was the spiritual world which is alive, and there was the physical world made up of dead matter, atoms, chemicals, material compounds.  “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.”  Even Nature was made up of dead matter.

The cells in our bodies, the leaves on trees, the soil in which plants grow are all made up of atoms, chemicals, and material compounds which are dead matter, I thought.  This world view is called Cartesian dualism.  Renee Descartes tried to come up with a theory to account for the relationship between spirit and matter.  Willing your arm to move is spiritual.  Wanting, or willing, is spiritual.  But your arm is physical.  How can something spiritual like the will affect something physical like your arm?  I’m not sure Descartes ever came up with a satisfactory solution to this problem.  But he described the problem well—movements of the soul are spiritual; movements of the body are material.  “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.”  Actually, Cartesian dualism actually goes back to Plato.  In Plato, there are two worlds: the world of the unchanging Ideal Forms, or ideas (ideai, eide) and the world of matter (hyle).  For Plato, what is really real, and our eternal home, is in the world of Ideal Forms; we end up on earth through a fall from the realm of Ideal Forms.  So the separation of spirit and matter can be traced way back to Plato.

While early Christians were sympathetic to Plato, notably Augustine and Gregory of Nyssa, there is a problem with Plato.  The Bible says that when God created Nature, God called it “very good” (Genesis 1:31).  Plato’s contempt for the material world is not shared by Christians.  Nature is created by God and is good; we are meant to be born here by God’s creative design.

But is matter dead?  Is the theory of matter that I grew up with true?  I am not a physicist.  But after reflection on Swedenborg’s theology, and after dialogue with a Cree elder, and from what I know about contemporary quantum physics, I think there’s only a thin veil between spirit and matter—not the drastic gulf one finds in Plato and Descartes.

Quantum physics tells us that matter is continually in flux.  Sub-atomic particles are popping into existence and vanishing out of existence all the time.  Atoms and molecules are continually vibrating.  Electrons are more a shell of probability than they are particles that are here or there.  Furthermore, matter is not solid.  Consider atoms.  The electron shell around a nucleus is like a pea in the middle of Shea Stadium.  There is that much space between the electron shell and the protons and neutrons in the nucleus.  But not empty space.  There are electromagnetic fields, gravitational fields, and all manner of other forms of energy that make up “dead matter.”  Energy fields such as the electromagnetic field permeates all of the universe.  Our very thoughts are electromagnetic impulses.  Sparks.  Electromagnetic energy.  If our thoughts are electric sparks and if electromagnetic fields permeate everything—even rocks—how different are our thoughts from rocks?  From the matter in our thoughts and the matter in rocks.  Both are made up of sub-atomic particles and energy fields that are always in flux—are alive?

The veil between spirit and matter is very thin, probably porous.  Now, I don’t think matter is dead.  Now, I see God in all God’s creation.  Now I revere Nature as I do Nature’s Creator.

Kavanaugh and the Evaluation of Memory

I’ve been reflecting on an incident from 1976 that is burned into my memory.  That is 42 years ago.  A very successful piano player who is my friend played one of my own compositions with me in a hotel bar.  I have an original song called “Space Blues.”  I wrote it in 1976.  One night, I sat in with my friend’s band; I played keyboard.  The band’s keyboard player had a beard, and he asked me if I wanted to sit in.  He yelled out from the audience for me to play a mambo, since he’d heard me play one before.  My friend was playing bass on a Moog Synthesizer.  The lead singer had sung on a Motown record, and he worked with my father at the Fisher Body plant in Livonia.  My friend asked me what song I wanted to play, since I was sitting in.  I told him the chords to Space Blues and the band and I started playing it.  The lead singer liked it, and started improvising some lyrics.  Actually he really sort of sang tones without words, since I hadn’t written the words yet.  I was thrilled to have this song of mine being performed in public.  I was thrilled to be playing in a bond with my friend, since I had a lot of respect for his musicianship.  Playing Space Blues in that hotel bar with my highly respected friend is seared in my memory.

Now, 42 years later, I have finally recorded Space Blues.  I sent it to my friend, the same friend who played with me in 1976, who has been producing my recordings.  He did not remember the song at all; it was as if he heard it for the first time.  I feel like telling him, “You played this song with me in 1976!”  But he has no recollection of any of this.  It didn’t make the same impression on him as it did on me.  He has played innumerable songs since, has played in countless bands, doesn’t even remember me sitting in with him that night in the hotel bar.

