Faith in Trauma: Breaking the Spell

Faith Purified by Trauma

At the end of his 1986 book Hopkins, the Self, and God (University of Toronto Press), Jesuit priest and scholar Walter J. Ong addresses the sort of Christian faith to which the life and work of 19th century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins bears witness. Like Ong, Hopkins was a Jesuit priest. He was also an exact contemporary of Nietzsche. Both were born in 1844 and both entered into darkness in 1889—the darkness of the grave for Hopkins, that of the madness in which he spent the last eleven years of his life for Nietzsche.

Ong finds in the poems, prose, and letters of Hopkins a “forthright” view of Jesus’ crucifixion, one in which there is no weakening of the suffering and failure involved. That includes any weakening of that suffering and that failure through any consoling idea that what Jesus was working for would somehow still finally be accomplished even after his own death on the cross. That is, there was nothing such as, a century after Hopkins was born, allowed orthodox Marxists to find consolation, even in the face of imprisonment and death in Auschwitz, in the sustained conviction that the eventual victory of communism remained inevitable. In the view of Jesus on the cross that Ong finds in Hopkins, there is no such reality-weakening faith in play. Rather, by the “forthright” view Ong attributes to Hopkins, “[t]he truth was that what Jesus was working for, what he had planned, turned out a total and spectacular failure.” In confirmation of that interpretation, Ong quotes from a letter Hopkins once wrote to his friend Dixon:

His [Jesus’] career was cut short and, whereas he would have wished to succeed by success—for it is insane to lay yourself out for failure, prudence is the first of the cardinal virtues, and he was the most prudent of men—nevertheless he was doomed to succeed by failure; his plans were baffled, his hopes dashed, and his work was done by being broken off undone. However much he understood all this he found it an intolerable grief to submit to it. He left the example: it is very strengthening, but except in that sense it is not consoling.

Ong expands upon that passage by remarking that, in Christian teaching as Hopkins understood it, “God the Father had let Jesus’ ‘career’ work out as a failure not to cancel out the failure later but because he had plans about the consequences of the failure. The failure was never cancelled out and never will be,” regardless of whatever subsequent history—or the supposed end of it—might bring.

A faith purified by trauma, which is to say a faith that no longer avoids or numbs itself in the face of trauma but instead opens to it, can only be the sort of clear-eyed faith that Ong sees in Hopkins. It is not anything like a faith in “pie in the sky by and by,” as one popular put-down of reality-weakening religious faith puts it—no sort of defensive certainty that everything will prove to have been for the best in the end, when the whole story finally gets told, and the mysterious ways of God are at last made clear. Central to Hopkins’ sort of “forthright” Christian faith, a faith that faces trauma, rather than denying it, is the insistence that the wounds will always remain open, even in Christ’s resurrected body.

A faith that has been purified by trauma need not prove itself in dramatic acts that command attention. Instead, such faith is one that carries itself out in the fidelity (which is what faith is all about, after all) demonstrated by the daily living out of a life fully open to traumatic reality. In an important sense, there is nothing complex about such faith. It is a very simple and straightforward. Despite that, it remains demanding and difficult.

The real difficulty lies precisely in the fidelity—what St. Paul in his letters calls the “perseverance”—required for keeping such faith. The hard part is remaining faithful day after day in a life fully lived, and therefore lived in full exposure to the suffering that all true life entails. Yet however difficult the ongoing keeping of it may be, manifestations of such faith are really not all that rare. One does not have to have any special gifts, such as Hopkins’ for poetry, to keep such faith. It can be, and often is, kept faithfully in the daily life of the most ordinary people—a point I will continue to explore in my next post.

The Traumatic Word (5)

Though for the word’s own sake I could still say much more, this is the final post of my series on “The Traumatic Word.”

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It is human to see the world made up of three kinds of things: food, proscribed edibles, and non-food. For a Hindu pork is taboo, not so begonias. These he has never thought of eating. By eating pork, he loses caste. If, however, he joins an Indio from central Mexico eating begonia flowers not he, but the world around him has changed. Begonias have moved from non-food to food.

Issues as well can be thus divided. Some are considered legitimate. Others not to be raised in polite society. A third kind seems to make no sense at all. If you raise these, you risk being thought impossibly vain.


So far, every single attempt to substitute a universal commodity for a vernacular value has led, not to equality, but to a hierarchical modernization of poverty.

— Ivan Illich


Both of the citations above are taken from Ivan Illich’s 1981 book Shadow Work—from which I already cited two lines in a note appended to my previous post, the fourth of this series of five on “The Traumatic Word.” With regard to what he says in the first of the two citations above, about there being some issues the very raising of which runs risks of being thought to be as impossibly vain as a begonia-eater, Illich offers as an example the issue he risks raising in Shadow Work itself. That is the issue of the distinction between what he therein calls “the vernacular domain,” on the one hand, and “the shadow economy,” on the other (the emphasis is Illich’s own in both cases).

Being far less of a risk-taker than Illich himself, I will not risk discussing both sides of that risky conceptual disjunction. I will leave it up to interested readers to read Illich’s book itself for enlightenment (or befuddlement, if Illich loses his wager with those readers) about what he means by “the shadow economy.” For my own risk-averse purposes in this post, I will simply focus on the first disjunct, the notion of “the vernacular domain.” In fact, to minimize my risk even further, I’ll confine my attention to what is named in just the first two words of that three-word phrase—“the vernacular.”

With regard to the vernacular, I will risk saying this: the vernacular is the parochial.

In saying that, just as it stands, I am not risking much. That’s because, just as it stands, it will sound bland and innocuous to most modern ears. Of course the vernacular is the parochial, those who hear with such ears might well remark. After all, both refer to what’s local, informal, and more or less uneducated or “backwoods”-ish—as when we speak of “parochial concerns” and of putting something “in the vernacular,” for example. Such ways of speaking and putting things contain within themselves what amounts (to use the vernacular) to “putting them down,” reducing them to the sorts of concerns and ways of speaking characteristics of “hicks,” more or less (of the mindless masses of “the great unwashed,” to use the educated way of saying it that, as I mentioned in my preceding post, one of my old DU colleagues used to like to use).   That is, having concerns that count as “parochial,” or a tendency toward putting things “in the vernacular,” is just not the sort of thing one wants to do if one is concerned to preserve one’s status as an educated, well-schooled person who would resort to the vernacular only by putting what one says within quotation marks, as I’ve been trying to be careful to do so far. To the well-trained, well-schooled understanding, both the vernacular and the parochial always carry a whiff of vulgarity with them—vulgar being a word derived eventually from Latin vulgus, meaning “the common people,” where that phrase in turn is already pressed into service to put down such people, reducing them to the status of “the multitude,” that is, “the crowd” or “the throng,” the mere and sheer human “swarm” of “the great unwashed.”

