The ‘conveyor belt’ image that I have employed in a number of essays stands for many things. At the cultural or societal level it stands for collective habits that have either been passed down or inherited as customary practices from our forebears (like monogamy, going to church on Sunday, taking summer vacations, etc.) or they are relatively new (like using cell phones and ‘texting,’ mandatory auto- and health-insurance, internet shopping, etc.) and are ‘sold’ to us by corporations via their marketing-government-lobbying arms. To the extent that these collective habits are established—and have begun to function like ‘second nature’ for large numbers of us—they operate like conveyor belts that carry and direct our energy and attention down clearly-defined, thoroughly rationalized channels. What I mean by ‘rationalized’ is simply that every effort is continually being made to keep these channels clear and conveniently accessible so that the maximum number of persons can be conveyed through them with a minimal amount of obstruction, discomfort, or conscious criticism of the means of conveyance itself. The whole point of stepping onto a conveyor belt is to get from point A to point B without having to walk there oneself.
At the personal (or individual) level, conveyor belts are just as commonly encountered as on the collective level. These individual habits or patterns of thought and behavior that have become ‘second nature’ can be found at work in our daily routines, in our friendships and our marriages, in the way (and the things) we eat, the way we dress and drive and drink and grasp for things just beyond our reach. Laziness and the desire for a sense of security join hands in most of us to form a joint barricade against self-examination where our established habits are concerned. Any attempts to become critically conscious or aware of these automatically (and therefore, smoothly) functioning habits of thought, feeling, and behavior meet with resistance insofar as they are instinctively conservative and self-protective.
Our habits—collective and idiosyncratic—thus strongly influence the course and trajectory of our lives from behind a thick, muffling curtain of unconsciousness. Allied with, and supported by, our naturally-occurring laziness and our longing for stability and a sense of security, these unconscious collective and personal habits are constantly nudging, routing, and coercing our attention, our energy, and our desires down their familiar, accustomed pathways. And, as suggested, they accomplish this not openly and in plain sight, but from the unlit recesses beneath the threshold of our often unreflective and dimly illuminated conscious minds. All we see—all we are comfortable seeing—are the ‘grounding’ effects of these obscurely prompted, mystery-cloaked habits and compulsions, the roots of which remain snugly buried within our almost infantile longing for the warm soft familiar nipple of soothing-oozing security.
Of course the most fundamental conveyor belts of all—the ones that operate at even deeper levels than the collective cultural habits and formal patterns I’ve been discussing—are the archetypes and instincts themselves. It may be the case, as Jung has suggested, that the archetypes—as distinct from their more or less explicit cultural and symbolic formulations—remain permanently unconscious, so that we are never ‘in a position,’ epistemologically, to ‘objectify’ or step outside of them. In other words, it is probably safe to assume that our consciousness is always being structured and guided by some archetypal perspective/fantasy or another—or a combination thereof. If Jung and the archetypal psychologists are correct in their hypothetical picture of our natural-psychological predicament, then we are confronted here with ‘conveyor belts’ from which we may never depart, for they are the true ground and matrix of the psyche itself. To step off these archetypal conveyor belts, then, is to leap out of the psyche, which seems about as absurd as the prospect of leaping out of our bodies.
An interesting question to pose at this juncture is: are we more free or less free—spiritually and psychologically—when we consciously acknowledge the hidden sovereignty of these thoroughly unconscious archetypal determinants? Don’t we enjoy a fuller experience of freedom when we remain ignorant of, or deny, the existence of these subterranean determinants? But then, if Jung’s hypothesis is actually correct, our ignorance or our willful denial of them founds our experience of freedom upon a lie or delusion. This certainly throws the authenticity or legitimacy of our experience of freedom into serious doubt—even if the feeling of freedom is indisputable.
But what if the experience of freedom is never an absolute or permanent experience? What if it is always relative to other states—say, the state of mind (or the state of affairs) we are just leaving? Can we not imagine departing from an entire arena of more or less familiar, routine experiences—and entering into an altogether new and unexplained arena of experiences? For the sake of illustration, let us imagine a married man who is living in London in the 19th century. He and his wife have three adolescent children. He has a high-profile job in the government. And he is a closet homosexual. He meets and falls in love with a younger man and before long, his secret becomes known. The press gets hold of the story and a scandal erupts. Within a few weeks he suffers public humiliation, is fired in disgrace from his high government post, and his wife leaves him for the paramour she has been involved with for years on the sly. He and his lover move to Corfu and live happily in seclusion for the following ten years.
