Sunday, July 31, 2011

to be both in the world and of it

I haven't felt terribly well lately, thinking it was connected somehow to vague feelings of depression I've had about both the state of my employment and the state of society. (why does it seem as if when we are ourselves not doing well we apprehend that much of our neighbors are not doing well either?) it gathered force today like a snowball on a hill and hit me with the force of hot, uncomfortable nausea. my wife is feeling it too--she ascribes it to week-old cheesecake we ate for breakfast--and we have spent the day alternating between lying on the bed and on the couches.

in the throes of such a thing, the only thing really to do is read, and I've been doing that. just in the past 12 hours I've read from intellectual skywriting: literary politics and the nyrb by philip nobile, cosmopolitan crimes: foreign rivals of sherlock holmes collected by hugh greene, god is not 1: the 8 rival religions that run the world--and why their differences matter by stephen prothero, a lengthy review of economic books by anatole kaletsky, glenn hubbard and peter navarro, and robert reich by jeff madrick in the nyrb called "how can the economy recover?", and dozens of pages online (including a new facebook page just started called "your [sic] probably from hudson, ny if...").

but the reading that's got me writing now is from roger shattuck's forbidden knowledge: from prometheus to pornography.

"up through the middle ages, christian theology incorporated and imposed on the faithful a dark suspicion of secular nature. our proper devotion should be to the divine order of grace. st paul and st augustine warn us continually to distrust the original curiosity of adam and eve in a satan-haunted world...well into the 17th century, secular knowledge and natural philosophy represented 'a distraction or seducement' from true spiritual living. 'to study nature meant to repeat the sin of adam.' nevertheless, like a slow-moving glacier, christian theology trundled along within it some unassimilable boulders. in 1336, petrarch, celebrated for his love poetry in italian, climbed mount ventoux in provence just 'to see what so great an elevation had to offer.' he said he almost lost his soul at the summit 'admiring earthly things,' like the view. years later, he wrote an astonishing letter to record the pleasures of that excursion into nature. petrarch came to value the secular world as highly as dante valued the spiritual."

I remember learning in 1 of my earliest american lit courses the puritan appreciation for their being in the world but not of it, of being alive as humans but at the same time remembering that they were destined for a more transcendental existence. (there is a wide streak of this all through unitarianism from the transcendentalists and the utopians, a streak that modern uus have more or less tried to ignore but really should come up with an alternative to instead.) this struck me then as an interesting but failed policy to live by: one can prove one's present existence but can only take on faith any existence beyond that. to hold off enjoyment and appreciation of the now in favor of some potential good that we have no proof we can ever acheive doesn't seem like an efficient way to spend our time.

I remember too a lovely buddhist story someone told me about an early karmapa. this fellow was walking along a path and came across a tiger who gave chase. the karmapa ran until he reached a cliff and crawled out along the limb of a tree that gave way and dropped him flat against the cliff for a minute. below him, the karmapa could see a lion at the bottom of the cliff. as the tree limb gave way he noticed a wild strawberry plant growing in the cleft of the cliff just at the level he was at with a single perfect berry. he plucked it and put it in his mouth, exclaiming, "how delicious!" as the limb gave way and he dropped.

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