At least part of what Illich is trying to call to our attention in his own usage of vernacular is how uppity we are in our dismissal, as always being somewhat vulgar, of everything local, home-grown, and genuinely “convivial,” to use another word he likes to risk using in unusual ways, at least by today’s hoity-toity, “grammatically correct” standards. As I already noted in my immediately preceding post, the word vernacular derives from the Latin vernaculus, which means “domestic, native, indigenous.” What I left out in my preceding post what that vernaculus itself derives from verna, a Latin word of Etruscan origin that meant a “home-borne slave.” By my reading of him, Illich is in effect running the risk of trying to liberate the vernacular itself from its slavery, thereby restoring to it the full, fully ambiguous freedom that is the birth-right of all words as words, whose worth as such is taken violently away whenever they are pressed into service as mere signs or symbols (in the sense of those two words that Walter J. Ong, for one, helps us hear).

Since Illich has already run all the big risks of such a liberation of words with vernacular, I am free to run the much smaller risk of trying to do some of the same for parochial, a word the origins of which are not already tainted by such hierarchies of master and slave as are the origins of the word vernacular.

Parochial derives eventually from Latin parachoia, which means “of or pertaining to a parish.” In turn parachoia derives from the Greek paroikos. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary ( that last word was used by early Christian writers to mean “a sojourner”—after its classical Greek usage to mean “neighbor,” from para, “near, beside,” and oikos, “house.” Insofar as those origins can be heard back into what parochial says, the parochial is that which belongs to home, the place where we dwell, where we are “at home”—the same “home-grown” stuff, in short, as makes up the vernacular, at least in Illich’s liberation of that word from its bondage.   The parochial, the vernacular, is what is of or pertains to where we do indeed sojourn, from Latin sub-, “under, until,” plus diunare, “to last long,” from diurnum, “day.” Where we sojourn is literally where we “spend our day,” day after day throughout our human life from birth to death—“we” being all of us common people, in all the glorious, irremediably vernacular vulgarity of our utter parochialism, our great unwashed-ness.

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I claim no special expertise on Gerard Manley Hopkins, and most especially none on the proper scholarly interpretation of his poetry. However, one of his poems once delivered an especially resonant word to me—a word pertaining to trauma. That was during my own traumatic summer vacation of 1987, about which I have written on this blog before, without at that time discussing the contribution my reading of that one of Hopkins’ poems made to my experience then, back when I first read it in 1987. When I recently read Ong’s book on Hopkins, including Hopkins’ own letter to his friend Bridges about the word sake, I was reminded of that contribution.

Hopkins’ remarks in the letter On cites struck me as no surprise when I read them for the first time in my recent reading of Ong’s book, because they struck me as already familiar to me from my much earlier reading of the poem at issue. In the light of Hopkins’ letter I was able to see—or, more accurately put, perhaps, in the resonance of that letter I was able to hear—how that poem, as I first received it years ago, during my summer of 1987, really said the same thing already, at least to me, in a poetic rather than a prosaic way. Here is Hopkins’ poem, #34 in the standard numbering:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.


I say móre: the just man justices;

Keeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is –

Chríst – for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.


When I first encountered that poem, during my summer vacation of 1987—when I underwent, in full public display (at least in a rather parochial sense of “public”), a traumatic reliving of a much earlier trauma from my childhood—I heard Hopkins’ two stanzas as constituting what Ivan Illich in Gender calls
a duality, characterized by the asymmetric complementarity of that duality’s own constitutive duo. That duality emerged, and was marked by, my hearing, at the start of Hopkins’ second stanza something that remained unsaid, but nevertheless determinative for my entire understanding of everything said in the poem as a whole, in both its stanzas taken together.

The unsaid I heard then, during my traumatic summer vacation—which was most especially traumatically healing, I will add, with regard to a much earlier trauma from my childhood—of 1987, when I first heard Hopkins’s poem, was but a single word. In fact, it was but that very word: “But.” Though it is not there in what Hopkins actually says, not written there in letters beside all the ones he did write in that poem, I heard (and still do) the second stanza sound a silent “but” at its very beginning, to set the tone not only of what was to follow as that second stanza itself, but also of what lay there already to be found in the first.

According to the first stanza of the poem, “each mortal thing” keeps on redundantly saying over and over again the same old thing. That same old thing is nothing but itself. Each thing says the same thing all the time: “Myself it speaks and spells/Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.”

However, the “I” who speaks in the second stanza, does not just say that same, does not just “fling out broad its name,” crying out always only “Myself.” Rather, the “I” who speaks in the second stanza remains utterly anonymous, which is to say name-less. That nameless speaker does not cry out itself, and beyond that shut up, saying nothing else. Rather, that anonymous “I” says “more”—which Hopkins himself already doubly emphasizes by placing the diacritical mark over that word in the already wholly italicized stanza: “I say móre . . .”

The “I” who speaks the second stanza says “more” than what “each mortal thing” says, according to the first stanza. That is what I heard in hearing a silent “But” sounding to open, and thereby thoroughly to tune, the whole second stanza–and, with it, to attune the reader’s ears for properly hearing what the whole poem gave voice to.

What it gave voice to, when I first heard it during my own doubly traumatic summer vacation of 1987—“doubly traumatic,” because it was an itself-traumatic, asymmetrically complementary reliving of an earlier trauma—was itself dual, precisely in Illich’s sense of that. What I heard was the duality, in short, on the one hand of entrapment in hell—the pure hell of total self-absorption, in which the self, has become so wrapped up and entangled in asserting itself that it has lost itself entirely—and on the other hand of liberation from that entrapment—the very “harrowing of Hell” by Christ himself between his death on the cross and his resurrection on the first Easter Sunday, according to Christian tradition, which was of course the tradition to which Hopkins himself so crucially belonged.

According to another tradition, that of Mahayana Buddhism, samsara and nirvana are said to be “the same.” Well, in the same sense of “the same,” hell and the liberation from hell—which is to say hell and heaven—as Hopkins’ poem 34 long ago now gave me at least to hear, are “the same.” That is, coming to be liberated from hell is not like being taken from one location and transported, by magic or airplane or any other means, to some other, new, different location. It is, rather, being freed from the bondage of self, wherein the self loses itself entirely in the entanglements of claiming its own, into genuinely being oneself, which one can only be in what Ong—glossing Hopkins’ remarks about the sake of such expressions as “for one’s own sake,” in Hopkins’ letter to his friend Bridges—well names one’s “outreach to others.” Only when liberated from the bondage of having always only to be myself alone, am I given to know that I have all along been no one other than myself—but always already and only myself among others.

