Patricia Herron is Professor of Philosophy and Religous Studies.
In Ken Wilber's novel BOOMERITIS, there is advancement towards Spiritual Mystical experiences. However, in order for these realizations to occur, Wilber projects a regression to a lower level of the Good in the form of X-rated sexual fantasies and activities. These fantasies represent what he claims is a ranking of real value as the judgement "it is better to have sex than not to have sex" is implied. Thus, the raw, male, adolescent sex is an undeniable item and now the young Ken Wilber, as the protagonist, can find a real value. (Young Ken is Ken Wilber when he was a young man; therefore, this character gives the novel an ironic twist) This value or regress to a Good in the sense of a reliable fact, existing in the midst of the indeterminate focus of extreme postmodern thinking, can, Wilber claims, lead to a passion for being one with the entire Kosmos. Conversely, this discovery of something substantial also serves the purpose of mitigating the irony present in extreme Postmodernism, a major theme in the novel, or beyond irony is spirit. I claim that this regression to a low energy Good in order to advance towards the higher energy does not work. I will argue that a glimpse of authentic truth or where realization emerges instead of mere concept is when young Ken saw beyond Joan Hazelton's self ego and caught a glimpse of her soul which he described as shining forth like the sky through her eyes. (Joan was a Professor who gave lectures at the Integral Center; Ken falls in love with her). It was both this insight into the other as a separate entity and also to see the spiritual dimension within that individual that allowed young Ken to see the distance between his ordinary ego self and the possibility of a higher spiritual self. That is the real foundation for the Good, or a genuine growth of reality and not a regress to the lower energy of sexuality.
In order to explain this claim I will use the essay by E.F. Schumacher, entitled, "The Nature of Problems" which implicitly contrasts false with true art. For Schumacher true art encompasses the ability of the artist to communicate truth by appealing to humankind's higher intellectual faculties, which are suprarational. If art only projects the movements of entertainment or propaganda then something is indeed missing, the higher spiritual energies need to be invoked before the work is considered to be worthy of being called true or authentic art.
I agree with Schumacher, as I have always read in order to connect with or at least recognize truths of a higher order that "ring true." Entertainment can enhance "fine feelings" which are of a higher ordering than self-titillation or, perhaps, sexual arousal. However, the "fine feelings" are only reflections of the natural energy of the psyche or as one standing in the light of one's own ego. For example, one can have very "fine feelings" while listening to classical music and yet not be moved beyond these feelings to embrace a worldcentric view. This was especially true of Nazi Germany where high culture was quite evident and yet their ethnocentric and egocentric participation allowed the terrible inhumane murder of millions of innocent men, women and children.
Iris Murdoch, the well-known British Philosopher and Novelist, described the natural energy of the psyche with the aid of the Allegory of the Cave from Plato's REPUBLIC. She stated that we have become more intuned with knowledge about the nature of our ego selves, which include our unconscious negative emotions, or we now have a much better grasp of our psychological selves due to modern psychology. This is very beneficial as low self-esteem, narcissistic tendencies, suppressed anger, and other emotional problems are being recognized and dealt with. Thus there emerges a strong ego, which is necessary before a release to a higher truth about the self can occur. We can then say that is less to know ourselves than to know the truth about ourselves. In alluding to the Allegory of the Cave she describes a scene where humans are standing around a fire warming themselves. The fire is near the entrance to the cave, thus they have turned away from the shadows on the walls or the untruths about themselves. This is indeed an improvement, and can, perhaps, represent Wilber's levels of awareness from the blue and orange memes to the green meme of the Postmodernist. However, these individuals cannot turn their entire bodies and souls towards the sun or the good, as it is too comfortable beside the cheery fire. This seems to reflect Wilber's idea that the extreme Postmodernists are entirely too comfortable in their green meme level of participation and thus their lesser ego attachments disallow them from entering second and third tier spiritual dimensions.
In this critique I will also express how I oscillated between entertainment which includes "fine feelings" and/or self-titillation and where I felt my higher level intellect or suprarational faculties "kick in."
