Stories about the End of Stories

Stories about the End of Stories

"The dominant story of modernity has been progress. Although still hardwired into our institutions, that story has lost most of its plausibility. new genres are taking its place: apocalypse and nihilism. Apocalypse is the imminent and triumphant conclusion of our most cherished stories. Nihilism is their collapse. Both are stories about the end of stories."

~ David R. Loy

Battling Zombies

Excerpt from "My Zombie, Myself: Why Modern Life Feels Rather Undead," by Chuck Klosterman, The New York Times, December 3, 2010:

World War ZWhen we think critically about monsters, we tend to classify them as personifications of what we fear. Frankenstein’s monster illustrated our trepidation about untethered science; Godzilla was spawned from the fear of the atomic age; werewolves feed into an instinctual panic over predation and man’s detachment from nature. Vampires and zombies share an imbedded anxiety about disease. It’s easy to project a symbolic relationship between zombies and rabies (or zombies and the pitfalls of consumerism), just as it’s easy to project a symbolic relationship between vampirism and AIDS (or vampirism and the loss of purity). From a creative standpoint these fear projections are narrative linchpins; they turn creatures into ideas, and that’s the point.

But what if the audience infers an entirely different metaphor?

What if contemporary people are less interested in seeing depictions of their unconscious fears and more attracted to allegories of how their day-to-day existence feels? That would explain why so many people watched that first episode of “The Walking Dead”: They knew they would be able to relate to it.

A lot of modern life is exactly like slaughtering zombies...

Every zombie war is a war of attrition. It’s always a numbers game. And it’s more repetitive than complex. In other words, zombie killing is philosophically similar to reading and deleting 400 work e-mails on a Monday morning or filling out paperwork that only generates more paperwork, or following Twitter gossip out of obligation, or performing tedious tasks in which the only true risk is being consumed by the avalanche. The principal downside to any zombie attack is that the zombies will never stop coming; the principal downside to life is that you will be never be finished with whatever it is you do.

The Internet reminds of us this every day...

This is our collective fear projection: that we will be consumed. Zombies are like the Internet and the media and every conversation we don’t want to have. All of it comes at us endlessly (and thoughtlessly), and — if we surrender — we will be overtaken and absorbed. Yet this war is manageable, if not necessarily winnable. As long we keep deleting whatever’s directly in front of us, we survive. We live to eliminate the zombies of tomorrow. We are able to remain human, at least for the time being. Our enemy is relentless and colossal, but also uncreative and stupid.

Battling zombies is like battling anything...or everything.


See also:

Talking About The Indescribable

Reza Aslan speaking with Terry Gross about his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (July 15, 2013):

People like Meister Eckhart professed this kind of understanding of the relationship between God and humanity, the relationship between creator and created. The purpose of the mystics, whether they're Sufis or Jewish mystics or Christian mystics or what have you, the purpose is to break down the wall that separates us from God to have an intimate divine union with God. And so that's why some of this language would sound familiar to a lot of people of different faiths....

I think that if you believe that our experience of the world goes beyond just the material realm, that there is something beyond, that there is a transcendent presence that one can commune with, then it's only natural to want to reach out to this transcendent presence, to want to experience it in some way. That's what religion does.

I mean, you have to understand that religion is nothing more than just a language made up of symbols and metaphors that allow us to describe to each other and to ourselves the ineffable experience of faith. I mean, when we talk about God we're talking about something that is, by definition, indescribable, indefinable. You need a way to talk about God and so what religion does is it provides a readymade language that allows you to be understood when you're talking to your own community.

See also (from Shinzen Young): 

An Unquenchable Desire to Know and Describe

David Whyte's introduction (from The Three Marriages) to the following poem by Alden Nowlan "...a literary guessing game in which he looks at the way many authors who are considered authorities in their areas actually had no direct experience of the subject. They looked all the more closely at their subject exactly because they were unfamiliar with it. Any familiarity was made through what seemed like an unbridgeable distance. What they had was an unquenchable desire to know and describe."