That’s what I heard when I first heard Hopkins’ poem 34, during my summer vacation of 1987. It’s what I hear still, when I listen through all the noise, rather than to it.

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It is far from accidental that, as Walter J. Ong reminds us in the lines from The Presence of the Word with which I began this whole series of posts on “The Traumatic Word,” the word as word is not only not a “sign,” but also not a “symbol” either. To take each in turn:

The word is not a “sign,” properly speaking, since the word sign itself ultimately bespeaks something visible, something to be seen, whereas the word word bespeaks something audible, something itself spoken, to be heard rather than seen.

What is more, to repeat, the word is not only no such sign, says Ong, but also no “symbol.” That is because, as he tells us, originally “symbolon was a visible sign, a ticket, sometimes a broken coin or other object the matching parts of which were held separately by each of two contracting parties.”

In the concentration upon the visible imposed upon him, regardless of his own will in the matter, by the already now long-standing tradition of treating language as nothing more than an elaborate system of “signs,” and the word itself as no more than a “symbol” of what it names, in the just re-cited passage Ong may himself have misheard some of what sounds in the word word itself.   It is not simply because the word belongs among what sounds, and so gives itself to be heard, rather than belonging among the visible, which gives itself to be seen, that the word as word is no “symbol.” It is also—and in my own judgment above all—because the word as word is no token of coercive power, that drives to make everything fit. The word as word is no sign, such as a torn ticket or a broken coin, the two sides of which fit perfectly together, thus signifying the official authorization of the messenger, who carries one half of the symbol with him, to carry some official message to the officially designated recipient of that message, who proves his own authorization to receive it by providing the matching other half of the symbol, to perfectly fit the messenger’s half. A word as word, as a breaker of the silence to which it gives voice, is no such torn ticket or broken coin or modern digitized equivalent that testifies to such polarized and polarizing authorization. The symbol as such is always a sign of claimed power, claimed “authority.” The word, as word, claims no authority. It just speaks.

That is why the word is no sign. As Ong so rightly observes in the next to last line from the epigraph with which I began this entire blog series: “The word cannot be seen, cannot be handed about, cannot be ‘broken’ and reassembled.” However, he misses, I’d say, the deepest, truest reason that the word cannot be broken, as is every “symbol.

That the word cannot be broken derives not from some timeless or indestructible durability of the stuff of which the word consists, certainly. After all, as Ong himself repeatedly emphasizes, there is nothing more passing, less enduring, more easily destroyed than sound, which is finally all the word consists of. The reason the word cannot be broken—and why it is therefore so unsuitable for being made to do service to coercive power, the sort of power that imposes itself on those it over-powers, as do all institutions that have passed beyond conviviality—has nothing to do with that.

The word cannot be broken because it is always already broken to begin with, and only so does it speak. The name and what it names—the same as glory and the glorious, or luster and the lustrous, or shine and the shining of that which shines of itself—are never two halves of some once presumably unitary totality that somehow got subsequently broken apart, such that the pieces could ever, even in the wildest fantasy of security and authority (beyond even “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” that couldn’t re-fit Humpty-Dumpty back together after he dumped from his wall), be fitted seamlessly back together again.

The name, the very being of what is named—its being “outside” itself, with and among others—on the one hand, and its being “in” itself, “indoors which it dwells,” on the other, constitute a duality, not a polarity. The two are strictly incommensurable: There is no common standard by which they can both be neatly operationalized, measured, ranked, and set to order within a hierarchy.

The name and what it names are really the same, but that is so only in the way that men and women are really the same, which does not in the least mean that the two are “one and the same thing.” If the name and the named were just one and the same thing, then the name could not be the named itself outside itself, given to others. Then neither God nor anything else could ever be honored for its own sake, and nothing would ever have any glory.

The word can never be broken, because it is, as word, the break itself. The word is the very breaking open of the cosmic egg, without which the egg can never attain its own glory, for its own sake. The word itself is traumatic. That’s why I have entitled this whole series “The Traumatic Word.”

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There is no one, all-encompassing, all-comprehending uni-vision, uni-perspective, uni-conception that can reduce everything to one single all-inclusive, all “other” exclusive, totality of beings. As Heidegger already taught in “What Is Metaphysics?”—his inaugural address in 1929 when he took over his mentor Edmund Husserl’s chair of philosophy at the University of Freiburg—we are never given “the whole of beings” (das Ganze des Seienden). We are only—but also always—given “beings in the whole” (das Seiende im Ganzen). Whatever gives itself at all has, as so self-giving and self-given, its own being “outside” itself, as Hopkins so well puts it, that is to say, its being open and given to all the other beings with and among which alone it can be.

To my ears, ever since they were first attuned to hear it during my traumatically healing summer vacation of 1987, Hopkins teaches the very same lesson in poem 34: “As kingfishers catch fire . . .” As I hear them, Heidegger and Hopkins say the same. It’s just that they say it, appropriately, in two radically different, asymmetrically complementary ways.

Such differences can only help us hear if we let them. And only a hearing attuned to such difference can hear at all. So we should let them.

What they help us to hear, among other things, is that, as for the universe, in opposition to the cosmos, at least in the original sense of that latter word—well, there simply is no such thing. There is no “uni-verse,” no one thing that is the whole of everything, and turns everything into just one thing. There is no such all encompassing, all other excluding, single thing. There is only and always what might well be called “the di-verse,” if I may risk putting it that way.

The universe, were it to be, would be nothing but a total, monotone horror, and a colossally monotonous bore, on top of that. The diverse, however, is richly chromatic—we might call it extra-chromatic—and ever entertaining.

Therefore let us thank God that there is no such thing as the universe, but that there is only the diverse. That is, let us give thanks that there is only the being together of each with all—in which all things act for the sake of each other, to the glory of each other’s name: the word by which each is called, the very being of each outside itself, with and among all us others.

Amen! Which is to say: So be it!

The Traumatic Word (4)

As plans have a way of doing, my plan to complete this series on “The Traumatic Word” with today’s post has fallen through. However, this series of posts of my words on the word will end with my next post, most of which is already composed.

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            Sake is a word I find it convenient to use: I did not know when I did so first that it is common in German in the form sach. It is the sake of ‘for the sake of,’ forsake, namesake, keepsake. It mean by it the being of a thing outside itself, as a voice by its echo, a face by its reflection, a body by its shadow, a man by his name, fame, or memory and also that in the thing by virtue of which it has this being abroad, and that is something distinctive, marked, specifically or individually speaking, as for a voice and echo clearness; for a reflected image light, brightness; for a shadow-casting body, bulk; for a man, genius, great achievements, amiability, and so on.

