Posts Tagged ‘Lewis Carroll’

As so often seems to happen with this blog, in the course of writing the previous entry I found myself talking confidently about something I’d previously had no inkling of — in this case, the central role played by the concept of “personhood” in the chaos vision. But now that I hear myself saying it, it makes perfect sense.

At the present moment, personhood is a primary moral touchstone of our culture. It defines our most basic values, and questions about precisely who and what can be considered a person lie at the heart of our most heated debates — from abortion to the hunting of whales to the question of whether corporations have a right to free speech.

This position of moral authority goes back to the 1960’s, when personhood was first used to trump the belief of the failing science vision that it was legitimate to treat human beings as objects. The concept of personhood is much older, however. It is as old as the chaos vision itself and is based directly on that vision’s understanding of inner experience.

Simply stated, if you have an inner life — dreams, imagination, self-awareness — you are a person. Without an inner life, you are at best a zombie. And it is the gray areas which generate the arguments.

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If Alice in Wonderland represents the peak of Lewis Carroll’s powers as a spinner of pure nonsense, then Through the Looking-Glass is something very different — and far stranger.

Carroll himself was well aware of this. When he was called upon in 1886 to write a preface for a facsimile edition of his original handwritten Alice’s Adventures under Ground, he concluded his otherwise conventionally sentimental remarks by quoting the reaction of a little girl whom he had recently asked whether she had read his books:

“‘Oh, yes,’ she replied readily, ‘I’ve read both of them! And I think’ (this more slowly and thoughtfully) ‘I think “Through the Looking-Glass” is more stupid than “Alice’s Adventures.” Don’t you think so?'”

Carroll offered this anecdote as a self-deprecating joke, but if we take the word “stupid” to mean “bizarre,” “baffling,” and “rationally incomprehensible,” the description becomes oddly apt. Through the Looking-Glass really is more stupid than Alice in Wonderland — and also more profound, more philosophical, and more deeply mystical.

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There is a special problem with inner experience visions that does not affect either scientific or social visions, and that is that the more we learn about ourselves and the world, the less able we are to take the stuff of inner experience at face value. So although the facts of inner experience barely alter, our interpretation of those facts becomes more and more circumscribed.

The shamans of prehistory were genuinely convinced that the mysterious beings they encountered in dreams and hallucinations were visitors from the spirit world. The prophets who created the great world-religions two thousand years ago were less willing to take spirit visitors at face value, but they believed implicitly in the possibility of divine revelation. The early modern creators of the reason vision may have had their doubts about revealed truth, but they were certain that the human mind was a microcosm of the Mind of God and human reason a reliable guide to higher knowledge.

But by the 1860’s, belief in the validity of higher knowledge of any sort was dissipating rapidly, as sophisticated modern intellectuals subjected the contents of their own minds to ever-closer scrutiny. The growing inclination of religion to turn to nature for proofs of divine intervention was one consequence of this radical loss of faith in inner experience. It is no coincidence that the word “agnostic” was coined in 1869 by Thomas Henry Huxley to describe a person who has concluded that any higher reality is not only unknown but unknowable.

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In the moment of total flux that was the 1860’s, with reason and science both mutating rapidly as they headed towards conjunction, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was perhaps the single person best suited to assimilate the possibilities and limitations of this new era and then see beyond them to something completely different.

In his day job, Dodgson was a professor of mathematics, with a professional awareness of the developments in mathematical logic that were helping to draw reason into the narrower confines of the reason-and-science partnership. In his free time, he entertained a lively interest in popular science and invention and was an avid amateur photographer, always getting his hands stained with chemicals and emulsions. On that basis alone, he might have seemed like a surefire advocate of the new reason-and-science partnership.

But despite his fondness for gadgetry, Dodgson had no attachment to the reductionist assumptions of scientific materialism. He was to all outward appearances conventionally religious, and the science books in his personal library were mainly of the sort which argued that science and religion weren’t really in conflict, no matter what anybody might say to the contrary.

Arguments of that sort were getting difficult to maintain by the 1860’s, however, largely as a result of the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859). By offering a mechanistic explanation for the adaptations found in living things, Darwin had effectively kicked the skids out from under the 18th century belief that the hand of God could be seen visibly at work in Nature. It was starting to appear that you could believe in science or in religion but not in both, a dilemma that people like Charles Dodgson found extremely painful.

But Dodgson had a secret way out, one that was not available to just anybody. In his private life, he was a covert heretic, a lover of nonsense and fairy tales and the strange whirling assumptions of the not-quite-emergent chaos vision. And even as science rudely thrust aside the assumptions of traditional religion, Dodgson’s alter ego of Lewis Carroll would concoct a unique amalgam of chaos and mysticism that would break through the constraints of both logic and science.

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It was probably just as well for Alice that she didn’t actually see Nobody on the road. If she had, she would have had to kill him.

Linji, the great ninth century master of Chan Buddhism, understood the questionable nature of encountering something that is beyond all attributes. “If you meet the Buddha on the road,” he told his students, “kill him.”

Lao Tsu had expressed a similar sentiment many centuries earlier, in the Tao Te Ching. “The Tao which can be named is not the true Tao,” he wrote. In the same spirit, Linji was warning his students that the Buddha which can be met on the road is not the true Buddha.

But of course, Alice had already learned that lesson during her earlier visit to Wonderland.

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There is a quality in the works of Lewis Carroll which is both extremely mystical and quite hard to pin down. The best term I’ve come up with to describe it is “via negativa” — the “negative way” — and even that phrase has distinct limits.

If you google on “via negativa,” as I’ve just been doing, you wind up with a lot of websites which define it as the aspect of Christian theology that attempts to define God by enumerating everything that God is not.

I have a number of problems with that — specifically the “Christian” part, the “theology” part, the “define” part and the “God” part. For one thing, the via negativa is a lot older than Christianity. For another, it isn’t really compatible with Christianity. It merely got hijacked along the way by a bunch of theologians who didn’t like the idea of having a cadre of undocumented mystics running around loose and thought they could fix the problem by reinterpreting the via negativa as a kind of subset of their own God-studies.

It never really worked, of course. It merely left an enormous back door open in Christianity for mystics, heretics, and assorted ontological guerrillas to wander in and out of as they chose. But that’s their problem. I’m just here to assert that — like Humpty Dumpty — I intend to use the term “via negativa” any damn way I like and ignore the last two millennia of accumulated baggage.

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