Shuttle De-plume-acy (5/28-29/11)

The space shuttle program has at last drawn to a close, not for lack of enthusiasm on Americans’ part to hurl themselves into the distant reaches of outer space, but because economic realities have at long last rendered such exorbitantly expensive enterprises an inexcusable extravagance. Whether we are proud of the fact or not, the United States has, for quite some time now displayed its strength as nation primarily through its material or economic might and as an exporter of mass entertainment—rather than through its bequeathals of timeless works of art, literature, philosophy, and spiritual insights—contributions for which a number of former great cultures and empires are esteemed with due gratitude and reverence. The ‘defense-related’ research and development programs which burgeoned (like mushrooms on steroids—or acid) after WWII—and which yielded the high-tech gadgets that no self-respecting teenager, here or elsewhere, can live without these days—were funded by independent capital and by huge federal revenues garnered from U.S. taxpayers. Now we quite literally have more computers, handheld communications and listening devices, creature comforts, and entertainment media than we know what to do with. Apparently—and lamentably, as I see it—this arrangement is perfectly acceptable for a staggering number of mortals throughout the globe. As with pampered house pets or snacking youngsters hypnotically absorbed in their video games, this state of material ease and comfort appears to be sufficient to make life on earth worth ‘suiting up’ for, morning after morning, in the minds of most persons living today.

Regrettably, I have nothing further to say to such complacent and gratified creatures. I certainly wish them the best of luck, but I must confess that I anticipate with dread the day when access to the next generation of these sought-after consumer items and desiderata (not to mention adequate nourishment and drinkable water) are no longer widely available or within relatively easy reach.[1] I address this essay, then, to that troubled and confused segment of society—a small but growing number of thoughtful and courageous men and women—who are no longer morally comfortable being part of the problem, but are convinced that they cannot change the course down which we seem, en masse, to be heading. What is that problem—in the simplest of terms—and why does the present course seem irreversible and unstoppable to most of us who are able to recognize it for what it is—and for what it is not. It most assuredly is not ‘progress’ in any positive sense of that over-used word.

The problem, at bottom, is that, with very few notable exceptions, Western humanity’s interested attention has been turned almost exclusively in one direction for several hundred years—riveted to the outer material world, the only world recognized by most of us, as it would seem. Beginning roughly with the maritime voyages of the 15th century, plunder, pillage, and wars—over land, resources, native populations, religious beliefs, ideologies, and information—have conspicuously dominated human affairs. The daring voyages and expeditions of Columbus, Magellan, Drake, Cortes, Pizarro, and others led to the ‘discovery’ of new worlds to colonize and new populations to exploit, to rob, to convert to ‘Christianity,’ and (where it was deemed ‘necessary’ or expedient) to exterminate. The shuttle expeditions, which used computer navigational systems and rocket fuel instead of sextants and mainsails, have simply been the most recent in a long line of conquests that began centuries ago with the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. As a species, we appear to be dangerously susceptible to being possessed by archaic predatory instincts—instincts that are stubbornly resistant to higher education, moral training, and religious tutelage. We are predatory towards nature and exploitative towards our own kind. In this respect, we seldom display moderation when we are strong enough to take what we want, using the justification that ‘if we don’t take it, someone else surely will.’

Why, it will be asked, has the lion’s share of our attention been riveted to externals, our spirits tirelessly hankering after outer possessions and entertainments? The answer to such a big question is complex and multifaceted, but there are certain social, cultural, and religious factors that have significantly contributed to the current state of affairs. The ‘discovery’ of the unconscious by Freud, Jung, and their less famous precursors was not an accident—but a natural outgrowth of a cultural crisis that was well underway in the 19th century. Jung writes:

