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Where the Wasteland Ends
May 30, 2007, 12:53p - Book Notes

This Cinco de Mayo, as I sat in a church watching my cousin get married, I decided to start believing in God. Yes, I know, that sounds crazy and (more damningly) foolish. How can you just wake up one morning after 15 years of atheism and just decide to start believing in God?! I don't consider myself born-again, nor did I have a transcendent epiphany or experience a miracle in the pews. I just decided to start my experiment, the one referenced at the end of my post on arrogant atheists. If I believed in God, how would that change the way that I felt? Can billions of people really be wrong? Of course they can, but how can I be sure? The best way seems to try it out for myself.

As the experiment started, I didn't actually find it all that difficult to believe in God. I prayed every couple of nights, thanking God for what I have and then asking him for things I want. Prayer is clearly a form of focused meditation, as it's very difficult if your mind is racing from one thought to the next. I've also allowed myself to believe that I have a soul, which was also surprisingly easy to do - my subjective experience seems to be evidence enough for that. If I have a soul, then others do too, including Zoƫ and other creatures. And if we all have souls, then feelings of awareness and connection with others become stronger and more vibrant somehow.

So far, so good. It's been over 3 weeks, and the experiment goes on strong. I'm going to start going to the local church, to further deepen the feeling, and to get at that sense of community that is a draw for so many. I'm not yet ready to commit to a specific religion, just get back that general sense of a religious worldview. We'll see what happens after that.

Somewhat fortuitously, I started (and now finished) a book that fits right in with my little experiment. It was referred to in The Greening of America, which I absolutely loved, so I picked it up. As I started reading, it clearly fell into the category of "new age". I don't really have much respect for things classified as "new age" - I find them to be way too warm-n-cozy-fuzzy-wuzzy-fufu for my tastes. I can usually only take so much of such writing. Yet somehow, maybe because I'm in my experiment, I found this book quite revealing.

It's called Where the Wasteland Ends. It was written by Theodore Roszak and published in 1972, and I think the subtitle really sums it up: "Politics and Transcendence in Postindustrial Society." "Transcendence", what is that? If I had known the subtitle when I picked up the book, I probably wouldn't have gotten it.

The book is whiny, and I don't really agree with all of its views. It is quite damning of the scientific method, finding it overly reductionist and partly responsible for the alienation so many in our society feel. It's way too fear-mongering in the environmental department, sounding the Malthusian siren's call that makes me so skeptical of many of the negative impacts the environmental movement keeps predicting (note: I don't dispute global warming, just a bunch of other things). Their credibility is about as good as the folks who continue to believe that artificial intelligence is just around the corner.

And yet, even with all of its faults, it's one of the best books I've read this year. Roszak asserts that we no longer give enough credence, enough value, to the world of subjective experience and spirituality, and that this is the primary cause of alienation and meaninglessness in our modern time. He blames the scientific and industrial revolutions, as well as the Judeo-Christian worldview for continually prying individuals from those rites and objects that connect them to the sacred.

It's a powerful thesis, and though not bullet-proof, remains magnetically compelling. It asserts that meaning is to be found in myth, and I actually couldn't agree with this more. It is the stories that we hear and tell that really give meaning. It's why movies and books draw so many, why the art of storytelling continues to be the most meaningful art worth refining. It's why a tourist visit seems so much richer when you have a guide to point out what's important, what the history was, why things are the way they are. It's what makes the back-story behind a painting more interesting than the painting itself. This is not a new concept by any means, but one that only recently I've begun to truly appreciate. Why does a story imbue meaning? Because we connect to it, because there is something in it that exists eternal, that can be conjured in the mind and reanimated over and over again. Because only through stories do we truly understand.

When I think of Truth with a capital "T", I used to think that the only truths that could have this status are those that science derives, those that exist in the OBJECTIVE world we see around us. Only those things that could be repeatably proven in this world could be True. What this book opened up for me was a second kind of Truth, truths that exist in another world, the SUBJECTIVE world that we experience as soul or consciousness. Who's to say that only objective truths are really True, and that subjective truths (like a sense of soul, of free will, and the feeling of emotions, of senses) are really False? How do you know? On what grounds should we give priority entirely to the objective? Sure, a lot of bad has come from people persecuting on the grounds of their subjective beliefs (e.g. religious wars), but a lot of bad has also come from people persecuting on the grounds of their scientific or objective beliefs (e.g. "scientifically-based" racism and sexism). Of course, one can argue that people who persecute based on science aren't really being scientific - but is it even possible for a human to be truly objective? I don't think so. A lot of good has also come from both sides, so why not let both sets of Truths coexist? The real mystery is to figure out how they are connected - this is my primary motivation for trying to understand how subjective experience manifests itself in the brain.

Below are a series of quotes from the book - nearly everything I underlined while I was reading it. It's basically a condensed version of the book, with a lot of the redundancy removed and the key points brought to the fore.

