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The Disenchantment of the World: Morris Berman

April 17, 2012

In Morris Berman’s book, Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History Of the West, from which this post is excerpted, he reexamines western history from the perspective of the human body. By treating history as an abstract study of ideas and events, he says, we have missed the whole truth of human existence: the human drama is somatic: how individuals and societies have dealt with the ontological dilemma of bodily existence has led to the war, religious conflict and genocide we read about in history books. Ideas take their breath from the body, not the other way around.

At the core of Berman’s thesis is the idea of “the basic fault.” At some point in the development of a human being he or she experiences a fundamental rupture in primal harmony. Different schools of thought emphasize different traumas – birth, discontinuity with the mother, emergence of ego consciousness, etc. – but all of them agree that an abyss” or gap” opens up in the soul between self and other. Author John Fowles calls this emptiness the nemo,” which he describes as an anti-ego, a state of being nobody. Fowles says, All our acts are partly devised to fill or to mark the emptiness we feel at the core. ” As Berman says, on some level we all know about this longing for primary satisfaction; “it is the common soma heritage we all share.”

The Gesture of Balance – Western history from the human body’s perspective by Morris Berman (;col1)

The linchpin of the Western reality system is the split between heaven” and earth,” a split that is nothing more than a projection of the basic fault, and that can only be bridged by an ascent structure, an ecstatic journey capable of traversing transitional space. The religion or philosophy or social system that then gets organized around that vertical journey (or journey) then acts as a Transitional Object that holds the culture together for the next few hundred years. There is another alternative to recycling the ascent structure one more time, and that is to finally abandon it once and for all. This means. at least initially on the individual level, learning to live with the Abyss; recognizing the gap for what it is. Far more important than finding a new paradigm (TO) is coming face to face with the immense yearning that underlies the need for paradigm itself. This means exploring what we fear most, viz., the empty space or silence that exists between concepts and paradigms, never in them. We are indeed in a system-break, and the temptation to stuff the gap is very strong; but the “road less traveled,” which is that of looking at the nature of paradigm itself., is the truly exciting and liberatory path here. There can be no healing of our culture and ourselves without taking this option, and it will not go away, whether we miss it on this “round” or not. Nothing less is at stake than the chance to be finally, fully human, and since that is our destiny, the latest heresy or paradigm-shift is simply not going to cut it…

What does the end of the ascent dynamic really involve? At first glance. it would seem to imply that everything that is meaningful to us would be lost; and indeed, a very good case contrary to what I am advocating can be made. Thus the Jungian analyst H. G. Baynes said that the argument against ascent experience is analogous to the attempt to put out the sun because it gives some people distorted vision, Ecstatic energy, he said, is our “real gold”; we need to learn how to navigate the territory, not to declare that it shouldn’t exist.

For Jacob Needleman, the real Christianity that got lost and buried somewhere in the first century A.D. was not that of Gnostic ascent, but this same type of reflexive ability – what he calls, following Gurdjieff, “self-remembering.” It is, he says, the experience of yourself, not the experience of God. Needleman may be correct, historically speaking (I personally tend to doubt it), but he does quote Meister Eckhart in his defense to good effect: Aware of it or not, people have wanted to have the “great” experiences … and this is nothing but self-will…. There are thousands who have died and gone to heaven who never gave up their own wills.

“One longs … for God, or for Meaning writes Needleman, “and does not see that the longing itself is the beginning of the answer one is seeking.” Ecstasy can bind communities together, he points out but to what end? We have pursued mystical love, he says, whereas what we need is “ontological love.”

