Thursday, December 29, 2011

On Human Condition, The

I've been neglecting you something terrible, turquoisehexagonalsun. I apologize. As part of my Tel Aviv resolution, I'll make sure to put you near the top of the list. For some updates: December has been a rather interesting month. I haven't done too much outside of Jerusalem. I haven't actually done too much in general besides hanging out with my friends and Sarah. But I've been having a great time. Tuesday night, we went over to our teacher Mo's house for a MexiHannukah Party. We brought tequila. Ayy. Last night, we went out for Chris and Jeremy's last night in Jerusalem (I'll miss them, really). And tonight, I'm leaving for Mitzpe Ramon as our pit stop on our trek to Desert Ashram for a three day galactic rave for New Year's (Sylvester as it's called in Israel).

Anyway, I spent much of December (something akin to 15 or 20 hours) researching and writing a very, very open ended topic for our Genesis Parables class—the one with the crazy teacher. Essentially we were to pick four articles from a collection he gave us, and provide a commentary, along with insight, and how they relate back to our class. Of my final product, he said it was graduate level work, so I figured I'd share it as filler. It's 3000 words, so good luck:

My teacher, Steve, and I, at his house
Four Essays
Noah Zemel

I am here today to present you an argument based on not reason but of a more esoteric nature, one that flourishes within the bounds of the speculative, shying away from the logical. I ask you to leave your intellectual pursuits at the door for a more spiritual one, as I use Frankfort and Co’s The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man to, once more give value to speculative thought.

Let’s begin by discussing the matter at hand: what is speculative thought? The article posits that “speculation—as the etymology of the word shows—is an intuitive, an almost visionary, mode of apprehension” (3). Speculative thought draws it’s origins out of necessity, that in primitive times, speculation was the only answer to natural phenomena, the only way to explain the world and it’s complex processes. “It attempts to unify” (3). Science, today, has taken over this role. This dichotomy has created two types of thought in regards to the external world: one living in conjunction with nature and one distinctly removed from nature. Speculation is to live in tandem with nature, seeing it as not quite an entity, but much more than how it exists today: concrete, understood, an intellectual pursuit. The article explains this by means of assigning the world two pronouns: “it” and “thou.” It—the scientific “it”—is how we view the world today, standing in direct opposition to “us.” Thou—the revered “thou”—describes ancient man’s relationship to the world. While “it” is general, “thou” is unique and carries weight; “thou” deserves respect. Finally, while “it” is an intellectual experience, if that (the article uses the term “intellectual detachment” (6)), “thou” is an emotional one, understood on a much deeper basis than science could possibly present.

Clearly, speculation laid the basic groundwork for religion to be established, originating in the form of myth. Myth, to ancient man, was a truth not scientifically, but through the stories it told. To them, they understood parable better than we could possibly know, for science is rooted deep in our minds as speculation was rooted in theirs. As a speculation of my own, if ancient man were exposed to the kind of rational, ordered thought that exists today, they would be as confused as those trying to comprehend ancient parable. Myth replaced science. The article makes note not to confuse myth with fantasy. “True myth presents its images and its imaginary actors, not with the playfulness of fantasy, but with a compelling authority” (7). At its very heart, myths embody all the collective experiences of the community in a completely individualized manner: everyone had their own personal relationship with the “myth.”

The myth of creation was the ultimate means to explain the world around us. It was the super-theory that answered the most existential question in history: why? And thus religion was born, not out of fable, fantasy, and fiction, but as a parabolic truth. As rationalism overtook speculation as the common way of thought, religion lost much of its true value. Through learning parable, we can come to appreciate the stories as much more than pure fable.

But what does it truly mean to speculate? I’m not sure we’ll ever know. Indeed, it’s a dying art. It’s a romantic pursuit: the freeing of one’s mind of convention notions of thought. Speculation is “knowing without knowing.” Ancient man never paid heed to whether the stories they heard were true or not, they accepted them as the truths that speculation brings. The modern man thinks quite differently, digging, unearthing, and trying to find a historical backbone to make sense of a collection of myths. Speculation, as a tool, can help us find truths in these stories that otherwise seem nonsensical. And through speculation, parable is born.

• • •

Avivah Zornberg provides some interesting ideas on the story of creation in her essay, Reflections on Genesis. Through her text, I’ll try to establish the beauty in unity, and plunge into the root of the human condition.

She begins her musings on Genesis focusing on Rashi’s interpretation of the first verse of the story. “What Rashi claims, in effect, is that the opening sentence tells us nothing about the beginnings” (3). He says that, for thousands of years, Judaism has turned to this verse for the answer to the most basic existential question, only to be presented a rather simple phrase: “in the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Rashi’s claim lies on the basis of the syntax of the verse, that the verse is translated as “in the beginning of God’s creation”, not “in the beginning, God created.” This minute difference makes no mention of how, in effect, God created, but rather that he was already in the process of creating, thus missing the actual act and beginning in media res. Rashi further states that Heaven and Earth were not created first per the syntax, but rather had already existed. So what existed in the primordial state before God created anything? Rashi answers “water, [as it] appears in the second verse with no account of its creation” (4).

