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Temptations of Clarity

Improvement makes straight roads; but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of genius.William Blake, Proverbs of HellThe madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason. (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy)

It turns out that all boundaries are blurry, but humans like straight lines and clear boundaries. We’re taught—shoot, we’re conditioned—to look for sharp clarity even in the muddiest places.  Remember this? “Don’t you get out of line, mister!” That thing? Eliminating ambiguity, un-blurring the lines, is damned useful, but there’s a downside: real life is never precise and neither is the world we live in. Still, there’s a powerful temptation to believe that the search for clarity must always trump the muddy experience of real life. I’d like to suggest that this can make you crazy.

Like this: Aristotle noticed that carpenters and mathematicians have entirely different interests in triangles. Looks innocent enough, right? On the perfectly-clear side, you can know a lot about triangles. For instance, you can know that the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. Clearly. If you're a mathematician. But what if you're a carpenter? Carpenters make triangles all the time, but they know that no triangle, in the physical world, can ever be a perfect, mathematically precise triangle. You cannot cut perfectly straight lines with a circular saw… or even a laser.

Amusingly enough, this blurred boundary between mathematics and carpentry drove the Pythagoreans crazy. Think about it: if I get some plywood and cut out a right triangle, two sides of which have a length of 1 foot, say, that would mean the length of the hypotenuse would, mathematically speaking, be the square root of 2. Now, since the square root of 2 is an irrational number that goes on forever, you’d have to ask yourself whether that edge of the plywood goes on forever.

It doesn’t, of course. Weird to think about, though... 

All you can do is—and here’s the punchline—get close enough. Embrace the blur between theory and practice. In the real world, getting close enough works out fine. Triangles, and everything we can know about them, are terrifically handy when it comes to building things in the physical world, but any expectation that the world can provide theoretically, mathematically perfect triangles will, over time, make you crazy.

So what’s the mythological hypotenuse here? 

The hero's journey, Campbell’s monomyth, is a theoretical structure based on the data he had available—primarily the works of Heinrich Zimmer and the ton of reading he did during his days up at Woodstock. It’s a terrifically useful way to understand structures in the real world (in your own life, for instance) but, like that plywood, can we expect that our lives will fit his theoretical model perfectly?

That’s the blurred boundary between Campbell's theoretical model and the lived experience it can help clarify. But again, there’s a danger of letting the craving for clarity drive us crazy.  

When we lose track of that blurred character, theories become ideology—a set of totalitarian prescriptions. Campbell saw this clearly.

The difference between an ideology and a mythology is the difference between the ego and the self: ideology comes from the thinking system and mythology comes from the being. (The Hero’s Journey, 266)

Every once in a while you run across a fan of Campbell or, ahem, an academic somewhere who treats the hero’s journey as ideology, but the hero’s journey is itself a metaphor and, remembering one of Campbell’s favorite observations, it’s easy to get stuck on the metaphor.  When you do that, you lose the meaning.

Now one way you can tell that you’ve gotten stuck on a metaphor, or reduced it to ideology, is to notice that it’ll begin to display weird contradictions. Let's take Campbell’s wonderful story about the tiger raised by goats who one day discovers he’s really a tiger. The moral of the story is that we're all tigers but we think we're goats. 

This is a wonderful way to understand the discontinuities in life, to explain the blurred boundaries between who we think we might be, who we might still be without knowing it yet, and who we turn out to be in real life. But if you turn the metaphor into some kind of theorem (like Pythagoras’s), the clear lines suddenly become sharp enough to cut itself to pieces: I mean, if we’re all tigers, there wouldn't be anything to eat. No more goats. Taken as mere theory, the myth becomes problematic. That's one indication that a theoretical model is beginning to rub up against reality. 

There’s another blurred boundary here between what Campbell called your “tiger-face” and the face you show the world.

When al-Hallaj or Jesus let the orthodox community know that they were tigers, they were crucified. And so the Sufis learned the lesson at that time with the death of al-Hallaj, around a.d. 900. And it is: You wear the outer garment of the law; you behave like everyone else. And you wear the inner garment of the mystic way. Now that’s the great secret of life. (The Hero’s Journey, 271).

The attempt to make boundaries utterly clear and concise lands you in trouble or, if you push it, can even get you crucified.

Hitting a boundary layer like this is a reminder to treat the myths as relational narratives and not algorithms, as signs pointing beyond themselves and not as maps, as useful suggestions waiting for your own experiences to validate them and not as adamantine dogma, the fossilization of thought. 

As frustrating as this can be, it’s a sign of mental health.  Embracing the blurry boundaries in life turns out to be required for an authentic life, one that depends on recognizing the relative truths provided by clarity and ambiguity and how, across a blurred boundary, theory and practice can inform one another.

Pretty geeky stuff this week! 

But thanks for musing along.


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