The Cloud of Unknowing,
Microcosm, & Macrocosm

From my journal (on my hard drive), 9/14/97. A glissando from topic to topic. You should pray I never take to keeping one of those online journals!

A typically slow Sunday morning. Slept till quarter past seven, a record of late given my early schedule. Intend to shift into gear later today and carry the dossier far as I can on a day when the post offices are closed.

But I'm going to try not to push myself too hard today. After two disrupted weekends in a row, I have to conserve my energy for these final two weeks on this job-- especially now that M. has appeared on the scene, like the coming of the wicked stepmother. She is truly the co-worker from hell, and it's going to take everything I've got to make it through these last two weeks without letting her get to me. Guess I should just be thankful that she has made her appearance only in these latter days. Had she joined the department back last fall, my financial and emotional recovery of this past year would have been made difficult if not impossible.

Oh well, it's her bad karma! (...I have to keep telling myself.)

That book I got yesterday-- The Cloud of Unknowing-- have been starting to dip in around the edges. The rabid introduction is somewhat regrettable, though the kind of thing I've come to expect in books published these past few years. As with the introduction to the Everyman's Library edition of Boswell's Life of Johnson-- one of my favorite books-- I shall simply ignore the introductory material, and focus on the text.

Which is, from what I've read of it so far, simply a marvel. I remember Jim S. once mentioned to me how much Thomas à Kempis's Imitation of Christ had meant to him down through the years. Now, I must admit that I've had a small, leatheroid-bound copy of the Imitatio Christi by my bedside for the past several years. But I seldom even browse through it, and when I have, I don't feel any strong resonance.

With The Cloud of Unknowing it is quite otherwise. I want to take the time to sit down and make a thorough study of this book-- shouldn't be too hard, as soon I'll be shucking off the shackles that bind me to a time clock-- same sense of resonance I've experienced, these past two years, with Plotinus, Pseudo-Dionysius, and yes, even books on the kabbalah. Odd. In this liminal time, I've been undergoing some kind of spiritual plate-tectonic shift. My "latter turning." Would do well to spelunk on the matter, while I have the time and leisure.

It seems that this shift pulls me even further in the direction of mysticism, of a quid non possum loqui. Not that the mystical, or the mysterium tremendum, has ever-- since my mid-teens-- been foreign to me. Unlike so many people in our culture, I find that the Apollonian and the Dionysian have always both been tremendously strong within me, and have cohabited in a fruitful dynamic tension. Indeed, a large part of my meditation, in recent years, on the split in consciousness which ails modern culture, has centered on how I can be functioning relatively well, where our culture has been dysfunctioning so abominably. This question also underlies part of my interest in existentialist philosophy, in romanticism and the English romantic poets, even (though I was scarce aware of it in my seminary days) in neo-orthodox theology. Here are movements which have coped with the relation between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, significantly better than has the culture in which they arose. How? Why? What can we learn from them?

But there has been within me an ongoing recalibration of the ratio between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. I first became conscious of this in my late twenties, though the process must go back at least to my early twenties-- I think back to the spring of 1979 and my first Golden Slatewood Summer, and how I discerned at that time that my theology was growing beyond the apologetic channels within which, until then, it had largely flowed.

My dissertation is from one perspective a Peircean retake on the Augustinian project of exploring semiotic connections between doxology and anthropology. But, from another angle, it is schematic autobiography-- delving into what makes me tick, what makes me dysfunction, and what I have done to deal with it all. Much as I detest deconstructionism, I must confess that I could with some justice be accused of using logic, in my dissertation, to deconstruct logic-- of using the ontological logic of Peirce's semiotic to limn the limits of logic, and the place of logic vis à vis the alogical (to be more precise: the "prelogical"). It is no accident that-- contemporaneous with the writing of my dissertation-- I was exploring the subterranean caverns of the subconscious, and experiencing volcanic eruptions of the id. I came out of Duke with a much deeper appreciation-- on both pellucid and "thick" levels-- of the relationship between Apollo and Dionysus.