— Gerard Manley Hopkins


Exchange drives partners toward ever clearer fit (homogeneity and not ambiguity), whose asymmetry therefore tends toward hierarchy and dependence. Where exchange structures relationships, a common denominator defines the fit. Where ambiguity constitutes the two entities that it also relates, ambiguity engenders new partial incongruities between men and women, constantly upsetting any tendency toward hierarchy and dependence.

— Ivan Illich


The passage immediately above—that is, the second epigraph for today’s post—comes from Ivan Illich’s 1983 book Gender (Berkeley: Heyday Books, page 76, end of footnote 57). That book was no less controversial when it first appeared than were such earlier Illich publications as Deschooling Society, first printed in 1971, and Medical Nemesis, the first edition of which appeared in 1975 and which probably gained the most widespread attention, and engendered the most controversy, of all his works.

Born in Vienna in 1926, as a young man Illich became a Roman Catholic priest. He remained in the priesthood from then until his death in 2002, despite falling into conflict with the Vatican and—by mutual but non-official agreement, in effect, between him and the institutionalized hierarchy of the Catholic Church—ceasing to function publicly as a priest toward the end of the 1960s, though he even continued to say the Catholic Mass in private on occasion throughout the rest of his life.

Recurrently in his work, Illich argued and documented that the formal institutionalization of practices and processes pursued beyond a certain point becomes counterproductive. That is, pursued beyond that point institutionalization no longer facilitates the realization of that for the sake of which the institution was purportedly established. Instead, it begins to become an obstacle rather than an avenue for such realization, even beginning to generate specifically opposite results.

For example, in Medical Nemesis Illich argues that the institutionalization of medical care, carried beyond a certain point, starts making the society in which such institutionalization occurs less healthy overall, rather than more healthy. Put in different terms, pursued beyond that critical point, the institutionalization of medical care not only passes what economists call “the point of diminishing returns,” but actually sets off an inflationary spiral of ever-rising overall social costs for healthcare. As is true of all such inflation, although it massively benefits an ever more select few, it works to the growing disadvantage of the vast majority of society. In the case of medical care, that means medicine institutionalized past that tipping point starts making the society as a whole sicker, even and especially generating iatrogenic (“doctor- caused”) illnesses—a clear example of which is the disturbingly high rate of hospital-caused infections in the United States today.

In case after case, book after book, Illich advanced the same general argument about institutionalization becoming specifically counterproductive whenever it is pursued beyond such a certain, surprisingly minimal point—“surprising” at least for those of us today who long ago became used to living in a globally over-institutionalized society. Whereas in Medical Nemesis he addressed the counterproductivity of contemporary institutionalized medicine, a few years before that book appeared Illich addressed, in Deschooling Society, the institutionalization whereby education becomes “schooling,” which takes place only in specially designated places called “schools” at specially designated times (“school-time,” as we say) and ages of life (as reflected in talk about someone being “school-aged,” for example—though with the rampant commercialization of education and the emergence of the total horror of “life-long” schooling well under way today, that expression may be well on the way to losing its currency). Illich does a good job of showing how such over-institutionalization of education by enclosing it ever more tightly within schools and schooling ends up making the society as a whole less, rather than more, educated.*

In general, institutionalization becomes counterproductive once it passes the point of what Illich calls “conviviality.” He uses that term in the title of his 1973 book Tools for Conviviality, and means by the “convivial”—which he will also connect with what in various works, including Gender, he calls the “vernacular”—what can be pursued within ongoing local community life as such, and is “expressive” of that community itself.   “Convivial” tools as well as institutions would be those that are established and maintained truly for the sake of those who establish and maintain them, as expressions of themselves.

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The first epigraph for today’s post, from Gerard Manley Hopkins, about the sake of such expressions as “for the sake of,” comes from a letter Hopkins wrote his friend Robert Bridges dated 26 May 1879. Walter J. Ong cites it in his book Hopkins, the Self, and God (University of Toronto Press, 1986, page 38), and then glosses it by writing: “Doing something ‘for my sake’ is doing something for me in so far as I have an outreach to you. What is distinctive about ‘my sake’ is not that I am totally self-contained in a solipsistic, self-sufficient world but that the outreach to you is in this case the outreach that comes from me and only from me, that is distinctive of me, not found in any other.”

All the way back at least to Being and Time, Heidegger distinguished between, on the one hand, what we find or fabricate for use “in order to” (um zu) pursue some extrinsic end (a redundant expression, actually, since any end as such is necessarily extrinsic to the thing we find or fabricate for use to achieve that end) and, on the other hand, what we use all such means for pursuing all such ends “for the sake of” (um willen). His discussion helps make clear that what we do “for its own sake” is precisely what we no longer do “in order to” accomplish something else.

So, for example, what we do “for God’s sake” (in German: um Gottes willen) is nothing that we do for any “ulterior motive,” as we put it—some such motive as currying favor with “the Czar of the universe” (to borrow an apt phrase from AA co-founder Bill Wilson’s telling of his own tale in the first chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous), in order to keep the Big Bully from zapping us for not obeying his orders, or to get him to give us something we want, or the like. What we do “for God’s sake” is just what we do for no other end or reason at all, save adding to God’s own “glory.”

Hopkins is right in what he says in his letter to his friend Bridges about the English word sake, including his remark about the German cognate of that word, which by the conventions governing written modern German would be Sache, meaning “thing” or “matter.” So, for example, a work Heidegger published late in his life was a collection of essays all of which dealt with the same matter—what he called, in the title he gave the whole thing, Zur Sache des Denkens. That title for its own sake might be translated as “On the Thing of Thinking” (or “of Thought”), if we use that word thing the way Baby Boomers such as I still do when we speak on occasion of “doing our own thing.”  Or it might be translated as “On the Matter of Thinking.” At any rate, what Heidegger means by his title could perhaps best be captured by noting that all of the essays in the book address that for the sake of which thinking occurs, that for the sake of which thought takes place.   That is, to ask after die Sache des Denkens is to inquire into what thinking or thought adds to the glory of—what it adds to the luster of, as gold adds to the luster of those suited to wear it.

Hopkins himself is deeply thoughtful to note, for Bridges sake and for his own, that he, Hopkins, himself means by the word sake “the being a thing has outside itself.” That is why I have been speaking in my own turn of what is done “for the sake of” someone or something as done “for the glory” of that one or thing. I will continue to use the example of doing something solely “for God’s sake,” that is, doing it solely to add to God’s own luster, God’s own glory.

The “glory” of God is not something extrinsic to God. It is, rather, to use Hopkins’ own way of putting it, the very being of God as such, God Him-self/Her-self/God-self, “outside” Him-/Her-/God-self. How gloriously Hopkins puts it! The “sake” of a thing is the thing itself as outside itself—as itself there in its shine, its splendor, in short, its glory.

