A Not-Yet-Permanent Damage

Looking through the courses I've taken over the past few years, suddenly, I feel a deep worry. It is as if something is missing, but I couldn't locate the source. But, well, what could go wrong? Indeed, I've learn so much from diverse disciplines, in politics, economics, history, philosophy, logic, law, anthropology, biology, geology, and physics.

Until these words in Darwin’s autobiography reminded me of what is missing:

“Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds … gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare, especially in the historical plays. I have also said that formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost my taste for pictures or music …

“My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive … If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.”

How painfully and honestly described! Darwin’s confession hit me hard. I finally realized what was missing in my course portfolio --- I have confined my study exclusively to the “rational and analytical” departments of Western thinking, and have not taken any course in arts and humanities. No painting, sculpture, film, or photography; no literature, poetry, music, theater, or dance; none of the artistic expression of human experience. What a glaring hole! How stupid of me to not notice it until the last semester of college! And, how did this happen?

As I traced back in memory, I recalled the condition under which I chose my courses. It arose out of necessity, out of an urge to catch up. I came to the United States to learn the “secret” of the West’s success --- its material achievement over the past three centuries. What forces propelled the advances of the industrial, imperial machines all over the globe? What Logic continues to shape the landscape of the 21st century?

Driven by these questions, I started out by studying politics and economics, thinking that by following money and power, I would reach the roots of the Western success. But, soon I realized that political and economic theories and events are merely the surface phenomena of more fundamental and metaphysical belief systems. So I turned my attention to history, philosophy, logic, and in particular, the philosophy of science. I was trying to make up for the lost time between East and West, traditional and modern.

Busy decoding the gene of scientific materialism, positivism and capitalism, I allowed myself no leisure to dwell in the luxury of reading poetry, critiquing novels, playing with mud (sculpture), or playing with paint (painting). John Adams summed it up for me:

“I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”

I thought of it as a reasonable trade-off, if not a willing sacrifice. And it would be fine if the study of “politics and war” has the same ethical and spiritual benefit of poetry and music. However, just as Darwin lamented his loss of “higher tastes” and its impact on his happiness and morality, I regret to report similar “atrophy” experienced first-hand.

By the third year of college, I have successfully trained my brain to become an analytical powerhouse, a reasoning machine that carries out deductive, logical, linear, scientific calculations, at lightening speed --- too fast for my soul to follow. The brain flew on auto-pilot, grabbing anything within its reach for analysis, day and night. I can’t stop, can’t sleep, and can’t see the meaning of all this. It’s as if a strange parasite of “rationality” has taken over my brain, siphoning off the vital life energy and humanness. It almost drove me into a depression.

I did acknowledge that along the line of scientific materialism, there is endless potential for accumulating knowledge. However, the principle of the accumulation is the same. It’s like driving through an infinite dessert --- you know there’s a long way to go, but the scenery is the same. What’s more, knowledge is not wisdom; facts are not well-being. I asked myself: is this the limit of human capacity? Are we condemned to driving for eternity on this dessert highway? Can I break out of the box of Reason, and can I find wisdom and truth beyond?

I was also struggling with doctrines like “there is no intrinsic value other than economic value,” or “there is no truth beyond scientific knowledge (never mind that scientific knowledge is nothing but not-yet-falsified hypothesis),” or “the individualistic pursuit of self-interests would solve all of society’s problems, including poverty, pollution and war.”

All these doctrines seem to derive so naturally from a few innocent assumptions. But they have produced such horrifying sufferings throughout the world that they are just too ugly to be true.

After having spent three years, working hard to acquire an understanding of the dominant system, it is not easy to come to term with its ugliness. On one hand, I have (partially) succeeded at discovering the underlying system that brought the West to world dominance. On the other hand, I have realized that this system is an unsustainable and oppressive one. It is destroying the very foundation on which it exists. All the while, China and other developing countries have been trying their best to copy the Western model, fostering the same mentality, exacerbating the problem.

After a period of internal struggle, I finally let go. I accepted the bankruptcy of a system that I have tried so hard to understand. Through meditation, Buddhism and other Chinese classics, I have slowly reclaimed some humanity and sanity. It has brought back much of what is truly precious and worth living for. 

I came to see that the modern industrial society also needs to embark on a journey of “redemption” and reorientation. The society as a whole might not yet be at the tipping point. But each of us can start to change. Through self-healing, we can heal the world. Read a poem. Plant a tree. It’s a long journey to recovery, but the good news is: the damage is not permanent. Not yet.


Benny Oyama said...

Hi Zilong. I apologize it has taken me so long to respond. John Lennon said 'Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans."

This is a brilliant and beautiful narrative of your intellectual/personal/spiritual growth and I find it very inspiring. I too am struggling with the "bankruptcy of a system that I have tried so hard to understand." The hard part for me is not coming to reject society outright but rather work from the inside and carry as much self awareness as I can as I navigate its harsh realities.

I am lucky to have music in my life, which absolutely cuts through all of the bullshit. It allows me some freedom from the tyranny of language, which always carries with it the historical residue of all of mankind's triumphs and failures; what the Indian philosopher UG Krishnamurti calls the knowledge structure; he also calls our culture and self-consciousness the misery of man.

I always come back to music, and I am devoting my life to it, using it as a reference point on the long road to self mastery. Music mastery is self mastery first and foremost. The world is broken; I am the world, I am the violence I see in the news, I am the peace I see in the snow.

I'm also grateful that it looks like you are turning (back) to the arts. With your background, you are going to be so important to many artists, and art is so important to you. The good news is, the damage is not permanent for Zilong - because there is no damage and there is no Zilong!

Hope to see you soon.


Christopher Michael said...

Very nicely written, Zilong, and such a fascinating passage from Darwin.

You know that I study scientism, and the religious dimensions of its borders, and also literature and the arts. I'd be happy to give you recommendations and to discuss what you think of the literature that you find yourself working through.