synthetic zero


September 22, 2007

Simone Weil:

We are living in times that have no precedent, and in our present situation universality, which could formerly be implicit, has to be fully explicit. It has to permeate our language and the whole of our way of life.

Today it is not nearly enough merely to be a saint, but we must have the saintliness demanded by the present moment, a new saintliness, itself also without precedent.

Maritain said this, but he only enumerated the aspects of saintliness of former days, which, for the time being at least, have become out of date. He did not feel all the miraculous newness the saintliness of today must contain in compensation.

A new type of sanctity is indeed a fresh spring, an invention. If all is kept in proportion and if the order of each thing is preserved, it is almost equivalent to a new revelation of the universe and of human destiny. It is the exposure of a large portion of truth and beauty hitherto concealed under a thick layer of dust. More genius is needed than was needed by Archimedes to invent mechanics and physics. A new saintliness is a still more marvelous invention.

One of the strangest and most disturbingly perverse aspects of most religions is the way in which they tend to create self-replicating, repeating structures of ossification. Perhaps, as Simone Weil says, at one time this may have been adequate --- but it's certainly not now. I would argue that it may never have really been truly sufficient --- because it's created the impression that religion (even the word "religion" is distasteful to me for this reason) is about looking backwards, celebrating the past, and preserving a certain frozen set of practices, "beliefs", and ideas --- but in fact what is at stake here is something absolutely present, new, and fresh in every moment. Of course, practices, ideas, and forms from the past can certainly be useful when not taken too literally or dogmatically --- but, ultimately, the whole point comes down to breaking habitual patterns of thought and action, and seeing the world fresh, working with it with all of the genius, as Weil puts it, that is implicit in the endless unfolding presence of being.

This is why, to some degree, I have more interest in art as a template for expressing this than I do in the spiritual traditions (meditation, etc.) which I have also found so rewarding. But there is still a quandary: how to make art which is truly present, as well, to the participatory moment? Is it still art or is it something else? I feel there is an opening for something new, a new form that combines practicality in the world with something beyond the ordinary notions of the practical: the finite with the infinite. Have to think on this more.

September 17, 2007

Conversation with my old friend Susanna Spiro:

ssna1: I'm watching this [a webcast]
ssna1: i don't know that i necessarily recommend it, though.

syntheticzero: just watching it for the hell of it?

ssna1: yeah. i got a link to it in an email.
ssna1: i thought i might be missing something by not going to the talk in person, but now i'm not too sorry.

syntheticzero: you see, the internet is good for something after all

ssna1: this is something i've been thinking about
ssna1: you know how everyone talks about the great value of the internet for communication, information, community, etc.

syntheticzero: right

ssna1: but i like it because i like to push buttons, keep my hands busy, look at bright lights and pretty colors and pleasing images.
ssna1: i've always liked buttons ever since i was little, and my son likes them too, the appeal of button pushing seems pretty universal.
ssna1: i've told you i tend to get addicted to certain computer games
ssna1: there's something irresistible about moving your fingers
ssna1: the desire to type is very strong
ssna1: but WHAT to type? is the question.

syntheticzero: I used to call the Museum of Science and Industry "the push button place"

ssna1: yes
ssna1: i liked to go there and push buttons.


September 16, 2007

I often have a lot to say on lots of subjects, but when people ask me to "describe" them, I find myself at a total loss for words. I can list out certain qualities, adjectives, but they all seem so woefully inadequate that I tend to remain utterly silent. The enormity of another person is too great for me to try to capture in words --- I see/feel them at so many levels at once, in relation to myself and other people, and the world, in vast numbers of aspects and contexts that I find it impossible to do all of it and all of who I imagine them to be, justice. On the other hand, this may be simply because of my inadequacies with language.

September 15, 2007

Canada feels like a country that is happening. It feels growing, alive, optimistic, like it is about to take over the world. But because it is so small (in population), it seems to disappear relative to the United States. But there is a sense of hope and newness there, like they're about to emerge, wake up from a long sleep, and assert themselves in the world in some way. Out of the shadow.

