Kendal Q. Binmore: Quetzalcoatl: journeyman in story, entries _13-xx

Quetzalcoatl: journeyman in story

Kendal Quetzalcoatl Binmore


Department of Literature and Literary Criticism, Yale University, emeritus


William Blake Chair in Fine Arts, California Institute of Technology, Traditional Campus, emeritus


13. Circling the altar of truth


13. Circling the altar of truth


           “You are aware,” the experimental economist pounced, “that the pleasure center of the brain is activated when we punish others. If economic goods are mediated by pleasure–and what pleasure is not in turn so facilitated–punishment is an economic good.” So the experimentalist accounts civilization, begun long before when our ancestral we told the young and weak to shut up or leave, perhaps to die. Now we battle for the civil privilege of punishment, and there are few non-sexual blasphemes more dire than denying the effective necessity of the tool. Punishment seen is a measure of the good life, welcome stalker in every workplace of every day. We relish the laughter it bubbles, the relief of that I am not. So much of existence we value by not being that, as though creation makes the pathetic for our sustenance. To deny punishment is to deny life.


           But some will try. Baruch Spinoza was one. The only Jew known ostracized at first blush in perpetuity from all Judaism, denied redemptive return. In his day ostracism, cherem, was a common tool; but all other known cases, save for repeat offenders, set either a clear, closed, period of untouchability or provide path for contrite return. Spinoza’s cherem is remarkable for its generality: no detailed cause given, no return possible. No external record exists giving a why. Academics have speculated: his monotheism was misunderstood as atheism; his monotheism shattered any personality of godhead such as YHWH (which it does); his monotheism was so generalized as to be a polytheism in the instance, but where “gods” do not contend, for there is no “them,” only unending expansion of mind toward common singular infinity. Yet his Ethics is essentially posthumous; it is hard to believe that the man who would write it under unrelenting ostracism as he moved, not toward infinity, but death by consumption, had so articulated his path young as to repulse forces who would allow false Messiahs promise of return.


           No; I think young Spinoza far simpler in his abomination, a simplicity which germed the path articulated as Ethics: he denied punishment necessary for life. There is a story suggesting so.


           Upon death of his father, Spinoza said Kaddish daily for the required eleven months. For nearly a year he was constrained by public ritual of mourning, constrained not just in physical prayer, but in the social allocation of infirmity. His needs would be defined by the Amsterdam Jewish community, he expected to acquiesce in their satisfaction, a care heralding the powerful internal support offered–and constraints imposed.


           Jews had been admitted into Amsterdam on condition they trade competitively only with themselves; they were not to encroach on the prior or future business interests of the city. Absent such interests, they could be middlemen for Amsterdam, but were forbidden direct competition with other city business. Amsterdam thereby received the benefits of long distance Jewish mercantile connections without enduring their competition. And long distance networks there were, for Jews, labeled Christ’s assassin, were regularly denied entry into local markets, enforcing long distance trade as their only greater livelihood.


           Amsterdam required its Jewish community–so synagogues–to enforce this trade ban under threat of expulsion or material confiscation. Internally, the ban policed honesty among Jewish mercantiles. Unable to trade elsewhere, they had to rely on one another–and Jews far distant; reliability of delayed promise evolved. All to the good for Amsterdam, for this enhanced the scope of long distance connection beyond Amsterdam’s competitive sphere, with Amsterdam Jew’s as middlemen. At a Jewish cost: a charge of competitive encroachment, ever latent, could force sales if not confiscation.


           In this Spinoza performed Kaddish. At immaturity’s end he must rely solely on his ethnic community, an enforced reliance which is never to end. In that year his father’s business does not close entire; it is surrogated. He hears, assents or is told, and this too never fully ends. Kaddish is the beginning of community oversight, eliding into sometimes control.