I have currently been teaching Far East Religions. One of the religions taught is Taoism. Diane Dreher, in her recent book, THE TAO OF INNER PEACE, tells the story of a young man from the country that was admitted into a prestigious university. He, however, lacked background knowledge of many of the literary works and consequently felt left out and ignorant during many of the discussions. He decided to tell the truth, which wasn't easy, as he simply said over and over that he had never heard of this author or that author. Then he would ask questions or do research reading to become informed. I have taught Philosophy and Religious studies for numerous years, and I too must admit that as I read BOOMERITIS , I did not understand what the X-rated sexual fantasies were all about. No, I did not and not only that, I was moved into the entertainment mode with some minute sexual arousal feelings as though I was reading some racy romantic novel. I then read an interview between Ken Wilber and a representative from Shambhala Publications. In this manner I was taking the situation into my own hands like the young man: if you do not understand or know something, ask questions, do your research and become informed. And so I became informed. I knew what it is all about. Anyway, I thought I did. It was that these sexual fantasies were there to show that something in the life of young Ken had meaning, as there surely isn't any or not much of anything with meaning in the world dominated by the disease Boomeritis. There is no such thing as facts either, nor values as everything is up for interpretation. There is an infinite regress of contexts within contexts, within contexts, until all meaning is lost in the great ego minds of the interpreters. Poor Ken was lost within this maze. Since young men evidently have sexual fantasies every ten minutes, this gave him certainty or value, as it is better to have sex than not to have sex. Wilber states in the interview that "the idea was to start with raw, male, adolescent sex—that is the one undeniable item where he can find a real value, a real judgement, in the world—but then the sexual expands quite beyond a merely egoic, bodily act and into a passion and compassion for being one with the entire Kosmos, a radiant blistering thrill of One Taste." So he starts with something he can't deny, in spite of flatland—namely, sex—and he ends up with something equally undeniable—his own Original Face. And in between—which is the story of the novel—is the entire spectrum of increasing depth, increasing meaning, increasing value, increasing consciousness. Beyond irony is Spirit, ultimately"(interview, page 17). Another reason for the fantasies is the irony that pervades the novel. All extreme Postmodernists are narcissistic with high ideals, which describes the disease of Boomeritis and of course an example of narcissism is self-reflection. A novel about Boomeritis then must include people whom self-reflect, which would include their thoughts and fantasies. Yes, this makes sense, or so it seemed at first. But as I think about beyond irony into depth I again start using my two-concept gauge to determine if this beyond is truly beyond. I continued to read and my higher order faculties did not "kick in." I was waiting, hoping, as now I felt I at least understood that the lower energy entertainment mode, which included the feelings or emotions that surfaced while reading the X-rated scenes, is only a prelude to an awareness of the great spiritual expression of the One Taste experience. I was pleased by and thoroughly enjoyed the lectures, which enhanced my intellectual capacity. But this participation only extended as far as the entertainment or propaganda modes.
I continued to read, enjoying the many insights. For example, on page 250-252, I was impressed with Joan's input. Joan states that some values are more inclusive, or compassionate and embracing and contributes to a healthier ranking of values. The green meme wants to link people and not rank them, creating the spread of egocentric and ethnocentric values. Thus the spiral of development or the growth of Goodness takes on a lopsided, confusing horizontal perspective, which disallows hierarchical growth. This participation Wilber claims is a mere flatland reality, as the Spirit of development of the ego would not be present. It is crucial that the stages of growth for the ego coexist with the One Taste experience. If not, the pathological aspects, such as egocentric tendencies, can become the narcissism of extreme Postmodernism. Conversely, this reflects the example at the beginning of this essay of Murdoch's symbolism from the Allegory of the Cave. The ego is here seen as developing and becoming aware, and yet this new found knowledge is portrayed as too warm and cozy, thus restricting further advancement and yet the "ever-present" awareness surrounds this refusal, waiting patiently for the turning of the soul towards the light.
Wilber wants to make it clear, however, that the growth of Goodness, although making it easier to reach this "ever-present" awareness of 2nd and 3rd tier mystical experience, it is not a prerequisite for this experience. The reason for this is that "ever-present" awareness exists in the moment. Therefore, it is possible for an individual to encounter this presence, like Stuart, at any time, regardless where they are with their stages of growth. Problems are of course created as the individual must then continue to make progress at the lower ego level. Many times they do not, as this is very difficult to achieve.
