Gordian Knots of the Soul

Yeah, another one out of my journal, probably September of '98. How the mind breaks free of knots and tangles, only to find itself soon tied up again in those same old knots. What this has to do with self-deception, willful forgetting, and the self-devouring hang-ups of modern Western thought.

Can you leap backward fast enough to catch a glimpse of the back of your head?

Up after a night of solid sleep. My head is feeling just fine, not a trace of headache or aura: let's knock on wood.

I am in so much better a mood these past few days, and a good deal of it seems due, directly or by domino effect, to an attitude adjustment in accord with Clise's Second Law, "Don't waste effort trying to change the other person, because very likely you can't. Channel that effort instead into changing your own attitude."

It is interesting how you can see that there are bollixes in your outlook-- as I plainly have seen along the way these past few years-- and you take what you think are the steps to unknot those bollixes-- and then, as you proceed further, you find you have maneuvered yourself right back into the same bollixes that held you captive in the first place. Sometimes the cycle of awareness, disentanglement, and unconscious reentanglement runs with a period of months, sometimes with a period of only seconds. This is a phenomenon of which I first became aware back when I was eighteen or nineteen, in the Wodemarch days. It is rather uncanny when you catch yourself in the process of unconsciously reentangling! I remember catching myself doing it, sitting there cogitating in my Wodemarch dorm room, and I remember recognizing what damn well seemed to be the same phenomenon transpiring in others around me, especially in campus radical types. Of course, in systems theoretical terms you can model this process in terms of putting oneself in a double bind. Or cf. R.D. Laing's notion of a willful forgetting, and his account of the time in boyhood when he caught himself redhanded, deliberately forgetting an embarrassing incident.

"First you must forget, and then you must forget the very act of forgetting." Orwell also deals with this in 1984. Without this self-incapacitating capacity, totalitarianism would be impossible. The ability belongs to the "disinformation" part of Watzlawick's triad of "communication, disinformation, confusion"-- which, though I think Watzlawick didn't realize it, is a classic example of a Peircean categorial triad.

But this seems also to be part of what I have been doing these past few months. If I am now in a phase of disentanglement, I can only hope that the momentum continues. But how can I tell? We are never so unaware as when we are self-unaware.

And this whole issue of an autophagous self-unawareness is one with which very few people seem to be acquainted. I have known very few people who have evinced any awareness that human consciousness is a serpent capable of seizing and devouring its own tail...

D. was quite aware of these matters, and aware with a finely attuned sense of finesse, but then D. had been through a lot, and besides, D. is dead.

As for myself, well, as I say, I first became aware of this tangle in the human ball of yarn when I was eighteen or nineteen. And ever since, that awareness has been one more weapon in my arsenal. "Forewarned is forearmed." But, as with a high caliber rifle, there's a hellacious recoil to it, and I still find myself bruised and startled every now and then. Nonetheless, this incapacity, and its correlate capacity of human judgment, constitute the subject matter of chapter six of my dissertation.

What lies at the heart of this smelly tangle, this Gordian knot of the human soul? You'll find excellent thinking on the subject, in theologians from Augustine to Reinhold Niebuhr. The unravelling of such Gordian knots seems not unrelated to the art of the Zen koan.

I wish I could escape my suspicion of these past several years, that a great deal of it has simply to do with something not unlike the logic of Batesonian pragmatic paradox, as that logic works itself out, on the most general level, in the human being as a self-referential and self-interpreting embodied sign. (Yes, I know, there's that very slick exposition of this logic-- in that section of my chapter six which centers around that little diagram-- where I set this all forth in one neat package.) There's gotta be more to it than that-- hasn't there?

Yet these past couple of years, when I have become more and more alive to the complexity and fluidity of all explanations, I have moved in the opposite direction on this point. On this one topic, I have suspected more and more that this one concise and fairly simple point of logic comes close to striking spot on the heart of the matter.

Of course, we know the weaknesses of Bateson's approach, and I've recounted them more than once in this journal over the past year. But more and more I suspect that we are hitting close to the bullseye if we say that this whole bollixy tangle of self-unawareness and deliberately unconscious self-deception has, as a necessary and sufficient condition for its operation, the dynamic interplay between multiple levels of signification, between self-representation and self-interpretation, between self-report and self-command, between level and meta-level. Or rather, the condition is necessary, but not quite sufficient. In order for it to be sufficient, we must add one further condition, namely, an act of the will.

