Worldviews, Contexts, Scripts, and the Like, Part II (3/26/12)

We can profitably liken worldviews to overarching mental contexts. Initial questions that come to mind include: How does the relative richness of the texture of our principal contexts (professional, marital-familial, cultural, social, cosmological, etc.) affect the overall quality of our lives? My question already presupposes the existence of multiple, interrelated contexts within which we may be said to locate—and orient—ourselves. Some—such as the actual household, city, region, climate, nation—are rather concrete while others, such as our religious affiliation, the moral norms we obey or subscribe to, our inherited worldview or cosmology, are less tangible. The degree of richness of these contexts—their subtlety and adequacy in satisfying our various needs and aspirations—is not simply given, once and for all. We are not merely passive tabulae rasae who have no influence upon the quality and depth of our experience of these contexts. But perhaps before we can genuinely begin to have a creative impact upon them, we must first recognize them as contexts, as domains with their own distinctive and established features, limitations, assets, and liabilities. The closer to the foreground of our conscious daily experience these domains are, the easier it is, of course, to recognize them as such, and to have a hand in shaping them in accordance with our will. Our family ties and personal relationships—perhaps our jobs—fall into this category. Others are further in the background—at deeper levels that require considerable effort to see, let alone, to modify or to improve upon. These include our inherited worldview, our cosmology, our personal psychology with its peculiar biases and blind spots, our established virtues and our stubborn weaknesses.

A context provides us with an arena of activity. Taking ‘musical performance’ as an example of an arena of activity in my own life, I can make some instructive observations. The more capacious this arena is, the more developed and varied my musical skills, the greater will be the potential for extensive musical experience, as such. The more songs I know—and the greater their variety—the greater will be the extent of my musical expression.

And while scope and variety are certainly important factors vis-à-vis this particular arena of experience, they constitute only part of the complete picture. These factors are bound up primarily with the technical skills that make for an accomplished musician, but expressiveness has less to do with technical excellence than with ‘soul’ or the inner character of the singer or guitarist. As everyone knows, there are technical virtuosos who, unfortunately, turn out to be rather soulless and uninspired performers. And then, at the other end of the spectrum, there are plenty of impassioned, soulful wannabe performers who have trouble hitting the right notes when they sing or play an instrument. The optimal situation would arise where impressive technical mastery, or the craft of musicianship, is seamlessly coupled with an expressive soul that is able to channel itself through the playing and the singing. Where a high degree of technical mastery and broad acquaintance with musical material is matched with soulful expressiveness, musical sensitivity, and deep understanding, the musician is in an ideal position to engage fully with his performance—to become wedded to the song, so to speak.

Do we have here a model or paradigm that applies to all possible contexts or arenas of activity?

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Is it possible to attain this sort of full and harmonious weddedness with the universe as that universe is presented to us by modern cosmology? If the universe is believed to be essentially mechanical—composed merely of matter, energy, and oodles of void—constantly expanding but without purpose—doomed to eventual implosion in a state of entropy—then can we genuinely relate to such a ‘cosmos’ in the way that the gifted musician engages with his collection of ballads, or in the way that the medieval Christian engaged with his very different cosmos, one that was the very manifestation of divine order, eternal forms, and rational beauty? Or does the soulless, profane, and meaningless modern universe only mock and deflect our ‘childlike’ projections, our irrepressible yearnings for a cosmos imbued with a mysterious but nonetheless intelligible design that includes and points beyond man? I am suspicious of those men and women[1] who claim that they are contentedly resigned to ‘matter and void’—the godless expanse that spit us up by chance accident and will just as inevitably swallow us back up, leaving no trace, no evidence that we’d ever been here. I don’t trust them when they try to convince me that it is enough for them to own a comfortable home with a couple of kids who make good grades at private school—and a couple of weeks off each summer so that they can take a cruise to Cancun and eat and drink to their heart’s content on the ship since they don’t have to worry about driving home.

