Monday, April 18, 2016

Crazy John & The Persians

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 (Continued from Cleansing Minds)

The University Of California, Los Angeles

- Seen that guy John lately?
- He sat down across from me at the library, said, 'What are you doing here?'
I didn't say. He went on, 'I'm surprised they let you in here.'
- He was a graduate student in the history department before he went insane. One moment he'd be discussing literary theory, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, the next having a mental breakdown. What did you answer him?
- I asked if he was working for the police. He started shouting, 'What! What! What!' jumped up and ran out of the library. Later in the day it seems all is forgotten, he comes over to share with me it's Hitler's birthday.
- So Crazy John's been recruited by the police as an informer too.
- Apparently. The book he was reading is still on the table by his chair:
'Ideas pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology, Part Two, 'by Edmund Husserl.
- Is it good? Have you read it?
- I've read parts of Part One, decades ago. And yes, it is good, as good as any academic philosophy can be, which is not good at all.
- Why not?
- Because a university is a bureaucracy and philosophers employed by bureaucracies produce philosophies of bureaucracy.
- How does that work out with Husserl?
- Husserl believed in a real world that our thoughts couldn't help giving form to. He looked for our mind's forms of perceptions.
- And that is bad?
- It is good.
- Then what's the problem?
- Thoughts are always about objects. He called this relation of thoughts to things 'intentionality', and called the study of how thoughts were formed in a way that shaped how we see things 'Phenomenology'.
- Again, what's the problem?
- Individuals don't just have thoughts, they act. They think and move, they think as they move. Perception and the object seen arise together for the individual in his own individual bodily history. If you don't take into account the individual body you end up creating a bureaucracy of perception. Your face tells me you don't understand.
- Bureaucracy of perception? No, I don't.
- Leave behind the early 20th century of Husserl, go a couple centuries further back and you find, in Maine de Biran, the idea that language arises as habit of response. For example: with a habit of repeated exclamation at contact with a cold object, the exclamation comes to mean 'cold'. A word is not a symbol of a thing, but a symbol of a relation of our habit to the sight of the world the habit has been developed responding to.
- Interesting.
- A habit is individual and of the body, involves the particular history of one body. Husserl was a Jew in Germany teaching at Freiberg University at the time the Nazis came to power. He was expelled, and his student Heidegger, having no problem with the Nazis, stayed, becoming a member of the party. In terms of phenomenology, the Nazi superman employed superior forms of perception.
- That the philosophy could be adapted to Nazism doesn't prove it is wrong.
- It doesn't. But the philosophy didn't protect against Nazism either.
- And it should have?
- Yes.
- How?
- Ever talk to the Persian guy who calls himself poet and philosopher and wanders the campus at night?
- Is he an informer too?
- I don't know. He seems too bizarre to be, approaching me to make a declaration of some kind or another then taking off before I have a chance to say, like Crazy John, What the hell? But one never knows. Tonight he approached me, looming out of the dark where I sat outside LuValle, the only light coming from my computer's screen. I was reading Rumi. The Persian poet Rumi is his thing, along with Persian chauvinism. He told me I had to watch this video on YouTube about how all the great ideas of Greek civilization and behind our own come from Persia. I put it on. We follow along as a New Jersey professor of Persian ancestry claims that prior to contact with the Persians the Greeks were amoral, had a cyclical view of history, of going from good to bad and then starting over with good again. That conversely, the Persians had an idea of linear progress, of technology as means of improvement and of increasing political fairness: they had no slaves, for example.
- And?
- If you're a professor employed in a bureaucracy that may do. Progress obviously will be bureaucratic: stronger institutions, better rules of behavior, progress in technology.
- And a better kind of progress is?
- The problem with progress as bureaucratic is that anything that serves this progress is by definition good.
- For example, kill all the Jews, all the communists.
- Yes. Behind the Persian political equality of no slavery was an equality of subservience to the ruler.
- Like our own democratic institution of free elections conceals an economic slavery engineered by those who control the government through bribery.
- Yes. Now, those whose relation to the world is physical and individual, with habits of perception developed in response to one particular time and one place, they don't know or care about some world as a whole. Individual bodies don't respond to whole worlds. Only bureaucrats of the mind do, or rather, imagine they do. Holding bureaucratic views makes you stupid, as responding to imagined whole worlds makes you blind to the actual part of the world you find yourself it. The professor on the video, arguing for the continuing influence of Persia on the West, noted that the Persian poet Rumi was widely admired by Goethe among other Western luminaries. Wait, I'll pull up some lines of Rumi's poetry from the internet. Here:

Praise to the emptiness that blanks out existence. Existence: 

This place made from our love for that emptiness!
Yet somehow comes emptiness, this existence goes.
Praise to that happening, over and over! 

For years I pulled my own existence out of emptiness.
Then one swoop, one swing of the arm, that work is over.
Free of who I was, free of presence, free of dangerous fear, hope, free of mountainous wanting.
The here-and-now mountain is a tiny piece of a piece of straw blown off into emptiness.
These words I'm saying so much begin to lose meaning: 

Existence, emptiness, mountain, straw:
Words and what they try to say swept out the window, down the slant of the roof.

For Rumi existence is to be swept away, not in linear social progress but in a cycle of personal history.
- So the professor's theory is wrong? The Persians didn't influence the Greeks, but the other way around, the Greeks influenced the Persians?
- Let's say they influenced each other.
- But aren't you being unfair? Rumi was a mystic; the life of ordinary people, their progress or not, goes on irrespective of someone like him.
- I don't think I'm being unfair. The Delphic 'know yourself', and 'nothing except in moderation', reflect the material being swept up into the intellectual. The same could be said of Greek philosophy, theater, architecture, politics of democracy. Nowhere except in the politics of empire, which was not especially Greek or Persian, can you find this idea progress. At least not material progress.
- What other kind is there?
- Spiritual. Progress at the individual level rather than social or technological. We find the idea in Judaism, which was there in the mix with Greek and Persian influences, specifically the Jewish mysticism of Kabbalah. In Kabbalah, the habit of knowledge of individuals "sticks" in the world, the world takes on its own habits of perception of our thoughts. The political and technological habits or character of the world trail along with the spiritual development of individuals habits of perception. As the world improves step by step, the easier it is for individuals responding to it to improve. Thus in the infinite fullness of time individuals and world will attain to completion together, history will come to an end, the golden age return.