The anachronism presented in the first verse of Genesis leads us to evaluate the text with a parabolic eye. If the beginning of the text is out of order, so too much be much of the other material.

Zornberg’s text continues to discuss the events that happened on the second day, or rather, the day after “day one” (which cannot be construed as the first day as the text says ehad, not rishon). Day one represents a moment of “primordial unity” (4), one that the waters of chaos were not discerned from one another and God existed “alone in His world” (5). If day one was unity, the other six were days of separation, havdallah. Everything God then created could be seen a separation from that which already existed rather than an act of materialization. Good was separated from bad, heaven from earth, and water from land. And eventually man was separated from animals, bringing light to the main issue at hand, that man was never created, just distinguished, and his future role in the world is to further and further distinguish himself so as to conquer the world around him, nature, a phrase I will delve into in my next essay. “What man is blessed-commanded to do is not simply to propagate: the process is one […] of transformation” (9). Through transformation, we are presented a challenge. We can grow to conquer, or we can strive towards unity, as is a main concept of Judaism.

In the act of separating, God brought forth a unique paradox, “compromising His Oneness and His Greatness” (5). When He said, “let us make man” (Genesis 1:26), he was asking permission, and with no other beings in existence, he must have been asking that of himself, thus putting him in a position of both supreme ruler and subordinate. Through this idea, we can see that the very root separation, the first binary division, was a division of God within himself. As such, God must be imbued into everything around, as all other separations are a constituent of that original separation.

The text moves on to discuss the nature of the phrase “to be.” It is represented as a “sort of jelling process” (6). In a literal sense, it’s the process of finding shape, of finding form. On a deeper level, when God declares, “let there be a separation” (1:6), he is providing form for two entities that previously existed in unity. Ironically enough, the being of divine unity himself is capable of destroying that unity by creating two units, given relativistic values that define them beyond the point where they could be recognized as a descendant from said unity. Good is given a value because it is, quite simply, “not evil”, and the same value holds true for evil. In a world of pure unity, there is no good, no evil, because there are no distinctions. We, as humans, cannot possibly comprehend pure unity because we live in a world so distant from the idea of it. Everything in our lives revolves around values held relativistic to one another. In other words, we know no constants that exist in a pure form without a counterpart.

And that is the current status of the human condition. We are doomed to live a world where separation plays a pivotal role in our daily lives—it is ingrained in our ethics, our morals, and our egos. While it’s not possible for us to achieve unity (some religious views may say otherwise), it’s important for us not too get too swept up in the idea of giving value by means of comparison, for it will only promote a culture obsessed with having the best, the greatest. Through actively transforming into a better people, willing to embrace that which is separate, can we move if only the slightest bit closer to unity.

• • •

As part of Sigmund Freud’s study on psychoanalysis, he tried to categorize the elusive realm of dreams. He separated the content of dreams into two: manifest-content and latent-content. The manifest is a disguise. Quite simply, it is a cover drawn over our eyes while we rest to entertain our subconscious. Dreams of this level are a manifestation of wish fulfillment and of satiating whatever desires we dwelt on that day, or days before. Latent-content is the symbolism behind the dream. Latency is parabolic, by nature, and deeply confusing. According to Freud, the wish-fulfillment process of dreams cannot be as straightforward as giving us what we desire; there must be a filter—what Freud refers to as a censor. This censor muddies what could otherwise be instant gratification into a vision that must be read as closely as the most allegorical texts—latency.

You entirely disregard the apparent connections between the elements in the manifest dream and collect the ideas that occur to you in connection with each separate element of the dream by free association according to the psychoanalytic rule of procedure. From this material you arrive at the latent dream-thoughts, just as you arrived at the patient's hidden complexes from his associations to his symptoms and memories. (Freud, Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis)

David Mamet begins his analysis of the Noach story by referring to Freud’s philosophy of dreams, referencing both the manifest and the latent dream. In describing the latent dream, he says, “the latent dream […] is the dream we would rather forget, which is too powerful, too upsetting, too unsettling” (59).

The story of Noach is simple enough: God gives humans the command to spread forth and multiply, and as I previously established in the previous essay, to transform and grow. Somewhere along the way, God decided that it would not be in human’s best interest to function as a whole (a logical directive, as it would violate the individuality God created for each human). “Do not band together into large groups, you will do Evil” (60). Humans, being the remarkable listeners we are, did not heed his advice, and banded together to create a monument to our greatness: the Tower of Babel. God, enraged, sent a flood to destroy all humans and bury the Earth beneath the deluge, save for Noach and his venerable ark.

