Tuesday, June 30, 2009

deep truth

Though I do hate him as I do Hell pains, . . .

I must show out a flag and sign of love,

Which is indeed but sign.

-- Othello

If something cannot be used to tell a lie, conversely it cannot be used to tell the truth.

-- Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics


It seems that in the Renaissance they discovered the interior life. We know this because they obsessed over the exterior. They watched the exteriors of others for signs of what might lie within. They adorned their own exteriors with signs of what might not be within.

The inner life becomes obscurely visible when differing from the outer. I acquiesce but inwardly I seethe. You smile but inwardly you weep. I tell you of my sorrow at your loss but inwardly I gloat. You say my funds are safe with you but inwardly you plan their misappropriation. When we think this way of our behavior, we assume that inner is real while outer is false, and this trope becomes the way we symbolize reality and appearance, being and seeming. Elizabethans, displacing their fear of self on a foreign author, called the expert faker “Machiavel,” and made of him a theatrical type, of which Iago is the best-known instance.

“Integrity” is a eulogistic term, implying that a person’s inner and outer life are one and the same – an integer, indivisible. “Duplicity” is a dyslogistic term, implying that a person’s inner and outer life are two quite different things – an antinomy, fractured. The numbers “one” and “two” connote virtue and vice. In usage, there is no bad integrity or good duplicity.

People of duplicity are hard to read, by definition. They are opaque to us. Duplicitous behavior is a screen, a surface to be read against itself. Unless you are a rube just off the farm, you never take it at “face” value – you assume it is a “mask.” You brush off the manifest message and probe for latent ones. You search the ocean not for waves on its surface but for signs of its depth.

People of integrity are easy to read, by definition. They are transparent to us. Integral behavior can be taken at face value – it does not mask its depth. Its latency is manifest. The waves express the depth. This promise can be trusted because there is no hidden purpose to betray. “An honest man's word is as good as his bond.”* How boring! Othello never holds the stage against Iago.

Iago knows well the flags and signs of love. He raises a banner of honesty on his tower of deceit, and lures an honest man into his keep. He knows how to become trusted without being trustworthy. He feigns good faith, corrupting the naïf who trusts him. Like Belzebub in service to the devil, Iago takes duplicity as raison d’être. Destruction of soul and body is his métier. He loves his falsehood: not far behind him lurks Richard III, who is “determinèd to prove a villain.” Such people do exist. Today we call them sociopaths: they’re very talented. But how to find them out? how to know the depths?

The notions of deep truth and shallow falsehood, true face and lying mask, now seem philosophically dubious. Depth is a myth; we know depth only when it comes to surface. Even Freud admitted that the dream presents itself only in a form already written, the “secondary revision.” We know each other, and are known, in comparison of our various surfaces. Do these surfaces add up to an object? As I present myself to client as a chaplain, I must learn the boundaries of that presentation: Hollis/chaplain differs from Hollis/colleague, Hollis/teacher, Hollis/ student, Hollis/writer, Hollis/friend, Hollis/father, Hollis/husband, Hollis/some other role that’s yet to learn, for which there is no name. All these presentations differ: I must not mix them up (though some who know me in several ways will learn of several presentations). Yet all these presentations must, as Ben Franklin said, “hang together” – or else, eventually, they’ll all hang separately. There has to be a way to move from each act to the others, a way that though not always logical is always – after the fact – correct. My integrity is that of a mobile, each item turning in the draft, shifting in relation to the others, shifting all the others by its movement, moved in turn by all the other movements. To the extent that I lack integrity, it will all be coming apart. To the extent that I have integrity, it will all go on . . . in all its shiftiness . . .

How can you trust me? I might be lying. My flag of virtue – my oath, my clerical collar – is no guarantee. Everything that can signify truth has been used for lies. But sooner or later, you have to trust someone. I cannot give a transcendental pledge of honor, only an immanent one. I promise that I’ll keep the show going. I didn’t betray you today. I won’t tomorrow. Day after tomorrow . . . we’ll get there when it comes.

This much is clear. If you ask me to trust you with my money, you’d better not be stealing it. If you’ve based your public life on claims of Christian faithfulness to wife and children, you’d better not fly to Argentina and your mistress. These men are duplicitous. Each of them is two, and there’s no joining the two. Let them hang separately.

*Ray's English Proverbs (1670)

Sunday, June 28, 2009

smart cat

We’ve evolved a neocortex that presents us with an awareness of past and future at the cost of forgetting where we are right now.

-- Salvatore Scibona, “Think Like a Fish,” New York Times (June 28, 2009), “Week in Review”


My cat knows to how to hide if he sees a big dog. But if I say to him, “There may be a big dog here,” he hasn’t got a clue. That’s what language is about – representing to the mind an image of what may or not be true, might be true in the future, or might have been true at the time the image was formed. The image stands separately from the state of affairs that it purports to represent. Kitty’s life is all about states of affairs, and not about freestanding images of possible states of affairs.

