Monday, October 25, 2010

Pre-Election Provocations

Obama has been excoriated for pointing to the genuine stupidity of the right wing. Jean Baudrillard had a similar view in his book
America, which has just been reissued. This review is by PD Smith and was published in The Guardian on Saturday, October 23, 2010

"Where the others spend their time in libraries, I spend mine in the deserts and on the roads." Jean Baudrillard's travel diary of his time in America was first published in 1986 and has been reissued with a new introduction by Geoff Dyer. Written while Reagan was president, Baudrillard's provocative account of this "obsessional society" remains relevant. From the "steepling gentleness" of New York's skyscrapers to the "limitless horizontality" of Los Angeles, he explores this New World, where the carpets have an "orgasmic elasticity" and the people are "like shadows that have escaped from Plato's cave". The crowded cities are "electrifying" and "cinematic", but in the deserts Baudrillard finds a serene emptiness. For all its strangeness, America is "an amazing place". The book is sometimes Delphic ("Americans believe in facts, but not in facticity"), frequently brilliant ("there is nothing more mysterious than a TV set left on in an empty room"), but always original, memorable and even funny: "Americans may have no identity, but they do have wonderful teeth." [Ironically there was also a long article in this weekend's Observer about the new fashion of having a slight gap between one's front teeth, thanks to model Lara Stone.]

The phrases that haunt me from this review are the description of "shadows that have escaped from Plato's cave" and "lack of identity". There seems to be a lockstep mentality at work in the USA, no matter what one's political persuasion. And it's not limited to politics, but active in business, religion and other institutions. Scary.

There was a programme on BBC 2 last night about Hieronymous Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights", which also mentioned his "Adoration of the Magi" and "The Hay Wain". I couldn't help thinking that the "Garden" was a portrait of America; and that the three paintings show what happens to religion, to morality and coherence when the work of silence and the notion of beholding have vanished. Bosch was painting at a time just before the Reformation (1505) when the insistence on conforming one's interior life to the stereotyped formulas and images promulgated by the church was reaching a critical mass. The emphasis was on observance and manufacturing artificial religious emotions; one might say the Counter-Reformation began before the Reformation itself.

[Significant, perhaps, that at this time there were women who revolted against this oppressive spirituality, who were being chastised by their confessors for their clandestine reading of Marguerite Porete, who had been burned as a heretic in 1310; and nuns were still making copies of Porete's work.]

Not only does the "Garden" reflect the cultural ADHD of the present day but Bosch's smiling caricature of himself with tree-legs and a hollow interior containing only artifice is telling. When the balance of silence is absent, not only does religion become depraved and life nonsensical, even nature itself is undone [this notion of the importance of the absence of silence in religion applied to these paintings is my interpretation, not the presenter's]. The presenter pointed to the emergence of the demonic from the unconscious, and the chaos of thoughts, but if there is no practice of or connection to silence where such nightmares can find healing, how could it be otherwise in an oppressive and repressive religious situation?

And perhaps the creepiest aspect of these paintings, as the presenter Matthew Collings pointed out, is that everything is painted with such profound beauty.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Passivity and Entitlement

A wildly wonderfully humorous friend of mine who teaches at one of the UK's top universities is frustrated to the limit by his students. Today he wrote:

"...the emergence in many students of a somnambulistic passivity
coupled with a sense of absolute entitlement. Don't get me wrong,
'Sammy' and 'Timmy' are nice boys and they will probably do fine, but
it's like teaching a pair of paralyzed gannets. Not only do you, the
zoo-keeper, have to prepare the nourishing fishy mixture, but you also
have to march over to them, prise open their sodding beaks and tip the
herring in, so reluctant are they to stir their stumps in the pursuit
of their own intellectual nourishment."

Much of the pursuit of so-called spirituality, it seems to me, has been infected by this same spirit of sloth and entitlement. It seems to me that if one is serious about engaging God, then one does what is necessary to the task.

