on June 18, 2001
A paradigm addict's worst nightmare, "Wandering God" eschews everything from the intellectual dishonesty of Deconstructionism to the reassuring but ultimately flawed cross-cultural Comparativism of modern-day idols, Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung.
Third in his trilogy on Human Consciousness, W.G. is Berman's leanest and most densely packed argument so far. The book abounds with scintillating insights on diverse subjects, such as the role that child-rearing has on modern life, and boldly rejects the conventional thesis that Ludwig Wittgenstein's "lost years" were actually so. What on this good green Earth do these two subjects have in common? More than you think.
But this brief and quixotic description is putting the cart before the proverbial horse.
Berman's main focus is in articulating the difference between traditional hunter-gatherer and sedentary consciousnesses, how both are part of our common heritage, and how vestiges of the former (horizontal, paradoxical) collide with the dominant zeitgeist of the latter (vertical, power-driven).
Many have been attracted to this book by the Idries Shah-like cover, a desert caravan image, or lulled into thinking W.G. is another in the endless junkpile of New Age tomes with the word "spirituality" in its sub-title. Those of us who know Berman's work can already see beyond the lamentable dust-jacket design. "Wandering God" moves adroitly across precise, scientific vistas into uncharted terrain - the depths of the human mind and body. By the book's end, one has witnessed, and participated in, the eruption of an intellectual volcano.
Some reviewers have been put off by Berman's unwillingness to neatly package and tie off his theses, and stake his academical prize. But that just confirms what Berman claims about the vertical, ascent underpinnings of modern human life, which are driven by a need to conquer and achieve, be it political power or mental/spiritual proselytizing.
This book is highly recommended.
If you know Dr. Berman by way of The Twilight of American Culture, hit the reset button, for this is a far different animal. This book is his masterpiece, and is a work of comparative anthropology. The thesis here is far too complex for summary, but suffice to say that it is forcefully argued and thoroughly researched. I imagine that this work is less popular with academic philosophers, psychologists, and anthropologists than it perhaps should be for several subjective reasons. Its central argument is based on Freud's concept of the self, which has become deeply unfashionable in recent years. Also, Berman offers an iconoclastic interpretation of Wittgenstein that steps on the toes of quite a few important philosophical thinkers. You'll also find elements of Camus' concept of absurdity and William James' pragmatism (i.e. truth, independent of empirical evidence, is what "works" rather than what "is"), though I don't believe the similarities are intentional. The author has a tendency to bend the evidence to his conclusions and can, at times, piece elements of others' works into a collage of quotations and statements that appears to offer little original thought, but those cases are exceptional rather than the rule.
Dr. Berman has written an enormously important history of human hierarchy that all subsequent writers have taken for granted.
Basically, Dr. Berman believes that human discovery of a "self," rather than simply as as physical entity, introduced hierarchy into civilization. All religion today is based on a hierarchy, spiritual to earthly. Is this just an accident? How did civilization, and its promotion of sedentary life, contribute to a social hierarchy that dominates our culture today, worldwide?
You'll have to fight yourself with Dr. Berman's arrogance, because he is quite sure of his conclusions. If you agree, you'll think he's a modern-day prophet. If you disagree, or if you think Dr. Berman's colloquial arguments lack depth, you'll find much to criticize.
All in all, it's difficult to come away from this book unconvinced. It's difficult to read it and not think that Dr. Berman has his fingers (and mind) on the truth, as much as it may offend.
on March 19, 2013
Beyond its explicit topic, which is fascinating in itself, what stands out to me about this book is Berman's dedication to exploring ideas of the greatest practical import while refusing to indulge in any kind of simplistic ideologizing. This rare combination turns out to be the real "message," and makes this probably the most nuanced, thoughtful book I've ever read. In fact, the combination of his topic and his mode of exploring it is what allows him to so effectively expose that there is a hidden ideologizing tendency at the very root of civilized life, which, by remaining hidden, has essentially "run the show" of civilized life all along, to our detriment.
