Saturday, April 17, 2010

Oracles

Tonight I returned to the Hammer museum for what is referred to as an "event", meaning something curious of undefined nature to bring you out of yourself and renew yourself. Events are the art world's religious experience.

What actually took place was something not quite a dialog, more like a shared lecture. There was a former writer for the New Yorker Magazine, and an expert in Carl Jung, whose "Red Book", an elaborately worked out record of dreams was just going on display at the museum.

I don't like Carl Jung and I don't like New Yorker writers, but I wanted to see what a New Yorker Writer looks like (I had already seen a few Jungians). I receive a warm welcome from a theater usher who mistakes me for the writer. I correct his misapprehension, saying that all Jews who like to think look alike, a Jew from LA like me or a New York Jew like the writer, and I am corrected in turn and learn that the speaker is also from LA. When I take my seat in the front row and look up at the two speakers on stage, I realize I have also had already some contact with the Jungian: leaving the Museum earlier after getting my ticket I met a confused man just arrived trailing a roller suitcase who holds my glance unusually long, and I offer directions to the theater office and wardrobe service for his bag. It occurs to me he also might have mistaken me for the man now sitting across the table from him on stage.

The New Yorker writer opens up with the admission he's bored with reports of dreams. He prefers poetry, which is the same stuff given form, worked out. He likes his "depths", his mystical experience in that form, and reads out to the audience a translation of a Swedish poem in which a soldier on sentry duty imagines himself a turnstile letting in one by one ecstatically seen things. The New Yorker writer calls forth the words of Borges, who says that story telling creates models that never really make contact with the world told about. He mentions that Columbus with many others of his era had seemingly fallen in love with the idea of wonders, curiosities, which love didn't stop him or others like him from murder and destruction of what had astonished them. It's not a bad performance the New Yorker makes of a person playing critically with ideas.

The Jungian responds with an exposition of his way of seeing things: everyone has his own personal myth, history itself is an animated playing out of myth. The stuff of dreams is an element of the historical stuff and participates in its movements. When we report our dreams we have already begun working them out, working out the myth. To see this however you need to have studied the archetypes that are the grammar of our collective unconscious.

I have gone out into the lobby out of boredom, and stand before a large flat screen monitor broadcasting live the faces of the two speakers more than life size. A woman joins me, commenting, "I don't like to speak like this, but in this round, the Jew wins, the Christian loses." I point out to her that the New Yorker writer has his hand half covering his mouth as he listens, and behind it you can see clearly on the monitor that he is hiding his smile. It was my impression that the mostly Jewish audience didn't appreciate the Jungian's exposition of his "new age" religion, and thought he was foolish not to realize that his audience did not share his belief in personal myths and animate history.

When the event is all over, I go back in and say to the New Yorker writer up on stage, don't you think that what is seen as mystical, curious, a wonder is seen so because it is outside of our routine experience in our group? Because we don't know why we do what we do, what is done differently is not merely different, it is unaccountable. Because we don't have even the beginnings of knowledge about these things, when it comes time to respond to them, we do it passionately, at times violently.

He gives me a long appraising look. I am getting to know what that means. It means: people in the know don't talk that way. I'm a bore, a tax on his time. I have done what the Jungian has done, presented an alien religion. I have said it is possible to talk about the relation between wonder or mysticism, and reasons. Counterattacking, he points to the roses on the table. You can't see them without seeing the name, can you? I look, and answer, Yes, actually I can. Time has come for the, "got to go, people are expecting me", and he steps down off the stage.

On my way out I look into the glass enclosed restaurant where a reception for the speakers is going on. A waiter sees me looking, and waves me in, pointing out the door in the glass wall. Mistaken again for the New Yorker writer, of course.

I accept the pressing offers of wine from the servers, and various officers of the museum approach me for conversation thinking I might be someone they should be conversing with, an error they quickly become aware of. One curator, one fund raiser, and finally one former director of the national endowment for the humanities literature division. But the offers of glasses of wine keep coming. On his way out the Jungian says hello, and thanks me for my unofficial welcoming to the museum.