Learning Middle English, for example, is not any more difficult than learning how to decipher text messages and uses the same skill set. There are only three letters in ME that are different from the normal English alphabet. The Middle English text of The Cloud of Unknowing is now online at
with modernised spelling and footnotes that explain words in almost every line so that one doesn't even have to learn the three odd letters any longer. It's a clever site because you can scroll the text and notes together. The Middle English dictionary is online so that one can look up unfamiliar spellings and the much richer, multi-leveled and sometimes very different meanings of the ME words. It's fun and startling to check the most seemingly familiar words, not to mention suffixes (such as "hede" for example).

Adequate Greek and Hebrew interlinear resources are also online at scripture4all, to cite just one source. Strong's concordance is online; you can Google it. Parallel translations are online, ditto. The Latin Vulgate is online, as are plenty of Latin resources (Google now translates Latin, but Lewis and Short, the classical dictionary, is there too), along with the bible in just about any ancient or modern language you like, from Syriac to rap. The greatest resource for Greek I have found is a site called "Great Treasures" where you can pull up Greek and English versions in parallel including the Tischendorf, which is transliterated Greek with the words colour-coded so that if you click on a word, a short or long analysis (you can choose) of the word pops up. I have never studied either Greek or Hebrew formally but these sites are easy to use and give amazing insights into texts and interpretations.

Finally there is a question of translations. We all start somewhere, usually with translations. All translations have their faults but when something as critical as the experience/excessus mentis issue is wrong in a translation of a text that addresses this specific question, then recommending such a translation is like giving a child a snake instead of a fish, or a stone when he has asked for bread.

If one has bothered to watch one's own mind, one can often tell when a translation is suspect (see the comments on "insight" at the end of "Listening to Words" of 13 October). The question is whether one chooses to make the effort and take the risk, or whether one chooses to be a paralyzed gannet in a zoo. A child of God who knocks on the door and asks to be fed will find a feast with clear wine strained from off the lees; a paralyzed gannet will only be able to wallow in a lot of fishy goo.

[NB for those who don't know about gannets, they are a seabird that can hardly stand up, much less walk on land]

Monday, October 18, 2010

Anamchara Responds said...
Dear Maggie Ross,

First of all, I'm honored even to be mentioned in your blog. I read Pillars of Flame years ago and was impressed by its eloquence, the force of its argument, and its spiritual depth. I still consult both appendices regularly.

Now, as to my unlikely appearance in your blog: I'm humbled by your words. As someone who freely admits I am not a scholar, and who because of family commitments probably will never be one, I find your perspective frankly rather discouraging. Correct me if I'm wrong, but you seem to be saying that reading bad translations of historic contemplative texts is worse than not reading such works at all. Without the scholarly credentials (on my part or on the part of my spiritual director, who is a Trappist monk) to guide the way, I am left wondering if, in some way or another, all translations are "bad." And even if I were to immerse myself in the study of Middle English to the point that I could profitably read the Cloud, Julian, and Hilton in the original, the same problem reasserts itself when I seek to read Ruusbroec, or Eckhart, or the Spanish Carmelites. Must I surrender my thirst for the wisdom of my ancestors on the altar of my own lack of academic training?

I understand your criticism of Merton, and, working as I do alongside Trappists many of whom knew him, none of what you say surprises me. Still, in a culture that worships the likes of Miley Cyrus and Sarah Palin, can we really afford simply to dismiss Merton for his flaws? And if so, then what hope is there for those of us who lack your erudition — or even access to competent guides with a similar level of scholarship?

And frankly, I could care less about Merton's narcissism, but I am bothered by his modernist assumptions concerning experience. But how many other errors are there in Merton's work? In mine? In yours?

I ask these questions not to challenge you, but to share with you my dilemma as someone keenly aware of my lack of knowledge, and at a loss as how to rectify that (or even if such correction is possible at this stage of my life). I hope and pray that my work conveys something more than just a "feel good" message, although your comments give me pause. As I writer, I have long been aware that my words always seem to be misunderstood, no matter how carefully I craft them. If, at the end of the day, writing an admittedly un-scholarly blog to encourage the exploration of silent prayer actually harms the contemplative life, then I would be the first to delete my blog. But here I must trust the grace of God to carry my readers beyond my many mistakes.

