Saturday, October 23, 2010

Daniel June: "Deep Reading"


Independence is the best friend; solitude is sweeter than compromise. Thus we read. Religion is for the poor in spirit; philosophy is for the great in spirit: rereading is a great spiritual activity. The casual reader shares vistas of the great literary mansion: the persistent reader steps in and owns. You must read an essay seven times over, taking careful notes, diagramming ideas, mapping arguments, defining terms, to fully internalize the understructure within it. And after months or years: repeat. Thus do we understand an author, thus do we understand ourselves. This is true communion of souls, the melding of minds, life to life, breath to breath, cheek to cheek, heart to heart.
            Reading is a mirror into the private self. A man peers into the book as a looking glass back at himself, deep into the structures behind his eyes. He discovers the true structure of his soul by piercing through his comfortable illusions. Books are strange and they show us that we are too.
            Reading gives insight in a way meditation cannot. With enough study you will approach the secret of your being. That the external book gave you this hint lends you strength to trust the secret over family, religion, and even sanity. This secret, this deepest truth, once realized, becomes a lie when spoken. Brag or gossip about the innermost, and how can you regain it? Swallow it eternally and how can it cease to empower you? How strange that books about the external world and made up fictions alone can shine the innermost! Thus eternity is born from time.
            For immortality is the craft of mortality. Eternity is the child of time. We build our heaven from the brick of experience. “The best men are molded by their faults” wrote Shakespeare. The trifles of life serve us much longer.
            The temporal self must be handled even in dull details. The small habit may be invincible in the way Thor’s challenge goblet was undrinkable. He was challenged by a wizard to drink up a goblet of mead, but did not see through the illusion, that his lips were to the very ocean. What do our little habits stand for? What do they really mean? How is it that we can earn so much money at our job, but can’t stop biting our finger nails? How is it the petty facts of our biography contain deep significance? We must learn how to read them.
            Reading reaches inwards, and balances the daily world with the spiritual world. Any stretch of character requires a stretch in the opposite direction. Be cruel to others and you must have some well-loved exceptions; love God, and hate men; be meticulous at work, let your yard go to pot. A person can also balance himself internally against his external self: telling these sorts of stories about himself to justify thosetypes of actions. The soul is a system which must balance, the person is a complexity which must compensate. Books are necessary friends, whole worlds even, which take us into another reality, and help us solve the deadlocks of this reality. Sometimes extreme images and incredible fantasies alone are large enough to balance the toothbrush in our hand.
            In deadlock, a tension builds, anxiety mounts, pressure and stress grow, till finally a confrontation is required, an event, a violence, necessary to cauterize the deed. A man becomes stupid, careless, inebriated, to let this event happen. He needs to commit the unforgiveable in order to release what once was loved. Some men regret their moment of stupidity, when in fact, that moment was intelligently chosen to overcome the deadlock. A man must read volumes before he can utter that one perfect sentence, which was in nothing he read, being pure transubstantiation. You must study deeply and often to feed the inspiring muse. Perhaps us day laborers don’t breath a word of our hours of private study, and yet our eyes glow. We love something else, though we care not to gossip.
            Books are lovers and masters. We must love and distrust them. Love is a loss of power for the sake of pleasure. The “loss” is called “duty.” Most lost power feels weak and painful, but when chosen for the sake of love, it can feel pleasurable. Reading therefore, which is about truth, is akin to love, when you drop your critical apparatus, and let the ideas use you and make you what they want of you. For this reason, I counter: better to reject the truth than to accept it uncritically. Truth is nobler than love, and though we need both, we must avoid the illusions and deceits of love, and subordinate love to power, beauty to truth. We must serve the minds of genius from the past in order to gain the powers they held, and to create great things by them. Thus we honor our fathers, and thus we best them. Love is as necessary as power in reading and life.
            Love is ingested union, Power, distanced structure. Your reading must do both. Power is the mastered form of fear, and fear is ore useful than love for gaining immortality. Passion is the union of love and fear, love and power, into the combined joy of doing. And so, uncertainty must not daunt us. Uncertainty hurts more than certain loss. Sometimes in uncertainty, we make the worse come true, to free us from apprehensions, as when a man dumps a girl because she is doubting the relationship. Yet why worry about death? Eternity requires neither our consent nor our belief. She loves us anyway. William James demonstrates his professor’s lack of imagination when he makes Eternity into a forced choice, in his essay “The Will To Believe.” He wished to argue that for many people, the option to believe in eternity was agenuine option, being both live (plausible for the person), forced (he had no choice to ignore the question or wait for more evidence), and monumental (the choice would make a big difference in his life). But James could in no way claim that the choice to believe in eternity was forced, unless he already believed that eternitywanted our belief in it, which is a religious idea, made criminally unjust in Christian imagination with the idea of hell. Philosophers, however, have long believed that eternity makes gods and angels of us whether we believe in it or not, as Plato was cheerful to receive whatever death brought, having the clear conscience that life will always be beautiful, even the unknown afterlife. But James was unable to look at eternity, he was only able to gossip about her. Live your life as one who deserves to live forever. Nature is too enamored of beauty to lose it.
