Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Leaving for Alderaan

My computer is finally working again! Its humming along, doing computery things and being all computer-like in all of the expected ways. As far as I can tell, anyway.

While waiting for my computer's manufacturer to return this device to me, I've been doing quite a bit of thinking and research, continuing along the lines that I was discussing publicly here on the blog. This has led me to a number of decisions, including: I have decided to leave Islam proper. I no longer feel like I can serve God through Islam, institutionally or ritually understood. Indeed, I have begun to re-question the problematics of serving God within the context of organized religion as a whole; not that it is impossible to do so -- I don't have the wisdom to make such a judgement straight out -- but wondering whether or not organized religion has become, itself, a major breeding ground for egoistic tendencies, and whether or not it is worth the time it takes to root out such tendencies. If this is the case, it would go far in explaining why so many decent religious people have to waste so much time justifying their adherence to a particular religion both to others and themselves, particularly when confronting the horrible things done in the name of every religion on the planet, past and present. (It also explains, in part, the other common reaction: fundamentalism, and the egotistical belief that one's belief systems are absolutely correct.)

Of course, this is not necessarily a new line of thinking for me; indeed, its what led me, first, to the quasi-new age universalist Buddho-Taoist-Catholicism of my high school years, and then to the atheistic positions of my early 20s. I returned to the contexts of organized religion 10 or so years ago when I began to question the ego directly, and thus the individual's ability to rightly guide themselves spiritually without a teacher or at least a community. One of the traps of the ego being, of course, its ability to justify any action to sooth and aggrandize itself, including using spiritual excuses to circumvent its own dethronement. The dethronement of the ego is, I believe, among the primary goals of genuine personal spiritual development.

Hence, the question for me has become: how efficacious are the methods of spiritual development within organized religion in this day and age, given the issues I've listed above? I was quickly finding my prayer life becoming more and more shallow, and my concerns more and more surface and image oriented, as I've tried to deal with being a "Muslim" in our world. In the end I've found that this process was aggrandizing my ego, blocking my development as a human being, and thus my ability to truly serve the Divine in the world. This same process was what led me to leave the Catholic Church as a youth, abandon new age universalism as shallow, as well as led me to reject Atheism as morally irrelevant.

This, of course, does not mean that I am abandoning the teachings of the Prophet, or any of the Prophets. In fact, it was the universalism in the message of Qur'an that led me to convert in the first place. And due to my reading of the Qur'an, I have begun to question whether the complications of organized religion were ever the intention of any revelation. Time and again, we're told, Prophets came to simplify religion, to get people to center on the Divine, to follow what we now call the Golden Rule, to stop mindlessly following the ways of their ancestors, etc. Implicit in all revelations is, I think, this idea that that we're supposed to surrender to God and love everyone; not circle the wagons and argue about who's Prophet is better than who's, and who's revelation is more exact that who's. And, in the end, the Qur'anic principle that all believers of all faiths are "Muslims" and all faiths "Islam", as long as they remember the One and love everyone, forms the core of my beliefs. I have no interest in the divisions between the various sects of "Islam", other than academically, and am much more interested, on a practical level, in healing the breaches in the world than in increasing division through an over-focus on the theological and/or orthopraxic differences. I agree with the Jewish scholar Gershom Scholem that evil is defined as separation -- between humans and God, as well as humans and one another, humans and the natural world, etc. Which means that an evil action is any action with furthers separation.

However, there is a problem in this approach: ego. Going one's own way is, as I noted above, just as problematic, egocentrically speaking, as getting overly involved in the vagaries of organized religion. Without community and/or spiritual leadership to challenge one, I think its very easy to get wrapped up in one's ego and descend into self-worship.

Hence, for me, this all means that, while I can no longer subscribe to a particular organized religious tradition, after several years as a darvish I will finally attempt to follow the recommendation of the former head of my Order, Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh, in leaving the fold of Islam (and attachment to any exoteric organized religious form in general) in my effort to attain to islam. In so doing I will be trying to open my heart and mind to God and to all of the Prophets and peoples of all traditions and cultures, while grounding myself in the practices of the Nimatullahi Order: chivalry, remembrance, meditation, contemplation, and self-examination.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

"Had a slight weapons malfunction, but everything's perfectly alright now. We're fine, we're all fine, here now, thank you. How are you?"