The glory of God’s—God’s very “sake” as such, in Hopkins’ glorious sense of that word—is not there for its own sake, however. The (Hopkinsian) “sake” of God is there to the glory of God, not to it own glory. It is God’s own luster–God’s “name, fame, or memory,” to borrow what Hopkins applies to what he names “man,” but which in his spirit we can happily apply just as aptly (if not even more so) to what we name “God.”

To do something solely “for God’s sake” is thus the same as doing it solely “in the name of God,” or as we also say “for His [sic] name’s sake.” In turn, to act solely “for God’s name’s sake” is not to act to the glory of something apart from God—since God’s “sake” is God’s “name” itself, and both the same are not different from God, but are God’s very being “outside” God Her-/Him-/God-self, that is, what we could aptly and happily call, borrowing from Ong, God’s “outreach” or “presence” to others. To act “in God’s name” or “for God’s name’s sake” is to act to the glory of God God-self. (I hope I have sufficiently indicated by now that I am using that expression God Godself to avoid talking of God Himself or Herself, while still avoiding turning God, that “who” of all “who’s” rather than “what’s,” into any “It”—Id in Latin, and Lat-anglicized Freud. In the name of God let us, to be sure, avoid drafting God’s name into service to sexism, but not at the price of letting that name degenerate to no more than the sign of an “it.”) To act solely for God’s name’s sake is to act in such as way as just to add glory God’s own glory, shine to God’s own shine, luster to God’s own luster. It is to polish the gold in which God always already comes decorously bejeweled. In short, it is to adore the divinely adorned.

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Division by “gender,” as Illich analyses it in his 1983 book of that name, is a convivial duality, as opposed to the non-convivial, specifically counterproductive polarity of division by “sex.” He thereby reverses—or rather “transfigures,” to use a more convivial term, since he does not just turn it around—what still at that time at least (the early 1980s), passed as conventional feminist wisdom. The latter took sex to be less “socially constructed” than gender, and objected above all to distinguishing between two supposedly natural genders rather than the two sexes, of “masculine” and “feminine,” “male” and “female,” “man” and “woman.” Thus, “gender” was commonly taken by feminists to mean something “social” or “cultural,” whereas “sex” was taken to mean something “biological.” In sharp difference, Illich writes (pages 3-4):

I use gender, then, in a new way to designate a duality that in the past was too obvious even to be named, and is so far removed from us today that it is often confused with sex. By ‘sex’ I mean the result of a polarization in those common characteristics that, starting in the late eighteenth century, are attributed to all human beings. Unlike vernacular [from Latin vernaculus, “native, domestic”—so what is “convivial,” in the sense Illich gives that term, which I explained above] gender, which always reflects an association between a dual, local, material culture and the men and women who live under its rule, social sex is ‘catholic’ [that is, claims “universality”—from the literal, etymological meaning of catholic]; it polarizes the human labor force, libido, character of intelligence, and is the result of a diagnosis (in Greek, ‘discrimination’) of derivations from [what, under such a “diagnosis,” becomes] the abstract, genderless norm of ‘the human.’ Sex can be discussed in the unambiguous [a mark of its “catholicity,” since the “vernacular” is always and inescapably ambiguous] language of science [that most universal, or catholic, language of that purely, purified catholic “knowledge” that is science]. Gender [in sharp contrast to the exclusively uniform and uni-forming totality of “sex”] bespeaks a complementarity [What a glorious word for it!] that is enigmatic and asymmetrical.

As he sums that up nicely, much later in Gender (in footnote 101, bottom of page 138): “Gendered speech constantly breathes, whispers, and utters gendered duality, while sexed language imposes discrimination. Grammatical gender (genus), therefore, becomes in sexed language what it could not be in gendered speech: a constant device for a put-down.”

For my purposes in this post, what I will take from such fine passages, and from Illich’s Gender as a whole, will not be the issues of sex, gender, totalization, discrimination, globalism, and feminism, the disconnections and interconnections of which he deftly traces in that book. That discussion is most certainly worthy of careful reading and reflection upon for its own sake, to be sure. But for my purposes here all I want to extract from it is the distinction therein between what he calls “duality,” characterized by the “asymmetrical, ambiguous complementarity” of its two sides or halves, and what he calls “polarity,” characterized by how it “imposes discrimination.”

In a brief footnote discussion entitled “Complementarity and Social Science,” within a chapter called “Vernacular Gender” (footnote 52, to pages 68-69), Illich observes that light, in the sense of the Latin lumen, or “way of looking,” was once thought to “stream” from the eye out to the visible thing—in effect, “palpating” it, as Merleau-Ponty liked to put it in various texts, though Illich doesn’t mention him here. Applying that to the vernacular duality of gender, Illich writes that in the analysis he is attempting to present through using that duality, “each culture appears as a metaphor, a metaphoric complementarity relating two distinct sets of tools, two types of space-time, two domains,” which “find expression in different but related styles in which the world is understood or grasped”—two incommensurably different but related beams of light, streaming out from two incommensurably different but related sets of eyes to palpate the visible.

In contrast, he goes on, science “is a filter that screens from the observer’s eye the ambiguity of gendered [that is dual, asymmetrically complementary] light.” As a result of such filtering out of all such irreducible ambiguity within what is called “social science,” the “asymmetry that constitutes the social reality of each vernacular is effected by the central perspective of cultural anthropology,” which institutionalizes a “monochromatic, genderless [that is, utterly univocal and uni-sighted] lumen”—the single, glaring, contour-blanching light “of such concepts as rule, exchange, and structure.” Such concepts—which word comes from Latin con, “with,” and capare, “take, grasp, seize”—cease to conceptualize (to grasp in and for thought) anything of what Illich calls “the Eigen-value [from the German eigen, “own,’ in the sense of belonging or being “proper to” that which has, manifests, or in short shines forth with and in, it] of each and every vernacular reality,” that is, every local, native, domestic, home-grown and home-growing, concrete, really real reality.

Accordingly: “What the scientific observer sees through his diagnostic spectacles are not men and women who really act in a gendered subsistence society but sexual deviants from an abstract, genderless cultural norm who have to be operationalized, measured, ranked, and structured into hierarchies.” Thus, as Illich then concludes his discussion in this footnote by writing: “Cultural anthropology that operates with genderless concepts is inevitably sexist,” with a sexism that is “much more blinding than old-style ethnocentric arrogance.”

Later in the same chapter, in a footnote discussion entitled “Ambiguous Complementarity” (footnote 57, bottom of pages 75-76), Illich himself nicely grasps in his own thought just what such pseudo-concepts as exchange actually accomplish, which has nothing to do with vision, but everything to do with imposition. I have already given that passage above, as the second epigraph for this post, but it bears repeating here, to end today’s post:

Exchange drives partners toward ever clearer fit (homogeneity and not ambiguity), whose asymmetry therefore tends toward hierarchy and dependence. Where exchange structures relationships, a common denominator defines the fit. Where ambiguity constitutes the two entities that it also relates, ambiguity engenders new partial incongruities between man and women, constantly upsetting any tendency toward hierarchy and dependence.

