Overweening Generalist

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Heretics: A Short Pass

From that quasi-heresy of social epistemology, Wikipedia, 19th century doctor and "savior of mothers," Ignaz Semmelweis:

>Despite various publications of results where hand-washing reduced mortality to below 1%, Semmelweis's observations conflicted with the established scientific and medical opinions of the time and his ideas were rejected by the medical community. Some doctors were offended at the suggestion that they should wash their hands and Semmelweis could offer no acceptable scientific explanation for his findings. Semmelweis's practice earned widespread acceptance only years after his death, when Louis Pasteur confirmed the germ theory. In 1865, Semmelweis was committed to an asylum, where he ironically died of septicemia, at age 47.<

Heretic! Wash our hands? This is not what we were taught

"I know, I know, you want your 'geniuses' and you're ready to honor them. But you want nice geniuses, well-behaved, moderate geniuses with no nonsense about them, and not the untamed variety who break through all barriers and limitations. You want a limited, cropped and clipped genius you can parade through the streets of your cities without embarrassment."
-Wilhelm Reich, Listen, Little Man!

Reich died in an American prison, persecuted and prosecuted by the US government, egged on by the AMA, his books burned only 10 years after Unistat fought a war against people who, among other affronts to basic ideas of human dignity...burned books.

Robert Anton Wilson, who saw value in the ideas of such heretics as Wilhelm Reich and Timothy Leary, told Lewis Shiner in a 1988 interview, "As long as one heretic is locked up, part of my brain is locked up, and I'm not getting the nourishment I need."

And Kevorkian has died, much to the joy of many. No joy for me.


"Between the thirteenth and nineteenth centuries, as many as one million European women, most of them poor and many of them widowed, were executed for witchcraft, taking the blame for bad weather that killed crops." - Superfreakonomics, p.20

There is a long debate about why these women were killed, and the one I grew up with - the narrative I grew up with that I found most compelling - was that the all-male disastrous "doctors" (bleeders, leech-appliers, etc) were jealous of the success old crones living in the woods or on the outskirts of town had in healing...with no formal training at all! They were a threat to male power over the body. Knowledge - empirical! - passed down through the ages, much of it orally transmitted, about plants, water, use of herbs, symptoms, loving care, hand-holding: dangerous! Levitt and Dunbar in the book cited above mention weather and the crops. There's probably something to that. But they're all dead anyway. 

For being heretics, for not belonging to orthodoxy, as established by Authority. 


U. of Washington zoologist, biologist and evolutionary psychologist and public intellectual David Barash urges in one of his essays in Natural Selections that, from a sociological and existentialist view, far more damage has been done by preaching obedience to authority; we must teach disobedience to the authority of political authorities, social authorities, and to "genetic inclinations." That is: we are probably genetically hardwired to do some nasty things to each other: let us disobey these "natural" urges!


"Heresy is charisma's boisterous child, its role being to challenge the deadening effects of orthodoxy." - from Prophets, Cults and Madness, p.63 

Same book, p.175: "The essential difference between the messiah and the charismatic prophet is that the messiah advocates renewed submission to the Almighty whereas the charismatic advocates heresy." The authors of this book, John Price and Anthony Stevens, bring a sort of evolutionary psychology-psychiatry with a Jungian bent to the age-old phenomenon of origins of religions and "cults" and prophets, holy-men, Mansonoids, etc. What a fascinating book that was, and now that I'm quoting from it I feel like reading it again...

My cardinal sin: prolixity. One last word: At what point does a religion lose its authority for you? Take any religion. (I'm not conventionally religious in any sense of the idea, but am fascinated by religion, if only for the simple fact that it seems I MUST be fascinated by it; it plays such a large role in this mad world!) At what point in its history did it "blow it"? 

I like Ezra Pound's poetic answer:

"A religion is damned, it confesses its own ultimate impotence, the day it burns its first heretic." - Selected Prose, 1909-1965


Loba said...

Prolixity - what a wonderful word. Not a sin, Michael, but your left hemisphere must be enormous, and then the ability to retrieve those words at will....astounding.

