Friday, 25 July 2014

The 'Mysterium' in the Post-Modern World

The 'mysterium' - that about which we must, ultimately, be silent but which always has some indirect expression in feeling, performance and, most imperfectly, thought and language - will never go away so long as human beings exist as human beings and not as reasoning machines.

This is not to say that the 'mysterium' is present in all lives. As Kierkegaard brilliantly pointed out in his The Sickness Unto Death, most people most of the time repress or suppress it because it is a cause of deep anxiety and even of despair.

For most people, and for most of the time, there is no means, whether through temperament, capability or social context, to engage and struggle with it successfully or with profit. The 'mysterium' is present as a lack or as an avoidance strategy.

It has to be said that the average human being has every right not to put themselves through the wringer if there is no inward drive for transcendence or any social value in transcendence.

On the contrary, condemnation of those who avoid mystery and strangeness is cruel, arrogant and stupid - it is for individuals to decide and not others. There is no special virtu in the transcendent or the mysterious ... far from it. It is just another mode of being, one amongst very many.

But for those who are forced into engagement with the 'mysterium', it is not the case that it has a fixed form which expresses itself identically throughout all history and amongst all peoples.

The core experience of it is probably standard issue but this core experience is so limited in scope that there is no space for those claims of an essential 'primordial tradition' much loved by cultural conservatives. This is an explanation after the fact. Traditionalism evades the rawness of mystery.

The mysterium can be best be characterised in its active form as a felt perception of the integration of subject (the observing mind that is unique to itself) with object (whatever is out there beyond the self).

It is perhaps close to Jung's individuation but momentary, a stage on the way rather than a final resolution unless something like the enlightenment promised by Samadhi is achieved which strikes this writer as little more than embracing the death instinct. Accessing the mysterium should be for something other than itself.

Because the self is a nest of perceptions, the centrality of perception in the process of integration means that the experience is paradoxically both true and illusory simultaneously - true to the self (which despite the post-moderns does exist as a felt reality) but a matter of utter meaninglessness to the world.

Neither we (as in the post-moderns) nor the world (as with the Eastern faiths) are illusory, we are simply incommensurate so that it is the lack of cohesion that creates the confusion. The desire to merge both into a higher reality is a failure to understand what we are as evolved animals.

This is what has always been confused as a unification with the divine - because what is 'out there' (the thing that is the object) has been assumed, without evidence, to be aware of the process of our observing, part of us in terms of consciousness. The desire that this be so becomes an obsession with some.

The desire to have the object become subjectified - subjectification - is far more an anti-human process than the much criticised but more true to life process of objectification. Objectification is somehow sinful and yet to be human is to objectify to survive.

This failure to detach the subject from the object by the very nature of the experience - the illusion of integration may be an illusion in relation to matter but can be a central transformative experience of self - has resulted in historical waves of culturally contingent interpretations of the mysterium.

A pagan sensibility, for example, might externalise the 'other' as nature or the gods - a relationship to the mystery of the material world which is then imbued with a knowing if not necessarily amenable divinity.

We see a weak version of this type of transcendental thinking re-emerging in the wake of the failure of the concept of God to meet modern mystery needs as a transposition of 'nature' onto the planet and the earth in an unsophisticated environmentalism.

It is the 'other' to which we must submit - the unknowable mystery becomes our master rather than simply what it is, a thing that is unknowable on which we can write our own script.

Christian sensibility shifted the 'mysterium' not only towards a mythic narrative of salvation through sacrifice but away from the engagement of mind with the imperfectly known world of matter. Christianity moved the mysterium radically away from the relationship between mind with matter as a mystery in itself.

It is the rediscovery of this latter mystery that would later inspire the atheist existentialists who sought to re-start philosophy from Socrates' pre-Platonic initial questioning. The post-pagan Christian sensibility took the transcendent illusion so seriously that it made it socially real and useful and evaded the truth with more invention.

The socialisation of transcendence, expressed in a war not only on gnosticism but on all forms of independent interpretation of transcendent experience, became the dominant authoritarian and even totalitarian mode of Western culture from the Constantinian settlement onwards.

Even today, as a mental model, this socialisation and weakening of transcendence survives not only as religion but as the cack-handed compliment paid to it by all-inclusive radical political philosophies, including the radical positivist liberalism that is wracking the world today.

The current approach to the mysterium is thus a confused and, fortunately for most of us, pluralist attempt to make sense of the relationship of mind to the 'other' on terms in which the 'other' is privileged as having, if not always a mind, some meaning that operates as if it was mind.

This is so because the mysterium has now been thoroughly socialised - which is absurd because only individuals and not societies have minds that can relate to matter in a transcendent and fully experiential way.

Transcendence has lost the quality of being enabled by a framework that permits the space for transcendence rather than of offering models of transcendence to which we are expected to conform.

The re-seizure of a direct relationship between the individual mind and existence began in both America and Europe in the nineteenth century in small pockets but it only found critical mass in conservative intellectual circles in the early twentieth century in Europe and then in radical social circles in California at mid-century.