That’s the nature of memory.

Stanley Kubrick’s Priest

Stanley Kubrick doesn’t portray the human condition as only depraved power struggles.  True, nearly every Kubrick film depicts the worst tendencies of human nature.  It is no coincidence that at the dawn of humanity, tribes of proto-humanoids fight for control of a water hole.  What propelled the advancement of humanity was the discovery and exploitation of a weapon, in the case of early humans, an animal’s jawbone.  A Clockwork Orange is essentially about one power group dominating another person or other power group.  Alex’s droogs rape, steal, and commit ultra-violence on individuals.  The prison system exerts power over Alex.  Then Scientists exert power over Alex.  Then, after treatment in a behavior-modification laboratory, Alex’s past victims find him and violently exact revenge on him.  Finally, Alex is aligned with the controlling political powers after he is restored to his rapacious previous personality.

Then there is the voice of the priest.  “Goodness comes from within,” the priest tells Alex.  “Take away free will, and you no longer have a human being.”  And after Alex’s cruel behavior modification, it is the priest again who claims that Alex is as evil as ever, he simply can’t act on his evil will.  A Clockwork Orange came out in 1971, a time in which religion was generally rebelled against in society and was often portrayed in the worst light.  The film Papillon is a case in point.  After Papillion escapes from Devil’s Island, it is a nun who alerts the authorities and sends him back to the prison Island.  In MASH, the pious Frank Burns is also an incompetent surgeon, and even blames the death of one of his patients on God’s will.  Countless other films could be adduced.

Then there is the voice of Kubrick’s priest.  The voice crying for free will in human morality and spiritual development is put in the voice of a priest.  Free-will is the essence of human life, what makes us human, the only basis on which real growth happens.  A psychologist could have made the argument in the film.  A philosopher could have made the argument.  But this truth is uttered by a priest–the representative of God on earth.  The only character who doesn’t exert power over another, is the priest, who utters the words, “Goodness comes from within.”  To me, this shows that Kubrick isn’t entirely devoid of spirituality, despite the admitted predominance of human depravity in his works.

Truth, Fact, and Meaning

The things we are most certain of mean the least to us.  The things that mean the most to us, we are least certain of.  The difference is between fact and truth.  We are certain of facts, we believe truths.  A chemical redox equation can be duplicated anywhere, any time, and the results will be the same.  A redox equation is fact.  But does it mean anything to us how may electrons switch valences?  Of course, the batteries that depend on redox equations power our cars and cell phones, and they matter a great deal to us.  But the certainty of the equation itself doesn’t matter much to me.  On the other hand, the fact that there are eternal consequences to the way I live now matters a great deal to me.  The truth that there is a loving Creator watching over me, leading me, guiding me towards eternally lasting happiness matters a great deal to me.  But the existence of God is a belief, not a provable fact.  The reality of eternal life is also a belief, not a provable fact.

I grew up in a family that thought only science was truth.  Even art was devalued.  Math, engineering, chemistry, mechanics–these were the things that mattered.  These were the things they called truth.  The meaning a person finds in a poem, was not considered truth.  In fact, it wasn’t considered at all.  In the Turgenev novel I’m reading, the nihilist Bazarov deprecates belief, the arts, and aristocratic values.  He believes in nothing.  This abandonment of belief thrusts him into science.  He thinks that only science is certain.

But there is much truth in poems, like Robert Frost’s The Mending Wall.  “Something there is that does not love a wall.”  There is a feeling in us that wants connection among fellow humans and doesn’t love walls that come between us.  But Frost is an artist, not a scientist.  I don’t think it can be proven that there is a human antipathy to walls that come between us.  But I agree with Frost.  I believe he is correct.  The Mending Wall means more to me than the existence of quarks.  Quarks can be proved, Frosts truths can’t.  Neither can God’s love for humanity, nor the reality of afterlife.  But even if the things that matter most to me can’t be proven, my life is more fulfilling when I act upon the truths I believe.  I don’t see how science can direct me to a full and fulfilling life, even if the facts it discovers are provable.  The things that matter most to humans are not provable; the things that are provable hold least meaning to us.

