Category Archives: Fables, myths & parables

African Frog

I really thought I’d written up my story of the African Frog. I was just looking for it, and it’s not here. I will rewrite it now, because this is one of the key mythical tales of my life.

When I was a young boy living in Brockway, Pennsylvania I had a beautiful tank of tropical fish. My folks would occasionally take me to the pet store over in Dubois and let me pick out a new fish to add to my tank. On one of our trips I spotted an African Frog. I had to have that instead of just another fish. When we brought it home and let it out it seemed pretty happy swimming around in there with the guppies, swordtails and neon tetras. Except, a few days later we noticed one of the fish was missing. Every day or so after, there’d be one less fish. Eventually, the only thing left in the tank was the African Frog. Then one day the African Frog was gone, too. We found him a few weeks later, mummified in a ball of lint.

Renaissances suck

When we realize our popular philosophies — each, in fact, an antithetical half of one shared popular philosophy — have come to the end of the road, and that they can go further toward explaining the very conditions they have helped produce, some alarming consequences come to light.

First, few are unlikely to allow themselves to suspect the role their obsolete philosophies are playing in their current state of mind, but instead “double down” and use their philosophies more and more obstinately, anxiously and passionately to diagnose what has gone so hellishly wrong with the world around them.

Second, if a critical mass of people do finally discover that the source of trouble in their own philosophies, they will for a time (who knows how long?) suffer collective spasms of dread and reckless renunciation and social chaos will ensue.

Third, a profusion of intense but unstable replacement philosophies will contend to replace the ground of agreement lost in the earlier renunciation. Most philosophies will flame out under their own non-viability, but the ones that don’t will not have the resources to recognize the others and negotiate a coexistence.

Finally, if one philosophy capable of uniting and making mutual sense of the rest emerges and begins to predominate by providing some common ground for agreement and civil disagreement, it will have an entire reality before it to rethink. This comprehensive rethinking is its process of maturity. On its way to adulthood the society itself will be marked by both good and bad characteristics of the young, including the most essential youthful trait — the conceit that one already comprehensively understands what most needs understanding, a phenomenon I like to call “microomniscience“.

My best hope is that this whole revolutionary process actually began decades ago, and that somewhere, or here and there, pockets of practical thinkers and thinking practitioners have already begun maturing a philosophy that the masses can adopt.

Edit: Two Stories About Skin

His eviction notice was his own overwhelming desire to get out. He had to leave this place immediately. It was not a matter of escaping here; it was a matter of being there, a there unknown apart from its distance, a distance from which he could see home whole against the sky, a distance prescribed to those who wish to love perfectly.

He stripped some bark from a nearby tree. On the bark’s smooth inner wall he created a map. He paused to admire it, and indulged a pompous urge to declare it good. Then he set off to survey the edges of the world. As he traveled and traced out his path on his map, the shape that emerged was good news. With a completed map he would finally leave his home behind.

*

In the end,
the trees will grow like snakes,
splitting and sloughing bark,
bending in coils of green heartwood;
and the snakes will grow like trees,
depositing skin under skin,
and in their turgid leather casings,
they will lie about
on the ground
like broken branches.

(Original here. Improved?)

American Olympus

One of the ideals I somehow absorbed or derived or instaurated from Nietzsche is the concept of Olympian pluralism.

For a passionate practical worldview to be divine — as opposed to titanic — it must maintain loyalty to a deeper uniting and transcendent practical worldview, that which keeps it in community with other practical worldviews and makes it an organ within a cultural organism.

A titan is incapable of participation in something it conceives as greater than itself and inclusive of itself, of which self is entirely constituted, and functions in defiance of its true relationship to the grounds of its own existence, reality. Titanism is ontological cancer.

Liberal-Democracy is America’s Olympus.

Conceptual zombies

Zombies are ghosts in reverse. A ghost is a soul without a body. A zombie is a body without a soul.

Both are products of the question: “Where did this person’s personhood go?”

*

Conceptual zombies are real. I’ve seen them and talked with them. To themselves, even, they are instances of a category. When they open their mouths they speak on behalf of the category they are. “As a…” When they address you, they address the category you are. They demand that you respond as addressed.

Evaporated

Around 1994 I had a horrifying dream about a melancholy girl who lived in a tiny apartment above a Ducati showroom. In my dream, she decided to annihilate herself by feeding herself into a transparent tube (like the pneumatic tubes used in bank drive-throughs) which ran from the corner of her room, down the building and into the city’s underside. She just evaporated into vagueness and seeped away.