September 14, 2007

It's amazing how many problems can be solved by the right people talking to each other.

September 13, 2007

Sometimes my life feels like a cross between a Wagnerian opera, an indie movie, a Warhol film, and a documentary about urban planning.

September 12, 2007

The most telling moment from the Petraeus hearings:

Senator John Warner (R-Virginia): Do you feel that that [the Iraq strategy] is making America safer?

General Petraeus: [pause] ... I believe this is indeed the best course of action to achieve our objectives in Iraq.

Senator Warner: Does the [Iraq war] make America safer?

General Petraeus: [pause] ... I don't know, actually. I have not sat down and sorted it out in my own mind.


September 11, 2007

It's still a somber day, even now, after it has been turned into a cartoon by this Administration. I didn't know anyone who died but I have close friends who knew people who died. And it still shocks me how utterly incompetently we have managed our response to what happened. Such a weak, unfocused, nearly comically inept and militarily ludicrous response by a great nation to an attack is hard to recall in recent history. Still, I think many on the left fail to understand that the problem with our response is that it has been weak, not strong. We all agree it has been stupid, but stupid = weak, and that is something that we need to get people to understand. Stupid, when it comes to military matters, is what leads to defeat. We're not yet at the brink of defeat --- but we're much closer than we ought to be. Osama bin Laden can only be jubilant watching us go down in flames as we have so far.

September 10, 2007

John Dean on the current state of the government:

As I was writing this closing section an old friend from the Nixon White House called. Now retired, he is a lifelong Republican who told me that he voted for Bush and Cheney twice, because he knows them both personally. He asked how my new book was coming, and when I told him the title, he remarked, "I'll say the government's broken." After we discussed it, he asked how I planned to end the book, since the election was still a good distance away. I told him I was contemplating ending midsentence and immediately fading to black -- the way HBO did in the final episode of the Sopranos, but that I would settle for a nice quote from him, on the record. He explained that he constantly has to bite his tongue, and the reason he does not speak out more is because one of his sons is in an important (nonpolitical) government post, and we both know that Republicans will seek revenge wherever they can find it. How about an off-the-record comment? I asked. That he agreed to.

"Just tell your readers that you have a source who knows a lot about the Republican party from long experience, that he knows all the key movers and shakers, and he has a bit of advice: People should not vote for any Republican, because they're dangerous, dishonest and self-serving. While I once believed that Governor George Wallace had it right, that there was not a dime's worth of difference in the parties; that is no longer true. I have come to realize the Democrats really do care about people who most need help from government; Republicans care most about those who will only get richer because of government help. The government is truly broken, particularly in dealing with national security, and another four years, and heaven forbid not eight years, under the Republicans, and our grandchildren will have to build a new government, because the one we have will be unrecognizable and unworkable."

These comments summed up our current situation -- and our possible future -- as eloquently as anything I could have wished.


September 9, 2007

Amber writes:

James Joyce speaks of moments of revelation, beauties engorged with life:

"...the instant wherein that supreme quality of beauty, the clear radiance of the aesthetic image, is apprehended luminously by the mind which has been arrested by its wholeness and fascinated by its harmony is the luminous silent stasis of aesthetic pleasure..."

Joyce describes these experiences of beauty, of beauties, as epiphanies: "a sudden spiritual manifestation... the most delicate and evanescent of moments". Epiphanies should be apprehended with extreme care, should they vanish for ever...


September 8, 2007

A prerequisite for enlightenment is enlightenment.

September 7, 2007

Going to try again. One more time.

September 6, 2007

Even when their lives depend on it, sometimes people find it very difficult to make the leap. Into the unknown.

September 5, 2007

I've really been enjoying Facebook recently. I think their embedded application API is genius.

September 4, 2007

What is up with Ohio? Can somebody explain this to me?

September 3, 2007

Caroline went to the school mentioned in this article for only a year, and left because she hated it so much, but it traumatized many other students even more. For some reason, this was allowed to go on for year after year, but it is only now, because of an Internet discussion board, that it is shutting down:

"What was done to people at GCC was very wrong," Ms. Childs wrote. "I was very wrong. And I am so sorry for all the hurt that was caused to each of you by me and by all of us in positions of leadership."