My computer is experiencing some kind of computer thing, where its doing stuff computers do when they stop doing stuff I need them to do.

Which, given my level of computer literacy and technophobia, is actually a pretty good, and fairly diplomatic, description.

The point: it might be a little while until I can really post something new.

In the meantime, enjoy this bit of awesome poetry-ness (Peter O'leary and his theory of Apocalypticism in poetry is going to be a subject of a future post):

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Theological Speculations

So, among many of my Sufi friends its generally considered a waste of time to speculate about God or The Divine or whatever you wish to call It. They seem to prefer to just emphasize the principle of the Unity of Being (wahdat al-wajud) and leave it at that. They consider worrying about the existence or non-existence of God, the nature of God, or any other such questions as a distraction at best and an intellectual impediment to the experience of whatever It is at worst. Or in the immortal words of a friend of mine who's a Sufi Shaykh, when asked about God by a perspective darvish: with a dismissive shrug and a smile, "What the fuck is 'God' anyway?"

However, I can not help myself. Maybe its because I spent many years as an ardent atheist, or maybe its because of my ongoing interests in philosophy (particularly mystical and ethical philosophy, and their intersections), but I just can't seem to quit thinking about these kinds of questions. And while I accept the criticisms of my Sufi siblings, and understand that such speculation can lead to indulging my nafs as well as increasing my confusion, I also feel like its important given the current and ongoing discussions about the roles of belief, disbelief, secularism, etc. in our cultures, and in the emerging globalized culture.

With all of that in mind, I wish to offer a philosophical description of how I ended up with my current ideas on God: way back when I was an atheist, and in college as a philosophy major (so, 10 or so years ago), I was reading some book for class and came upon a maxim, something to the effect of "Anything you say about God is wrong." Though I had certainly heard phrases like this before, I'd never really thought about it. Eventually, my thinking naturally led to this realization: if everything you say about God is wrong, then saying "God exists" is wrong; similarly, saying "God does not exist" is wrong. Continuing, in the nature of the Buddhist Four-fold negation, I then came to: saying "God both exists and doesn't exist" is wrong, as is saying "God doesn't both exist and not-exist". Instead of rejecting this as illogical, I just asked "okay, how could all of these statements be 'true', even if only contingently?"

What I arrived at was this: God, meaningfully called, would of necessity wholly transcend while being imminent within any such dialogical notions as "existence" and "non-existence", "conscious" or "unconscious", "personal" or "impersonal", etc. This, of course, is reliant on the definition of God as of necessity being absolute and infinite, which sets up the pairs
"being" / "non-being", "absolute" / "non-absolute", "infinite" / "finite", etc., while reliant on notions of "transcendence" / "non-transcendence", "imminence" / "non-imminence", etc. Altogether, this shows God as consistently retreating from any possibly conceptual category, leading our thinking about God into something somewhat like what Douglas Hofstadter has called a "strange loop". God, as such, then can not be objectified / de-objectified, conceptualized / de-conceptualized, or identified / unidentified.

Altogether, what this means that if you ask the question "Does God exist?" then any answer, in the affirmative or the negative, or even an agnostic shrug, are all contingently true and contingently false, but can not touch upon any absolute truth.

This, of course, is nothing new. Hegel tried (and, in my mind, more-or-less failed) to present a logic to this idea, its been speculated on at length in the negative theologies of Christianity (e.g. Meister Eckhart, St. John of the Cross, etc.) and Buddhism (e.g. Nagarjuna's "sunyata", the emptiness that is empty of emptiness), and is rooted in scriptural text such as the Qur'an's wa lam yakun lahu kufuwan ahad (112:4, "and there is nothing that could be compared with Him" in Muhammad Asad's translation) or the Taoteching's
dao ke dao fei chang dao (Chapter 1, "Tao can be talked about, but not the Eternal Tao" in John C.H. Wu's translation). Finally, of course, it is the philosophical explanation of the principle of Unity of Being, particularly as expounded in various ways by Ibn Arabi, Suhrawardi, and Mulla Sadra*.