Carl McColman

Dear Carl,

Thank you so much for writing. I rather hoped you would, and you raise important questions.

In a way, all translations are "bad" but then, we can't all learn all the languages (although you could probably read Julian in Glasscoe's edition, which is modernized spelling and from the best manuscript). As regards the Cloud, I am beginning to think that reading a translation of it is worse than not reading it at all! Underhill might be the exception (available in the Element Books edition, though I won't vouch for Freeman's intro; I haven't read it yet). And we can't all be alert to the excellence or not of scholars, and even then there are no guarantees. But there are certain common-sense criteria.

For one, I don't think we need to engage in as much wishful thinking as we do. If it's too good to be true it probably isn't true
or at least it's misrepresented (Julia Bolton Holloway's remarks on the Norwich ms of Julian on your blog a few months ago comes to mind). Second, we have to remember, always, that the way ancient and medieval authors talk about "nothing/something" is through extravagant metaphor and paradox, and the paradoxes are often implicit. They use this elaborate language in part because who is going to undertake the arduous journey if you just say its "nothing"?

Next, I think we need to be much more alert to this "experience" question in all translations we look at, whether or not we can read the original; we must not take metaphors literally but try to find the common human processes underneath them; and most of all we need to be highly suspicious of anything that makes us feel cozy, because cozy clouds clarity. Yes we can have religious experiences but we need to give thanks for them and leave them behind; yes the threshold and effects of excessus mentis are sometimes perceived and experienced, but only very rarely. Excessus mentis in itself can never be perceived, experienced, etc. because by definition it is the suspension of self-consciousness. Excessus mentis is not an end in itself; it's something that happens along the way in the cycle of silence and speech by which we are healed. If someone does seek to escape into meditation or excessus mentis they are in danger of becoming schizophrenic. The point of the spiritual life is not our personal private holiness but rather opening our selves so that the life of God can pour out on the community. One of the sure signs of authentic spiritual life is that the person cares less and less about their own interior life and more and more about what is happening to others. In fact, excessus mentis happens to us many times a day; it's one of the normal means by which the brain processes information and communicates between its superficial self-conscious part, which has a very small capacity and is not much good at making connections, and the deep brain which seems limitless and where the connections are made. But mostly we don't notice it has happened because, again, our self-consciousness, our "I" construct/observer eye, is absent.

What does happen is that the practice of silence (that includes but is far more than meditation, which is only a minor element) starts with the practitioner's intention but ends as the practitioner's animator; it is no longer a matter of repeated intention on the practitioner's part to return to the word or the breath or whatever, but the very energy that animates. The person is drawing on the wellspring of silence. But there has to be a long, long period both in and out of formal meditation time where there is a conscious effort to turn away (conversion) from the entertainment of our thoughts, to default to the silence. Gradually the thoughts go away or at least become less clamorous and disorienting; gradually we realize obscurely that something is going on out of our sight that we don't want to interfere with in any way either by the way we live outwardly or the stuff we put in our minds; we don't want anything that doesn't speak in some way of this silent truth or truth emerging from silence. This means in practical terms eliminating most of what people these days think of a social life (movies, clubs, being plugged into an iPod, etc. Music has an important place but not as background static). Gradually what is in our thoughts starts occasionally to be much more worth paying attention to, often becoming insight. I am giving a paper in July which addresses the fact that the assumptions with which 20th and 21st century scholars approach ancient and medieval philosophical and theological texts lack this underlying model of the mind which is accessible to anyone who watches their own mind (as Gerson notes) and whose features are in fact spelled out in texts such as Plato, the bible, Proclus, Augustine, Richard of St Victor, the Cloud and Julian. But because people today want experience, a way of control and self-authentication, readers frequently refuse to let the texts say what they say.

