The Life of Jesus

No Evangelist has the slightest interest in writing a biography of Jesus. The Jesus about whom a biography can be written is dead and gone, and survives only as Antichrist. The Evangelists tell us not how Christ came, but how he comes: they are concerned not with a vanished past but with the imagination’s ‘Eternal Now.’ The timid will protest that we are here in danger of dissolving the reality of Christianity into a vaporous allegory; Blake’s answer is that the core of reality is mental and present, not physical and past. Past events do not necessarily dissolve in time, but their existence in the eternal present depends on imaginative recreation.

— Northrop Frye (1947, 343)

On time

Presence takes time, and time is the continuity of presence.

Remembering is the re-presentation of past forms. Embodiment of forms is actual (present) practice. Imagination is the practice of future forms.

Authentic art expresses the truth of the time, while science aims at a final truth which can never be fully expressed.

Vacation

Vacation: leaving work, leaving home; holiday, holy day; vacancy, emptiness.

An obsolete meaning given in the Oxford English Dictionary: ‘Leisure for, or devoted to, some special purpose; hence, occupation, business.’ Vocation?

The English word was used in 1450 to translate the Latin phrase Dei vacationem: ‘Put the vacacion of god before all other thinges.’

Reading through

Three symbols: the Word, ourselves, the world. We are here to recognize turning signs as such, to recognize one another, to recognize nature; and for the recreation of all three. To read any one truly is to read it through the other two.

Manifold appearances and myriad forms, and all spoken words, each should be turned and returned to oneself and made to turn freely.

— Pai Chang, cited in Blue Cliff Record Case 39 (Cleary and Cleary 1977, 241)

The use of the useless

Everybody knows the use of the useful, but nobody knows the use of the useless!

Chuangtse 4

In the late 20th century it was customary to divide the functions of the mass media into information and entertainment (with ‘infotainment’ as a sort of bastard child of the two). The information media were supposed to feed us facts, while the entertainment media fed us fictions and artistic performances – which were “recreational,” meaning “of no practical value” (other than profits for its owners and sponsors).

pulpficOur use of the terms ‘recreate’ and ‘recreation’ in connection with turning signs is quite different, and we might ask how it relates to “entertainment.” We all need diversion to clean out the clutter of habits that cling to daily life. Or rather, we need ways to shuffle off the coil of distractions that cling to us. Entertainment is one way of turning ourselves over to new patterns, new messages. It can even improve our practice just by interrupting it. “The pause that refreshes” is a phenomenon detectable even down to the neuronal level (Austin 1998, Chapter 83). At the basic level, a pause of the right length in any routine or procedure will generally refresh the routine. (This is one of the uses of the useless.) But entertainment can also be used to “kill time,” or to drown out messages not wanted by the owners of the mainstream media. This has turned out to be a more effective means of ‘thought control’ than overt censorship (Herman and Chomsky 1988).

Another word for it is amusement, from the old French word amuser, meaning to cause someone to muser, ‘to stare stupidly’ (OED). The usual sense of the word in the 17th-18th century was ‘to divert the attention of anyone from the facts at issue; to beguile, delude, cheat, deceive … to divert in order to gain or waste time.’

As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.

— Thoreau, Walden

Thoreau’s contemporary Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in 1835 of the ‘peculiar weariness and depression of spirits which is felt after a day wasted in turning over a magazine or other light miscellany, different from the state of the mind after severe study; because there has been no excitement, no difficulties to be overcome, but the spirits have evaporated insensibly’ (American Notebooks, 11).

After a century and a half of technological development had vastly increased the addictive power of entertainment, Gregory Bateson took this observation a bit further:

… in art, as opposed to entertainment, it is always uphill in a certain sense, so the effort precedes the reward rather than the reward being spooned out. One of the things that is important in depression is not to get caught in the notion that entertainment will relieve it. It will, you know, briefly, but it will not banish it. As reassurance is the food of anxiety, so entertainment is the food of depression.

