What Do You Seek?

Back when I was teaching, usually when I got to Nietzsche, there was at least one student who'd raise his or her hand and say, That sounds like Buddhism. Now, I don't know much about Buddhism and, in those days, I knew nothing other than the pop sensibilities that somehow drift through the ether (whenever I interrogate how I "know" something, I generally find the source vague if not all together absent). I'd always reply, Maybe. But can you picture Nietzsche meditating with his legs crossed in a dark room while whale sounds play?

There is a certain tendency to conflate ideas, especially outside the academy and in those books we consider "spiritual" (oy!). Not only do we find a common thread, we instinctively and actively seek it until Jesus sounds like Buddha sounds like Kabbalah sounds like Eckhart Tolle sounds like Carlos Castaneda sounds like Alan Watts. And then, when I'm teaching Nietzsche, he gets thrown into the mix: the kingdom of God is inside you = the watercourse way = the power of now = this is it = amor fati.  

Meanwhile, in the academy, more or less pedantic distinctions abound. Such is the very stuff of tenure. The first chapter of Deleuze's dissertation, Difference and Repetition, distinguishes between Nietzsche's and Kierkegaard's conception of repetition: if Nietzsche dances, Kierkegaard jumps — and jumping, for Nietzsche's Zarathustra, is the act of buffoons.

Both moves have their merit. There is something very powerful and profound in sensing a commonality, some core element — whether a sensation, observation, idea, or action — that traverses domains so that Jesus and the Buddha are of the same plane, secretly saying the same thing. Or at least having tea as they nod in agreement with each other.

And there is something exhilarating about distinguishing modes of repetition, styles of resignation, experiences of mystics. Dancing and jumping are indeed profoundly different. And this difference is the very stuff of life. It is the act and experience of affirmation, the event that says this moment, this shape, this moment is essential, necessary, that this moment is happening!

I've no doubt learned a lot from Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, Deleuze and Derrida, from Burroughs, Castaneda, and Osho, from Watts and Jesus, too (I've read the Gospels many times). And while there are certainly common threads that run through them — an overcoming of ego; an interconnectedness of things; the palpability of the invisible world; the affirmation of the self — there are essential differences, as well. 

And while some of these differences are surely pedantic, there are differences in mood, experience, and finally in goal — if you will — of each writer. They share some ideas but they strive for, and push us towards, fundamentally different kinds of experiences. They seek what they seek, a way of going that they see, feel, desire, and live. 

To read these folks is not just a matter of understanding. It's a matter of posture, a mode of standing in the world, towards the world, towards your self: a question of what you seek, I suppose, even if what you seek is the end of seeking. There are worlds of difference between joy, serenity, power, happiness, knowledge, faith, infinity. Which do you seek? What is your goal? How are you when you are at your best? Peaceful? Blabbering? Surging? Seething?

Now, I used to draw pedantic, academic distinctions — carefully delineating the difference between Derrida's iteration and Deleuze's repetition or between Harold Bloom's metaphoric misprision and Ricoeur's discussive metaphorics. And these were not utterly futile. But I'm interested now in something else: the affective state and ideal goal of each writer— not socially but existentially, in how we are asked to live day to day, what we seek and how we seek it.

Carlos Castaneda, for instance, seeks a kind of personal power. But it is practical power that stems, first and foremost, from knowledge of the invisible plane. For Castaneda, this is not a generality that can stand in for faith or infinity. On the contrary, his invisible world has lots of rules, ways of going, modes of reckoning and discernment. He teaches knowledge, or perhaps knowing, and how this knowledge can make you an impeccable warrior who can fly off cliffs and reproduce yourself simultaneously in multiple places. It’s a very strange mechanical physics textbook. 

Nietzsche professes joy — amor fati, not just accepting your life but loving it, all of it. But he has his own brand of joy. I used to compare his amor fati to Walt Whitman's leaves of grass: where Whitman loves everything, takes in everything, says Yes to everything, Nietzsche says No to bullshit, No to the things that make him sick, No to morality. His joy is more rambunctious and perhaps grumpy than generous. He seeks a surge of vitality, calling the foundational element of existence the will to power. Note that this is not a will to dominate; in fact, his version of the will is not really egocentric at all. You are your will and your will is what you do, what you desire. But his figures are all about strength, power, having the lungs to breath thin mountain air, having the fortitude to be alone and bold. This is a far cry from Whitman prancing through America making sweet love to field boys by the river. Which is to say, they give us two different modes of joy.

Kierkegaard’s knight of faith enjoys a surge of vitality but he channels it inward. The knight's power is quiet, sure, understated. And while he once dwelled alone on the mountaintop, he is all too happy to live amongst the throngs. If Nietzsche's "well-turned out man" smells good and walks well, Kierkegaard's knight of faith lives incognito, unknown and unknowable.  

I've just started reading Osho, aka Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, in particular his interpretations and lessons from Tantra. His prose is serene and yet thoroughly lit, even agitating: he is challenging you to be differently, to think differently. Mostly, he wants to enter this impossible yet actual place where you no longer surge or don't surge, understand or don’t understand. It's more of a high vibratory hum, a quietly seething ecstasy (it’s not contentment; it’s moves at a higher vibration than that). 

Deleuze and Guattari are up to something else entirely. They are perhaps closest to Castaneda in that they love fleshing out the mechanics of the invisible world in these elaborate discourses on knowledge and what it means to know. But whereas Castaneda is serious — although don Juan is not — Deleuze and Guattari are often smiling this smarypants smile. It's different than Zarathustra's laugh or Kierkegaard's irony: their laugh has no depth and yet resonates unto infinity.

I could go on to Jesus, Thomas Merton, Luce Irigaray, Guy Debord, William Burroughs, PK Dick, Clarice Lispector. All of these smarty folks have taught me profound things about how to go in the world. And while there are commonalities, sometimes they are at odds with each other. Which is why reading is not merely consumptive but productive: in our reading, we remake the book as we remake ourselves.


Leif said...

Great post. I haven't tried Osho yet because my falling out with the New Age stuff due to the Critical Theory crowd had me skeptical of him. The Oregon newspaper articles about his commune/"cult" we're disturbing as to how he used language and "oneness" to manipulate seekers. Just curious how you feel about the situation.

janus said...

I agree, wonderful and thought provoking. I'm curious about the differences in cultural context between the western philosophers you cite and the buddha, and how that may play a role of what each of their respective philosophies are getting at.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Leif: To me, one of the great freedoms of not being in the academy is I can read what I want. I try not to care how a book is categorized or marketed; if it has something tasty for me, I'll take it.

In this piece, I purposefully blurred lines between philosophy and so-called spirituality or religious texts. To me, there's either something there or there isn't. I, for one, believe Carlos Castaneda is one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century and the greatest philosopher of pedagogy since Kierkegaard. I read his books as a supersession of Socrates, Buddha, and Jesus. It's a shame that his books gets goofy covers and are stuck in one section of a bookstore.

As for Osho, most smartypants folks who push at the boundaries of what we think get into trouble. There are always Nazis to appropriate Nietzsche, if you know what I mean. I am just reading Osho now and am blown away by it — its rhythm and mood, how smart it is, how relentless, the moves it makes between practice and theory. I highly recommend it; best thing I've read since Bergson. It makes academic pedantry like Laruelle sound silly (although I enjoy him, too).

Janus: I totally agree — the cultural differences must necessarily inform and define these folks. Not knowing squat about such things, I love just mixing them all up together, tearing them from whatever context they emerged from and creating my own context (me!). It's very liberating to put Osho alongside Deleuze. It freaks people out but, even better, it makes the two work together in surprising ways.

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