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Meetings With Unremarkable Men


Readings: Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, pp. 52-54

Gibran, Jesus the Son of Man, pp. 1-6


Carol suggested that I have canceled my topic by announcing it, since there can be no unremarkable men if one finds any occasion to remark upon them. So be it. But even gnats make themselves known to us.

Two recent experiences, one chronic, one acute, led me to the topic. Friday I finished nine months of working at the Montclair Public Library alongside old friends like John Skillin, Mary Lou Cass, Matt Jackson, and new friends, made there. I learned some interesting things there. It was a refreshing experience working with colleagues who, put briefly, were not jerks. No petty politics, no abrasive prima donnas. All the library employees were a pleasure to work with. It was a good experience for me, after church and college situations which were not nearly so agreeable.

But I guess the best thing I learned there, or had reinforced there, was the joy of serving others. As a rule in life, my goal is to get along as smoothly as I can with everyone I meet. I like a well-oiled progression through every day. I don[t want to irritate anybody. I live by the maxim of the Bible, "A soft answer turneth away wrath." I find it refreshing to be shown kindness and courtesy by others, and I enjoy showing others the same consideration. It is a mutual language, a game where everyone wins. And so at the library I enjoyed dealing with patrons, making them feel at ease, assuring them that their questions are not stupid, lighting a way for them through a seeming labyrinth of what I knew to be simple steps., helping them use technology they would never come to see as user-friendly. None of it was menial work, all of it meaningful, since all of it gave me the opportunity to serve. And I might add, in that task I could ask no finer model John Skillin. John is a remarkable man. But most of those he and I served in the library were, as far as I am concerned, unremarkable. I say this not to their discredit; indeed it was their mundaneness that made it a privilege to serve them.

The second experience was this: I found myself compelled to attend to attend a Memorial Day cook-out hosted by my beloved brother-in-law Scott and his fine wife Laura. I always enjoy seeing them. But I resist events like this, especially since Scott seems to me to have been totally assimilated into Laura's family. They in turn are pleasant people, but I find myself feeling like a sideshow freak. I can't stand the small-talk. As I knew it would, the interminable small-talk turned ineluctably to golf. The heliotropism of the mundane, of the beer-drinkers. I brought a book. And, thank God, the day was a boiling Hell, which meant I could retreat into the air-conditioning and nap. Carol, whom I envy, is a chameleon. She can speak the language of linoleum if she has to. But I cannot. Why do I not try to turn the conversation to matters that interest me? "How can we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?"

Actually, Carol had goaded me to scandalize the assembled mundanes, all hereditary Staten Island Catholics, by spouting my opinions on religion. Give 'em a shock; at least it would relieve the boredom. Well, maybe it was just too hot. Maybe it was just that, as I say, I like to avoid needless strife. So in the end, I didn't do it.

Sure, to get a couple of hot dogs I eventually moseyed out onto the deck and sat down. Between munches I fired off a couple of smart-ass cracks (which, as I once explained to Bob Chappell, is my version of small-talk). Then I went back in, lying complainingly about that blessed heat and humidity.

This, too, was a meeting with unremarkable men. From this one, I fear I learned nothing. Some might say I ought to learn adjustment, maturity, to "play well with others." But I have no intention of doing so. I don't mean to make a big deal out of conscripted social gatherings. The larger question is that of whether one owes it to the mundane crowd on unremarkable men  to seek subsume oneself in their mass, to feel guilty for not fitting in, as if one's transcendence of the norm were clinically, and not merely statistically abnormal.

Let me tell you the day I knew that I was not a theologian but rather a philosopher of religion. I was presenting a paper on Postmodern theology in Unitarianism. A respondent pointed out that my paper presupposed a certain independent individualism of thinking. It did not speaks for the collective community of faith, for even Unitarianism is a community of faith. Theology is the discipline of explicating the faith one shares with one's flock, even though the theologian may act as a kind of vanguard of the proletariat. This is what gives Liberal theology its stench in my nostrils. It is patronizing, manipulative, asking what the pew potatoes ought to be fed as the latest politically correct party line.

