Our Ailing Culture (1/19/11)

Perhaps one’s search for grand human beings is doomed from the get-go in a technocratic culture, ruled as it is by single-minded experts and uni-dimensional specialists. At best, I seem to encounter highly functional ‘operatives’ within a system of fragment-persons—men and women who are not even equipped with a language for the spiritual, psychological, and cultural deficits from which they suffer in the dark. At best, they sense that something is terribly amiss in the very form of life we are collectively living today, but there is scarcely anyone talking about this cultural derailment in the desert in terms that are readily graspable by most of us. And if they do, they usually do so in terms of looming economic or environmental disasters. These are by no means trivial matters but they are peripheral and superficial compared to the sickness at the core of our ailing culture. It is the white elephant in the middle of the room that no one talks about—and not so much out of a sense of politeness or decorum, but because there are no articulate terms generally available to us as contemporary Americans. They have not been provided by our cultural upbringing. It is like a missing organ—and not a single kidney or an appendix, mind you, but a heart or stomach. We are, most of us, on an artificial life support system of some sort or another—culturally speaking—and thereby unable to experience a fully human life. Like the chickens we buy cut up and deboned at the supermarket, the petty and pernicious poppycock that fills our minds has to a great extent been artificially and unnaturally mass-produced under the most unwholesome (psychological and spiritual) conditions in tiny, cramped cells where no light enters—and the smell (again, psychologically speaking) is awful enough to make one want to retch.

Just seeing through this bogus scheme into its barbarizing core transforms a person into a kind of unwelcome anomaly or an accursed Cassandra—if he or she can actually digest and successfully assimilate the insights thus acquired. Life can never be the same after the veil has been lifted from the dehumanizing process that underlies the present scheme of things in our deforming mass culture. Because so few persons possess the spiritual resources required to withstand the walloping shock of such an unveiling—let alone the patience and considerable learning required to digest it and register the grim and sinister implications—the few persons ‘in the know’ are both alone with their dangerous knowledge and extremely hampered in their ability to communicate their distressing insights. They are hampered by the resistances that are naturally thrown up by those they would seek to inform—resistances which bear a strong resemblance to the reluctance most young children have to swallowing vile-tasting medicine or to being confined to a quiet room with a book on a perfectly beautiful day. We are hampered not only by the fact that our ‘medicinal’ knowledge is unwelcome to the popular palate, but also by the fact that we have qualms of conscience about being alarm-bell sounders and distress-bringers.

Even when we know that collective spiritual and cultural conditions are only likely to worsen without the willing embrace of such unpleasant medicine by a sizable—perhaps decisive—portion of society, and that such a recovery is unlikely even under the most favorable conditions, it is not surprising that some of us throw up our hands and ask ‘What’s the use?’ The cure may turn out to be more painful than simply allowing the disease to proceed unchecked to its ‘whimper’ end. We may, in fact, be in a situation where the only way to save the patient is through a draconian amputation of a gangrenous limb—but in order to succeed, the amputee must endure his ordeal without anesthesia. The pain itself may be a necessary evil on the road to recovery, while at the same time constituting a trial or hurdle that few can surmount. Every cell in my body tells me, however, that there is no painless or peaceful path to the healing of this profound sickness from which our culture suffers (and I daresay that’s not just my Catholic background talking). It has lost its connection with reality and in the process, all of us have become weakened, reduced, imbalanced, and deprived of weight, of gravity. As Nietzsche saw, over a hundred years ago, we have become decadent, fragile, easily overcome, evanescent, a kind of embarrassing disgrace from the ‘virile’ standpoint of our more valiant ancestors, whose many sacrifices and privations for our sake—for posterity—are mocked by our pampered frailty.


