Saturday, December 24, 2011

Invading Grace

Of the world’s great playwrights, I most love Plautus. I prefer him to Shakespeare, Molière, Ibsen, Euripides, you name it; you may have all of them for greatness, and I might even agree with you, but no one else makes me laugh as long and deeply.

The shortest prologue to any Plautus play is the one to Pseudolus, which some of you will recognize as the basis of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. It goes as follows:

“This next play is by Plautus” (his comedies were performed at festivals as parts of all-day-long programs) “and it’s long, so you’d better stand up and stretch your legs.”*

What can I say that the master didn’t say more clearly—and infinitely more succinctly—than I ever will?


Back? Comfy? Here we go.

Half a dozen small annoyances attacked first thing Friday morning; the life insurance company I was changing to took a double premium in a classic bait and switch, and though my insurance agent is getting the situation fixed, my money back, and a new provider, it has consumed quite a bit of time and frustration The reshuffling of the house because two kids are home from college is not yet completed, so all things were in inconvenient places “just for now.” Dishes weren’t washed in the excitement of the family togetherness, so coffee required first fishing the needed gear out of cold dirty dishwater and washing it—a job neither of us really wanted to face without coffee. But She of the Green Eyes had slept badly, and looked more pathetic than I did, so the day began with feeling around for the drain plug in the cold greasy dishwater, and a resolution to work on looking more pathetic. And Russell Hoban and Christopher Hitchens were dead (a point to which I’ll return later) and very likely to remain so.

So when I finally left home to go down to the office, at 7:45 am, which is at least an hour later than usual, I was in a Mood. (Also in a Kia that is overdue for new shocks and struts. The Mood tends to get more mileage but it’s an even bumpier ride.)

I decided to start the day by writing someplace where they serve breakfast, because I really wanted to cook and therefore could not let myself. I enjoy cooking far too much and when a morning just keeps seeming more and more wrong-footed, if I cook in the kitchen at my office, I find it extremely comforting to lose a couple of hours whomping up an enormous amount of something complicated, and then eat it all. (See my forthcoming work, The Gorging GourmetHaute Cuisine on 7500 Calories a Day). But I didn’t really have the couple hours to lose, and contra John Scalzian legend, and more like David Mamet, I generally get things done in coffee shops (though coffee houses are indeed another matter).

So I went to JK’s Café, which is a coffee-shop/diner-in-a-mall just off 60th and 6&85, if you know the area where Commerce City piles up against North Denver (and even if you don’t, it still is). Once there, I discovered that because the room where I usually charge the computer battery had been occupied by a sleeping stepkid, I had neglected charging, and I was almost out of battery time. One more for the not good day … except that I explained the problem to the waiter (this is not the sort of place where very many people bring laptops to breakfast) and a three-waiter search eventually turned up a table where there was working power access. (Nice job, Vero!)

They went to all this extra trouble for the sad old fat guy and even seemed to like helping me out, on a very busy morning. JK’s is pretty crazy on a Friday in the holiday season. There were a couple of large tables of work crews having breakfast before going out, a couple of what looked like office meetings for small businesses, what appears to be a band that played late at an after-hours and was pouring in calories before going home to bed, and quite a few couples and triples of people enjoying breakfast out on a Friday, so the place was jammed and loud with laughter. The morning people were out in force, and conversations were an alternation of friendly insults, inside jokes, and group roaring. It’s a good sound. It beats the hell out of the Music You Didn’t Like The First Time Station.

I hope I was appropriately expressive about my gratitude for the help with my electrical umbilicus, the food was excellent as it always is, and that added blessing of needing help and getting much more and better help than I needed sent me straight into a state of gratitude, so I enjoyed the uproar around me. Toward the end of breakfast the insurance agent called me back, asked a dozen questions, and said, “It shall be fixed,” and it looks like it is. I got a bunch of stuff written and went home to write more and wrap Christmas presents. It turned out to be a productive, cheerful day.

Anyway, that intrusion of gratitude into my life made me think of a quote from Dante Rossetti,
"The worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful and has nobody to thank,"
which led me back to thoughts of Hitchens, since I was an atheist for more than twenty years, and re-found faith about seven years ago, and therefore spent a fair bit of time talking to Hitchens in my head, before, during, and after my conversion. (I wouldn’t call it a re-conversion; the kind of Christian I was before I was an atheist is very different from the kind I am now).