The Seasick Sailor and Others
by Alden Nowlan, from Selected Poems 

The awkward young sailor who is always seasick
Is the one who will write about ships.
The young man whose soldiery consists in the delivery
Of candy and cigarettes to the front
Is the one who will write about war.
The man who will never learn to drive a car
And keeps going home to his mother
Is the one who will write about the road.

Stranger still, hardly anyone else will write so well
About the sea or war on the road. And then there is the woman
who has scarcely spoken to man except her brother
and who works in a room no larger than a closet,
she will write as well as anyone who has ever lived
about vast open spaces and the desires of the flesh:
and that other woman who will live with her sister and
rarely leaves her village, she will excel
in portraying men and women in society:
and that woman, in some ways the most wonderful of
them all,
who is afraid to go outdoors, who hides when someone
she will write great poems about the universe inside her.

No Better

Excerpt from Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else by Geoffrey Colvin:

Extensive research in a wide range of fields shows that many people not only fail to become outstandingly good at what they do, no matter how many years they spend doing it, they frequently don’t even get any better than they were when they started.

Auditors with years of experience were no better at detecting corporate fraud—a fairly important skill for an auditor—than were freshly trained rookies. When it comes to judging personality disorders, which is one of the things we count on clinical psychologists to do, length of clinical experience told nothing about skill—“the correlations,” concluded some of the leading researchers, “are roughly zero.”

Surgeons were no better at predicting hospital stays after surgery than residents were. In field after field, when it came to centrally important skills—stockbrokers recommending stocks, parole officers predicting recidivism, college admissions officials judging applicants—people with lots of experience were no better at their jobs than those with very little experience.

[Thanks, Barking Up The Wrong Tree!]

I Will Be Who I Will Be

Excerpt from “Exodus: Cargo of Hidden Stories,” Being,  April 14, 2011:

Krista Tippett: Let's talk about also the very mysterious name of God when Moses encounters God in the burning bush. He says, "Who should I tell them I saw?" And the name that comes back now, or the way it's often translated in English is, "I am who I am." I've also heard it translated, "I am becoming who I am ehyeh-asher-ehyehbecoming." How do you read what is said? And say it for me in Hebrew as well, if you would?

Avivah Zornberg: Yes. It's Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, and literally it just means, I will be who I will be. And I think there's just no getting around it. Some of these translations are just mistranslations.

Ms. Tippett: Right, yes. And they don't help, do they?

Dr. Zornberg: They really don't because, actually, God is being evasive. God is saying, “I'm not giving you a handle.” You want a handle of some kind to hold on to, to say, "Now I've got him." That's a name. And instead he answers, "I am the very principle of becoming, of allowing the possible to happen."

Listen to the unedited conversation…

The Highest Form of Intimacy

Excerpts from “A Monotheistic Model of Love,” by Gilla Nissan, Parabola (Spring 2010):

parabola-35-1 In B’re-sheet, Genesis, during the process of the creation of the world, it is said that God separated the water into two: sha-ma-yim, the water of above, and ma-yim, the water below. The Zohar: The Book of Splendor, a collection of works ascribed to Simon Bar Yochai of the second century CE, goes on to say that the lower waters missed and longed for the higher waters and so cried out to unite back with them. The Hebrew words reflect this deep relationship: mayim, meaning water, and shamayim, meaning sky.

God tried several times to create the world. He used equal measures of compassion, che-sed, and judgment, din. More than once the world collapsed until He incorporated an extra measure of ra-cha-mim, another word for compassion. Without love the world cannot exist, yet we humans were given freedom to love or not to love. God so wants to be known and be loved out of free will; forced love is no love at all.

*     *     *

The Hebrew language has gender; we refer to God in the  masculine; although, in His true nature He is William Gesenius's Hebrew punctuation (i.e., Yahweh)without gender. In the Tetragrammaton, Yud Hey Vav Heh, the unutterable name of God, the letters vav and heh represent the male and female forces of providence. The male force is that which acts upon the world, while the female force is that which allows the world to be receptive to God’s power. We refer to God as Him because we want Him to act upon the world through the male force of providence. The Hebrew word for Divine Presence, on the other hand, is She-chi-nah, a feminine noun.

