On Nietzsche’s Captivating Rhetoric (1/31/18)

When a writer regularly employs such flagrantly attention-getting language – the sorts of stylistic and button-pushing literary tactics that virtually anyone who can read will often find irresistible – we have to wonder what kind of audience he is trying to reach with such pyrotechnical prose, and what he wants to do with them once he’s got their attention. Nietzsche, despite his “aristocratic,” anti-democratic views and values, is incongruously popular, from all I can tell. He appears to be more widely read and enjoyed (regardless of whether he is being properly understood) than most other philosophers. Plato often wrote beautifully and lucidly, but despite his enormous influence, it would be stretching things to say that he is popularly read, even when selections from the Apology, the Symposium, and the Republic are required reading in most prep schools and honors programs. The same may be said of Aristotle, Machiavelli, Bacon, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, and that other truly great stylist, Schopenhauer.

Socrates seems (from Plato’s “artfully” recorded dialogues with him as the central figure) to have tailored his speeches to the particular qualities of the person he was addressing. Nietzsche says he selects his proper reader through his technique of scaring away all but his rightful audience, but he seems to have underestimated his charm – or overestimated his power to “scare” away the wrong or unready readers.

Advertisements

On Part Three of Beyond Good and Evil (“The Religious Character”) (9/16/13)

In part three of Beyond Good and Evil (‘The Religious Character’) it is as if Nietzsche has implicitly assumed that a kind of dome covers humanity. That dome, like the hemispherical ceiling of a planetarium, is solid and impenetrable. Moreover, the various constellations of the zodiac, along with the other noteworthy individual stars and galaxies, which are projected onto the dome, correspond to the various mythologies, religious principles, metaphysical systems, and moral doctrines that have been created solely by great geniuses who—though superior and exceptional specimens—were, nonetheless, irrefragably and inescapably human. Culture, then, and those principle works of art and thought that lend both structure and ‘luminous’ orientation to human lives everywhere and at all times, are solely human inventions. As with Darwinism, there is no need to introduce extraneous teleological or superfluous metaphysical principles (i.e., ‘God’) into Nietzsche’s genealogical scheme in order to account for man’s cultural evolution. There is no need—no justification—for bringing such intangible or supernatural factors into the equation. Naturalism suffices. And perhaps a little bit of ‘naturalistic’ human psychology.

Because we humans tend to be painfully conscious of our mortality—and because our hopes and our imaginative longings often reach quite far beyond our actual, limited conditions as frail, ephemeral creatures (even when we’re not fully conscious of these hopes and longings)—it should come as little surprise that, from early on, our ancestors have been concocting all manner of (benevolent and malevolent) immortal figures who have a significant impact upon our lives—and whose power we neglect at our peril. Nietzsche recognized that this imaginary relationship between the unreal Gods and very real mortals makes very good sense from both the individual, personal standpoint, as well as from the social/political standpoint. For the individual, this imaginary relationship with the divine, supernatural dimension provides a context and a kind of playground for those transcendent yearnings that mortals are often afflicted with when they remember they must die. What a marvelously effective and time-tested pressure valve these imaginary heavens and hells provide whenever we need to let off steam! On the other hand, this same valve can be closed off when pressure is precisely what is required to jolt us out of our indolence and make us serious about our ‘salvation.’

For millennia, the artful manipulation and exploitation of these supernatural longings and anxieties by crafty priests and opportunistic rulers has greatly contributed to social-political stability. A ruler who tampers with established theology (or who used to, since this is quickly becoming a thing of the past in the West) and customs—from Akhenaton to Henry VIII, from Mao to Stalin—had better possess despotic powers if he is to succeed in implementing such disruptive reforms. A leader whose actual or supposed religious sympathies diverge from those of the mass population (as when rumors spread about Obama being a Muslim) will be up against fierce, and often unconscious, prejudice in the generality. Mitt Romney’s good looks and his anti-Obama polemics were not quite enough to offset the ‘Mormon’ factor and enable him to inch out ahead of Obama’s good looks and his slippery-silver tongue. John F. Kennedy’s (epidermal) Catholicism tugged against his good looks and silver tongue, making it necessary for his wealthy father to buy Chicago’s deciding votes. But, I digress.

As with other ‘naturalistic’ thinkers—both ancient and modern—Nietzsche, in explaining the ‘religious character’ in exclusively human, all-too-human terms, effectively explains away transcendent or superhuman factors altogether. In the final section of Part Three Nietzsche makes it quite clear that as soon as religion—in this case, Christianity—succeeds in becoming sovereign (as opposed to remaining a subordinate means of marginalizing and thwarting the canaille and providing the proper breeding conditions for higher human specimens), culture is debased into a ‘sublime abortion.’ In its successful campaign to preserve and protect the great mass of ‘failures’ and ‘degenerates,’ two thousand years of Christianity has bred…

…the European of today, a herd animal, something well-meaning, sickly, and mediocre.