Contrasting Dynamics between Old and New Literature

I’ve recently been reading the contemporary Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, and the 19th century Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev.  I’m finding a marked contrast in the development of the stories that each tell.  I am sad to say that I fail to understand the artistry of the contemporary novelist Murakami, while I am stimulated and captivated by the 19th century novelist Turgenev.

In the first chapter of Turgenev, there are four developing story tensions: 1) youth and age, 2) aristocracy and peasantry, 3) social grace and casual social insouciance, 4) science and art.  All this is evolving through four characters.  I can’t wait to see how these tensions play out.  By contrast, I am half-way through Murakami and there are no plot tensions; there have been a long succession of characters who appear then fall out of the narrative; and the story is a succession of episodes with nothing driving them other than the main character’s fascination with a woman who has something wrong with her.

The New York Times likes Murakami, and that makes me think that I’m missing something.  But I’ve read no critical commentary on Turgenev and I’m hooked.  Am I witnessing a clash of aesthetics between contemporary art and 19th century art?  Have my sensibilities failed to keep up with contemporary culture?

In my own aesthetics, a work of art commands attention by its own presentation.  I don’t need to read a book of art criticism to admire a Rembrandt painting–or a Monet landscape.  But I do, in order to appreciate Miro.  I don’t need to read criticism to enjoy Hemingway or Turgenev or Shakespeare or Tom Wolfe.  But someone needs to tell me why I should keep reading Murakami, because the author himself isn’t compelling my attention.

With so much art, I seem to leave off with early modernism.  Perhaps I am living witness to the plot tension in Turgenev between youth and age.  But then, that would commend Turgenev’s 19th century aesthetic.

Shelley and that Contentment Surpassing Wealth

Shelley makes reference to “that content surpassing wealth/The sage in meditation found,/And walked with inward glory crowned” (Stanzas Written in Dejection, near Naples).  The poet laments that he doesn’t have that content, but notices that, “Others I see whom these surround–/Smiling they live, and call life pleasure.”  It’s likely not my place to say whether I walk with inward glory, but I do number myself among those who have that content surpassing wealth.  That is, usually I have that content surpassing wealth.  Lately, I’ve been telling my acquaintances that I’m wealthy.  When they raise their eyebrows, I clarify by saying that I feel wealthy.  I have everything I want.  An outside observer, looking at my possessions, likely would wonder how I could feel that way.  My condo is small, I drive a 10-year-old Honda, my material possessions are few, my clothes are not expensive.  But the possessions I do have satisfy my wants superbly.  The contentment surpasses wealth probably because it depends on a certain attitude toward wealth.

 

When an individual isn’t concerned with wealth, then lacking it doesn’t sting.  Then there are the other things a person can concern oneself with that don’t cost much, but reward much.  A good paperback book doesn’t cost much.  And the satisfaction one receives from a good book contributes greatly to the contentment sages in meditation find.  A good book and reflection on it, is a sagely undertaking.  A Beethoven symphony can be downloaded for $9.99.  Time spent with a Beethoven symphony is a sagely undertaking.  Each piece of great art works on the soul, making the individual different after each encounter.  Art and knowledge form a person’s psyche.  A psyche who seeks an encounter with something spiritual, like a Turgenev novel, will find contentment.  My edition of Turgenev cost me $21.00, and will last me weeks, and then the lasting satisfaction my soul will enjoy after my encounter with it.  But a psyche who chases wealth, power, status, and fame will likely not find contentment.  They are all unquenchable cravings, and no matter how much of each one possesses, it will never be enough.

 

Lately, my spiritual seeking has been leading me into discontent.  I am planning to attend the Parliament of the World’s Religions, which is being held in Toronto this year.  Finding lodging I can afford, securing a flight, and negotiating the public transportation of a foreign city are all anxiety provoking, and a strain on my modest finances.  But having attended the previous one in Salt Lake City, I anticipate an ultimately rewarding and fulfilling experience in Toronto.  The temporary anxiety that goes into the achievement of this spiritual goal will be rewarded with a lasting spiritual formation in my soul, during and after the event.  With my aspirations set on humanistic and spiritual acquisition, I expect to continue through my life, as I do now, according to Shelley’s words, “Smiling they live, and call life pleasure.”

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