Monday, October 1, 2012

Tim Morton’s Search for Unity of Being

Not that I’ve got any direct knowledge of it. But I infer from his blog posts that Tim Morton is searching for unity of being. I suppose we’re all searching for it, but some of us know that’s what, among other things, we’re doing and some of us don’t. Tim Morton knows.

How do I know that? Because he posts all that Buddhist material on his blog. And that’s interesting. Very. I don’t see similar material from Harman, Bryant, or Bogost. They too may be on the unification prowl, but they don’t blog about it.

You see, the split between Continental and Anglo-American philosophy is nothing compared to the split between philosophical thought and philosophical praxis. Just what IS metaphysical praxis, anyhow? What first comes to mind is politics, theory and practice. And thus the dust-up over OOO and politics: Does it have any? If so, what? Plato had Eleusis, no? So what do our contemporary philosophers have?

But there’s more to philosophy than political philosophy, or, for that matter, ethics. What’s the praxis corresponding to the rest? Is there any? I observe that these days folks have been making a living as life coaches while practical philosophers (practical? philosophy?) have been hanging out their shingles, offering philosophical counseling for a fee.

And then there’s Buddhism, the Eastern religion most attractive to Westerners. I believe it started as a reform movement within Hinduism, as Christianity started as a reform movement within Judaism. It’s got temples and services, like any proper religion. It’s got various bodies of sacred texts and it’s got theologies and philosophies. It’s got this body of various contemplative practices.

And Tim Morton, ecocritic, object-oriented philosopher, and practicing Buddhist, has just been asked to join the Contemplative Studies program at Rice. Contemplative Studies! When did that become a university discipline? Quite recently I’d think. Can’t be many of those around, at least not in the West—I haven’t a clue about the university systems in East and South Asia.

* * * * *

So why am I talking about this?

Well, I started writing about unity of being—whatever that is—in connection with my recent work on the philosophical foundations of literary criticism. In that context I thought of it as being Janus-faced. One face looks toward the immediate experience of reading, the flow; the other looks toward the phenomena represented or evoked in the text, their order and pattern.

These days, and I gather for some time now, Morton looks for patterns encompassing, not only humans in thought and action, but also plants animals rocks seas winds and everything in thought action motion. All the while asserting the meshwork is not, for all that connectedness, holistically connected. Nice work if you can get it, pal, but seriously, all the links in the mesh have their own life projects to attend to and so get weary of attending all those department meetings to work on mission statements and 10-year plans for the future of the mesh.

My gloss on the pattern he sees is that it’s a plurality of beings in which being is of one kind (unity) only: real. Except when it’s fiction, which is real in relation to Being but not necessarily so in relation to rocks and winds, or, for that matter, paper and ink.

Damn! this is so tough!

So that’s the world.

As for the reading, let me offer a text, from Keith Oatley, Such Stuff as Dreams (2011), which reviews and synthesizes a wide range of more or less empirical work on fiction. He's got a chapter on the effects of fiction, and it includes reports of the moral improvement sort, but he also has this bit of information (p. 166):
Stock shows that the tradition that developed with such readers and writers as Augustine, Petrarch, and Montaigne, was of ascetic reading in a way that one would enter a state of calmness with one's book, exclude the outside world, and take in the words, and then a second phase of contemplation and reflection, to incorporate the meaning as parts of oneself. He points out, too, that this account parallels in many ways the practices of meditation in the East, which of course, also aim at self-improvement.
“The meditation practices of the East”—neat, no?

* * * * *

Ever since I can remember reading about such things the line has been that the East went one way, the West another, but the twain have been holding secret meetings ever since. The East dropped meat and went whole hog for meditation and mysticism. There’s a mystic on every street corner and a guru in every village. To be sure, the West had its mystics—e.g. St. Tereasa, St. John of the Cross—but not so much as the mysterious East, home of those inscrutable Orientals.

The secret meetings became more intense in the 19th century. Then Schopenhaur, followed by Nietzsche, spilled the beans about the great cycles. Before you knew it Madam Blavatsky was theosophizing and Rabindranath Tagore had won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Coming out of the closet, are we?

From there it was but a hop skip and a jump to Allen Ginsburg ranting and chanting sutras and jazz into the center of American poetry and then the Beatles discovered LSD, the sitar, and the Maharishi. The Bardo Thodol (Tibetan Book of the Dead) got recast as a trips manual and Alan Watts hung up the lysergic phone once he’d gotten the message.

Let it all hang out!

Richard Tiffany Gere (Tiffany? Tiffany!) is a Buddhist, don’t you know. Courtney Love, George Lucas, Steve Jobs (the late) and Goldie Hawn too. I don’t know about Uma, but her father Robert Thurman was ordained by the Dali Lama and holds an endowed chair in Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia.

So it’s only natural that a fiddle-playing punk rocker from England gets served up an endowed chair in the English Department with a side order of Contemplative Studies. At a university whose name is a homonym for the staple crop of the  East: Rice.

Unity of Being.

If you can’t beat it . . .

And I conceive that the founders of the mysteries had a real meaning and were not mere triflers when they intimated in a figure long ago that he who passes unsanctified and uninitiated into the world below will live in a slough, but that he who arrives there after initiation and purification will dwell with the gods. For "many," as they say in the mysteries, "are the thyrsus bearers, but few are the mystics,"-meaning, as I interpret the words, the true philosophers.
 –Plato, Phaedo

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