Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Finding Your Own Answer

George Carlin once amusingly commented on that old phrase – common in courtrooms and in classrooms, he points out – “your own words.”
“Tell us,” an authority figure will often say to you, “in your own words….”
Carlin’s joke continues as follows: “Do you really have your own words? Hey, I’m using the  same words everyone else is using! The next time someone asks you to say something in your own words, just say, ‘Nigflot blorny quando floon!’”
As much as it pains me to explain a joke, the humor in the above piece relies on the fact that the joke’s speaker – i.e. the character through which Carlin is ironically speaking – takes the phrase so literally that he misunderstands what it really means: no one has their “own words,” in the most literal sense. We might even appeal to the dialogism theory of literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, who noted that much, if not all, discourse comes from recycled language: not only do we use a language that was made long before we were born, our basic speech and writing patterns reiterate phrases, verbal tendencies, and other structures that we have absorbed from sources other than ourselves. How many of us use phrases that were used by people around us when we were growing up? How much of our daily speech consists of repetitions of or variations on phrases we’ve heard elsewhere or in popular culture? On an even more trivial level, how many of us have watched a few episodes of The Sopranos and found ourselves, the next day, greeting a fellow fan with “Ohhhhhh!”
The point here is that there’s nothing new under the sun of language. And we all know this – partially, this is why Carlin’s super-literal reading of that phrase is so funny. We all know perfectly well that “in your own words” simply means “don’t quote someone else verbatim.” And even then, it frequently doesn’t even mean that: teachers in classrooms are usually happy for students to compose a reply to a question in advance, and judges in courtrooms are usually fine with witnesses preparing their statements ahead of time. Some degree of quotation – even if it’s self-quotation – is inevitable.
The bottom line is that you really don’t have your “own words” in a silly, overly-literal interpretation of the phrase: participation in discourse is part of a shifting amalgam of other discourse that originates somewhere beyond what you call “you.”
This observation about words might possibly be applied to interpretation as well: when it comes to studying a subject, do you have your “own interpretation,” your “own answer”? What is it about the answer you come up with that is your “own”?
The topic comes up a lot among occultists, some of whom are staunchly against anyone who explains a subject clearly and lucidly, on the grounds that a clear explanation robs a “seeker” of the chance to “find his own answer.” In Thelema, such sentiments surround the idiotic ideas that people have about “The Comment” to the Book of the Law. There actually are some people – believe it or not – who think we shouldn’t be talking about the Book on the grounds that such talk may “influence” someone’s interpretation of it and prevent that person from “finding his own meaning.”
The premise behind these ideas seems to be that if one is “influenced” in some way in one’s interpretation, then one will be unable to “find one’s own answer.”
I would like to question this idea of “your own answer.” As this post will demonstrate, occultists who fetishize their “own answer” are ironically misunderstanding that phrase in a way analogous to the manner in which the speaker of Carlin’s joke misunderstands “your own words.”
Read on for more
A good example of this desire for “your own answer” cropped up on the other day. A thread about “love” in Thelema – what it means practically and personally for everyone – began to fill up with nothing more than Crowley quotations and ridiculously meaningless platitudes, nothing at all resembling an answer to the original question of the thread.
So, rather than just post Crowley quotes, I made a rather lengthy post that explained clearly, lucidly, and simply what the term “love” means in Thelema and that gave specific examples of ways that love can be restricted in violation of the Law of Thelema. You can read the thread containing my lengthy answer here, and it may one day get polished up and posted here.
One poster, by the name of “Azidonis” responded contemptuously to my post with the following:
Wonderful to see you have arrived at your little answer, and thrilled to see you have decided to use this chance to try and show how cool you are by knowing an answer, instead of simply pointing to where you got the answer, and allowing the seeker to find their own answer.

