Dear Reader, In a post on The Absent Narrative from way back in December, my deep-thinking friend Tait McKenzie Johnson reflects upon his life-long sense that there's something amiss in our modern world.
Johnson considers that this something amiss is a set of actions and values which colludes to either steal our souls or, if we ascribe to the romantic Coleridgean / Keatsian idea that individual souls are not inborn but rather made as we go through life, that these actions and values collude to prevent our souls from taking shape.
I do, by the way, ascribe to romantic notion that individual souls are made rather than born. As Keats suggested in his letters, I think we're all born with sparks of divinity, and then by means of poetic inquiry (aka alchemy) we learn to read the world through our hearts and thus forge our own individual souls as distinct aspects of the divine.
And I think that Johnson is on to something when he offers that there are anti-soul actions and values at work in the world. He writes:
Granted, I’m not entirely sure what a soul is or where it resides – this has been contended for centuries – but I do know from experience that there is some part of ourselves that, if intact or developed, enables the only honest, free, and responsible response to the totality of life beyond our most immediate animal interests. Without this, life grows meaningless and absurd, and we bury our heads in the sand avoiding anything beyond the struggle to pleasurably survive from day to day, and even that with far less pleasure than we would like.
Johnson is right to suggest that the soul is the part of ourselves which "enables the only honest, free, and responsible response to the totality of life beyond our most immediate animal interests." I never thought of it that way before, but it sure rings true. It's a definition that also coincides with my experience about how the soul is made through a process of contemplative truth-seeking and the subsequent creative expression of those truths discovered-- a process which might likewise be described as the "honest, free, and responsible response to the totality of life."
Wherein Zombies Devour Our Brains
Johnson goes on to offer that the symbolic weight of the soul is made legible in our culture through the representation of its absence in images of zombie apocalypse, images which continue to grow in popularity. And of course, he's right: what better depicts soul-lessness than a glassy-eyed ghoul trying to eat your brains? Heck, what's a better metaphor for our American consumerism than a ghoul trying to eat your brains?
Finally, Johnson offers what is for me a very thought-provoking list of the actions and values present in the world which deny or suppress the soul. Here I offer just a selection of items that resonate especially powerfully with me from the full list:
- The objectification of our own bodies and desires
- The quantatative monetization of all ideas/values/objects
- The exploitation of the natural material world as something corrupt and given to our dominion
- The dogmatic demand for a literal and singular Truth
- The glorification of violence as a problem solver and form of entertainment
- The embarrassment of sincerity and engagement leading to an ironic, belittling emotional detachment
- The giving away of personal choice to corporations whose options for us don’t fill our best interests
- The denial of imagination and myth as having real world validity and effect
- The insistence that the way the world is now is the way it will always be, despite all evidence otherwise
- And if the world does change, it can only do so through an outside cataclysm rather than by our choice toward a new positive future
Yes, we've got soul-threatening problems, and Johnson sums it up very well.
So what can we do to defend ourselves against the soulless zombie apocalypse?
I suggest practicing innocence.
Innocence, like optimism, gets a bad rap these days. We tend to think of it as something exclusively belonging to children or to the developmentally different. For an adult in full possession of all her faculties to cultivate innocence sounds like a weird notion.
I went to pre-school at a Roman Catholic elementary called Holy Innocents. Lovely title for an elementary school, right? Yeah, it was named after the hundreds of infants whom King Herod had slaughtered in his efforts to prevent the prophesied birth of Jesus.
The day they told me this I started crying and wouldn't stop until my mother came to pick me up.
I got the idea pretty well that day that innocence is a liability-- it means you're vulnerable and unprotected, available to be slaughtered by any unscrupulous authority that comes along.
We tend to not value innocence as a virtue because we associate it with the extreme vulnerability of childhood. In the process of becoming adults, we all suffered various blows to our innocence which woke us up to the fact that the world isn't always kind, and we ourselves can harbor motives and desires which are significantly less than pure. Within this process, we learn to value sophistication above innocence.
The Problem with Sophistication
There's a bit of a problem with loving sophistication-- namely, that "sophistication" is word which describes the process of becoming sophistic -- i.e., like a sophist. Let's consider for a few minutes if we want to be like sophists. The sophists were travelling teachers of rhetoric in Ancient Greece who charged students lots of money in order to learn the art of rhetoric, namely, persuasion. Rhetorical persuasion is, of course, a perennially valuable skill, useful in the market place, in law, and in politics-- in pretty much everything.