I never could drive past the real-life Ducati showroom without experiencing loss. Whenever the dream comes true, the sadness is ready.

Ancestors and siblings of process thought

While I’m scanning passages from C. Robert Mesle’s Process-Relational Philosophy, here are two more that inspired me.

The first passage appeals to my designer consciousness:

Descartes was wrong in his basic dualism. The world is not composed of substances or of two kinds of substances. There is, however, what David Ray Griffin calls an “organizational duality.” Descartes was correct that rocks and chairs and other large physical objects do not have minds, while humans do. In Whiteheadian terms, rocks are simply not organized to produce any level of experience above that of the molecules that form them. In living organisms, however, there can be varying degrees to which the organism is structured to give rise to a single series of feelings that can function to direct the organism as a whole. We can see fairly clearly that at least higher animals like chimps and dogs have a psyche (mind or soul) chat is in many ways like our own. This psyche draws experience from the whole body (with varying degrees of directness and clarity), often crossing a threshold into some degree of consciousness, and is able in turn to use that awareness to direct the organism toward actions that help it to survive and achieve some enjoyment of life. The self, or soul, then is not something separate from the body. It arises out of the life of the body, especially the brain.

The mind/soul/psyche is the flow of the body’s experience. Yet your body produces a unique mind that is also able to have experiences reaching beyond those derived directly from the body. We can think about philosophy, love, mathematics, or death in abstract conceptual ways that are not merely physical perceptions. Without the body, there would be no such flow of experience, but with a properly organized body, there can be a flow of experience that moves beyond purely bodily sensation. Furthermore, your mind can clearly interact with your body so that you can move, play, eat, hug, and work. There is a kind of dualism here in that the mind is not only the body but it is, in Griffin’s phrase, a hierarchical dualism rather than a metaphysical one. There are not two kinds of substances — minds and bodies. There is one kind of reality — experience. But experience has both its physical and mental aspects.

To my ears, this is a beautiful dovetail joint waiting to be fitted to extended cognition. “Rocks are simply not organized to produce any level of experience above that of the molecules that form them” but if a human organizes those rocks in particular ways, for instance drilling and shaping them into abacus beads, or melting them down to manufacture silicon chips, those rocks can be channeled into extended cognitive systems which in a very real way become extensions of our individual and collective minds. It is ironic to me that even at this exact instance, in typing out this sentence, a thought is forming before my eyes with the help of rocks reorganized as silicon chips which are participating in the “having” of this very thought. And if anyone is reading this and understanding it, my thought, multi-encoded, transmitted, decoded and interpreted by your own intelligence — rocks have helped organize this event of understanding! Humans help organize more and more of the “inanimate” world into participants of experience.

And now we are wading out into the territory developed by Actor-Network Theory, which asks, expecting intricately branching detailed answers: How do humans and non-humans assemble themselves into societies? I think the commonality within these harmoniously similar thought programs is their common rootedness in Pragmatism. It is no accident that Richard J. Bernstein saw pragmatism as a constructive way out of  the unbridled skeptical deconstruction of post-modernism, and that Whitehead, who acknowledged a debt to Pragmatism, is said to offer a constructive postmodernism.

The second passage appeals to my newly Jewish hermeneutic consciousness. This is a quote by Whitehead:

The true method of discovery is like the flight of an aeroplane. It starts from the ground of particular observation; it makes a flight in the thin air of imaginative generalization; and it again lands for renewed observation rendered acute by rational interpretation.

This, of course, is a description of the hermeneutic circle, the concept that we understand parts in terms of the concepts by which we understand them, but that our concepts are often modified (or replaced) in the effort to subsume recalcitrant parts. We tack between focusing on the details and (to the degree we are reflective) revisiting how we are conceptualizing those details. These are the two altitudes Whitehead mentions: an on-the-ground investigation of detail and a sky-view survey of how all those details fit together.

This is an ancient analogy. The Egyptians made the ibis, an animal with a head like a snake (the lowest animal) and the body of a bird (the highest animal) the animal of Thoth, their god of writing, the Egyptian analogue to Hermes. Nietzsche also used this image in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and that is where I first encountered it.