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My next post will finish the current series on “The Traumatic Word.” (I promise!)

* Of course, a select few are singled out by the schooling system to become hyper-educated (Ph.D.’s like me, for example), but just as the income gap between the monetarily rich and the monetarily poor keeps on widening, so does the education gap between us members of the hyper-educated elite and the common folk whom one of my colleagues at the University of Denver used to like to dismiss by calling them “the great unwashed.”   As to how schooling pursued beyond the tipping point at issue can create its own teacher-caused equivalent to doctor-caused illnesses, I am reminded of something I used to tell the students in my own classes, before I learned more skillful means of subverting the university: “Any idiot can get a Ph.D.—in fact, being an idiot helps.”   In Shadow Work, published in 1981 (Boston and London: Marion Boyars), two years before Gender, Illich himself writes (page 31): “Students ask if they are in school to learn or to collaborate in their own stupefaction. Increasingly, the toil of consumption overshadows the relief consumption promised.”


The Traffic in Trauma: Reading Hopkins in Las Vegas II – The Sequel

This post is one in an ongoing series to which I will add posts from time to time, sometimes in flurries, sometimes with varying intervals between, under the general title of “The Traffic in Trauma.”  Each post in the series—or, in some cases, sub-series of interconnected posts under that general series title–is designed to be read independently from the others, yet all are meant to resonate together with one another, in an ongoing deepening of meaning.  All the posts in the series explore, from various perspectives, the unifying theme of what we might call “the institutionalization of trauma.”  The idea for the entire series came to me on a recent short visit I made with my wife to Las Vegas, to join our daughter and son-in-law as they also visited there.  The trip proved to be very profitable to us all, and a number of the posts in the overall occasional series make use of my winnings from that trip.

This particular post is the second in a sub-series on “Reading Hopkins in Las Vegas.”  Accordingly, readers may want to start with my immediately preceding post, the first of that sub-series.

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As I said in my preceding post, Las Vegas is a great place to go if you want to get your ego boosted, but it’s also a great place to go if you want to get your ego busted.  Either way, when you go there, to Las Vegas, you put yourself at considerable risk.  Those not already practiced in either ego boosting or ego busting, depending on which they’re after in going to Las Vegas, are better advised to stay away.  Those unprepared are likely to lose their shirts if they go to Las Vegas—and more than their shirts.  Regardless of what the city may say about itself to draw visitors there, Las Vegas is not for amateurs.

No sooner have I said that, however, than I feel the need to take it back, at least from one perspective.  That is the perspective surprisingly opened up for me when, by chance, I found myself reading a biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the 19th century English poet, in Las Vegas.  The accidental, coincidental conjunction of going to Las Vegas, the self-styled City of Sin, on the one hand, and my happening to choose a biography of the ascetic, Jesuit poet Hopkins as my reading selection to take along on the trip, on the other, unexpectedly allowed me to gain deeper insight into both Vegas and Hopkins–and beyond.  Indeed, it actually allowed me to see more and more deeply and broadly into the realities—realities far deeper and larger than an individual piece of Nevada real-estate and a solitary, depressed, repressed, 19th century converted English Catholic Jesuit and poet—for which both Vegas and Hopkins themselves beautifully function as metaphoric condensations.

Part of what it let me see is what gives me reason to think about taking back what I said above, that Vegas is not a place for amateurs, whether at ego-boosting or at ego-busting, to go, as soon as I’ve said it.  That’s because, as reading Hopkins in Las Vegas occasioned me seeing, amateur ego boosters or busters who make a trip to Las Vegas, only to lose their shirts and more, are in fact more than likely to find themselves drawn back there again–again and again and again, in fact—until they eventually lose even their amateur status itself.  Expressed just a bit differently, when amateurs at the game of ego-boost and/or ego-bust do once go to Las Vegas, then, however it may be with what happens in Las Vegas while they’re there, they will find themselves staying there.  Or at least they are likely eventually to discover they may as well have just stayed there from the start, to save themselves the added time and expense of having to make a long series of return trips otherwise.  Thus, amateurs who go to Las Vegas at all may as well just stay there once they go, until they find that they have ceased to be amateurs at all any longer, and have joined the ranks of the proficient instead—at which point they can then leave when they choose, with no need ever to return again.

Sometimes, of course, to put the point one way at least, those who, consciously or not, are aspiring to such proficiency keep returning to Las Vegas till they’ve got it, return there by going, in fact, somewhere else.  Without ever going back to the specific piece of Nevada real estate that goes by the name of Las Vegas, they go back to Las Vegas by going, in effect, to some other Las Vegas.  They return to Las Vegas by going, perhaps, to some other piece of real estate in Nevada, maybe  Reno.  Or they may even go to Las Vegas by going somewhere in some other state, maybe to Atlantic City, in New Jersey–or, for that matter, maybe to Wall Street, in New York, New York (I mean the New York, New York that’s in the state of New York, not the New York, New York that’s in Las Vegas, Nevada).  Or maybe they even return to Las Vegas by going to Main Street at Disneyworld in Orlando, Florida.  It doesn’t really matter.  All those places are really just one and the same.  They are all really just Las Vegas.

The glimpses of truth that reading Hopkins in Las Vegas let me see also included this:  that once you’ve managed to find your way to Las Vegas the first time, however difficult that first trip there may have been, you find it’s really easy to go there again.  You don’t even need to leave home, to get back there.  You don’t even need to get up off your own couch, if you find yourself zoned out in front of the TV in your own living room.  (All that is a matter I’ll blog more about in some future post).

Indeed, when looked at from the proper perspective, if once you manage to get to Las Vegas, you will stay in Las Vegas, whether you wish to or not.  Once you’re in Las Vegas, the only real way to leave there is, as the saying goes, “in a pine box,” the same way Nicolas Cage’s character finally manages to do it in the movie version of Leaving Las Vegas.  Whoever goes to Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas–till death does them part.  (I’ll also blog more about that, sometime.)

To sum up, then:  Amateurs who go to Las Vegas will find themselves, whether they like it or not, unable to leave there the same way they came—namely, as amateurs.  Before they will be allowed to leave Las Vegas, they will have ceased to be amateurs, and will have become experts instead.  In that sense, Las Vegas is the place where, once they go there, no amateur ever comes out again alive.