Former students have described a bizarre environment where they were hauled from their beds in the middle of the night to be harangued for hours by staff at so-called light sessions about being sinners.

They have said they were constantly humiliated by staff, and put on "discipline" for months at a time where they were prohibited from attending class or speaking to anyone.

They also have mentioned occasional physical and sexual assaults, and spoken of living in fear and psychological isolation at the school.


"Originally, we were a very, very sincere group of people who wanted to do God's work. We always remained sincere, wanting to do God's work, but along the line ... we blindly - and I find it embarrassing to say - we blindly got off the track.

"We started off just being too legalistic [in biblical interpretation], but we went way past that to being - and I'm going to have to use the word - emotionally and spiritually and sometimes physically abusive."

The ways in which the Internet are changing the world at first appear subtle, but information has tremendous power. The school was not shut down by force, or by a legal process, but merely through people sharing their stories publicly.

In addition: misinterpreting religion is a huge danger, as we all have seen over and over again. This reminds me of a story I wrote about a while ago, from a book called Encounters in Yoga and Zen by Trevor Leggett, about another abuse of authority, with a different outcome. I'll re-tell the story here.

A boy of twelve, who had lost his father, had turned to Buddhism due to the shock. His uncle, a devout Buddhist, sent him to study at a training temple with a famous teacher. However, an older student became jealous of the boy and his zeal, and one day, while shouting at him while he was carrying water, caused the boy to spill a little. The elder student took two iron rods and rapped the boy hard on his forearm.

The boy held his tears back until he was dismissed and ran into the woods to cry. At that moment, as it happened, his uncle arrived for a visit, and seeing the rising welts on his nephew's arm, he stormed into the temple and confronted the teacher:

The teacher got up and fetched a book of sermons of the Buddha, found a particular place, and handed it to the boy saying, "Read from here." The uncle sat fuming while his nephew read in a choked voice. When the sentence came: "One who practices endurance will be a spiritual hero," the teacher said, "Read that sentence again slowly, and we'll meditate on it together."

The uncle shouted, "It's easy to meditate when you haven't been hit!"

"Yes," said the teacher, "it's easier to meditate when you haven't been hit."

He picked up the iron rods from the charcoal fire in his own room, and hit with all his force on his own arm. "Now," he said gently, "let's meditate together: One who practices endurance will be a spiritual hero."


September 2, 2007

The title of one of Simone Weil's books is translated into English as Waiting for God, but this is not quite right. The word Weil used was "attend" which literally means "wait" but in French shares a root with "attention". Waiting without attention is actually just another way to obscure one's life: attention is waking up to what is actually present (always, already).

September 1, 2007

Simone Weil:

When I read the cetachism of the Council of Trent, it seems as though I had nothing in common with the religion there set forth. When I read the New Testament, the mystics, the liturgy, when I watch the celebration of the mass, I feel with a sort of conviction that this faith is mine or, to be more precise, would be mine without the distance placed between it and me by my imperfection. This results in a painful spiritual state. I would like to make it, not less painful, only clearer. Any pain whatsoever is acceptable where there is clarity.
-from "Letter to a Priest 1951"
The fideist theory ...: one believes something because one wants to believe it; belief in certain things becomes an obligation. Fideism is a view very well suited to all forms of spiritual tyranny; fideism always ends up in the subordination of thought to a social myth. But the fact that doubt is possible shows that fideism is false. What is more, whenever one tries to suppress doubt, there is tyranny.
-from Lectures in Philosophy
That is why St. John of the Cross calls faith a night. With those who have received a Christian education, the lower parts of the soul become attached to these mysteries when they have no right at all to do so. That is why such people need a purification of which St. John of the Cross describes the stages. Atheism and incredulity constitute an equivalent of such a purification.
-from Faiths of Meditation
God gave me being in order that I should give it back to him.


The self is only the shadow which sin and error cast by stopping the light of God, and I take this shadow for a self.

-from Gravity and Grace