*     *     *

Rodin's Le Baiser (The Kiss) in the Tuileries Garden in Paris According to the Zohar, love begins with a physical attraction, then communication and speech. A kiss is the merging of one breath with another. As closeness occurs, the lovers stop speaking and are merely aware of each other’s breath. Finally, they come even closer, to the point of physical contact, and their communication becomes a kiss. Here they are aware of each other’s life force. Kissing, explains the modern mystic Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, is a natural consequence of increased intimacy in speech. Two mouths come closer and closer, and progress from speech to breath to the kiss. The kiss, then, is the highest form of intimacy.

The Zohar describes four levels in the intimacy of love: physical attraction, speech, breath, and the kiss. These same four levels exist in the relationship of a person with the Divine. These levels are to this day reflected in the structure of the daily services in the synagogue and private prayer, moving the worshipper from one level of intimacy to another. The impact is deeply profound when one’s ka-va-nah, intention, is aligned with the words.

A Very Organic Process

"There are all kinds of stories and myths that have arisen about this. Most of them are nonsense.  And it became ever more apparent to me, as I worked my way up through this system, that I was not becoming a superman and I wasn’t becoming a saint and my morality was not becoming perfected.  And what was happening here was a very organic process that I’ve more recently come to think of as what I call a physio-energetic process.  There is some energy that arises in the body and can be developed in stages.  And that’s what’s happening.  All of the stuff, all of the stories that we layer on to that, that if you reach this stage, you’re going to act a certain way or you’re going to be incapable of committing various immoral acts, that’s just fantasy island...I’ve completely given up on the notion that you’re going to develop to the point of being incapable of lying, for example, or of being incapable of anger or lust."

~ Kenneth Folk, in conversation with Vince Horn, "Ordinary People Can Get Enlightened," Buddhist Geeks Podcast (Episode 156)

Offering the Self

This poem is a retelling of one of the Jātaka tales, Asian folktales which recount various acts of self-sacrifice performed by earlier incarnations of the Buddha. I came across this poem in Norman Fischer’s Talks on Dogen's Genjokoan published in "Moon in a Dewdrop" (Part 4).

The Rabbit in the Moon
by Ryōkan Taigu

Moon rabbit It took place in a world long long ago they say:
a monkey, a rabbit, and a fox struck up a friendship,
morning frolicking field and hill,
evenings coming home to the forest,
living thus while the years went by,
when Indra, sovereign of the skies,
hearing of this,
curious to know if it was true,
turned himself into an old man,
tottering along,
made his way to where they were.

“You three,” he said, “are of separate species
yet play together with a single heart.
If what I’ve heard is true,
pray save an old man who’s hungry!”
then he set his staff aside,
sat down to rest.

Simple enough, they said, and presently
the monkey appeared from the grove behind
bearing nuts he’d gathered there,
and the fox returned from the rivulet in front,
clamped in his jaws a fish he’d caught.

But the rabbit,
though he hopped and hopped everywhere
couldn’t find anything at all,
while the others cursed him
because his heart was not like theirs.

Miserable me! he thought,
and then he said
“Monkey, go cut me firewood!
Fox, build me a fire with it!”
and when they’d done what he’d asked,
he flung himself into the midst of the flames,
made himself an offering
for an unknown man.

When the old man saw this his heart withered.
He looked up to the sky,
cried aloud,
then sank to the ground,
and in a while,
beating his breast, said to the others,

“Each of you three friends has done his best,
but what the rabbit did touches me the most!”

Then he made the rabbit whole again
and gathering the dead body up in his arms,
took it and laid it to rest in the palace of the moon.

From that time till now
the story’s been told,
this tale of
how the rabbit came to be in the moon,
and even I
when I hear it
find the tears
soaking the sleeve of my robe.