For a cat, my cat is very smart. He knows how doorknobs work; God only knows what he would do if he had opposable thumbs. We think he may have learned that the word “supper,” spoken in a certain intonation and with direct eye contact, precedes the gift of scrumptious and medication-soaked wet food. But on the whole he is not a linguist. We are eager to buy the wet food he likes. But he doesn’t sniff it, roll a bit in his mouth and say, “An insouciant and full-bodied formula, with hints of blackberry, pepper, and caramel.” He just eats it. Quickly.

I heard a man interviewed on the radio, an expert in the social behavior of prairie dogs. He spoke at length about their “language:” he meant that they react collectively to threats. If one prairie dog sees an intruder – coyote or hawk or human being – he squeaks in a certain way and all the others react appropriately to the specific danger. He said they can even distinguish between a big coyote and a little one. Because of the suppleness of their signaling system, he called it “language.”

“Ha!” I said to myself. “Caught you, Mr. Expert, in the act of anthropomorphizing! Yes, prairie dogs react specifically to specific threats; and yes, because they are social animals, they react specifically to each other’s reactions to specific threats. But” (and here I raised my forefinger, looking solemnly over my spectacles at the radio), “Can they lie?”

Aha! Mr. Expert had said nothing about untruth-telling among prairie dogs. Not a single incident in which, for instance, Mr. Squeak shouts “Coyote incoming! And a big one!” then watches all his mates dive for cover while he steals their nuts (or whatever it is that prairie dogs gather to eat). Prairie dogs can’t deceive each other. Therefore their signals, though intricate, do not amount to language.

The fundamental human ability is the ability to lie. Only because we are liars does our truth have any value. In order to lie, we must do the thing that separates us from the natural world: we must create and communicate the record of a state affairs, knowing that the record can exist even if the state of affairs does not. Civilization began when, instead of merely reacting to every bear that came over the ridge, we made a plan to protect ourselves if, by chance, a bear should come over the ridge, even though right now no bear was in sight. Civilization took another step when, instead of hoping we would each day run across enough fruits and berries to keep us alive, we made a plan to create and nurture a regular supply of fruits and berries and – mirabile dictu – grains and livestock, even though we weren’t starving at the moment. We can only make such plans at times of peace, when we aren’t being starved to death or eaten by bears. We have to do what cannot be done when we are fighting or fleeing. We have to think of what is not true at the moment. As soon as we know how to do this, we know how to lie. And when we know how to lie, we know that we can be lied to. We know that a person – you, I, he, she – can seem true and be false. In that moment, the notion of good faith is born. We start making big promises to each other.

There’s no going back on this knowledge. An angel with flaming sword protects the gate.

My cat still lives in Eden. He doesn’t lie to me about his food or his good taste, but that’s not a sign of good character. He’s not truthful exactly; he’s just not a linguist. “For God has bless'd him/In the variety of his movements,” wrote the mad poet Christopher Smart, observing by candlelight his companion Jeoffry “wreathing his body/Seven times round with elegant quickness.” We’d like to go back there, “For there is nothing sweeter/Than his peace when at rest.”* But if we went there we wouldn’t be human beings any more. So we keep our little Jeoffrys around, planning and providing them a life much better than nature would give. They remind us of that little town we came from, that we can’t go back to.

*Rejoice in the Lamb

Saturday, June 27, 2009

te absolvo

-- How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?

-- Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

-- Matthew 18:21-22 (NRSV)


Victor was a fashion model: he was young, slim, handsome, eloquent, ironic, British. I thought his green scrubs, mandatory in this lockdown unit, would not be his favorite outfit. He found this comment tearfully hilarious. His marriage was dead. His businesses were “in the crapper.” He had been a high-functioning alcoholic, and now he crashed on toxic doses of vodka. He told of his passion for this woman, his lawyer wife who now was suing him for every penny he didn’t have. And he told his grief at the death of love. He wanted to be with her again, and he wanted again to be the father of his children.

I don’t see this kind of person often, a person in the prime of life, unlikely to die unless by force of his own self-loathing. He was surrounded by therapists, but he asked as well for a chaplain. Not just any chaplain – a Protestant one (and this particular Unitarian, raised in Protestant Christianity, could take that portfolio). He had been a regular Anglican – which is to say, an indifferent one. So what did he want from me?

That’s the question that came up later, as I presented the case to colleagues. I had asked the question (“how can I help you?”), but not insistently enough. My question had lacked teeth.

“Did he want absolution?”

I said to my colleague that, if he wanted absolution, I was in no position to give it.

“Why not?”

I had been quick to say it. I had to think why.

I do not have Catholic authority to bind and loose. My absolvo te would be empty words and so, says the Protestant conscience, would any churchly person’s be.