Origins of the Inner World (2/5/11)

In section 16 of the second essay of Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche opens up an interesting path in his speculations about origins of the human ‘soul’ or the ‘inner world’ (as an experienceable topos). He locates these momentous origins in the all-decisive, general crisis that faced our distant ancestors when, after leaving behind their nomadic, hunter-gatherer way of life in the wilderness, they were obliged to settle into fixed communities. When this radical change of context occurred, many of their former drives and instincts were denied the unobstructed and regular discharge allowed to them ‘in the wild.’ Thus, these aggressive instinctual drives and affective energies, which had previously been directed outwards, were forcibly turned inwards, producing incalculable distress and frustration for these semi-animals from whom we are distantly but directly descended. Only the severest restrictions and punishments (against the unencumbered discharge of these rapacious, wildly aggressive, and antisocial drives/impulses) were capable of gradually taming and domesticating these early ancestors of ours—whose very ‘souls’ and self-consciousness (as opposed to the merely unreflective surrender to the regulating natural instincts) were in their earliest stage of formation.

The agonizing torment, frustration, and confusion associated with this violently enforced reversal of the flow of libido or instinctual energy makes it easier to understand why we still—thousands of years later—chafe under the constraints and checks imposed upon our aggressive, erotic, and other natural instincts as we bend grudgingly or dutifully to the yoke of civilization—‘and its discontents.’ Nietzsche anticipates much of Freud, of course, in linking repression and the civilizing process.

It is interesting to compare Nietzsche’s notion of the origins of self-consciousness and the soul with Jung’s ideas about introversion and extraversion. Nietzsche and Freud seem to be saying that until the forcible (harsh, strict) repressions of stabilized city life began, man—who was still more like an instinct-governed animal than the self-aware, semi-domesticated human we all know and love—lacked ego-consciousness and was, in effect, a natural extravert. There was, as yet, no recognized ‘breathing space,’ psychologically speaking, between him and his outer, natural environment. We witness something of this condition in human infants, who recapitulate, briefly, this ancestral ‘participation mystique’ (as Levy-Bruhl called it). It is assumed that he was completely immersed, and not yet capable of abstracting or differentiating himself (as an independent subject) from this general mix—this psycho-sensory soup—in which he was immersed like a roughly peeled potato or a chunk of deer meat.

Jung’s descriptions of the introverted attitude make note, again and again, of its tendency to abstract from the outer object—to withdraw libido (psychic energy) back into the subject. When the conscious attitude is introverted like this, Jung tells us that it is psychologically compensated or counterbalanced by unconscious extraversion, which is prone to over-valuing the object. If the introverted attitude is habitually pushed to the extreme, there is a danger of alienating oneself, of becoming isolated within subjective awareness, cut off from life. The unconscious extraversion, functioning almost like a homeostatic corrector of this lopsidedness, will then typically over-charge external objects, persons, or situations with (positive or negative) significance for the introvert and pull his attention outwards, forcing him to deal with the object in one way or another.

Nietzsche’s style of discussing this prehistoric shift—this watershed experience of our ancestors that set us precariously upon the road we are still on—is not quite so value-free or as purged of his own personal biases as Jung’s more even-handed treatment of mankind’s slow, painful, and jarring emergence from primitive participation mystique into ego-consciousness, self-awareness, and self-responsibility. Nietzsche, bless his (tough and tender?) little heart, can almost never resist the temptation to inject an extra measure of drama—nay, melodrama—into his colorful accounts of man’s developmental history (his genealogy), while Jung, who strove usually to maintain more of a ‘scientific’ or neutral posture towards this same material, generally avoided this sort of narrative as a writer. Nietzsche may be more absorbing and entertaining, but Jung does greater justice to the psychological phenomena, I would argue. Nietzsche writes:

All instincts which are not discharged outwardly turn inwards—this is what I call the internalization of man: with it there now evolves in man what will later be called his ‘soul.’ The whole inner world, originally stretched thinly as though between two layers of skin, was expanded and extended itself and gained depth, breadth and height in proportion to the degree that the external discharge of man’s instincts was obstructed. Those terrible bulwarks with which state organizations protected themselves against the old instincts of freedom—punishments are a primary instance of this kind of bulwark—had the result that all those instincts of the wild, free, roving man were turned backwards, against man himself.

