Saturday, April 13, 2002

Someone wrote me and recommended Kundera to me. Here is my response.

Kundera and his "Unbearable Lightness of Being" is actually illuminates many of the world's problems. A better title for Kundera's book would be the "Unbearable Flatness of Materialism". And Kundera very accurately describes the unecessarily flattened and lightened world that many people live in today.

Think of the cosmos as the ancients saw it. A timeless, incomprehensible cathedral infinitely reflecting itself. We moderns often laughingly marvel at the naïveté of the ancients and medeivals. The planets, perfect musically-integrated spheres in harmony with everything else. That's where astrology comes from, another beautiful ancient science—and not a separate science or belief, but a small, utterly integrated part of the vision of—what?—the world, life, existence, reality. It was a vision of being. Yes, matter exists, but that's a less interesting part of the world. This was the view of the Pythagoreans, with their mathematical cosmology. Aeschylus, Sophocles, Pindar, Plato, Plotinus, Augustine, Dante, etc. all had this view. Shakespeare saw it slipping away forever. (cf. Ulysses' speech in Troilus & Cressida below.) Socrates, Aristotle, Copernicus, Newton, and esp. Darwin all helped to take this vision apart bit by bit until now, in the 20th century, we are left with Kundera's unbearably light being. It is totally unbearable to me. We have benefitted materially from this materialism—ample food, clean running water, electricity, antibiotics, etc. But we have suffered spiritually. Others have tried to repair the damage: Goethe, Hegel, Schelling, Emerson, Nietzsche, Rilke, Heidegger. I don't think the romantics got it—Blake, Wordsworth, Whitman, Baudelaire—they seem to accept the materialistic dogma too sincerely, rather than transcending it. It is an attempt to create an animism of the spirit. I think that we are all post-Kantians, like it or not. Just as we are all moderns. We are all post-Socratic, post-Copernican, post-Newtonian, post-Kantian and post-Darwinian. Creationists belong to the same group as flat-earthers. We don't live in Plato's or Sophocles' world, or Jesus' for that matter, like it or not.

Kant showed that our senses create our consciousness, that we don't see things-as-they-are-in-themselves (ding-an-sich), but only things-as-they-appear-to-us. He created back doors for Christian dogma, but they were obviously insufficient to actually instill belief in anyone. I believe Existentialism is a reaction to the crisis that Kant created.

To me, existentialism is all about believing that your intuition (usually your moral intuition, but could also be your artistic or other intuition.) is REAL. As real as anything. Existentialism is post-Kantian. It says, "Kant says that my perceptions do not reflect the real world. Well maybe the objects of my perception aren't real, but I know what is real. To Kierkegaard, that was his commitment to Jesus. That's what he knew was real. Kierkegaard: "Purity of heart is to will one thing." That is to say, following your intuition simply IS morality. That's all we truly have, all we are given with certainty. He also called it the “teleological suspension of the ethical”.

For useful consciousness to evolve through random processes is the height of improbability. If we do not perceive things as they actually exist, how can we communicate? How can we know anything? Hegel's answer is that Geist (German for spirit or mind) is the stuff that the whole world is made of. The corollary to Hegel's idea is that evolution is not simply the natural selection of random mutations, but is rather spirit maturing, and is thus a mentel phenomenon as much as a physical one.

"Just as the seed bears in itself the whole nature of the tree, including the taste and form of its fruit, so do the first traces of Spirit virtually contain the whole of its own history...The history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom..." –Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History

Emerson takes this idea a step further. He tends toward mysticism, because he extends this reliance on intuition to include all of knowledge, to include our mental, spiritual and scientific lives.

So although Kundera is an interesting writer that I liked, rejecting his worldview is central to me. And that's why tracing the history of consciousness is not merely "the evolution of culture", but a spiritual aspiration par excellence.

Here’s part of Ulysses' speech the Troilus & Cressida quotation. If you'd like to see it in context, go here and hit Ctrl-F and search on the term "lack'd".

Shakespeare was a conservative who thought the world was getting steadily worse, whereas I sam a progressive that thinks the world is progressing towards something, but I can't say whether it will be better. I think it will be different and incommensurable, as ours is when compared to earlier periods. I like this quotation, because Shakespeare, at the beginning of the modern age, saw the medieval/ancient cosmology, which had his deep respect, slipping away, and being replaced with our materialistic view. I believe the Goethe is among the authors who moved beyond materialism into a cosmology that more resembles the interconnected, hierarchical view of the ancients.


The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre,
Observe degree, priority, and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office, and custom, in all line of order;
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthron'd and spher'd
Amidst the other, whose med'cinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans check, to good and bad. But when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues and what portents, what mutiny,
What raging of the sea, shaking of earth,
Commotion in the winds! Frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate,
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixture! O, when degree is shak'd,
Which is the ladder of all high designs,
The enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools, and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenity and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And hark what discord follows! Each thing melts
In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores,
And make a sop of all this solid globe;
Strength should be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead;
Force should be right; or, rather, right and wrong-
Between whose endless jar justice resides-
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
Then everything includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.

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