*****

As soon as I actually start paying attention to them, I see that there is a veritable smorgasbord of contexts functioning (or awaiting activation) at all levels of human experience. In fact, each individual human being provides us with a unique concatenation of multi-level, interrelated contexts. The individual or personal contexts would include, of course, those special skills, ways of doing and seeing things, etc., that pertain to the person under observation. These may be shared, to some extent, with other members of his professional or educational background, but these contexts are more limited in their scope than the collective ones that include language group (say, Spanish-speakers) and religious affiliation (e.g., Hindu or Muslim). These contexts, while shared by millions of other persons, are still culturally transmitted (or learned), while the deepest (and perhaps ineradicable) contexts are inherited prior to culture as part of our shared natural inclusion in the human species. These would include a capacity for learning any human language, a capacity (but not necessarily the developed ability) to think rationally, the drive to reproduce, and so forth.

Our culturally transmitted skills and arenas of activity are equipped with something akin to game rules. These rules have a point of origin in history and they are subject to development, elaboration, and modification over the course of time. We can see something like this in the history of physics, moving from Aristotle and Archimedes, through Galileo and Newton, to Einstein and Heisenberg. These developments occur as conditions change and as inventive ‘players’ within these arenas appear and make their successive contributions to metallurgy, religious ritual and scripture, political theory and practice, agriculture, dramaturgy, medicine, education, communications, transportation, and so forth. These rules, customs, and standard procedures within the various arenas of human activity—or living contexts—eventually acquire the status and dignity of hallowed traditions. Moreover, because of the generally conservative nature of such time-tested beliefs, practices, and principles of order, innovation tends to be discouraged and resisted in countless subtle and not so subtle ways.

Tradition and beliefs that have acquired reverential or sacred status (simply for having endured so long) convey a strong sense of stability and trustworthiness. Only as their credibility and their aura of hallowed respectability begin to wane or collapse—only then are major innovations—‘game changes’—embraced by the ‘critical mass’ that is required for significant cultural transformation. Such periods of dramatic collective transformation and upheaval have regularly (but not frequently) occurred in recorded history—periods of far-reaching cultural, religious, and/or technological transformation that carry everything in their path in a wholly new direction. The transition—drawn out over several centuries—from classical paganism to feudal Christianity was one such collective ‘sea change’ that resulted in a fundamentally new worldview in the West—a worldview that consisted not simply of new ways of doing things within the arenas of mundane or practical life, but of a wholly new way of understanding ‘man’ and his place within a cosmos. Those of us living today are the heirs (either conscious or otherwise) of another, equally profound and far-reaching ‘sea change’ in Western culture—one that began in earnest with the dawn of the modern scientific worldview and the Protestant Reformation. Although both experimental science and religious reforms were energetically resisted when they first appeared, they ultimately triumphed over traditional views and practices that had suffered a serious loss of credibility among the more thoughtful and educated members of European society. And, as we know, the masses almost invariably follow the course plotted by their learned and more ambitious leaders.

What factors are responsible for endowing a worldview with reverential status and sterling credentials—and then, later, undermining that prestige and credibility in such a way as to turn it into a pathetic mockery or parody of its former self—so that, with one good thwack by an Augustine, a Bacon, a Darwin, a Nietzsche, or a Freud, it comes falling down like a house of cards?

Any context or arena of organized activity that possesses a high degree of regularity and coherence will tacitly oblige all new conscripts or members to conform to these established rules and defining conventions. If I enter a Catholic mass, kneel down to face Mecca and begin praying aloud in Arabic to Allah, my religious activity will not be conforming to the context—and will stick out like a sore thumb, possibly infuriating the ‘good Catholic believers’ in my midst. Likewise, if I attend a meeting at my office where the other attendees speak only English—and I begin speaking Bahasa Indonesia or Korean—my words, unintelligible to the others, will only provoke laughter, vexation, or surprise.