Too often these texts are treated in the abstract; since the Vienna school, everyone seems to need to be a positivist. The worst affected from the point of view of this discussion have been the translations of the bible. Thankfully this positivist model is starting to break down —here's a good example from Karmen MacKendrick. I quote it (having found it on AM's blog) without having read the book or knowing anything about her, but even out of context it stresses the direction theology needs to go: “Silence and eternity slip beyond the containment of words in time. We still must use words; we still must draw out the questions that lie within philosophy. It is only that we have learned that we must use philosophy against itself, wrap our words around spaces without words, and leave them wordless, as if they could thus be kept, though we lose them together with ourselves.” Substituting the word "spirituality" for "philosophy" makes the point: we must use spirituality against itself. One of my criteria of discernment for this text is that it is about letting go in an uncompromising way and throws the gauntlet down to the establishment. In other words, once again, every true sacred sign effaces itself.

I think we all need to be alert as to how much we want "union" (a word that is on my list of no-no words, one not to use about the spiritual life because it is inherently dualistic), or, better put, beholding, engagement, onying. It is not and never will be an "experience" because it happens out of sight of the observing eye, self-consciousness. It is not confined to exessus mentis; it is a way of life that arises from being receptive to the continual beholding in our core silence, what Richard and the Cloud author call the apex of love, the supreme point of the soul. When the Cloud author talks about feeling, he's not talking about experience (as Walsh invariably translates it and I think the MED is wrong in using the word "experience" in connection with this word or is using the modern as opposed to medieval sense of it); he's talking about what might better be translated as an "inkling"—an inkling that something wonderful is going on out of sight and that what we most need to do is keep our hands and attention away from it so it can continue without our interference.

A contemporary person might use the analogy of the oblique recognition that we are in "flow". If you start paying too much attention to the fact you are in flow the flow will quickly stop! We are much to eager to wrap everything into neat packages (this is partly a consequence of the rise of dialectic and the inheritance of the Counter-Reformation and neo-scholasticism) when what we need is to untie the string and open up the paper. I think we need to be suspect of the way in which we make so-called spiritual writers into demi-gods and celebrities. Far from wanting to dismiss Merton, I think it absolutely essential to point to the ways in which he distorted the tradition and the texts, how he changed the meaning of "experience", how his use of "true self" and "false self" are highly destructive to the spiritual process, and I think we need to alert people against citing him as an expert on contemplative life. I don't even think he was a contemplative (see his remark on experience above; contemplation is about relinquishing all claims to experience). I think we need to keep a very vigilant eye on our own drives; I think we need to constantly face and let fall away our anxieties and our greed about religion and the spiritual life. I think we need to look at the criteria by which we evaluate what we think "spiritual life" is. It's about what leads to self-forgetfulness, though some of the texts in trying to explain may make it sound otherwise.

I have written enough diatribes against spiritual direction in this blog so that I won't repeat them, but the goal of the spiritual life is self-forgetfulness, and the current model of so-called spiritual direction that is taught and practised defeats this goal, because one is always looking at one's spiritual life, like picking at a scab. Two of the main rules of meditation (and they're in the Cloud and Richard and Julian and Marguerete Porete and others) are don't evaluate and don't expect. The hardest part of all of this is to let go our expectations, stereotypes—all the things that devotio moderna (Thomas à Kempis and on into the Counter-Reformation and neo-scholasticism)—want us to do, to have the reassurance that we are doing it "correctly". We have to stop watching our own spiritual lives as if they were movies.

This is one of the most important points the Cloud author makes. The work of grace goes on in what he calls the spiritual part, which is not accessible to the self-conscious mind as noted above. Along with neuro-scientists, I call it the "deep brain" because the notion of the unconscious (if it is useful at all) doesn't apply and because even the neuro-scientists say (or some of them do anyway) that it will probably never be possible to know how the deep brain gets all its information. For the deep brain to be able to do its work we have to get out of its way. Yes, we can and should read texts and give it information but then we have to leave it alone and do our silent practice and let it surprise us. Behold! In this suddenly! We have made religion and the spiritual life far too exotic, rather like the orientalism of the 20th c, when instead it is about ordinary life. It is very humble, very subtle, and what we are doing, from one point of view, is restoring a balance, the balance of silence and speech. We might think of the consequence of what happened in the Garden as a massive case of attention deficit disorder (Irenaeus' interpretation), which we can choose to correct through the spiritual life. The current greed for more and more "experiences" just exacerbates the problem. As Walsh notes in his introduction to the Cloud (yes, he gets some of it right), "The wonder of it is that this experience of nothingness paradoxically and gradually effects a radical change in the spiritual character; and this is the reason why it is so difficult to persevere in the exercise: the pain experienced in the gradual movement to total detachment causes many beginners to relinquish the effort" (ch. lxix) [italics mine]. It is not the experiences that effect the transfiguration; it is their absence.

