From Concepts to Pictures to TV to Mysticism
The only true realism is mysticism. Remember that only the Word of God – that is the Person of Christ - is ultimately real. Recall the keynote address of Benedict XVI at the Synod of 2008:
“(T)he Word of God is the foundation of everything, it is the true reality. And to be realistic, we must rely upon this reality. We must change our idea that matter, solid things, things we can touch, are the more solid, the more certain reality. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount the Lord speaks to us about the two possible foundations for building the house of one's life: sand and rock. The one who builds on sand builds only on visible and tangible things, on success, on career, on money. Apparently these are the true realities. But all this one day will pass away. We can see this now with the fall of large banks: this money disappears, it is nothing. And thus all things, which seem to be the true realities we can count on, are only realities of a secondary order. The one who builds his life on these realities, on matter, on success, on appearances, builds upon sand. Only the Word of God is the foundation of all reality, it is as stable as the heavens and more than the heavens, it is reality. Therefore, we must change our concept of realism (underline mine). The realist is the one who recognizes the Word of God, in this apparently weak reality, as the foundation of all things. Realist is the one who builds his life on this foundation, which is permanent. Thus the first verses of the Psalm invite us to discover what reality is and how to find the foundation of our life, how to build life.”
Therefore, any medium interposed between the Word of God and the knower is a distortion of reality and ultimately becomes a “pseudo context” or illusion. The drama of this epistemology is set forth in C.S. Lewis’s “The Silver Chair.”
The Silver Chair C.S. Lewis
Prince Rilian, enchanted for years by the Witch, the Lady of the Green Kirtle, the Queen of Underland, and freed by Aslan’s troop of Scrubb, Jill and the Marshwiggle Puddleglum, finds himself face to face with the Witch who is about to re-enchant him together with the others.
“Now the Witch said nothing at all, but moved gently across the room, always keeping her face and eyes very steadily towards the Prince. When she had come to a little ark set in the wall not far from the fireplace, she opened it, and took out first a handful of green powder. This she threw on the fire. It did not blaze much, but a very sweet and drowsy smell came from it. And all through the conversation which followed, that smell grew stronger, and filled the room, and made it harder to think. Secondly, she took out a musical instrument rather like a mandolin. She began to play it with her finders – a steady, monotonous thrumming that you didn’t notice after a few minutes. But the less yo noticed it, the more it got into your brain and your blood. This also made it hard to think. After she had thrummed for a time (and the sweet smell was not strong) she began speaking in a sweet, quiet voice.
“‘Narnia?’ she said. ‘Narnia? I have often heard your Lordship utter that name in your ravings. Dear Prince, you are very sick. There is no land called Narnia.’
‘Yes there is though, Ma’am,’ said Puddleglum. ‘You see, I happen to have lived there all my life.’
‘Indeed,’ said the Witch. ‘Tell me, I pray you, where that country is?’
‘Up there,’ said Puddleglum, stoutly, pointing overhead. ‘I – I don’t know exactly where.’
‘How?’ said the Queen, with a kind, soft, musical laugh, ‘Is there a country up among the stones and mortar of the roof?’
‘No,’ said Puddleglum, struggling a little to get his breath. ‘It’s in Overworld.’
‘And what, or where, pray is this … how do you call it Overworld?’
‘Oh don’t be so silly,’ said Scrub, who was fighting hard against the enchantment of the sweet smell and the thrumming. ‘As if you didn’t know! It’s up above, up where you can see the sky and the sun and the stars. Why, you’ve been there yourself. We met you there.’
‘I cry you mercy, little brother,’ laughed the Witch (you couldn’t have heard a lovelier laugh). ‘I have no memory of that meeting. But we often meet our friends in strange places when we dream. And unless all dreamed alike, you must not ask them to remember it.’
‘Madam,’ said the Prince sternly, ‘I have already told your Grace that I am the King’s son of Narnia.’
‘And shalt be, dear friend,’ said the Witch a soothing voice, as if she was humouring a child, ‘shalt be king of many imagined lands in thy fancies.’
‘We’ve been there, too,’ snapped Jill. She was very angry because she cold feel enchantment getting hold of her every moment. But of course the very fact the she could still feel it, showed that it had not yet fully worked….