This view of the birth pangs accompanying man’s emergence from the womb of nature (and from his unconscious immersion in nature—wherein he relied wholly upon his instincts to guide and regulate his life) seems to accord well with much of what Jung tells us about the need to withdraw or abstract a certain amount of disposable psychic energy from the object in order to extend and deepen our subjective standpoint, or ego-consciousness. Implicit in what Nietzsche has written—and in Jung’s observations, as well—is the idea that unless and until there is a problem (some significant barrier to the natural flow or discharge of instinctual force and affective energy), there is no real need or occasion for the continuing development and elaboration of ego-consciousness, of soul. More problems lead, according to this logic, to deeper and more extensive consciousness.

A cluster of links between consciousness, as such, and ‘dis-ease,’ illness, self-division, and torment can readily be found in Nietzsche’s writings on this topic, while the ‘unconscious’ expresser or joyful discharger of his drives and instincts (‘enmity, cruelty, joy in persecuting, in attacking, in change, in destruction’) is generally regarded by him as ‘healthy’ and free, if a bit more naïve, dangerous, and stupid than his repressed brother. This corresponds, in a certain sense, with Jung’s observation that ‘Too much civilization makes man a sick animal, while too little makes him a barbarian.’ If we make the fairly inviting association between the instinctually unobstructed human and the ‘master’ type—and if we correlate the ‘impotent’ sort whose thwarted drives are turned inwards to the ‘slave’ type—then we are led to suspect that Nietzsche, despite his evident attempts to be as impartial as he can be, favors the master type, if only because of his happy, life-affirming character, as opposed to the resentful, hateful, timid nature of the slave type.

Jung, by way of contrast, seems to avoid such a bias—or, if anything, he leans a bit in the opposite direction from Nietzsche, recognizing how lopsidedly extraverted the contemporary attitude is, and therefore soberly pleading for more reflection as a check against its extremes. Jung sees the interdependence of introversion and extraversion (like yin and yang), while acknowledging the problematic tensions and conflicts that inevitably arise between them.

Both, however, appear to be in agreement as far as the awakener or activator of differentiated ego-consciousness is concerned. It was an enormous crisis—the radically different demands and requirements of civic life (the early ‘state’) violently imposed upon antisocial, and therefore potentially destructive drives and instincts—that was the fons et origo of consciousness. Moreover, it is problems—impediments and disruptions of the smooth flow of libido or instinctual energy—that still, to this day, impose the need for a conscious response. Without difficulties and obstacles we would just be like puppies frolicking 24/7 in the Garden of Eden.

The other animals face difficulties and obstacles, of course, but if their unconscious, automatically functioning instincts are insufficiently equipped to guide them through or around the difficulty, the animal is out of luck, for there are no other resources to turn to. They cannot locate solutions to most of their problems on the Internet or at the mall, like we can. Human beings, in addition to their inheritance of animal instincts and drives, also have language, learning, technology, and culture, which provide assistance for life under civilized conditions—beyond the ‘state of nature.’ Of course there are trade-offs, as we all know, that come with civilization. We cannot remain puppies and piglets who just follow their alternately playful and savage instinctual promptings. We forfeit these freedoms (or, to be more precise, we have them forcibly taken away, at an early age, like the testicles of a neutered dog) in exchange for the boons and security afforded by civilized life—such as it is. And just as with spayed cocker spaniels, it is difficult, if not altogether impossible, to get ‘our balls back and happily re-attached’ after we have become so thoroughly domesticated that we are dependent upon those social and civil benefits which can be obtained only by undergoing the required rite of passage, wherein a good deal more than mere foreskin is carved off.

