What a Dog Knows
Afternotes |II| V: Or, Maslow and Me
In My Name is Asher Lev the young protagonist struggles with a compulsion towards creating art while growing up within a conservative Hassidic Jewish community that has little patience with such things.
When I first read the novel in my 20’s, it resonated - reminding me of my childhood struggle with much the same overarching issue: of being of a roving temperament that contrasted sharply with the familial culture I was thrown into.
But whereas Asher (otherwise than incessantly drawing) followed the path laid for him, of obeying the law, of studying the Torah, of praying and going to the synagogue and hoping to go to heaven, I grew up resigned to eternal damnation - not because of an issue with God as much as an aversion to His People (something Asher did not share, for whatever the conflict he always loved his parents).
But as I got older and my experience of His People expanded outside the cloistered church-school that constituted such a large part of my world, some changes brewed.
Particularly, switching Christian schools in middle school, where my world expanded from a class of around 10 to twice that and with students from a much more diverse background (i.e. with some parents who weren’t Christian or perhaps loosely so who just wanted their kids to have “good morals” and the like). I learned there that some Christians could be kind of cool, and enjoyable company.
That was put in stark relief when 2 years later as a freshman I transferred to the local public high school, an overcrowded place with well over 2k students as opposed to 80. A place which I wanted badly to like, but it was clearly not for me. Too many people, and ones to me so strange and impossible to connect with.
So when I went back that summer to my usual summer camp - a Christian one, but of a happy more casual Christianity largely alien to the hell-fire Christianity at home - I felt some pangs.
Pangs that perhaps changed the course of my life. For at the very end of the week at the final sermon, where I was fully prepared to do the zone out and daydream thing I had so mastered over the years, the speaker caught my attention.
And in closing he made an impassioned and what seemed to me very earnest appeal to come forward and accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. I had heard this kind of thing a million times, but for some reason - some combination of my state of mind, the speaker and perhaps the night - my reaction was different.
His wasn’t the typically fear-based nonsense. It was something else, or so it seemed to me. So I came forward and made an emotional decision to become, yes, a Christian.
So, as a Christian, I went back to the my old school the next year. But for the first time in my life, I went there because I was choosing to be there.
But I did not do so passively. I was a Christian, but whatever else I was not sure of, I knew that my Christianity had about as little to do with that of my parents as south from north, east from west, the sun from the far off Galaxy of your choice.
It was obvious just from being a person with eyes that something was wrong with their version. But what? What was different about mine and why?
So I began to read. And I began to talk to nearly everyone I came across about this. For if Christianity is true, then that’s the only thing that matters. So that’s how I lived, for a time.
But my conversations revealed that most people aren’t too interested in Christianity, at least where I was. And some more thoughtful people raised questions and arguments which I had no answer to.
So I read more and dove into “Christian apologetics”, a kind of debate club for Christians where you only practice one side.
But I was curious about what knowledgeable secular folk thought about Christianity, and why anyone wouldn’t believe what seemed so obvious to me. Often the apologetics books would represent the rationale of non-Christians, but I wanted to go straight to the source.
So that took me on a journey, and suddenly the scene shifted from people asking me questions I couldn’t answer to me asking questions with a deep urgency that no one could answer.
Which I found out as I began ever more openly to question everything. Which I became known for in that small community to the point a girl named Samantha I had a crush on (who was a Christian, like literally every single person at the school) mocked me at one point for “playing like I was Socrates”.
I had hardly read Socrates at that point, so imitation of him was not one of my behavioral options. I was asking questions because I wanted to know the answer (shockingly enough). Because I’d been told and had believed that eternal damnation was on the line. Which - call me crazy - seems kinda important.
(Or in other words: bitch, please.)
By this point you can probably see where this story is going. I asked question that no one could give me non-circular-argument answers to. Very basic ones.
Everything ultimately came down to “because the bible says” - even questions about the bible.
And ever so slowly it dawned on me that this was a bunch of bullshit.
But it was bullshit that literally everyone around me believed.
What the hell does one do with that? How does one orient oneself towards this and to these people? It was almost comical the degree to which they seemingly were incapable of grasping the concept of circular argument. Or of seeing the very basic errors they were making. Of going beyond a certain point, where either incapacity or unwillingness took over and they suddenly turned robotic.
But it wasn’t funny and it did not make me feel good. At all. It made me feel like a fucking psycho.
The only thing that grounded me was reading. George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, Thomas Henry Huxley, and H.L. Mencken particularly because they were folks who had faced this kind of thing before.
Their explanation? People are stupid, weak and conformist.
At 18, I left that world, but found myself in places just as suited to me as West Orange High School was.
So, just as I did so often growing up, I zoned out the external world and withdrew into the world of private experience.
It’s how I got through shit jobs and being surrounded by questionable characters for many years.
Obviously that’s not the whole story, but a good piece of it. Motivated alternatively by ambition, curiosity and disappointment with the mortal coil elsewise, I would venture back to that world and all that stimulates it - books, art, and of course drugs.
After 5 long years in this new world, I found myself on a bus on the way home to Clifton from a Parole meeting in Patterson. I was staring ahead of me, and thinking about my life.
What had all my years of reading and thinking brought me? What good had it done?
It had brought momentary pleasures yes, solitary nights with just books and the moon and endless hours stretching out in front of one.
But it had alienated me, in some fundamental sense, increasingly from everyone around me. And I was miserable, and had been for some time.
For what reason, exactly, am I engaged in this pursuit that raises walls between me and other people? Why am I insistent upon, essentially, being a martyr for the religion of the mind?
And it came upon me - with near violence - that I was doing much of this as a form of avoidance - of many things, but perhaps principally desire and disappointment. And as a means to both feel better about myself and to be someone - because without books and ideas who was I? Those were the only things standing between me and the void.
I thought because I was a thinker. And because of inertia - I had started this journey as a means of finding direction, had found none but just continued because what else?
It’s impossible to describe the moment - it was not an “intellectual” realization. It was embodied, in every fiber of my being. I felt it flowing through me, saw my whole life and all the different connections and moments almost as one. It was illuminatingly, blindingly clear - but not in some transcendent way. Immanent, embodied, clear.
And I resolved right then and there that this was not worth it. These abstractions were not the company I wanted. I wanted the tangible, concrete stuff of actual life, not ideas. I wanted my life embedded in that of the whirl of humanity, as Stoker put it. I wanted whatever would draw me closer to the heart of humanity, and I wanted nothing to do with what would draw me away.
Shortly afterwards I wrote in the back pages of my state-mandated journal:
None of my interests are served or sacrificed by others thinking I am a fool, or that I am weak, or that I am a good-for-nothing. Nobody thinks that now, and where has that gotten me? Be stupid, slow, incompetent, childish, feminine, gay, lazy, worthless, unreliable, boring, tedious, silly, weak, poor, helpless, needy, awkward, pathetic, undesirable, ugly, mocked, laughed at, rejected, despised, abused, beaten, disrespected, inauthentic, lacks integrity, desperate, miserable, unworthy, humiliated, and embarrassed.
I wanted, in other words, to try on something new for size: my shadow.
The broad pattern in my story is, of course, far from unique. For all of us, growing up is the process of slowing coming to realize that all these giants that surround us are mere mortals just like us, condemned to the same uncertainties and weaknesses we have.