However, it was new for me. I arrived at these conclusions through my own speculations, assuming that they were only really discussed in Eastern traditions like Buddhism and Taoism, which, in my total misunderstanding of them, I'd identified as "atheist". To find it rooted and explored in the whole of the Christian (let alone the Jewish and the Islamic) tradition, was a shock. So, the question is: why isn't this incredibly open and inclusive idea explored and discussed more, especially when discussions about God, religion, atheism, etc. are not only prevalent but explosive?


*Another aspect of Unity of Being, as explained by these philosophers (among others), is rooted in the radical Oneness of God, wherein the dichotomy of Unity and multiplicity (e.g. Creator and creation, or again, Infinite and finite, etc.) is collapsed into God in the same manner as all of the other pairs under discussion. This is explained in multiple passages in the Qur'an, such as: walillahi almashriqu waalmaghribu faaynama tuwalloo fathamma wajhu allahi inna allaha wasiaaun aaaleemun (2:115, "And God’s is the east and the west: and wherever you turn, there is God’s countenance. Behold, God is infinite, all-knowing" in Muhammad Asad's translation) and inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji'un (2:156, "Verily, unto God do we belong and, verily, unto Him we shall return", ibid.). You can also find it in places like this humorous bit from the Zhaungzi (Chapter 22, in the Nina Corea translation):
Dong Guo Zi asked of Zhuangzi: "Where is this thing we call Dao?"
Zhuangzi said: "There's no place it isn't."
Dong Guo Zi said: "I hope you can tell me more than that."
Zhuangzi said: "It exists in crickets and ants."
"How could it be in anything as low as that?"
"It exists in common weeds."
"Could it exist any lower than that?"
"It exists in tiles and bricks."
"It couldn't exist any lower than that?"
"It exists in shit and piss."
When Dong Guo Zi didn't respond, Zhuangzi said: "Your questions didn't really touch on the substance of the matter. When Inspector Huo asked the superintendent of the market why he stepped on the fattened pigs, he told him that the further down his foot went the more he found out about the pig. If you keep pondering about where it can't possibly be, you'll never be rid of looking for more things where it can't be. Perfect Dao seems to be right, and so do expansive words. 'Entirely', 'everywhere' and 'all' are three different words for the same reality. They point out the unity of all things. [...] Things in relation to one another are joined without boundaries, but things do have certain boundaries, so it's said that things are restricted by those boundaries. There are no boundaries that can restrict and boundaries are non-restrictive. There are terms like 'fullness and emptiness' and 'submission and aggression.' What becomes full or empty is neither full nor empty. What becomes submissive or aggressive is neither submissive nor aggressive. What becomes introverted or extroverted is neither introverted nor extroverted. What becomes accumulated or scattered is neither accumulated nor scattered."

Saturday, June 18, 2011

"After the excitement in the authenticity of masterpieces..."

So here's a thing: Robert Duncan was a genius. There's no two ways about it, and anywhere the crow flies it'll come back and affirm this truth.

However, the problem is this: like all geniuses, his work is often uneven. On the one hand you have the brilliance of a poem like this:

Just Seeing

takes over everywhere before names
this taking over of sand hillock and slope
as naming takes over as seeing takes over
this green spreading upreaching thick
fingers from their green light branching
into deep rose, into ruddy profusions

takes over from the grey ash dead colonies
lovely the debris the profusion the waste
here — over there too — the flowering begins
the sea pink-before-scarlet openings
when the sun comes thru cloud cover
there will be bees, the mass will be busy
coming to fruit — but lovely this grey
light — the deeper grey of the old colonies
burnd by the sun — the living thick
members taking over thriving

where a secret water runs
they spread out to ripen

Unfortunately, on the other, there is complete tripe like this:

Let my verse be high and dry until
your mind flows in its own waters.
Let my rimes flow then into a rivering
until the feeling fires I mean

the whole to shine! It is a song of praise
in which the wound into its river runs
and winding shines from time to time,
dark and daylight glimmering

with hints of an ever happening rime.
It is a painting of the ephemeral
where what we took to be water glares
and in the heart of a solar mirror flares.