The interplay between level and meta-level is a frequent motif in Eastern thought, as witness the Zen koan. There is a common tendency here for levels as such to be factored out of the equation, and the resultant is a sort of content-free-- substantive-free, predicate-free-- gauge field:

level : meta-level :: 0 : meta-

All that remains is the right-hand term of the proportion: "0 : meta-".

I think this is an error, but in the context of Eastern thought it remains an innocent error. Only when this move comes West-- or is independently worked out in the West-- does it become viciously self-devouring.

Probably the error is present in Western thought in ovum in Descartes' cogito ergo sum. Though even there it could gain little leverage if not for a heritage of theretofore relatively innocent (and probably innocently erroneous) dualisms inherited from Greek thought.

The error, in the West, comes to term in the philosophy of Kant, where the term "0 : meta-" is reproduced in the claim that the only knowledge we have is either analytic, and hence tautologous ("0"); or else it is knowledge of the synthetic a priori structuring of knowledge itself, that is, a knowledge of the pure "meta-". The left-hand term of the proportion ("level is to meta-level") vanishes, like the Cheshire cat, into the unknowable noumenon, leaving behind, at best, the chessy-cat grin of mere phenomena.

And the error, in the West, bears poisonous fruit in all the seamless "heads I win, tails you lose" ideologies which have made the Twentieth Century such an "interesting time" in which to live. The granddaddy of all these airtight, self-sealing ideologies is Marxism. But there are many children, nephews, nieces, and grandchildren: Freudianism, especially the cocktail party variety; scientism and its philosophic offspring, logical positivism; Leftism in its manifold mutations, including the various identity politics... and the list goes on and on. On a bathetic level, we could advert to such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, whose argumentational moves are all too familiar to anyone who has ever had to deal with campus Marxoids.

Learning to be vigilant for signs of such self-bollixes in oneself; learning to monitor the flow of one's thoughts and feelings for the telltale vortices and eddies; learning to root out of oneself such practices, no matter how addictive, and no matter how tempting the momentary advantage they confer in debate... all this is a work of moral self-discipline which can take a lifetime. God knows, I'm more aware of the technical side of such matters than many, and yet on a practical level, the best I can say after 25 years is that I have made some progress, and yet even so I trip and fall every now and then.

There are definite techniques, definite internal "moves" involved. I remember, in my dorm room at Wodemarch, those first times I experienced that inward "click," that vertiginous inward sense of shift and self-removal, almost as if you were leaping backward fast enough to catch a glimpse of the back of your own head. And when you did, oh, what you caught yourself doing! In more recent years, in connection with my "latter turning," there is that inward sense of calm and self-dispersion-- of letting go of what you had felt you couldn't let go of, only with a "roller coaster ride," "leave your stomach behind" sense of self-removal, you can and do. Break on through to the other side. Lurch into perfect poise and calm. Catch yourself red-handed!

I suspect some of what a student in the East learns from his guru amounts to being led and apprenticed in such techniques. Only they can't be altogether reduced to technique, can they? There is definitely there an element of Pascal's esprit de finèsse, which can be learnt by self-discipline and experience, but which is more easily handed down from master to apprentice.

If we are truly now in the midst of an epochal cultural shift-- and I think we are, though the postmodernists flatter themselves if they think they have any real picture of how it's going to turn out-- then any healthy culture that results will be a culture that is relatively free of such self-tangles and bollixes. Argument as cleverly baited invitation to self-deception will be seen for what it is, and the invitation gently but firmly declined. Most people will be, by cultural training, too wise to become entangled in the sort of snarl I've let R. rope me into time and time again.

That's not asking too much, it's only asking for what has been true of most cultures at most places and times.

On the other hand, worse could come to pass. In the Twenty-first Century, we could find ourselves caught in a self-tightening downward spiral in which, more and more, all discourse takes on the air of an angry campus bull session, or of that unhappy afternoon when you let the Jehovah's Witnesses get in the front door... In the past 30 years, we've already gone further down that road than anyone would thitherto have dreamt possible.

What can I do? Right now, all I can do is to free myself, as far as by God's grace I can, of any such self-bollixy strands in myself. And, once I find myself back in the pulpit, do everything I can to lure and exhort others into a similar genuine guilelessness.

All for now. Gotta go wash up. Another of my wondrous problems these past few days: no matter how thoroughly I wash, my asshole smells as if I hadn't. As in, "A shit in time will save nine..."

Which somehow seems strangely resonant with the foregoing discussion.