The extreme dogmatism and stuffiness is a relative outlier in the modern age, but not unheard of.
What is arguably a bit different is the extreme nature of that shift. I didn’t just switch from being relatively inferior to just like them - rather I was given a vantage where suddenly I was looking down on them.
The importance of this is perhaps difficult to over-state.
I went from: these people are right but they're douchebags so I don't care I want nothing to do with them.
To suddenly I'm right and not only are they douchebags but willfully ignorant, irresponsible, perhaps even evil.
Douchebags talking out of both sides of their mouth, on the one hand praising truth and honesty and on the other embedded in an unending stream of lies and bullshit.
Lies and bullshit which are used politically to push policies that are objectively bad for the future thriving - not to mention survival - of the human species.
For someone who grew up consistently associated with the “bad” label, suddenly being on the side of good was a shock.
In other words, oh how the tables had turned.
But when I left that scene, I figured my troubles with alienation were over. I went out to seek others like me, who were committed to the pursuit of truth and guided by a studied balance of reason and evidence and experience. Folks like G.B. Shaw and H.L. Mencken and the others that had sustained me through the darkness.
Reader, I did not find such people.
(At 39 years old, I can count the number of people I’ve met like that on one hand.)
And not only did I not find them, but I found that the overall moral decency of Christians in everyday interactions was often absent in the secular world. So in many ways it was a step back - little or no meaningful improvements in informed and reasoned discourse, but huge steps back in decency.
And so, over time and repeated disappointments, my orientation towards the world of men hardened into a despisal of human beings.
Again, not a new story. To be young and naive and idealistic and then get jack-hammered in the face is age-old. To both illustrate this, let’s discuss someone thus far unmentioned in these letters. The individual whose work, across the world, was the author of the work most associated with the themes of this project.
My childhood… was miserably unhappy. In retrospect, it seemed so dark and sad a period that I wonder how I accepted it so unquestioningly. I can find no single glimpse of happiness in all my memories….
This is from Abraham Maslow. He continues:
I was a very ugly child and youngster… I felt peculiar. This was really in my blood, a very profound feeling that somehow I was wrong. Never any feeling that I was superior that I can remember. Just one big aching inferiority complex… My father… thought me an idiot and a fool. Probably, too, he was disappointed in me.
His relationship with his mother was no better:
Young Maslow brought home several homeless and starving kittens to give them milk. His mother became very angry because he had used her dishes to do so. She, then, in front of her son proceeded to throw the kittens against the wall, smashing their heads until they died.
She often threatened Abe with God’s punishment, to which he reacted somewhat predictably, “To me, as a child… [superstition and religion], it was all the same. And I had learned from her, certainly, to despise everything about it.”
But it gave him purpose: “the whole thrust of my life-philosophy and all the research and all the theorizing… has its roots in a hatred for and revulsion against everything she stood for.”
To avoid his parents, he spent the vast majority of his childhood in the library. There he found a number of figures - Eugene Debs, William Graham Sumner, and Upton Sinclair particularly, who became his heroes and lit a fire to be an agent of change.
After drifting for a while during his college years, he came across the writings of the behaviorist John Watson who had once promised that, given a “dozen healthy babies” he could train them to “become any type of specialist”. Maslow was soon enough a convert, for in Watson’s vision he saw the “possibility of a science of psychology, a program of work which promised real progress, real advances, real solutions of real problems.”
Shortly after that, he enrolled in the University of Wisconsin as a psychology major - partly for it’s liberal reputation and partly, again, to get away from his family - with a clear mission: “to change the world.”
And at Wisconsin he began to bloom. His self-confidence rose as he developed his skills and knowledge in psychology (soon becoming disillusioned with Watson), developed a rational outlook on life rounded out by a deep appreciation for music and poetry, and dated (“I kissed her and she kissed me back, and life began") and soon married Bertha Goodman.
He stayed at Wisconsin for his graduate studies, eventually doing his dissertation work under (pre-fame) Harry Harlow on primate behavior. But after finishing his doctorate, he had trouble finding employment - perhaps because of his ethnicity, which he had a complicated relationship with. Linda Sargent Wood writes,
Although unsympathetic to institutional religion, a target of anti-Semitism, and committed to atheism, he never renounced his Jewish heritage. Jewish teachings shaped his humanism and social consciousness, and the anti-Semitism he encountered evoked in him empathy for others. Anti-Semitism also heightened his Jewish identity. To help him gain employment after his dissertation, some professors encouraged a name change to hide his roots [a not uncommon practice at the time]. No, he wrote belligerently in his diary, ‘If I’m a Jew, I’m a Jew, and I’ll stuff it down your throat if you don’t like it.’
Lines like that also illustrate his growing self-confidence. Which shot up even further after he got hired, in what was the closest thing to a singular turn-around in relation to his view of himself and others and his orientation to both.
For Edward L. Thorndike, whom he met at a conference where he was presenting the findings from his dissertation, offered him a position under him at Columbia at the recommendation of a colleague.
As a condition of his hiring, he was required to take a battery of psychological tests - one of them an early version of the IQ test. Then Maslow was given his first assignment: researching the relative weight of heredity versus environment in causing various human behaviors. Maslow considered it, realized he had no interest in it and wrote Thorndike a letter explaining why he thought it was a fundamentally flawed research question.
Shortly, Maslow got called into Thorndike’s office, the former half expecting to be fired. On the contrary, Thorndike told him that he had scored the second highest IQ on record, that of 195, and that despite not caring for his current research on dominance and sex, that he could continue doing whatever he wanted and that, furthermore, he would “support him for the rest of his life if he were unable to secure a permanent job”.
Maslow had already at this point begun to see himself as a member of a small elite tasked with saving the world. This only heightened that sense, and then some.
Thereafter if I retreated in the face of oppositions, I’d wake up in the middle of the night and say, “But dammnit, I’m smarter than he is. Why should I feel that he’s right and I’m wrong?”
That statement itself is an apt illustration of an error of thinking that IQ does little to nothing to prevent, and may even exacerbate. But it was a fetish that stayed. His biographer relates that:
For the rest of Maslow’s life, he regarded his IQ as a mark of triumph. At parties and social gatherings, he liked to spark conversation by casually inquiring about someone’s IQ and then volunteering his own. He once asked his Brandeis colleague Max Lerner, the well-known political analyst, “Do you know what your IQ is?‟ “No, I don’t think so,‟ replied Lerner. “Don’t worry,‟ Maslow assured him, “it’s probably almost as high as mine.”
But it was 1935, he was only 28 years old and in New York City and starting to really come into his own. He delved into the intellectual life of the city and became involved with the large group of European intellectuals who had arrived after fleeing the Nazis. Friend of the newsletter Erich Fromm, Karen Horney, Alfred Adler, Max Wertheimer, and Ruth Benedict were among those he would get to know well.
He was particularly influenced by the gestalt thinkers among them, and the idea that not only is the whole more than the sum of its parts, it's a completely different thing. The idea, at odds with conventional scientific methodology, that if you want to know what a radio is, you don't (only at least) take it apart and examine the pieces. You turn the damned thing on.
2 years later he started teaching at Brooklyn college and started his inquiry into what was to be his life’s work: how individuals achieve excellence, mature and live full, meaningful lives.