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“Puddleglum was still fighting hard. `I don’t know rightly what you all mean by a world,’ he said, talking like a man who hasn’t enough air. ‘But you can ply that fiddle till your fingers drop off, and still you won’t make me forget Narnia; and the whole Overworld too. We’ll never se it again, I shouldn’t wonder. You may have blotted it out and turned ti dark like this, for all I know. Nothing more likely. But I know I was there once. I’ve seen the sky full of stars. I’ve seen the sun coming up out of the sea of a morning and sinking behind the mountains at night. And I’ve seen him up in the midday sky when I couldn’t look at him for brightness’…
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“Slowly and gravely the Witch repeated, ‘There is no sun.’ And they all said nothing. She repeated, in a softer and deeper voice. ‘There is no sun.’ After a pause, and after a struggle in their minds, all four of them said together. ‘You are right. There is no sun.’ It was such a relief to give in and say it.
‘There never was a sun,’ said the Witch.
‘No. There never was a sun,’ said the Prince, and the March-wiggle, and the children….
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“The Prince and the two children were standing with their heads hung down, their cheeks flushed, their eyes half closed; the strength all gone from them; the enchantment almost complete. But Puddleglum, desperately gathering all his strength, walked over to the fire. Then he did a very brave thing. He knew it wouldn’t hurt him quite as much as it would hurt a human; for his feet (which were bare) were webbed and hard and cold-blooded like a duck’s. But he knew ti would hurt him badly enough; and so it did. With his bare foot he stamped on the fire, grinding a large part of it into ashes on the flat hearth. And three things happened at once.
“First, the sweet heavy smell grew very much less. For though the whole fire had not been put out, a good it of it had, and what remained smelled very largely of burnt Marsh-wiggle, which is not at all an enchanting smell. This instantly made everyone’s brain far clearer. The Prince and the children held up their heads again and opened their eyes.
“Secondly, the Witch, in a loud, terrible voice, utterly different from all th4e sweet tones she had been using up till now, called out, ‘What are you doing? Dare to touch my fire again, mud-filth, and I’ll turn the blood to fire inside your veins.’
“Thirdly, the pain itself made Puddleglum’s head for a moment perfectly clear and he knew exactly what he really thought. There is nothing like a good shock of pain for dissolving certain kinds of magic.
“‘One word, Ma’am,’ he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. ‘One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I don’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made –up things seem a good deal more important than t he real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are really, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.’
“…(T)he Prince shouted suddenly, ‘Ware! Look to the Witch.
“When they did look their hair nearly stood on end.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“Long before there was time to do anything, the change was complete, and the great serpent which the Witch had become, green as poison, thick as Jill’s waist, had flung two or three coils of its loathsome body round the Prince’s legs…. With repeated blows they hacked off its head. The horrible thing went on coiling and moving like a bit of wire long after it had died; and the floor, as you may imagine, was a nasty mess.”
That said, consider this email from a most perceptive and responsible mother:
“I love Neil Postman. What a surprise to find you reading something I own and have actually read. I own it because of my insatiable appetite to support my never ending battle to protect my children from the one eyed monster and to justify my draconian approach of keeping the monster under lock and key. If it is locked up, boys look to books for "entertainment". I first read Postman 15 years ago – “The Disappearance of Childhood.” My copy is completely highlighted and of course the 2 books go hand in hand. "Children are immersed in a world of secrets, surrounded by mystery and awe; a world that will be made intelligible to them by adults....but because of television, nothing is awesome, nothing is held back from public view....having access to the previously hidden fruit of adult information (think Viagra commercials!!!)...they are expelled from the garden of childhood." The book is phenomenal and I adore his humor.”
Neil Postman: "Amusing Ourselves to Death"
There seem to be three epistemological phases: 1) the printed word as read in hard copy; 2) the visual image as observed; 3) the word (Word) as heard, obeyed and experienced.
Neil Postman offers that “the medium is the metaphor,” which goes beyond Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message.”
By his account, “a metaphor suggests what a thing is like by comparing it to something else. And by the power of its suggestion, it so fixes a conception in our minds that we cannot imagine the one thing without the other: Light is a wave; language, a tree; God, a wise and venerable man’ the mind, a dark cavern illuminated by knowledge. And if these metaphors no longer serve us, we must, in the nature of the matter, find others that will: Light is a particle; language, a river; God (as Bertrand Russell proclaimed), a differential equation; the mind a garden that yearns to be cultivated.”
He means that there is always something interspersed between the knowing self and what we understand to be “the real.” We have the medium of perception between self and sensible reality such that we say that the sky is blue, the dress is red, and the pain is in the tooth. But the raw realism is such that light waves/particles refract from the atmosphere in such a way that our reception records such arrivals as “blue,” etc. So also, we have multiplied our powers of sensibility and unwittingly attribute reality to them, although they are not really there. Postman offers the example of Lewis Mumford’s reflection on the clock as the creator of the metaphor of minutes and seconds that don’t really exist, but are our intrusion on the real. They are the way we think of time as “moment to moment.” The clock is the interspersed medium that “creates the idea of ‘moment to moment.’”
