r m p

SERMON ARCHIVE

 

The Illuminated Man

This morning's talk was provoked by the typically bone-headed vote taken by the Congress to post the text of the Decalogue in public school classrooms. And why? Of course by this means to prevent Archie and Jughead from repeating the Columbine High shootings. Yeah, that ought to do it! To entertain such a notion at all reveals the rank imbecility of our leaders, as if we did not know it well enough already. But more specifically it betrays their dismal understanding of education. And it is that discussed by Zarathustra many years ago in the following passage: ["On the Land of Education", pp. 119-121].

I am struck by the similarity of the image here and that in Ray Bradbury's novel The Illustrated Man. I am moved to ask if a person educated in the manner derided by Zarathustra and advocated by our learned Congress could be called "the illuminated man," and if so, in which of two possible senses?

The first possible connotation of the epithet involves the body-painting Zarathustra describes. Those who literally wear their learning on their sleeve, and it penetrates no further, for, as the gospel parable says, there is no depth for roots. Such people are illuminated like a medieval manuscript, like Bradbury's Illustrated Man. They are living easels displaying the coloring placed upon them by another. They are passive receptors of learning, of information, or to get closer to the fact, of instruction. But if they were blank-eyed sheep turned too easily into blank sheepskin parchments, we have to ask, Who wrote what we see there?

Peter Berger tells us in The Social Construction of Reality. The meanings, the rules, the beliefs and customs of our society were long ago written down by the founders of our society (pick how far back you want to go: the framers of the Constitution, the writers of the Bible, cave-men, the point will be the same). The world we are born into, as Derrida says, is preinscribed. It bears a grid of meaning traced there not by the finger of God or the law of Nature, but rather by History, the generations of the past. That grid, that meaning is written upon us with the very first ritual of birth into the culture (circumcision as the sign of Abraham's covenant, baptism into the flock of Christ, whatever). That exhaustive writing will sooner or later fill our lives to the very margins, as if we found ourselves completely encased in a body-cast and our over-eager hospital visitors felt compelled to fill every square inch with autographs and encouragements. Line upon line, precept upon precept, the text grows and sprawls with every week, every year, as we receive more and more indoctrination from society around us and then internalize it, as Jeremiah said, on the fleshy tablets of our hearts.

Jacques Lacan, a neo-Freudian, speaks of this process as the imposition of "the Law of the Father." It is a paradox that our initial freedom, our split-second of undetermined, pure potentiality, is immediately subjugated by the rules of our society which define us, different rules in different societies, to be sure. Oppressive? Yes, but an inevitable price to pay, since only in this way can the malleable clay of the psyche be molded into something specific: an individual self. The individual subject, then, is the result of becoming subject to the Law of the Father, of the society and its founders. You emerge covered in commandments, a living vellum manuscript filled, margin-to-margin, with illuminations.

Two neo-Nietzscheans, Giles DeLeuze and Felix Guattari, in their book The Anti-Oedipus take their stand against Lacan. It is not that they reject his description of the phenomena. That they accept. But they urge that you owe it to yourself to throw off the yoke of the Patriarchal Law at least long enough to take responsibility for the writing that you bear. To sponge away the tattoo placed there, that has become so familiar to you that you can no longer tell it is not naked skin. To take pen in hand and to reinscribe yourself as you see fit, in your own handwriting. To create yourself in a moment of creative Dionysiac madness. In that dangerous moment, of which Jung also spoke, as a dangerous descent into the sub-psychic caverns illuminated only by the Midnight Sun--you become the Illuminated Man in the second sense. As Zarathustra says, "I live in my own light; I drink back into myself the flames that break out of me" (p. 106).

Bob Barr and his minions, grotesque in their body-paint, want American youth to hold still for another coat of paint. This time it is the ancient commandments of Sinai that will be spray-painted like subway graffiti onto their resistant hides. But it cannot penetrate, unless the paint finally covers enough of the living surface to suffocate the gasping pores.

The punitive religion of Sinai ("for Jehovah will not hold him guiltless...") retards moral development, keeps morals safely skin-deep. But why should it seem safer to inculcate morality that never penetrates? You already know. To dive deep is to risk illumination by the sun within, to invite the self-inscription of the Illuminated Man. And that Representative Barr does not want. He wants instead the slave morality of the obedient herd. They will obligingly refrain from gunning down their classmates, and they will with equal placidity become faceless functionaries of the Capitalist/Christian hive. "When I look back on all the crap I learned in high school, it's a wonder I can think at all."

Kant delineated the difference between two classes, or stages, or moral rectitude. First one acts simply in accord with duty, whatever one's motivation. It may be just to stay out of jail, or out of hell, or out of the dog house. But at any rate it is better than abetting social chaos by rejecting duty. One may come to act habitually in accord with one's duty through conditioning, threats, positive or negative reinforcement. And that is the way the infant learns to ape morality, until one can make one's own way. And when one does so begin, one may come eventually to Kant's second stage, to act for the sake of duty. One will feel that virtue is its own reward. And that is noble. One is a loyal minion of the Fates or the Gods or of Jehovah, in any case, the giver of the law.

And who may that be? The real law-giver is the one who inscribed the commandments upon the classroom wall, and then upon your heart. He is the Grand Inquisitor. He is the Demiurge of the Gnostics. He wants you to do (what he says is) your duty by rote, but it is in his interest that you move to Kant's second level, of desiring to do your duty because it is your duty, because that makes things easier all around. He does not need to police you, and indeed cannot perfectly police your thoughts and feelings, your lusts and resentments. You can do the job best, if only you will spy on yourself by internalizing the commandments.

But there is a third stage, the one proposed by Zarathustra, the coming to the stage of the Superman. This is the stage when one does not internalize a heteronomous law until it feels no longer alien. Nay, rather, it is the moment of recognizing the all-too-familiar law programmed within as alien! As the Law of the Father, of the Demiurge, of the Other, and throwing it off in a moment of mad illumination. Then one is clear to ascend the mount for oneself and to receive one's own commandments from there, from within. Then you will indeed love the commandments you have issued to yourself because you have issued them to yourself. You will have, like the ancient Gnostics, smashed asunder the tables of the Demiurgic Law and in so doing become greater than the gods who issued them in the first place. You will say to yourself, "You have heard it was said to the men of old, 'Thou shalt not...', but I say unto you..."

And what will be your task then? Will it be to play Grand Inquisitor yourself, like Congressman Barr? To keep the throng in line, now that you have drawn the line? No, that is not Zarathustra's affair. He seeks only to free those who chafe at the constraints of the herd, who wish to bear the brand no longer. He tosses you first the sponge, and then the pen. Either you will know what to do with them, or you won't. But he will not post the instructions on the classroom chalkboard. That can never be the right place to look.

[End with Pink Floyd, "Another Brick in the Wall"]

Robert M. Price

June 19, 1999

 

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