An eagle soared through the sky in wide circles, and on him there hung a serpent, not like prey but like a friend: for she kept herself wound around his neck. “These are my animals,” said Zarathustra and was happy in his heart. “The proudest animal under the sun and the wisest animal under the sun — they have gone out on a search. They want to determine whether Zarathustra is still alive. Verily, do I still live? I found life more dangerous among men than among animals; on dangerous paths walks Zarathustra. May my animals lead me!” When Zarathustra had said this he recalled the words of the saint in the forest, sighed, and spoke thus to his heart: “That I might be wiser! That I might be wise through and through like my serpent! But there I ask the impossible: so I ask my pride that it always go along with my wisdom. And when my wisdom leaves me one day — alas, it loves to fly away — let my pride then fly with my folly.”

And I have seen the Star of David as an image of the synthesis of atomistic ground-up and holistic sky-down understandings. And this is one reason I chose Nachshon (“snakebird”) as my Hebrew name when I converted to Judaism.

*

(Eventually, I’ll have to try to connect process thought with my extremely simplistic and possibly distorted understanding of chaos theory. Eventually.)

Yom Kippur dream

Last night after we broke the Yom Kippur fast, I fell asleep and had a vivid dream. I was in a yard behind a suburban ranch house where two trees were growing. One tree was nearly barren. It had already flowered and given fruit and had shed most of its yellow leaves.  The other tree had strong limbs and was bursting with green leaves. But as I stood admiring it, I noticed the soil at its base was rippling. The tree began shaking violently and the ground heaved a boiling swarm of beetle-worms, which were devouring the tree’s  roots. A large section of the tree facing me calved off and crashed to the ground. Within two minutes the young tree was reduced to a flat pile of wet sawdust. Both trees were gone, and thick grass grew over where the trees had stood. There was no sign they had ever existed on the rectangular lawn. “Perfect space for a swimming pool,” observed a woman standing behind me.

*

Was this dream a response to yesterday’s Torah portion?

God saw what they did, how they were turning back from their evil ways. And God renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon them, and did not carry it out.

This displeased Jonah greatly, and he was grieved.

He prayed to the LORD, saying, “O LORD! Isn’t this just what I said when I was still in my own country? That is why I fled beforehand to Tarshish. For I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment.

Please, LORD, take my life, for I would rather die than live.”

The LORD replied, “Are you that deeply grieved?”

Now Jonah had left the city and found a place east of the city. He made a booth there and sat under it in the shade, until he should see what happened to the city.

The LORD God provided a gourd plant, which grew up over Jonah, to provide shade for his head and save him from discomfort. Jonah was very happy about the plant.

But the next day at dawn God provided a worm, which attacked the plant so that it withered.

And when the sun rose, God provided a sultry east wind; the sun beat down on Jonah’s head, and he became faint. He begged for death, saying, “I would rather die than live. ”

Then God said to Jonah, “Are you so deeply grieved about the plant?” “Yes,” he replied, “so deeply that I want to die.”

Then the LORD said: “You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight.

And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well!”

Shells and pearls

This is a series of rewritten, streamlined posts on the theme of shells and pearls, which I’m considering incorporating into my pamphlet. I’ll link to the originals. If you have time to compare, let me know if you think anything was lost in the chipping, sanding and polishing.


Evert

Announcing an exciting new vocabulary acquisition: evert. I have needed this word many times, but I’ve had to resort to flipping, reversing, inverting, turning things inside-out.

Evert – verb [ with obj. ] – Turn (a structure or organ) outward or inside out: (as adj. everted) : the characteristic facial appearance of full, often everted lips. DERIVATIVES:
eversible (adj.),  eversion (n.). ORIGIN mid 16th cent. (in the sense ‘upset, overthrow’): from Latin evertere, from e- (variant of ex-) ‘out’ + vertere ‘to turn.’

With this wonderful new word I can say things like this:

“An oyster coats the ocean with an inner-shell made of mother-of-pearl lined. Anything from the outside that gets inside is coated, too. A pearl is an everted oyster shell, and an everted pearl is a shell’s inner lining. Outside the shell is ocean, inside the pearl is ocean. Between inner-shell and outer-pearl is delicate oyster-flesh, which ceaselessly coats everything it is not with mother-of-pearl. It is as if this flesh cannot stand anything that does not have a smooth, continuous and lustrous surface. We could call the flesh’s Other — that which requires coating — father-of-pearl.”


Irridescent Irritants

Minds secrete knowing like mother-of-pearl, coating irritant reality with lustrous likeness.