Typography as Metaphor
The alphabet is another mechanism of metaphor. It created the passage from the phonetic word to the written word. And the “written word… is not merely an echo of a speaking voice. It is another kind of voice altogether…” “(A)nthropologists know how strange and magical it appears to a purely oral people – a conversation with no one and yet with everyone. What could be stranger than the silence one encounters when addressing a question to a text? What could be more metaphysically puzzling than addressing an unseen audience, as every writer of books must do? And correcting oneself because one knows that an unknown reader will disapprove or misunderstand?” Postman goes on to suggest that “the setting down of views in written characters would be the beginning of philosophy, not its end. Philosophy cannot exist without criticism, and writing makes it possible and convenient to subject thought to a continuous and concentrated scrutiny. Writing freezes speech and in so doing gives birth to the grammarian, the logician, the rhetorician, the historian, the scientist – all those who must hold language before them so that they can see what it means, where it errs, and where it is leading”
In a word, the alphabet and the written word obliges a way of using intelligence which can be called “objectification.” Postman is not just talking about “content” but about the way the mind works. He cites the case of a person making defense of a doctoral thesis in which he has a footnote referring to a conversation in a hotel. He is reprimanded by the examiners for the lack of scholarship: “You are not a journalist…You are supposed to be a scholar.” The examinee retorted: “Why do you assume the accuracy of a print-referenced citation but not a speech-referenced one?” The answer: “You are mistaken in believing that the form in which an idea is conveyed is irrelevant to its truth. In the academic world, the published word is invested with greater prestige and authenticity than the spoken word. What people say is assumed to be more casually uttered than what they write. The written word is assumed to have been reflected upon and revised by its author, reviewed by authorities and editors. It is easier to verify or refute, and it is invested with an impersonal and objective character, which is why, no doubt, you have referred to yourself in odours thesis as ‘the investigator’ and not by your name; that is to say, the written word is, by its nature, addressed to the world, not an individual. The written word endures, the spoken word disappears; and that is why writing is close to the truth than speaking. Moreover, we are sure you would prefer that this commission produce a written statement that you have passed your examination (should you do so) than for us merely to tell you that you have, and leave it at that. Our written statement would represent the ‘truth.’ Our oral agreement would be only a rumor.”
He ends his exposition on typography as the dynamic of the culture, and particularly American culture, with this finely turned conclusion: “The name I give to that period of time during which the American mind submitted itself to the sovereignty of the printing press is the Age of Exposition. Exposition is a mode of thought, a method of learning, and a means of expression. Almost all of the characteristics we associate with mature discourse were amplified by typography, which has the strongest possible bias toward exposition: a sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; an abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, for reasons I am most anxious to explain, the Age of Exposition began to pass, and the early signs of its replacement could be discerned. Its replacement was to be the Age of Show Business.”
Telegraphy as Metaphor
Postman’s next gambit is telegraphy. His basic assessment of the effect of the telegraph on the printed word as metaphor of the spoken word is the transition from personal subject to inanimate object. He writes: “The telegraph made a three-pronged attack on typography’s definition of discourse, introducing on a large scale irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence. These demons of discourse were aroused by the fact that telegraphy gave a form of legitimacy to the idea of context-free information; that is, to the idea that the value of information need not be tied to any function it might serve in social and political decision-making and action, but may attach merely to its novelty, interest, and curiosity. The telegraph made information into a commodity, a ‘thing’ that could be bought and sold irrespective of its uses or meaning. The thought of a person as expressed in words was now reduced to the status of “thing-object” bereft of “context” and therefore “meaning” as the intentionality of a person. This is now a serious change in the written word as metaphor for knowledge and its communication. It also exacts a profound change on social organization since it obliterates relation. Thought is reduced to word-as-information, basically a data base of facts that is non-relational, and what was originally a family or society of persons to a lonely crowd of individuals. “The line-by-line sequential, continuous form of the printed page slowly began to lose its resonance as a metaphor of how knowledge was to be acquired and how the world was to be understood. ‘Knowing’ the facts took on a new meaning, for it did not imply that one understood implications, background, or connections. Telegraphic discourse permitted not time for historical perspectives and gave no priority to the qualitative. To the telegraph, intelligence meant knowing of lots of things, not knowing about them.” [I would hasten to add – and this will be my thesis – that we now must move into an explicit epistemology where we not only know “about” reality, but we understand that reality ultimately is the person, divine and human, and that we must most literally “know Him/him” from within ourselves. I take Joseph Ratzinger’s exegesis of the Latin word “intellegere” as legere ab intus: to read from within].