To repeat: whatever context we happen to inhabit at any given moment has its own implicit or explicit ‘game rules’—its own distinctive conventions. These game rules or conventions apply to arenas that are sacred and profane, professional and recreational, collective and individual. As we insert ourselves into a particular context or gestalt and conform to its conventional requirements—like little chameleons adjusting our skin color to blend in with our immediate surroundings—we begin, as it were, to play a role that is integral or consubstantial with that context. Our engagement with that role—our enactment of it—may be thoroughly sincere and heartfelt or it may be ironic, half-hearted, or completely feigned. To the extent that our immersion in the role (prescribed, let us remember, by the implicit rules and established conventions of the context or arena) is sincere and thoroughly heartfelt, we may be said to be identified with the role—and with our ‘performance.’ In such circumstances we have, as it were, surrendered completely to what is, at bottom, a scripted role within an already written play. We call such persons ‘genuine articles’ and ‘authentic’ persons—when we are being friendly—but we might just as legitimately call them delusional lunatics or nut jobs if we view what they’re doing as something akin to a professional actor losing his ability to see the difference between his ‘real’ self and the ‘make-believe’ character he’s portraying in the local community theater production of Othello.

What we are exploring here are problems associated with what Jung called the persona. This term originally referred to the masks worn by actors on the stage in ancient Greece. Jung employs the term to denote the psychological complex—or standpoint—that we occupy when we are conforming to the conventions and the general expectations within a context—usually a social one. We can thus speak of the persona of the professor, the cop, the whore, the priest, the troubadour, the nurse, etc. There is something collective, of course, about these personae, even if they take on a slightly different shape and quality, depending on who is expressing him- or herself through them. As we can see every day, some persons ‘lose themselves’ in their roles, their titles, their public images to such an extent that there is little or nothing individual left over inside of them. In becoming merged with or married to their (collectively derived, authorized, and culturally defined) roles, they often become complete servants or slaves to that collective role. When others see them and relate to them, they are seeing and relating only to ‘Mr. President’ or ‘Herr Professor’ or ‘the famous Porn Star.’ Such supercharged roles or personae gain most of their power from the unconscious projections of those around them who are enchanted (or duped!) by the collective image. There is tremendous (and tremendously intoxicating) psychic energy bound up with certain ‘exalted’ personae because they are rooted in the archetypes. These archetypal energies and fantasies are activated in certain persons if and when they are in the presence of the Pope, the Queen of England, Brad Pitt, or for that matter, Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, Hitler or Joseph Stalin. These persons—as fateful occupiers of exalted, sensational, inflated, or diabolical roles—often elicit correspondingly exaggerated and disproportional psychic responses from those around them who come under the spell of the archetype.

The rather glaring paradox here—the idea that flies in the face of customary belief—is that authenticity which stems from a person’s uncritical identification with his/her scripted role is thrown into a questionable light. A ‘lifelike’ performance—one that an actor puts his heart and soul into—should perhaps not simply be equated with authenticity, since such lifelike portrayals can be—and frequently are—artfully and craftily feigned. On the other hand, if a person so completely loses himself in the performance of his role within a collectively bestowed script that we must question his sanity and his grasp on reality, then such ‘authenticity’ is thus purchased at too high a price for us.

Perhaps we can provisionally accept the proposal that there are two radically different (or divergent) criteria for determining authenticity, depending on whether one is fundamentally invested in outer world commitments, duties, obligations, and rewards—or if he is chiefly driven by the yearning for liberation from those commitments, duties, obligations, and rewards. Such a person, in order to be ‘true’ to himself, will only feel authentic when he is divesting from those attachments and bonds that hold him prisoner to the ‘scripted’ world and its troupes of players.

[1] Almost invariably shallow atheists or tepid agnostics who have concluded that human beings (like themselves) are the summit or pinnacle of existence in the universe revealed to us by science.

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