My conversations with Hitchens are very like my conversations with God: I organize the textual and experiential evidence into two columns, one labeled “Me” and one labeled “Other”, and play both parts. Of course I like to think I am always reasonably fair to Other, and of course I’m not, but Other has so far never appeared to disagree. There was theoretically a possibility that I might actually have met Hitchens in the flesh, of course, and now there’s not, which leaves him roughly tied with God. (He seems to have enjoyed close-fought contests, so perhaps that’s all right).

That thought and the remaining glow from the cheerfulness infesting JK’s Café—joy, really, it’s usually a pretty happy place on Friday mornings but at holiday time it borders on giddy—led me to think a bit about the experience of the divine. (Those who wish to discuss it further in email are welcome to do so, but they should check to see whether they are likely to receive Form Letter 9 before emailing me. )


A sudden veering in the text, as if hundreds of words were all going somewhere else immediately:

I’m an immanentist as Deleuze used the term, or as Gregory Bateson did, and as I think William Blake and Alan Turing were implicitly, which is to say a radical immanentist, or antitranscendentalist. Immanentists of my stripe are a minority even in my own very loose and dissent-tolerant offshoot of Christianity, and have never been common anywhere, but present in a small scattering everywhere in the history of Christian, Jewish, and pagan thought, and in rather larger numbers in Buddhism, Shinto, and the complex spiritual traditions of China, and a persistent underground on the edges of Islam. Radical immanentism is some version of the position that the Divine arises as a natural consequence of the interaction of mind with matter; there is no separate aphysical spiritual realm in which things exist, only a realm of meaning that the human mind overlays on the physical. Aristarchus said he’d seen Plato’s table but not its tableness; immanentism agrees, but adds that the tableness is the Divine in the table.

(The more conventionally religious view, the antonym of immanentism, is transcendentalism—where there’s somewhere for God to be separately, whether sitting on a golden throne just beyond the blue glow caused by Rayleigh scattering, pervasively next to everything in a set of alternate dimensions, in a world that only he controls the doors to, or at the North Pole making toys with elves. Hitchens preferred to publicly debate transcendentalists because it takes very little effort, as I just demonstrated, to make them look silly, and like any fencer who likes to win, he took the easy openings when they presented themselves ).

I think that the thing I experience as “God” when I pray is probably internal communication with Mostly Sub-and-Non-Verbal “Programs” (which I’ll call MS&NVPs) running on a little glob of cells in my head (quite likely the one that Newburg and D’Aquili are fascinated with), and that when I see the Divine around me, what is happening is that something in my surroundings is activating that little ball of cells, and the program is interpreting it to me. Neither the MS&NVPs nor the ball of cells created me—let alone the universe—and it seems unlikely that the MS&NVPs have much connection to the world beyond my own body, except through my senses and social communications.  In that regard they are like any other part of the mind. (Nor did I create the ball of cells, or the MS&NVPs, any more than I invented the English I speak or my generally heterosexual drives).

Now, the radical or extreme immanentist view is frequently part of a rationale for atheism, via the reductionist move of saying Well, then it’s nothing but a bunch of electrical currents in a bundle of cells in your head. This, it seems to me, is the equivalent of saying that Nude Descending a Staircase is “nothing but” blobs of pigment dried in thin layers on canvas, or Haydn’s Creation is “just” a set of instructions for making sounds of particular pitches and durations, and akin to the belief on the part of some undergrads that if they bought the textbook and carried it around in their pack, they must know the material.

For me, the stumbling block to my atheism, once I began to feel a need to challenge it, was that over time evolution appears to either transform or erase the unnecessary and the useless, losing or repurposing profitless costs.  If a species of birds never need to fly, their physiology and wing structure is a burden on their survival and reproduction, so the birds who can’t fly have an actual relative advantage over those who can, and eventually crowd the flyers out of the gene pool. I wasn’t converted intellectually—conversion for me was an emotional experience at the end of my rope, which it usually seems to be for converts—but the intellectual rationale that allows me to be comfortable with having a faith grows out of that: the MS&NVPs in that odd ball of cells almost has to be good for something, a part of basic human capability, or it would long ago have either become something useful or atrophied.