This is the crucial point – that true enlightenment is to really know, really feel, your ontological dilemma, your somatic nature. The mystic seeks to go up; the ultimate heresy, to my mind, is to go across, or even down. I recall how, a few years ago, I did a two-week meditation retreat with a former Theravada Buddhist monk, and asked him, in the course of it, where ecstatic experience, or Great Mother consciousness, fit into the whole thing. Oh,” he said with a wave of his hand, “in Buddhism, that is regarded as a very low form of consciousness.” He went on to say that ascent was regarded in his tradition as mara – an obstruction to enlightenment. In the same way, Needleman characterizes ecstasy as a form of bondage. The real goal of a spiritual tradition should not be ascent, but openness, vulnerability, and this does not require great experiences but, on the contrary, very ordinary ones. Charisma is easy, presence, self-remembering, is terribly difficult, and where the real work lies. “The highest art,” goes an old Tibetan saying, “is the art of living an ordinary life in an extraordinary manner.” That this could become the modality of an entire society is an inspiring possibility.

Of course, ascent experience, and what it carries with it, won’t go away by fiat, so in this sense Baynes is right – we shall have to learn to navigate the territory. For at least since the binary worldview of Neolithic civilization, we are wired up in a Self/Other dynamic that pulls us toward transcendence, with afl its brilliant and destructive possibilities. Yet a much deeper life lies beyond that of the ascent structure, which is finally about salvation, or redemption; for the ultimate heresy is not about redemption but, as I said earlier, about the redemption from redemption itself. It is to be able to live in life as it presents itself, not to search for a world beyond. (Politically, of course, this is very often not possible: but it could be argued that our political forms, and messes, are themselves the results of binary thinking and the ascent mentality.)

The shift away from ascent, and toward bodily presence in the world, implies certain things that go with the territory, as it were. The first of these is an end to the binary contrast mode of consciousness and personality structure. This seems inherent, but it is not; it is a Neolithic artifact, a translation of Tame vs. Wild into Self vs. Other and earth vs. heaven. Beneath the dualistic layer of the human psyche is a kaleidoscopic one that I suspect hunter-gatherer cultures possessed and that is very much about finding ecstacy in details. The American anthropologist, Stanley Diamond notes that “primitive” life is characterized by direct engagement with nature and bodily functions. The “sense of reality,” he writes, “is heightened to the point where it sometimes seems to ‘blaze.” ‘ There is no ascent in this “ecstacy”; all of life is sacred, not just “heaven.” The structure is horizontal rather than vertical, and it has a much greater ” feminine” element in it than does our present consciousness. Vertical structures ll have a Grail quest behind them; they are all a form of male heroics. So most of our history has been a kind of unnecessary artifact. Self/Other opposition, binary structure, Transitional Objects, heresy vs. orthodoxy, ecstatic experience vs. “ordinary” life – all of this may be adventitious, in the last analysis, and certainly not part of “human nature.” That meaning for us occurs only by means of conflict, or dialectics, may only reflect a very shallow notion of meaning. This “meaning” is dependent on a mind/body split; without that dichotomous game, most of our history would simply vanish into thin air, since so much of it is about the hero’s journey to heal that gap. But journeys are for the most part undertaken out of restlessness; some sort of lack, or need, is typically present. Things are “not right” here, there is something better to be found somewhere else. Visionquests and ecstatic journeys were perhaps absent from hunter-gatherer societies, or, if present, probably received much less emphasis until the advent of the Neolithic age. Instead, life was its own purpose. Ecstasy is necessary only in a bifurcated world; the hero makes sense only in a religious (binarymythic) context.

This is why New Age “paradigm-shift” finally won’t work; no matter how radically different the content might be (and I am very skeptical on this point anyway), the form, is really identical. Paradigm-shift is still part of the salvation mentality, a patriarchal mind-set that tells the hero to persevere, find a new form of consciousness that will give him redemption. The awareness that this whole structure is an illusion is the heresy Needleman and Eco are talking about, the real heresy we need to embrace.

Horizontal consciousness, as well as reflexivity, also implies a society of tools rather than worldviews, The minute anything – science, feminism, Buddhism, holism, whatever – starts to take on the character of a cosmology, it should be discarded. How things are held in the mind is infinitely more important than what is in the mind, including this statement itself. For there is a big difference between ideas and ideology. An idea is something you have; an ideology, is something that has you. All of these beliefs, techniques, and ideologies are useful; but they are not “true.” What is true is our need to stuff the gap, our longing, our drive to create worldviews out of tools so we can be “safe.” At least, that is true right now. My guess is that there is a deeper truth, one that could be part of a new culture. This deeper truth is that we really don’t need to stuff the gap, etc., so that we can be “safe.” In this new culture we would observe this need for safety,” but would refuse to give in to it. Safety would come from the body, not from this or that system.