What Was There All Along

What Was There All Along

"Though we think of metaphor as a mere figure of speech, something poetic and decorative, in fact metaphors abound in our lives, underlying many concepts that we take for granted. And metaphors condition, far more than we realize, the way we think about ourselves and our world, and therefore the way we are and act." ~ Norman Fischer

Seeing Through the Story

Edward Norton in Fight ClubJoseph Campbell has that great idea about mythologies, that a myth functions best when it’s transparent, when people see through the story to themselves. When something gets to the point where it becomes the vehicle for people sorting out their own themes, I think you’ve achieved a kind of holy grail. Maybe the best you can say is that you’ve managed to do something true to your own sensations. But at the same time you realize that this has nothing to do with you.”

~ Edward Norton, from “‘Fight Club’ Fight Goes On,” by Dennis Lim, New York Times, November 6, 2009

Sailing Home

From Authors@Google (October 10, 2008):

Sailing Home: Using the Wisdom of Homer's Odyssey to Navigate Life's Perils “In Sailing Home, renowned Zen teacher Norman Fischer deftly incorporates Buddhist, Judaic, Christian, and popular thought, as well as his own unique and sympathetic understanding of life, in his reinterpretation of Odysseus's familiar wanderings as lessons that everyone can use. We see how to resist the seduction of the Sirens' song to stop sailing and give up; how to bide our time in a situation and wait for the right opportunity; and how to reassess our story and rediscover our purpose and identity if, like the Lotus-Eaters, we have forgotten the past. With meditations that yield personal revelations, illuminating anecdotes from Fischer's and his students' lives, and stories from many wisdom traditions, Sailing Home shows the way to greater purpose in your own life.”

“So this is the mystery and the pain of our lives: every one of us is exactly where we need to be, but we don’t know it. We’re looking for somewhere else to be. The spiritual odyssey, life’s deepest and most significant undertaking, involves a great effort and inevitably it leads us on through many disasters and troubles in the checkered course of our living and growing. And where to we end up? Back where we started from. Back to ourselves. Only now maybe with more wisdom.” ~ Norman Fischer 


A Story That Has Lasted

Wally Lamb, from Novel Ideas:

Novel Ideas When I began work on my MFA at Vermont College, my teacher, Gladys Swan, asked, “What would you like to accomplish?” I said, “Well, I work with high-school students. I know that some novels really work with them and some don’t. I would love to write a book that would speak to young people the way that To Kill a Mockingbird has spoken to so many of my students and also to me.” We also talked about The Catcher in the Rye in that conversation. I don’t think it’s any accident that both of those novels have a prevalent first-person narrator with a strong sense of voice.

Gladys said to me, “The first thing that you have to do is not think about who your audience is.” She said, “Write it for you. Make it true for yourself, and let the audience find it.” In that same conversation, we talked about a short story I’d just begun about a crazy woman named Mary Anne, who later became Dolores. Gladys said, “You have too many pots on the stove here. There’s too much going on here for a short story.” That’s what I had written up to that point, so I said, “What should I cut out?” She said, “Don’t cut out anything. Keep going. Maybe you’re trying to write a novel.” I said, “Not me. I couldn’t handle that. That’s beyond what I can do.” And she said, “Well, if you want to learn how to write a novel, read the oldest stories. Those stories have lasted because they say things that people have needed to be told over and over and over again.” She said, “The world is an old place and all the stories that people need are already out there. You’re never going to tell an original story because everybody who’s come before you has beaten you to it. Put your own original spin on a story that has lasted.”

She came up with a reading list for me, and when I started reading and studying the myths, seeing the cross sections from culture to culture, that’s when I saw what she was getting at. And, really, that’s been the wellspring that I go back to over and over and over again when I’m starting something new.