This compact storyline or series of events provides us with a tidy little gold mine of possible angles of approach to the multifaceted question of freedom. Some persons, for instance, will be inclined to say that our protagonist (let’s call him ‘Oscar’) was about as free as he could ever be prior to the scandal, at which point everything fell to pieces. From this perspective, Oscar’s freedom was located in his comfortable, honorable ‘fit’ with the social, political, moral, economic, sexual, and familial values and norms of 19th century London. The disruption and rapid dissolution of this outward conformity catapulted him from the familiar orbit of this free and ‘adjusted’ existence—and it was all due to his foolish surrender to an unnatural inclination in himself—this ‘perverted’ homosexual tendency that he had successfully (and wisely) kept firmly under repressive control for decades. It was precisely this repression of his ‘unnatural’ sexual tendencies that made his free, but thoroughly conventional life possible. By keeping this tiger of homoeroticism caged up and malnourished, the well-fed, domesticated and obedient stallion rose quickly to prominence in society. It might even be argued that the smoldering, repressed yearnings—locked up in that cage below the threshold of Oscar’s consciousness—actually contributed a kind of volcanic, geothermal thrust to his ambitious pursuits in the London social and political arenas.
For those who understand freedom and human fulfillment in these terms, Oscar’s ‘surrender’ to his homosexual inclinations was an unmitigated disaster and should have been avoided at all costs. For those very different persons, however, who are thoroughly convinced from experience that there are few greater crimes that we can commit than to be untrue to our innermost selves—our deepest natures—Oscar was relatively unfree while he was repressing his homosexuality, and that he began to take courageous steps in the direction of authentic freedom only when he stopped ‘living a lie.’ From this very different perspective, Oscar’s homosexual yearnings were not ‘unnatural’ even if they were not statistically the norm or conventionally sanctioned. Moreover, from this perspective, the mere fact that some collective norm happens to be conventional does not make it true, valid, just, binding, let alone natural. For these persons, Oscar ultimately enhanced, rather than diminished, his existence by following his deeper nature in opposition to conventional norms and prohibitions. And more importantly—in connection with our present theme—he thereby entered into a freer existence by divorcing himself from the complex ‘tissue of lies’ upon which his former life was founded.
I am learning—rather late in my life—that constantly raising and relentlessly following the philosophical and psychological questions that I have devoted most of my free time to is rather more uncommon, statistically, than felonious criminality, genocidal slaughter of humans by other humans, pedophilia, human trafficking. Apparently, this peculiar way of life is a good deal less common than homosexuality. What has come quite ‘naturally’ to me since I was a child—and which has been conscientiously cultivated and strengthened almost entirely by my own unceasing labors—appears to be something of an anomaly, like a rare disease, among by fellows. I’m not suggesting for moment that there is not a fairly large number of persons, now as ever, who read and study serious writings—and who raise tough questions about themselves and about nature and about this strange species, homo sapiens—persons who love nothing more than getting down to the bottom of things. I am quite aware of the fact that such probers and plumbers exist in significant numbers throughout the globe, and the last thing I want to do here is to sound condescending, as if I’m trying to set myself apart not only from ‘everyday folks,’ but even from those ‘exceptions’ who subscribe to Socrates’ dictum that ‘an unexamined life is not worth living.’
In an uncharacteristic (but splendidly timed) display of prudence, let it be known that I am perfectly content to ‘lump myself in’ with these exceptions. It would be considered preposterous for me to push my exceptionalism any further than this. Let me be content, therefore, to speak up—hesitantly and warily—on behalf of this entire, exceptional class of serious, bravely dedicated questioners, probers, experimenters, soarers and divers who love nothing more than asking and trying to answer tough, deep, disturbing questions about society, about ourselves and our history, about the origins and aims of culture, and so on. For those of us who are born for this sort of life of enquiry, everything else, every other sort of pursuit, immediately loses its appeal and its power to charm as soon as we hit pay dirt.