He found himself a popular lecturer, whom students described as warm, witty and open. Some even nicknamed him the “Frank Sinatra of Brooklyn College”. Meanwhile he began spend more and more time around Wertheimer and Benedict, as if a stranger from another time listening to the radio for the first time:
They were puzzling. They didn’t fit. It was as if they came from another planet... Everything I knew didn’t explain them. They were mysteries. They were also very nice and parental with me, and answered questions and let me hang around... And I had all sorts of notes on them, sort of journal notes, and I kept on trying to figure them out. That was an entirely personal enterprise. It didn’t even occur to me to think of it as an exploration or a research.
But then later, when he did begin to think of it as an exploration:
I realized in one wonderful moment that their two patterns could be generalized. I was talking about a kind of individual, not two incomparable individuals. There was wonderful excitement in this. I tried to see whether this pattern could be found elsewhere, and I did find it elsewhere, in one person after another.
And off he went.
In other words, life was looking good. The turn-around was all but complete.
Cut to Maslow’s journals, started in 1959 at the age of 51, where common themes emerge:
I do run a kind of natural selection with people, paying lots of attention to the promising ones & brushing off the losers, the incapables.
It’s useless to be a do-gooder, to try to improve the average person, much less to sacrifice for them, die for them... That’s a waste of effort. A schlemiel remains a schlemiel. Only thing you can do is to look for the superiors that exist.
In a certain sense, only the saints are mankind. Others are sick, twisted cripples.
His inner childhood debate between Debs and Sumner had apparently ended, with Sumner’s vision of a small group of rational super-scientists watching over the flock of humanity from above and guiding them to the promised land winning out.
And while Maslow had always been fascinated with these themes, the degree to which they became a central one had increased, as had their extreme nature as he increasingly became interested in and agitated about politics as the Cold War and Vietnam amped up - not to mention the internal radical and counter-cultural movements.
Whether the increasingly anti-egalitarian nature of his thought can be further linked with his growing anger, frustration and disappointment cannot be unequivocally posited, but it is not implausible.
For his new appointment at the prestigious Brandeis University, which he helped found, was not going so well:
His avuncular manner—however well-meaning—could not have been more unsuited to the student mood of the times [the 1960’s]—especially at an intellectually elite liberal arts school like Brandeis. . . . Maslow had a tendency to lecture like a parent berating a recalcitrant child. This approach only heightened tension in his classes.
He, in turn was forever disappointed in them:
Most of his students, especially the women, disappointed him, with their psychic drabness beneath a pert exterior. "Their faces look so much more promising than they actually are. They're all well enough adjusted, happy, psychiatrically untroubled, etc., but still they have no flame, spark, plan, excitement, goal dedication, feeling of responsibility." He despised some of the kids for their numbing blandness: being well-adjusted to a stifling culture was often evidence of deep-rooted sickness of soul. Mediocrity appeared to be the general lot, but the exceptions thrilled Maslow sufficiently that he refused to accept mediocrity as the inevitable lot of most. (Valiunas)
His daughter was rebelling, his family ever sunk in what he termed defeatism.
Could they all have reacted against my optimism, reformism, hopefulness, do-good work?
His friends weren’t calling, his colleagues were let-downs.
Frankl “narcissistic,” Laing “bloodless,” Fromm and May “not empirical enough”. Meanwhile he expressed little but contempt for Paul Goodman, Allen Ginsberg, Che Guevera, Abbie Hoffman (his former student), and Herbert Marcuse.
And then, in December of 1967 at the age of 59, he had a heart attack.
In the last few years of his life, even extending a year or so before his first heart attack, some small stirring of change began to appear.
Peak experiences, which had been a focus for many years and was the subject of an entire book of his as a path to self-actualization, he began to question:
‘I must accept very frankly as a thus-far insoluble problem the present impossibility of distinguishing objectively between a healthy peak experience and a manic-attack.’
Not only is it hard to distinguish, but it’s fruits are sometimes the opposite of what he had initially claimed:
Out of the joy and wonder of his ecstasies and peak-experiences he may be tempted to seek them, ad hoc, and to value them exclusively, as the only or at least the highest goods of life, giving up other criteria of right and wrong. Focused on these wonderful subjective experiences, he may run the danger of turning away from the world and from other people in his search for triggers to peak-experiences, any triggers. In a word, instead of being temporarily self-absorbed and inwardly searching, he may become simply a selfish person, seeking his own personal salvation, trying to get into “heaven” even if other people can’t, and finally even perhaps using other people as triggers, as means to his sole end of higher states of consciousness. In a word, he may become not only selfish but also evil.
Evil like “meanness, nastiness, loss of compassion, or even in the extreme of sadism…”
As for his hyper-focus on the individual, he finally admitted he “was too imbalanced toward the individualistic and too hard on groups, organizations, and communities…The need for community (belongingness, contact, groupiness) is itself a basic need. Loneliness, isolation, ostracism, rejection by the group — these are not only painful but pathogenic as well.’
And then in one of his last speeches at Esalen, he admitted, “I really don’t care much about helping a privileged few to lead happier lives on the edge of catastrophe.”
After his heart attack, the changes picked up even further. He eased up a bit on his messianic zeal, and became more informal in his talks:
[I no longer] feel the necessity of hitting a home run each time I opened my mouth, of every single time having the biggest ejaculation in the world—in a word, of performing up to their expectations, of living up to their image.
His interest in what he called “aggridance” did not go away entirely, but it eased up, at least as concerned his own life:
"The dominance hierarchy, the competition, the competitiveness and glory, certainly become foolish.... "
And he achieved a certain sense of peace:
I had really spent myself, This was the best I could do, and here was not only a good time to die but I was even willing to die.. , . It was what David M. Levy called the "completion of the act." It was like a good ending, a good close. I think actors and dramatists have that sense of the right moment for a good ending, with a phenomenological sense of good completion-that there was nothing more you could add...
And so, on Monday June 8, 1970, after a long weekend spent mostly by the pool writing and chatting while his wife sculpted and her and their daughters friends sunbathed and played in the pool, he fell down a few feet from his wife and passed away.
I’m not an emotional person, but I shed tears while and after writing that last paragraph. While I had a fair familiarity with his work, I knew little about his life and having spent now these last few weeks with him I feel a sense of loss. This perhaps reflects a reason he’s stuck around.
He leaves behind, of course, a mixed legacy.
I don’t think that Maslow ever quite found a way of orientating himself to others that was worthy of his focus on human development. He seemed to make some small almost redemptive-like turns towards the end of his life in that regard, but seemed to still remain stuck largely in an elitist paternalistic mode, stuck thinking that “self-actualizers” were the human version of dominant chickens.
Basically, Maslow’s theory is that there are certain people born with considerable “raw capacity” that they then choose to fully develop to its maximum potential during their lives. Early in his career, he thought anyone could do this to an extent and throughout his life he was highly active in encouraging more people to do so - because he thought their fate depending on it. He would regularly ask his students which among them would write the next great novel, or next composition, or be the next great leader:
“Generally, everybody starts giggling, blushing, and squirming until I ask, if not you, then who else?” Which of course is the truth…If you deliberately plan to be less than you are capable of being, then I warn you that you’ll be deeply unhappy for the rest of your life. You will be evading your own capacities, your own possibilities.”
