Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Heathen Cosmopolitanism

Heathen Cosmopolitanism and the Frightening Vertigo
of the Cargo-God's Odinic Wisdom

It is a not inconsiderable irony that one of the most cosmopolitan tools in all of human history --- the world-wide web --- is being utilized by some to construct or reconstruct rigid separatisms, reinforce quarantines, and bolster ethnic divisions and nationalisms. The world-wide web's scale of cosmopolitanism makes something as magnificent as the cosmopolitanism shared under Alexander the Great seem petty and elementary. The principle of this cosmopolitanism is simple : communication across boundaries, allowing exchange of information that obsoletizes parochialisms and stimulates evolution by allowing people to compare and contrast their experiences within one set of human guidelines with those living under another. This principle of communication across boundaries is within the purvue of the archetype of Hermes, Mercury, and ultimately, as well, Odin.

The hypocrisy with which nationalists of any stripe critique empire is astounding, considering the extent to which many will glorify the notion of conquest, certainly an imperialist tendency, on the one hand, but then bemoan it when it meant some kind of limitation on their blessed volk. This is especially ironic given that the flowering of Scandinavian culture we know of as the Viking age took place within a context of Scandinavians seeking out the world, and thriving in the adventure of meeting people from other cultures and other places. It is true, of course, that there was, as with all adventure, conflict, and that they were ready for it. It is true that there was pirating and greed and sometimes a spirit of conquest as well. But it was the traders who brought a great deal of prosperity to the Scandinavian world, and funded the renaissance of ancient heathenism in its days of ancient eclipse. We might rightfully have some ambivalence towards those traders, and foster a critique of how much this activity involved creating and/or getting ensnared in a commercial empire, still an empire of sorts, but whatever our critique may be, we ought to note that it was this willingness to exchange with others that allowed such a blossoming.

We have a native word for such blossoming : it is called worthing, and as is readily apparent in the word, the concept of "worth" or value is inherent to the word. In other words, there was great worth in the cosmopolitan nature of the Viking enterprise. I do not mean to say that the entirety of the Viking period, or the entirety of trading, or anything of the sort was solely cosmopolitan. Reality is always a mixed bag, full of various tendencies. All I wish to accentuate is that the desire to go out and meet the Other, communicating and exchanging, was an essential part of the entire historical thrust of the times.

Ironically, this spirit of adventure, and the boldness to go out and meet the world come good or come bad, is often replaced in modern times by reconstructionists who exhibit an almost heimsk attitude, the attitude of the homebody who wants to judge the world by parochial standards, by how things are done in one's home town or home folk, when Odin himself specifically states that one knows almost nothing until one has traveled widely and seen the hearts of men across a broad swathe of conditions and cultures. "Preservation" --- whether it is preservation of "purity" or preservation of one's "ancient culture" --- is a defensive stance, even a paranoid stance at times. The proposition is underconsidered that perhaps the best way to preserve a culture based on part in adventure is to be adventurous, and adventure, by its very nature, never conforms to what adventures of the past were. This is not to say there is no value to the traditional. Certainly there is, and certainly there was value placed upon tradition by our ancestors. But it is to say specifically when we are discussing the traditional value of adventure that there is nothing adventurous in doing things as they have always been done.

Fear of eclecticism haunts the reconstructionist scene like a spectre. Obviously there are clumsy, flippant, ill-thought-out, faithless eclecticisms, but it should be obvious to anyone skilled in debate that to assume this kind of eclecticism as one's opponent from the get-go is to construct a straw man easily knocked down, and obscures the possibility of more elegant, deep, philosophical, and faithful eclecticism.

Many beautiful cultures and spiritualities have formed over the eons in isolation, and thus their cosmologies are largely self-referential. Within the parameters and era of isolation, these self-referential cosmologies make perfect sense. But the anthropological moment --- the creative crisis of cross-cultural contact --- challenges the isolation and self-referentiality of cultures and spiritualities formed in isolation. When people begin to meet other people with vastly different ideas, and to exchange with them, they are placed into paradigm crisis, and historically, paradigm crisis has always been very fertile and creative. It certainly creates difficulties, and isolationists always monolithically focus on the alienations caused by cultural change, while neglecting the possibilities that have been liberated.