On Time, Eternity, and the Puer (8/8/11)

When I was seventeen I was at a cast party for The Taming of the Shrew (I played Lucentio) and I was a bit sauced. At some point during the party I found myself alone in a bathroom and I was momentarily overwhelmed by an intuition that time is not real, that—at bottom—time is a mental construct or illusion. At that time, I lacked both the psychological acumen and the philosophical learning to make meaningful sense of this stupendous intuition—what, in retrospect, seems to have been an ‘archetypal’ experience of the puer aeternus—but such deficiencies did not prevent the monumental psychic experience from etching itself deeply into my young soul, to be recalled again and again throughout the coming years as a watershed moment in my spiritual autobiography. It was a numinous experience—a genuine and unforgettable encounter with a ‘transcendent’ idea that had floated up like an oceanic bubble—a light-filled bubble that had been released from a fissure in the depths of the unconscious. Somehow, this startling intuition had been able to bore through the insulating membrane or barrier of ego-consciousness behind which I was normally confined—and shielded from such powerful contents.[1] James Hillman writes:

To be involved with these figures (Father Time and Eternal Youth, temporality and eternity) is to be drawn into history. To be identified with either is to be dominated by an archetypal attitude towards history: the puer who transcends history and leaps out of time, and is as such ahistorical, or antihistorical in protest and revolt; or the Senex who is an image of history itself and of the permanent truth revealed through history. (Senex and Puer, p. 35)

Last night before going to sleep I began to read from a journal of mine dating back to 1989. I was reading about the struggles I was having at the time—trying to decide whether or not to stay with M.P. or to move permanently back to Houston. There was a whole lot of moving back and forth between Houston and Colorado (where she lived) at that time. As I read on, I began to feel uncomfortable for reasons that were murky to me. Was this uneasy feeling due, in part, to my ‘seeing through’ my personal account into the ‘split’ core-personality that is still there and who hasn’t essentially changed in all this time? There is something about this split core-personality that strikes me as ineradicable, untranscendable, and foundational to my very make up. I want to call it ‘puer’ because of the way this essential component of my personality has always behaved—and continues to behave. When this side of me is dominant, when I am viewing life from the standpoint of this side, not only is time unreal or illusory, but all forms and all attachments to form (including my attachments to persons, one of whom is my own ego) become shadow-like, insubstantial, little more than masks, shells, ‘roles.’ From this standpoint, there is the eternal recurrence of the same. There is no real development insofar as the eternal essences or archetypes are concerned. These are the colored chips in the kaleidoscope (another major archetypal image or insight that would have enduring impact upon my understanding of ‘final things’) that do not, themselves, undergo change—but which do undergo modifications in their interrelationships with the other chips, which are then ‘optically’ (cognitively) worked up and projected into the infinitely variable composite images we see through the ‘peephole’ of consciousness. The relationships between the (archetypal) elements which, taken together, compose the gestalt do change—like furniture and paintings continually being moved into different arrangements within a room, where the lighting is also being changed—but the elements themselves do not.

The puer, it would seem, naturally and instinctively resists getting ‘caught up’ either in the rushing gallop or syrupy flow of ‘literal’ events/developments in the temporal dimension. It rises above this sticky, enthralling river of narrative immersion, to a place where it can view this tragi-comic-farce from a ‘clean,’ detached, free perspective. But, as we see with Icarus, it winds up paying a ‘high’ price for this privileged freedom, and before long it begins to feel gravity tugging at it, as the approaching solar disk begins to melt its wax and feather wings.

The lonely heights—with the rarely experienced and rarely shared synoptic vistas of the enormous valley below—are as desolate and inhuman as they are alluring (for the views they afford the puer). It is the lure of the psyche—the anima—that tugs painfully at the wings of the spirit-boy, calling him back to the humid, shaded valley with its thick air and sluggish rivers and luxuriant foliage.


[1] It was during this period, incidentally, that my mother’s ‘normal’ ego-consciousness was being dissolved by the archetypal drama she was being absorbed into—as she suffered the first of a series of nervous breakdowns with psychotic episodes.