And he maintained until the end of his life that the only happy people he’d ever known were those like this. But, the longer he lived the more he realized how rare this is, and how many appear to actively choose to do anything but develop their abilities, whatever they might be and at whatever capacity. So his view changed, and he began to suspect that the act of self-actualizing was connected to a specific and rare genotype, that tended to be over-represented in certain high-status or high-power positions. And he began to believe that the fate of the world depended on individuals of this type, and of supporting their development and allowing opportunities for them to work together for the common good.
He was familiar with the studies on dominance in chickens, he had done studies on dominance in primates, as well as sex and dominance in humans (it appears he was the one who inspired Kinsey to conduct his famous studies) and followed closely Terman’s study on IQ. All of which he felt supported it in various ways his theory.
But accompanying his fascination with politics and the future of governance was the fact that towards the end sometimes he had difficulty even running a classroom.
Of course he’d reply that it’s because these kids no longer have the ability or willingness to recognize their superiors. And until that changes, the human species is doomed.
That is not a complete bullshit point (though sadly research suggests it’s near impossible, outside of faith). But he’s lumping all these competencies together. Looking critically at Maslow himself as a global “superior” precisely what other fields besides psychology did he contribute to? Management, yes, but purely the psychological elements of that. He wasn’t giving advice on how to run their financials.
So obviously there are “superiors” in specific fields. But does that reflect some underlying and innate global “superiority”?
Outside the obvious caveats, not really. There is some overlap in desirable qualities due to things like assortative mating, but it’s limited and far from predictive of complex outcomes like adult psychological development. And while having high levels of more narrow traits like IQ is associated with conventional accomplishments and raw ability - often even across domains - it doesn’t appear to provide much of an advantage in the personality aspects of self-actualization (for example, there is no link between IQ and conscientiousness) nor in broader contributions (too much practice is required for anyone to convert raw ability, however powerful, into expertise in anything more than a small number of disciplines).
The broader problem here though is that it’s easy to throw out generalizations (Maslow always characterized his writings as working conjectures for others to test) and much more difficult to back it up. So I could spend 500 pages breaking down the incredible complexity of this - but there’s no point, and it dignifies the claim more than it deserves. The bottom line is that you can have every single detail of a person’s genome, and the predictive power is still poor (in fact the microbiome was shown in a recent preprint to be more predictive of disease than the genome) for most meaningful outcomes. Because the environment at every single stage of development, from before inception and on, shapes the individual, and biologically we are “programmed” for this. In some fundamental sense, humans are their environment - particularly the very early ones (though not of course only their environment).
And even if you ignore his mistake on the origins of self-actualization, turning to the larger claim reveals nearly as many mistakes. Because human beings are not objects. He’s treating it like “superior” is written on their blood and bones (as traditionally understood), that human beings are static entities. It reminds me of my fascination of the career course of artists. How many maintain a high level and can be labeled anything like a “superior” for any extended length of time? Particularly of course for the more complex and demanding arts?
We see a rise, and then we see something else. We see that most things are ephemeral. “I could have been a contender”. Maybe you could have been a contender, maybe even you were a contender, maybe once you were great. But it is exceedingly rare to find a bio of a person where one cannot see it go sooner rather than later, and for those exceptions invariably it seems the individual made the right choice in - or happenstanced upon - their environment.
As for those on the other side of his categorization, he wrote this note during his early work on management:
In the industrial work, it often looks as if the blue-collar workers are content to stay at the lower need levels. Certainly this can be learned & cultural, but might it also be in part genetic? Perception of one’s own inferiority?
Later he was more confident:
I think there are innate superiors and inferiors. How could there not be? Everything varies from more to less…
Again with the focus on “genetic” and “innate”, which we’ve debunked. The other aspect is this focus, not on individuals as a collection of traits but as a whole. Which is uncommon and unpopular in public discourse, and uncommon in science because it’s difficult to use the scientific method to “get at” anything like what Maslow is talking about.
A good analogy may be between the results of any and all psychological tests and the flesh and blood experience of a person. The one does not come close to capturing the other, and that became a focus of Maslow’s as he studied individuals. That there was a qualitative element to people that psychological science had nothing to say about, but which his everyday experience spoke volumes about. Particularly as he came to know noteworthy individuals in the intellectual circles of NYC and among the management firms he was consulting with.
Their mere presence charged the atmosphere anywhere they went. A party that Maslow threw and to which Benedict and Wertheimer came turned into a festival of preternatural congeniality, and the host knew it was they who radiated the warmth and intelligence that kindled everyone’s best nature. Certain people just shone as exemplars of wholeness, intensity, virtue, achievement, and delight; Maslow was left wondering what an entire society led by such men and women might achieve. (Valiunas)
That description reminds me of the (very small) literature on super-shrinks, which finds that the most effective therapists achieve an 80% success rate, compared to 20% among the least effective ones. And this can’t be explained by conventional factors (i.e. it’s not the form of treatment, its rigor, or their training or demographics but about a constellation of characteristics that affects the holistic experience clients have of them).
But this remarkable fact has received little attention in the literature, and despite earning 2 masters degrees in the discipline never once was this mentioned in any of my classes. It seems little has changed from Maslow’s day, when the focus was overwhelmingly on the average or on those struggling.
So I wish I could say more, but Maslow did not have a heir who devoted himself to tracking down this tiny minority who might meet Maslow’s rather specific “constellation” of features. So maybe there is some magical group of holistic super-humans who could be transforming the world but who are stuck working away in relative obscurity - like these supershrinks - because no one is paying attention to this.
But this is the system we have. When I was younger I had this naive view that there were people “out there” searching the streets and the byways for the next world-changer. For anyone showing promising signs of a unique perspective or talent.
Undoubtedly this is partly inspired by “society of spectacle” movie nonsense where some schlub gets passively “discovered’ going about their everyday life, and everything changes for them. While this is true of a few - typically photogenic - occupations like acting and modeling, for the most part what is true is the exact opposite of this fantasy. Rather than looking to recognize competence and uniqueness, there are millions of people the world over who are motivated to shit on anyone who appears a threat and do everything possible to prevent their being discovered and therefore be a competitor.
And that was a big part of Maslow’s concern:
We must make the world safe for superiors. The lower the culture & the lower people are the more likely they are to resent and hate superiors and so kill them off or drive them into hiding and camouflage. The more we educate the bulk of the population, the better it will be for the elite, e.g., less danger, more audience, more disciples, protectors, financiers, etc.
Basically, we live in a system where everyone (outside the tiny upper class) gets thrown together and whatever “floats to the top” then gets attention - through gaining critical mass and/or institutional support. And I wonder to what degree the current lack of “great works” being done is because of a failure of both - institutional decline and public apathy.
But an issue with Maslow’s approach here is that a holistic focus on the individual is not actually holistic. Because again, as we’ve seen with genetics, our intimate connection to our surroundings is unavoidable. Carl Whitaker used to comment that we are merely fragments of our families. So a holism worthy of the name would see the individual in the context of the larger systems of which they are a part, and see both how they are differentiated from it - which Maslow did a ton of - but also how they are inextricably entwined with it.
Further, his denigration of those he deemed “inferior” is a shitting on what is often a vital form of group diversity. For while he did emphasize that everyone’s development will look different, the description he gives of the peak of development excludes, for example, disturbances like anxiety.
