Couplings between Train-cars Hitched to the Love-Locomotive (8/3/15)

‘Love,’ as it is vulgarly understood—or rather, misunderstood—is seldom a positive, healing force radiating disinterestedly from the lover, but a kind of lack or deficiency that the lover hopes will be answered or supplied by the beloved. Thus, someone with homely looks and a lot of money teams up with an obliging partner long on looks and short on cash. Or perhaps a cool-hearted, subtle-thinking type and a warm-hearted, simpler-minded feeling type are attracted to each other. In a third, hypothetical case, an older man with much worldly experience—tainted perhaps with a certain encroaching Weltschmerz—and an innocent, young sheltered woman (who is deeply impressed with his accomplishments and adventures in the world) are drawn together.

The first example most closely approximates a strictly commercial arrangement—and a conjugal bond between two such persons, based solely on the stated terms, would amount to little more than prostitution hiding behind the conventional cloak of marriage.

In the second instance we move more decisively into the realm of psychological complementarity. The partnership between the lopsided, emotionally-disengaged thinker and the minimally-thinking, equally extreme feeling type comprehends within itself more psychic territory and sensitivity than either partner would command on his own, but unless there is genuine, sympathetic understanding and trust between them, the actual relationship is likely to contain a great deal of unlit, shared space. (Such a space is typically—if not unavoidably—filled by projections from both persons.)

If the first two hypothetical examples of ‘need fulfillment’ may be labeled ‘economic-sensual’ and ‘psychological-functional,’ respectively, the third example might provisionally be called ‘spiritual-existential.’ Both parties are seeking a kind of refuge or protected haven at some remove from the slings and arrows of existence. The world-weary elder member, who, through his ordeals has seen through many of life’s exaggerated promises and steadily diminishing pleasures, seeks peace, repose, tenderness, and simplicity in lieu of his former, more boisterous enthusiasms. The younger, innocent and inexperienced partner is content to encounter the fullness of life vicariously—through the eyes, thoughts, and measured judgments of her trusted elder guide and faithful ally.

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Contemporary Man (8/26/15)

I know that in the past I have frequently spoken of the malignant forces within modern culture as though these evils were threatening us primarily from without—like a viral contagion or dangerous microbes in our drinking water—but I am aware of the fact that the real frontline of this battle against rampant nihilism and spiritual bankruptcy lies within all of us. I am conscious of the fact that when I attack these malignant and barbaric forces in modern ‘anti-culture’ I am merely drawing attention to symptoms and manifestations of collective and individual inner factors that are rooted in our beleaguered, malnourished souls. To be sure, these symptoms are contagious, but we are far less likely to succumb to infection if we take adequate precautions.

Unfortunately, the ‘malady’ of modern culture is so widespread—so pandemic, if you like—that most of us are infected long before we objectively recognize our illness for what it is, and thus, long before we have learned about any adequate measures of prevention. But our situation is actually more complicated than this.

It may in fact be the case that culture, as such—any culture anywhereso long as it remains a thoroughly unexamined and un-critiqued gift or acquisition, poses a mortal threat to our well-being and our true fulfillment as human beings. It may, for instance, be the case that even the most sound and sane cultural inheritance functions like a sturdy set of ‘training wheels’ that help a youngster get up and rolling on a bike. The aim, of course, is to assist the cyclist to ride independently on his bike—to ‘internalize’ the training wheels, as it were. Or perhaps we might think of our initial cultural inheritance as scaffolding that surrounds a prospective building, lending shape and dimensionality to the individual ‘work in progress’ that acquires distinctive form and substance within that provisional and eventually outgrown and dispensable frame. We might also compare our cultural endowment with a local diet that offers a particular array of nutrients necessary for human survival. As we digest these foodstuffs they are transformed, as it were, into vitality and into the very substance of our bodies.

But—continuing with this ‘diet’ metaphor—some cultures are ‘rounded’ and rich in their spiritual, intellectual, moral, and aesthetic nutritional content and others somewhat less so. Some cultural diets—again, figuratively speaking—are heavily weighted with ‘proteins’ but light on ‘fiber.’ Some suffer from a specific ‘vitamin deficiency’ or from an excess of ‘fats’ or ‘refined sugars.’

