October 11, 2009

There is a tendency in Aurobindo's writings to assume there is but one right answer

(title unknown) from For The Turnstiles

For my Aurobindian critics:
It may be worthwhile to review just what my claims regarding Aurobindo Ghose's project and its consequences may be, as there seems to be substantial confusion and huffington-puffington about the matter. So:

My position is that Aurobindo is a writer of significance, a major cultural figure, who is sadly under-read by those who are not his disciples. This significance is partly due to Aurobindo's historical position; his works (prose and verse) are a remarkable archive of an important moment in world history. It is also a consequence of Aurobindo's achievement as a wordsmith. The poems are worth reading as poems. Agree or disagree with any of his claims and Aurobindo remains a literary figure worthy of careful study and consideration, much like Shelley and other poets he respected. I am not saying that Aurobindo's poems should be read because they present some kind of spiritual punch. They may or may not; that is a separate question, a theological rather than a critical one. Similarly, I am not saying Aurobindo's poems should be read because Aurobindo was a particular kind of person, good or bad; that is a separate question, a biographical one, that only becomes critical when it relates to the fashioning of the poet's voice (or the use of the poem itself as a vehicle for self-fashioning). Aurobindo may have been the greatest man ever to have lived, or he may not have been. I do not make any claims regarding that. (Who would, and why?) Similarly in most respects for Aurobindo's prose writings.

As with any significant writer, Aurobindo's oeuvre is problematic. This claim is not some kind of personal slander or rhetorical "attack." It is a rather obvious fact: the man wrote for many different kinds of audiences, with many different kinds of purpose, over a long period of time, and in multiple languages. On this ground alone, Aurobindo's body of work presents a degree of complexity beyond that of, say, P.B. Shelley (who died young and only wrote in English). It means that Aurobindo may have said X at one time, and Y at another time. It means that the details of his life may lead one to conclude he took position A, even as his writings suggest a sympathy with positions B or C. Sometimes contradictory claims are possible about Aurobindo, as with any other significant writer: he was at once committed to Indian independence, even as his writings on culture and aesthetics reveal a deep investment in English imperial ideologies. It is true that both these positions are authentically Aurobindian, and that both contradict, and that this is perfectly fine. Both positions can be true without doing violence to Aurobindo's legacy. On the contrary: to insist that only one is true and not the other is to do precisely that kind of violence. There is more than one right answer, and room for substantial disagreement.

I would like to suggest that there is a tendency in Aurobindo's writings (and in the least competent of the criticism I have received in response to my own speculations on Aurobindo) to assume there is but one right answer, an Absolute to which one can and should aspire. Take Aurobindo's comments on "quantitative meter," for instance. In a practical way, it assumes one acceptable value for any given English vowel, one acceptable stress-syllable for any given English word. It assumes, in short, a privileged English dialect as normative and acceptable, and given the context, as spiritualized. (Does this not seem symptomatic for a postcolonial writer?) Does it not seem a bit absurd to insist that all aspiring poets endure the discipline of mastering the One Correct Voice, which happens to be good old RP? Is a simple pluralism not a bit more democratic at least, and a bit more reasonable, than pursuing this jihad of the one right interpretation of the great master's vision of the one true faith?

To reiterate: This is not personal. It is historical. I am not interested in evaluating Aurobindo's person positively or negatively (who cares about such things?), although the public persona he fashions for himself through his writings is of course fair game (as part and parcel of his literary, rhetorical, political projects), just as one would for any significant literary or cultural figure. I will continue to treat Aurobindo just as I would treat Spenser, Milton, or Blake, as a name attached to a cluster of artifacts representative of a particular time and place, and with a particular set of functions. Further, I am not in the business of evaluating gurus or spiritual paths. Have I made it that far up the bridge to total freedom, to evaluate the suitability of this or that "realizer," to sell related gimmicks, in short to be a fraud? Obviously not! That is a task reserved for the most subtle and spiritual of minds, and clearly beyond my ken. I have made it clear from the beginning that my analysis of the political and cultural consequences of Aurobindo's philosophical and poetic positions have no necessary bearing on the viability of Aurobindian Integral Yoga as a spiritual path. Believe what you want; practice what pleases you. Do you really imagine I care what kind of yoga you practice? Do I even know you?