The philosopher of religion, on the other hand, is like Zarathustra. He resides in his cave alone and apart. There may be those who wish to consider his words for themselves, but he is not beholden to them, and he makes no pretense to serve the likes of them. If he does become concerned with them and what they will think, he is, as Nietzsche said, in danger of being sucked dry by them. The crowd wants one of themselves elevated like a scarecrow crucifix, a Clintonian messiah whose flaws are held up like the enormities on the Jerry Springer Show, so they can see themselves both magnified and minimized: in a fun-house magnification like Clinton their flaws assume gigantic proportions, and the fools them comfort themselves with the relief that their own sins are smaller and more modest than his. But it is only a trick of the light. At any rate, as Zarathustra said, this is why the mob is happy to forgive the sins of the great, but never their virtues.

I knew, when I heard the respondent's words, that he was right: I was not pursuing religious thought in the interest of the mass, even that mass that falsely imagines itself to be a mass of individuals as they march lock-step. I was the more horrified to hear him say that Unitarians had thought it best to leave individualism behind in favor of interdependence. Well, to hell with that. He and the UUs had been sucked dry by the gnats. They had become gnats.

There is a  two-way path, I think, along which one meets unremarkable men. In his spiritual autobiography, Meetings With Remarkable Men, Gurdjieff symbolized the various stages of illumination as gurus and dervishes he had encountered here and there along a spiritual quest. He made it all up. Meetings With Remarkable Men is his version of Pilgrim's Progress and almost as fictitious. But the point is that in his spiritual search he had to break with the mass of the unremarkable and to attach himself to the occasional remarkable individual he met along the way. The time comes when one must play the role of James and John, Peter and Andrew, and leave a mystified Zebedee holding the bag.

But then one reaches Pentecost or the Sarmung Brotherhood, or Shamballah or Zarathustra's cave, or whatever symbol you prefer for spiritual enlightenment. What do you then? You may start picking your way back along the same path. This is what the Buddha did when he attained enlightenment. He had left his home and family to seek the truth. He chanced to meet one guru and studied with him. Becoming dissatisfied, he attached himself to another remarkable man, but in time he left him, too. Joining a group of ascetics, he added their technique to his growing repertoire. But he abandoned them, too. Finally, seeking the shade of the Bodhi Tree he sought and found Satori. Then he arose and went back to the deer park in Sarnath where he knew the ascetics still dwelt. Seeing them, they cursed his name as an apostate. But it was they who proved to be unremarkable men that day. The Buddha had in the meantime become a remarkable man himself.

So he first had to set out on a journey beyond the crowd, disengaging himself with difficulty, meeting remarkable men on the way. But gaining his goal, he reversed course, now in the role of the remarkable me such as he himself first met. He hoped in this manner to play for others the role his gurus had played for him. He might have different degrees of success with different people. Some simply joined him. Others, like Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, finally decided to follow his example more than his teaching, and struck out on their own paths.

But was it obvious that the Buddha, once enlightened, should have returned to the world along the path of the unremarkable? Why not rather shake the dust from his feet and make straight for Nirvana? Briefly he considered this. Mara the Tempter, his own dark side, like Jesus' alter-ego Satan, whispered into the Buddha's long-lobed ear, "Why bother? None of these worldlings will want to hear what you have to say! Who wants a cure for a disease they love? Your medicine will be to them a poison!" Momentarily the Buddha considered this, for he knew Mara was right! The mass of unremarkable men would view him merely as a curiosity. The great crowds attracted by the Buddha and Jesus were merely crowds of gawkers, like a rubber-necking delay on the highway. But he concluded, "Some will listen." The monks gathered in the deer park did. There was no guarantee anyone would ever do anything more than listen. The Buddha might for all he knew find himself in Nirvana alone. Equally, you may find yourself alone in the silent circle of your own truth.