Carl, I know your website serves a lot of people and far be it from me to tell you how to run it. You have to do your own discernment. But you also have to decide what your function is as moderator: what is it most that you want to convey/provide? All of us practitioners of spirituality so-called, whatever the level of education (and as Gerson notes, even "women and idiots" can reach the highest levels of contemplation) or practice are in a very dangerous place with all of this stuff: I have just returned from seven months in the USA working at a retreat center and while I met with hundreds of wonderful deeply searching people, I was appalled at what I found happening to American culture, almost to the point of despair, because for them it was like trying to swim against a tidal wave. And I have the same feeling about what is happening these days among the Cistercians with whom I have more than thirty-five years of history. I don't know the way forward, but I do know that on this blog I am to the best of my ability going to offer what correctives seem to need to be made, no matter how unpopular or discouraging they may be to some, and even if they sometimes fly in the face of the last 80 years of scholarship, which, in my view, has been badly warped by positivism on the one hand, and, more recently, sentimentality and narcissism on the other. If there weren't some scholarly credence to what I am doing I rather doubt I would have been asked to do the paper in July. But in the end it isn't scholarship that gives us the criteria of discernment: it's a ruthless honesty and willingness to observe that anyone, literate or illiterate, can develop if only they will.

Every blog has a different purpose; mine is, in part, "to consult, to encourage and to warn" and it seems as though these days it's mostly the latter two: encouraging people to swim upstream, which is becoming increasingly more difficult (almost impossible in the USA in my view) and, sadly, more and more to warn that humans are in danger of evolving away from what makes them human.

Bless you, and thank you for responding


Comments Worth Foregrounding

These comments on last week's post seem worth foregrounding.

mamadar said...
I have the recent Penguin translation by A.C. Spearing, which includes other works of the same author, and Carl McColman has been recommending Carmen Acevedo Butcher's new translation. Are you familiar with either of those? I have not read The Cloud more than once, and only in the Spearing version, I think.

6:15 AM, October 13, 2010

fs said...
I'm glad you're taking this on, Maggie; it sounds an excellent match for your interests and strengths. Ideally, words attempt to convey meaning as clearly as possible or, with poetic and meditative writing, replicate as closely as possible the nuances of the author's vision or reality. My copy of The Cloud of Unknowing is a fairly old one, purchased second hand, a 1973 version edited by William Johnston. It's always seemed good, but I have nothing with which to compare it.

Have been reading your Pillars of Flame, which is so very welcome at this time in my life. Throughout my church experience, I've been repeatedly jarred by involuntary glimpses into the massive, sometimes even insane, egos of some priests and equally shocked by the attitude of parishioners who perhaps choose to ignore this phenomenon or perhaps are truly impervious to it. I made the mistake, apparently, of reading the synoptic gospels prior to joining a church, so my expectations may have been unrealistically high.

Your book should be required reading in seminaries and by all who take part in the discernment process. Actually, I think Garry Wills has it right when he says that priestly hierarchies are simply antithetical to Jesus' teachings.

In trying to come to terms with this, the relief for me is in knowing that there are people who do care about the internals of what it means to try to follow Christ.

12:02 PM, October 13, 2010

Maggie Ross said...
To Mamadar: I'm afraid the Spearing suffers from the same problems; he interpolates the word "experience" where it is not intended among other things. I haven't yet done as close work with it as I have with Walsh in the Classics of Western Spirituality series, which in my opinion is so misleading it should be withdrawn.

I have not seen the Butcher translation although I looked at the preview online and shuddered. The last thing the Cloud needs is an "O Wow" paraphrase.