I claim further that the sexual fantasies and activities do not work due to this ranking of a value that becomes the one undeniable item in which Ken can find a real value, a real judgement. It is necessary, therefore, to examine this regression to the Good. In order to proceed, this question surfaces: Does this finding of the Good parallel Foucault's thinking on pages 276-200, in the novel? Foucault started by condemning all aspects of modernism. He felt that all modern institutions from prisons to hospitals were repressive or they were power structures that crushed "original goodness." In his later work he dispensed with these recaptured goodness notions or as described in the novel as "under the pavement is the beach." He felt that this approach became the dogmatism of the left, or "under the pavement" is simply premodernism, often much uglier and there is nothing post conventional about it. "Ever-present" goodness is not something you have to go back in time to capture, it is waiting to be born. Therefore, there is danger in hatred of the present as there is the tendency to invoke a completely mythical past. Also in SEX, ECOLOGY, SPIRITUALITY, Wilber, on page 500, alludes to Georg Groddeck's book, THE BOOK OF IT, where the "it" in this book is based on Taoism, which denotes very vividly the "ever-present" awareness of Ultimate Reality. This "it" was, however, seen by Freud, to be the source of what he had first called "the it" which became the "id." And he furthered claimed that it was the "id" that moves all psychic life, not the "it" as intrinsic in Eastern Mysticism.
Wilber continues by stating that the Tao in being reduced to the "id" is, consequently, a great example of the collapse of the Kosmos into flatland participation where sex becomes the new and only drive of the Flatland world.
In the above, the "it" first appears as the Tao, the Way or the grounding of all existence, the source of all Good. This reality of the Good, however, regresses as this Good under the scrutiny of Freud descends into the id, or, as a sexual energy, which is a much lower force representing the movement of life.
In BOOMERITIS the movement is reversed, the sexual fantasies can be seen as a Good in the dismal flatland scene.
Is this a true a ranking of the Good? The Good descends and reappears at the lower energy sexual level until it becomes difficult to understand how it can then be the preliminary realization for the all-encompassing mystical experience. This is the problem as I now see it, not what is beyond irony, which Wilber claims is spirit. But how does this spirit shine forth? I claim that the novel does not show this movement from the Good of the lower energy to the higher energy. This is because the transition from the lower to the higher remains in the realm of entertainment or propaganda, whereby, there has been no appeal to the higher energies, which are suprarational .
The experience of Stuart Davis, the song-songwriter, who in real life is one of Wilber's best friends, was placed verbatim into the novel. Stuart seemingly did have a genuine experience of the One Taste, however, I feel it did not shine forth as a suitable transition from the lower to the higher due to the sexual activities involved. He, like young Ken, did see the other in his life not only as a real entity outside of his egoistic self, but he also caught a glimpse of the beauty of her soul. In fact, the spiritual dimension of their newfound relationship is so strong that Darla actually has an orgasm while they were out for a walk. The energy was so powerful between them that they did not have sex while alone together but merely looked into each other eyes, kissed and at one point Darla would blow in and out into Stuart's mouth until he started to spin as though in ecstasy. Darla then decided to leave him for her ex-boyfriend. This made Stuart so upset that he started to cry uncontrollably as he rode around on his bike. The pain was unbearable, until suddenly he had a great and wonderful experience of "ever-present" awareness or of the One Taste. The almighty presence was beyond all words and filled everything with a high energy of love and peace, even the pavement was alive with this presence. Beside himself, he rushed home to take a shower in hopes of shedding this powerful beyond all words, all emotions, and beyond all thinking experience. But it did not work as even the shower tiles sang out with love and extreme presence. This happening could possibly reflect what Schumacher described as true art or the ability of the artist to invoke one's higher faculties. This certainly was the case for me, but it was short lived. After Stuart had settled down from this event he started to investigate "state of consciousness." This was accomplished by recording sounds of anger, joy and other emotions along with heart rate and breathing sounds while meditating. He then somehow decided to record having sex with five different girls in one week. He also made a video of this arrangement. It is here that the focus of my higher faculties took a turn downward to a level of awareness that I can not even find a category for. Why would anyone, after receiving the wonderful gift of "ever-present" awareness then turn a complete one hundred and eighty degrees in the opposite direction? He, however. did see the folly of his ways, but only after the sudden return of Darla. When asked by a friend about this, he said that Darla was like a mirror for him, thus allowing him to see how he was using others to satisfy his own whims. The question is how did this occur? He was bathed in the light and yet the light did not sustain him. It was as though the ego was still very much alive and well, kicking around, wanting sensationalism and drama. Or like Murdoch expresses: it is really very cozy beside the fire so why turn your entire self toward the Good. Stuart, therefore, took the other path and turned his entire self, even after experiencing the Good in all its glory, towards the lower energy of using other people.