The philosopher Socrates had a major problem with the sophists: why? Because the sophists weren't interested in teaching their students to discern truth through their arguments-- just in teaching their students to sound really great. The sophists offered that it wasn't their concern whether their students used their rhetorical skills for good or for ill, for truth or for falsehood-- rhetoric was just a skill like any other, able to be used for any ends.
Socrates insisted that the art of rhetoric, of argumentation and persuasion, should be used to direct people toward the true and the beautiful.
So how did things play out? Well, the sophists got richer and the people of Athens forced Socrates to drink hemlock and die.
Hmmmm. Maybe I'm not yet offering a very convincing case for innocence.
Why Socrates Rocked
My point, though, is this. Probably all of you dear readers recognize the name Socrates. Probably very few of you recognize the name Gorgias, who was the most famous sophist in Socrates' time.
In the short term, the world rewards sophistry because it's an efficient means of achieving results which society already thinks useful (start a war, win a law suit) or producing complex arguments which make you look super-smart. Sophistry can be incredibly subtle and fascinating. Most all of modern humanities study, for example, is sophistic.
But over time, the world celebrates radical innocence because it's a means of arriving at truly new thoughts -- ideas which reveal something genuinely fresh and valuable, which don't just achieve an already-known and desired end within the socially established game of life but which alter the whole game itself by revealing new facets of the imaginative and spiritual principles which underlie reality.
The new thoughts which emerge from radical innocence are valued across time and throughout the world because they're genuinely liberating, and there is nothing so exhilarating as liberation.
Genuine new thought is always threatening to the social world in which it immediately emerges, because it's not bound by that social game. Therefore, the radically innocent people who bring forth liberating new thoughts can be seen as villains and dangers by the societies in which they live. This is what happened to Socrates.
Socrates was said to have claimed that the only thing he knew for sure was that he didn't know-- a statement of radical innocence if there ever was one. Some folks have suggested that that claim was just a wily fake-out on Socrates' part, and that he actually thought himself quite clever.
I'm inclined to think that Plato, Socrates' student who wrote dialogues depicting Socrates at work (dialogues which constitute most of our lore about Socrates) was indeed a wily guy who thought himself quite clever-- but that Socrates, the historical figure who was Plato's actual teacher and not just the character depicted in Plato's dialogues, was genuinely a radical innocent. If he wasn't, I don't think he could have elicited so much fresh new thought among the youth of Athens that the authorities would have seen the need to put him to death.
Why Only Innocence Can Defeat the Zombie Apocalypse
Okay, so there are all these zombies. They're intent on eating human brains, so the general human impulse is to fight back: blow off the zombies' heads with double-barrel shotguns, for example. Trouble is, that's not really a long-term solution, is it? There are far more zombies than bullets. And building better anti-zombie weapons won't really help either. Zombies are a kind of self-renewing violent parasite: they can reproduce by attacking humans as long as humans continue to reproduce.
Furthermore, they're very single-minded in their goal. Unlike human opponents, zombies don't get demoralized and just give up when they feel outnumbered. They already are dead, so they don't mourn their dead. They're going to come after our brains indefinitely. Regular ingenuity, the kind which produces more and more sophisticated weapons and strategies is not going to solve this problem.
In other words, shooting zombies is a video-game type activity that can go on endlessly. It's no way to live.
In order to halt the onslaught of soulless brain-eaters, we need a new game altogether. We need to see things from a completely different point of view, and change the field of play. We don't need sophisticated weapons and fighting strategies-- we need a truly new thought, a fresh perception of the nature of reality that will alter what we know to be possible.
The zombies are our own dead, our own past which has risen up from where we buried it and become poisonous, aggressive and malignant. Zombies are the legacy of our old paradigms, a relentless hoard bent on consumption.
In order to defeat them, we need radical innocence. Zombies don't really just want to eat our brains. They want us to truly use them.
So what's the new insight? What's the new game? Man, I don't quite know. But we'll continue to see representations of zombies in our popular culture and we'll continue to be assaulted by all the troubling actions and values that Johnson lists until we're able to stretch ourselves wide open and find another way.