If your only achievement is to be like one of those penultimate gurus with whom the Buddha studied briefly, so be it. You will still have performed a noble task. That may be your destiny. And if so, it is not a destiny to be spurned.

Are you one of the remarkable men, or of the unremarkable? Are you the buzzing fly or the Superman? Ortega y Gassett taught that only a precious few have a destiny at all. Let's call it the difference between destiny and dharma. They aren't the same thing. In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna tells Arjuna it is his dharma to lead the troops into battle. He must put aside his scruples and second thoughts, his humanitarian instincts, and take up the sword boldly!

How are we to interpret Arjuna? In the manner of Kierkegaard's Abraham, is Arjuna a Knight of Faith whose special destiny elevates him as an individual above the absolute obligation, "Thou shalt not kill," which applies to everyone else? In that case he would have had a destiny. But I think that is not after all the point. Just the opposite, in fact. Arjuna is first thinking precisely of transcending the general duty of his caste. The absolute commandment for him as for the whole Kshatriya caste was "Thou shalt kill!" He thought he was rising, but his God shot him down! Arjuna had no destiny after all, but only a common dharma.

The unremarkable men have only a dharma. The remarkable have a destiny. Which do you have? That is up to you! Nothing is keeping you chained to the ranks of the unremarkable if you are ill at ease there! Maybe you don't belong there! Maybe, like Heidegger's inner Call, it is your destiny whispering to you! If so, there are two temptations facing you.

First, you may resist the call of destiny. You may not like the idea that you owe anything to the future, to the world. You may want to shirk the burden of greatness and prefer to live life passively as a couch potato or a pew potato. Sometimes I think I would. That would be pleasant. At least until, like Jeremiah, who felt himself heartily sick of prophesying, you feel the urgency smoldering in your very marrow.

Second, you may fall prey to Mara's temptation and refuse to go back among the unremarkable. But if you have escaped Plato's cave, it may be that other troglodytes could escape, too, if they had you to lead them. So why not go back down? Be ready to run for the exit! As Aristotle said, there is no reason that Athens should sin twice against philosophy. No reason, as Jesus said, you should throw your pearls before swine only to have them trample you. No reason you should spend your life swatting gnats.

Why should you go among the unremarkable? The Gnostics had a wonderful myth for that. They spoke, and sang, of the Redeemed Redeemer, the savior who entered the dark world of unredeemed mankind like Diogenes with his lantern, looking for those few he knew would listen. He knew that they would be but few. They would be himself, sparks, as the myth puts it, of his own scattered essence. He sought his own face in the faces of those to whom he preached. Occasionally a look of dawning recognition would register on a face, and in that moment the Redeemer would recognize that face as a reflection of hi own!  For the redeemed and the redeemer were one. And as you meet a receptive ear here and there among the mass of unremarkable men and women, you will have found yourself. This is how I feel when I speak my heresies and am not dismissed as "strange old uncle Bob" by the mundane, the conventional, the flies and gnats. When I see the bud begin to open, when I see the light dawn as I occasionally do in class or at a lecture, I have seen myself at a different point in time. And I hope that such a one will sooner or later find himself doing what I am doing.

The unremarkable will remain unremarkable. But you do not have to remain or, worse yet, become one of them. Turn away from the propaganda lie that it would be better, that you have a duty, to fit in with the mass. Remember the story of the Greek tyrant who used to kill any outstanding person who distinguished himself from the mob in any way. He struck the head off any stalk that dared grow above the level of the field. But we live, as my affectionate Uncle Screwtape said, in a worse trap than that, a reign of the mediocre in which the low stalks themselves decapitate any that rises higher. Do not yield to the reprimand of the collectivity. It may be your destiny as a superior being to serve the unremarkable, as I said at the outset, and that way lies great joy. But do not yield up the knowledge of your superiority at their say-so, for then you will not even be able to serve them.


Robert M. Price

June 5, 1999




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