Nacre

You are absurd. You defy comprehension.

That is, you defy my way of understanding. I cannot continue to understand my world as I understand it and understand you.

That is, you do not fit inside my soul.

I am faced with the most fundamental moral choice: Do I break open my soul? or do I bury you in mother-of-pearl?


Father-of-Pearl

(A meditation on Levinas’s use of the term “exception” in Otherwise Than Being.)

We make category mistakes when attempting to understand metaphysics, conceiving what must be exceived.

Positive metaphysics are objectionable, in the most etymologically literal way, when they try to conceptualize what can only be exceptualized, to objectify that to which we are subject, to comprehend what comprehends — in order to achieve certainty about what is radically surprising.

In my own religious life, this category mistake is made tacitly at the practical and moral level, and then, consequentially, explicitly and consciously. Just as the retinas of our eyes see things upside-down, our mind’s eye sees things inside-out. We naturally confuse insidedness and outsidedness. By this view, human nature is less perverse than it is everse.

*

Imagine, with as much topological precision as you can muster, expulsion from Eden as belonging-at-home flipped inside-out.

That galut in the pit of your gut: everted Eden?

*

A garden is an everted fruit, and a fruit, an everted garden.

The nacre inner lining of a shell is an everted pearl, and a pearl, an everted nacre lining.

The exception is the everted conception, and the conception, the everted exception.


The earliest mention of pearls from this blog was posted on December 14, 2008.

Nacre

Pearls are inside-out oyster shells. Or are oyster shells inside-out pearls?

The oyster coats its world with layers of iridescent calcium. With the same substance it protects itself from the dangers concaving in from the outside and the irritants convexing it from the inside.


The earliest use of this mother-of-pearl metaphor I can find in my stuff was posted on another blog platform in December, 2006. (Again this has been edited. In my opinion, the original was uglier and more opaque. I’ll post it in the comments.)

Transcendence, non-understandings, misunderstandings

An unresolved understanding becomes a live question — an existential irritant. To ease the pain of non-understanding, the question is coated with an answer, like a pearl. Such answers re-explain away ideas which were never offered as explanations. What ought to be known internally and poetically is known about externally and factually.


Any surprise that the mezuzah I placed on the doorpost of my library is encased in mother-of-pearl?

Hanging the mezuzah inspired me to clean up my office! It’s nice to be in here, again.

 

Memories of oblivion

I’ve been asked to write a 500 word spiritual autobiographical essay, and this has me thinking about my experiences with Vipassana meditation. I only have room for a line or two on meditation in the essay, so I’m venting my verbosity into this post.

For me, the most surprising aspect of meditation was that “I” did not control my thoughts. Thinking would think, and something corresponding to “me” had emerged from this process.

Sometimes, if I managed to settle my mind down I could hear the stream of babble from which thoughts pop into my head. It sounded something like a murmuring crowd from another country. Some of the murmur was also visual, but all of it was a piece. Occasionally some random bit of murmur would spark recognition of some word. A word would sometimes spark a notion, and the notions would sometimes collect into an idea. An idea would occur, and then some stretch of time later — seconds, minutes or even multiple quarter-hours — it would come to my attention that “I” had stopped meditating… except there was no I who did the stopping. The I who had been posted there to do the meditating had gone non-existent, yet something had continued without it (recording memories) and something resumed my I-activities (my I-ing) once awareness came back. Part of that I-ing was gluing together all those memories to create the illusion that I had been there.

Consciousness is anything but continuous. It would be more accurate to say that consciousness is an effervescence of back-story and anticipation.

Or maybe it would be most accurate of all to say that I am a lousy meditator.

Meditation is only one of my go-to sources for insights into the workings of nothingness. Ocular migraines are another rich source.

I’ve been trying to write a prayer to my migraine wisdom. I think it might still suck in that way psychedelic stuff always sucks, but here it is:

You move from everything to everything, flashing across expanses of nullity.

Landing, standing on firm ground of  unruly particularity, blindness still clings to your heels. The shadow you cast is perfect: nothing there, nothing missing.

Then you leave, again, closing time behind you with a seal of oblivion. Wherever you go, after you depart you will always have been there, and will never have been absent.

Only those who move with you can detect your before or after, so I am attempting to trace your movements.