            This indirectness of belief, believing through others, so that we don’t have to, praising God instead of knowing him, is beside the point. Believe or don’t believe, praise or don’t praise, none of this will save you or better the world, but only what you do, only what you create, weighs in the eternal scales. And it purifies the soul. The excessive uncertainties and frustrations must be converted to good. Creativity is an emotion, a conversion of frustration into production. The discipline of reading a book deeply, of structuring the broad outline and of intimately reading the most important section, combine to make a frustrated acceptance / betrayal of the author. All the surplus emotions must be plugged in somewhere. God, or drugs, or some other vice are usually used to dispose of excess emotions, but the artist gathers them up and converts them through a passion of creative expression. Thus it is rightly said that artists are both the happiest and most miserable of people.
            But philosophers are the wisest. And each of us becomes the philosopher as he reflects on his own thinking, on his own life. Recursion is the basis of philosophy, and especially, the recursion of language on itself.
            Language speaks in layers, every sentence, every Word – and here “Word” stands for any number of sentences or paragraphs to articulate one thought – every idea communicates many layers of experiences at once. After reading a book, I may remember not even a word of it, and be unable to quote a single sentence therein. But I can speak of author and book intelligently, for I have gained from it. The upper layer of syntax is different from the layers of meanings beneath. Each reading expresses more layers, and upon each return, I myself have become more layered, and more aware of the depths of my layers. Thus I must set even my favorite authors down and let them grow again strange and troubling.
            Familiarity breeds content, so we must problematize a reading. The blasphemers are deepest, the heretical are the pure in heart, for they will take apart the habitual, destroy it with fearful power, and thus free the energy for better use. The poems and philosophy will soon make us into difficult questions.
            To answer difficult questions is like mowing a leafy lawn. Rather than raking, we can mow our lawn in a circle, always pushing the mowed leaves into the center to be mowed again and again until they are mulched up and reduced to fertilizer. Approaching deep questions requires this sort of life-long circle, with death as the entrance in the center. Though we may focus intently for a while on an “eternal question,” we cannot solve it in one go, but must return to it again and again, not only in our studies, but also in our lived actions. The structure of our social relationships, the structure of our work, our home, and our life are metaphorically aligned to all other structures. Merely in the choices of living do we answer abstract and otherwise unrelated philosophical and scientific questions.
            I myself must by necessity reread. I am a slow learner, lacking common sense and social intuition. I must be fully conscious of a thing to comprehend it. Thus I study a book many times, and prefer to discover one section I can read a dozen times, taking careful notes, to forge it into the key for opening the entire work. This is deep reading.
            The deep structure of a book require many rereadings, and continual conscious and subconscious meditation, to intuit the deep structures. We probably won’t be able to verbalize these deep structures, since they are akin to the deep secrets of our own structure. We feel them, we know them, yet we cannot formulate them.
            We don’t fully understand what we say, and we don’t need to. Most meaning is absorbed without conscious awareness. Only the deep and close readings are greedy to make conscious many levels of meanings, and this is justified, for the great minds of history are the true gods.
            Each abstraction must kiss with the lips of the sensual. Every deep idea requires many parallel examples. Thus when we find a deep concept, we must realize it again in our daily lives, turning books into commentary of the true text: our daily biography. We ought to map and diagram the structures of ideas in our books. In this way we can discover what equations the author fused in his mind, whether he knew it or not, the verbal equivalencies that is the real inspiration for all the other things he says.
            As God stands for the I of mind, and Self for the Needs, Great books are the mirrors that orient the mind exactly on the deep needs, point the nothing back into the everything, rooting out the bad habits that get in the way.
            Deep reading and study is akin to prayer and meditation, the religious exercises of the East and West. Prayer is to express your desires morally (since you assume God is listening), to thus make them clear to yourself. The idea of a God is sufficient for prayers to do their function. In the same way, mindfulness, mantras, and yoga meditation are sufficient to bring peace of mind, though Enlightenment, Nirvana, and Brahma are also ideas. Their function is to filter certain habits from the focus. As they are exercises in focus and filtering, they provide just one more habit, despite their claim to clear the mind from all habits.