Victor can’t reconcile with me because he didn’t offend me. Some might say he had offended God; but if so, God ought not to absolve him until he faces up to his wife and kids. Only they can absolve him. And their blessing should mark the completion of a process: a penitent moves from contrition to confession, and then to satisfaction. The satisfaction will have to be intentional, and will take time. Victor will have to name not only the sins but whom they had hurt and how. He will have to discern what can – and cannot – be put right. He’ll have to make amends where possible, knowing that he can’t compel forgiveness. This was not going to happen today. If it ever happens, I’ll never know.

So I can’t say it will be all right. I can’t say te absolvo. I can say, you’ve died, and I feel your grief. I can say, the old life is gone forever, but a new life is possible. I can say, it starts today, and it won’t be easy. I can say, everything changes and nothing is certain, including your damnation. You can’t really leave her: she’s the mother of your children and there’s no door you can slam shut on her. She may never love you again, and if she loves you again, and you her, it will be a new love that has not been born yet. It won’t be the same; it will be something else that you won’t understand until later.

How many times has she forgiven you? How many times ought she to? When does forgiveness become complicity?

And what’s your stake in this? What do you gain by assaulting yourself with booze? Is the ruin of your income a consummation that you obscurely though devoutly wish? Are you putting your businesses in the crapper for revenge? As Dr. Phil would say, “How’s that working for you?”

Are those the lines he had written for me? Maybe he wanted me to read him the riot act, and I was supposed to bring not the mercy but the judgment of God. If he knew my suspicions were right but couldn’t say it, then he didn’t need a friend; he needed a disciplinarian.

I might have probed his pain more deeply, encouraged him to name the sins that dimly he discerned. I was perhaps too charmed by him. I didn’t read him the riot act. He liked my jokes too much. I didn’t play the disciplinarian. He said it was good to “get it off my chest.” But I suspect it’s still there. Still on his chest.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

without mozart

If thou wast not gifted to sing, thou would’st surely die.

-- Walt Whitman, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed”

When a man forgets his song he goes off in search of it.

-- August Wilson, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone


When I was a child, there was a big sexy man on network television, with hair like Elvis and a voice like graveled honey. A hundred musicians sat behind him, poised to follow his slightest gesture. He talked, and his talk was like singing, and what he said was that he hungered and thirsted for Mozart. And Bach, and Beethoven, and Brahms, and Stravinsky, and Hindemith, and Ravel, and Franck, and Wagner, and Villa Lobos, and Gershwin, and Copland, and . . . He would talk until I salivated, and he would say, in effect, “You gotta hear this!” Then he moved his arms, and the musicians made their sounds, and I knew that he had spoken truly. He taught me that, no matter what my unfulfilled desire, I could find a satisfaction for it in his universe of sound. He may have saved my life.

When I was boy in America, conductors of classical music were frizzy-haired Europeans with strange affect, unpronounceable names and impenetrable accents. Such men wore strange clothes, and worked in rooms of weird silence, where those who came to listen forbade themselves the signs of pleasure. How could one tell if there was any pleasure to be had? But this guy, this Lenny, loved popular music, and often quoted from it. He wrote songs that I actually heard on the radio. He talked like a real person, and looked like a grown-up version of the cool kids at my school. He wanted to play Mozart for me because I shouldn’t have to live without Mozart. If a genius can be a regular guy, Leonard Bernstein was the model of it. His life was a violation of classical class categories.

The place – the social location – of beauty in the world is a difficult question. As in the opera house bosoms heave, of prima donna and bourgeous dowager alike, we can lose our appetite for the art. It’s so expensive, and its semiology of presentation so chock with ensigns of status, that a popular pleasure once bravoed by Milanese pipefitters is reduced to snobbery. Art can be a deliberate insult to those selected for exclusion from its presence. The cost of the curtain alone might have fed a thousand families. Then we may ask, in a world where some are brutalized and starving, how dare they sing this song? Why should I pay for it? Why should my society pay for it? Why permit it? They say that Nero fiddled while Rome burned, and they do not say it kindly. The purest of revolutions are the ones that say there shall be no more fiddling till the revolution is complete – and of course it’s not complete yet. And fiddlers are enemies of the people. Or the state. Or God. Taliban and Khmer Rouge agree on this.

But try and stop people from fiddling. Just try. Even a chain-gang has its songs and its steps. Chanties organize the heart-beat and the breath, serving oppressor and oppressed, saving work and life. Even when humble, art is duplicitous, a healer and an overseer.

“Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy,” wrote Frederick Douglass. The enslaved man’s song “represents the sorrows of his heart.”* By giving sorrow an objective form, the singer keeps his heart from breaking, and may live – to work another day. Radicals have sometimes condemned the “Negro spiritual as accommodation to slavery, but that’s seminar-table talk. When you have a boot on your neck, as the liberationist would say, survival is resistance – and if the seminar were really listening, it would know that the song has a double meaning.

