Wednesday, December 30, 2009


Punctuatate at your own risk.
About midday on Christmas Eve, I was out doing the last of my Christmas shopping and feeling relieved that the rather severe traffic had not elicited a meltdown. Traffic is my hot button, and I never know how I'm going to react to it, but I rarely handle it well, particularly when I'm the only one in the car. But whether it was the time of year or having slept in because I'd taken the day off, I was relatively unphased by the somewhat glacial pace of traffic into and out of various parking lots. Anyway, I had left World Market and was on my way to Barnes and Noble when I turned on the radio and heard Karen Armstrong on the Kojo Nnamdi show. She was talking about the evolution, or relative lack thereof, of religion during the axial age, and someone called in to ask her to comment on the difference in the use of language in Western and Eastern religions, and she said that, by and large, the Eastern religions were skeptical about the use of language, believing that the nature of God is ineffable (my favorite word!). She described them as apophatic. I don't remember her exact phrasing, but I was so taken by the word that I grabbed a pen and a receipt and scrawled "apophatic." Yes, I know: writing while driving at 0.0001 mph is a highly dangerous activity, but I didn't want to forget, and my memory is a bit dodgy these days.

Similarly dodgy: my vocabulary. I have felt some measure of shame whenever I haven't known the meaning of a word ever since that 780 I got on the verbal section kept me from getting a perfect score on my GRE. (I was too lazy to retake the test; similarly, I was too lazy to use the results to apply to graduate school. When I finally got around to applying for a master's program, the admissions office only wanted my GMAT scores, which were slightly lower. My failure to pursue a career in academia would be one of the great regrets of my life if it weren't absolutely clear to me that I'm almost preternaturally ill-suited to be an academic, though I suppose I wouldn't mind having tenure, provided I didn't have to work for it. Now I'm wondering what exactly are the great regrets of my life, but I don't think I have any. I would now say that not having any great regrets is my principal regret, but I would be lying. One could argue that my lack of regret is indicative of a weakness of character, but overall I'm happy about it. I suppose that I almost regret not deleting this parenthetical.) Karen Anderson had explained the meaning of "apophatic," but how was I not already familiar with this word?

As it happens, apophatic is not quite a synonym for ineffable, which, one supposes, is why there are two separate words. Apophatic is defined as "of or relating to the belief that God can be known to humans only in terms of what He is not." I have left the capitalization the way I found it in the definition, even though my conception of some Eastern religions is that they would posit neither a singular nor an exclusively masculine god/God, but I don't even know whether Sanskrit has any concept of capitalization. Maybe I should have gone to grad school. I mean a real one, not business school.

All performances of Messiah must stop after part 2.
But maybe not. As it happens, I'm at least as wary of words as your garden variety Buddhist. I don't believe in god per se, and I'm not entirely sure that I even believe in the concept of the divine, though I would certainly like to, but if there's anything I believe utterly, it's that if the divine does exist, you won't reach it through words. Words are always at least two levels of meta from reality. Example: here is the world, over here -- slightly removed -- is how we perceive the world, and way over here is how we describe how we perceive the world. Similarly: here is the (posited) divine; out here are the antechambers of the divine, which we reach by wordless practice; and way over here are the ways that we talk about the idea of deity. Maybe the words help you to get to the antechambers, but they just as often take you farther away, I reckon. I think that's why people chant: if you say the same thing over and over, the words themselves disappear while the rhythm gets you closer to where you want to be.

Or, in a simpler formulation, if the divine exists, it must be infinite and indefinite. Words have definitions and meanings: they limit rather than expand.

But on other levels, that's all a load of bollocks, or at least it only makes sense within a very specific context. Most people's minds expand as their vocabularies increase. And ineffability is a very impractical concept for day-to-day life. I mean, let's just assume that I'm right and that the only paths to enlightenment are non-verbal. Are you going to give up speaking? How exactly could I do that? Is there a meeting? If you show up at Verbalists Anonymous, you'd want the conversation to go something like:
TED: Hi, my name is TED, and I'm a compulsive user of language. I haven't spoken in d'oh!
Group: Hi, TED! D'oh!