What’s more, in yet another ironic twist of fate, or at least of how that fate gets put, whoever has stayed in Las Vegas long enough to lose amateur standing and then be given permission at last to leave again, will have lost, along with their amateur status, all need or desire to get out of Vegas at all any longer.  That is, the only time any amateur who goes to Las Vegas is finally allowed to leave again, is after the erstwhile amateur has ceased to want to leave.  Once you go there, whoever you are and regardless of why you went there, you can only get out of Las Vegas when you no longer want to!

All that applies equally to all who go to Las Vegas for either of the reasons I’ve discussed.  Thus, once you go to Las Vegas, regardless of whether you go there to get your ego boosted or to get it busted, you will not be allowed out again, no matter how much you want to leave, until you no longer want to get out.

That brings me to yet another fatefully ironic twist, perhaps the most ironic and twisted twist of all, which is that, regardless of why you went there in the first place, whether for ego-boosting or for ego-busting, by the time you are finally allowed really to leave there again you will find that your ego has in fact been simultaneously both boosted and busted.  Indeed, you will discover that your ego has been boosted all the way to busting—and then boosted even beyond the bust.  That is what I was pointing to at the end of my preceding post on reading Hopkins in Las Vegas, when I said that the ultimate truth of the matter is that, contrary to everything said about the place–including especially what it says about itself to drum up business–in Las Vegas the House, poor thing, never wins!

La Vegas is Ego itself.  It is the 100% pure distillation and absolutely maximal concentration of ego as such.  It is the veritable black hole of ego.  That is why whatever of ego goes to Las Vegas, even if only to the most outlying suburban reaches of the City of Sin, will never leave there alive again.  As the gravity of a black hole is so strong that, once drawn into its orbit, not even light—no “information” whatsoever—can ever escape it again, so can no ego at all go anywhere near Las Vegas and have any chance at all, however infinitely thin, of getting out again.

Precisely because Las Vegas is Ego itself, the only way for any ego to leave, once it has gone there, is in a pine box.  Because it is Ego, it is the graveyard of all egos.  As I put it a while ago, any ego who goes there, regardless of why, will find itself trapped there, to be boosted till it busts—that is, till it explodes or implodes, it doesn’t really matter which, and simply vanishes without trace, as all phantoms of our dreams do once we awaken.  As I already said, Las Vegas is the place to go, whether you want your ego boosted or you want it busted.  Either way, you’ll get just what you want in Las Vegas, with the other thrown in, free of charge (which, of course, is truly a miracle in Las Vegas, the place where they’d sell you the air you breathe if they could only figure out how).  That’s why, as I’ve also already said, Las Vegas is not only such a great place to go if you’re into self-indulgence, but also an even greater place to go if you’re into self-mortification, as, say, Hopkins was.

That’s the good news about Las Vegas.  The bad news, on the other hand, is that if you go to Las Vegas for any reason whatever, whether to boost or bust your ego, or just on a lark or by pure accident (maybe your plane to Poughkeepsie gets diverted there for an emergency landing), you will stay there forever, never to return alive.  Since you, after all, are, your ego, your “I”—that’s just what the word ego means after all:  Latin for “I,” whoever “I” may be, including you—that means you had better stay out of Las Vegas, if you value your life.

If only you could!  If only you could stay out of Las Vegas!

But you can’t.

That is the very worst of the bad news about Las Vegas–that you cannot not go there.  (And that, too, I’ll blog about more sometime.)

That’s what I learned, at any rate, from reading Hopkins in Las Vegas.

The Traffic in Trauma: Reading Hopkins in Las Vegas

This post is one in an ongoing series to which I will add posts from time to time, sometimes in flurries, sometimes with varying intervals between, under the general title of “The Traffic in Trauma.”  Each post in the series—or, in some cases, sub-series of interconnected posts under that general series title–is designed to be read independently from the others, yet all are meant to resonate together with one another, in an ongoing deepening of meaning.  All the posts in the series explore, from various perspectives, the unifying theme of what we might call “the institutionalization of trauma.”  The idea for the entire series came to me on a recent short visit I made with my wife to Las Vegas, to join our daughter and son-in-law as they also visited there.  The trip proved to be very profitable to us all, and a number of the posts in the overall occasional series make use of my winnings from that trip.

*      *      *      *      *

At the very start of my wife’s and my recent trip to Las Vegas, I downloaded and began reading an electronic edition of a biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the great 19th century English poet, by Robert Bernard Martin (London:  Faber and Faber, 1991).  During his short life—he died in 1889 at only 44—Hopkins converted from the Anglicanism into which he had been born, to become a Roman Catholic.  After his conversion, he went on to join the Jesuit Order and become a priest.  Throughout his adult life, beginning even before he became a Jesuit, Hopkins practiced various regular aesthetic disciplines designed to “mortify” his appetites.

The conjunction of Hopkins with Las Vegas may seem eccentric to the point of schizophrenia.  On the one hand, Hopkins’ whole life was lived in the spirit of asceticism and the disciplined practice of denying ones’ appetites.  On the other hand, Las Vegas, with its wide- open, no-holds-barred self advertisement as ‘The City of Sin,” is the place where visitors are not only permitted, but even encouraged, to indulge to excess their every appetite.  The two would not be expected to blend their very diverse voices at all harmoniously.

Yet for me, that’s exactly what they did.  Those two so different voices, the interplay of which by all reasonable expectations would produce nothing but a cacophony, ended up in my own experience resounding with one another to produce a remarkably deep and rich harmony.  To try to put some of their joint song in words, one of the themes they were sounding with one another was this:

Whether it is gambling or prayer, drinking or tee-totaling, sex or self-abnegation there’s nothing either right or wrong with any given game as such; what makes it either right or wrong is all a matter of how the game, whatever it may be, is played.  In just that same way, whether an institution in general traumatizes those whom it affects, or guides them into and through recovery, is a matter, not of the nature and structure of the institution itself as such, but of how it is incorporated and reiterated in the living of human life itself—a matter, as it were, not of different institutions, but of different ways of institutionalizing whatever institutions get instituted.

As thoughts will do, that one came to me unbidden.  Appropriate to thought’s own traumatic structure, it struck me by surprise while I was reading Hopkins in Las Vegas, and came packaged in a different form than I’ve just given it—a form suited to what provided it occasion to enter.

Since my first serious engagement with them in the summer of 1987, some of Hopkins’ poems have carried lasting importance for me, and I long intended to read a good biography of him.   I finally got around to it, and I began reading Martin’s excellent biography on the plane on our way to Las Vegas.

The thought at issue came to me a day or two after that, as I was continuing my reading in our room at the hotel-casino on the Vegas Strip where we were staying.  That thought came to surprise me while I was reading, well along in Martin’s biography, about a period in Hopkins’ novitiate as a Jesuit when he was placed under orders not to follow one very common ascetic practice frequently mandated by the Jesuit Order and, indeed, recommended by the whole Roman Catholic church.  It is a practice, in fact, that is widely recommended across a large number of spiritual traditions, not only within Christianity but also beyond it, to Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and more.  Even emphatically self-styled secular atheists have often practiced it.  That is the discipline—“discipline” being the original meaning of the Greek term from which we get the English term ascetic—of fasting.