I would argue that, as a species, we are undergoing a tumultuous, radical transformation that is probably unprecedented in our brief history as culture-dependent creatures. This cataclysmic change we are collectively undergoing has exposed the lamentable inadequacy of all our present cultural knowledge and resources to respond to the challenges that we (and our descendents) will be facing for a long time to come. Part of the tumult or ‘shake-up’ produced by this world-historical revolution directly pertains to the status of culture as such. Today, not only leisured, well-educated, and reflective individuals, but also ordinary persons all over the globe acknowledge the precarious relativity of culture and all the products of culture (including religious dogma, moral and political theories, metaphysical doctrines, etc.) These narrowly and shabbily educated persons didn’t arrive at this momentous and potentially destabilizing insight through earnest and painstaking study of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Freud, and Jung—or through any sustained effort at deep reflection. This idea—this profoundly flimsy assessment of culture, all cultures, as relative and not absolutely binding or inherently authoritative—is now the common property of the majority of semi-educated men and women (and even precocious, untested but energetically texting teenagers) throughout the West—and now with growing numbers of persons in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, where traditional cultures are steadily losing ground to the relentless, leveling waves of modern consumerism and moral-cultural relativism. There are plenty of fanatics and militant dogmatists still out there—and some of them love to stir up trouble whenever they can for the Godless, flaccid ‘nihilists’ they suppose the rest of us to be. But here, as elsewhere, the exception merely proves the rule.

So, how—it will be asked—are we responding (or reacting) to this recently acquired insight into the relativity and ‘fictional’ status of cultural forms? We might be roughly divided into two different camps: 1) Those who—because they can neither understand nor adequately meet the severe challenges involved in having the rug pulled out from under their ‘world’—decide, in effect, to ‘eat, drink, and be merry,’ rather than live in a state of disquieting uncertainty and mental disorientation. 2) Those who feel called from within to come to terms—albeit provisional and pragmatic ones—with the fact that the tectonic plates of culture are continually shifting under our feet.

From one angle, the rather fluid and indeterminate state of cultural (and inter-cultural) factors is a natural and necessary compensation for the static, orthodox Medieval-Christian cosmos that prevailed without serious opposition for centuries in Europe. And while there is certainly much to admire about that holistic, hierarchical scheme that oriented religious, political, social, and moral affairs, there is no getting around the fact that as educated and adventurous minds and spirits acquired new knowledge about (previously unexplored) lands and cultures, about the natural world, about human nature and the body, serious challenges to the traditional static order of things were bound to arise.

The exploratory activity and innovations (in theology, literature, philosophy, political theory, economics, technology, manners and morals, etc.) of the Renaissance and the 16th-17th centuries gave birth to the relativistic, materialistic modern ‘system’ into which contemporary humanity has been, for the most part, thoroughly conscripted. Questions have only led to further questions—undermining hallowed pieties and weakening institutions along the way—throwing defenseless individuals back upon their scanty spiritual and moral resources to fend for themselves in this ongoing cultural earthquake that I’ve been sketching.

It might be argued that, in certain respects, our insecure, fluidic modern world presents us with a far more honest picture of nature and of our actual existential situation than would ever have been possible in the seemingly innocent, childlike, harmonious-hierarchical, pre-modern world that Dante depicts so beautifully and so self-assuredly in the Divine Comedy. Everything and everyone had its/his/her properly assigned and immovable place in that world. That world, I think we can all agree, has long since evaporated. And while I certainly would not recommend a restoration of the medieval order of things as a remedy to our modern ills (as ISIS is perversely attempting to do—albeit with the incongruous but indispensable assistance of modern weaponry, internet banking, YouTube, and cell phone communications), I regard such persons who scornfully say ‘good riddance’ to everything pre-modern (without first thoroughly understanding what those epochs contributed to the development of Western culture) as nitwits and dolts. I would not wish to return to the third through fifth grades, although I am thoroughly convinced that it would have been a serious mistake to skip over them—and certainly not (or not mostly) because of the classroom knowledge I would have missed out on, but because of all those valuable associations, life lessons, and formative experiences that happened to me between grades 3 and 5.

The ‘world’ of even the most discerning and perspicacious fifth-grader tends to be rather more innocent, sheltered, and carefree than the ‘world’ of a newly-minted college graduate—simply because of where these two are positioned, time-wise, on the linear path from cradle to grave. Are we not likewise inclined to suppose that even the most sophisticated and penetrating minds of medieval Christendom were somewhat childlike and innocent compared to the unexceptional but moderately sensitive product of today’s frayed and rapidly decomposing leftovers of a once-living culture—just as most of the infantrymen who survived the trenches of WWI rapidly became more existentially ‘evolved’ than the effete, brandy-sipping, distant generals who were orchestrating their ordeals by fire (and mustard gas) from afar?

