Saturday, September 1, 2007

Religion: Don't Contradict Me

On page 252 of Rebecca Goldstein’s excellent novel, Mazel, we meet a young Jew, Maurice, living in pre-War Warsaw, who has found no vocation in life. His older brother, Jascha, is a composer of music, considered to be a genius by many. In Jascha’s life, music provides a definite focus and meaning, accompanied by self-conscious movement in the direction of existential authenticity.

As opposed to Jascha’s focus, we see in Maurice a constant and unresolved vacillation between various imagined lives, each of which he projects as potentially desirous. This we can understand as the interplay of, and tension between, the influences of three gunas in the psyche of Maurice. In fact, these contradictory urges are pulling him apart:

“When Jascha was sixteen, it had already been obvious that there would be no life for him outside of music. But Maurice could imagine himself easily into a great number of mutually exclusive lives.
“He would have liked, at one and the same time, to be both a talmid chachem, a disciple of the wise, and also to be one of those bright lights who danced away every night at the Astoria Hotel, buying drinks for the prettiest and fastest girls in all of Warsaw.
“He would have liked to be a thorough-going rationalist, a professor of physics or philosophy at some famous German University, and a the same time to be a Cabalistic mystic, seeing divine emanations in every puddle.
“He would have liked to be an American millionaire, but also a kibbutznik living in collective penury in Palestine.
“Every single one, and more, of these imagined lives called out to him, and he would, if he could, gladly take hold of them all. But the thing was simply impossible. The talmid chachem’s existence would run counter to the bright light’s. The rationalist and the mystic would trip each other up. The millionaire and the kibbutznik could not possibly keep house in the same puny precincts of his person.
“One life is definitely not enough, which is why the Cabalistic idea of reincarnation had always appealed so much to him.”

Regarding the nature of, and opposition to, such contradictions, Simone Weil writes in the Notebooks (p. 387):

“Contradiction is not conceived by the mind without an effort on the part of attention. For without this effort we conceive one of the contraries, or else the other, but not the two together, and above all not the two together in the character of contradictories. Moreover, contradiction is that which our mind tries to get rid of and is unable to. It comes to us from outside. It is real.”

… “Either the mind maintains real within itself the simultaneous notion of the contradictories, or else it is tossed about by the mechanism of natural compensations from one of the contraries to the other. That is what the Gîtâ meant by ‘having passed beyond the aberration produced by the contraries.’ It forms the very basis of the notion of dharma.”

In other words, in order to fulfill one’s existential destiny, one must focus the attention on one’s every act, in the moment that it is undertaken. One must complete the act without reference to the imaginary ends of the action taken. As we have seen below: “Action for action’s sake, not for its fruits” which is achieved by “Ordering of finite means with a view to an infinite and transcendent end”. In this way, one forges for oneself an authentic existence, in complete accordance with one’s dharma. And one acts without the accretion of ever more karmic debt. One dispenses with the need to live another life on the material plane in order to achieve that perfection required of every human being by God: "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." (Matt 5:48 KJV) It is not enough to be a Good Joe; one must be a Saint Joseph.

We shall see how Weil relates these ideas to those of Christian salvation.