As Martin’s biography shows through quotations, Hopkins himself fully agreed with the proscription, in his own case at the time at issue, of that common discipline of fasting.  Such ascetic practices were originally designed and instituted to humble their practitioners by ingraining into them the deep awareness of their interdependence with others and with creation as a whole.  Fasting and other such bodily disciplines of self-denial, properly practiced, serve as highly effective regular reminders of just how generally dependent the practitioners of those same disciplines are, and how interdependent they are with their fellows and, indeed, with all the rest of creation.  They show those who practice them—show them at the most concrete, bodily level, that of their most basic bodily appetites, drives, and affects themselves–how dependent they really always are on “outside factors” to sustain themselves at all, moment by moment, in all regards, mental, emotional, spiritual, and bodily.  In short, when practiced in such a way as to accord with the underlying proposed and intended goal or purpose for which they were instituted in the first place—which is to say, to be genuinely ascetic in their actual practice or implementation in any given case—ascetic practices needed to be ego-de-flating, rather than ego-in-flating .

Why Hopkins himself was so cautious towards his own inclination to engage in such ascetic practices as fasting, and why he agreed with his superiors’ decision when they ordered him not to engage in some such practices, was that he saw clearly the ease with which his own mind—his own way of thinking and being—could pervert those very practices.  Hopkins understood completely that genuinely ascetic practices were designed to serve the goal of his own “self-mortification,” by humbling him and driving the awareness of his complete interdependence with others ever more deeply into his soul.  He saw with full self-reflective clarity how adept he was himself at turning such humbling practices into yet more fodder for his own pride in himself, in the negative sense of that term, where it goes together with feeling and holding oneself to be someone special, not at all like all those “other” people, almost all of whom appear to lack the “strength of character” and “pride in themselves” to practice the sort of remarkable “self-control” that one demonstrates so clearly in one’s own case—at least in one’s own eyes.  That is, Hopkins realized how deeply ingrained in himself was the tendency toward what is often called “spiritual pride”:  vanity masquerading as spirituality—a matter, to use the terms of the nicely oxymoronic title of a book by Chögyam Trungpa, Tibetan Buddhist  guru and founder of Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, of “spiritual materialism.”  Thus, the lesson my reading Hopkins in Las Vegas occasioned me learning–worded as it first came to me, to fit what occasioned it in that setting–was this:

Any practice or other institution is to be abandoned as soon as it becomes overall ego-boosting rather than ego-busting.

Reading Hopkins in Las Vegas taught me that lesson–and a rich stock of others, as it turned out–altogether free of charge.  That in itself made the lesson remarkable.

It was remarkable insofar as its cost-free availability to me in Las Vegas, of all places, defied all the ordinary expectations one would usually have in making a trip there, and that I had myself as we went there.  That is because Las Vegas is a glittering, glitzy place where, as I remarked to my wife at one point during our stay, “they would charge us for breathing, if they could just figure out a way to package the air, without killing off all their potential customers in the process, before they could even pick their pockets.”  Indeed, looking back now, after our trip and our receiving all the great, genuine gifts that were readily available to us there altogether gratis, I’m actually surprised that no one tried to con us into thinking we did have to pay them, if we wanted to keep our air supply going.  Any lesson one learns for free in a place where they would charge you for the air you breath, if only they could figure out how, is remarkable simply on the count of coming for free in Las Vegas, of all places, in the first place.

In the second place, the lesson at issue was also remarkable by virtue of its unusual sort of “back-reference,” so to speak.  I immediately saw that it applied to the very same institutional setting in which it was transmitted to me, as it were.  That is, it applied to Las Vegas itself, or, more specifically to two very different ways one could experience that city.  On the one hand, one could experience Las Vegas, that “City of Sin” itself, as a wonderful place to go to practice grossly hedonistic self-indulgence–a place, that is, to get one’s ego boosted.  On the other hand, however, one could alternatively experience Las Vegas, same city (that one of “Sin” itself), as a wonderful place to go to practice austerely ascetic self-denial—that is, to get one’s ego busted.

Las Vegas, the City of Sin, as it quite accurately advertises itself as being, is “Sin,” which in that context means precisely selfindulgence.  Las Vegas is Sin in the very same sense that Uncle Sam is America, or that John Bull is England.  True to its name and to what it names, the City of Sin is indeed the place to go, if what you want is to indulge your taste for self-indulgence, that is, to get your ego boosted, as I already said.  If you want to get your ego boosted, by all means you should go to Las Vegas, where, once there, whatever you may end up doing, it will indeed boost your ego.

If that’s why you want to go there, taking a trip to Las Vegas is guaranteed to boost your ego one way or another.  It may, if you get lucky, at least by ordinary standards, boost your ego by letting you hit that big jackpot you’ve always dreamed of one day hitting on the slots, or at craps or poker or roulette or whatever equivalent, letting you glory in your new-found—yet so richly deserved, for all you’ve had to put up with to get there—riches.

That does happen in Las Vegas from time to time, of course.  However, as everyone really knows, if one lets oneself know it, it does not happen very often.  It happens only very, very rarely, in fact, given all the millions of tourists annually who gamble by going to Las Vegas.  Far, far more likely is that, if you go to Las Vegas for some ego-boosting, you will indeed find your ego boosted, but not in that way.  It will be boosted, rather, in the same way that a pickpocket might boost your wallet.  That sort of ego-boosting is, after all, what Las Vegas, where all the odds that can be rigged always are rigged to be on the side of the House, is all about.

Las Vegas is the place to go, to get your ego boosted, one way or another, whether you like it or not.

Unless, that is, the flipped coin of your luck lands differently, as flipped coins can do, even in Las Vegas.  Despite how hard they try to rig everything in favor of the House, the forces of order that order Las Vegas can never manage entirely to rig that, at least:  Sometimes the coin really does come down against the house.  What’s more—and to Vegas’s lasting chagrin—in terms of the coins that really count, when those coins come down, the coin always comes down against the House.

Poor Las Vegas!  It just can’t win!

My own experience in Las Vegas is proof of that.  It was there, after all, in Las Vegas itself, that the coin I flipped in going there came down–by sheer good luck of reading Hopkins, by hap, in that place—in my own favor, and broke the House itself, by showing me that the House, poor thing, and despite all its rigging of everything it can rig, and also despite what it may think itself, never wins.

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Coming soon!  “The Traffic in Trauma:  Reading Hopkins in Las Vegas II–The Sequel”!  Look for it in my next post!