Only in this restricted sense do I advance my suggestion that we moderns are afforded a more brutally honest picture of our actual spiritual predicament, as a species, than our more myth-ensconced forebears. Like the soldiers in the rat-and-corpse-infested trenches, we moderns are routinely exposed to many psychic pathogens and insecurities from which our medieval forebears were shielded by ignorance and innocence (i.e., an intact faith). It’s not that horrible and unimaginably painful events did not happen to them. Of course they did. But they happened within an intrinsically meaningful—and not an absurd or meaningless (‘existential’)—universe. Nietzsche famously referred to the cardinal event that separates the mental world inhabited by our not so distant forebears from the one we inhabit as ‘the death of God.’

Spiritually responsible persons (who, alone, are brutally honest with themselves) have always recognized that no other person—living, dead, or to ‘come again’—can magically redeem their souls. The soul achieves in its own salvation or liberation chiefly by liberating itself from any lingering hopes or expectations that something or someone outside of it can ultimately make or prevent its redemption. And, of course, this sweeping relinquishment applies to cultural, philosophical, religious, moral, and aesthetic forms and formulas, as well. These become the stick with which we stir the fire and which is eventually consumed by that fire.

Approaching Othello (8/1/15)

If we approach Othello as a dramatic portrait of psychological and moral negotiations within Shakespeare’s psyche at the time he wrote the play, the principal characters may be regarded as complex symbols of distinct psychological processes, standpoints, functions, levels, and values. The overall course of action may be seen to symbolize the natural outcome of the conflictual relationships between these differentiated psychic factors.

What if, for instance, we approach Iago not as we would a morally accountable human being who should be possessed of a modicum of human sympathy or compassion, but as the personification of an utterly inhuman, motiveless mode of thinking (instrumental reason) that can be arbitrarily employed to serve a wide variety of divergent and even contradictory ends?[1]

Allan Bloom’s thoughtful essay on Othello—‘Cosmopolitan Man and the Political Community,’ from Shakespeare’s Politics—makes very insightful observations about Iago, Othello, and Desdemona (whose name in Greek can mean ‘superstitious’ or ‘ill-fortuned’). Of Iago, he writes:

Iago, as I have said, is only a mirror or an agent that causes the unseen to become visible…Shakespeare is, in the final accounting, very hard. Iago’s speeches, read dispassionately, show that he is the clearest thinker in the play. ‘Honest Iago’ is not merely a tragically misplaced epithet. Iago does tell more of the truth than any other character. It is difficult to understand his motivation; no villain in Shakespeare seems to act without some plausible end in view, an end the value of which all men would recognize, though they might perhaps not be willing to commit the crimes necessary to arrive at it. But Iago, as does the Devil, seems to act from pure negativity. ‘I am not what I am.’ Whatever Othello wants, Iago wants the opposite. He is sub- or super-human. But, in opposing Othello, he shows that the world dominated by Othello is a world of fancy. He speaks out for a freedom which none of the others recognize. Iago wishes to live his own life free from the domination of other men, and especially of other men’s thoughts. He realizes that true tyranny is not imposed by force, but imposes itself on the minds of men. For Iago, man can free himself only by thought. He has thought through the emptiness of most beliefs and will not live in subordination to them. He cannot found his life on self-deception, as Othello does. (p. 63)

If we think of the prejudices or shared illusions (‘ideals’) that bind together, define, and—in a sense—constitute a community (in this case, Venice) as the matter upon which Iago’s caustic intelligence goes to work (‘I am nothing if not critical’), we get a clear glimpse of his function in the tragedy. To every particle of ‘matter’ he encounters, this spirit of ‘pure negativity’ stands figuratively as a particle of antimatter. When divested of all merely human desires, aims, and designs, Iago is indeed no more and no less than a sub- or super-human force of negation or contradiction—an ‘agent’ capable of nullifying or effectively dissolving all those positively asserted and believed-in prejudices upon which the individual (Othello, Cassio, Desdemona, etc.) and the community collectively depend.

