Wednesday, May 31, 2006

5.31.06, Heavy soul? Or, the Last Piece of Laundry

“Heavy Soul? Or, the Last Piece of Laundry”

The weight of it. Question: Is there such a thing as soul? Not musically, not sartorially, but in terms of humans and animals? Yes, I’m asking what seems to be the blasphemous question, do humans have a soul? Do humans and animals? Just humans? Why does everyone assume so? What is so frightening about thinking otherwise? . . . This all makes me wonder, does the anecdote of Sir Walter Raleigh proposing a method for measuring the weight of smoke shed any light on the question? Does it have any metaphysical implications?

The set up. First I guess we have to recount the story of Mr. Tobacco in England. This I can borrow since Paul Auster (model for the character “Paul” below) already set it up cleanly as one of the scenes between William Hurt, as the author, and Harvey Keitel, as the Brooklyn corner store owner, in the movie Smoke (1995). It goes something like this:

PAUL . . . (Pause) Did you ever hear of Sir Walter Raleigh?

TOMMY Sure. He's the guy who threw his cloak down over the puddle.

JERRY I used to smoke Raleigh cigarettes. They came with a free gift coupon in every pack.

PAUL That's the man. Well, Raleigh was the person who introduced tobacco in England, and since he was a favorite of the Queen's -- Queen Bess, he used to call her -- smoking caught on as a fashion at court. I'm sure Old Bess must have shared a stogie or two with Sir Walter. Once, he made a bet with her that he could measure the weight of smoke.

DENNIS You mean, weigh smoke?

PAUL Exactly. Weigh smoke.

TOMMY You can't do that. It's like weighing air.

PAUL I admit it's strange. Almost like weighing someone's soul. But Sir Walter was a clever guy. First, he took an unsmoked cigar and put it on a balance and weighed it. Then he lit up and smoked the cigar, carefully tapping the ashes into the balance pan. When he was finished, he put the butt into the pan along with the ashes and weighed what was there. Then he subtracted that number from the original weight of the unsmoked cigar. The difference was the weight of the smoke.
— from Smoke (director, Wayne Wang)

The difference was the weight of smoke; or if you think it metaphysically, the difference is the weight of the soul. There was once, one time, when I sat back slowly and watched the life cigar smoke down, I noticed the addition and subtraction at work to determine that difference — the weight of the soul — when I was excommunicated from the Mormon church (age 24). Elsewhere, I’ve read that over the ages enlightened scientists have tried to measure a human body just as it Expires, see what goes out of it (which must be soul, right?), work inductively, etc., and it’s been done in literature too, but the present metaphor, the cigar, will suffice.

After smoke. I was given at least one immediate blessing with excommunication, “blessing,” to borrow a religious term. I realized within moments after walking out of the Disciplinary Court held to determine my worthiness or lack thereof — a university classroom converted each Sunday to religious use, filled with 15 men in suits, and me. I was the defendant in the court just mentioned; five of the High Councilmen were assigned to me as “defenders” and five were assigned to be “prosecutors.” In retrospect, I can’t help but think the terms of “defender” was being used loosely, their role filled in a very pro forma way. The term “prosecutor” was quite accurate. The other three men were the Stake President and his two Counselors, “neutral” parties, simply acting as conduits to ensure that God’s will be done — and if it’s all up to God, you might ask, then why hold a court proceeding in the first place? Why not simply ask God what the judgment is and be done with it? (NB: A knowledgeable Mormon will accurately protest that this proceeding is no longer called a “court”--I know this, but it changes little; now it is more euphemistically called a Disciplinary Council. That's like "resection" for "cut me open and remove body parts" — it's gonna feel the same whatever you like to call it.)

For an hour or so my past sins are dragged out and recounted, I am accused, questioned, and vigorously cross-examined when I answer or attempt to explain. All very medieval and out of joint if you ask me. In any event, God apparently decided that He loved me so much He should kick me out of His kingdom, i.e., that I should be excommunicated, kicked out of His community, kicked out of His university, etc. All well and good, as I know now, but a big shock to an earnest 24 year old. Expansive light blue sky in autumn, crisp and clear, and filled with nothing at all except my gaze and my future. When I walked outside and into that memorable autumn morning once it was finished, I had a series of epiphanies. One occurred right then, and I realized that only at that moment, or only from that moment, could I really make choices on my own. You might call it the first taste of real freedom — a twist on the doctrine found in John: “…ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” Only then could I begin to make choices based on morals, ethics, rules, whatever you will call them, ethics that I established, agreed with, and chose to uphold of my own free will, or free agency, to borrow another church word. Then, one of the epiphanies concerned soul.

Why this presumption that humans have a soul? Do they? How would one know this? If we do have one then what’s the purpose? Is there one, from where, to where…? And so go the questions. There were similar questions I began to ask and answer, again finally able to do this on my own, without my thoughts and epistemology being circumscribed by what has already been determined (by those in authority, most always white men, coincidence?) acceptable to a given institution and its rules. God? Good and evil? Etc. A number of years would help me answer most of these questions to my satisfaction, would help me establish a reasonable system of ethics for life, but the question of soul still hangs out there like a last piece of laundry on the line. And do I have an answer now? Hm. This isn’t meant as romantic irony but, honestly here, I don’t know that I do have an answer. I’m inclined not to believe, however, for reasons that will make sense to those who feel the same and that will baffle those who could see where I was headed in paragraph one and didn’t want to come along. The slippery slope!

