Friday, 27 February 2015

Book-Eaters and Titanomachy

TW: a brief discussion of cannibalism

Back in November, I posted the following to Facebook:

Does anyone else find themselves, at times, thinking, "I ate that book," rather than, "I read that book"?
Eating a book, for me, is different from reading it. If you read a book, you look at the words, understand them, and recognize the whole book as an object. If you eat a book, you do all of that, but then you also internalize it, assembling its ideas and perspectives into yourself. Moreover, you bring those perspectives into yourself as one perspective among many, and you do not take it as is; you fix it, alter it, improve it, nuance it, cut out the stuff that doesn't work, fit it into your framework. It may challenge you, but after you've responded to its challenge, you then challenge it. You internalize it, but you also tame it. If you merely internalize it, and you let it take you over, you did not eat the book, but rather the book ate you.
(Today, I was thinking of a book, and then imagined telling someone, "I ate that book," and it was weird but also made sense to me.)

What I doubt any of my Friends knew was that I had in mind the Majesty 2 computer game. The goblin shamans, in what is probably a pretty problematic joke, are said to have a “from stomach to heart” philosophy: they learn about potions and medicine and so forth by eating everything they find or concoct. If it cures them, they know. If it makes them sick, they know. They learn by eating. This struck me as a limited philosophy; I feel like shamans would be interested in a lot more than just medicine. So I started to imagine that “from stomach to heart” had metaphorical applications elsewhere: all learning was imagined as eating. Certainly we use traces of this metaphor ourselves, allowing thoughts to “digest” and maintaining a “balanced diet” of books or news sources. Thus, one day, my brain produced the quirk of thinking, “I ate that book.”

(The other influence was endocannibalism, the practice of eating your in-laws when they die so they stay a part of the tribe. Cannibalism holds no appeal for me in itself, but when I learned about endocannibalism I could immediately understand why some cultures practice it.)

Eating ideas is an agonistic vision, though, isn’t it? Either I eat or I am eaten: if I do not conquer it, it conquers me. And lately I’ve noticed that there is this dynamic in my learning process. If I find a work important or influential, I am at first taken away with it and I see everything in its terms. And then, in a little while, I decide it is time to outgrow it; either this happens when I start to see its cracks, or I decide it needs to happen and I look for the cracks. Sometimes I think of it as wrestling with angels, but the metaphors I use more often are destroying idols and titanomachy.

Titanomachy refers to the war, in Greek mythology, which the Olympian gods waged against the Titans. The Titans were like the gods-before-the-gods, brutal and terrible figures; their king, Cronus, was not only the god of time but also the father of Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades. So in the Titanomachy, the Olympians fought and killed their parents. But Cronus, too, overthrew the god who came before him, his own father Uranus, a god personifying the sky. These sorts of battles recur in mythology across the world, where a pantheon declares war on a dangerous and more ancient force.

Besides being one of Freud’s more obvious sources, the titanomachy reminds me of Tillich’s idea of the Protestant Principle, which I’ve discussed before. We have a certain conception about God, but this idea must be false in some respects since humans are finite, flawed, and contingent creatures trying to reason about the infinite, perfect, and absolute. Thus any honest attempt to approach God must include a willingness to tear down those ideas about God to replace them with new ones. Most people are not called to do this, but in theory you might need to build a conception of God (an idol, I would call it), and then promptly smash it; build a new one, and promptly smash it; on and on until you die. I do not know if titanomachy is a crude metaphor for this process, but certainly we could use it as one: primordial gods replaced by ancient gods replaced by classical gods replaced by new gods. If you think of idols as standing in for ideas about anything rather than just ideas about God, you’ve got a sense of how I’m imagining things.

I have no thesis here: this post is intended to record the clumsy metaphors I’ve been using for learning. Sometimes I have enthusiasms; I incorporate a worldview; it threatens to overwhelm me; I wrestle against it; I break it; I incorporate its pieces into my pantheon. This is also a crude metaphor, though, since I do not feel any hostility or resentment in this process. I still have much fondness for the poor idols I damage. Of course not all engagement is like this; other times I resist from the outset and am only slowly won over, from within. Other times an idea just does not take at all.

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