Religiious authority? I have never willingly given religion authority in my life, but others' disempowerment has affected me. Being of pagan upbringing, with "Mother Nature" being spoken of as all powerful, my Mennonite school friends were not allowed to visit me, as we didn't pray. We went to movies, played cards, and other evil activities. Big mistake for me was taking my cards to school in grade 3 and teaching my friends to play poker. Oops. One of my pagan cousins innocently asked, is Mother Nature married to God? Nasty kids. Bound for hell, no doubt.
The representatives of various religious belief systems are the ones that "blow it", in my mind. When individuals are encouraged to mistrust their own thoughts and ideas, to believe that the only true wisdom lies outside of themselves, they have "blown it". So, this has happened repeatedly throughout history, and I have no idea at what point that began, in which religion.
Interesting that in Quebec, traditionally Catholic, most people still identify as Catholics, but few attend church regularly, and the Pope's directives are ignored. Quebec has a low birth rate, accepts gay marriage, and is liberal politically. It's a complex issue.

michael said...

I grew up "pagan" too, but didn't know it: my parents, when we asked how come our friends had to go to church or "catechism" and what were we? I remember my dad saying that those things are good for some people but not others, and if we wanted to go to church they'd drop us off. A kid once asked me, are you catholic or protestant? I didn't know what he meant. So he asked if I had to go to cathechism. I said no. He said, "You're protestant!" So I called myself a protestant for awhile, never having seen the inside of a church...As a 12 yr old I had hair down the middle of my back, because I admired a picture of John Lennon on the back of one of mom's Beatles records. My friend's parents seemed to see me as vaguely threatening ("Michael....when are you going to get that hair CUT?"), although I always won the award for best grades, and was, at heart, a little hippie, etc...

Years later my dad said he saw too many horrific scenes with his friends and their parents revolving religion; he thought it caused more problems than it was worth.

There's a U. Of Penn scholar named Philip Jenkins that I like. I saw him give a talk in Berkeley on the future of religion, and one thing that blew my socks off: if the Catholic church wanted to be where their own growth/action is, they'd relocate to the Southern Hemisphere somewhere, and the hottest place for them is the Congo/Zaire! They have been steadily losing numbers for decades in the Northen Hemisphere; catholics in the "Global North," as Jenkins phrases it, tend to be "cafeteria catholics" anyway.

A few yrs ago, when the previous Pope went to Africa and preached no condoms: he should have been made Public Enemy Number One on that continent, as two massive problems there are overpopulation and AIDS. Clueless!

Why people would want to get their advice on sex from a putatively celibate old man who dresses in drag, I'll never understand.

ARW23 said...

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
(I think we all know who this is.)

Loba said...

I was comforted a few years ago while watching a forum at UBC in Vancouver, which consisted of a panel of the world's wiser spiritual leaders, including the Dalai Lama and the Bishop Desmond Tutu. In response to someone's question, the Bishop smiled, and stated, "there is one thing we must understand....God is not a Christian....she just allows us to misunderstand her." He probably doesn't go along with the Pope's directives, either.

michael said...

In the current sensationalistic mediascape, the squeaky wheels get all the grease and coverage: they make for good ratings; and I've been paying attention for a long time to a vast undercurrent heretical, progressive xtian, jewish, and islamic people and groups and welcome talk about them, even though we are somewhat spectatorial in our stances here. I just think the religious impulse is basic; it all depends on how we channel it, define it, who we "do" it with...On a related level, I'm particularly fascinated by the never-dead strain of poetic intellects who insist on all of the world's religions gods as having a valuable metaphorical meaning that it is up to negotiate with. This strain/movmt has been in existence for probably 2500 yrs and is almost always hounded underground. Alfred Adler's daughter Margot has had quite a bit to say on this.

These two aspects: 1.) the radically progressive mvmts within the monotheistic traditions, and 2.) the idea of the gods as metaphors for ways of being/discrete mental states...has played a large role in my own self-description as some sort of "agnostic," although I find a conviviality with most of the atheists I've known.

Eric Wagner said...

I wash my hands of Semmelweis's theories.

"Resist much, obey little." - Walt Whitman

I look forward to taking an online course from the Beshara school this September called "The Ways of the Heart".

Yet another terrific blog. Thank you.