One Step Above All That

To the Gods
by W.S. Merwin, from Present Company

Present Company When did you stop
telling us what we could believe

when did you take that one step
only one
all that

as once you stepped
out of each of the stories
about you one after the other
and out of whatever we imagined we knew
of you

who were the light
to begin with
and all of the darkness
at the same time
and the voice in them
calling crying
and the enormous answer
neither coming nor going
but too fast to hear

you let us believe
the names for you
whenever we heard them
you let us believe the stories
how death came to be
how the light appeared

how the beginning began
you let us believe
all that

then you let us believe
that we had invented you
and that we no longer
believed in you
and that you were only stories
that we did not believe

you with no
moment for beginning
no place to end
one step above
all that

listen to us
believe in us

Whenever Knowledge Becomes Rigid it Stops Living

Anslem Kiefer in conversation with Michael Auping from Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth:

Religion was a part of my childhood and my youth. It was a very important thing. The rituals and rites were important. I can still do them in Latin. Of course, I knew the Latin before I knew what it meant. But I was involved, like many young people of my generation, in learning religion at an early age.

Later, I discovered that Christian mythology was less complex and less sophisticated than Jewish mythology because the Christians limited their story to make it simple so that they could engage more people and defend their ideas. They had to fight with the Jewish traditions, with the Gnostics. It was a war of the use of knowledge.

Resurrexit, Anselm Kiefer, 1973

However, it wasn’t just a defense against outside ideas. It was aggressive. Like politics, they wanted to win. You know, the first church in Rome was not defensive and not aggressive. It was quiet. It was spiritual in the sense of seeking a true discussion about God. It was exploring a new idea about humanity. But then there was “iglesias triumphant,” the Triumph of the Church. And then the stones were stacked up and the buildings came, and the construction of the Scholastics, Augustine, and so on. They were very successful in limiting the meaning of the mythology. There were discussions about the Trinity and its meaning. Anyone who had ideas that complicated their specific picture was eliminated. This made Christianity very rigid and not very interesting. Whenever knowledge becomes rigid it stops living.

Volkszählung (Census), by Anselm Kiefer, 1991

…Since childhood, I had studied the Old Testament, and sometime as a young man I began to read of Jewish mysticism. Then in the mid-1980s, I went to Jerusalem and began to read the books of Gershon Scholem. Beside the fact that kabbalistic stories and interpretations are very interesting, I think my attraction has something to do with the way that I work.

People say that I read a lot, but in some ways I don’t. I read enough to capture images. I read until the story becomes an image. Then I stop reading. I can’t recite a passage, but I can recite it as an image. For an artist it is important to have a strong, complex subject. Kabbala means “knowledge that has been received,” a secret knowledge; but I think of it as images that have been received.

Everyone Stands Under His Own Dome of Heaven, Anslem Kiefer, 1970

As I said before, the Christian church hardened in its knowledge and its symbolism at a certain point. The kabbalistic tradition is not one but many, forming a sophisticated spiritual discipline. It is a paradox of logic and mystical belief. It’s part scholarship, part religion, part magic. For me, it is a spiritual journey anchored by images.

Unfold Your Own Myth

Who gets up early to discover the moment light begins?
Who finds us here circling, bewildered, like atoms?
Who comes to a spring thirsty
and sees the moon reflected in it?
Who, like Jacob blind with grief and age,
smells the shirt of his lost son
and can see again?
Who lets a bucket down and brings up
a flowing prophet? Or like Moses goes for fire
and finds what burns inside the sunrise?

Jesus slips into a house to escape enemies,
and opens a door to the other world.
Solomon cuts open a fish, and there's a gold ring.
Omar storms in to kill the prophet
and leaves with blessings.
Chase a deer and end up everywhere!
An oyster opens his mouth to swallow one drop
Now there's a pearl.
A vagrant wanders empty ruins,
Suddenly he's wealthy.

Don't be satisfied with stories, with how
others have done things. Unfold
your own myth, simply and directly,
Let yourself open to your truth.

Start on the path. Your legs may get heavy
and tired. Then comes a moment of feeling
the wings you have grown, lifting you

~ Rumi