Idol Worship, Idle Worship (2): Breaking the Circulation

This is the second in a series of four posts. 

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No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

—Matthew 6: 24 (NIV)


Water flows. Money circulates.

In flowing, water always seeks a way down to the lowest levels, where it accumulates to form wells, ponds, lakes, pools, and seas. The water that falls on the heights flows down to the valleys, to gather in such deep places.  Human habitations can be built beside such places, the natural places of water, and along the streams and rivers that flow into them.

In contrast, money in its circulation proceeds quite differently. Instead of flowing from above down to what is below, it rises upwards into ever more rarefied heights to accumulate there, where fewer and fewer people can survive.

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            The lustral waters of Lethe flow; they do not circulate like the blood and money and the piped flush that swell the social imagination of the early industrial age. Already in 1616 William Harvey had announced to the London College of Physicians that blood circulates through the human body. [. . .] The quivering and symbol-laden flesh and blood of tradition must be recast as a functional system of filters and conduits. By the end of the eighteenth century Harvey’s theory was generally accepted in medicine. The conception of personal health based on the brisk circulation of the blood fitted the mercantilist model of wealth—just before Adam Smith—based on the intensity of money circulation.

In May of 1984 Ivan Illich delivered a lecture in Dallas, Texas, at the invitation of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, concerning plans to construct a large lake and public space in the heart of the city. He called his lecture “H2O and the Waters of Forgetfulness,” which he later expanded it into a book of the same name.*  The quotation above is from that talk.

In his Dallas talk and subsequent book, Illich draws a sharp contrast between “the water of dreams,” which flows, and the stuff that has become no more than H2O, which only circulates.

In Greek mythology, “Lethe” is the river over which souls must cross as they enter Hades, passing from life into death. The Greek word lethe literally means “forgetfulness,” “oblivion,” or “concealment” (“hiddenness”: Verborgenheit in German, as Heidegger often reminds his readers). All who drank from the waters that flowed in the river Lethe experienced complete forgetfulness. Thereafter, that forgetfulness would only occasionally be broken by dreams and the visions of seers: hence, the water that flows in the river Lethe, the water of forgetfulness that washes the memories of the dead away, is “the water of dreams,” as Illich calls it.

As Illich adds a bit later in his Dallas talk: “[W]hat the river has washed from those on their way to the beyond, is not destroyed: the traveler is only divested of the deeds by which he will be remembered. The river carries them to a spring where they bubble up like the sand at the bottom of a cosmic well to serve as drink for the elect: [. . .]”.  By “the elect” Illich does not mean what we would call by that name today, namely, those with the economic privilege to accumulate vast sums of money—“wealth” in the degenerate sense that the term takes on in contemporary globalized commercial society. Rather, as Illich explains right after his colon in the quote just given, by “the elect” he means “the singer, the dreamer, the seer, the wise”—those wealthy with the only sort of “wealth” that is really worth having, and not just rolling in filthy lucre.

Among such an elite, the elite of singers and seers (or poets and thinkers, to use terms from Heidegger that say the same thing differently), Illich adds:

The water [of Lethe] induces drunkenness of a sober kind, “sobriem ebriatatem” [“sober drunkenness”]. Through these messengers who have returned from their dreams or journeys, a trickle of living water from the realm of the dead brings back from them [from the dead] their memories for which they have no more need, but which are of immense value to the living. Thus the dead depend on the living much less than the living on the dead. What the river Lethe has washed from their feet, the throbbing well of Mnemosyne returns to life.  [Mnemosyne is the Greek word for “memory,” and for the goddess thereof in Greek mythology].

What the dreams of seers and singers, thinkers and poets, in that way bring back from the dead, what those dreams bring back as gifts to life, is not the dead themselves, as though it were a matter of the “reanimation of a corpse” (to use Catholic theologian Hans Küng’s apt way of speaking). The dead continue dead, dwelling on the other side of the river of forgetfulness. Their memories do not return to them, but to the living (so that, if we would find the dead again, by the way, it is not among the dead that we must look, but among the living, and the memories of the dead carried to the living by dreamers and truth-tellers).

Thus, what Illich is telling is no tale of the reincarnation of souls, even though Greek mythology itself does contain such tales—stories of which Plato, for one, was fond. What Illich is describing is the gift that the dead bestow on the living by way of the very memory of the dead, the remembrance of them that is kept by “the epical singer,” as Illich soon goes on to call those who deliver to the living the gift of memories from the dead. In the epics that such singers sing, the dead are brought back to the mind of the still living, calling them, the living themselves, back into life, re-calling the living to their own lives, out of the deadness in which they have in fact been merely surviving up to that point. Thus does the memory of the dead bring life to the living, that they may live it abundantly.

In the sober drunkenness of song and dreams, the memory of the dead serves the living, calling them back to themselves. Breaking through the dams set up by the everyday circulation of ideas and chatter, the idols that the everyday soul erects against it, the sober drunkenness of the memory of the dead restores the flow of the waters of life.

Caught up suddenly and unexpectedly in the ongoing rush of such water of dreams, the idolatrous soul can only swoon.  In so swooning the idolatrous soul, ordinarily so caught up with itself and its own petty concerns that it leaves no room at all for real memory of the dead, at last reenters the genuinely fully human community. Only in so swooning does the soul reenter the community consisting not just of some, but of all: the great community of “all the living and the dead,” as the modern seer-singer James Joyce puts it in the closing words of “The Dead,” the epic tale with which he closes Dubliners.

But that’s another story.    

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To be continued.


* The original lecture can be found in Ivan Illich, In the Mirror of the Past: Lectures and Addresses 1978-1990 (New York & London: Marion Boyars, 1991). The expanded book version, H2O and the Waters of Forgetfulness, was published by Boyars in 1986.