For while individuals high in this trait are unlikely to be the life of the party, always scanning the environment for danger (and not being afraid to bring it up) is a benefit to the group. They did a study where a fire broke out and guess who was the first to notice? Yes, the highly anxious. They may not have the "positive vibes only” that are all the rage, but they might just prevent your ass from being fried.
That’s why simple hierarchical ratings are so dumb - there’s a reason there’s so much diversity in nature. And sometimes what may not be pleasing for your social preferences or your ideas of human progress on a grand scale may be essential for the necessary prior to both: survival.
Traits are always a complex trade-off, and on multiple levels - individual and family and cultural group and so on. And we need most if not all of them.
And along with the complexity of trade-offs is that of reflexivity - that as soon as you begin to label people inferior or superior that alone is going to have an effect. Someone labeled inferior reacting "you think I'm inferior? Well I’ll show you what you know" and on the other end those who “peaked” when they were, for example, admitted into Harvard, an event which justifies their existence and forms their adult identity in one fell swoop, after which they enroll in some version of suicide on the installment plan.
And of course the history of “greatness” is littered with the former, including Maslow himself. And the offspring of the “greats” often seems littered with the latter (not to mention the many times both happen to the same person). So going into some oversimplified version of a “biological” explanation was dumb. Would Maslow have been the same dude, would he be as driven if he was coddled his whole life?
Somehow I doubt it
The main defense though for these remarks of Maslow’s is that these were his journals, not his published writing. Many are off-hand remarks, many are contradictory, many undeveloped. But this inferior - superior thing shows up so often, and even into his published work, that it can’t be brushed off like a one time fleeting thought.
And more to the point, he’s far from alone in this kind of thinking. Particularly - making this relevant - to those who, like Maslow, pursue the further reaches of human nature.
From ancient Greece and its men of gold, men of silver, men of bronze, to Nietzsche and his beloved “herd”, to the many figures in Maslow’s day who had various pet terms for regular Americans, such as Timothy Leary (a friend of Maslow’s) and his “ant people” and Rollo May and his “hollow people” these are not new ideas. Then relatedly was the comical near-deification of Charles Manson by many members of the alternative press after his killing spree, representing a kind of ethos that was “in the air” of various portions of the counter-culture as they marched towards their “kairos”, which they assumed not everyone would want a part of. And so they believed these willful denizens of “fake-prop-television-set American society” would die off, not to be mourned.
But especially in a literate democracy, this is not a viable path forward. Because if indulged in, eventually there will be a backlash. Humans are remarkably sensitive to status and how they’re being treated, even if unconsciously.
And ignoring it won’t make the issue go away. Which is perhaps what many want - it’s remarkable how few articles there are - particularly scholarly - on this aspect of Maslow. He’s one of the most cited psychologists in history, yet basically no one wants to touch this part of his legacy?
But a form of elitism is perhaps a temptation for anyone who does anything outside of the ordinary, particularly I suspect intellectually or with one’s personality. Though it’s not without consequences, and not just individually but culturally.
For it’s perhaps easy to underestimate the compelling power the counter-culture movement had in the 60’s and how broadly different facets of it were embraced in mainstream culture. The degree to which the business community embraced Maslow and Esalen for a time is a potent example of this.
But then the 70’s came, and it was soon over. "Culture of Narcissism,” released at the end of the decade well represents the cultural backlash, which continues perhaps even to this day. Who is writing about any of this with any power and conviction today? Positive psychology is mostly a joke - focused on and couched in banalities. It’s not even worth mentioning the corpses that are humanistic and - god forbid - transpersonal psych (both of which, incidentally, Maslow was central in creating). Psychadelic’s have of late gotten a sheen of scientific respectability and so the cowards are slowly coming out of hiding to talk about it, but that’s about it.
The 90’s was the closest we came to a resurgence, but as far as I’m aware it was mostly just in pop culture: American Beauty, Fight Club, The Truman Show, the hitting-you-over-the-head-with-it Matrix and maybe even Donnie Darko (if one squints) all had themes couched in this (not to mention the ones, like The Big Lebowski, that though counter-cultural used a more democratic lens and focused on Leary’s dropping out rather than Maslow’s pushing the limits). In music, Seal’s “Crazy”, a top ten hit in the US in 1991, is another example.
All this to say that elitism in any of its forms is a trap to avoid. It’s incompatible with living in a democratic society, unless you hole yourself up in some insipid and lifeless cordoned off basement (or worse, ivory tower). To actually live in the midst of society in any dynamic way with such a view means compartmentalization, insincerity or ugliness.
Which means the way forward is… egalitarianism?
The problem with egalitarianism is that almost no one is, whatever their claims. From birth, we are “attractive face supremacists” - our attention gravitates disproportionately to some people over others, which continues for the rest of our lives. And social media has made this inequality more transparent than ever - which perhaps plays a large role in the weird cultural thing we’ve got going on now, where some combination of guilt from the “superiors” and envy from the “inferiors” in that space seems to drown out reasoned discourse.
The effects of these relatively more minor inequalities in everyday life in how we treat other people get magnified when it comes to social media, where the few seconds it to like or subscribe to one person over another turn into - on a mass scale - staggering levels of polarity and which as opposed to everyday life is unavoidable. Once the internet becomes the default place to hang out - which increasingly is becoming the case, particularly for certain classes - then that number becomes increasingly valent.
And it’s not just attentional bias - we openly believe that we are better than “most people” on most things (while also believing we are more resistant than others to having an inflated opinion of ourselves). Whoever is in our group, no matter how randomly its members are chosen, is better than those not in our group. And why? Because it’s our group. Which, of course, means better. And not just better at some surface level, but in essence - based on “biology” - and this is a bias that begins early and tends to persist.
At a fundamental level, most people end up believing that they and anything associated with them is better than anything that is not. In other words, that the former is superior and the latter inferior.
So from that lens, Maslow’s discourse here seems less offensive. Indeed, it seems an improvement on the general lot because he actually thought it out. Rather than just reflexively believing that these random things that often are not even chosen - hometown, country, childhood morals, family, ect - is superior, actual principles and observation is involved.
And obviously it is impossible to make decisions in the world without having some sense of what is better and what is worse. Particularly for the larger more abstract questions which we are increasingly faced with. The immediate question of who to talk to at a party is relatively simple, and one doesn’t need a larger value system to help there - but who to date or marry, what career to choose, what social groups to associate with, where to live, what moral system to embrace and what to prioritize - these are a bit thornier.
And leaving Christianity at 17 I was faced with all of these at once. Because it is a rather convenient religion - it gives you not only an epistemology but also an entire moral system “ready to go”. Not that there aren’t any intra-religious disputes, but the 10 commandments, the fruits of the spirit and so on have a fairly consistent focus.
So I didn’t just lose a belief system, I also lost my moral compass. What was right, what was wrong, what the hell should I do when facing the world and leaving high school and my family behind - this was a massive challenge.
And that’s around when I came across “The Ethics of Belief”, which more than anything else is what hardened my elitism into certainty. For in that essay, Cifford makes the case that what we believe is not just a matter of personal taste or preference, but a matter of right and wrong and of good and evil.
