Dear Phil Letter

by Frank Bertrand

Introduction: The espistolary form of writing is a time-honored one
that goes back to at least Cicero (106-43 BC), a lawyer, civic official and
eloquent orator. More than 900 of his letters, written between 67-43 BC,
survive. In one to Curio he writes, “the most obvious and direct purpose of
letter writing and that which gave birth to it, was to inform our absent
friends of those matters which it might be for our or their interest that
they should be acquainted with.”

But it is Pliny’s (the Younger) that are one of the most
celebrated collections, nine books of selected, private letters
written from 100-109 AD – what he called “litterae curiosius
scriptae” (letters written with special care). Each has a single subject
and was written in a style that mixed oratorical, poetical and historical
elements to fit its particular theme.

It is in this tradition, then, that we present what is
hoped will be the first of many “Deal Phil” letters, from a variety of
writers. As Hugh Blair aptly states in his infamous lecture on “Espitolary
Writing”: “…the merit, and the agreeableness of [it], will depend on its
introducing us into some acquaintance with the writer….Such an
intercourse, when well conducted, may be rendered very agreeable to
readers of taste.”

Dear Phil,

Yes, I know it’s been a while since I last wrote to you, but I’ve been
busy exploring and explicating for myself – trying to understand –

something you said during the 1980 interview you were kind enough to
grant me. I’m referring to your comment: “Ultimately I became an acosmic
pantheist, led to this point of view by decades of skepticism.”

Most curious, if not bemusing, Phil, that very few, if any, of the growing
legion of commentators, critics and academics determined to critically
eviscerate your work for the purpose of glorifying mysticism, gnosticism
and/or postmodernism, mention this. Perhaps they are too busy pandering to
the lastest exegetical fad to give close, cogent attention to what you’ve
actually written and said in letters, essays and interviews.

As for me, Phil, I first had to determine what an “acosmic pantheist” is.
Must admit I was unfamiliar with that term, well, at least partly; I had
heard of pantheism. But why juxtapose acosmic with pantheism?

So, I checked one of your favorite reference works, The Encyclopedia
, on-line. And it informed me that, in “acosmic pantheism”,
“…the absolute God makes up the total reality. The world is an appearance
and ultimately unreal.” This seems to be different from varieties of
pantheism which hold the world to be part of the ultimate reality. That
is, pantheism is “…the doctrine that the universe conceived as a whole is
God and, conversely, that there is no God but the combined substance,
forces, and laws that are manifested in the existing universe.”

Heady stuff, Phil. So, why the specific distinction of acosmic pantheism
vs. plain old pantheism? And, how might this compare with your
philosophical interest in Gnosticism?

I would say the answer lies in the phrase “the world is an appearance and
ultimately unreal.” This compares nicely with what you state in the
interview: “Finally, I came to believe that in a certain sense the
empirical world was not truly real, at least not as real as the archetypal
realm beyond it….Hence in novel after novel that I write I question the
reality of the world that the characters’ percept-systems report.”

This leaves us, however, with an absolute deity making up/causing/being
the total reality. Why absolute? And who, or what, makes up this absolute
deity? If, as you say (per Hume), “causality is a perception in the
observer and not a datum of external reality,” just what “reality of the
world” is the absolute deity’s percept-system reporting? Seems to me its
perception of “causing” total reality could only remain in it, and not be a
datum of its external reality; it’s a “contingent truth” which should not
be included in the description itself.

I’m a bit perplexed by this, Phil, in that you once wrote, in a 1981
preface to a reprint of your first published story, “Beyond Lies The
Wub,” “…I was a fireball radical and atheist, and religion was totally
foreign to me.” And in a 1966 essay you state, “Religion ought never to
show up in s-f except from a sociological standpoint, as in Gather,
. God per se, as a character, ruins a good s-f story, and this is
as true of my own stuff as anyone else’s.”

But I digress. Also of note is that good ol’ Hegel coined the word
“acosmism” to defend Spinoza, someone you mention in the interview, when
you say, “Of all the metaphysical systems in philosophy I feel the greatest
affinity for that of Spinoza….” You also state “Spinoza’s views
regarding the worth of democracy also influenced me.” But, you don’t
mention Hegel, though you do say “The German Aufklärung influenced me,
especially Schiller and his ideas of freedom….”

This is getting curioser and curioser, Phil. Why would Hegel feel it
necessary to defend Spinoza? He does so in at least a couple of instances,
one such in Section 50 of the Shorter Logic, where he writes:

“In the first place Spinoza does not define God as the unity of God with
the world, but as the union of thought with extension, that is, with the
material world. And secondly, even if we accept this awkward popular
statement as to this unity, it would still be true that the system of
Spinoza was not Atheism but Acosmism, defining the world to be an
appearance lacking in true reality.”

Now this reads like something you’d say, Phil. And the last phrase,
“defining the world to be an appearance lacking in true reality,” is an apt
definition of what you do in most of your stories and novels, for instance
the pivotal and salient Time Out Of Joint. So, if you want to label yourself an
acosmic pantheist, go for it. I doubt though you’ll get much significant feedback
on it. Besides, who bothers to read Spinoza or Hegel these days?
Which is unfortunate, because most readers are missing out on the
philosophical richness embedded in your writing.

As for me, next time I want to ask you about the philosophical significance
of your interest in the German
Aufklärung and Schiller. Until then, I am,

Yours in Kipple,
Frank (6/01)

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