I have found (confirmed by a recognized Latinist) the same problems with the word 'experience' in the Zinn translation of Richard of St Victor in the CWS series, though Zinn to his credit does understand and use the word 'behold'.

Carl McColman is very well-intentioned but there is a difference between feeling good and scholarship and/or the work of the spirit. Just because someone has a feel-good message does not mean either that they understand the work of silence or the classic texts that describe it. There is a lot of wishful thinking going on.

To FS: Thank you for your kind remarks. Yes, Gary Wills is correct: the ecclesiastical system is antithetical to the Gospel. As Jesus says in John 14 (check out the Greek) "You [the disciples] can behold [theoria], but the system [kosmos—he is referring to the temple system but it applies to any system] cannot behold, and because the system cannot behold, it cannot receive the Spirit of Truth. Do you know the site "Great Treasures"? it's invaluable for checking out translations for the non-specialist.] So it is incumbent on every person involved in a system to call it to account; of course this does not happen; we are coerced into being clones, so we are stuck with the dead-end of Christianity.

2:36 AM, October 14, 2010

Maggie Ross said...
I should add that, unpopular as this remark may be (pace, Carl McColman), there is a limit to toleration in these matters. The spiritual life is about truth, the truth of God, and the unfolding truth of the incarnate person in the light of God. This unfolding takes place out of our own sight. Contemplation is not about experience; it's about relinquishing all claims to experience, as the Cloud author, Richard of St Victor, Julian and others point out. There is a price to be paid, but our age not only does not seem willing to pay it, it seems to want to justify its "have your cake and eat it too" attitude; greed posing as spirituality. As the Cloud author remarks, if your practice is authentic, it will "bind" you so that you must have silence, solitude, and live a life of rectitude. You will not be able—or want—to engage in any activity that distracts from it. Few people in our culture are willing to pay this price.

The way the human mind operates, the way it goes into silence, is universal; it is the interpretation that is culturally influenced. Ancient and medieval writers were close observers of their minds (as we all can be) and their texts are often about this process as it manifests. Although they had no idea of neuro-biology, their interpretations were uncannily accurate. Science is only beginning to catch up. Our modern notion of 'experience' (which is opposite to that of ancient and medieval people—the Cloud author's word is a form of 'prove'—is in fact not consonant with what neuro-biology is telling us.

Because our culture has no silence and because "the work of silence" was suppressed by the church [see the post "Jesus in the Balance" in March-April 2010], we have largely lost the assumptions that the ancient and medieval writers have, and as a result we tend to think they are talking "philosophy" (which sometimes they are, of course) when in fact they are using metaphor to describe a psychological process for which they have no language except that of theology/philosophy. Contrary to what Walsh says, the Cloud author could probably have written his text if Aquinas had never existed. Another example is, Ps-Denys who was a Syrian monk. No one to my knowledge (I have asked Louth about this) has done any work on the impact of his monastic life on his writings, particularly liturgical gesture and the Night Office. Some of the Mystical Theology sounds far more like John the Solitary than a neo-Platonic ascent. Again, I haven't studied Ps Denys closely enough even in English to say any more than this (and I would not trust any translation at this point) but the question needs to be raised.

The Night Office is another issue that has not been factored into scholarship because it is no longer part of monastic life and awareness of its influence seems to have vanished. But the Night Office was one of the most important times for prayer in the monastic cycle as it was the only Office long enough for the pray-er to utterly immerse him/herself in. Richard of St Victor's "hovering" sounds very much like what happens in the Night Office to one who gives him/herself to it, and the Cloud author's reference to liturgy as a way to enhance "the work" also sounds very much like a reference to the Night Office. The same needs to be considered in regard to visionary literature.

There are some aspects of scholarship that simply cannot be undertaken without an understanding of the psychological dynamic at work, and often this dynamic cannot be inferred from texts.

3:08 AM, October 14, 2010

Maggie Ross said...
Here is an illustration of what I mean by a limit to toleration in these matters.

I was in a situation where I was helping design liturgies and the like. The person I was working with wanted to stage a popular event to which I am implacably opposed. This ordained person asked me why I was opposed, and I said because it misled people, and from a spiritual point of view it was bad for them. She said she realized that it was bad for them, but that it was what people wanted.