Book Notes from Where the Wasteland Ends

- "It has become too great a strain to continue regarding the sickness of spirit so long festering among anxious artists and philosophers of our society as the private wound of a sensitive few. We are long past the time for pretending that the death of God is not a political fact." (xv)

- "The fate of the soul is the fate of the social order; that if the spirit within us whithers, so too will all the worlds we build about us." (xvii)

- "Culture is the embodiment of a people's shared reality, as expressed in word, image, myth, music, philosophy, science, moral style. Reality marks out the boundaries of what may be called the collective mindscape, the limits of sane experience." (xviii)

- "But when the transcendent energies waste away, then too the person shrivels - though far less obviously. Their loss is suffered in privacy and bewildered silence; it is easily submerged in affluence, entertaining diversions, and adjustive therapy. Well fed and fashionably dressed, surrounded by every manner of mechanical convenience with our credit rating in good order, we may even be ashamed to feel we have any problem at all." (xxi)

- "What is to blame is the root assumption which has given the machines and desires a demonic animation: that the transcendent aspirations of mankind can be, must be translated into secular equivalents; that culture - if it is to be cleansed of superstition and reclaimed for humanitarian values - must be wholly entrusted to the mindscape of scientific rationality." (xxiv)

- "At this existential boundary, where human self-sufficiency gave way before the indomitable and inscrutable power of the non-human environment, men and women discovered that experience of psychic contingency which they attributed to the presence of the sacred." (8)

- "Like Narcissus, modern men and women take pride in seeing themselves - their products, their planning - reflected in all that they behold. The more artifice, the more progress; the more progress, the more security." (10)

- "Yet what chance of success can the Romantic critique enjoy as long as the gains - both material and moral - of increased artificiality are so widely and spontaneously felt to outweigh the costs?" (13)

- "Of course there are those who think the accessible counterfeit is far superior to any reality one must take pains to approach and know." (21)

- "But the states of soul in which we undertake the project - that is what makes the difference." (24)

- "As a society, we are addicted to the increase in environmental artificiality; the agonies of even partial withdrawal are more than most of us dare contemplate." (29)

- "Our national societies are committed one and all to the preservation of ideals, symbols, and rhetoric left over from the preindustrial past or from nineteenth-century ideologies which spoke the language of class struggle and political economy, not technics. These cultural remnants are still very much with us, and there is no denying that in various ways they retard the speedy and open maturation of the technocracy." (35)

- "To be an expert or (as is more often the arrangement) to own the experts in the period of high industrialism is to possess the keys to the kingdom, and with them a power neither guns nor money alone can provide, namely mastery over the artificial environment, which is the only reality most people any longer know." (36)

- "Obey and the fat life is within your grasp." (51)

- "It is the culture of science from which we must liberate ourselves if we are to be free spirits." (67)

- "Until we realize, as least dimly, what portions of our personality lie buried, forgotten, perhaps ruined in this submerged quarter of the mind, there is no chance of changing our quality of consciousness, no chance of challenging the official reality." (70)

- "There are those who know what our collective amnesia conceals. We call them 'mystics'." (75)

- "In effect, the yogi's objective was to achieve a form of wakefulness within the sleeping state - a condition for which our culture cannot find words remotely appropriate." (76)

- "Caffeine has been the chemical adjunct of one of the most dramatic transformations of consciousness the human race has experienced." (78)

- "In our wakeful awareness, most of us in the modern west quite automatically address the world about us with the questions "How does it work?"; "What cause it?" But when we confront our dreams, such questions have no satisfying sense to them. Instead, we put a question of an entirely different order, one which our ancestors habitually asked of their experience as a whole, awake or dreaming. We ask "What does it mean?" For we at once recognize in our dreams a symbolic presence which makes what is before us other and more than it seems." (79)

- "The advantages that flow from this capacity to isolate oneself as a spectator within the field of experience are too obvious to mention. But that capacity is nonetheless a well-rationalized illusion and ought to be recognized for what it is. In reality, both sight and sound take place internally. Physiologically, they would be located at the rear of the eyeball, at the surface of the eardrum...For the most part, our eyes and ears are numb to their own act of feeling." (80)

- "It is clearly a violation of reality to forget that we permeate the experiences of vision and hearing, and that there is no more clear distinction between us and a sound or sight representation than there is between us and an odor." (82)

- "It is organism which the estranged cerebral cortex cannot tolerate and seeks to forget, obliterate, subjugate." (87)

- "It is almost as if we might wish to disconnect from the meat and juice of our organism and become disembodied intelligences." (89)

- "Deprive the person of dreamlife, of sensuous participation in experience, of organic plasticity, and what is there left? The bare, obedient mechanisms of cerebration and behavior: the biocomputer, which it is no great trick to mimic with clever electronic substitutes, since the machines are then only imitating the imitation of a machine." (91)

