[NB] The Spirit of Seriousness

“‘But are you writing something serious?’ Note the word.

Fuck. If they couldn’t get us to write serious things, they solved the problem by decreeing that what we were writing was serious. Taking a pop form as “serious” is what you do if it won’t go away. It’s a clever tactic. They welcome you in….Next thing, they get you to submit your S-F writing to them to criticize. ‘Structural criticism’ to edit out the ‘trash elements’—and you wind up with what Ursula writes.”—Philip K. Dick, Exegesis (347)

Do you get the feeling that PKD never really got over Le Guin talking about him “slowly going crazy in Santa Ana, California”? He could accept her calling him sexist, but to be called crazy cut just a little too close to the bone. What Dick is talking about goes well beyond his grudge with Le Guin, though. Dick is talking about what we nowadays call respectability politics.

It looks like this: “We love what you are doing, could you just take out the messy parts? Oh yeah, we’d love to invite you to the party, just put on this suit, don’t look too weird, and, dear lord, don’t make anyone uncomfortable. We love how you speak truth to power. You really just want everyone to have all the opportunities to be just like us, right? It takes work to be just like us, but we’re glad you’re putting in the effort.”

These demands manifest in both objective and subjective forms. For every one person who attempts to enforce respectability on us, there are probably a hundred ways we have already enforced it on ourselves. For the same reason that Dick has such a hard time letting go of Le Guin’s jab, we have a hard time overcoming respectability—there is a voice in our ear whispering the exact same thing to us. Fixating on the person who objectifies that inner voice is one more trap that prevents us from getting at the whispering voice.

“The expectation of punishment is a knowledge about playing. You have been taught to expect it….communist and capitalist (and fascist) societies—and theocracies—teach this. It’s called theodicy.”—Ibid. (347)

It is the whispering voice that transforms suffering into punishment by identifying suffering as being the result of something you have done wrong.

This can be turned into a sort of psychological quietism if the struggle with the inner voice dominates. The real challenge seems to lie in the practical sphere, with staking out a life outside of the blessed circle of respectability and seriousness. I don’t think there is a way to have that life without a lot of work and struggle. I would affirm sobriety against seriousness and respectability.

“You play—and are punished and far too severely….I see in the crucifixion story the message ‘punishment must end’….the last thing we should do is imitate Christ’s passion. It was to liberate us from this that he came.”—Ibid. (347–48)

In this, Dick runs on a parallel track to Rene Girard. Dick takes the message of the crucifixion to be reductio ad absurdum of the logic of sacrificial atonement. If even the perfect person suffers and dies, then suffering cannot be the result of fault. If we do not suffer because we are at fault, then atonement cannot be the proper model for redressing our suffering. If we are not here to atone, then what is it we are here to do?

“In a way, the problem is, we can’t figure out God’s basis of selection. Code ethics did not provide an index. Whim probably isn’t the answer; some plan, purpose or pattern is involved, but we’re too dumb to discern it.

It goes back to my concept of him posing us a problem to solve. Naturally we’re not to develop a ‘solution’ formula—that would defeat the purpose.”—Ibid. (350)

Gnostic escape is one answer to the question, but Dick repeatedly entertains this alternative. The dangers of seriousness become more apparent from this perspective. If we don’t know the pattern, then we would do well not to foreclose any opportunities to glimpse it, even if that means paying attention to the disreputable trash heap.

Dick takes up another term to describe this activity—play (“Let them all play again, in some other way, and let them be happy”)—and joins it to innocence and joy, going so far as to equate “innocence-joy” with “play.”

Play doesn’t presume a plan, it creates a temporary one, projects it outward, and explores the way in which what it accepts into its plan changes the unfolding of the plan. It is the core of improvisation. It also presumes that the space generated by play will dissolve while some the relationships made possible by it will endure.

if play is the ground of our spiritual existence, then purpose forms a relatively minor chord in it. Purposes come and go from within play. It’s easy to say that, but much harder to live it. The reality of play undermines and upends the well-structured world of respectability. The proper horror that attends the faerie worlds belongs to this. Our egoic sense of self-identity is predicated on a sense of purpose.

Perhaps suffering forms an inseparable aspect of our existence? The horror of death is not the spectre of punishment, but the utterly perfect realization of play’s fundamental reality. Even this self that we are right now must come undone like all plans, but also like the objects from the trash heap with which we may play, so too might we return in liberated form as an object in the play of another.

“G: That is the magic of Good Friday, sir.
P: Alas, the greatest day of pain on which everything that blooms, breathes, lives and lives anew should, it seems, but mourn—and weep.
G: You see, it is not so. They are the repentant tears of the sinner that drop today with holy dew upon both field and meadow; thus they all flourish. Now all the creatures rejoice at the Redeemer’s gracious sign, and dedicate their prayer to him. Him upon the cross they cannot see: and so they look upon man redeemed, who feels free of his burden of sin and shame….just as God with heavenly patience took mercy on him [mankind] and suffered for him, so man today with pious grace spares them with gentle tread. For this, all creation then gives thanks—all that blooms and shortly withers—for nature cleansed has gained this day her day of innocence.”—excerpt from Parsifal, PKD’s emphasis and underlining (350)

This account from Parsifal links the sadness of Good Friday backward into the deeper history of the Middle East. It brings the mystery of Christ’s death in line with the weeping for Damuzi/Tammuz/George and highlights that there is an eidetic core common to them.

Why is it that tears spill down? There is something dark that can take shape within play, a violence that can harm or even destroy those with whom we play. When the play comes to a sudden halt, we find the birth of guilt and grief. Only secondarily, as the guilty blame the victim, do we find fault (which may come to encompass the guilty).

The grief, the tears, are a response to what is the fundamental reality of that situation, loss. Whereas fault and punishment attempt to resolve the loss through some measure of correspondences, in grief the loss is made manifest and acknowledged. It also summons them back as ghosts with whom the play may begin again…

All of this makes our relationships the primary element of our spiritual work.

I’m still chewing through this, bear with me. The posts that derive from this one will probably be more important than this one.

3 thoughts on “[NB] The Spirit of Seriousness

  1. hamishbart

    Enforced respectability.
    Talk about Black Iron Prison!

    As you say, the trick is to make the club look exclusive, and then we will enforce ourselves, as well as silently enforcing those around us. I feel this has been the one true trap of my life to date.

    Because if our relationships are the primary element in our magical workings, and they are all tainted with this mutual enforcement model, then our magic is also tainted…….in a very dark way.

  2. Pingback: [NB] Sociability | Disrupt & Repair

  3. Pingback: [NB] Kalunga and the Breath of God, or People Just Float | Disrupt & Repair

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