And now, my "latter turning" of these past couple of years-- roughly since January of 1996, or at least that's when I first noticed it. The recalibration continues apace. Time was, when I might have approached The Cloud of Unknowing with intellectual interest, or even with a keen personal fascination. Now I find myself approaching it with something like a gnawing hunger.

Why this shift? Why this progressive deepening of perspective? A future biographer might note that its onset coincides with my descent into a period of shitwork, and might hypothesize that I turned to the depths as a way of coping and surviving. To that, I think there is an element of truth. But looking back over the course of the past year-and-nine-months, I sense more at work than mere cause and effect.

But what?

If I can answer that question, then I think I can put into words at least part of the connection between my "latter turning," and this most recent chapter in my life. This most recent chapter of shitwork. This most recent chapter, which I am now about to abandon-- I hope for good!

What is going on here, anyway?

Well, if I had to make a try at fathoming it, I would probably resort to Peirce's semiotic. Under such an approach, the sign has ontological status-- that is, as one Peirce scholar somewhere has put it, "Under Peirce, semiotics is not just about what it is to be a sign-- semiotics is about what it is to be." Everything is a sign. Each thing that is, stands in nuanced and articulated, irreducibly triadic relationships with its objects and interpretants, and precisely as such, it is constituted in being. Man is an embodied triadic sign. As such, Man stands as a sign of a plenitude of objects, some of them more directly empirically accessible, some of them quite subtle and evanescent. To put it more plainly, Man is an embodied sign of a host of objectively real objects, both on earth and in heaven.

And, as the old Hermetic Stichwort has it, "As in heaven, so on earth." The Peircean sign is driven by its objects-- not necessarily causally, but logically. That is, the object is a final cause, but not necessarily an efficient cause, of the signs which represent it.

Some of the objects which Man the Embodied Sign represents, are objects which are "in heaven"-- that is, more or less, objects of such a high logical order of invariance that they are only marginally, if at all, accessible to the powerful but blunt tools of empirical science. (See The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems-- author? [James J. Gibson]-- for a discussion of orders of invariance-- a notion which, I suspect, is amenable at least in principle to treatment in strict information-theoretic terms à la Claude Shannon.) Science is a battering ram and a cannon. But Man is a fine jeweler's tool-- as Goethe put it, Man is the finest and most sensitive instrument of observation in the universe. As such, Man the Sign recapitulates within himself structures which stand in both iconic and indexical correspondence with structures which are objectively real among objects "in the heavens." Yes, this is the old Renaissance notion of Man the Microcosm, and Creation the Macrocosm. And Man alone, among the creatures we can see and touch, is able to become a self-conscious interpretant of what he represents.

But since Man represents these high-order-invariant objects primarily in an iconic and indexical fashion, his access to them will be largely prerational. That is, Man will become an embodied interpretant of these realities "on high" primarily in a rhematic and dicent fashion. Now, every rheme or dicisign is presented in and through Peircean symbols. But rhematic symbols are dark, murky-- the very glass in which "now we see darkly."

So, if I have recently been going through a season of shitwork, and at the same time undergoing a "latter turning," each of these complexes of events may be seen as a sign of high-order-invariant realities "on high"-- and if these realities have real relationships among themselves, then those relationships may be represented in relationships between the complexes of events which severally represent them "on earth."

To borrow an idiom from Gregory Bateson-- where Jung speaks of synchronicity, I might speak of meta-relationships "as in heaven, so on earth"-- that is to say, a meta-meta-relationship between meta-relationships in heaven, and meta-relationships on earth.

All of which is clear as mud. At least to anyone but myself. God, this is the sort of stuff I ought to be writing, only I've had these past few years neither the time nor the energy. Maybe, in the weeks ahead, I ought to give it a shot. Only, be sure to write it up in terms which could mean something to somebody who doesn't already inhabit the skull of your humble narrator.

And as usual, clotted and tangled language signifies that I am probing myself close to a nerve.