- "But what was the warning the wise Zen master gave his pupil? "Now that you have achieved total perfect enlightenment, you may expect to be just as miserable as ever."" (93)

- "From this point of view, the centuries-long Judeo-Christian crusade against idolatry has in reality been not a struggle against a real evil in the world but a guilty anticipation of the strange destiny which the consciousness of western man was to realize in our own time." (103)

- "The Jews beyond all other cultures seized upon the spiritually potent symbolism of sound: that which is present in the world ubiquitously, but intangibly. Or rather, they seized upon articulate sound. The sound to which the Jewish ear was tuned was far removed from the primal groundtone of the Hindu and Buddhist mantra, the "seed-syllable" from which the worshipper evokes an immediate awareness of the divine. The mantra is a hypnotic murmur; it entrances...and then consumes. But the word of the prophetical God instructs; it is intelligible speech. Here was what Judaism uniquely discovered: that God spoke." (104)

- "When the prophetic utterance has at last cooled on the page and in the memory, it easily falls prey to small-minded literalism." (104)

- "Everything as it moves, now and then, here and there, makes stops. The bird as it flies stops in one place to make its nest, and in another to rest in its flight. A man when he goes forth stops when he wills. So the god has stopped. The sun, which is so bright and beautiful, is one place where he has stopped. The trees, the animals, are where he has stopped, and the [American] Indian thinks of these places and sends his prayers to reach the place where the god has stopped." (106)

- "What this adamant rejection of pagan worship failed to grasp (and we must assume that it was for lack of the ability to experience the fact) was precisely the capacity of an icon or natural object to be enchanted, to be transmuted into something more than itself. What our tradition refers to as idolatry is a variety of magic, and magic, in its pristine form, is sacramental perception. The function of any so-called idol, authentically perceived, is to give local embodiment to the universal presence and power of the divine." (107)

- "But the [Catholic] Church shelters in its heart a rite which is psychologically indistinguishable from what it condemns as infidel idolatry." [referring to the Eucharist] (112)

- "But excrement, as we know, is metaphorical money in the poetry of the unconscious...or money is perhaps metaphorical excrement. And has this not become our predominant way of viewing the world: as so much raw material there but to manure the growth of economies? Today, when "realistic" people look at nature around them - mountains, forests, lakes, rivers - what is it they see? Not divine epiphanies, but cash values, investments, potential contributions to the GNP, great glowing heaps of money, the crude shit-wealth of the world that only exists to be taken manfully in hand and made over into something human greed will find "valuable". As Lynn White has aptly observed, in its relations with nature, "Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has ever seen...By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects." (119)

- "It is as if Protestantism, having interposed Himalayan obstacles of self-abnegation, despair, and dread between God and man - all for the sake of preserving the transcendent sovereignty of the sacred - had at last succeeded in making the separation too vast ever again to be bridged." (120)

- "Myths, on the other hand, are like the motifs of dreams. They elude the logic of contradiction; their happening is transhistorical, leaving no imprint on time..."You tell the story this way, I tell it that way. But both are true." The meaning of myth lies in the vision of life and nature they hold at their core." (121)

- "In Christianity uniquely, matters of fact became the basis for articles of belief and doctrine - as if no other reality than that of the historical record could hold truth." (122)

- "Fact is not the truth of myth; myth is the truth of fact." (123)

- "But desacralized nature, our nature, lacking sacramental transparency, has become an idol, an objectivized reality held to be final and self-sufficient: the highest reality, the only reality...Science is our religion because we cannot, most of us, with any living conviction see around it. Religions are built at the boundaries of consciousness." (124)

- "How is it again that Augustine described idolatry? "Mankind tyrannized over by the work of his own hands."" (125)

- "The mark of a great literary symbol is its unfathomable mystery; we can never get to the bottom of it, never simply substitute a form of words and have done with it. Great symbols swallow us whole...At last, such symbols survive in their own being as the only possible way of saying what they say. A symbol 'must not mean but be'...A symbol is a magical object." (128)

- "It is a familiar vice. We project the sins that reside in our hearts, locating them far off, in others, in adversaries whom we then assail and persecute for our own guilt." (131)

- "A science is any discipline in which the fool of this generation can go beyond the point reached by the genius of the last generation." (139)

- "It is not the task of the arts to get "further along," but to go deep and so to relate us once more and ever again to the essential truths of the human condition." (141)

- "The product of scientific thought has been purged of its personal characteristics." (142)

- "It was a momentous decision on Bacon's part to designate the objective consciousness as our single means of gaining access to reality. For what is this objectification of experience but the act of alienation, a breaking of faith between people and their environment, between people and their own experiential faculties? The psychic capacity to commit that act may be as old as humanity...More than that, it is given the monopoly of knowledge. It becomes the means of knowing, our only means of knowing." (150)

- "Indeed, the capacity of people to depersonalize their conduct - and to do so in good conscience, even with pride - is the distinctive psychic disease of our age. We must return once again to the intimate link between the search for an epistemological objectivity and the psychology of alienation: that is, to idolatrous consciousness." (154)