The difficulty faced by anyone constructing an imaginal identity is that because the identity is grounded in the imaginal, anyone may enter into it. This is why those seeking to construct imaginal identities often fall back on some form of nationalism or ethnicity, because it seems to "ground" the imaginal in a completely buttressed, impenetrable position. But the key word here is "seems". Obviously, it is not impenetrable because of the fragility and sensitivity of nationalists. I do not disrespect an identity-formation by calling it "imaginal". We imagine a certain set of ancestors, and imagine ourselves into their set and setting. It is a magical act, an act of collective imagination. The problem is, anyone can imagine, and anyone can set claims in an imaginal space, and so the nationalist fallback is to declare property lines within that imaginal space predicated on ancestry.

But modern genetics belies such an isolationist appropriation of ancestry. If we utilize ancestry as an identity, we are ultimately family with all humans on the planet. For those who subscribe to some form of evolution (and whether you believe in evolution or not, the evolutionists have at the very least proven the kinship of all life on planet earth, however you wish to account for that), we are ultimately family with all living beings on the planet. Where you draw the line in ancestry is a political choice, and it is also ultimately an arbitrary choice, and realistically one based almost solely in the imagination.

We have such a profound disrespect for the imagination in modern culture that it seems insulting to many when scholars suggest that a great deal of community exists in the imagination, and the engineering of imagination. Free thought --- certainly the only route to any lasting wisdom --- however, liberates us from the confines of any one set of imaginal engineering, and the anthropological moment --- the cosmopolitan opportunity --- reveals that not only can we imagine ourselves in multiple ways, but that reimagination is necessary to deal with, grasp, and fully come to terms with all of the different cosmologies and perspectives that exist out there.

Who are you imagining when you imagine and celebrate ancient Viking culture? Is your desire attracted to that imaginal space because you imagine a bunch of fierce men in furs waving spears around, slashing people, blood spattering, conquest, some celebration of idealized machismo you feel your present life deprives you of? Or do you imagine instead that there was a "deeply spiritual" but profoundly isolationist culture that it is your sacred task to preserve? (Always be wary of "the sacred" : everything that is most pernicious in human nature always hides in the supposed "sacred" as a fall-back position in which to insinuate itself apparently free of meaningful critique.) Or do you imagine a culture of adventurers seeking the "out there"?

Ultimately, you have to take responsibility for what you choose to imagine. Such freedom of imagination, and therefore freedom of identity, is profoundly unsettling to some. Sartre spoke directly to this issue, the anxiety that exists around our fundamental freedom, that we are not determined in advance by anything. Sartre's philosophy is the philosophy of the adventurer taken to its peak : we are not confined by a pre-existing essence, but rather, we create that essence in the adventure of living itself, which involves a choice that cannot be blamed on anything external nor ultimately grounded in the as-is world, but which requires a bold responsibility willing to choose and to be free. As Erich Fromm uncovered, many people have a will to "escape from freedom", a will to escape that Sartre called "bad faith".

Nietzsche realized that behind any set of arguments were volitional stances based in complex, psychological life experiences and choices. With his insight, we can ask ourselves about what we are choosing to imagine and what function it is serving in our life. Nietzsche's gift was the insight that beyond their surface logical consistency, it is the function of ideas in a life which requires deeper examination. This Odinic space of freedom is dizzying. It takes away an easy footing grounded in ethnicity or isolation. It asks one to take responsibility for what one imagines by developing the insight into why one is finding value in such imagination, and what function it serves in the context of one's life, one's real, nitty-gritty, autobiographical life.

I think even the most ardent reconstructionist will be forced to admit, at least to him or herself, that there are significant parts of their autobiographical life that simply do not fit into the framework they are attempting to construct. What do you do with that remnant? Does being "tru" to the Aesir involve being "false" or "faithless" to parts of oneself? Or does Odin represent an unsettling, turbulent force of wisdom and inspiration that is always challenging us forward, spurring us on towards an evolution we can't even yet anticipate, and therefore whose freedom and adventure is anxiety-provoking? Yet is it anxiety? Or is it excitement? You get to choose, and you are responsible for your choice.


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