Photography as Metaphor
Photography was given its name by Sir John F.W. Herschel. Etymologically it means “writing with light.” However, as telegraphy is the reduction of personalized and contextualized discourse to objectified “things,” photography – although- called “language” is not real knowledge and belong to a different horizon of comprehension. It cannot deal with the immaterial.
Postman writes: “By itself, a photograph cannot deal with the unseen, the remote, the internal, the abstract. It does not speak of ‘man,’ only of a man; not of ‘tree,’ only of a tree. You cannot produce a photograph of ‘nature,’ any more than a photograph of ‘the sea.’ You can only photograph a particular fragment of the here-and-now – a cliff of a certain terrain, in a certain condition of light; a wave at a moment in time, from a particular point of view. And just as ‘nature’ and ‘the sea’ cannot be photographed, such larger abstractions as truth, honor, love, falsehood cannot be talked about in the lexicon of picture es. For ‘showing of’ and ‘talking about’ are two very different kinds of processes. ‘Pictures,’ Gaveil Salomon has written, ‘need to be recognized, words need to be understood.’ By this he means that the photograph presents the world as object; language, the world as idea. For even the simplest act of naming a thing is an act of thinking- of comparing one thing with others, selecting certain features in common, ignoring what is different, and making an imaginary category. There is not such thing in nature as ‘man’ or ‘tree.’ The universe offers no such categories of simplifications; only flux and infinite variety. The photograph documents and celebrates the particularities of this infinite variety. Language makes them comprehensible.”
However, modern communication imposes itself and Postman explains how the photograph and telegraphy conspire to form a pseudo-context in which an illusion of meaning-without-meaning is created and we become mesmerized into iconographic worship. As Postman explains, the photo, screen offers what seems to be hard sensible singularity which is not intelligible as such to our way of knowing. To know, we must immaterialize the icon, render it an abstract idea, form propositions of such ideas and return judgmentally to see whether our concatenations, in fact, correspond to reality. That internal process is created “off-stage” by others who offer the sensible, cyber image that is given a “context” by telegraphic sound bytes, and a pseudo-contextual reality is offered up for our consumption. Postman explains.
Photo as Pseudo-Context of Telegraphy, and Vice Versa: Television
Since the sound-byte as fact in a data base is a reduction of person (subject)-word to “thing” (object) and lacks relation and therefore meaning by itself, we have connected it to the photograph – which is another.
TV as image and telegraphic word create a pseudo-reality that becomes a culture in itself. Neil Postman’s presentation in “Amusing Ourselves to Death” explains that as confluence of the two: image and word, TV replaces “meaning” by reciprocal reinforcement of the two metaphors of contextual-less, and therefore meaningless “facts.” Postman gives an example:
“Imagine a stranger’s informing you that the illyx is a subspecies of vermiform plant with articulated leaves that flowers biannually on the
Postman’s point is that not only some experience, but all experience is reduced to this state of irrelevance that is the culture spawned by TV. How well he says it: “Television has become, so to speak, the background radiation of the social and intellectual universe, the all-but-imperceptible residue of the electronic big bang of a century past, so familiar and so thoroughly integrated with American culture that we no longer hear its faint hissing in the background or see the flickering gray light. This, in turn, means that it epistemology goes largely unnoticed. And the peek-a-boo world it has constructed around us no longer seems even strange.” Quite the opposite. The world that TV has given us now is perceived as the normal. “Our culture’s adjustment to the epistemology of television is by now all but complete; we have so thoroughly accepted its definitions of truth, knowledge, and reality that irrelevance seems to us to be filled with import, and incoherence seems eminently sane.”
If we achieve a direct experience of the real in the encounter with ourselves in the act of going out of ourselves, then the total absorption of the knowing process with a visual idolatry keeps us captive within ourselves, and we are never in contact with the real. And, being amused in the deception, we will never escape.
Mysticism as Access to Reality
Hence, we come down to the only ultimate realist epistemology which is the pre-conceptual experience of ourselves transcending ourselves in faith, love, service, forgiveness, etc. And this knowledge of self is consciousness. It is axiological in that it gives us a sense of ourselves as good or bad. If it is bad, we have no real sense of identity and self-confidence. If it is good, we know who we are and self-confidently so. As Conrad Baars remarks: “They [affirmed persons] know who they are. They are certain of their identity. They love themselves unselfishly. They are open to all that is good and find joy in the same. They are able to affirm all of creation and as affirmers of all beings are capable of making others happy and joyful, too. They are largely other-directed. They find joy in being and doing for others. They find joy in their loving relationship with their Creator. They can share and give of themselves, be a true friend to others, and feel at ease with persons of both sexes. They are capable of finding happiness in marriage or the freely chosen celibate state of life. They are free from psycho-pathological factors which hamper one’s free will and are therefore fully responsible – morally and legally – for their actions.”