           At mourning’s end Spinoza and a younger brother assumed his father’s import business. Things did not go well. Debt mounted, Jewish debt. Spinoza opted out: he had the city declare him an orphan (his mother having died when he a child), thereby removing himself of his father’s estate debt. Simultaneously, he asked, as a ward of the city, that his mother’s estate, having subsumed into his father’s, be reserved for him. Since all of his father’s estate was liable for external debt, this legal move transformed Spinoza from a debtor to preferred creditor on some portion of the estate. It was also extreme defection on Jewish mercantile norms. He had insulated himself from business punishment by ostracizing himself from future business.


           A few months later, a friend came to him, warning that cherem on charge of heresy, “evil opinions,” and “monestrous,” unspecified deeds was being contemplated; he should go and defend himself. And now the one line story which I make all. He replied, more or less: Let them; it is of no consequence. I can go and show them how it is done. He had experienced punishment in business already; cherem merely formalized his legal removal. Means of livelihood abandoned, his acquaintances would vanish in any case. The real question is why his debt, so business punishment, mounted. I think it because he himself could not punish his debtors.


           Here’s a case: in May of 1655, just over a year before his cherem, Spinoza tried to retrieve payment on a promissory note signed over to him, the note originally owned by another. Multiple false promises on the promise led Spinoza to have the debtor arrested, said debtor taken to an inn, there to be held until payment. When Spinoza arrived at the inn, the debtor publically assaulted him. Even so, they agreed to a surety until the debt could be paid in coin. Spinoza then loaned the debtor money to pay for the arrest itself, under verbal surety of the debtor’s brother; our soon orphan could not, it seems, leave the debtor dangling in punishment (Stephen Nadler, Spinoza: a life, 1999, pp 88-9). Such indulgence is a signal to bystanders; punishment is monitored, and those refusing their fare share of punishing are suspect financially and, much the same thing, socially.


           Two sources attest to an attempt on Spinoza’s life, one placing it near his official city orphaning, the other a year or two latter, after his cherem, his first biographer reporting the former (Nadler, ibid, p 110 with footnote 72). Famously, a knife thrust was deflected by his heavy wool coat, Spinoza keeping the coat thereafter as reminder. Spinoza’s death would not have fortified the Jewish community any less than it was fortified after his ostracism; but it would have removed him as preferred creditor on a portion of his father’s heavily indebted estate. He was an early pariah in thought because he was an established pariah in finance, his thought repulsed because he used it to defend his acts.


           Charge of unbelief was not uncommon, often tinged with false messianism. Unbelief was not such, but other faith, itself requiring a faithful policed through punishment. Spinoza did not make a claim of faith; he rejected all punishment. He jeopardized the foundation of community through which Amsterdam allowed–allowed–Jews to endure. A false messiah was less threat, for they could, and did, return after ostracism, employing the tool themselves while in rebellion. Young Spinoza would have none of it. He denied community, the foundation of life, and spent his remainder trying to show how it could be done.


           He denied community by not denying people. He would not turn his back on others; Judaism, in its ethnic exclusivity, did exactly that. Judaism, not Spinoza, failed monotheism. But he would make the same charge against Christianity. All faith public fails him. He saw in ostracism a mirror of clear image, where side, boundary, maker and made are identical in reversal.


           I imagine him not turning away from the distressed, hearing, acting on the pleas of those outside community. I imagine him a poor businessman because no is too hard to bear. I imagine his fellows chiding, punishing, watching him decline, wondering at the empirical absurdity of his articulated universalism. To hide the stink his discourse is naturally charged heresy, against Moses and Torah, then against all God. When he condemns punishment he removes himself from humanity–ostracism total.


           We know that when fame of mouth came he refused an academic post offered by a Principate; no matter how beneficent, he demurred, his mind would someday no longer be his. We know he declined a life endowment offered by a friend, taking occasional aid in its stead, his refusal of humanity’s ties slowly consuming his lungs through the rarefied ground glass which was his livelihood. His trade, lens grinder in the science of optics, placed him useful among minds yet dependent on no single source of mind(s). So his universalism ate him from within, glass grinding him as he ground it. Life lived is not universal; God instanced is not God–consider the slight of hand called Christian Trinity, Holy Spirit coming by, God in the distance, yet here.


