Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Odi et amo

Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?
Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

The past two decades have been quite an experience.  I have seen so many things come and go from my life.  I have built things, some without noticing and others with great care and deliberation.  I have broken things down, some carefully and some not so much.  Hardest of all, from my perspective as an agent who aspires to control life: I have seen things broken, despite all I tried to do to save them.  Some of the things I see broken now are things I cannot look upon easily.  I see many of my most long-cherished illusions lying dead and destroyed beyond all hope of recovery (redemption, resurrection).  I think it is fair to say that my identity, the persona or mask that I use to identify myself alone and in company, is currently broken (or breaking: I keep trying to patch new identities together only to find at the last minute that they simply cannot hold).

Buddhism has been a great blessing in that it allows me to deal honestly with the reality I experience, a reality in which my self does not exist as something simply, intelligibly, coherently permanent.  But the practical utility of Buddhism is limited, since the reality I experience is one in which retirement from samsara is impossible.  I would like to flee into the wilderness, to leave society with all its impossible expectations that I have never met (and will probably never meet), to die to the world and then see if that might teach me how to love it without killing it (or myself).  My reality is closer to that of Kierkegaard: my self might be called an illusion, a fiction without any permanence (speaking ontologically, objectively), but it is an illusion I cannot shake (speaking epistemologically, subjectively).  I must carry that illusion with me in the world, where I must live (as other selves depend on me), and where it is broken beyond hope of repair (I begin to suspect).

My self might be unreal, ontologically, but from the perspective I must inhabit, it is eternal and inescapable.  I have watched it die a thousand deaths without perishing.  I have seen it smashed and smashed again, on a thousand different battlefields, and still it lives on.  Its life is changed by every loss, torn and disfigured by its continual failure to achieve victory (that may be ontologically impossible, but is subjectively necessary, at least as a goal, an aspiration).  I am Prometheus, the fool who finds himself waging useless war with the universe.  For my sins, for the mask my self embodies, I must stand chained on a mountaintop while Zeus' eagle eats my liver, eternally.  How did this happen?

I thought my self was a good family man.  So I went out into the world and had a family, only to discover that this requires me to become a political and economical force.  I must sell my self to politicians and bankers to be a good family man.  I hate politicians and bankers, not least because I don't know any of them, and all the ones I know of seem to lack basic human qualities (like honesty, decency, humility, a sense of responsibility larger than their greed for profits or victory).  So I am a terrible family man.

I thought my self was a good Mormon, a good Christian.  So I went out into the world and tried to practice Mormon Christianity.  I read my scriptures (the Bible too) till they fell apart (literally and metaphorically).  I noticed every sin I committed and repented constantly and sincerely -- in private prayer and verbal confession to my priesthood leaders.  I paid tithing on my gross income.  I served a Mormon mission to northern Spain, where I did my very best to share my religion thoughtfully and non-confrontationally with people who had absolutely no use for it.  I attended Brigham Young University, where I tried to learn everything I could about early Christianity, which I was taught would be ontologically the same as modern Mormonism.  It isn't, for the record.  Worse than that, my religious practice eventually became so harmful to my self that I simply could not do it anymore.  I couldn't pretend that confessing sin made it less powerful in my life: my experience is that confession made sin a stronger influence, leading me to find it in almost every moment of every day that I lived.  I was utterly miserable as a good Mormon.  The rational arguments I was given to make me endure this misery without apostatizing did not work (because I put in the legwork to learn what early Christianity looks like, what early Mormonism looks like, and I saw clearly how neither one resembles Mormonism today).  So I let go and became a terrible Mormon.

I thought my self was a good Christian, but my experience investigating early Christianity made me realize that this identity was as weak and unstable as my Mormon one.  I believed -- and still believe -- in what I call human values (justice, decency, reciprocity, honesty, cooperation, etc.).  But historical Christianity adds a lot of extraneous stuff to these values, sometimes obscuring them altogether with expectations that the body of Christ function as a tool in the hand of some inspired leader, or text, or historical tradition.  I could not bring myself to submit unconditionally to leaders, interpreters, tradents (traditores!) -- not even when they called upon authoritative texts and traditions to justify their leadership, so I became a bad Christian.  The body of Christ, it seems to me, is built on war and death.  The eye, the foot, the hand, and other members all make war against each other, invoking the head to justify their quarrels, and the end is that they all come away slashed, burned, cut off, and crucified.  As soon as the church emerges in history, we have orthodox and heretics at one another's throats, and the schism continues today (as in the day of Joseph Smith, who called it "a war of words and tumult of opinions" -- in other times it has manifested as war in deadly earnest, the kind of war in which men, women, and children take up arms and kill one another).

My two cents?  If you meet Christ on the road to Damascus, prepare to be crucified.  Like every Christian, bad or good, I can offer you reasons for this faith: Nolite arbitrari quia venerim mittere pacem in terram; non veni pacem mittere sed gladium.  Omnes enim qui acceperint gladium gladio peribunt.     