Dogma takes the place of the collective unconscious by formulating its contents on a grand scale. The Catholic way of life is completely unaware of psychological problems in this sense. Almost the entire life of the collective unconscious has been channeled into the dogmatic archetypal ideas and flows along like a well-controlled stream in the symbolism of creed and ritual…The collective unconscious, as we understand it today, was never a matter of ‘psychology,’ for before the Christian Church existed there were antique mysteries, and these reach back into the grey mists of Neolithic prehistory. Mankind has never lacked powerful images to lend magical aid against all the uncanny things that live in the depths of the psyche. (CW, Vol. 9, pt. 1:21)

The ‘discovery’ of the unconscious—which was really a re-discovery of the autonomous inner world—occurred only because our religious symbols and rituals had become so emptied of meaning, following the Protestant Reformation and the spread of scientific criticism. Jung continues:

The iconoclasm of the Reformation, however, quite literally made a breach in the protective wall of sacred images, and since then one image after another has crumbled away. They became dubious, for they conflicted with awakening reason. Besides, people had long since forgotten what they meant. Or had they really forgotten? Could it be that men had never really known what they meant, and that only in recent times did it occur to the Protestant part of mankind that actually we haven’t the remotest conception of what is meant by the Virgin Birth, the divinity of Christ, and the complexities of the Trinity? It almost seems as if these images had just lived, and as if their living existence had simply been accepted without question and without reflection, much as everyone decorates Christmas trees or hides Easter eggs without ever knowing what these customs mean…That the gods die from time to time is due to man’s sudden discovery that they do not mean anything, that they are made by human hands, useless idols of wood and stone. In reality, however, he has merely discovered that up till then he has never thought about his images at all. And when he starts thinking about them, he does so with the help of what he calls ‘reason’—which in point of fact is nothing more than the sum-total of all his prejudices and myopic views. The history of Protestantism has been one of chronic iconoclasm. One wall after another fell. And the work of destruction was not too difficult once the authority of the Church had been shattered. (ibid. 22-23)

Because the religious/mythical symbols and internal structures that contained and provided channels for the archetypal energies that constitute our psyches have thus been dismantled and destroyed for so many of us[2], the inner world now bears a striking resemblance to the vast desert of ‘outer space’ with its ‘black holes’ and fiery supernovas, its gaseous clouds and its menacing immensity. Jung observes:

Our intellect has achieved the most tremendous things, but in the meantime our spiritual dwelling has fallen into disrepair. We are absolutely convinced that even with the aid of the latest and largest reflecting telescope, now being built in America, men will discover behind the farthest nebulae no fiery empyrean; and we know that our eyes will wander despairingly through the dead emptiness of interstellar space. Nor is it any better when mathematical physics reveals to us the world of the infinitely small. In the end we dig up the wisdom of all ages and peoples, only to find that everything most dear and precious to us has already been said in the most superb language. (ibid. 31)

Following the psychologically one-sided directives and inducements of the modern Western ‘outlook,’ generations of Europeans and their colonial descendents have been implicitly warned not to ‘look in,’ but only to ‘look out for themselves’ and their families in a fiercely competitive struggle for limited high-paying jobs in a capitalist economy. As an almost inevitable consequence, Western spirituality progressively degenerated into sterile dogma and cold theology, while morality was largely reduced to apish or sincere conformity to behavioral norms and posturing—cut off, as they were, from their inner source springs. Naturally, as the inner realm suffered from prolonged neglect by the cultural, educational, and spiritual institutions within the West, easy and well-lit access to the inner world, as well as to the knowledge, the ‘maps’ and myths which help to guide the initiate through its labyrinths, became more and more difficult to come by (and to make meaningful sense of when such materials were forthcoming). One usually had to go out of his or her way and ‘against the current’ to find and then to decipher such writings and teachings—as Jung was obliged to do with obscure and arcane alchemical texts, the cultural link with the pre-Christian, pagan layers of the Western psyche (that had been buried under authorized doctrine). From the prevalent, rational-materialist metaphysical standpoint, such myths, interior journeys—and even the interior realm itself—were rather arrogantly and contemptuously dismissed as childish superstitions and mumbo jumbo that were unworthy of serious consideration, except as the primitive and pre-scientific lore of traditional cultures that lacked our superior (scientific) understanding of things. Of course, in saying all this, I do not wish for a moment to deny the astounding array of benefits won for mankind by the noble exploits and brilliant insights of scientists. I am, let me repeat, concerned chiefly with any blinding prejudices which may be built into our modern Western worldview—prejudices that are still very much alive and kicking as we rapidly approach what looks very much like a dangerous cliff to a growing number of attentive persons.