           His final stance was not universal. The Ethics concludes with an abandonment of men:


If the way which I have pointed out seems exceedingly hard, it may nevertheless be discovered. Needs must it be hard, since it is so seldom found. How would it be possible, if salvation were ready to our hand, and could without great labor be found, that it should be by almost all men neglected? But all excellent things are as difficult as they are rare.


As difficult as they are rare: an elitism of mind, an abandonment of universalism as applied, a redefinition of humanity, humanity not an aggregate, but possibility.


Let the human spirit be that which, never completed, cannot be evaluated. (From the Journal of Henry Mitland)


Yet young, ostracized Spinoza not quite gone: if the way which I have pointed out seems exceedingly hard, it may nevertheless be discovered. The Pauline of 1 Corinthians tells us that we shall all be raised equal, that our differences of now are images made of glass dark; the Pauline of 1 Thessalonians says there shall be no first, all shall be raised together. Humanity here is aggregation. Spinoza rather offers release from finitude as possibility, the thinning of personality until it never was. He does not, in fine, assert a single expansion toward the unlimited. Possibility is greater than that. His humanity is greater than that.


           Humanity aggregate is misplaced concreteness:


[T]he will differs from this or that volition in the same way as whiteness differs From this or that white object, or as humanity differs from this or that human Being. So to conceive the will to be the cause of this or that volition is as impossible as to conceive humanity to be the cause of Peter and Paul.


Since, then, the will is nothing more than a mental construction, it can in no way be said to be the cause of this or that volition. Particular volitions, since they need a cause to exist, cannot be said to be free; rather, they are necessarily determined to be such as they are by their own causes. (Spinoza to H. Oldenburg, after August, 1661, so 5 years after cherem; Samuel Shirley, trans., Spinoza: the letters, p. 63; earliest extant philosophical letter)


The finite always has its causes, but these always outstrip any finite reach; this is Nature. We are all, blessedly, released from any demarcated humanity if we deny the finitude upon which aggregation collects. To deny this finitude is to understand the temporal unending causal nexus which is God. Our perceived I’s are truncated causal descriptions, truncation reified into an entity. Spinoza’s problem of person is similar to Darwin’s problem of species under empirical variation of individuals, grounding his Origin of species. Speciation is Darwin’s form of outreaching connection. Spinoza outreaches by dissolving the personality into the causal nexus which is Nature, Nature the temporal form of eternity. Personhood is a causal outcome hiding the unending nexus. How would it be possible, if salvation were ready to our hand, and could without great labor be found, that it should be by almost all men neglected? In a sense, men must neglect it, for the aggregation called men is defined through that neglect.


           This universalism denies a common, universal understanding analytically, for no aggregation employing finite boundary can be universal, this denial as empirical a fact as ubiquitous punishment. His humanity is not human, which is his point. Human is a boundary called punishment, and he found escape from that.



by my questions

I create a world

Benjamin Suzuki

           But my neglected experimental economist at table revels in punishment; satisfying it is to see the natural order of career confirmed in experiment. Around the restaurant table congress opinion makers, those who know the true world in the making, their making, or their follower’s, much the same. One dislikes me, her commentary Mummmm’s somehow directed toward my presence. I am not, after all, a scientist; my works confuse, consuming precious publication in eradication; and I am not her. The experimentalist is just fine; he kittens a pounce, aware of who would prevail in a reality. She, member of the American National Academy of Sciences, knows the importance of grooming, knows propriety is advancement. Her work is always excellent. Elsewhere, confusion reigns, and she will make it right. There is much confusion among scientists; they try to keep it quiet.