            With our pragmatic reductivism, we must not ask “what is God?” or “what is Brahma?” as if they were more or less than the results we have in either believing in them or dismissing them. Whatever our relationship to them, there will be benefits. Doubt them and lambast them, we will still profit. This is the nature of all ideas. Look to the practical results of an idea to know its sway.
            Deep reading is a spiritual activity that replaces the need for a direct We –The-Community to implant engines of habits into us. Those things that we uncritically accept because they belong to Us-the-Communists, Us-the-Americans, Us-the-Christians, and are brought in be sheer repetition, positive affirmation, and group bonding, are replaced for us by standing face to face with the greatest minds of history: the geniuses and wild-hearts of the past—a better community. That gives us distinction as scholars: we read and study the best minds of history, in order to become the best minds of history. In this, books orbit us as satellites, mirror us back inwards to that central potential.
            And so we could rightly say that God is nothing more than a rhetorical device. Yes, but God could also be called a preposition phrase: he is a way of looking at the world. As Blake said, he exists and acts only in men. Truth, God, Goodness, Love, when analyzed, mean nothing other than a sense of importance. They cannot be defined because they are not really concepts. They are moods.
            Therefore, the discerning eye discovers that the secret of all faith is in how they trick you to find faith in yourself. God ultimately means “I.”
            The man aiming to cultivate his godhood, the philosopher, in other words, will remember the trite truths:
Be present to your family
Challenge your friends
Make your house Simple
Work your job with relaxed intentness
Scrub pots and sweep floors for a living
Minimize social obligations
Spend most of your time alone
Clean as you go
Own less than you can carry
Work for your bread, and for hardly more
Tax yourself daily
Spend less than you make
Produce more than you will use
            Tax yourself daily. Study always. Work hard. Reflect. Only then will you be rich in wisdom. Avoid sentimentalism. Power begets power, creating begets creating. Make a thing, and you will also make yourself the creator of that thing: you will internalize the habits of how you made it, the tools of its creation become part of your psyche. Creativity is the only action a man can perform to knit a soul for himself, to lay the foundations of his eternity.
            Read destructively. Think often, and be skeptical. Eat ideas, and chew thoroughly. The destruction of an idea frees the energy of that idea. The habit which constrains, which reinforces itself at the expense of other energy, can be busted up, and upon its death repay the system.
            Think often, and develop your technique for mental control. Meditation and mindfulness are aboutfocus and filters. This is as Western as Eastern. We have always focused and filtered, in the passions of our arts.
            All the Western Sciences as well as the Western Logic and Philosophy, the Eastern meditation, social propriety and ritual, are based on human instincts. For instance, the uneducated use an implicit scientific method in their daily life. Thus we all are lay-philosophers, though technical skill requires a decade of intense discipline.
            Meditation is a spontaneous activity of the mind. We already meditate and filter certain habits of mind ever day. It is easy not to judge, for a time. Evaluations are necessary, judgments are automatic. Only by setting up an active habit of filtering them can they be postponed, and so mediation is a habit, not the lack of habit. Know how to possess your mind and heart through careful use. Meditate through reading.
            One writer called it “flow” when ability and challenge are evenly matched and self-consciousness is replaced with activity-consciousness. “Spiritual Enlightenment” is merely another word for proficiency in the habit of meditation. And proficiency is Universal to all cultures. The meditation of engaging our work is known and loved everywhere. A reading is the scholar’s prayer and mediation. Thus we gain insight.
            It takes many many readings to internalize a foreign structure. The deepest books, those rare beauties, not only express the entire culture they are based upon, better than any others, but they get to the basis of that culture, to the basis of cultures in general, and thus feed forth new worlds. A book is more than a book, it is a seed to new worlds.
            Schoenberg’s atonal music created the Nazi concentration camps. Art comes before life, opens life up. Life imitates art, but the world is created first in the mind, then in the hands.
            Great Books are the most precious treasures of earth: nothing can replace them. They program culture. The deep works of poetry and philosophy make the future. To understand a great book is to use the many words as a lever to move that one deep thing, that Archimedean point of world balance.
            More necessary than people are the ideas needed to think about people, about everything. A system is an arrangement of ideas. These are our “assumptions.” A world is an arrangement of people. This is our “world of the senses,” of which the body is the center.
            The body is a lens; our mind is the whole body, we think with the entire thing, and the body is a lens to the world, to sort through its strangeness, to find and create beauty. We read reality as we read a book; the book purifies and isolates the reading activity, so we will return to he world of the senses and read that as well.
            The world is stranger than it seems. Strangeness is the fountain for beauty and ugliness. What is not yet experienced as beautiful or ugly is first experienced as strange, and the deepest books are perpetually strange and shows us how the familiar is as strange as a dream. We must comprehend the world in order to own it.  Ownership is in use.