I do not mean to imply by all this that future consciousness would consist in permanent suspended animation, or hanging out in transitional space. Given enough somatic (ontological) security, this might be possible; but a complete via negativa is not an answer, and it certainly isn’t very complex. The whole notion of “empty space” has its limits, and some form of coding is always necessary for social and psychological life. The argument for the “paradigm of no paradigm” can only be pushed so far; in recent times, Krishnamurti was the great exponent of this, and he became, in fact, the anti-guru guru. In his book Lying Down, Marco Vassi pegs the prob- lem of this argument very astutely. It is all, says Vassi, negative intelligence. In denouncing all methods and worldviews, Krishnamurti faded to come up with any positive alternative, Year after year, says Vassi, Krishnamurti would chide his aging fans for having made no breakthrough in terms of their attachments, but he categorically refused to discuss how such a breakthrough might be made. In actual fact, Krishnamurti, as a guru, was the last version of the male heroic structure. As Vassi says, “his mission, ironically, may turn out to have been something like that of a Moses for the horizontal paradigm.”

Part of our goal, undoubtedly, is to learn what it means to live without paradigm, but I also sense a much more complex possibility, viz., developing a radical new code that is itself about coding, and is not merely a shift in coding. This is where reflexivity – the awareness of coding as coding, or Gurdjieff’s “self-remembering” on a cultural scale – becomes so important. Christianity, Catharism (and romantic love), science, and even cybernetic holism (nature seen as information exchange) are all heuristically valuable, but they are not “true.” Only our need for truth is true, and the problem arises when any one of these tools, or codes, is mapped onto our entire ontology. Reflexivity is about the breaking away from this vertical, binary pathology, for it does not (necessarily) say, “Have no codes,” but only requires a deliberate awareness of constructing and using a code, and the having of that awareness as part of your code.

Writers such as Gregory Bateson and Henri Atlan are in the vanguard of this, but my favorite remains the late great teller of tales, Jorge Luis Borges. In one short story, Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” he describes a country that chooses a different reality every day (no repeats allowed). One day they are mystics, another, mechanists, another, something else. No one in this country is allowed to publish a book unless they also include in it its counterbook, which is the argument based on opposing premises. Such a life would undoubtedly be a bit too hectic for most of us, but I believe it is a valuable model to contemplate…

Reflexivity, then, or perhaps what amounts to Jacob Needleman’s notion of “ontological love,” opens the door to composition, or what Dorothy Dinnerstein, in her brilliant essay, “The Mermaid and the Minotaur,” refers to as “enterprise.” I think this is similar to what I referred to, early on, as the “cosmological urge,”which should be understood as not having any edge of desperation attached to it. In terms of how we have lived on the planet, at least ninety-five percent of our experience has not been about gap-stuffing and the search for Transitional Objects, and this raises the question of what future alternatives might consist of. The idea here is not to return to some primitive,” hunter-gatherer state, but rather to explore the possibilities of a life grounded in somatic integrity. In his book Life Against Death, Norman Brown raised just this question; but, as Dorothy Dinnerstein notes, Brown fell into the error of regarding all enterprise – the attempt to comprehend the world, or even involve oneself in it – as the attempt of the infant to console itself for the loss of the Primary Unity, or kinesthetic wholeness. All of culture is thus seen as a form of substitute satisfaction. What Dinnerstein argues is that we have to distinguish between enterprise and driven behavior. Enterprise, says Dinnerstein, is actually a healthy thing, a primary satisfaction rather than a secondary one. The problem, she says, lies not in enterprise per se but in the situation in which the kinesthetic is renounced to the point that the visual is needed to fulfill compensatory functions. Brown, Roheim, Balint, Merleau-Ponty, Wallon, and Lacan were guilty of what might be called “universalization” – they zeroed in so completely on this one tendency that they mistakenly turned it into the whole of the human condition, and thereby skewed the meaning of human effort. All of these writers, Dinnerstein essentially says, were correct insofar as they recognized that we ruin enterprise by trying to get it to replace a Primary Unity we originally lost, but incorrect insofar as they argued that this is embedded in the structure of the human psyche (or body) itself and that one cannot relate to the world, and to our loss, in a different way. There is a way of going about enterprise, particularly as it applies to creativity, in which the activity is preceded by wholeness, rather than being a frantic attempt to achieve it. This frantic approach to life, says Dinnerstein, is not inevitable; we really don’t have to spend our lives chasing ecstasy in an effort to shut down the nemo. It is in fact possible to embrace enterprise, the cosmological urge, Attali’s composition,” and the like in terms of a living out of the ebb and flow of union and separation.