The last few days I had been thinking about the problem of getting people in different factions to talk to each other. In this "event" that was not a debate or lecture, there was a minimum of dialog, conflict was avoided. It was deadly boring for almost everyone, speakers included.

Looked back on, however, I saw a clear difference between the two speakers. The Jungian was hard to listen to when he laid out the ground rules of his religion, but in defending himself and his ideas he was sharp, but more than that he was truly open to whatever response he would get. He wanted the response. His religion made him open to anyone, because though all have their own individual personal myth, the collective unconscious and the mythical movement of history joined everyone together in the same movement operating under the same mythical rules. This was exactly opposite the New Yorker writer's arrogant superiority, and his world in which individuals never make contact with another on the level of mystic experience because all words end at a distance from that reality. In his religion, we can not meet each other through our words with each other.

So I thought, no, the Jew loses this battle. We don't need experts in playing with the different and separate religions, we need to know ways of getting out from these closed arenas of ritual home-making. How else will be able to take care of our county's pressing political problems, how else learn how to get these factions to work together to keep our democracy operating?

It seems some factions, for example the one this Jungian represents, do not close themselves off from dialog. Sometimes when local gods are worshiped, even a god of history, there is room for a public god too. This is the god of the "high spirited" part of our nature, "nature's god" Jefferson called it. It is the love of truth telling, which expresses itself in the love of a form of government under which is possible to tell the truth.

It is the love also of reason, which tells us that we cannot protect our local particular religions without having such a government. Otherwise factions of one kind of another will gain control, and freedom be lost. Hamilton wrote in one of the Federalist papers that representative democracy can protect us from this, since the legislators elected can be expected to take a larger, non-local view, can rise above factional interest.

Whether this happens depends on what kind of religion is practiced by the factions. Do they allow an opening to a public god, or not? If they don't, democracy will fail.

We are used to thinking factions are organized on the basis of social classes, of occupation or amount of money possessed, and by the reasoned attempts of each faction to further the financial interest and beliefs of its own group. Partly this is the case. But a fair division of the spoils of government and effective judgement between policies that will not endanger the state relies on there being public spirit. Relies on there being the good people Jefferson said democracy was impossible without. We won't really be fair unless we really know it is good for us. And the way we come to know this is to be aware that it saves what is most important to us, the security and feeling of being at home we get from whatever group in which we happen to live. We will never rise to public spirit if we are to do it only with the aid of reason, for the simple reason we are not all born to be philosophers. Our decisions most often are emotional. And if it is only our money we are protecting, our reasoning will in any case come to a conclusion on a basis other than fairness and political stability. Philosophers and compromise between special interests will fail us: we must be good.

The factional battling occurring now in our democracy is obviously not about fairness and political stability. It is rather both a struggle for each group to get the most it can, accumulate the most money it can, and a battle going on between factions organized religiously, but organized with the wrong kind of religion. Factions seeking more money obviously will often want what is in conflict with general interest. Factions of the religious who isolate themselves from those in other religions want what usually is irrational and also in conflict with what is good for the state.

The rich have been successful in selling the idea of simultaneous "fiscal responsibility", uncontrolled speculation, and free markets. That this policy leads to crashes, depressions and unemployment, and then hinders recovery from the disasters created, is widely agreed upon by economists. Certain probable relations between government spending, bank loans, amount of money invested are well known. They don't allow perfect prediction, but have been proved to show the best way to deal with the situations at hand, the ways most likely to get us out of our troubles.

But the rich, who make money by making loans, cannot accept the idea of the government taking out loans when it has no money. The idea scares them. It presents to their imagination the unthinkable position of themselves being without a hoard of money to play with investing. In their world, for the government to directly make investments and print money when it has none is something evil, sacrilegious, even though the government doing this is often in their financial interest, since at least some of the rich suffer when the economy as a whole suffers. Their aversion is not reasoned. The rich are set in their way of life, and can't accept actions that are typical of another way of life they are unprepared for and fear falling into. Their aversion is religious.

Unlike the New Yorker writer, with his religion of isolation from the world, the Jungian conceivably could enter government as a legislator and fulfill the conditions the founders of our government said were necessary.