            It is true that we each live in our own world. Even the external objective world, is far too rich and various to be single. We each focus on different things. And we each choose habits of how we will think of the world, how we will focus on it, what we will do, whom we choose for friends. Fate is in the needs, not in the world. The needs convert life into truth, and truth into fulfillment. Our friends mean more than love; they also stand for ideas.
            As a country and a political group stands for an idea, so the people of that country are the ramifications of the possibilities of that idea. As communist countries attempt a politics of equality, and capitalistic countries attempt a politics of freedom, we must go with the American policy of maximizing freedom at all costs – our country is based on freedom – and in this, deny the rights of groups, but only aggrandize those of individuals.
            The tool for understanding groups is to conceive of them as individuals. Man understands man, every other mirrors myself. I can only internalize of you what my mind can see. We internalize the objects of the world and universe by the same process we read a book: our mind takes the shape of the object we see, and merely by taking that shape, we experience it. Therefore the focus of the mind is Proteus, taking ever new shapes. The mind is both infinite in scope, and limited by need and perspective. We understand reality as a sort of story, and ourselves as its hero.
            We hold ourselves in the immediate mundane with stories of the beginning and end. These stories, the Genesis and Revelation, the origins and the afterlife, may never exist, but they keep our eyes focused on reality. The imagined anchors and orients the scene. Needs blossom to fantasies and fantasies blossom to charged objects of desire, but some of those fantasies stay unconscious as our basic Myth, the interpreter of needs into memory. We tell the most fantastic stories of what we know the least about.
            Death is life’s greatest mystery. The mere need for immortality is proof of it. Why should we care so much for such a ponderous thing? And yet our fantasies of the afterlife orient us in this one, and gross-structure our lives.
            Gross structuring and close reading must balance, and they both require intense study and devotion. This is the religion of the learned.  As with our lives, so with our books: we need the microscope as well as the telescope.
            Every idea is true, this the premise of Allism, only it is not fully true till it is subordinated to the all. Thus we balance gross structure with close reading, and yet, come away and follow our whim when too much labor has weakened our eyes. For most people, reading is a vacation from work and care, the leisure from a life over-worked. For them reading is not a religion, but a divorce from duty. And indeed every duty needs a vacation.
            Heaven and Earth needed divorce, in the Greek myths, to be cut apart so Earth could give birth. Man and wife too need to both come together and come apart. Divorce is part of the nature of marriage, not in the legal sense, but in a metaphorical separating, a fight, a distance. Only by internalizing divorce into the marriage do we escape a final divorce. The specter of divorce haunts every marriage: a structure of a possible and false threat, a possible and false hope. Not until it is realized is it sincere, until then it is merely one more rhetorical device. Learn therefore to both love and hate your chosen books. True lovers do not stay together for love, but because they must.
            Not coulds, woulds, shoulds, but musts, make for greatness. What I must do, that I throw my heart into, and do not worry about choice or free will or anything else. When necessity opens from within me, the entire world is not safe.
            Love is not free, just as power is not free: both use freedom, both use unfreedom. True love is from necessity. A man falls in love with a woman at first sight only after he has fallen in love with her face and nature through countless others. Love is not immediate: it takes much time to be possible. And see now how the apparitions of faces I’ve loved haunt the smiles and eyes of strangers I meet. This woman blushes at the love in my eyes. But it was an immediate glance, I did not intend it, so I blush too. A true love is possible only after many failures and familiarities. An ideal marriage would in fact be the least of marriages. Only struggle brings growth. The genre of marriage implies struggle and growth.
            The perfect creations match genre to expression. It takes a thousand bad books to make a good book. The rich and various failures go into making the success. Perhaps in a century, perhaps in two, an Eternal Book will be made, a living soul, life for life, god for god. The author who success in this way is reincarnated into the book, and lives forever on earth.
            We hold people in our heart when we internalize them, and perhaps some physiological change really happens in the tissue of the heart, as in the brain. That part resonates to the intimate friend, as if it were her own flesh, her inside of me. This internalization of others allows us to know them when they are absent, and love them when we are separate. In each heart is a ring of thrones of those we’ve let dear. Make a throne for some great writer from the past: you will resonate to his words, he will choose you for his disciple, you will commune with his living soul.
            I for one am the breathing spirit of my country, the full spirit of Emerson in my lungs, of Whitman, of William James, and also of Henry James, Melville, Charles Ives, Hawthorne, and Twain. Emerson is a father to me, I read him daily. The only foreign heart I love as dearly is Nietzsche.
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