He gives the hypothetical scenario: a man owns a large passenger ship. To update it for the times and make it easier to relate to, let’s say a passenger plane. So he owns the plane and let’s say it’s flying from Dallas to NYC. It’s about to take off from Love Field, and there’s some issue with the normal check-over that’s done prior to departure. And the owner decides that he has faith that the plane will be fine, there is no reason to check it over - maybe he has a lot of experience with the plane and it’s never let him down, or he has a sentimental attachment to it because his parents gave it to him or whatever. But bottom line he decides there is no need to verify if the plane is in good working order and so orders it to take off immediately.
The ending here is likely telegraphed: the plane crashes, hundreds of people die.
The question: is the owner responsible for the death of those passengers?
The defense is that he genuinely believed that the plane was in good working order. This was not a case of malice or indifference, he earnestly with all his heart had faith in the soundness of that plane.
Does that matter? I think the answer should be obvious - of course not. Due diligence is not optional when other lives are on the line and faith is not a defense.
The corollary here to belief in general should also be obvious: our beliefs have consequence, not only for us but for those around us. Particularly of course in a capitalistic and democratic system - our everyday decisions en-mass have huge upscale consequence. Believing that global warming is a bunch of BS has consequences. COVID beliefs have consequences. My interest in being topical is usually close to zero, but it’s unavoidable. And obviously over recent history we can see the social effects of activism of deluded groups - the religious right particularly looms large here.
So we all have a responsibility for what we believe. And if we don’t know or don’t have the time to do due diligence (something my mom once protested) - then we don’t have time to believe. We can simply say “I don’t know,” and indeed - if the fate of our species is at all important - should.
And obviously this is not an abstract matter for me. The consequences of my parents irresponsibility in this regard for me was massive. I think of all the time I spent sitting in church listening to nonsense, all the dumb rules and punishments reigned down on me throughout my childhood, all the garbage prohibitions that still stick with me as an adult - it just seems fucked up. Because of course it is.
They could have chosen another way. They could have chosen to try to verify rather than jump at what appeared to save them from their misery.
So choice became the bedrock for me of what differentiated individuals and how to assess them. I never ventured into wondering about if there was any inborn element to this - that never really tempted me. And I think in part I can thank my sister for that.
In my experience with her - having down syndrome - I saw how anyone is capable of good and evil, how it is always a battle for all of us - and that this perhaps above anything else that is what matters.
For I saw up close her develop and form a way of being. And growing up in our emotionally barren childhood landscape, the only way she found she could get consistent “care” and close attention was if she was sick. So she was sick. A lot.
And it got worse, not better, as she got older. In high school I have a memory of her dragging herself down the stairs and across the living room floor rasping in a hoarse whisper-groan, “My leg is broken, my leg is broken.”
Reader, Janine’s leg was not broken.
But my parent’s, for whatever reason, did not see her as a moral creature. Why I’m not sure - trying to ask my parents for their reasoning on anything is an exercise in frustration, they are not the most thoughtful people and their theory of mind is at an elementary level. It’s probably related to them believing she is too dumb to know good and evil.
But she did know. She had this look that she’d give when she knew she got caught for something, that I’ll never forget. Her little scheme was revealed, her face would grow red and she’d say, “I’m sorry, Thomas”. And then she’d try to change the subject or charm her way out of it.
When we were younger my parents would always believe her over my brother and I. And sometimes she’d use that to her advantage. I can’t remember a specific anecdote, but she’d lie and maybe get us in trouble or get something she wanted, and she’d get this gloating look on her face, and sometimes even stuck her tongue out at us. Which Joel and I hated.
In fact, she became quite good and strategic at playing my parents like a fiddle. In some ways, it was rather comical. The “inferior” playing one over the “superior”. (Reminds me of Wilde’s quote on the tyranny of the weak over the strong).
So while many people would look at my sister and see first and perhaps only “retarded person”. I looked at her and saw complexity, see a vivid personality capable of intentionality and a level of self-awareness, morally included (not as much as my brother and I, certainly, but more than enough) - prone to particular characterological faults - which sometimes she gave into and sometimes she didn't. Now obviously she had her limitations, but she wasn’t some kind of amorphous blob floating in the ether. Some generic face-less “stupid person” deserving of nothing but mechanistic pity charity.
So I bring that experience with me when I think about individuals and differing abilities. I did not and don’t feel my parents did Janine any favors by treating her like, essentially, a dumb animal.
So my angle was, generally speaking, an ethical and moral one. It’s not what you have, it’s what you choose to do with it. And choosing to essentially put your fingers in your ear and sing “la-la-la” every time information you don’t like it spoken is a choice. Evading questions that challenge your chosen delusions is a choice. Believing things absent evidence or reason is a choice.
Choices which, at least to my mind, did not require any “special” powers outside of honesty and integrity.
They were an option available to nearly all. But taken by so few,
Like capitalism, it’s both democratic - almost anyone can do it - and elitist - few people actually do.
But this view is, of course, easily weaponized. Which I became guilty of until it near killed me.
And so I embraced a more empathetic view - one consisting of less a judging from afar and more a standing behind them, looking over their shoulder at how they view the world and why, based on the traditions to which they are heir.
After which I would love to be able to tell you that life was all glitter and balloons - and that I lived happily ever after.
It would provide a very convenient and populist ending to this inquiry - once I was lost and then I was found, by seeing the light that there are no such things as hierarchies. And that if only Maslow had made the full turn like I did, the world would have been gifted with a figure who inspired a living and transformative vision, and not the dead one we have.
But that would be a fairy tale, and as much as I love stories of that kind I’m not going to tell one today.
It started off wonderful enough. Indeed, the era following that were some of the best years of my life thus far.
Thinking of that, I'm reminded of a comment from a sociology professor of mine - Mel Barber - some years later when discussing grad programs. One that seemed unhelpful and oversimplistic then, but that for some reason has remained with me:
“If you end up in a place with good people, life will be good. If you don't, well then…” and he just let it trail off with a sheepish smile and shrugged his shoulders.
But in those post-prison years, the distinction between good people and those otherwise began in my mind to blur. Because that is an elitist notion, reminiscent of my old orientation. My new focus was simply to find others who I gravitate towards and with whom I have rapport, and go from there. To trust as it were that this is nature’s indicator that this is someone with whom I should be speaking, rather than analyzing it.
It was a kind of romance with the elemental notion of “being-with”, a skepticism towards the abstract and conventional distinctions, as well as to a degree with language and communication itself.
I bought a book which I never read soon after prison called “The Community of Those with Nothing in Common” and that idea haunted me for many years afterwards. The idea of not having to be limited by overlaps of interest and personality, but liking someone because they were different.
And while I was on parole in New Jersey this worked because I was around “good people” - including those in my parole group, a wonderful hodge-podge of personalities and characters from all walks of life.
But then I left, I ventured out into the great unknown.
And things were still good, for a time.
Then I woke up one morning to find a knife sticking out of my back.
And it happened again, and again and again. Until finally, I wised up.
And looking back, the signs were clearly there - not writ large, but there had I bothered to pay attention or ask more questions. But I was too caught up in my romance with communion, with my serene embeddedness amidst the salt of the earth.
So I returned - after the shock subsided - to my elitism. And not a single morning since have I woken to a knife in my back (knock on wood). The romance ended, and good goddamn riddance.
The world seemed generally to be run by an upper 5-10 percent managerial types whom I now think I would call, rather, the Responsible Persons—the ones you can count on, the ones with a sense of duty, the ones whose word you can trust. Now of course this is a matter of degree, ranging from the fraction of 1 percent… on down. Yet whatever the percentages, and however shadowy the line may be between Responsibles and Nonresponsibles, the gap is huge, almost as between two species.