Note that the consciousness of “good” and “evil” is the experience of the self in the act of imaging the divine Persons Who alone are good (Mk. 10, 18: “No one is good but only God”). It is this experience of the ontological tendency of the human person actualized in the free intentional act that is the grounding of conscience and the natural law. In passing, it might be useful to indicate that the “natural law” is not the law of nature, even human nature, but the law of the person as tending to relation as self gift as trinitarian image. They are two different epistemological horizons with two very different dynamics. Nature is observed to act necessarily and producing the same effect. The person folds over self determining self before producing an objective effect. The latter is a phenomenon of freedom in self-mastery and self-giftedness (or not) in the objectified effect.
The epistemology of this mysticism is the act of faith. It is not a facultative act engaging the intellect and will of a substantial being. It is the action of the entire being of the “I” making the gift of self to the Revealer.
This point is the privileged intellectual high-ground of Benedict XVI. It was his habilitation thesis that almost cost him his license to teach theology in
I say “everything else” because without this experiential, mystical knowledge of self as imaging God, we are not really in contact with the real. We are trapped not only in the all-encompassing metaphor of show business that insulates us from the real, but even if brought back to the word, we would still be trapped in objectified reason. One thing is to come up short of being rational animals, but another is not to achieve the self-transcendence and freedom of relational persons. Man does not know God or himself simply because he knows about God and himself. Biblical reference to “know” is to be one being with. Adam “knew” his wife by becoming one flesh with her. We must “know” God by becoming God.
It is precisely here that we reach radical roots of St. Josemaria Escriva and the raison d’etre of Opus Dei. On August 7, 1931 after four years of servicing the sick and dying of Madrid, Escriva heard during the Consecration of the Mass: August 7, 1931: Locution: “Et si exaltatus fuero a terra, omnia traham ad meipsum” (Ioann. 12, 32). “A voice, as always, perfect, clear… And the precise concept: it is not in the sense in which Scripture says it; I say it to you in the sense that you put me at the summit of all human activities, so that in all the places of the world, there may be Christians with a personal and most free dedication, that they be other Christs.” Later (October 16, 1931), on the street, in a trolley and not in a Church, he hears “'You are my son, you are Christ.'” And I only knew how to repeat: Abba, Pater!, Abba, Pater! Abba!, Abba!, Abba!"
“Abba” is the unique reference to God as Father in the mouth of Jesus Christ. This is “to know” God.
We will not be able to be truly in contact with the real unless we are able to recognize the entrapments of the metaphors insulating us from it. Not to recognize them is already to not be real and vulnerable to not be. And if it is true that mysticism is the only human attitude open to the real – which ultimately is the Word of God - then there must be the violence of conversion. We must rise up within ourselves to master ourselves, take possession of ourselves to be able to experience the self-transcendence that grounds realism.
Three concretions occur to me: 1) to visit the sick and the dying – wherever: home, nursing homes, hospitals; 2) to school oneself in the care of small things in ordinary work and family life. Both areas demand heroism and suffering; 3) Lock up the TV.
Postscript: “Most people believe that technology is a staunch friend. There are two reasons for this. First, technology is a friend. It makes life easier, cleaner, and longer. Can anyone ask more of a friend? Second, because of its lengthy, intimate, and inevitable relationship with culture, technology does not invite a close examination of its own consequences. It is the kind of friend that asks for trust and obedience, which most people are inclined to give because its gifts are truly bountiful. But, of course, there is a dark side to this friend. Its gifts are not without a heavy cost. Stated in the most dramatic terms, the accusation can be made that the uncontrolled growth of technology destroys the vital sources of our humanity. It creates a culture without a moral foundation. It undermines certain mental processes and social relations that make human life worth living. Technology, in sum, is both friend and enemy.”
 C.S. Lewis, “The Silver Chair,” Collier Books (1970) Chapter XII, “The Queen of Underland” 148-162.
 Neil Postman, “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” Penguin Books (1985) 13-14/
 Ibid 11.
 Ibid 13.
 Ibid 12.
 Ibid 20.
 Ibid 21.
 Ibid 63.
 Ibid. 65.
 Ibid. 72.
 Conrad W. Baars, M.D. “I Will Give Them a New Heart”
 Neil Postman, “Technopoly,” Vintage (1993) xii.