One of the small formative moments in my philosophical life came in a undergraduate course on Islamic philosophy. It was a one-off course for the department, the fruits of having been lucky to land a temporary lecturer who had a side interest in the topic. We were reading (I think) Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi. In the text he was arguing that one of the proofs of the soul’s separation from the body was that while we could tire of physical action, we never tired of mental action.
To which youthful me immediately called bullshit. I assume, now, that al-Razi was making a subtler argument than I gave him credit for, attending to the fatigue of the body capable of shutting down our mental efforts, but even now I don’t really buy that mental actions don’t tire us. Mental action, even when the body is prime rested and wakeful shape, can wear you down.
Which is to say: I have retained a clear sense that mental actions are physical actions, just operating through channels that are more difficult to see (i.e., the brain). There does seem to be something else going on in the world besides the physical, but I think it is more difficult to separate than al-Razi’s argument.
Mental effort is effort. Which is why Greer’s post today sits well with my own reflections on the series of posts I have been doing on Yeats lately, which in turn cycles out to include my thinking on a lot of academic turns in religious thinking. Mental effort, too, is subject to the law of diminishing returns.
Ever since I stopped being the person who wanted to be an academic and focused on being a person who follows the course of their spirits, I have been reminded of that again and again. It frequently pays off to follow a whispered name (“Ereshkigal”) into the stacks, or grab a book off the shelf at the nudging of a library angel. It frequently pays off to systematize my divinatory work with the operations of my spirits and their sympathies with other phenomena.
There is always a point for me when that stops paying off and, eventually, a point where it will become counter-productive. I was never a recon sort, but I drifted that direction now and again, with the same result. Some initial and useful insights, followed by a longer and progressively less useful period of digging. Nowadays, I can usually feel it in my body when I cross that point. It’s a bit like walking in a dark landscape, extending your foot out in front of you carefully with each step. When I get too far off center, my foot doesn’t come in contact with anything.
Every once in a while, I’ll miss the cues and it feels a bit like those old looney tunes cartoons. I look back and there is the spirit gesturing to look down. Then, whoomph, down I go with the air castle. I’ll make my way back up and start over, treading backward until I’m back on solid ground. It happens less and less often, but it does underline that there is more craft than science to this work.
It can also happens that I get too precise, too fine, too precious. Workable concepts and images get too elaborate, generalizations too distant from what they refer to. At core, they are still perfectly fine, but there are a lot of little bits that break off or snag. That gets shredded and torn until its unrecognizable once it is put into practice, so its not the worst thing ever. Still, it is a time waster. This usually happens on the philosophical side, where I get a little too excited following logical deductions and lose track of the experiences that motivated them in the first place.
(For what it’s worth, the reverse seems to hold equally true. Follow a historical or philosophical idea too far on the basis of spiritual movement and I run into similar problems. As a friend of mine once said in a different context, its good to keep your freak and your geek a little separate.)
I’ve been mindful of this as I wind through the Yeats work. At various points, I have come up to some cliffs and I have worked ideas too finely in places. Overall, though, it all feels fairly stable and ready. There’s something important I’m after in all this and it seems to be there. I suspect more than a few bits will break off or smooth out in use, but that’s good.
On a whim (and many nudges begin as whims), I went back and read William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The Yeatsian spirits (and William Butler himself, to be sure) referenced Blake and Blake is an old friend of mine in these travels. I remember fondly stumbling across a quote from The Marriage in a bathroom stall at the aforementioned university misattributed to Nietzsche (though, again, sympathies). It is right up there with the “Eat God” emblazoned in pencil above the door down into the library stacks for my favorite graffiti.
The rivalry that William Blake stages between heaven and hell snaps into place around the rivalry of faculties, daemons, and humans, that crisscrosses both Jungian and Yeatsian material. There is a rich and developed terrain here, a ferment here that cuts into the stranger dimensions of the early Moravian Church, the development of French Spiritism, the cross-currents of the French and American Revolutions, American Transcendentalism.
Heck, it has something to do, too, with Cao Dai, which keeps crossing my radar around this (speaking of the Ouija Board and French-American cross-currents; also, consider that the planchette was an invention crafted to facilitate spiritualist communication, a bit of technical apparatus. Funny, too, that the invention occurred at a spiritual mass attended by Kardec).
Which also gets us to folks like William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement and to the question of effort and efficacy. Sturdy and attractive, with flourishes, but not byzantine, with lots of parts that snap off too easily. It gets us back to why Buddhism found a ready ear in America; its old timey anti-idolatry was a comfortable fit.
This strain emphasizes work over product. The specific details take care of themselves as long as you keep yourself in practice. You produce in order to recycle back into the work. That emphasis helps defuse the rivalry of heaven and hell, too, and through it I can glimpse the hand of the Mother Sophia, who precedes and produces the rivalries in order to make things happen. Who also destroys in order to keep the process running. Who loves the happening of life.
I don’t think she gets as much love as she deserves, because she gets subsumed into the rivalry. The devil’s and the angel’s camp all have stories about how she serves their ends. But, really? I don’t think so. Figures like Babalon and Tamar seem to be her faces, but behind those? More mysterious yet than the harlotry into which she is often overdetermined. The Marian mysteries, Tlazolteotl, Inanna. Deep stuff, mountains upon whose backs the historical material rises.
There is no straight path that joins them, only the crooked work that encounters them.