- "The experience of being a cosmic absurdity, a creature obtruded into the universe without purpose, continuity, or kinship, is the psychic price we pay for scientific "enlightenment" and technological prowess." (154)

- "This [power to do as we wish] is the same power we gain over people when we refuse to honor their claim to respect, to compassion, to love...Did he not recognize in this political context the cynical truth that power flows from a simple willingness to break faith, to harden the heart and abandon the fellowship of feelings?" (155)

- "Nature itself can claim no natural rights." (157)

- "Objective knowing gives a new assembly line system of knowledge, one which relieves us of the necessity to integrate what we study into a moral or metaphysical context which will contribute existential value...It does not occur to us that it may be as irresponsible to leave unintegrated knowledge lying about as to produce babies and abandon them on the nearest doorstep." (157)

- ""Thinking machines" (or at least "memory tapes") which merely counterfeit the formal surface of a real idea (but never feel its depth or rich ambiguity, never sense its personal resonance) become the electronic stitchery of a cultural crazy quilt." (158)

- "The essence of a machine is that it serves to act a function, never a purpose. Purpose is inherent and self-appointed; it is an indication of conscious willfulness, an expression of spiritual autonomy...In contrast to purpose, function is externally imposed by the machine's maker or user. A mechanistic nature, therefore, lacks vital intention. It becomes a tool in need of a job, presumably to be supplied by God; or, eventually in God's stead, by his earthly steward, man - the only purposeful agent left in sight. Nature perceived as machine is nature adrift, waiting to be put to use as man sees fit to use it." (166)

- "We are still performing in the key of objective consciousness." (169)

- From Nietzsche: "All science...sets out nowadays to talk man out of his present opinion of himself, as though that opinion had been nothing more than bizarre piece of conceit. You might go as far as to say that science finds its peculiar pride, its peculiar bitter form of social ataraxia, in preserving man's contempt for himself..." (172)

- "To cast aside all the prescientific and non-scientific realities by which men and women have lived for so long is to settle for a truth that is little more than an operational superficiality; worse, a license for the making of well-informed fools." (173)

- "What we are persuaded to call the truth is that which engages us at many and more secret levels, until we feel that the whole of our being has been warmed to life and is now burningly there, alert and animated. It is this experience of truth - this bright response to a reality we sense pressing in upon us along the many avenues of our awareness - which is universal. Perhaps, then, if we could do justice within ourselves to the reality others have been touched by, we might even find their truth larger and more liberating than our own, and so be persuaded to see things anew." (174)

- "Pico della Mirandola once called human beings, by their very nature, chameleons who are forever taking up one disguise after another. Perhaps there is no alternative to this human masquerade." (175)

- "Not because all knowledge is power; but because science, from the study of the atomic nucleus to that of the most distant quasar, is single-mindedly the pursuit of that knowledge which is uniquely power - if only the power to predict a pointer reading correctly." (181)

- "The proper ground on which to defend human equality is that of innate moral worth, not equivalence of intellect." (187)

- Ernest Renan: "The main contribution of science will be to deliver us from superstitions, rather than to reveal the ultimate truth." (191)

- "Myths make history. The mythic symbol taps unconscious reservoirs of energy in all of us, winning our assent and motivating action by its imaginative power. Perhaps nothing has more to do with determining what we will decide to regard as truth than the force of an empowered symbol superbly projected upon the cultural stage." (193)

- "Lacking respect for the sacramental dimension of nature, our experience has become poor in quality." (198)

- "Cosmology implicates value." (200)

- Jose Ortega y Gasset: "We cannot put off living until we are ready." (202)

- "Operational success has - supposedly - been the ultimate validation of scientific knowledge. Science is true, we have been told over and over again, because "it works"." (217)

- "The very nature of politics is that they don't heed fact and logic. It does no good to say they should; they willfully don't. Why? Because the great issues derive from the stormy clash of incommensurable values, backed by the hunger for justice or selfish advantage. Ethical rhetoric and not statistics is the language of politics; action not analysis is its culmination, and its resolutions can never be neatly rounded out. Frustration, imprecision, and impermanence are of the essence of political life. Necessarily so, as people consciously engage in politics with more of themselves than scientists feel professionally obliged to take with them into research." (223)

- "In effect, reductionism is what we experience whenever sacramental consciousness is crowded out by idolatry, by the effort to turn what is alive into a mere thing." (228)

- Leon R. Kass: "increasing control over the product is purchased by the increasing depersonalization of the process. The complete depersonalization of procreation (possible with the development of an artificial placenta) shall be, in itself, seriously dehumanizing, no matter how optimum the product." (251)

- Leon R. Kass, again: "We are witnessing the erosion, perhaps the final erosion, of the idea of man as something splendid or divine, and its replacement with a view that sees man as no less than nature, as simply more raw material for manipulation and homogenization." (252)