As we travel, please help me skim the churning chrome, and to not sink in it and drown. Please help me slip through scotomas and not collide with their nonexistence. Please face me forward, and guard my eyes from looking right or left, toward light or toward darkness, or glancing backwards into entangling comforts lurking in the familiar dappled shade.

Lead me to where my doubt fails.

Maybe I could call my kind of migraine o(ra)cular migraines. My migraines have taught me to notice the signs of blindness, which is the closest we can get to seeing blindness, which is not the cheap psychedelic paradox it might seem to be. You can detect blindness, but only indirectly and longitudinally, comparing moments with varying capacities to perceive (in the case of migraines) or capacities to conceive (in the case of Vipassana). But to do this, it is crucially important to not map these strange experiences to our old familiar distinctions. We will explain them away, extinguish them, sink them back into blindness, like how we forget our inconceivable dreams by crushing them into plotlines. The goal is to develop new distinctions that permit more kinds of reality to exist to us.

*

Maybe I should set myself the goal of reinventing the psychedelic aesthetic, in a more substantial and durable mode?

Bonus: a portrait of me with migraine.

Dreams

I had unusually vivid dreams last night. I saw two identical bristling wolves drowning two identical boys in a crystal-clear winding river. Then I was trapped under mounds of trash beneath a sprawling trailer park, and I was trying to escape but kept falling over and sinking beneath tacky lawn decorations, cheap fencing and bbq grills. I was trying to get to my car, but when I finally got there it was stripped and the engine was gone.

Life on the complex plane

IMG_0302

The image of the Mandelbrot set is a map — a 3rd person perspective survey — of Julia sets. But each image of the Julia Set is a 1st person perspective on the same space as that described by the image of the Mandelbrot set.

And each neighboring point in the Mandelbrot set describes the whole differently, sometimes subtly but sometimes drastically. This difference is unpredictable but somehow in retrospect unfailingly intuitively perfect.

Each Julia set is a subjective impression of the whole, processed according to an accident of birthplace, which resembles the whole to some degree, contains the whole, overlaps with it, but fails to trace it out with reliable accuracy.

What is the space in which the Julia and Mandelbrot sets are situated? It is called “the complex plane” — a two-dimensional space, with a continuum of real numbers extending horizontally, and a continuum imaginary numbers extending vertically.

The heart of the process that generates both sets is Zn+1=Zn2+C — with C being a real plus imaginary coordinates of the point in question. So, if the starting point is 0.1011 on the horizontal axis (the real numbers) and 0.9563 on the vertical axis (the imaginary numbers), C would be 0.1011+0.9563i.

In the generation of the Julia set, the Z jumps all over the complex plane painting a whole like a skillful painter developing a composition. In the generation of the Mandelbrot set, the image proceeds systematically, point by point —  a sociologist doing a study on how long painters take to complete their respective work. The plotter of the Mandelbrot set walks from painter to neighboring painter (from C to C, for instance from 0.1011+0.9563i to 0.1011+0.95630000001i ), stopwatch in hand, timing how long it takes for the painter to walk away from his canvas dripping paint into the infinite corners of the universe-heaven complex, or, alternatively descends into apparently interminable frittering refinement.

Depending on where the process starts, not roughly but infinitely precisely, the picture of the whole is potentially radically divergent, and it impossible to know where it will go and how it will conclude except by patiently tracing it out, much as it is impossible to know how we will be changed from an experience of learning except by living it out.

I’ve been thinking this thought for more than a decade, and occasionally saying bits of it here and there, but today I just needed to get it out.

Another origin myth

What seemed to be the solid earth was surveyed, and it was discovered to be an island, and not a very large one. It was in fact a very tiny island. It bobbed and swayed and creaked. The thin planks under his feet had never been rock. And the planks were flimsy and began to dissolve. Soon his only support was the foamy film of the ocean’s surface. He flailed and grabbed at the sky and found clouds strangely substantial in his grip. He pulled and kicked and rose upward. But it wasn’t the clouds pulling him upward, it was the day itself. He was swimming into the sky in the clarity of azure. As the sun set, he continued to rise. Gold and purple, green and translucent twilight carried his body outward. But as stars appeared in the firmament and snowflakes sparkled on his skin, he felt the memory of weight and a welcome tug on his body; a descent and the touch of ground under his feet. The earth was there again, founded on an uninterrupted plain, solid, and permanent. And the people standing there beside him on the rock had never left, their feet were planted in this ground, and they had never been wrong.