Today I tried to talk about this with a rabbi I found sitting at a table in my usual cafe. I asked him what he thought of the new American policy that allows the assassination of American citizens abroad if they are thought to be terrorists. He has no opinion. Was he really a rabbi? I ask. Yes. Aren't rabbis authorities on good and bad? How can he have no opinion? He says he expresses his opinions in writing. Without defending them publicly? He says he misspoke, he meant in his published writings. Even more important, I said, to defend yourself publicly, as most readers will already on your side or against you. He said he had to go.

Next door at Trader Joe's I ask the fellow handing out free samples if he had ever spoken with a rabbi - he had - and recounted my experience to him. He said rabbis usually act that way: they are afraid to expose themselves politically.

Like the New Yorker writer then. A religion that is isolating, limits speaking only to solidifying the strength of one's local group, nothing is said to those outside one's group.

Various factions like these can reach compromise on sharing government spoils of money and policy, but with no faction giving in any more than absolutely necessary. Any appeal made to public spirit is no more than hypocrisy: each time they listen to another group's demands, they are saying to themselves, "they want our money, they aren't our kind."

Each faction is a religion, a group of people with shared ways of doing things learned growing up together. Whether they are good ways or bad they don't really know. They are simply how things are done. Without them they feel insecure, homeless.

Each faction protects these ways of doing things and thinking particular to themselves.

It is obvious that people in a group would be more comfortable if they could practice the same rituals in the larger political community their group finds itself immersed within. As we've seen, this leads, in the case of some factions, to a demand that how people think about things be controlled.

The conservative would control how fiscal policy is seen. An ethnic relativist would argue that the arts of all groups are equal in value, so would deny the validity of any argument that, for example, Shakespeare is superior to rap music.

But some ways of practicing religion recognize a difference between "local" practice in one's group, and what is done outside one's particular group. When god tells Job that he is only a man and didn't make the world, what is being taught is that though Job knows the rules of his people, he doesn't know the world: he didn't make the world. The rules work, and Job knows this, but that is all he knows. Like the economist who knows the rules which usually work, he can't be sure of more than probability, and of the world outside the rules he knows nothing at all. There will usually be surprises. Large corporations can control prices, unions can control wages, throwing out all expectations based on the usual economic supply and demand calculations. And if you take these new factors into account, you can be sure sooner or later something new will present itself.

Some religions, or ways of practicing religions, do not attempt to extend the traditional local practices of the group to what is done outside the group.

In these groups religious practice extends out of the local into the general by means of addition of a different general practice. This is a religious practice too. This means that its rewards are not practical, not more money received, more power gained. The reward is better security and a better sense of being at home while in public. Public spirit is learned by experience in public life, if you are lucky enough to live in a place that allows it. You learn that telling the truth you can both reach some accommodation with other factions or religious groups, and set yourself on the way to perfecting your self knowledge in discussions with others with different ideas. There is both personal and group security to be gained. And with time and practice this is felt. There is a love of truth telling even when it is dangerous, impractical, even when it is literally suicidal. Public spirit is something religious. It is nevertheless something local religious factions will, given the opportunity, discover it is good to adopt. It is not a necessary illusion, as famously has been suggested. Everyone met in public, even at a discount market, is a potential oracle.

What then do we look for in evaluating the claims of different factions? We look for any resistance to discussion, resistance to truth being sought. That Shakespeare cannot be better than other literature, that government spending when recession threatens or has arrived is criminal, that is impossible to reach the truth by telling stories, all are good examples of this.

Strange as it may seem, our democratic government not only is essentially, inescapably religious, it also makes a claim on how we talk to each other. The claim is not to restrict what can be said, but instead demands we carefully identify what kind of argument is being made. It may seem laughable to hear that it is not subject to dispute that rap music is the equal of Shakespeare's plays, but letting such statements pass unanswered is in fact extremely dangerous to the functioning of democracy. We need to be ready to say to each other, and to be able to immediately understand each other when we say it, that we will not accept arguments that restrict our search for the truth.

It has to become a ritual of our public spirit, like reminding each other of our right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Call it the right to seek the truth.