From a materialist perspective, for example, the answer is no. No soul — except in some music, some clothing. We have bodies, nerves, thoughts / consciousness, neuro-electric impulses and the like, but it’s all shut off at death. The old Seattle motto: “Last one out, turn off the lights!” Consciousness, or rather the conscious and the unconscious, these are real but do they constitute soul? I’ll grant you “personality,” but why does it have to be soul? What’s up with the transcendental yearning? Even some of my most critical friends cling to the notion of the soul. I guess it keeps us human, quite literally. Whether it exists or not, just like the idea of god, most of us seem to need it. So be it. Or like the snot-nosed kid, Kolya, kissing up to Alyosha K. in The Brothers Karamazov, if such a thing as soul didn’t exist we’d have to invent it. (He says “god” I say “soul.”) Imagine the sacrilege: “I have no soul!”? — lines that just might turn you into one of Dostoyevsky’s devils. Devils or angels, let’s just that my soul is not too high on my worry list these days.

It can be explained a number of ways, and I kind of like this one. It’s Jung, who I think’s a very hit-or-miss thinker but on certain simple, pragmatic psychological questions he can be clear-sighted. Like “soul.” In Psychological Types, he writes “by soul I understand a definitely demarcated function complex that is best characterized as a ‘personality’”(cf. Part II, definition 48). It’s a subdivision of what he calls the psyche (sum total of all psychic processes) and it’s one that is inevitably and determinately object- or other-oriented (cf. Lacan) — meaning what? That we change our “soul” or personality to adapt to social conditions, needs, or obligations, and we do it according to our own needs, desires, expectations in relation to these conditions. Not a very sexy way to understand “soul,” sorry, but that’s where I am. You could also say “…the persona [or soul] is a function complex which has come into existence for reasons of adaptation or necessary convenience, but by no means is it identical with the individuality.” (There are some decent ideas on this his Basic Writings, 1993, 338-344, 544-545; & S. Timpanaro may not say “soul” but his On Materialism is great.). So we run into this related concept of individuality which, through definitions from Aristotle to Marx, comes out about the same: the individual subject and individuality are both notions defined only through social relations, primarily bourgeois ones in our lovely modern period. But I digress.

A lot’s been said — in one-sided blog fashion, true, but you either read this far or skimmed here — but there is a method to all this crazy talk. Among my friends and family I have a lot of people on both sides; to reduce it to just two, very loosely we could say there is the “Thank you Jesus” crowd and the “Thank you Cheebus” crowd. I’m just trying to share some of my thoughts on the big D coming up, not convince anybody, not coerce, definitely not preach — I already spent my two years crusading. There is just something about the Raleigh story I like, and I think there is more at stake in that little tale than the weight of smoke. And you know, now that I think about it, I realize I don’t even own a scale. Does that mean I’m secretly afraid I might have a soul, or am I actually a materialist?

Franky Scale: 6 but fading a bit.


Slarry said...

Mr. Jones: This is the Blog of Blogs-- no wonder you are fading, how draining would writing something like this, so interesting, deep and thought provoking be??
I need your franky scale a little higher. Maybe we will come up sooner or should come here sooner.
We love you, admire you and you continue to amaze us with your ability to write and invite others to learn.
I hate "church courts"-- I'm going to go and blow some smoke and see what happens.
Cheebus and Jeebus-- either way, your soul is grand and vivid. And I spelled Dr. Melfi right, even after TPTree said I was "annoying". : ) Wish there was more I could do. I love you, you little goob. You aren't materialistic, but you are made of "matter" and yes, you have quite the nice soul. The world would be better with more Spot in it.


Anonymous said...

Mr. Jones:

Your queries regarding the human soul are intriguing and I like your comparision to weighing smoke. What did you teach/believe as a Mormon missionary...has that changed?

For simplicity, let's say there is an eternal existence - are you comfortable with the choices you've made exercising your "free agency" in your short 38 year?

SS: I hope you can find peace with yourself

tossing salads said...

holy sweet cheebus. im on the fence about jesus or cheebus, i think you know this. either way, i loved your thoughts. i do believe in more than this but what form of this i dont know. pump up that FS plese. matt graduated. it was fine. cant believe its over. his father was as weird as always, but whatever. he looked fine and will send you some pics. be fruitful and multiply the earth brother with your soul.

Frarella said...

Hey Neptune!
How far is your trident stuck up your ass? For simplicity sake why don't you prove there actually is an eternal existence. As a friend of Mr. Jones I can testify that he is the most grounded "free agent" anyone would have the pleasure of meeting. He was for me in my short 42 years you smug putz. Mr. Jones has found peace in his life -that he chooses to question the meaning of life and ask complex questions because he is going to die is something you don't need to worry about - Joseph Smith has answered all that for you. When you die and get your own universe I hope for your sake you don't have any free thinkers in it. That could seriouly fuck it up for you.

tossing salads said...

thank you frarella. very well said.