The Story of Noach as a dream might seem to be a bit farfetched, but to ancient man, furnished with a different mode of thought (speculation), dreams had a vastly different meaning. To them, dreams held the same reverence as a creed, and the two were deeply intertwined. Thus, we can examine some of the texts the same way we might go about examining dreams, starting by applying Freudian psychology to the stories.

The manifest content of this dream/story is, as Mamet states, the initial act of banding together, and building structures to rival God. This is the wish-fulfillment aspect. The latent content, the deeper dream, the one we would rather forget, would clearly be the great deluge—the flood. As Freud puts it, often the latent content of dreams “conceals a primal, infantile trauma” (61). Playing the psychoanalyst for God’s dreams is treading on dangerous waters, but, I would have to agree with Mamet in that God’s suppressed desire to kill, provoked by jealously enrooted through idolatry, is manifest through this dream.

Now it would be wrong of us to stop at Freud, one of the most controversial psychologists of the modern era. Let’s look at Carl Jung’s (another esteemed psychoanalyst) approach, one more focused on the deeper meaning of the dream, rather than the suppressed desires that conduct it. Jung, like Freud, divided dream content into two categories: objective and subjective. The objective is the literal, on a basic level, the manifest. An objective dream is straightforward in the sense that it does not really require interpretation. God’s dreams/stories belong to the latter group: the subjective. The subjective is open to interpretation and deeply allegorical. Through the subjective approach, a dream was to be seen as symbolic and analyzed as such.

Symbolism such as the rising waters that buried the tops of the mountains can be seen as an entropic regression wherein separations made in the days of creation are blurred and become one again. Through an act of chaos, unity, at least for the sake of cleansing, can be achieved. Again, a paradox is presented that water, a symbol of purity, can be the end of the world that was. Maybe not what Carl Jung would have reasoned (as he was keen to provide answers, not raise more questions), but following parabolic thought, paradoxes seem such a recurrence throughout Genesis that it would be foolish of us not to acknowledge whatever value they hold.

Ultimately, Mamet ties the story together through his interpretation of the dream not merely as the manifest, the objective, but as a device that we can grow through. “One cannot have what one wants […] is the message of Noach” (62). At the end of his brief analysis, he asserts his take on the human condition, which I focused heavily on in my previous essay. To be human is “to conquer our lower nature”(62). The addition of the words “our lower” provides a drastically different image of our purpose than the previous “to conquer nature.” It stresses, first, that nature is not necessarily a single idea, but rather exists as the summation of natures differently suited to each being of God’s creation. The previous “conquer nature” seems very confrontational in a way that could be unethical. By owning “our” nature, we are not conquering anything, per se, rather finding a balance, creating our own personal unity. And the word “lower” distinguishes between natures. The nature of natures, the higher nature, is one beyond us, one of a different binary division. It is the all-encompassing nature, and to conquer that idealism would be to manipulate and position us in a way so as to rival God, and as the story of Noach shows, that does not bode well with the Divine.

• • •

To conclude my series on parabolic thought, I will use Thomas Caramagno’s review of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse to play off common themes throughout the previous essay, to shed some final light on the nature of emotion and the human condition. Let it first be stated that I personally have never read To The Lighthouse, so in referencing the text, I am referring to Caramango’s review, not the actual book.

The first paragraph yields an interesting idea to jump off of: that of expression. Through writing her book, Woolf “‘expressed some very long felt and deeply felt emotion’ which writing finally laid to rest” (244). Emotion lies at the root of all human condition; it seeps into our dreams manifest as wish-fulfillment, it influences our intuitive senses, finding its way deep, deep into the inner processes of our psyche. It is what we know best (and also the least), for emotion escapes conventional description. The disconnect between words (symbols) and feelings is seen everywhere in life, from petty arguments to advertisements toting a ring to win “her heart.” We live emotion, but to express emotion is something entirely different. It is to have an awareness of “feelings.” Through expression, we can start to mend the disconnection between the verbal and the emotional.

Virginia Woolf’s obsession with her parents subsided after she wrote To the Lighthouse, as if through expressing herself non-verbally, she was able to comprehend a little better the forces at work in her mind. Her story was threaded with metaphor, in both the figurative (the lighthouse representing a beacon), and the narrative (her bipolar shifts translated into “seventeen subjective points of view” (244)).

The issue of dreams resurfaces (I can’t seem to escape it) in Caramango’s essay, in saying, of Mrs. Ramsay as the perfect maternal figure, “[the] idyllic dream cannot be fulfilled” (248). Dreams are the ultimate vessel of expression, for we have no active control over them. Instead, they feed off our emotions, our subconscious. To capture a dream, in all its depth, would be to capture emotion. And emotion, feeling, is the root of the human condition.