But instead you'd just have to stand there looking plaintively at each other, hoping to be understood, surely the most vain hope in all of creation. And sooner or later, your group's time would be up, and the ESOL class that had booked the room after you would be at the door, verbally demanding entry, and all hell would break loose. Also, I'm thinking that if I gave up language, representing clients before the IRS would become even more challenging, and it's already tough enough. It's tempting to think that an agent would come in, sit down, and be so impressed by the obvious sincerity of my countenance that he would merely shake my hand and not assess my client any additional taxes, but the more likely result would be interest and penalties.

Assisted Suicides R Us.
[By the way, and you likely realize this already, if this discussion doesn't make any sense, I'm going to blame its lack of sense on the inherent limitations of language rather than on any specific flaws in my logic. I used to think that certain things that I felt to be true were less likely to be true because I was unable to formulate them in logically compelling language, but nowadays I'm more likely to trust something that I feel to be both true and profound because it can't be formulated into language. (This analysis doesn't apply to more mundane matters, where logic and language are still necessary; I suspect that Karen Armstrong would refer here to mythos and logos, but I don't know for sure because I've only heard fifteen minutes of her on the Kojo Nnamdi show while I was driving about half a mile on Rockville Pike and then into a parking lot; I considered buying one of her books, but it seemed counterproductive given an apophatic philosophy; besides, she's written so many books, and it would appear from some of the reviews I've read that she may be considered something of an intellectual bantamweight.) You can decide for yourself whether my conversion comes from enlightenment or laziness: I tend to think that it's both.]

Practicality isn't the only argument, though: words are like crack. Rather, like what I imagine crack to be like, minus the legal consequences and potentially injurious physical issues. The chagrin that I feel over not knowing the meaning of a word pales in the face of the delight I feel in learning a new word. I love words, they have tremendous power over me, I'm frequently adept at using them, and I take much greater care with them than do most people. (The common lack of care with language is probably a separate issue. The imperfection of verbal communication is certainly amplified because so many people are so inexact (or flat out wrong) in the way they use words, but even if someone knows precisely the definition of every word he uses, he's not going to be understood because words are abstractions and definition is not the same as meaning.) I have a very sharp wit when I want to, but wit is linguistic cleverness, and cleverness is a double-edged sword.1 Wit can create amusement, even euphoria (and God/god knows there's nothing wrong with amusement or euphoria), but ultimately it has no substance: it fails to instruct. It's a lot like the sarcasm that's ubiquitous on the Internet (and elsewhere, and God/god knows I indulge in it): at best it makes me smile but fails to instruct; at worst it's like Red Bull, creating a temporary agitation but leading to a sugar crash, perhaps followed by falling asleep at your desk and waking up to find that you've been drooling. (Full disclosure: I've never actually had a Red Bull; like crack, it's something I'm content to let others experience. I do, however, abuse Diet Pepsi on a regular basis. There's probably a group for that, too, but in all honesty, I am not much of a joiner.)

You know, this is all really difficult to write about, so I'm going to take a moment here to relate that I ended up using the rest of my ornament hooks to hang kumquats from my Christmas tree.

I ended up using the rest of my ornament hooks to hang kumquats from my Christmas tree. They look pretty cool. I also made a bunch of star-shaped cookies, which I intended to decorate and hang from the tree, using ribbons that I was going to affix to the back of the cookies with melted sugar (i.e., caramel), but I was unable to convince YFU that Christmas should properly be celebrated through Twelfth Night, if only so that I could have a hope of having an epiphany. Also, since all of the other tree ornaments are made directly from various types of fruits, I really should have hung cross-sections of star fruit instead of cookies. Ultimately, though, I was too lazy, for reasons that have nothing to do with apophasis2 or ineffability, to do much of anything for Christmas beyond making Christmas dinner (I did make the desserts myself, though). I was up very late on Christmas Eve, and didn't even get the girls' presents wrapped. I was encouraged in my sloth by their not caring about whether their presents were wrapped (they seemed mostly interested in hanging out with me and in mashed potatoes), but I take full responsibility. I'll do better next year, regardless of whether they care. Is that enough of a break? I think so.