God only knows the trouble I’ve seen, except for those who hear my song – they know. But there is a balm in Gilead (a long way from here), and someday, together, we’ll follow the drinking gourd (or is it the Dipper?), and cross the Jordan (or is it the Ohio?) Then, when we’re free, we’ll walk all over God’s heav’n, (down the street and into your store, your school, your profession and your White House).

If you’re not enslaved, of course, you must sing from another clef. You must dream that others shall be free, and to do that you must rise above your situation. The freedom-dream of an enslaved person is particular, but the freedom-dream of a free person is general. A free just person must dream that Alle Menschen werden Brüder – liberation-songs are specific, but justice-songs are universal. And that’s where Lenny comes in.

What sins we heirs of Enlightenment have committed against our legacy! To package the music of Enlightenment like so much bitter medicine, no pain no gain! To devise a critical theory for microcategories of industrial rock ‘n’ roll, and lob our treasures into a dustbin labeled “phallologocentrism.” Lenny knew the music is good for us, but not like bitter pills. The music is good in the way that joy is good. No one should have to live without Mozart.

*Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

Monday, June 8, 2009

objective base

The first great human right to most of the people of the world is the right to eat.

-- Eleanor Roosevelt, “My Day” (May 30, 1960)

I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.

-- Matthew 25:35 (Annotated Scholars' Version)


Liberals don’t know much about hunger – the literal kind of hunger, that is. If we say that we hunger for justice, or for truth and meaning, we speak in abstractions from a seminar table. We learn about the objective base of such tropes vicariously, through the testimony of others, or as data in a sociological table. That’s why we think the Bill of Rights is the answer to everybody’s problem.

Yeshua’s standard is simple and concrete. Because our Unitarian Universalist “purposes and principles” include “justice, equity and compassion,” we may think we’ve got it covered. Surely, we say, somewhere in the owners’ manual of our triple virtue there is a protocol for feeding people, should we encounter the necessity. Just go to Help. Or Tech Support. But soaring over moral terrain in lofty abstraction is no substitute for having, as the military say, our boots on the ground. Does your church have a functioning kitchen? When did you last use it? Who did you invite? Are you ready for the hungry to show up at your door? When that happens it’s meat and potatoes, not catered sushi. It’s cooking and serving, not ordering out. Yeshua is pretty clear about this. You have to be there, and you have to do the work.

Later of course you can go to the planning meeting. After doing your honest best for a few minutes to enact the Divine Domain, you can talk with others about how to do it again and do it better. And then it’s back to the kitchen; there won’t be another discussion group about heaven until you’ve done the things you planned to do, and seen the results. Praxis, reflection, and then more praxis. No dessert until you eat your spinach.

Then you might ask why so much of this work needs to be done. You could agitate for justice; write letters to your public officials; bring out the vote for a favored candidate; give some of your money to a righteous cause. But these behaviors are the rainbows of your fountain – the epiphenomena as Marx might say of your concrete mercy. They are real, and they are good; but they are secondary, fed or starved by deeper sources. To speak of justice without putting food in the hands of the hungry is like singing of love for God while hating one’s neighbors. Our epiphenomenal behavior won’t work. Not if we expect it to relieve us of responsibility.

Here and now we can take better care of the homeless in our city. We can reduce the violence in our neighborhoods. We can lower the percentages of hunger and malnutrition. These are all good things to do, and we should do them. But when it’s done, we’ll still be human beings on the ruthless trek of history, each of us capable of glory but each power bloc about as rotten, sooner or later, as can be gotten away with. We’ve always had the poor with us, and the hungry. To ask that their part be written out of history is to ask for a grand lie, or for the end of history. We’re not at the end of history yet, and every plan to bring it on has so far proved a murderous abstraction. The Divine Domain inhales us in medias res, and not ad terminem. It’s here, right now, if only I can squirm into the right dimension to see it.

Like an immature counselor determined to save all his clients, we forget our power’s provenance. We cannot cancel history, but we can hear historias of those whose history is denied to them. Hear their stories, name their fears, and bless their hopes. Done faithfully, it might add up to traveling part of the way with them, and giving them the power. Such work is done more often in the kitchen than in the sanctuary.

Bless our hearts. We do our best, located where we’re thrown at birth; we’re hard at work with our besetting sins and our besetting virtues, our brilliant ignorance and brilliant knowledge, our callousness and our compassion. We would illuminate the world with this dark lantern, this problematic of our belief. Compassion burns but concepts sputter. We just can’t get the darn thing to light. Because it lights itself.

The liberation theologians would say it’s all too simple for us. If we were really hungry, we wouldn’t be liberals. We’d be something else, and God would love us.