And yes, I know: its really, really well written. But its still a terrible poem: all cliche and silliness. It reads like some terrible hunk of horror foisted on us by the likes of Robert Frost or Sylvia Plath.

But I forgive Duncan these kinds of foibles (unlike Frost and Plath, who are both on The List... which will be discussed another time), because I appreciate the fact that he was a poet dedicated to experiment; dedicated to restlessly playing with words and rhythms, exploring the possibilities of form and content.

So, with all of this in mind, I was psyched, yes psyched, when the University of California Press finally released Duncan's The HD Book earlier this year. Never mind that its $50 (a price that has Duncan, a lifelong anti-capitalist anarchist, rolling and spitting in his grave, for true), and never mind all the Academic Hogwash that has surrounded the book and its legend for decades, I was just excited to finally read the thing...

And, well, huh.

The blessing and curse of this book is that I'm not even sure where to start talking about it. It has been compared to both Walter Benjamin's The Arcades Project and Louis Zukofsky's Bottom: On Shakespeare, which I get. But, in truth, it supersedes both of these books in terms of innovative structure and in terms of successfully conveying the plethora of themes and possibilities embedded in the potential of such genre-busting, expectation overhauling badassary.

I'm more inclined to compare it to the ongoing work of Susan Howe, particularly the Howe of The Birth Mark and The Midnight. In all of her work, but in both of these texts in particular, Howe manages to defy the genre expectations of poetry and prose-criticism to create open field texts that expand the possibilities of meaning implied by words-in-themselves and the spirit that underlies them. In much the same way, Duncan, in The HD Book, is able, through his examination of the poems and prose of HD and how her work relates to his own working-poetics, to ground out the restrictions of language by exploding meaning and opening the potential of words toward both infinitely transcendent and imminent expansion.

Contra this, both Benjamin and Zukofsky get bogged down in labyrinths of language (a la Derrida), trapped in their structures, trapped in their assumptions. I think this is due to the similar sets of presuppositions each of them carried: both were girted with a Marxist-Leninist conception of materialism, with perhaps some Spinoza and/or pantheistic readings of Jewish mysticism thrown in for good measure, that locked them out of the openings they were looking for.

Duncan and Howe, on the other hand, are both more "spiritual", for lack of a better word, in their outlooks, allowing the possibilities of infinity, and hence the possibilities of transcendence-through-imminence / imminence-through-transcendence. Howe, from "Silence Wager Stories" (from The Nonconformist's Memorial):


Battered out of Isaiah

Prophets stand gazing

Formed from earth

In sure and certain

What can be thought

Who go down to hell alive

is the theme of this work

I walk its broad shield

Every sign by itself

havoc brood from afar

Letting the slip out

Glorious in faithfulness

Reason never thought saw


You already have brine

Reason swept all away

Disciples are fishermen

Go to them for direction

Gospel of law Gospel of shadow

in the vale of behavior

who is the transgressor

Far thought for thought

nearer one to the other

I know and do not know

Non attachment dwell on nothing

Peace be in this house

Only his name and truth

Duncan, from The HD Book:

The drama of our time is the coming of all men into one fate, "the dream of everyone, everywhere." The fate or dream is the fate of more than mankind. Our secret Adam is written in the script of the primal cell. We have gone beyond the reality of the incomparable nation or race, the incomparable Jehovah in the archetype of Man, the incomparable Book or Vision, the incomparable species, in which identity might find its place and defend its boundaries against an alien kind. All things have come now into their comparisons. But these comparisons are the correspondences that haunted Paracelsus, who saw also that the key to man's nature was hidden in the design of the larger Nature. We are a variation among variations in the music of a natural intent in which evil as well as our good plays its part, becomes a term of the good of the totality in process.

It is through this simple, but profound, foundation in their approach to the work of poetry that they are, I believe, better able to articulate not only visions of liberation that would make Benjamin and Zukofsky jealous, but also connect that liberation into the very structures of their work. Indeed, it would seem that only through the spiritual quests they each enact in their life / work, and the inifinitude of possibilities such a quest intrinsically entails, are they able to so thoroughly interlace form and content, and thus succeed where so many others have failed.