— Bateson and Bateson (1987, 132)

Chögyam Trungpa said much the same about what he called ‘the art of the setting sun’:

We have a lot of examples of setting-sun art. Some of them are based on the principle of entertainment. Since you feel so uncheerful and solemn, you try to create artificial humor, manufactured wit. But that tends to bring a tremendous sense of depression, actually. There might be a comic relief effect for a few seconds, but apart from that there is a constant black cloud, the black air of tormenting depression. As a consequence, if you are rich, you try to spend more money to cheer yourself up – but you find that the more you do, the less it helps. There is no respect for life in the setting-sun world.

— Trungpa (1999, 29)

Life-respecting art, on the other hand (Trungpa’s ‘art of the Great Eastern Sun’) furnishes us with experiences that renew and reshape the patterns of our perceptions and conceptions. So the question to ask of every recreational experience is: Does it make a difference? Is it transformative or addictive? We ask this of the experience of reading the artistic sign, which depends on the interbeing of reader, text and context – although we sometimes pretend that the text is responsible, as when we say This story is interesting or This story is boring. Any text, regardless of its origin, can become a turning sign if it is consecrated in the act of reading to the transformation and recreation of life. The spiritual life is the one which takes re-creation seriously, and takes the serious joyfully.

When you read pulp fiction, or pulp fact such as ‘the news’, you expect it all to fit comfortably into the framework of your familiar description of the world – the usual disasters, crimes, conflicts, maneuvers, gestures on the public stage and other external events. In other words you don’t expect it to call for deep attention or to transform your life; that is not what ‘entertainment’ is for. But something may reach you through these media nevertheless, precisely because you are uncritically and unintentionally open to it while you submit to being entertained. You never know where the next revelation may come from, and it may be all the more effective for coming when you least expect it. It’s just a matter of shifting into deep reading mode when you hear the wake-up call.

Turning Signs

Turning Signs is a book about the meaning of life – or better, about the ecology of meaning. The life of meaning is the life of signs, or semiosis, as Charles S. Peirce called it. A turning sign is one that can turn your life in a new direction, depending on who you are at the time, and how you read the sign. But that kind of transformative sign-reading is grounded in ordinary communication, in the continuous reading of the world that we call perception, and even more deeply grounded in life itself. Turning Signs explores that grounding in common experience, drawing upon a broad range of arts, sciences and scriptures. Throughout this inquiry, the central question is: How do you mean what you read or say, or do? (Or does it all mean you?)

I’ve been working on a coherent answer to that question for 15 years, and now that it’s complete, the book is to be continued in this blog, intimologies. In other words, there are two sides to Turning Signs.

gnox and spike
photo by Pam Jackson

The front or obverse side is finished as of this date and published by gnusystems on this website, and you’re invited to begin reading with its Foresign. (You can of course make the text larger (Ctrl + with Windows, for instance) and bookmark that and the other chapters as you continue reading, if you do continue). It’s a single train of thought that has to be read in order, in order to make the sense it’s meant to make.

On the other hand, the back or reverse side of the book is neither finished nor meant to be read in a definite order. It’s to be continued in this blog, which will consist of short daily dispatches on various subjects, each one also to be patched into one of the 19 rePatches of the reverse side. You can receive the latest blog posts by email every Sunday by subscribing to gnoxic gnews weekly, which goes out every Sunday morning.[wysija_form id=”1″]

The two sides of Turning Signs (i.e. all Chapters and rePatches) are listed in the Table of Contents, and they are strongly interconnected by hyperlinks back and forth. Posts on this blog are self-contained, but some of them might mean a lot more to you after you’ve read the whole of the Obverse side. (And, who knows, maybe every sign you read will mean more to you after that!)

But no matter how far you’ve read into it, you are also invited to start or continue a conversation by adding a comment to this or any post on the blog. And when you’ve seen enough of Turning Signs to think it’s worth paying money for, you can always use the Contribute page here on the blog, which will let you choose the amount of your contribution through Paypal or a credit card.


In any case, i do hope you enjoy Turning Signs. After all, i wrote it for you. Thanks for being here!