• • •

These essays may seem a bit scatterbrained, for they most certainly are. They are not so random, however, to lack any central threads. My purpose in writing these essays has not been to reveal a secret unbeknownst to the world about the human condition; I would not be the right person to do that. To better understand human condition, we must better understand ourselves. I set about to inspire a different kind of thought, one enrooted in the speculative and the parabolic, that might help uncover not necessarily what it means to be human, but what it means to be. I’ll conclude with a quote from Virginia Woolf, “We are sealed vessels afloat upon what it is convenient to call reality; at some moments, the sealing matter cracks; in floods reality.”

Winter '05 - Ra Ra Riot

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

On Shabbat, Bliss

Once a month, Aardvark sponsors a Shabbaton, basically a homestead with a religious family over Shabbat. Thing like this aren't usually my cup of tea, but I was low on cash (after Shpongle) and it seemed like it would do me some good to experience a true Shabbat. Anyways, the place was Moshav Modi'in (Mevo Modi'in), located about 4km north-west of Modi'in, which in turn is directly in between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, strafing the Green Line.

The Moshav was incredibly beautiful and had character other Moshavs lack. There was community art all over walls of houses, gardens full of fruit-bearing trees, and backyards with hammocks. The proper adjective to describe the residents would be, as Wikipedia says, eclectic.

I'll start by describing Shabbat, for the goyim audience. Shabbat is the seventh day of the week; it is the day of rest. Judaism views Shabbat in a completely different dynamic from the rest of the week, and of all Jewish tradition to keep holy, Shabbat is arguably the most important aspect of our faith (arguably does not mean I wish to argue this…I'd get sauced). Kabbalah defines Shabbat as the period of the week where the Shehinah is elevated and rises, with the help of our Mitzvot, to meet the Ohr Ein Soph in a moment of divine unity. The hell…yeah, okay. I'm not about to explain Kabbalah, but in Jewish Mysticism, God / The Divine / The Spirit-wind-of-Elohim has two components, a male, infinite being, called the Ohr Ein Soph (translated: the infinite light) that exists outside of the realm of anything finite. We do not have any direct interaction with the Ohr Ein Soph, and the only way there is any interaction between our realm and his is through a series of "lenses" known as Sephirot, basically the exact same thing as Chakras. Following? The Shehinah is the female counterpart of God and she exists in the finite realm. Judaism is all about unity, and it's our goal to unify the Shehinah with the Ohr Ein Soph by repairing the broken vessels (Klippa) and some other shit. In other words, by doing good deeds, we create an act of divine unity between the female and the male. In other words, cosmic sex. If you managed to follow that, my hat is off to you. So that's Kabbalah's take on Shabbat, it's a day of pure unity.

Aaaaaas such, you are not allowed to do a few things on Shabbat. No carrying, no burning, no extinguishing, no finishing, no writing, no erasing, no cooking, no washing, no sewing, no tearing, no knotting, no untying, no shaping, no plowing, no planting, no reaping, no harvesting, no threshing, no winnowing, no selecting, no sifting, no grinding, no kneading, no combing, no spinning, no dyeing, no chain-stitching, no warping, no weaving, no unraveling, no building, no demolishing, no trapping, no shearing, no slaughtering, no skinning, no tanning, no smoothing, and no marking. No problem.

That in mind, we got to Rabbi Avraham Arieh Trugman's and, like, damn. His place is sweet. He has an awesome yard with a fountain in it, a cave below the yard, and ancient ruins on the hill next to his house. The house itself is beautifully designed, with tons of really trippy Cabalistic paintings basically depicting some of the stuff I described earlier (God having sex with him/her self).

There were eleven of us, if I'm not mistaken. We went to shul Friday night. It was pretty weird. It seemed like half the congregation was tripping face. Dinner was served when we got back. Of course, the food was delicious and endless (definitely NOT why I decided to come…). So we ate, then we slept.

Somewhere in the back of my mind (near where I have my good judgement caged up), I decided to wake up early. Sin alarm clock, I woke up at around 6:30, got up, walked around the Moshav, stopped by the shul, meditated a bit, and read a lot. It was a gorgeous day, not a cloud in the sky and probably 60˚. We had second meal together and then we decided to check out the Ben Shemen Forest (the largest contiguous body of woods in Israel) which just so happens to surround the Moshav. The crew was Ari, Oscar, Hannah, Natalie, Adin, and Ryah. And the forest was pretty cool (by Israel standards, top notch). I'd include pictures, but they're on Oscar's Android and I have no idea how to get them off and I'm way too lazy.

After a profuse amount of gambling with Oscar over ping pong (overall I lost 5 shekel), we called it quits, had third meal, and parted ways. All in all, a very positive first Shabbat experience. And as I lay in my bed on saturday night, a sweeping feeling of contentedness sank in, and I was really quite happy.     

Sunblocks - Ratatat