Earthquakes prohibited.
Literature, on the whole, is more substantive than wit, and I'm very much in favor of reading (What I did end up buying at Barnes and Noble was a $50 gift card for YFU. She was thrilled. Also, a jigsaw puzzle, which was one of only two items on her list. She was thrilled with that, too.), but I only trust it for entertainment, not instruction. I'm sure that someone has said what I'm saying now with a great deal more eloquence (and God/god knows, brevity), but whatever they said wouldn't speak to me until I had already garnered the knowledge wordlessly. Here again, we have an antechamber situation. Certainly fiction (and maybe even non-fiction, which I always trust much less) can propel you a certain distance towards the ineffable, and that's a good thing, but it won't take you the last steps. More concretely, when I think about whatever the hell it is that I'm discussing right now, the passage that leaps to mind is the alphabet passage from To the Lighthouse (which I have previously quoted), but I first read that passage when I was twenty-three, and, while I found it memorable, it didn't speak to me the way it speaks to me now: it reflected a narrower range of knowledge way back then.

It's not clear -- it's likely unknowable -- to me how enlightenment, which is what we're calling the experienced knowledge of the ineffable for at least the next paragraph or so, happens. When it happens is a little clearer, and I've discussed before at excessive length the various practices that work for me, so I'll only mention in passing that the recent incapacitation of my upstairs shower has removed one of my paths to enlightenment: the plumbing to the downstairs shower provides so much water so quickly that one must exercise immense caution to avoid being knocked over by the spray. Also, it empties the hot water heater very quickly, so a hot shower can't last more than three or four minutes, and nothing throws cold water on enlightenment like cold water. But I expect the re-installation of the shower to be completed tomorrow, which means that shower meditation can resume with the new year. Hooray: it's the only form of meditation that I've ever had much success with.

No whining.  Do you think you're the only person to ever lose an eye in a shot put accident?
I should seek additional paths, though. The horizontal path to enlightenment has always been the most reliable to me, but now that I'm single again, I have begun to experience certain drawbacks to casual sex that I didn't experience when I was partnered. I suspect the yogis would say that I'm not grounded. Or that I'm less frequently grounded: there are certainly times when coupling still evokes the infinite. And when it doesn't, it's still hella fun, and that's reason enough.

I'm not sure what it would take to be grounded again. I hope it doesn't require a stable relationship: that's something that I don't want right now, for one set of reasons, and that I'm not expecting to happen again, for another set of reasons that are not unrelated to the matter at hand. I have come to believe that a successful relationship requires the ability to be, at least on occasion, fully unreserved with the relationship partner. Ideally, this would mean that you could say anything to the other person without fear of giving offense or receiving rejection, and with the certainty of being understood. But who can say anything of real interest with any hope of being truly understood? There is probably something to be said for the mutual striving for understanding, especially when it is illuminated by affection, but it's something of a minefield. I suspect that the best I could hope for is companionable silence, and I seem to attract men who don't know when to shut up. I reckon my best bet would be to fall in love with someone who speaks a different language and who agrees never to learn mine as I agree never to learn his, so that we could only communicate tactilely and through frequent tender gazes, but, well, I think you can work out the practical difficulties of such a plan for yourself.

Anyway, I reckon that one of my goals for the new year should be to find a non-shower-based, meditative path to enlightenment that works for me. I wonder whether there's room for a labyrinth in the back yard.

Also: happy new year to everyone.

Free WiFi.

1Interestingly, if only to me, "clever" (from the Middle English cleven) and "cleave" (from the Middle English cliver) come from entirely different roots, robbing me of the opportunity to make yet another meaningless witticism. Even though a cleaver has only a single edge, "cleave" is, linguistically, a double-edged sword because it has two opposite definitions: it means both to cling to and to split.

2"Apophasis" is not really the noun form of apophatic. Or, rather, it is, but its principal meaning is within the realm of rhetoric: it means to talk about something by pretending not to mention it, as in, "I'm not even going to mention how fucking wordy I've been lately."

1 comment:

  1. Happy new year to you, with or without enlightment...