Obviously this claim is a bit of an exaggeration, but my experience of relationships with those far apart on these elements of conscientiousness could hardly be more different, and so the “two species” comment does resonate.
Though obviously other factors are involved, things Maslow assumed were banished in the process of a strong education, such as a narrow egotism oriented towards the gratification of unfulfilling desires (things lower on his motivational hierarchy), associated in the worst cases with what is sometimes given the undeservedly fascinating sounding name “dark triad”.
And I’ve come to believe - with Maslow - that education plays a vital, perhaps indispensable role. Sentimentalizing ignorance is, predictably, kind of dumb. Particularly in our society when the “default” view of things, unbalanced and unopposed by books or religious traditions, is so vapid and often toxic.
There now seems to me a certain madness - in general - in forming a friendship with someone who has only the narrowest and most poverty-stricken understanding of who they are, who other people are, and the relation between the two - and therefore of what friendship is.
Maslow has often been accused of a naive view of morality and the problem of evil. I followed in his footsteps as it were - I suspect it’s easy in the modern world to ignore evil if one hasn’t come across it recently.
(I wonder sometimes what the relation is between my experience and the precipitous drop in interpersonal trust. To what degree can one link this to the egalitarianism that has become almost an almost sacred and unquestionable dogmatism among those most involved in shaping public discourse? If individual differences were emphasized more - of say guilt-proneness and prosociality - then would this broad and threatening distrust have gained a foothold?)
But those low in conscientiousness and high in the dark triad don’t do well, and particularly in the long run. Nor do those close to them (outside of narcissists). There is nothing enviable about their fate, and to label them “inferior” appears only perhaps little a stretch. Even if they are needed for group survival, and even if they appear to be at least partially the result of unfortunate early environments.
I’m not saying shoot them, or give them less voting rights (both things suggested by Maslow) or infringe on any basic human rights. I’m just saying it’s relatively easy to make a case that on any social hierarchy they deserve a lower place on it, to the degree that they choose to express these traits in interpersonal behavior. Which is pretty much the case now, to the extent that their nonsense is seen through or discovered.
But am I letting a lingering bitterness arising from this recollection get to me, by talking this way? Of remnants of anger at them for what I have suffered and at myself for not seeing the signs and preventing it? Is this my way of saying - in less extreme and more targeted fashion - with Hazlitt: “The dupe of friendship, and the fool of love; have I not reason to hate and to despise myself? Indeed I do; and chiefly for not having hated and despised the world enough”?
Perhaps it is. And perhaps indeed there is no graceful or even accurate way of considering these matters in these terms.
I’ve made, of course, my own mistakes.
But though there might not be a Lord and Savior Jesus Christ out there waiting to save us from our sins - the possibility of a different fate beckons. Of different choices, of different understandings, of a different ontology.
But as I was to find out the hard way, you can’t get where you want to go from just anywhere. While it’s true there is more than one path, it doesn’t then follow - nor is it true - that all paths lead there. They are not created equal.
And I am going to suggest that the terms in which we have been discussing this will never lead where anyone wants to go, personally. They are ugly and they are a trap. Under these terms, under this frame, everyone is wrong - and there is no path forward.
Which brings me to a passage from anthropologist Gregory Bateson.
Moloch after all is very stupid and quite capable of swallowing the notion that he is, and was always 'right' in what he 'meant' to say. It is only his language that was wrong. And if the battle must finally be joined, let us choose the battlefield. Moloch will surely do his best to fight the battle on some ground on which he has irrelevant advantage… What is interesting is that the underlying battle is really about the choice of battlefield. Our stand is correctly and precisely upon the question: 'Which language shall be used?'
Moloch - a Canaanite God to whom children were sacrificed, or “in general, any influence which demands a sacrifice of that which we hold most dear” - is Bateson’s term for orthodox scientific opinion.
Orthodox science though is far from the only entity guilty of using language in this way. But what is the kind of language that might open up a path forward here, that won’t end in a heart strangling itself or bus on the way home from a parole meeting in Patterson or a knife in the back?
Bateson’s got some ideas on this, and so I’m going to end this very long series of notes by handing it over to him to take us home.
We started, believe it or not, this particular line of “afternotes” with an investigation of the sometimes transformational effect of psychedelics. I linked that to an encounter with the self, and particularly the self as organ of perception. With the fact that all of us are dreaming while we are awake, just most of us are little aware of it.
And Bateson mentions in a powerful passage I recently came across, which I’d like to share, something of this - but goes beyond it. He’s talking about how he was able to shift his way of thinking, and therefore make a shift in his way of being after a rough early life - including the violent death of both of his brothers:
First of all, let me stress what happens when one becomes aware that there is much that is our own contribution to our own perception. Of course I am no more aware of the processes of my own perception than anybody else is. But I am aware that there are such processes, and this awareness means that when I look out through my eyes and see the redwoods or the yellow flowering acacia of California roadsides, I know that I am doing all sorts of things to my percept in order to make sense of that percept. Of course I always did this, and everybody does it. We work hard to make sense, according to our epistemology, of the world which we think we see.
Whoever creates an image of an object does so in depth, using various cues for that creation, as I have already said... But most people are not aware that they do this, and as you become aware that you are doing it, you become in a curious way much closer to the world around you. The word "objective" becomes, of course, quite quietly obsolete; and at the same time the word "subjective," which normally confines "you" within your skin, disappears as well. It is, I think, the debunking of the objective that is the important change. The world is no longer "out there" in quite the same way that it used to seem to be.
Without being fully conscious or thinking about it all the time, I still know all the time that my images—especially the visual, but also auditory, gustatory, pain, and fatigue—I know the images are "mine" and that I am responsible for these images in a quite peculiar way. It is as if they are all in some degree hallucinated, as indeed they partly are. The shower of impulses coming in over the optic nerve surely contains no picture. The picture is to be developed, to be created, by the intertwining of all these neural messages. And the brain that can do this must be pretty smart. It's my brain. But everybody's brain-any mammalian brain—can do it, I guess.
I have the use of the information that that which I see, the images, or that which I feel as pain, the prick of a pin, or the ache of a tired muscle—for these, too, are images created in their respective modes—that all this is neither objective truth nor is it all hallucination. There is a combining or marriage between an objectivity that is passive to the outside world and a creative subjectivity, neither pure solipsism nor its opposite.
Consider for a moment the phrase, the opposite of solipsism. In solipsism, you are ultimately isolated and alone, isolated by the premise "I make it all up." But at the other extreme, the opposite of solipsism, you would cease to exist, becoming nothing but a metaphoric feather blown by the winds of external "reality." (But in that region there are no metaphors!) Somewhere between these two is a region where you are partly blown by the winds of reality and partly an artist creating a composite out of the inner and outer events.
Psychadelic’s brings out that artist, rendering this phenomena near unavoidable. He continues:
A smoke ring is, literally and etymologically, introverted. It is endlessly turning upon itself, a torus, a doughnut, spinning on the axis of the circular cylinder that is the doughnut. And this turning upon its own in-turned axis is what gives separable existence to the smoke ring. It is, after all, made of nothing but air marked with a little smoke. It is of the same substance as its "environment." But it has duration and location and a certain degree of separation by virtue of its in-turned motion. In a sense, the smoke ring stands as a very primitive, oversimplified paradigm for all recursive systems that contain the beginnings of self-reference, or, shall we say, selfhood.
