New words for the new year

Inspired by the episode of “Black Adder” in which our hero attempts to write a new dictionary, and by the music of “Mythodea” by Vangelis, and “Adeimus” by Karl Jenkins, and other choral musics that are sung in invented languages.

The word “good life” is an interesting one. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, a.2 sc.3, the clown asks his drinking buddies “Would you have a love song, or a song of good life?” One gets the impression that “a song of good life” means a song that one can dance to, and with carousing, wenching, feasting, drinking, and merrymaking as its subject matter. Alas, Toby and Andrew ask the clown for a love song, so we might never know what ‘good life’ song the clown would have performed instead.

When reading certain catholic theologians, which my livelihood sometimes requires me to do, one gets the impression that “paganism” has to do with “good life”, and can be defined as excessive interest in the good bounties of the mortal world, and insufficient interest in the immaterial and otherworldly realm of God. Those who “dance, sing, feast, make music and love,” thus commit a sin of ommission. They should be spending their non-labourious hours in prayer. Oliver Cromwell once tried to abolish Christmas and replace it with “days of national humiliation”. Thank the Gods the idea didn’t catch on.

A similar proposition can sometimes be found in the works of some contemporary pagan writers, and some contemporary new age writers, when they encourage their readers to direct their attention to immaterial energies and presences, to the ‘light’ and the ‘vibrations’ of the ‘higher’ realms. A friend recently invited me to attend a weekend retreat course in “angelic reiki healing”, which promised “A full attunement to Angelic Reiki 2nd Degree including 10 Divine Multidimensional symbols, activated to Galactic level, and a “hands on healing” experience, becoming a channel for healing through your Healing Angel as the first steps in Multidimensional co-creative Healing, including: healing as a bridge for your Healing Angel, using beaming from the Third Eye, and Healing with Ascended Masters and Galactic Healers.” Aside from some ellipsis, that’s an exact quote from the invitation. It was also noted that the weekend course would cost $360.

Try as I might, I just can’t see how the course is not a species of what Nietzsche would call “anti-life” thought – because it places the highest emphasis on that which is immaterial, abstract, and transcendental, as the source of “healing”, and denies that “healing” or any other kind of life-satisfaction could be obtained by means of embodied bounties: food, drink, physical exertion, sex, and so on.

Moreover, I couldn’t see how the course was teaching anything other than a vocabulary – not a technique of healing but a technique of talking, which purports to describe a group of ‘inner’ experiences people have of their bodies and minds, but is perhaps reinforced more by social pressures to conform, rather than by actual lived experiences. For no one wants to say he feels nothing after hours of Reiki treatment. A friend of mine was once thrown out of a “find your totem spirit” workshop when, after the spirit-flight visualisation, she said she saw a carrot.

This is a shame, in a way, since the person who sent me this invitation is a good person, and I am rather fond of her.

Yet it seems very obvious to me that certain varieties of Christianity, and certain varieties of New-Age thought, are the same in that to fully participate in them one must commit oneself to the proposition that the embodied world has nothing of value in it – or that whatever things of value may be found here, they are piddly little nothings compared to the greater glory of God, or the Light, or whatever other name is offered for some transcendental abstraction. I’m not sure anymore if these are real places or experiences. I think they might be just words, which are meant to reinforce a certain kind of social order.

The emphasis on transcendental sources of spiritual fulfilment reminds me of what Sartre described as “bad faith” and “false consciousness”. It involves a kind of mental trick we play on ourselves in order to fully benefit from a gratifying illusion – a trick that has to be played in such a way that we do not allow ourselves to acknowledge that it is, indeed, a trick.

In religious vocabulary, there are already words for states of mind that prevent enlightenment or lead one astray, such as:

“Jahiliyyah” from Islamic thought, especially the work of Sayyid Qutb, meaning ignorance or ‘back-sliding’ (i.e. to the condition of life before God gave us the Koran); especially the sort of ignorance which both harms the ignorant person and others, and also leads the ignorant person to believe that he is not ignorant.

“Maya”, a very complex idea from Hindu thought, meaning “illusion”, in particular the illusory perception that things are separate and distinct from each other; the “veil” which prevents full perception of the Atman, or the Buddha Nature, or some other principle of transcendental unity.

Both of these ideas are interesting, and have much merit in them. Yet both of them presuppose that the embodied world and its good bounties is a trap. I believe that presupposition is false. So, I’m thinking about coining my own new word for the attitude, or the disposition, to place all one’s hope for happiness on disembodied abstractions like God, Heaven, the “Light”, the other-world, or some other disembodied abstraction, at the expense of bounties of the embodied world. The word would be like Jahilliyya, or Maya, but in some ways its exact opposite.

I am also thinking of new words to denote the attitude or the disposition to find spiritual liberation or enlightenment (however defined) in the bounties of the embodied world, and especially in activities which are inherently empowering, life-affirming, pleasurable, and loving.The word “paganism” could suffice here, since that is already part of its meaning. But “paganism” is a word with a lot of additional baggage. “Good life” could suit the purpose too. But it might not be precise enough.

So, one of my new year’s resolutions is to create a philosophical vocabulary, an almost-new language, for the ideas that I’ve been describing here. This is a tricky project: the mere existence of a coherent vocabulary for one’s ideas is not what makes an idea sound and true. And I also want to pay attention to the artistic quality of the language. For philosophers who do nothing but logical analysis of things end up producing philosophy that is very precise and yet very boring.

New names for “new” conditions of mind and of life; new words for new world views; and new languages for new poetry — this is my work for this extapular new year.

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