           Mummmm to the experimentalist wishing he could pounce a punishment this moment. He’s right, of course. It fits her thought, she an evolutionary biologist renowned in several areas, one sociobiology, where Pangloss reigns, Leibniz public. Winners are superior; that’s why they won. When they don’t win, why, they’re no longer superior. Most satisfying, especially at this table. Yet riffraff is a stubborn mass, always excreting forward. No wonder punishment is so pleasurable–it’s what winners have to do. Accept your lot and maybe, when I’m gone, you can pounce too. When I’m gone.


           We will, at meal’s end, feel most pleasant, ready valiant on the marrows to expand the known world and our place in it. Curious that we winners tell losers what they are, with the world seemingly replete with them, not us. But such thought would get me a Mummmm. In any case, losers seem not to want to know what they are, knowing being a winning thing.


           Such national academies don’t interest much; they are quite consistent, internally, champions of the true win. Their seconds, though, fascinate. These but mimic the grand, demonstrating their importance by keeping others down. Punishers extraordinaire, a national academy need merely Mummmm to have them pounce a life, hard laughter in the wake. They don’t know much, so what they do know had better be good; best way for that is to remove all other know. Which they do, keeping the terrain national academy pure.


           They circle the only important land, removing a mind encountered one of their greatest pleasures. Perhaps only one pleasure surpasses–numbing a mind into inarticulation, quashing it not only in their here, but every conceivable elsewhere. Out of sight, out of mind become out of sight, no mind. Our hooting ancestors must approve.


           Circle they laugh, hoo-hoo-hoot, policing truth yet afraid to approach the altar of that instrumental worship, consumed if wrong; no, let others go there to bear their edible fruit. Humble safe, they conform the boundary of truth where fear dominates the senses, their minds dull comforted into creative thought. Berate others into your tool, pleasing favor of career the only advancement. The world is nicely done, future promised, only do the only only there is. Truth become the silence of others.


ever less

they take

ever more

Benjamin Suzuki


Circling their altar, truth properly placed, line of sight ever veering from outside, tangent, deflecting outside, yet never risking the finality of center.


           Not all employ truth in avoidance. The dervish twirls to see outside full, to know all space, twirls faster to fool the only blindness, his point of stance, twirl itself altar alter unknown, no inside so no outside to deny place within. In several twirl all is covered, owned by none, available to any named outside; perhaps this Spinoza’s God, our way to blessedness become infinite when seen from some other blessed path, all points covered in plurality of see.


           Dervishes name as they twirl, no silence for them, name unendingly to place God beyond any finite use:


From the journal of Henry Mitland

Islam has it right: just name God, all appellations, never stop naming, this the only talk which does not confine and so confront God: the bountiful, the merciful, the light, the dark, the ineffable, the vengeful, the jealous, the wrathful, the generous… never stop naming–the closest we get to God.


As God listens, waiting for the stream to end, knowing it must not, what effect have these words? What effect can words which never end claim? To stop the social physics of others. God listens, knowing he is subterfuge: the endless naming of God stops all theology, a social physics to contour not God but ourselves. Naming, I am servile to God; do not bind me to your halting finite efforts, blasphemy as soon as outward breath ceases. Islam found a way to stop itself–for a moment.


Theology, Mitland also says, is a social physics of the unbounded for the all too bounded:


Theology is the perpetual absence of God; through this we create–and constrain. Theology is prison yet, in extreme, the physics of social creation.


There is a social physics of truth, of science, as well as of God, and the social physics of one’s truth can be as terrible as that of God.


           Academians still discuss Spinoza. But at our table? Mummmm.


           Master of Earth, I stand in the wasteland between your holdings. Slaves beloved unto you, their lords your caprice, you ride both rise and fall. Hierarchy you are, beyond success or failure. On 1 Death your children rise to a delicate cleansing, master begging servant, nothing without him, you the space between. So are gods ever the space between. And so I, a Quetzalcoatl, stand in void, beyond success, beyond failure, beyond hierarchy, in the silence when laughter flees. In outside I stand, watching your priests, social theorists all, telling us why this now could only be.

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