So, how to briefly (ok, not so briefly) review such a book without collapsing the very quality - its non-simplistic nuance - that makes it so valuable and outstanding? That would probably be impossible. But I cannot NOT say something about it, so here's what I've come up with:
Imagine if, in earliest childhood, your whole organism had somehow been knocked off kilter - even if just a bit - in some fundamental way. As you grew up, everything you did would likewise be off kilter - but you would never consciously know it. Organismically, you would definitely sense something was "off"; but consciously you would think everything was "normal." How could you know otherwise - especially if everyone around you was in the same boat?
Then imagine if someone was able to put into words exactly what it was that you only vaguely, subconsciously sensed was off kilter - and further, if that person was able to point directly to a specific, highly stress- and suffering-inducing behavior pattern you'd engaged in your whole life and was able to tell you, "This behavior pattern - which seems so necessary to you now - is actually only an attempt to compensate for what was knocked off kilter in you. Correct what is off kilter and you will be free to return to normal living." Imagine the relief when your organismic sense of self (where you always knew something was off kilter) and your conscious self-awareness (where you didn't) suddenly lined up and agreed with each other for the first time in your life.
All this is just to say that, as much as it may appear to be merely another book of dry academic research (and it is extremely intellectually rigorous - no New-Age fluff here), Wandering God is, in my view, really a hands-on diagnostic manual that lets us identify and address (if not solve) a genuine and very concrete problem at the core of our lives.
Right now, because of a few psychologically unbalancing changes in child-rearing that took place during the transition from nomadic, egalitarian, hunter-gatherer life to sedentary, hierarchical, agricultural-civilized life, which induce a sense of tension, alienation, and incompleteness deep inside each one of us, we become unknowingly caught up in a belief-behavior pattern that Berman identifies as "verticality": the attempt to latch on to and merge with that one super-special "higher" something-or-other (however we conceive of it) with the hope of restoring the deep, subconscious, organismic sense of balance and completeness lost in early childhood. It is an attempt to escape from a world that we now mistakenly experience as lacking, degraded, "fallen," and even evil into something pure, "higher," and unquestionably good. As Berman puts it, verticality "is rooted in alienation, in not finding this world as enough."
In one way or another, we all pursue vertical escape from the world. It feels absolutely essential to us, like it is simply what humans were "born" to do. So much so that we cannot imagine doing anything else; so much so that we project backwards and assume that humans have always done it. But it is no older than the civilized disruption of childhood balance. In earlier civilizations, people pursued verticality primarily through shamanistic trance and transcendent religion; today, we also add secular escapes. There are countless ways of trying to lose (or glorify) ourselves in something "higher" or "greater." Some of the more obvious ones (beyond trance and religion) that either Berman mentions or that I can think of include: all-consuming, intense romance and sex; heroic creative-artistic endeavor; membership in powerful, prestigious institutions and corporations (religious, educational, governmental); military and athletic spectacle, fanfare, and pageantry; wild, drug-induced, "ecstatic" partying; life-and-death gang loyalty; blockbuster entertainment; grandiosely luxurious living; fantasy video games; becoming famous/worshipping famous people; and on and on. The intensity with which we pursue these sorts of things is not normal for our species. It is a trumped-up, artificial intensity created by first inducing imbalance and then attempting to overcome it.
Thus, whatever form it takes, the entire 10,000-year project of vertical pursuit has been but an artificial imposition on our true, healthy selves - an impossible, completely unnecessary attempt to compensate ourselves for the completely unnecessary loss of psychological balance. Balanced humans do not conjure up and feel the same kind of badness that we do - and hence feel no need to purge or fight it and make the ascent to an equally conjured up goodness.
In short, Berman is saying that the common thread running through civilized society - both religious and secular - is the artificial drive, born of imbalance, to latch on to something unequivocally, stupendously "good" and make a Really Big Deal out of it.
But then what is the alternative to verticality? What is truly normal for humans who have not been knocked off kilter and who are not therefore unknowingly driven to seek compensation? What is the non-artificially hyped-up way to experience the wholeness and balance that we now seek through substitute means? Berman calls the naturally arising hunter-gatherer mode of consciousness "paradox," which he describes as simultaneously experiencing pure "animal" alertness (think of the intensely present "thereness" of a cat) along with our uniquely human self-awareness. Together, these create for hunter-gatherers a sense of "experiential immediacy" that is spread out in a diffuse, horizontal way across the whole world and in which "the 'sacred' is simply that which is present in front of them. To be alive, to participate in life in the here and now, is worship for these cultures."