Consistent with my general beliefs that human beings ought to develop capacities—that everyone should learn to draw, make music, write, act, calculate, reason, dance, throw a ball or a punch, read a poem or a track, and so on, for no reason other than most people can learn to do so—I came to the position that having some sort of relationship with the MS&NVPs is important, and that position has dumped me, not completely willingly, back into a kind of belief (Like many who belong to it, I usually refer to my religion, which is Christian-derived and –related, as a “faith” rather than a confession or religion).

Now, an entirely reasonable question—which I imagine Hitchens asking in a tone of considerable impatience— is, good for what? What does that blob of cells do that other things can’t? And why should we assume anything in our bodies or the physical world is good for anything, or in fact takes any interest in us? Don’t the kidneys just filter crud out of our blood and organize it into piss because that’s what they do? And we don’t think our kidneys love us!

This is getting so close to the point that I feel a need for another digression, which doubtless Hitchens would figure was an evasion, and you are of course welcome to regard it as such, but here we go, away from the point in order to come at it another way:


Not so much taking Christ out of Christmas as letting everyone else in ….

Ages ago, when I used to put up a Friday Question on the late lamented GEnie, one question I asked was what the first true World Holiday would be—the first day celebrated all over the planet by everyone—and Greg Feeley, who has insights the way some cat ladies have cats (i.e. more than even he can keep track of and enough to freak some people out**) suggested Dickens Christmas, i.e. the secular version of the holiday that is all Santa Claus and reindeer and “real meaning is giving” and all that. For Secular/Dickens Christmas, I would say that the sacred texts are probably A Christmas Carol (and its many adaptations), Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (I’m thinking of the Rankin/Bass animation more than the song or the Monkey Ward’s children’s book), How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, It’s a Wonderful Life, and “The Gifts of the Magi.” I’m sure I’m overlooking something; feel free to drop me a note and point out what.

Now, what do all those have in common? The business about giving and gratitude, of course, and a scattering of messages you’d find in any pop psych book, like not letting your real self slide away (as Scrooge does), understanding that you are important and special (like Rudolph or George Bailey), and finding the strength of ten Grinches when you really need it. But I think there’s a component they share with the original story as we find it mostly in Luke, with a few addenda in Matthew and an interpretation in John:

Christmas stories are stories of Divine Invasion. Something utterly unexpected comes into the world and things abruptly change for the better. It might be a baby who becomes the first human being to be fully conscious of his Divine nature; or an old miser’s perception that he has become something much less than he ought to be and decision to turn away from that road before it is too late; or a young couple mutually discovering that they would each sacrifice their pride for each other; or a convenient reindeer with a glowing nose just when the storm of the millennium hits. Whatever it is, it was unexpected, it intrudes into everyday life, and once it has intruded, everyday life is forever altered.

And that’s what I think that sub-or-non-vocal program on that ball of cells is about. Most of the time the best thing we can do for our immediate family, clan, and tribe, and above all else for our chances of success at life, is look out for Number One, tend our own gardens, and take a general attitude of “I’m in the boat, Jack.” But now and then, we need to take the long view—the idea that we owe something to the species, to the ecosystem, to the seventh generation, or if you like to eternity.

And that’s one interesting characteristic of that little blob of cells that has been clearly identified by the guys who wire up people’s heads to watch which neurons fire. When that wad of cells is really active, the person who is praying or meditating experiences a sense of the boundaries between the self (and its concerns and physical existence and so forth) dissolving into an immense awareness of the things around it.

I’m not talking here about the classic cosmic rush of a beginning meditator***, which is more a willed hallucination brought on by a desire to feel all cosmic and groovy and stuff. I mean the quiet point I reach after half an hour doing katas or sitting meditation, or in repetitive prayer when I’ve long ago lost count, where there’s a sudden clear awareness that the world is one, and that the sound of the radio in the next apartment, the random motions of the fly walking on the wall, and the roughness of the carpet under my ass are at one with you and the Pythagorean theorem and the janitor at a grade school in Walla Walla, Washington, along with the quasars and the plankton.