The almost pathologically extraverted collective attitude of the Western mind, during the last several centuries, has its inverted, contrasting twin, which prevailed during the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ when the attention of Europeans was turned inwards to such an extent that the external world suffered from a degree of neglect that the internal one now suffers from. Monks, clerics, and even the laity were often obsessed with inner factors in a way and to a degree that occasionally matched Indian yoga philosophy—probably the non plus ultra of cultural introversion thus far in human history. Then, during the High Middle Ages (after 1348 and the end of the Black Death) we can begin to see evidence of a gradual reversal of collective attention from inner to outer factors. Perhaps we might say that this latter half of the Christian aeon, with its ‘antichristian’ (mythologically speaking) infatuation with ‘the world, the flesh, and the devil’ has at last begun to play itself out, which is to say exhaust itself, in these ‘end times’ that so many of us feel ourselves enmeshed in.

Now, whether or not we are actually and irreversibly headed like lemmings off the side of a cliff and humanity will be plunged into a new period of savagery and darkness to match any of the nastier periods of the past, it is in our immediate collective interest to rediscover the entrances to the inner world which have, as it were, been overgrown and choked with ‘vegetation’—like Angkor Wat or Tikal before they were unearthed and cleaned up a bit. Moreover, because of the general ignorance with respect to the psyche (which inevitably stemmed from this neglect and culturally-endorsed devaluation) the ‘unconscious’ has understandably acquired more of a menacing than a restorative or healing aspect for many of us. For most, it initially resembles the ‘id’ of Freudian theory—a welter of disturbing affects, amoral impulses, and aggressive drives that we have every reason to fear and to avoid encountering. Freud went so far as to equate civilization itself with the repression of these disturbing erotic, aggressive, and often asocial drives and energies, but repression brings its own demons and harpies—hence, the ‘discontents’ of civilization.

The way ahead will be led by voyagers into the interior who will be psychic cousins to those great navigators and explorers of sea and land during our outward-turned phase. The explorations and insights won by the psychic cartographers yet to come will enable the collective mind to undergo the ‘great reversal’ that has already begun for a growing number of human beings across the globe—from every cultural background. In centuries to come, the early (and excruciatingly lonely) pioneers of this neglected territory which has always been there ‘behind our backs’—and I’m thinking of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung—will be seen as the Leif Erikssons and the Marco Polos who were the first Europeans to glimpse and to bring back sketches of previously unknown realms.

Does the scuttling of the shuttle program perhaps symbolize Icarus’ fall to sea (after soaring so close to the sun with his wax and feather wings that they melted)—the ‘sea’ of the psyche where ‘scuba’ equipment makes more sense than plumage and flapping wings?

[1] My concern—and it is quite a legitimate concern, since supporting evidence for my claim is already conspicuously abundant—is that when the spigots that are now spewing out all these consumer items slow down to a prohibitively expensive trickle or shut down altogether, the restlessly acquisitive and hopeful hordes of today will become the armed and dangerous mobs of tomorrow—ready to do the bidding of ruthless gang lords, demagogues, wicked opportunists, and crafty manipulators of fear and resentment. Anyone with his eyes open today cannot help but see dress rehearsals for this general, all-engulfing tragedy already underway here in the U.S. and in many other parts of the shrinking world.

[2] This the true meaning behind Nietzsche’s famous claim that “God is dead”

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