But if you ask me, "Do you feel like a smoke ring all the time?" of course my answer is no. Only at very brief moments, in flashes of awareness, am I that realistic. Most of the time I still see the world, feel it, the way I always did. Only at certain moments am I aware of my own introversion. But these are enlightening moments that demonstrate the irrelevance of intervening states.
Such a beautiful phrase, that closing. We are all just wisps of smoke, soon to disappear into the ether. And the moments we are aware of this, are perhaps the only ones that matter.
He then moves on to mention Browning’s poem “A Grammarian's Funeral”, which I will attempt to butcher without completely butchering it. It’s about a group of students carrying their master to his grave “shortly after the revival of learning in Europe” and whose relevancy to this discourse of superior and inferior will soon become clear:
Let us begin and carry up this corpse,
Leave we the unlettered plain its herd and crop;
Seek we sepulture
On a tall mountain, citied to the top,
Crowded with culture!
All the peaks soar, but one the rest excels;
Clouds overcome it;
No! yonder sparkle is the citadel's
Circling its summit.
Thither our path lies; wind we up the heights:
Wait ye the warning?
Our low life was the level's and the night's;
He's for the morning.
Step to a tune, square chests, erect each head,
'Ware the beholders!
This is our master, famous, calm and dead,
Borne on our shoulders…
Yea, this in him was the peculiar grace
(Hearten our chorus!)
That before living he'd learn how to live
No end to learning:
Earn the means first God surely will contrive
Use for our earning.
Others mistrust and say, "But time escapes:
Live now or never!"
He said, "What's time? Leave Now for dogs and apes!
Man has Forever."
Back to his book then: deeper drooped his head:
Calculus racked him:
Leaden before, his eyes grew dross of lead:
Tussis attacked him.
"Now, master, take a little rest!" not he!
Step two abreast, the way winds narrowly!)
Not a whit troubled,
Back to his studies, fresher than at first,
Fierce as a dragon
He (soul-hydroptic with a sacred thirst)
Sucked at the flagon.
Oh, if we draw a circle premature,
Heedless of far gain,
Greedy for quick returns of profit, sure
Bad is our bargain!
Was it not great? did not he throw on God,
(He loves the burthen)
God's task to make the heavenly period
Perfect the earthen?
Did not he magnify the mind, show clear
Just what it all meant?
He would not discount life, as fools do here,
Paid by instalment.
He ventured neck or nothing heaven's success
Found, or earth's failure:
"Wilt thou trust death or not?" He answered "Yes:
Hence with life's pale lure!"
That low man seeks a little thing to do,
Sees it and does it:
This high man, with a great thing to pursue,
Dies ere he knows it.
That low man goes on adding one to one,
His hundred's soon hit:
This high man, aiming at a million,
Misses an unit.
That, has the world here should he need the next,
Let the world mind him!
This, throws himself on God, and unperplexed
Seeking shall find him.
So, with the throttling hands of death at strife,
Ground he at grammar;
Still, thro' the rattle, parts of speech were rife:
While he could stammer
He settled Hoti's business let it be!
Properly based Oun
Gave us the doctrine of the enclitic De,
Dead from the waist down.
Well, here's the platform, here's the proper place:
Hail to your purlieus,
All ye highfliers of the feathered race,
Swallows and curlews!
Here's the top-peak; the multitude below
Live, for they can, there:
This man decided not to Live but Know
Bury this man there?
Here here's his place, where meteors shoot, clouds form,
Lightnings are loosened,
Stars come and go! Let joy break with the storm,
Peace let the dew send!
Lofty designs must close in like effects:
Leave him still loftier than the world suspects,
Living and dying.
And so he closes:
I'm afraid this American generation has mostly forgotten "The Grammarian's Funeral" with its strange combination of awe and contempt.
Imagine, for a moment, that the grammarian was neither an adventurous explorer, breaking through into realms previously unexplored, nor an intellectual, withdrawn from warm humanity into a cold but safe realm. Imagine that he was neither of these, but merely a human being rediscovering what every other human being and perhaps every dog—always instinctively and unconsciously —knew: that the dualisms of mind and body, of mind and matter, and of God and world are all somehow faked up. He would be terribly alone. He might invent something like the epistemology I have been trying to describe, emerging from the repressed state, which Freud called "latency," into a more-or-less distorted rediscovery of that which had been hidden. Perhaps all exploration of the world of ideas is only a searching for a rediscovery, and perhaps it is such rediscovery of the latent that defines us as "human," "conscious," and "twice born." But if this be so, then we all must sometimes hear St. Paul's "voice" echoing down the ages: "It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks."
I am suggesting to you that all the multiple insults, the double binds and invasions that we all experience in life, the impact (to use an inappropriate physical word) whereby experience corrupts our epistemology, challenging the core of our existence, and thereby seducing us into a false cult of the ego—what I am suggesting is that the process whereby double binds and other traumas teach us a false epistemology is already well advanced in most occidentals and perhaps most orientals, and that those whom we call "schizophrenics" are those in whom the endless kicking against the pricks has become intolerable.
Here is a lowering of the high man, his great accomplishment equated with that of dogs, and a raising up of the low man, the schizophrenic, his position and condition traced to - at least in part - the brutality of a system deeply hostile to any such shift.
It’s a remarkably Christian sentiment, particularly for a proud “5th generation atheist” - and in the very best of ways.
To which there are certain glimmers of a parallel with the late Maslow. He came close to something like Bateson’s epistemology many times, but his ego - his arrogance really - always seemed to get in the way, and he’d pull back.
Whereas earlier he had written - after watching Mexican children wait for scraps of food from American tourists -
It all seems to boil down to something like ‘Who are the superiors? The elite? The natural aristocrats? The best ones?…
And answered so many times later in stereotypical fashion: the pure Olympians, the unblemished and unperturbed, the unwaveringly bright and the strong.
But then in a series of journal entries, never expounded upon, in the summer of 1967, a few months before his first heart attack, he writes something else. After insisting his entire life that those at the further reaches of adult development did not struggle, he begins to question his own Orthodoxy:
One big one about SA [self actualization] stuff, brought on, I think, mostly by my deep uneasiness over popular press articles on the topic. . . . I realized I’d rather leave it behind me. Just too sloppy & too easily criticizable. Going thru my notes brought this unease to consciousness. It’s been with me for years. Meant to write & publish a self actualization critique, but somehow never did.
A primary problem? Many “Self-actualizers” fulfill their potential, but their language never changes, they’re stuck in a needs-fulfilled state merely with their health and nothing else (Truman and Eisenhower are mentioned specifically in this regard). And so his neat division between the grasping inferiors and the serene superiors begins show some cracks:
The Being-person may be more symptom-loaded… than the symptom-free ‘healthies.’ Maybe one is symptom-free only by virtue of not knowing or caring about the Being-realm…, [and so these symptoms] can be a very high achievement. And one can respect profoundly those in whom one can see—through the symptoms of frustrated idealism—the beautiful Being-realm that they are reaching for and may therefore get to.
The being-realm, Maslow’s grasping attempt to describe a state where one is - at long last - no longer asleep.
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