Second, I argue that Aurobindo's project is a product of its time and place, its particular history. It arose not as some kind of divine intervention but due to a particular matrix of causes and conditions, just like everything else. Of course, among those causes was Aurobindo's remarkable creativity and productivity. As before, there is more than one cultural matrix in which Aurobindo arose. It is true that he trained intensively in certain yogic traditions. (The practice he promotes most closely resembles Shaktism to me, for what it is worth.) It is also true that his formative years were spent in London during a blossoming of neo-Hegelianism, and this period of intellectual history is clearly traceable in certain of Aurobindo's positions, particularly his view of evolution and time. There may be an Indic precedent for this. I do not deny this possibility. Given the breadth and depth of Indic philosophy, only a fool would deny that someone, somewhere, had this thought and recorded it in an Indic language. I do not claim that Aurobindian thought as such is not Indic, or that any of his particular claims do not have an Indic antecendent. My claim instead is that the most plausible antecedent for Aurobindian evolution is the intersection of perennialism and neo-Hegelian idealism that dominated English pedagogy during Aurobindo's formative years, as I have shown particularly in the micropolitics paper. The political and cultural consequences of this kind of Providentialism are evident in Aurobindo's work and carry over into Wilber's. Those consequences are deeply problematic. That is my claim. Does this reflect poorly on Aurobindo as a person or as a guru? I do not know; I do not make any claims on the matter, nor should any reasonable person be expected to care what I think about someone's spiritual status, to state the obvious once more.

Now, what is my purpose in all this? Why do I insist on regarding Aurobindo as a foundational figure in what we now think of as integral theory and integral culture? This is a fair question, particularly since Aurobindo as near as I can tell never asked to be anyone's influence in founding any string of commodities. There is no evidence that Aurobindo personally requested Ken Wilber to reinvent his legacy for him. Allow me first to explain my position by analogy. Did Shakespeare ask to be made some kind of spiritual figure, as he was made not only in Aurobindo's taxonomy (see The Future Poetry), but also in other "spiritual" treatments of culture of similar vintage, such as Beryl Pogson's post-Gurdjieffian treatise, In The East my Pleasure Lies? (yes, quoting Cleopatra in the title) There is no evidence that Shakespeare thought of himself as a realized being, but he came to be regarded as one at a particular time by certain writers, and for particular reasons (reasons that should be carefully examined by the way). Did St. John of Patmos personally request his Apocalypse be interpreted in precisely the way the latter-day pretender David Khoresh chose to interpret it on his compound near Waco, Texas? There is no evidence for this, in fact there is little evidence on the historical identity of the author of the Apocalypse, but it happened: Khoresh cited the Apocalypse as a particular kind of authority, a particular kind of antecedent. My point is that one has no control over one's legacy. People, many of them hopelessly incompetent, read your stuff and talk about your ideas, like it or not. Aurobindo is not immune from this. It is a historical fact that Wilber and others have interpreted Aurobindo in particular ways, have borrowed wholesale major concepts from Aurobindo's work (certain of which Aurobindo in my view had himself borrowed from others), and put them forward in particular terms. This cannot be undone, and it is not my responsibility. My position is that if one wants to understand how "integral theory" works, with an eye toward transforming it into something of practical use for authentic transformation, one needs to examine the methodology and assumptions that underlie it. Many of those assumptions are said to have originated in Aurobindo; Aurobindo is a claimed antecedent, certainly among the most important, arguably the most important. Therefore, a careful examination of Aurobindo's project is warranted in this context. It may be that Wilber and others are mistaken in their interpretation and appropriation of Aurobindo. You are welcome to take this issue up with them.

One may object: to some my work seems to shed a negative light on Aurobindo's person, his project, his canon; for the sake of fairness or "balance," why do I not also emphasize Aurobindo's positive contributions and his importance? Interesting question. As I have suggested, the critical comments I have made regarding Aurobindo, and the moments in which I have cited and quoted things that Aurobindo wrote and published under his own name that in hindsight make him seem like a product of his own time, are intended to show that integral theory as such is a problematic venture, and that those problems need not be repeated. To repeat: my point is not to celebrate or denigrate Aurobindo for Aurobindo's sake. "Aurobindo" as such is not the object of my analysis; this is not an exercise in Aurobindo Studies. I am citing Aurobindo as a representative specimen in an archive that someone else constructed (the "canon" of integral studies, a topic for later). My purpose is not to make "positive" or "negative" value judgments about Aurobindo that need to be balanced against each other. Does one need to do this in citing Milton or Shakespeare? No, for the obvious reason: simply in citing Milton or Shakespeare, one is assuming or even asserting the importance of that archive. Again, to repeat: by citing Aurobindo, I implicitly or explicitly claim that Aurobindo is important enough to be cited in this context. If one is concerned that Aurobindo is not represented properly or fairly or in a balanced way in academic discourse (I am such a one), spend some time in the Aurobindian archive, develop a worthwhile question, do your research, and publish your findings.

A final thought: is there anyone willing to claim that Aurobindo's project is not problematic in its political and cultural overtones, or that it is not a product of its postcolonial milieu in a rather obvious way? Can anyone disprove these claims? If so, on the basis of what evidence and by what kind of reasoning?

Similarly, can anyone demonstrate that integral theory as such is not problematic, inclusive of its borrowings from Aurobindo? I mean demonstrate this, not dogmatically declare it "unproblematic" and move on with the rest of the "integral" sales pitch.

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