books, history, Ideas, Joseph Campbell, Oswald Spengler, spirituality, The Decline of the West, The Masks Of God, Zen
Response to an email with a link to an article in The Atlantic magazine on a book titled The Dawn Of Everything, by David Graeber:
Of course it’s interesting, and a bit of a conversation starter, if two marginally well read people happened to get together, both having read it too. But how common is that these days? Who’s even marginally well-read?
I classify this guy with a couple other guys who quickly come to mind, Niall Ferguson, who writes history from an economic perspective, and Yuval Harare, a sort of tech anthropologist. All three are unquestionably smart, some would say genius, their heads filled with incredible amounts of knowledge and information. Reading them makes one dizzy, or I liken it to eating Kentucky Fried Chicken: every once in a while it catches you and you think ‘I really have a hankering for that kind of thing,’ but afterwards you are left with an unsettled feeling.
Now I just happen to be rereading for the fourth time Joseph Campbell’s monumental four volume series The Masks Of God. I’ve yet to read or hear a single word spoken or written in praise of it in the nearly thirty years or so I’ve been studying it. No matter, it traces all the groping growth and development of humanity these last million odd years and is far and away the greatest work of the human spirit in the last century or more.
But few read it, and how very few are CAPABLE of reading it too! And as odd as it sounds, one reason no one reads it is because we’ve become too smart, too filled with ideas, too complacent and inflexible in our world view—which truth be known has been an extremely myopic and parochial perspective.
Mike and I went on a fun northern road trip in August, and for the most part there were few ‘deeper’ conversations. Once or twice they got started, sitting over a beer in say Nelson, BC, but I’ve known for a long time there really is no point in engaging in such discussions. (Which, by the way, is why I prefer to wash dishes instead of partake in more or less well-reasoned after dinner conversation.) Why? Because Mike, as most smart people do, blows me completely out of the water as I try to explain something which fundamentally cannot be put into plain rational words. What I am always attempting to give voice to is—for want of a better word—poetic, requiring both poetic artistry in the expression AND a tinge of poetic insight on the part of the listener. Perhaps neither is present in sufficient quantities these days for a genuine exchange to take place.
Let me explain it another way, and this one has something to do with my conception of human communities, ranging from small localized clans and tribes all the way to huge unwieldy civilizations.
Imagine a young inexperienced professional soccer or hockey team. Each of the players is still in the talented developmental stage, working out their own abilities and potentials. Well coached, they learn and grow, are tested and perhaps after getting close lose to a stronger team. Then all of a sudden something happens and they make the leap, come together, gel into an unstoppable unit, become a dynasty.
What is that something? Was it because so-and-so said such-and-such? Was it because of a single goal here or there? Or did something else happen? A buy in, an unexplainable merging of wills, purposes and skills. Magic. Possession. Whatever the case may be, it lasts for a while, a few years or more, even after a star or two have departed and been replaced by younger fresher players.
Or I could change the field, and point to say the Beatles as a band.
Naturally, everything comes to an end. The spirit goes out of the team, or the band, something irreplaceable dribbles away. That too is unexplainable, the moment when the team stops being the Team that won championships.
Human communities are like that, and what takes place at their core, in the hearts of each of their members, is hard to explain in mere words. Poetry is required, poetry and insight. Book people, smart as they might be, cannot fathom such magic, such a coming together and merging of souls, such a brotherhood that grows, blossoms, and then perhaps in time wilts. They think and reason with their minds and have never felt that surge, the exuberant joy of being a part of something bigger than merely a collection of individuals.
Community-wise we are in an atomized rationalized world right now. Who feels a part of anything? Who is lifted, drawn inwards and upwards to their highest potentials these days? By the way, the reality of our collective dissociation, the slow centuries long disintegration that is taking place is at the core of another unread masterpiece of the early twentieth century: Oswald Spengler’s Decline Of The West. The team that was on top of the world for four or five centuries is past its prime, has lost the cohesion and unity that propelled it to world mastery. All the hand wringing in the world and arch reasoning will not bring back the lost glory years.
And that is our modern condition.
But to look back upon history, as does the writer of books such as this Graeber guy, or even the evolution of say a championship dynasty, from our jaded hyper-rationalized and individualized perspective, not having experienced the heightening, the quickening which takes place when people lose themselves in a group effort to the point of inspiration is to miss out on something. As smart as the words and ideas employed might be, they are doomed to miss the mark, they remain prosaic when what is required, yearned for in fact, is poetry.
“Nor can a mind that is filled with knowledge perceive what truth is; only a mind that is completely capable of learning can do that; learning is not the accumulation of knowledge; learning is a movement from moment to moment.”—Krishnamurti, You Are The World
“All these statements defy being fitted into the frame of logical reasonableness. To make them intelligible satori is needed.”—D.T. Suzuki, Living By Zen
So that’s it. And that really in a nutshell has been my journey, from faulty reasoning young engineering student to the creator of a very sporadically read blog.
Time to get on with my day.