- "We have not the courage to risk the folly of strong feeling, much less the innocence." (255)

- "Romanticism is the struggle to save the reality of experience from evaporating into theoretical abstraction or disintegrating into the chaos of bare, empirical fact." (256)

- "If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite." (277)

- ""The Spectre is in every Man insane, brutish, deform'd..." That is why (here is Blake's great insight) Urizen's will to power is grounded wholly in despair! He sits among his vast works "folded in dark despair," knowing nothing of purpose, value, meaning...except to build more, subdue more; knowing nothing of Eternity, but only of time's bondage and the absurdity of mortality." (277)

- "Keeping busy, conquering, achieving...on the brink of the void. As in Beckett's Godot: the only purpose left is to pass the time...any mad project will do...keep your mind off it...think up a game...make up a task...something spectacular...rockets to the moon. Camus missed a nice irony: Sisyphus finished by inventing himself ingenious machines to roll the rock. "Progress": the mechanization of absurdity." (278)

- "Empiricism becomes empiricide, the murder of experience, science uses the senses but does not enjoy them; finally buries them under theory, abstraction, mathematical generalization." (280)

- "Prophesy ('poetic genius') is the struggle to integrate divided mind." (283)

- Blake: "Everything is atheism which assumes the reality of the natural and unspiritual world." (287)

- ""Mental things are alone real." Accepting that the world was "really" in the mind, he [Blake] could not then make much of the fact that it was also "really" in the senses and there to be enjoyed." (288)

- "What he failed to grasp is that the scientist's sense-world is not the sense-world as it really is. It claims to be "empirical", but is in fact a materialist-theoretical model designed for the sake of power-knowledge. It corresponds to nature as a map does to a landscape: as a useful reduction of reality. It is painters and poets who really look at the world - and look at it, and look at it, until they lovingly gaze it into their art; no explaining, no theorizing, no generalizing, no analyzing...only the pure pleasure of seeing (or hearing, or smelling, or feeling). The "Newtonian Phantasm" is exactly that: a phantasm, a gray ghost of the immediate sensory environment." (288)

- "Presence before order. Where this priority is lost, it is always at the expense of visionary art." (297)

- "Knower must blend unobtrusively with known." (305)

- "Does the experiment "discover" or "manufacture" its effects?" (309)

- ""What is the hardest thing of all?" asked Goethe - and answered: "What seems the easiest to you: to use your eyes to see what lies in front of them."" (310)

- "Now that millions are convinced that they possess in fact this ideal that a thousand generations before us could only entertain in dreams, what does it amount to? The question is worth a moment's reflect, because here, I believe, we find an important cause of that chronic despair so characteristic of our culture, that nagging sense of malaise amid world-beating achievement." (320)

- "Clearly, if air transport is the fulfillment of primeval aspiration, then our ancestors vastly overrated the experience. They expected towering exhilaration; but we know better. After the novelty wears off, it turns out to be a trouble and a bore. Another trouble and so many other inconveniencing conveniences of modern life." (321)

- "To preserve the dream one must forego the reality; to possess the reality one must forfeit the dream." (322)

- "He [Shelley] knew that behind a poetic symbol there lies, not another word that takes its place, but an experience to which the symbol uniquely attaches." (323)

- "Poetry, one might say, is the therapeutic subversion of language by language; it is language doctoring its own worse disease of literalism with the medicine of symbolic play." (323)

- "Imagination as visionary power is the ability to feel one's way through the surfaces of experience, to enter that symbolic dimension of life where things become a live and speaking presence." (324)

- "We say there is an objective realm and a subjective realm." (325)

- "The symbol is as close as we can come to expressing its reality...The symbol means the experience. The experience is non-verbal bedrock; the symbol lies next against it as its universally compelling expression." (327)

- "Root meanings cannot be explained or analyzed; rather they are what we use among ourselves to explain - to give meaning to - lesser levels of experience. They are the diamond that cuts all else." (327)

- "But - paradoxically - that [scientific] materialism is remarkably abstract; it is more an idea than an experience." (334)

- "Scientists (like their culture as a whole) can no longer consciously relate symbol to transcendent experience...For such a sensibility, even so basic a symbol as the vision-flight, which undergirds all thought about gravity and levity, comes at last to seem "unreal"..."merely subjective." And since it is held to be unreal, it cannot be used to help us find meaning, because only what is felt to be real by people can be meaningful to them."