There are a lot of problems with the logic here, so many that I hardly know where to begin in taking it apart.
I suppose we should start by examining the premise that studying Crowley’s writings about love will allow an individual to “find their own answer” but studying Los’ writings about what Crowley says about love will prevent that individual from finding their own answer.
The assumption relies on the idea that “their own answer” is an interpretation uninfluenced by any sources, but this idea is simplistic and misunderstands the way that interpretation works.
Interpretation always happens in a given context, even if the context is nothing more than other things the interpreter has heard about “love” since the beginning of his life and what the interpreter knows of Crowley’s other writings on love.
All interpretation, therefore, is aided by sources other than one’s “own.” There is no reason to suppose that an interpretation that draws upon one kind of sources is going to be “your own answer” while an interpretation that draws upon a different kind of sources is going to not be “your own answer.”
Further, we might question the other premise in Azidonis’ response: that explaining what Crowley means prevents a seeker from finding “their own answer” but that providing selected quotes from Crowley allows the seeker to find their own answer.
This is highly contradictory: any act of selecting and presenting quotations implicitly involves an act of interpretation, and the resulting handy list of quotations provides the seeker with an aid in interpreting Crowley’s writings that has been compiled by someone else…which, by the logic of the original post, would prevent the seeker from finding “their own meaning.”
Where do we draw the line? Any act of editing Crowley’s books, footnoting them, indexing them – not to mention translating them! – involves an act of interpretation on the part of the editor who prepares these books for people to read. Are we really to believe that an editor attaching a contextualizing footnote to one of Crowley’s texts will prevent someone from finding “their own answer” to the meaning of the text? What about introductions to Crowley books? Introductions involve providing context and background – tools for interpreting the text, the selection of which involves a certain degree of interpretation – along with at least a description of the text itself, which involves (surprise, surprise) an act of interpretation.
Are we to believe that reading an introduction to one of Crowley’s books prevents a seeker from finding “their own answer” to the text?
As we can see, this whole subject quickly descends into farce when we try to consistently apply the logic of Azidonis’ argument. His argument relies on the false belief in something called “your own answer” – and belief in it is a religious belief, relying as it does on faith and not evidence (for if these people who believe in “your own answer” actually looked at the evidence of what they were doing when they interpreted a text, they would quickly cease to believe in the concept).
The belief is built around the idea that you can really have your “own” answer that is all yours, unsullied by the ideas of anyone other than you – in a manner analogous to the way that the speaker of George Carlin’s joke mistakenly thinks that others expect you to have your “own” words.
All ideas emerge from a context of interactions with other discourse, and they ultimately originate from a source that is beyond “you.” As such, any idea you come up with can never be “your own answer” in the sense of being completely uninfluenced by other discourse.
What do we really mean, then, when we say “your own answer”? We mean simply an answer that your mind assents to, based on reason applied to evidence.
In order to come up with your own answer, you need to study as much evidence as possible, including – when the subject is interpreting texts – other interpretations of those texts. This is why literature classes frequently have students read interpretations of texts by literary critics: not so that students can mindlessly repeat the answers reached by others – although they are welcome to agree with what they read – but so that they can study *how* and *why* others have reached the interpretations that they have and so that students can take these other interpretations into account when reading the texts.
Studying a commentary to a text in no way compels a seeker to accept the commentary – the seeker would still have to interpret the commentary (with the aid of other sources, if only the contextual information he’s picked up through living) and see if he agrees with what the commentary is saying and why.
Why is this such an important point? Well, people who believe in having “their own answers” to questions – in Azidonis’ sense – are pretty frequently the same clowns who believe that everyone is entitled to be right on a given subject, who believe that everyone’s opinion on a subject is equally “valid.”
It’s obvious why such a view appeals to people with no abilities and talent: it’s the ultimate in egalitarian points of view. By its logic, everyone – no matter how stupid or inept – can have their own valid answers to questions and equally be a spiritual “master,” no matter how incorrect their answers are and no matter how little actual work they do.
Someone who believes in having “your own answer” to reading Crowley is, of course, going to be contemptuous of someone who can clearly and simply explain what Crowley means: clearly and simply explaining what Crowley means requires having a thorough knowledge of Crowley’s works, an ability to bring together different strands of writing, a knack for interpretation, an ability to convey this interpretation to others…all skills that not everyone has.
Someone who believes in having “your own answer” doesn’t need these skills and doesn’t need to do any hard work. He can just skim Crowley’s texts, pull a passage or two out of context, and declare that the text means anything he likes. He might even suggest an outright stupid interpretation, such as that the text means that Thelema is about contacting spacemen to provide insight into an individual’s nature.
Believing in “your own answer” allows you to accept a false answer and never question it on the grounds that considering other people’s interpretations will prevent you from having “your own answer.”
Incidentally, there’s an important caveat here: it is, admittedly, a pedagogical technique for teachers of the humanities to allow students to discuss material in class and advance different interpretations of the material. The purpose of this technique is to allow students to try out different readings of the text and measure them up to the critiques offered by other students. In this context, having a student arrive at his “own [incorrect] meaning” and propose it – only to have it debated and defeated in class – is an effective method of teaching. It teaches not only correct answers, but it teaches the process of discourse that is vital to arriving at such answers.
However, it’s important to note that in such a scenario, we’re in a classroom, where an instructor is (hopefully) able to control such discussion. In this scenario, the instructor tries to guide the discussion so that the superior interpretations of the text – that is, those best justified by reason and evidence – will win out over the course of the class (or, sometimes, over the course of the semester, if there’s an ongoing debate).
The point is that even in those circumstances where students are permitted to hold “their own [incorrect] answer,” there is a qualified instructor present who is capable of guiding the conversation or, if need be, telling the student “you are wrong on this point.”
Back to the main argument of this blog entry: if we were to take these “find your own answers” folks at their word, and apply their logic consistently to all areas of study, it would destroy all human knowledge and progress.
The whole point of having fields of study and experts in fields is so that an individual wanting to learn things doesn’t have to do it all on his own and spend years and years just trying to figure out the basics. Imagine if we trained new and upcoming engineers simply by saying, “Go out and find your own answers” – no classes, no explanation, no interpretation…just find and do all of the reading and exercises on your own and come up with your “own answers.”
It doesn’t take a genius to realize that under such a scenario, we’d have almost no engineers after a generation or two. We’d have to start all over again from scratch, with each and every person wanting to study the field having to do all of the preliminary work all by himself without anyone telling him exactly what it is that he’s studying or what he’s supposed to be doing. If that doesn’t sound like a recipe for disaster, I don’t know what is.
Absolutely no one would seriously propose doing this for any field of study whatsoever. Yet, when it comes to Thelema, this is precisely what some people propose.
Others have noted that there is a marked reluctance in the Thelemic community to seriously discuss the subject of Thelema: conversations about the meaning of fundamental terms like the will, love, and the Book of the Law are routinely shut down or avoided by people who want to have “their own answers” and avoid listening to what anyone else has to say on the subject (provided  that they avoid listening to clear and informed answers supported by evidence…it seems that people who just want to babble on with flowery, meaningless purple prose are applauded in some circles).
The effects are absolutely devastating. As one minor example, take the following exchange that appeared on the Temple of Thelema forums recently. One poster writes:
In another thread, Jim [Eshelman] has talked about a certain stage in the A.'.A.'. where the initiate distills their True Will into a brief statement. For example, Crowley's "To teach the next step".
In another thread, the path of True Will is described from the point-of-view of bringing an essential underlying motivation to bear on each task before us, as opposed to thinking of True Will as a specific life path that we choose.
Another poster quotes the above and replies:
Yeah, I've been stuck on that last one for much of my life in one way or another.