Another event from the novel where there was an attempt to make the transition to a higher, increasing consciousness also does not work. It is here that the sexual impulse is supposedly starting to expand to include the entire universe. Chloe, as Ken's girlfriend, takes pizza and rubs it over her nude body. . And as Ken, in his fantasy, reaches over to lick her breasts and enter her body, he suddenly finds himself with Joan's body. The flesh then gives way to oneness with the all, an orgasm that sends him spilling into the universe at large.
Reading the above was like attempting to make the leap from lower level entertainment, (sexual feelings or arousal) to realizations encompassing ones higher suprarational faculties. I simply could not make this leap. I felt befuddled, confused and bewildered. In the interview, the book was described as a riot, one of the most entertaining and hilarious books out there. " Critics actually say things like "Zap, Zing, Exhilarating!" Here's what George Leonard said: "Wow, Whoooeeee, Hot damn. There's so much about Boomeritis that I admire—Wilber's frightening erudition (even about popular culture), his largeness of scope and spirit, his courage. It's daring, outrageous, vivid, funny, touching and like all great books, it will probably bring much praise and some juicy attacks."(interview, page 3) I also have much praise for this book. But when it is described as Wow, and Whoooeee, Hot damn, as a riot, and one of the most entertaining and hilarious books out there, then it seems it is the entertainment mode which dominates. What about the ability of the artist to appeal to ones higher faculties, where minute glimpses of the truth emerges? How does one leap from reading about the licking of breasts to orgasms that sends Ken into the universe at large? How can we read about Stuart as having a splendid experience of the oneness of the universe and then degenerate to recording sex with five girls in one week? This is where the comments Hot Damn, and Wow are used, revealing that it is entertainment that is the key to its success. I say "Hurrah," not "Hot Damn," to the realization that young Ken was able to see beyond Joan's personality to the depth of her soul, and that Stuart saw this reality in Darla. In fact it was so strong with Stuart, he even admitted with her return, that he then saw the error of his ways, as she represented a mirror to his inner self, both good and also not so good. Therefore, the regression to the Good, is not a regress to the undeniable sexual fantasies, but to the simplistic realization that we are indeed capable of or have the potential to also obtain this higher energy. It is here that we are indeed in touch with our higher faculties and we then begin to search for transformation. However, the natural energy of the psyche has a strong hold on us, it is very cheery beside the fire and so many can see this reality in others and are not able to take the necessary steps to discover it in themselves.
In Plato's Dialogue, "The Symposium," the young man Alcibiades could not reach this higher consciousness that he recognized in Socrates. However, this glimpse into the soul of the other can ignite a similar fire in individual. Alcibiades had much pride in his good looks and, therefore, took a short cut to discover what this awesome presence was all about. He could not forego his vanity, his youth and so he tried to seduce Socrates in order to subdue him to his will, to control him in order to gain access to the mystery of his being.
He now describes this inner state which Socrates creates in him. He has been "bitten," he said, in the most painful and sensitive part of my human being. "I have been wounded and stung in my heart or soul or whatever you like to call it by philosophical talk" (Plato, Symposium p.105). He goes on to relate how he maneuvered himself into lying beside Socrates and "threw his arms around this superhuman and wonderful man. And thus he remained the whole night long." Yet Socrates "had the insolence, the infernal arrogance, to laugh at my youthful beauty and jeer at the one thing I was really proud of and believe, gentlemen, or believe it not, when I got up the next morning I had no more slept with Socrates, within the meaning of the act, than if he'd been my father or an elder brother" (Plato, Symposium p. 107).