Such naturally balanced people have no grandiose religious (or other) institutions and no big-shot charismatic leaders or elites in which to get caught up and "lose oneself" or through which to "get ahead" and attain egoic self-glorification. "But isn't that a ho-hum, boring, empty existence?" the vertically inclined civilized mind asks. We are conditioned to think so; but Berman is suggesting that the true richness and "intensity" of life comes from uninhibited directness of experience, not from false excitement generated by repeatedly imagining ourselves to be on the brink of overcoming an imagined incompleteness. Balance gives us an experience of life that is even more intense than verticality, but in a much more evenly "spread out" way. It truly is a paradox. Nothing is a Really Big Deal to balanced people - because everything is.
Now, this horizontal, paradoxical, no-big-deal, experiential immediacy may not be the solution to ALL human problems. But Berman forces us to wonder: If we have gotten off kilter in some fundamental way, doesn't it make sense to at least look at this issue and perhaps even try to get back on kilter? Because what is the sense, really, in just forging ahead, trying to "progress" as we always do, when we are fundamentally - but unknowingly - off kilter and primarily caught up in blind attempts at compensation? The gift of Wandering God, then, is the opportunity to at least recognize a baseline of balanced normalcy and to then make real, blindness-free choices for ourselves. It's a great gift, especially when we consider that, so far, virtually all attempted fixes and corrections to civilized life have been themselves - unknowingly, of course - of the vertical variety; and that they have therefore unwittingly perpetuated the imbalances/blindness underlying our troubles.
As someone who fancies himself to be quite familiar with the general themes Berman explores (aboriginal versus civilized consciousness and so on), I have to say that his distinction between vertical trance and horizontal paradox is one that I have not seen discussed in any depth by anyone else, and has been a major and valuable corrective to my understanding.
A couple of questions/criticisms: His last few pages acknowledge a positive role for the unitary consciousness associated with verticality; but this positive role is very slight - mainly a stage on the way to returning to horizontal paradox. (He offers Bernadette Roberts, author of "The Experience of No-Self," as a model of someone who has made this traverse). But I have to wonder if this perspective really exhausts all of the possibilities inherent in consciousness that are worth exploring. Consciousness is a weird thing, it seems to me; and so there might still be a lot to it that we do not yet understand. Experiences like trance - or really, yogic samadhi - might therefore consist of more than what Berman seems to suggest. He may be perfectly right that almost all chasing after unitary consciousness has indeed been of the imbalanced escape variety; but still, there may also be some healthier, more mature, non-escapist approaches to the exploration of consciousness yielding results that do not quite fit into the picture he presents. It is hard to imagine that all of the apparent wisdom of all yogis and other spiritual practitioners has been based entirely in unconscious imbalance. Not that Berman comes right out and says that - but it is somewhat implied. I should add that I am thinking here of a relatively tiny handful of people who would probably come from less-developed (and usually eastern) cultures where children are not as deeply imbalanced early in life (places like Ladakh and such) and who therefore might still actually be quite comfortable with worldly life - but who find that they simply have a genuine desire to focus on exploring the "higher" possibilities inherent in consciousness. If they discover a spontaneous welling up of, say, unconditional love and compassion for all, should we automatically reject this as escapist delusion; or should we consider that this may indeed be a potential we all contain?
Also in his last chapter, Berman addresses the practical steps that might aid us (anyone who is interested) in the recovery of paradox. This section is very thin and mainly consists of warning (appropriately, I would say) against turning paradox into the next ideological "ism" - against, in other words, making a typically civilized-imbalanced attempt at returning to balance. My own sense is that there is much, much more to be said - of a down-to-earth, practical nature - about what is likely to be involved in a truly balanced return to balance.
note: I noticed some reviewers discredited Berman's ideas because of a few references he makes to Freud; but as far as I can see, his thesis/approach in no way relies on the validity of Freud's ideas or Freudian psychoanalysis.