I thought myself a good academic, so I went into the university.  Here I discovered yet another impossible conflict.  As a good academic, I am supposed to care passionately what other scholars working in my field think about information and questions deliberately removed from public relevance.  This pedantry manifests as multiple publications in academic venues (journals, or book-publishers expert in producing curios for libraries that no ordinary private citizen could afford to purchase even if he were inclined to read them).  I am also expected to interest modern undergraduates in my field, seducing them into thinking that I am not really the boring pedant I pretend to be with my colleagues.  So I am supposed to have a bucket-load of bulletproof publications under my belt guaranteeing my pedantry, while students give me rave reviews for being such a great comedian in class that they couldn't help but major in the particular brand of pedantry that I represent.

Why the requirement for a double life?  Well, the university needs money.  To raise money, it needs me to look smart (hence the requirement for pedantry), busy (hence the requirement for teaching and other service in addition to pedantry), fun (hence student evaluations), and profitable (hence all the insufferable bloviating about education being job-training, as though people investigated the liberal arts for the same reasons that they read technical manuals or sit through seminars on company policies and procedures).  What is the university doing with money?  Well, it is building bigger, fancier dorms (to attract more and richer undergraduates).  It is building bigger, fancier sports facilities (to attract more and richer undergraduates, who have a real taste for our modern American improvements on old Roman bread and circuses).  It is hiring more -- and more expensive -- bureaucrats to manage all these games.  It is also cranking out more tools like myself -- ignorant pedants so focussed on publishing more and more recondite information that they fail to notice how the whole system of cancerous growth is doomed to collapse, when people don't have the resources to pay $600,000+ per student.  No economy on earth can sustain the levels of consumption we are actively encouraging people (students, faculty, administrators, staff) to enjoy at the modern university.  The whole thing is simply Wall Street writ small in the Ivory Tower, which it turns out is just as vulnerable to human greed and ignorance as every other man-made institution in the history of history.

How am I supposed to ignore this colossal disaster going on all around me in academia?  How am I supposed to ignore colleagues and friends broken on the Wheel of Fortune to which we have hitched our academic apple-cart?  I cannot.  I cannot just burrow down into the library and compose my perfect, perfectly pedantic articles, pretending that I don't see people suffering all around me (students gulled into dead-end careers built on economic castles in the air, adjuncts struggling to survive in a culture that rejects them as useless failures, smirking punks with tenure passing righteous judgment on everyone else, administrators doing their best to make the whole charade appear stable and desirable).  Instead of writing those articles, I appear here emoting about the collapse of civilization and my personal existential angst.  So I am a terrible academic (and probably a terrible educator in general, at least at institutions which measure academic value in terms of perpetuating our current economic system, which I find rotten to the core in academia as on Wall Street).

After failing at so many things, it naturally occurs me to suspect (to my wife's frustration) that I am simply a failure.  My eternal self, the mask that I carry with me from one disaster to the next, is one that inevitably finds its weakness in every corporate environment.  I find my weakness and write it clearly upon my face in blood, sweat, and eventually tears.  As an individual, I have many wonderful friends and great experiences (that have taught me much and given me real cause to be grateful).  I take things well.  I am a good dependent, a good person to owe things to (since I don't demand retribution or restitution when circumstances make it inhumane to do so).  I am a terrible provider, though, a terrible person to be dependent upon (since I let debts go and refuse to fight seriously until my back is really to the wall, where I am no use to the religious, political, and economic mobs whose institutions create human justice in this world).  My tendency is entirely against the spirit of the age that demands growth, recovery, and an imperious hand maintaining the powers that be (in the face of information that indicates their incorrigible insolubility, to me and to others).  My integrity (decency? honesty? virtue?) as an individual human being requires me to commit social, religious, political, and economic suicide.  I hate what my personal integrity entails, for me and my dependents, but I love that integrity, too.  I cannot abandon it.  I have tried.  I spent much time and effort working to overcome my limitations -- the honest ignorance that keeps me from being a good family man, a good Mormon, a good Christian, or a good academic -- but after two decades my conclusion is that this exercise is futile.

This post represents my official surrender on all fronts.  I see my vulnerability in all the battlefields where I stand, where my self exists transient and impermanent. I see that I cannot heal that vulnerability, no matter where I hide myself, no matter what rituals I perform to any gods (who may or may not exist, like my self: questions of ontology don't matter to me anymore, if they ever did).  I see that I have had a good run.  Now I have finished the course.  I have fought the good fight.  I have kept the faith (the only faith I ever really had, which was my individual integrity).  In reliquo reposita est mihi iustitiae corona quam reddet mihi Dominus in illa die iustus iudex, non solum autem mihi sed et his qui diligunt adventum eius.  Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant.  

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