From my point of view that sort of attitude is totally irresponsible and a complete betrayal of what the spiritual life/scholarly life is/are about. So when we tolerate shoddy scholarship or wishful thinking on popular websites we are neither giving sincere seekers the help they need nor serving the wider goal of advancing and disseminating knowledge. Instead we are misleading them and giving them damaging information.

3:19 AM, October 14, 2010

Sr. Valerie said...
I, too, am glad you're examining The Cloud of Unknowing. I typically read this text once a year. The version I read is the 1973 text, edited by William Johnston. I'd be interested to know your take on it. If you don't have a take yet, I'm willing to stay tuned.

8:23 AM, October 15, 2010

Maggie Ross said...
To Valerie:

I haven't compared the William Johnston translation yet, except to check to see if he keeps the author's use of 'behold'—which in the two places in the beginning, he doesn't. So far Underhill's version seems to most faithfully follow the Middle English as given in Hodgson's text. There is a new edition from Kalamazoo that's online
but the introduction seemed to me so wide of the mark that I was amazed that it was published. The message of the Cloud author cannot be domesticated.

2:44 AM, October 16, 2010

AM said...
"and to imply that excessus mentis is something that can be "experienced" in the rather pathological narcissistic sense of the word that Merton is primarily responsible for, and which has spread through secular language as well as sacred, is absurd"

Just a bit shock over your take on Merton. Then i began thinking how in an early stage in his monastic life could he spend time immortalizing his personal life through his Seven Storey Mountain when even the Master have no self-referential writing at all except a wind-swept, never been deciphered one on the sand.

4:38 AM, October 17, 2010

To AM: Yes, with all the carefully manipulated hype we tend to forget that Merton was diagnosed by Dr Gregory Zilboorg as a narcissist and a megalomaniac, and that he was probably an alcoholic and certainly at times a sexual predator. Here is one of his most infamous quotes as regards experience: By contrast to the medieval notion of experience as something to be proved against scripture and tradition, here is Merton, whose view of experience could not be more unlike Bernard's: 'I have been summoned to explore a desert area of man's heart in which explanations no longer suffice, and in which one learns that only experience counts. . . .' [italics mine].

By the way, thank you very much for your post on the book Immemorial Silence. Unfortunately it's not in the Bodleian, but it looks interesting.

To all my readers: I'd be very grateful for recommendations of books on silence; it's a hot topic these days and there are a lot of things being published I'm not aware of.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Listening to Words

I am doing a comparative study of various editions of The Cloud of Unknowing and it is a discouraging business. We are all influenced by the context in which we work, some more than others, however. Some have fewer scruples about making the text what they want it to be than what the text says. Hodgson's work remains the benchmark, but even her 1982 introduction has echoes of William James, Evelyn Underhill, Baron von Hugel, and perhaps some pre-Vatican II neo-Manicheanism. Walsh is a neo-scholastic and seems far more concerned with characterizing the Cloud -author as a transmitter of St Thomas Aquinas than as someone who is discussing an actual human psycho-spiritual process. Walsh's "translation" seems very wide of the mark, in fact, alarmingly misleading in places: for example, he translates "feeling" as "experience". The Cloud-author has a word for "experience" (a form of "prove") and he is an author who seems careful with words. "Feeling" is very different from the modern notion of "experience" and I don't think Walsh is using the word "experience" in the sense of "instance". In fact, the more I work with these texts, the more it seems that scholars, lacking either practice or understanding of the underlying dynamic of the texts they are working with, think ancient and medieval authors such as the Cloud-author are discussing abstractions instead of using the ambient language to describe "the work of silence".