Here we have two Thelemites – over a century after the reception of the Book of the Law –talking about *the* central concept in Thelema and talking about their inability to understand what it is.
One of them goes so far as to admit that he has spent much of his life seeking the answer to a question that, if the practice of Thelema were a class, would have been taught at the very beginning of the semester.
The only conclusion is that the Thelemic community – and, more specifically, Thelemic “teachers” – have utterly and completely failed individuals like this. Information on basic Thelemic concepts should be readily available to individuals, along with information on the basic practices that will actually allow an individual to attain. In this way, a task that *might* take an individual’s entire life – an entire life of wading through Crowley’s material, pondering about possible interpretations, etc. – could be reduced to the task of a few years, after which the remainder of a person’s life can be dedicated to the work of carrying out the true will.
Instead, what we have is an ineffective community filled to the brim with egalitarian dimwits who don’t want to have serious conversation or to do serious work. Such a community will never be taken seriously by anybody because it refuses to take itself seriously.
It’s been said that one of the dangers of magick is megalomania, deifying yourself and your ideas: and one of the clear paths to becoming this type of “Black Brother,” to use Crowley’s terminology, is to believe that you have super-special answers that are all your “own” and that you never have to take anyone else’s opinions into consideration or that believing in your gut reaction is preferable to finding out what’s really going on.
To these false concepts of having “your own answers,” I can only respond: “Nigflot blorny quando floon!”


1 comment:

  1. "It’s obvious why such a view appeals to people with no abilities and talent: it’s the ultimate in egalitarian points of view. By its logic, everyone – no matter how stupid or inept – can have their own valid answers to questions and equally be a spiritual “master,” no matter how incorrect their answers are and no matter how little actual work they do."

    That's so beautifully said and so true.

    I think this one is the finest blog post you've made. Kudos.

    And everybody should follow the link to read Los' excellent post and Azidonis' hilarious reply to it. That pair of Lashtal posts perfectly illustrates the sceptic/nitwit divide in the Thelemic community.