Thus, only that being who is genuinely reconciled to the truth or the reality that transcends this war of opposites (i.e., personal/cultural prejudices and their negation) is capable of encountering Iago and coming away unscathed. Such a being (sub- or super-human?) would have already succeeded in reconciling and harmonizing the pairs of opposites that, together, comprise the matrix out of which dramatic, deluded, ordinary human experience is spawned. Such a being would indeed be free, not only of the prejudices that define all mere humans (as exponents of a particular culture), but of the desires and fears that are otherwise guaranteed to keep us mentally imprisoned in the endless cycle of suffering that life—which feeds upon itself—essentially is. (Incidentally, Harold Bloom, noted bardolator, argues that Iago would have been seen through and disposed of right away by two other Shakespearean characters: Hamlet and Falstaff.)

Iago certainly is not free—despite his apparent success in seeing through the delusions and myths that others live by. And why is he not free? He wants to have his cake and eat it too. Clearly he is still subject to desires (for recognition, advancement, power over others, etc.) and fears/anxieties (of being exposed for whom/what he is, of having been cuckolded by Othello, etc.), so we are not entitled to call him disinterested. He has merely pushed his consciousness to the cynical end of a spectrum, the other end of which is populated by equally deluded idealists and staunch believers in the sacrosanct inviolability of romantic love, the value and durability of reputation, etc. He has not—like the ‘transcendent’ being we hypothetically proposed earlier—succeeded in reconciling these opposites within himself. Only by harmonizing or reconciling them is it possible to neutralize the dynamic force naturally generated by the polarized pairs of opposites—a force that is most commonly experienced as fear and desire, which are but two sides of the same coin. Thus, upon close and honest examination, we find that the cynical-critical Iago is no less the captive of his desires and fears than are his idealistic, ‘gullible’ victims. His actual motives may be murky or not evident, but he certainly acts with drive and passion.

Two things that are on trial in this play—and which are being subjected to the fiercest and most stringent acid test—are ‘reputation’ and ‘romantic love.’ I think it is fair to say that by the play’s end, neither of these survive the ordeal, but are exposed for the deceptive, ultimately disappointing, and flawed pursuits that they, at bottom, are.

Othello’s personal power and security depend, as it turns out, almost entirely upon the maintenance of his reputation as a capable general. He has no protective birthright in Venice.[2] He possesses no great wealth. His valiant reputation and his skills as a general have won him a measure of authority and importance within the Venetian state. But he is essentially a foreigner and a mercenary—and even with his marriage to Desdemona, these facts cannot be fundamentally altered, so far as public perception is concerned. Cassio’s abrupt loss of his reputation (and his office as Othello’s lieutenant)—through ‘possession’ by drunkenness, a ‘devil,’ as he calls it—prefigures Othello’s ‘possession’ by an intoxicating jealousy and his rapid loss of status and position as a consequence of his unwarranted violence against Desdemona.

Desdemona’s ‘unconditional’ surrender to Othello’s will and authority constitutes the other side of the riddle of their joint demise. It is precisely because she submits so ‘selflessly’ to Othello—refusing to question or to prudently protect herself from this possessed husband of hers after he has become physically and verbally abusive to her—that she winds up a victim of his ‘honorable’ wrath. In behaving in this way, she is, at one level, enacting the flawed formula of the romantic love myth. This myth requires nothing less than the psychic-erotic merger (or mutual identification) of the lovers. The beloved is one’s ‘other half.’ This, in a nutshell, was Desdemona’s undoing—and this was her contribution to the tragic finale. She had ‘boundary issues’—in the sense that none existed for her.

But, as was noted, Othello’s violent action against his innocent (but equally possessed—if by a different fantasy) wife was consciously motivated by his wounded honor. He realized—all too abruptly and overwhelmingly—that without honor and a commanding reputation, he would be reduced to nothing. His equally real—and equally overwhelming—need for Desdemona’s love (or belief in the reality and faithfulness of her love) left him vulnerable and exposed to Iago’s manipulative lies. Othello was thus doubly—and, as it turns out, mortally—wounded by the collapse, in his mind, both of his honor and of the love that he had come to rely on from Desdemona. ‘Chaos is come again’ and he, the helpless agent of this chaos, felt compelled to take her down with him into the abyss that opened up before (or within) him.

[1] H. C. Goddard anticipates this approach in likening Iago’s thinking to Cold War strategizing.

[2] There was an energetic, prolonged attempt by his enemies and detractors to place Barack Obama in this frame—and by our current president (2/1/18).