It’s not dramatic and Hollywood would never depict it as it actually happens—perhaps a “hunh” or a slight relaxation of the shoulders, certainly not a huge rush of colors, lights, and synthesizers.

In other words, the long view. The feeling that the world is more than sleeping, hugging, crying, laughing, eating, defecating, fucking, fighting, and squabbling, and that we ought to treat it, and the people in it, as if they mattered a great deal.

What is that little blob of cells for? It’s the emergency long view system. It brings you the insight that you can’t let yourself have (because it would overthrow your everyday life) right when you absolutely must have it. It’s the still small voice of conscience in some people some of the time; the moment of thinking, no, I won’t do that, that’s wrong. It’s the perception that the people will be better off in three generations if we do this now. It’s the guardian of the interests of the species, the ecology, maybe of sentience itself, over the very long run. It’s the thing that bends the arc of history very gently toward justice, and the will that the next generation will be a bit kinder and slightly more decent than our own.

Normally, it would be a hindrance. People who live their whole lives according to the long view and the greater good, a.k.a. saints and fanatics (depending on whether we approve of their opinions), are not noted for the comfort and ease of their lives, or for having conventional success. But now and then it is what we have to have. Lives go down the sewer of obsessions with worthless things, or with petty cruelty or revenge, and remain in stagnating whirlpools for decades. People stand in the way of the clear needs of the rest of the world even when it profits them little; bloody minded destructiveness takes over minds and cultures and whispers, Evil, be thou my good.  They desperately need a light—an in-sight—to call them home to their greater good.

And sometimes, right when they need that light, that little ball of cells lights up like a Christmas tree.


Almost, the point ...

A radical immanentist doesn’t need God for much, on one level. As the joke runs, we could never be Jehovah’s Witnesses because we didn’t see the accident. In our way of seeing things, God wasn’t needed for there to be a universe, or even as the source of ordinary, common-sense morality like not cheating and stealing, not initiating violence, or not screwing up other people’s mutual arrangements for our selfish ends or peculiar anxieties.

But those MS&NVPs are there because they’re a lifeline to the bigger world. When we have really made a mess of things and are all out of ideas, they invade. They tell us that as long as reindeer are magical already (e.g. they fly and talk), one more bit of magic, however inexplicable, even a glowing red nose, is to be welcomed, not condemned; that destroying a whole community’s Christmas service because you feel pissy about them eating roast beast is wrong; that a man who gave up the love of his life long ago for the love of money can still turn around and extend some love into the world before it’s too late.

And of course that a child born in a stable may have something of value to tell us all.

What do we need God for?

Because now and then, all of us can use a good invasion.

And because our mind is occupied with the petty, the foolish, the prideful, and so many things that ultimately don’t matter, things that are no part of our better natures, just as in a nation occupied by hostile foreigners, the hope of an invasion can keep us resisting till the day it comes.

So this time of year, an annoying morning, the disappearance of a voice I always enjoyed, the frustration of so many little things not going the way they should …. ends in a small act of patient kindness, then listening to people really enjoying each other’s company, and a finally a burst of grace, because, you know, it’s Christmas.

Happy invasion day, friends.

Footnotes, for those of you who count not the cost, but have an asterisk, and therefore count the asterisk:

*Some translators translate that as a polite expression for “better go piss” because it actually says “stand up and stretch your groin muscles” if you translate it into NFL (which would be either National Football League or Naughty Funny Latin) and they think it’s a euphemism. Perhaps they are right, but in my working experience as a translator, Plautus does not need extra help with talking dirty, which he does better than anybody, and if he’d wanted to say “better go piss” that’s what he’d have said.

**See, for example, his marvelous novella Kentauros, which anybody who loves mythology and pop culture (and realizes their essential unity) ought to have read already. Pretend there’s a quiz tomorrow and go get yourself a copy!

***An old Zen joke: a young monk works very hard at meditating but just can’t seem to have any experience beyond just sitting there, till one day, after several years of practice, he rushes from his mat to his master, and says, “Master, I just had a vision of the Buddha sailing in a crystal vision through the universe of the farthest stars, and fifty thousand blessed souls singing to him!” The master nodded and said, “Pay attention to your breathing and it will go away.”