In praise of craziness of a certain kind - a winter meditation on love

The church bird-bath in the snow this morning
Click on the following link to hear the podcast of this post and/or download an mp3 (see bottom left of the page): In praise of craziness of a certain kind - a winter meditation on love - 5 February 2012

We start some words by Martin Heidegger from a 1964 TV interview which alert us to something very important about what it is to be a human being, something which we all too often fail to see. I am grateful to Iain Thomson for bringing my attention to it in a recent paper of his in which he gives an interpretation of Heidegger's words, an interpretation with which I begin this address. However, I must take full responsibility for what I then go on to say about it in relationship to Mary Oliver's poem In Praise of Craziness, of a Certain Kind. I have to say that, on re-reading this address as I post it here (and record it for the podcast) I think it is, perhaps, itself a little crazy, a little deranged but, since that is, in part, its subject matter, this may be no bad thing. That love is this address' other subject, and that love can make us a little crazy, makes me feel 'happier' to risk publication.

So, Heidegger said:

'I would say: no human being is without religion. And: Every human being, in a certain sense, opens beyond himself [über sich hinaus]; that means [we are each] deranged [ver-rückt].'

Heidegger spent a great deal of time trying to help us see that, for all of us, the content of what we call our 'selves' is, for the most part, wholly unchosen and is gifted to us from even before our birth when we are, extraordinarily, thrown into a pre-existing world. To be a human being is always-already to be in a particular culture, a particular geographical place, a particular time and a particular epoch. For a great deal of the time, of course, we never even notice this and nor, therefore, our many inherited cultural traditions because, as Heidegger noted elsewhere, '[t]radition takes what has come down to us and delivers it over to self-evidence' (Being and Time p.43 [21]). It is important to see here, as Iain Thomson notes, that

'Thrown into a world we did not make (and whose influence we can never render wholly transparent to ourselves), we all understand ourselves in terms of belief systems which we can never fully reconstitute and re-appropriate. All of us thus remain inextricably *bound* to these larger belief systems whose truth each of us always takes partly on faith; and in this literal sense, Heidegger suggests, we are each "religious" (from the Latin religare, "to bind")' (Thomson, Iain 2011 'Transcendence and the problem of other worldly nihilism: Taylor, Heidegger, Nietzsche', Inquiry 54:2, 140-159)

So, whether we feel we are conventionally religious or not (and choose to call ourselves atheists or humanists) who we are is to be bound inextricably to innumerable ideas and beliefs not all of which have, or even can be, validated by personal experience and which we simply hold on the basis of faith.

When Heidegger goes on to say that every human being, in a certain sense, opens beyond him- or herself he is pointing to this complex of larger belief systems. The point he wants us to see, and it is what I concentrate on today, is that, in consequence, what it is to be a human being is not to be some discrete, closed in, wholly independent and rationally constructed creature (entity), but a much more open kind of being in the world that is always-already indissolubly commingled with a phenomenally pluralistic world.

This kind of open being (it is what we *are* - i.e. we are not simply beings that *become*) is one of the things he is trying to get us to see when he continues by saying 'Every human being, in a certain sense, opens beyond himself [über sich hinaus]; that means [we are each] deranged [ver-rückt].' Now to be de-ranged in this sense is to say that we are always-already unbounded or "opened up" to and commingled in a very complex world.

But he's also trying to remind us that, when we really try think through what makes us who and what we think we are we find, NOT a wholly ordered, logical and rational, fully accessible structure but a complex 'disar-ranged' opaque weave of inherited things (passed over to) us by our complex culture which, to repeat, not all of which have, or even can be, validated by our personal experience and rational thought. Heidegger is, therefore, in a provocative joking way, saying that to be human is, in a certain way, always to be religious and 'deranged' or, as the more common way the German word 'verrückt' is translated into English, 'crazy'. We're all religious and crazy.

Now I find this a helpful idea to think through or play with and I was doing this during the week in the middle of Britain's first real period of winter this year (see picture at the top of the blog and a couple more at the end). This wholly contingent connection of craziness and cold brought back to mind Mary Oliver's poem 'In Praise of Craziness, of a Certain Kind':

On cold evenings
my grandmother,
with ownership of half her mind -
the other half having flown back to Bohemia -

spread newspapers over the porch floor
so, she said, the garden ants could crawl beneath,
as under a blanket, and keep warm,

and what shall I wish for, for myself,
but, being so struck by the lightning of years,
to be like her with what is left, that loving.

It's a touching and very moving poem which I have explored with you one Mothering Sunday back in 2010. There I noted that, although I've now seen many people who, struck by the lightning of years, exhibit forms of behaviour that do not express a mothering kind of love, even in those most difficult of contexts, I have time and again seen the mothering instinct come out in the great love, care and concern shown by the friends and carers (both professional and familial) who surround the person who we now find to be verrückt, deranged or crazy.