Since then, this antinomian and complex movement of revolt against the socialisation and weakening of transcendence has exploded across Western culture.

Moreover, it appeared in forms so disorganised and anarchic that it had no character that might permit it to be borrowed or adapted to ensure order for elites as Constantine managed to purloin the Christian model from 313 AD. It defies socialisation and order. And yet its forms and not its core soon became appropriated by essentialists again - whether in neo-fascist, pseudo-leftist or new age forms.

Fascist elements flirted with the European wave and the American wave ended up losing itself in the irrational exuberance of an inchoate liberalism but the phenonenon persisted as challenge to the prevailing order and its scepticism as to essences and system, its chaos, now vaccinates us through our new media.

This disorder permits multiple models for transcendence, of engagement with the mysterium, that allow a person to adopt anything of value to them including 'the reality of the illusion'.

The 'reality of the illusion' is when the transcendent experience really does seem to connect with something 'out there' that has a mind that connects through the experience with the mind of the subject. This is when the insane subjectivation of reality is chosen as a divine madness for a transformative gain.

Nevertheless, those who would be able transcendentally to connect that part of the mind that is subject (self) with inner object (the unknown self) and acquire it as part of the subject remain a minority and a confused minority at that.

The modern revolution in individualist transcendentalism arose from a psychologism that was based on healing and on science but perhaps lost its appeal because it still placed gnosis in the hands of leaders, priests, intellectuals and gurus.

The phenonenon of Osho tells us all we need to know about the absurdity of this world - a philosophy of individual transcendence based on cultic paranoia and the leadership principle. Set at sea, most minds tend to the pseudo-liberation of a hidden social fascism. They cannot let go of meaning.

It is true that those who take a severe psychological perspective on subject/object relations and accept an intellectual model for self-investigation seem doomed to take much longer over their own transformation than those who experience the instant transcendent moment. So how can this be squared?

How can one retain an Apollonian rational scepticism about one's situation yet capture Dionysiac excess and madness to reboot the mind into creating a world closer to the actual hidden nature, the occult self, which is constrained by the social and by history?

A transformative power may lie in the mind adopting an illusory model of existence to effect a transformation but then abandoning the illusion once the transformation has taken place. Dionysius trumps Apollo and then wends his drunken way far from the subject when he has done his job ...

Believers in absurdities - God, the divine, the planet, the nation and even history - with their opportunities for a 'Pauline moment' of revelation are not going to go away. The risk always remains that their mad enthusiasms may result in the socialisation of one illusion over others and a return to the intellectual dark ages.

On the other hand, without a challenge to the inherited models designed for adequate socialisation, personal transformation strategies are likely to wallow around waiting for a transformative moment that cannot come because the individual is not permitted a framework for independent investigation and experimentation.

Space is needed for the 'dark night of the soul', risk, transgression and transcendence. What a modern mystery school might do, in this 'revelation', is return to pre-Augustinian Western roots as much as it embraces continental philosophy, returning humanity to Socrates to invent a defiant purpose in the face of science.

This is, of course, what Nietzsche and Heidegger would like but we might need effective methodologies for individual or small group transformation where the social framework that is required is one of ensuring that antinomianism does not descend into cultishness and exploitation.

Such 'technique' may lie embedded in European culture beneath the now crumbling facade of ascetic and historicist Catholic orthodoxy. But are these and other traditions not distractions if we continue to accept their false essentialist premises? The collapse of lineage in thought may not be such a bad thing.

Eastern spiritual lineages may offer a thousand paths but they may also have become sclerotic in their traditional language of spirit so that we have the comical absurdities of exported sanskrit, lazy states of Aum-ness or the importation of Tantra as sexual partnership guidance without any sense of the real struggle that the transcendental experience requires.

The thousand flowers of the broken Western tradition still point to freedom not only of choice but from tradition so that each individual can explore to the depth that they require to achieve individuation rather than dabble in an expected expression of the transcendent according to pre-ordained religious forms.

As Arthur Versluis points out, Western mystical thinking has depended on the constant rediscovery of banned or suppressed texts. These then have to be understood out of original context in order to be made useful. Yet the text is the burden of the West as well as the reason for its relative energy.

When a text is the standard for society - whether the American Constitution, the Bible or the Communist Manifesto - it suppresses free, innovative and creative thought but where a text is a choice, then it can be the trigger for new thinking to meet new conditions. But true freedom is abandoning the text altogether.

Both Kierkegaard and Bohme were wrong about God and meaning but they and others opened the door that enabled us to question the socialisation and formalisation of meaning by society rather than by ourselves in a direct relationship to it. But they also had to be jettisoned to progress.

We should command, control and throw away in a struggle against all forms of traditionalism and conservatism. We must know our enemy - ancient texts and old ideas - but learn how to unlearn them when they become useless as working tools.

From this perspective, the modern mysterium permits paganic science its due as the basis of understanding without meaning but it restores meaning to the individual as the master of science and history, of science and history as mere tools, and the ability to challenge one's own socialisation by others.