"What do you suppose to have been my state of mind after that? On the one I had realized that I had been slighted, but on the other I felt a reverence for Socrates' character, his self-control and courage; I had met a man whose like for wisdom and fortitude I could never have expected to encounter. The result was that I could neither bring myself to be angry with him and tear myself away from his society, nor find a way of subduing him to my will. I was utterly disconcerted, and wandered about in a state of enslavement to the man the like of which has never been known" (Plato, Symposium p.107).
In the above, Alcibiades hopes to have a sexual encounter with Socrates in order to gain knowledge into his mysterious spiritual nature. He recognized, like Ken's insight into Joan's spiritual nature, that Socrates had reached a level of consciousness that was available for all human beings. But he was young; he was handsome and consequently vain. Also, Socrates was like a mirror for him, as it allowed him to see how far he was from this higher reality. This occurred for Stuart as Darla also became a mirror allowing him see the degeneracy in his behavior. Alcibiades felt comfortable where he was, he did not desire the pain caused by the release of his ego. He became a traitor during the war with Sparta. This betrayal was used as evidence in the trial of Socrates, who had been accused of corrupting the youth.
Alcibiades, like Ken and Stuart, recognized a special quality in the presence of the other and that this quality was available for all human beings. They all saw beyond the imposing ego of the "other" into the depth of their souls. This insight was, indeed, a glimpse of the Good, causing Ken and Stuart to change. And although Alcibiades saw this Good, he could not relinquish the tight hold of his ego in order for it to be actualized. The sexual fantasies, therefore, are quite irrelevant to this realization of the Good. They can, however, after the fact be seen as a natural energy that can, perhaps, create the movement towards a higher level of awareness, as with Ken falling in love with Joan and then fantasizing that Chloe's body turns into Joan's, whereby he falls into the universe at large. However, prior to this fantasy, Ken had recognized her inner presence and this was the reason that he formed the fantasy.
The Good as the experience of the "other" also co-exists with the "ever-present" awareness. It is simply there in the present moment, reaching out towards others, while at the same time acting as a catalyst for further insights and inner growth. Therefore, it is both regression to a Good and also encompasses the eternal presence. Can the same be said of the sexual fantasies as an undeniable value? Although sexual fantasies are present in the moment, they do not connect to this "all abiding"awareness in this way. Also, my suprarational faculties were appealed to with the former and not with the latter.
. Thus the Good must include this presence and if not it is simply a common universal fact like the lopsided Good or value Wilber attached to sexual fantasies. Inner transformation or the process of awareness will not occur unless ignited by the fire of "ever present" awareness. So I rest my case.
"Zap, Zing, Exhilarating" or Hot Damn reflects what Schumacher described as the entertainment mode in art. The appeal to my higher faculties exclaimed, "Hurrah" for the realization that both Ken and Stuart saw beyond the egos of the "other" in their lives and were then able, in spite of returning to the factual mundane value of sex and sexual fantasies, to surge forward into greater spans of reality.
Also, this critical examination precisely includes the notions of mutuality and intersubjectivity, similar to Habermas' theory of Ethical Discourse and Communicative Reason. In the essay it is apparent, however, that the intersubjectivity transcends language, thereby going beyond Habermas' thinking. Wilber made the error of presupposing that the young Ken was an isolated, purposive-rational actor, in that he felt that sexual fantasies could give him meaning in a world devoid of meaning. This rational actor, however, would have foundered in his own unconscious isolated thoughts had it not been for the insight into the essence of the "other." I feel that Wilber, as my essay suggests, consistently misses this central point.
Shambhala Interview with Ken Wilber: On the Release of BOOMERITIES, and the Completion of Volume 3 of the Kosmos Trilogy.
Symposium 218, trans. Hamilton, p 105.
Symposium 219, trans, Hamilton, p l0 7.