- "A symbol torn away from the transcendent experience that generated it is a morbid thing. It has died as surely as the body dies once the heart is torn out. The world we build from such cadaverous symbols is the world of the dead - Blake's Ulro. The symbols are still with us; they must be as long as there is human culture - language, art, thought, all crafted of symbols. But dead symbols are counterfeits, in the same way a well-embalmed corpse counterfeits a live body. And just as a corpse becomes more grotesque the more it is painted to imitate life, so a defunct symbol only grows ghastlier the more desperately we labor to disguise its death with the pretense of life." (337)

- "A symbol that has become dense carries no enduring meaning into life. It has become only a ponderous and opaque object before the senses; it cannot transcend itself. Meaning is the measure of difference between live and morbid symbols: "meaning" not of course in the trivial sense in which formal logic might use the term, but when we use it traditionally when we ask after the meaning of life itself. And for life there is no sense of meaning when the root meaning of the symbols have been lost. A culture that has only densified symbols to live by darkens with despair; it begins to brood over the meaninglessness of life, the absurdity of existence. More and more its psychotherapists find that what its patients suffer from is the existential void they feel at the bottom of their lives. The malaise of a Chekhov play settles upon daily life; the slow death of the soul. And no amount of Promethean history making or humanist bravado drives off this secret despondency for more than a little time." (347)

- "It is rather that they are meaningless in the absence of a transcendent correspondence. They leave ungratified that dimension of the self which reaches out into the world for enduring purpose, undying value. That need is not some unfortunate psychic liability left over from the infancy of the race we ought now to outgrow. It is, rather, the emotional reflection in mankind of that intentional thrust that we can find in the most basic organic stuff, in the purposeful action of the protein matter that toils away in every cell of our being. How can we help but to be creatures in search of value and meaning? Not the tiniest microparticle of us but throbs with a lively need to work out its destiny. At the level of mind, that need becomes like an organ of sense, as eager to know its proper object as the eye to know light, the flesh to know touch. And that object is the reality of transcendent symbols." (348)

- Mind seeks meaning like eyes seek light.

- "The meaning is in the resonance [of symbols]." (350)

- "To live fully is to live resonantly. Language isolated from its non-verbal resonances can adequately express only the monotones of life: simple information, unambiguous operations." (352)

- "The proper question to ask of any people's religion is, "What have they experienced and how may we share in this experience?"" (353)

- "The spirit of rhapsodic intellect. I mean by this a ready awareness of resonance which never lets an idea or action, an image or natural object stray from its transcendent correspondence. Such an intellect loses none of its precision, need sacrifice none of its analytic edge. But it remembers always and first of all where the language in our heads came from. It remembers the visionary origins of culture when all things were, as they still might be, symbolic doorways opening into the reality that gives meaning." (362)

- "The counsel of ecology is caution. But why should we be cautious? Only because our own poor hides are at stake? That is one answer. And by the terms of that answer, nature remains objectivized, if more expediently exploited. But there is another possibility. We must deal cautiously with nature because caution is an expression of love, and our love is invited - in no mere metaphorical sense." (370)

- "I believe our science must once more learn to contemplate nature "not as an independent domain of reality but as a mirror reflecting a higher reality, a vast panorama of symbols which speak to man and have meaning for him." In brief, the task is to create a science of rhapsodic intellect." (372)

- "Rhapsodic intellect would slacken the pace and scale of research to a degree that would be intolerable by current professional standards. It would subordinate much research to those contemplative encounters with nature that deepen, but do not increase knowledge." (374)

- "The true object of political economy is plenitude, not plenty." (386)

- "Economy of means and simplicity of life - voluntarily chosen have always been the secret to fulfillment; while acquisitiveness and extravagance are a despairing waste of life. That ought to be a platitude. In our situation, it is heresy." (387)

- "It is more humanly beautiful to risk failure seeking for the hidden springs than to resign to the futurelessness of the wasteland. For the springs are there to be found." (394)

- "Those who reside in the mainstream of the technocratic society obey because they are trapped in a diminished reality which not only closes out their vision of "realistic" alternatives, but persuades them that discontent about anything other than superficial inconveniences is inadmissible, a sign of unfortunate maladjustment or a failure of reason." (397)

- "Clearly, what is seriously wrong with them is the very seriousness with which they take the trivialities of their life. In T. S. Eliot's words, they are "distracted from distraction by distraction." Having sold their souls for an electric dishwasher, what can they do but pretend that the foolish thing is worth the price? Most of the rewards and conveniences of the swinging society are insidiously distracting nonsense; just as the status such a corrupted society offers those who win its sundry rat races is a hollow folly." (399)

- "Modern man is in search of a soul, and the age is an age of longing." (419)

- "This has been the bad, mad ontology of our culture, and from it derives that myth of objective consciousness which has densified the transcendent symbols and persuaded us to believe in the reality of nothing that cannot be weighed and measured - not even our own soul, which is after all a subtle dancer. So long as that myth rules the mind, not even the most humanely intentioned among us will find any course to follow but roads that lead deeper into the wasteland." (421)

- "Gradually the realization dawns that all the realities men and women have known are real, each being the discovery of a human potentiality." (422)

- "To be mad, as the world judges, is to be trapped in a narrow and lonely reality. To be sane, as the world judges, is to be trapped in a reality no less narrow, but heavily populated." (423)