How shall we characterize this? A similar approach to the notion of enterprise is present in certain schools of Buddhism. The Pali word jivitindriya, which is sometimes translated as vitality” or “life principle,” is used to stand for the energy that remains in the human being after enlightenment occurs, i.e., after fear, hatred, and delusion are eliminated from the human soul. It is said to arise at the moment of conception and depart at the moment of death, It is a positive force, according to the Pali texts. In a similar vein. American Indians often spoke of a “gesture of balance.” To clutch at Transitional Objects, regardless of what form they may take, is to lose balance, whereas real liberation is about resiliency, not about “truth.” The gesture of balance should be a given; my own experience is that unless one works at it, it only emerges at the oddest moments: a joke someone cracks in a railway compartment, at which everyone smiles simultaneously; a simple look of understanding between yourself and a stranger who stops you and asks for the time; the moment you catch yourself as it were, staring absentmindedly out of the window on a gray Sunday morning, having momentarily forgotten about your coffee and the crossword puzzle you were working on. At such moments, life is neither this nor that; it just is. This is body time, not ego time; the interaction of your Being with reality. What will you remember at the moment of your death? Will it be the moment on the train, or when you interacted with a stranger, or when you looked out of the window on that dull, gray Sunday long ago? What does it mean to be alive right – now?

There is only one hope for our situation, and that is that the gesture of balance once again become a way of life; that Self and Other be seen as interrelat- ed aspects of something larger, rather than as opponents. It is a long shot, because this is a still small voice that seems romantic,” or even weak, whereas what is paraded as strength is really a wall of tension, built on a Self/Other opposition….

A unique opportunity is thus available to us now, perhaps for the first time in our history, and that is to intervene in our own evolution in a creative, and reflexive, way. To come back to John Fowles he may have put this possibility most clearly when he wrote:

The nemo is an evolutionary force, as necessary as the ego. The ego is certainty, what I am; the nemo is potentiality, what I am not. But instead of utilizing the nemo as we would utilize any other force, we allow ourselves to be terrified by it, as primitive man was terrified by lightning. We run screaming from this mysterious shape in the middle of our town, even though the real terror is not in itself, but in our terror at it.

The ability to utilize the basic fault creatively is as much an evolutionary option as our history of using it destructively. We are not condemned to the nemo and a whole array of substitute satisfactions. No matter how likely a scenario this is, it is simply not inevitable. It is not so much a matter of mastering the terror Fowles speaks of as being able, for starters, to observe it in a neutral fashion. This one tiny non)heroic act then opens the door to the world of enterprise, jifvitindtiya, the going out to the world in a spirit of aliveness and curiosity rather than one of need and desperation. And this act is heroic, not in the ascent or vision-quest sense of the word, but in the sense of something at once necessary and private and extremely difficult, because it requires doing the one thing that we seek to avoid at all costs: we are asked finally to put our entire bodies into a situation; to refuse numbness and protection in favor of risk and immediacy. That is the ultimate meaning of human life on this planet, the hidden history which, down through the ages, the human race has struggled with, and the destiny and choice which now, after all these millenia, stares us uncompromisingly in the face.

COPYRIGHT 1989 Point Foundation COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group


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