With this kind of loving Oliver concludes her poem and with it I'll also end today's address. But reflecting on Heidegger's words this week something new and hopeful showed up for me in the poem that I have not seen until now and which I'd like to bring before you to consider.

I find that I've consistently read this poem as being one which, in part, centres on the loss of self; in this case the loss of Oliver's grandmother's self. But, in the light of Heidegger's words, I think this is not a good reading, not least of all because it obscures something about very powerful about the nature of love and how it shows up in our world.

In her first two stanzas Oliver simply places before us, in a completely non-emotional way, two phenomena. The first is that her mother appears not to be in full control of herself (she is de-ranged) - at least half the time she appears 'elsewhere', either in Bohemia, the place of her birth and, during the other half of her time, this de-rangement is revealed in some unusual deeds. The second phenomenon is one such unusual deed that her mother now performs - spreading newspapers over the porch floor on cold evenings so that the garden ants can crawl beneath, as under a blanket, and keep warm - a deed which looks decidedly 'verrückt', deranged or, in as Oliver's title suggests, crazy. But, remember, Oliver tells us in the title that she thinks it's a craziness of a *certain* kind. The question we must ask is what is the kind of craziness to which she is pointing and what might make it meaning-ful for us?

I think the craziness that Oliver sees and tries to point us towards in her grandmother is something like that to which Heidegger was pointing, something that is primordially true about humankind as a whole, namely, that all of us are always crazy in a certain way, are deranged, 'verrückt'. All our actions come out of such derangement.

But, of course, that's clearly not all Oliver is concerned to point us towards because she concludes the poem with a grateful recognition that out of this derangement, this craziness, there has come the loving that her grandmother displays to the ants and her own wish that she, too, when struck by the lightning of years will, with what is left, be that loving.

That Oliver makes this love's appearance in us only a wish (a hope) - rather than suggesting or claiming it will happen - reveals that she knows that this loving can never be *guaranteed* to turn up, every time, in anyone of us. Oliver is too wise a poet to fall into such a sentimental notion - she (and we) know only too well that hatred and enmity can also show up.

But let us look at what love is. The key thing to observe is that human love is, by it's nature, always verrückt, deranged, and a little crazy, as Freddie Mercury of Queen so wonderfully expressed it in his 1979 hit with Queen, a 'Crazy Little Thing Called Love'. (We also commonly talk about being 'madly in love'.) To fall in love is to fall into the world and for us to fall into the world the door of our being has to be open - our being has to be itself verrückt, deranged, crazy. And, to that love, we are bound.

Now, is not the world itself - in it's constant co-mingling and openness - somewhat like love in this regard? It's being, too, is verrückt, deranged, crazy. You may baulk at this and say ah, but we know there are laws of nature which are not at all like love, not at all crazy. At a certain level I'll concede this point, but our presence in the world reveals that these same laws have been shown to be able contingently commingle things and to allow to shine forth, bring into being, poets, grandmothers, ants, you, me, lovers and friends and, for all we know, countless other life forms in the universe, and that all of them will in some way at some point act lovingly and fall crazily in love with some one or some thing. There's no need to point to a underlying divine rational plan for this showing up of love - we need only point to our wonderful, open contingent deranged world.

The miracle is that this open contingent derangement let's love show up for us, again and again. As I have just said, we know that hatred and enmity also show up, but it is important to see that, when they show up, hatred and enmity are characterised by a closing down, by a refusal to remain open to the complexity and contingency of the world, by a refusal to fall into the world and love.

Consequently, I want to suggest that love is more attuned to the way the world seems to work (and ultimately, therefore, more powerful) than are hatred and enmity and this is perhaps why love continues to press itself upon us throughout human history, even in the darkest of moments, as being the best way (or mood) that we should cultivate and adopt as the basis for our living and acting together (with each other, ants and all other entities in our world/universe).

Might it be possible to say, then, that when we are in love (in that mood) we understand better how to work with the grain of the world and are, therefore, better able to create (build) out of the unique, deranged, crazy weave that is both our individual lives and our collective life the greatest possible flourishing and meaning-ful society?

Hate and enmity are, of course, in their own way deranged and crazy but it is not the open, creative de-ranged craziness Heidegger saw, that Oliver's grandmother displayed and which Oliver, and we also, wish to embody.

The craziness of a certain kind that Oliver praises is, I'll suggest today, a faith that the human world and the physical universe seem to be constituted in a way that keeps showing up love as being *like* a divine command from beyond our world - a command from what our culture has traditionally called God. It is a faith that inspired people like Jesus and his disciple John to make love central to our lives - so central, in fact, that John was deranged enough to say God is love (I John 4:8, 16).

Today we may doubt (rightly in my opinion) the reality of such a transcendent God but this need not mean we have loose the feeling that to love one another is *like* a command from God and to give profound thanks and praise whenever, where-ever, and in whomsoever we see that love made visible.

The Memorial Church (Unitarian) in the snow

A snowy Cambridge roof-scape from the Manse

The church garden in the snow