People who have become scholars after Vatican II seem even more hung up on the word "experience" in a way that is deeply misleading and is the opposite of what medieval people meant by it. The word doesn't even enter the language until the late 14th c. and then it is taken from the Latin and means something like "experiment". It doesn't have the nuance of self-authentication it has acquired in the 20th and 21st centuries. Certainly the word can mean an instance, for example, "an instance of excessus mentis" but that is not the way it is used these days, and to imply that excessus mentis is something that can be "experienced" in the rather pathological narcissistic sense of the word that Merton is primarily responsible for, and which has spread through secular language as well as sacred, is absurd. The word also has been intruded into translations from the Latin where it doesn't exist in the original. So if you see the word used in a translation or a paraphrase, be sure to check the original! The ancient and medieval authors had a far more accurate idea of how the brain works than modern authors who want "experience" (a commodity these days) at any price and who are unwilling to acknowledge that there is much that cannot be "grasped" (another widely misused word, along with "achieve." Yes, I'm making a list. You're welcome to contribute.

Translations of the bible raise similar problems. In Ephesians, for example, the word "comprehend" is often used to translate 3:18, when "insight" or "understand" might seem more the sense of katalambanō in the context. Jerome uses the Latin comprehendere but the Latin can mean "understand. Or perhaps, stretching things a bit, we could see "comprehend" here as an ironic paradox—and certainly we linear 21st century types miss a lot of the paradoxes. For example, when medieval writers use the word "cling" (adhaerent) what they are clinging to is dispossession—clinging to wonder, for example, in Richard of St Victor. As far as the Ephesians passage goes, "insight" has my vote.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Erazim Kohák

I am re-reading Erazim Kohák, The Embers and the Stars: A Philosophcal Inquiry into the Moral Sense of Nature, U Chicago, 1984, having been reminded of it by Steven Chase, writing on Richard of St Victor. I have always loved this book especially for what it says about the ability of the natural world to heal us, and it has contributed to the sense that the ecological crisis is at root a spiritual crisis. Here are some quotations with some bracketed citations and comments:

p 205 "Seek not to venture forth: turn within—truth dwelleth in the inner man." [Noli foras ire, in te redi, in ineriore himine habita veritas.]" Saint Augustine in Of True Religion [Cf. Ps. 90:10 "The days of our years are three score years and ten and if by reason of strength they are four score, yet is their strength lebor and sorrow, for they are soon cut off and we fly way."] When Edmund Husserl selected that line as the conclusion of his Cartesian Meditations, his critics and his sympathetic readers alike seized upon it as evidence that his "transcendental turn" had led phenomenology into an invincible solipsism. To this day, t hat remains a part of the conventional wisdom of a flourishing Husserl industry.

Yet the intent of Saint Augustine's line clearly was not solipsistic, nor was that its effect. Saint Augustine's work bears no trace of the [p. 206] self-centered, self-indulgent preoccupation with private moods and dispositions which we have come to associate with the inward turn. Quite the contrary: his "inward" vision spans the full range of reality—the presence of God, the sweep of history, the works of humans. If anything, it was the Roman world around him, scorning all inward turn in a feverish occupation with the gratification of all its greed, that today seems locked in an invincible solipsism of both pure and practical reason, a lonely crown of insatiable monadic egos, each heedless of all but itself.

Nor has the injunction to turn within always led to solipsism in our time. Husserl's vision, too, spans the whole scope of Western history. His emphasis throughout lies on Einfülung and Eindeutung, the emotive and the cognitive reaching out to the other in a self-transcending empathic understanding. In the world of our days, it is not those who follow Saint Augustine's injunction, whether in prayer or in the radical brackets of a forest clearing, who are typically locked in the self-centered consumer mania of solus ipse, acknowledging no reality beyond their feeling and the flickering image on an electronic screen. Quite the contrary, they are the ones who tend to be sensitive to the plight of their fellow humans and the devastation of the natural world, willing to encounter the other with a respect for his integrity and to subordinate their whimto a good clearly perceived. Far more typically, it is those who are likely to go bulldozing through their world, both social and natural, transforming it into a wasteland in a heedless quest for gratification. . . .

In Saint Augustine's or Whitehead's usage, the distinction of "inward" and "outward" did not suggest a compartmentalization of entities into two categories, the world of objects, conceived as the region of meaningless matter in motion, and the world of meanings, locked within the privacy of each individual's mind or even brain. In their usage, both terms apply equally to all being, referring not to classes of entities but to modes of being and modes of understanding anything that is. . . .

[to be continued]