Where the Wasteland Ends (on Amazon)


Read comments (11) - Comment

omar - May 30, 2007, 2:51p
i'll come back to the book notes when i have more time. but let me hit up your post.

i feel like you're going to have trouble with god belief if you view this as an experiment -- it's more of an experience. you're testing the waters? but as you said, you're not really testing, you've dived right in. but have you? can you really do that?

let me tell a small story. today, on the bart, i realized that i should just give some money to someone who's begging me for money.. why? well, i can give a little bit, and furthermore, i really believe that after so much rejection (since almost no one gives money) a ray of hope is available when someone stops and says "sure, hopefully this will help you." and tosses over some loot. i've been in situations where no one is listening to me, and that small recognition helps so much.

so, i'm thinking to myself, i'm going to do this. next time someone asks, i'll give them some money. not so hard.

i go outside the berkeley bart and start to walk towards campus. the crazy guy who is always on the corner doesn't seem to be there. but wait.. there he is, jumping into my frame of reference and i... i keep going.

i didn't give him anything. where's my fortitude?

you don't just start to believe in something. you slowly rework your mind into a different frame of reference.

finally, i have no idea what you mean by this:

"Because only through stories do we truly understand."

that's a new age statement.. pretty vacuous!

Grant - May 30, 2007, 9:10p
"Because only through stories do we truly understand." is not new age at all. The Judeo-Christian tradition is rooted in this. The most famous books of the Old and the New Testment (the Pentateuch and the Gospels respectively) are mostly narratives.

nikhil - May 30, 2007, 10:24p
omar: agreed - believing in god is an experience, 100%. but framing it as an "experiment" reassures my former self tremendously. it will take time, and i'm swimming in slowly, but the process is progressing.

Your comment just proved the truth of the assertion, "Because only through stories do we truly understand." To explain your position, you told a story about panhandling. And I understood your point better than I would have without the story.

So not vacuous at all!

omar - May 30, 2007, 11:45p
i don't think we understand through stories.. i think we make hypotheses through stories and try them out in our real life. maybe this is just semantics.. but people think you can pick up a book and "get" something.. and that's just not the case in general. you have to experience. "because only through experience do we truly understand" is the better quote, in my mind.

i think this is an important difference. people read the religious books and they are like "yeah that's the stuff" but my own feeling is that story is a poor substitute for experience. sure, we can't experience everything, but that doesn't mean stories are at all adequate replacements.

Matthew - Jun 5, 2007, 12:40a
Hey, if there is no reality why not just jump off a cliff? It's about the same as what you are proposing (irrationalism) except it's a rare example of being more functional.

People believe in science because it works. Well, jump then. If you have second thoughts, maybe there is something more important than words like subjective, consciousness, machine, soul, spirit, voodoo, angel, god, demon, etc.

nikhil - Jun 5, 2007, 10:18a
Hi Matthew,

Thanks for the comment.

I think I may have done a poor job of explaining my thoughts. Let me try again.

My contention is this: perhaps subjective reality is no more or less "real" than standard objective reality (some call *consensus* reality, since we can't really remove our subjective frames to be truly objective). I guess this is a strongly dualist notion, one that many scientists seem to have rejected. I'm not advocating irrationalism, nor am I advocating that the objective world is less "real" than the subjective world, and so doesn't matter.

More importantly, note an implicit assumption that you're making: that the physical world is purely an objective world. It's possible that the physical world comprises and enables both objective reality and subjective reality. In other words, I don't want to jump off a cliff because, not only will I lose access to objective reality, I'll lose access to the subjective one too (if my brain stops functioning). This is still a materialist perspective, but one that says that the material of the physical world gives rise to 2 realities, not just one. I think this is actually a pretty reasonable take, given that all of us seem to have such a strong sense of "I", of the truth of our own subjective experience. Further, it's possible that subjective reality has its own properties, which our imprecise use of language calls souls, spirits, gods, etc. And maybe there are other ways, asides from the brain, that subjective reality is able to affect objective reality?

I agree, science *works*, which is why it is so damn appealing. It's the foundation of much of our economic well-being, and it's able to do a lot of social good by inventing new technologies to resolve stagnating social conflict. I'm not advocating anti-science, just a more *open* perspective that recognizes how little we truly know and proposes that perhaps the subjective experience which seems so real actually is.

Of course, these ideas could be totally wrong (and likely are, like most ideas), but I don't think this perspective is irrational nor cynical of the objective world.

Matthew - Jun 6, 2007, 12:41a

1. maybe we can't really get at the truth.
2. maybe x is true.

If you lose access to both maybe its because they are the same thing. Wait, yeah I am really sure they are. Because you cannot know "objectively" without existence and you cannot have experience without existence. Agh the allure...

One problem however. If the material world gives rise to two realities what does this mean? If by two realities you mean the objective world (roughly science and rationality) and subjective (religion and experience). It turns out a lot of what the religionists say have been tested and its wrong. Perhaps you mean another universe, not just another reality. Well, if their are other universes seperate from this one, they are found through subjective experience and have truth value...


How can I get a ticket? Don't you just mean your imagination is real? I don't see anything wrong with this perspective at all; their are true statements about what you imagine. You just can't apply them to stuff like jumping off cliffs. If you have something else in mind, some other way of applying this dualism...

Let me know!

Matthew - Jun 6, 2007, 12:44a
Just a clarification when i said this:

"If you lose access to both maybe its because they are the same thing."

I am referring to the dualist objective/subjective split in reference to what is knowable. As to assumption of the objective I do not mean absolute knowledge or certainty. That should help lots.

Matthew - Jun 6, 2007, 11:50p
Another clarification. I don't see anything wrong with saying subjective experience is real. I remember reading somewhere how it's "bad" to think we can directly discern reality. Well, we can directly know subjective reality, not merely see differences between that old map/territory. In a sense, we are the territory. But, I don't see how this is going to let me live forever or solve the aids problem. Besides aren't you supposed to be an engineer?! Agh, but the notion of being two realities. Why just two? It's nonsense to say their are two different truths that are equally valid. Either my imagination is a good way to engineer the traits of two different species together or it isn't. Example: frog and deer dna spliced together.

Surely you mean something else?

nikhil - Jun 7, 2007, 11:19a
Thanks for the further comments and the good points. This type of conversation is exactly what I was hoping to see on my blog.

OK, where to start... I have a lot to say, so I've bulleted my points.

- You talk about how religion has been proved wrong time and again. Clearly this is true, but what I think you may be missing is that the literal interpretation of religious mythology is not the correct one. These mythologies are simply stories meant to communicate a point. Many are inspired by true events (I'm pretty sure Jesus and the Buddha existed) and many aren't. But that's not the point. Objective truth is not what matters in religious, subjective experience. What matters is communicating an idea (which exists in the subjective world) in the most persuasive way possible, communicating it as Truth.

- Of course, science is not infallible either - it turns out that a lot of what science has claimed has turned out to be wrong. Though we still have a sense progress, which is true. We're making progress in understanding the objective world via science.

- What does a scientific theory of consciousness even look like? I'm hoping to study the neural correlates of consciousness in neuro grad school, but honestly, I don't have a good idea. Can you even conceptualize what a scientific explanation of consciusness would even remotely look like? If you can, do tell :) Nagel sums this up most clearly in his famous "What is it like to be a bat?" ->

- Perhaps understanding consciousness is beyond our comprehension - but if something is beyond our comprehension, is it even possible to recognize this and move on? Or are things that are truly beyond our comprehension also beyond knowing that they are beyond our comprehension? There are likely topics in both categories, and how consciousness "works" may be in one of them. A conscious appreciation of a play is beyond my dog Zoe, beyond both her ability to understand and beyond her ability to recognize that there even is something *there* to be understood.

- On the map/territory distinction: I think our subjective experience is still just a small exploration of what exists in subjective reality - our individual experiences aren't independent realities, but access a single shared reality, the world of concepts, ideas, beliefs, emotions. So, in a sense, each of our subjective experiences is just a small square on the map - all of our maps overlap somewhat to produce something larger, yet there is territory that is not currently mapped by any one that exists beyond the union of all subjective experiences. As time progresses, more of that "no man's land" is explored by subjective experience. Also, each individual likely contains in their own experience territory that no one else has access to.

- If there is a strong connection between the subjective and the objective, it's possible that AIDS and dying could be resolved through subjective means. Here's how. There is an infinite expanse of possible actions and movements for each person, yet we each have a profound sense of free will. Free will could be a delusion, but it could also be the point at which the subjective connects to the objective. God could be the motive force that can guide our wills, guiding us to decide to do experiment X instead of experiment Y. If experiment X leads to an insight in AIDS treatment, where did that insight come from? Did it come from the objective world, or the subjective one? In this story, it clearly came from the subjective. I think an influence in this way is possible, perhaps even probable. The real question is, how can we distinguish between these 2 methods of action, the first being a subjective motive force and the second being an objective result of cause and effect?

- Engineer I am :) Software, hardware, products, and services build can I. But how is it that I can even do that? How is it that I even choose which projects to work on? Where do my preferences come from? Why do I feel so distant from the objective world of cause and effect in the creative process of engineering?

- I don't know why there are only 2 realities. Maybe there are more, but I don't know. 2 realities is what I've experienced, that's all.

Looking forward to your response.

random-reader - May 29, 2009, 5:44a
Let me thank you profusely for breaking Roszak down for me. His writing style is too flowery for my tastes and so I find it rather difficult to digest his work. You've done a great job at helping me understand him better :) Thanks lots!

p.s. You've got a beautiful writing style; this is such an eloquent piece!

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