He accuses the Christian cultural leadership—over the past two millennia—of having been stupid and cowardly. These were:

people who were not high and hard enough to give human beings artistic form; people who were not strong or far-sighted enough, who lacked the sublime self-discipline to give free reign to the foreground law of ruin and failure by the thousands; people who were not noble enough to see the abysmally different orders of rank and chasms in rank between different people. (sect. 62)

And for this awful crime committed against ‘higher’ human possibilities, Nietzsche shouts: ‘Christianity has been the most disastrous form of arrogance so far.’ What in the world is going on here? Nietzsche is certainly not being cryptic or ‘tricky’ here. He cannot be accused of resorting to ‘esoteric writing’ in such blatant declarations of his own personal preferences and his standards of what ‘health’ looks like with respect to human culture. But, to spell things out even more explicitly, so as to dispel any lingering, unresolved doubts about what he is saying here, let us begin with his endorsement of treating human beings as a potter might treat clay, or as a sculptor might employ stone in order to impose artistic form upon them. Upon us. (But, let us remember, it was Christianity and not Nietzsche’s Anti-Christianity that constituted the most disastrous form of arrogance so far!) This basic notion of man as moldable clay accords with his description of humans earlier in this same section (62) as ‘the still undetermined animals.’ All but the rarest and most unlikely exceptions among us (since exceptions so often come to ruin) are merely programmable animals without a determinate (and therefore truly knowable, clearly discernible) nature. Most of us are just conscious enough to be aware that we are destined to struggle and eventually to die. Thus, in our anxiety and our natural credulity (when facing the awesome authority of the past and its ‘legacy’) we almost invariably succumb to the sort of imprinting or programming that Nietzsche and many others understand acculturation to consist in—and nothing besides. A human being without cultural imprinting would be all nature and no art.

Technically speaking such a creature is not fully human at all. He is feral, a savage. He may be possessed of (or by) instincts and drives that are hardwired into him, but lacking language and culture to canalize these raw energies and impulses, the (truly unfinished) creature’s existence is decidedly worse than that of an animal’s. Such an existence would be chaotic and anarchic. At least the animal can rely on the regulatory function of its instincts. Civilized human life, on the other hand, depends to a decisive extent upon the disruption and often upon the artful repression of these instincts and drives. They must be re-directed down new, socio-politically acceptable courses. They must be hammered (or coaxed) into new shapes and down new pathways. One of the principal functions of religion, as Nietzsche and many others have understood it, is to instill and to inwardly enforce an elaborate system of (albeit illusory) rewards and punishments—the aim of which is to keep wayward and impetuous little unfinished human animals on track. And by ‘on track’ we mean out of the wilderness of overpowering lusts, rages, and other uncivil drives and affects that may have served our proto-human ancestors well enough out on the savannah, but can only lead to mischief nowadays—unless, of course, we happen to be serving our nation overseas, fighting heathen, Huns, and towel-heads who need a good thrashing if they are to stay on the track we lay down for them.

But the problematic upshot of this momentous game-changing transformation from wild animal to obedient modern consumer is that, for Nietzsche, we might very well have lost as much as we gained in the bargain by becoming so thoroughly domesticated. Like Freud, in his excellent, late essay, Civilization and its Discontents, Nietzsche worries over the damage unleashed upon the ‘animal’ in all of us by the severe constraints that civilization (and especially religion) inflicts upon our erotic, aggressive, and other vital—and vitalizing—instincts. One would be an arrant fool to categorically dismiss such claims. Few Western persons living today have a very good idea—or rather, experience—of the sort of repressions and constraints that were commonplace in 19th century European cultural and social life. One would have to ‘do time’ as a female in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan for a few years in order to get a rough idea of the sort of mentality Nietzsche and Freud were calling into question—and with Nietzsche, this concern seems to have been confined, for the most part, to men.

Having made this preliminary—and admittedly sketchy—effort to contextualize Nietzsche’s ‘naturalistic’ understanding of man’s religious need and his notion of culture as an elaborate system of ‘necessary illusions’ or arbitrary fictions, let us probe further. Nietzsche makes it clear elsewhere in BGE that he sees genuine philosophers as the authors and creators of these collective values—these necessary fictions. Figures like Plato, St. Paul, Confucius, Hammurabi, and Moses are the ‘commanders and legislators’ of entire cultures or durable worldviews. It is such figures who stamp their own image upon the mass of clay—that indeterminate creature, man—and, in doing so, provide us with distinctive goals and hallowed trajectories. They provide us with ‘serious games’ that have awesome implications and consequences. It should come as no surprise that Nietzsche ever so tacitly regards himself as one such commander and legislator, even though he rather furtively and unconvincingly tries to conceal himself behind the mask of herald of the ‘philosophers of the future’—those who will eventually take such Herculean responsibility upon their shoulders. Astonishingly, it would appear that Nietzsche’s notorious megalomania actually had limits beyond which he deemed it prudent not to transgress. Although he spells it out for anyone who bothers to put all the pieces together, he never has quite the temerity to come out and say precisely and plainly what he means: I, Friedrich Nietzsche, have come here to redirect humanity’s path into the future in accordance with my own superior will and intelligence!

Given his special gifts, along with the apparent fact that he acknowledges nothing of genuine value or ‘transcendent’ significance beyond that dome—the outermost limits of which are established by the most clever and seductive human commanders and legislators—it makes a certain kind of sense that Nietzsche would see himself and his calling as fatefully bound up with this sort of cultural renewal and regeneration. As Plato and Socrates had done before him, he would assume the role of ‘physician’ and undertake a thoroughgoing diagnosis of an ailing patient: Western/Christian culture. He would tirelessly dig and delve into the unconscious assumptions and unexamined collective values that were at the root of the devastating illness. ‘Nihilism,’ ‘Decadence,’ ‘Pessimism,’ ‘Pity,’ ‘Slave Morality,’ ‘Egalitarianism,’ ‘Socialism’—these are but the most conspicuous of the names and forms of the degenerative disease that has eaten away the once-vigorous heart of Western culture. At bottom, it is a war between nature and anti-nature, or vigor and sickness, as Nietzsche passionately conceives of the struggle that is perhaps in its final throes. Life itself is under siege—at least where man is concerned—because it is no longer being revered and served by our decadent, effeminate culture. In fact, we wrongly and suicidally misuse culture as a means of escape from life, as Nietzsche sees it. It does not function as a means of courageously engaging with life, as certain pagans used to do, in accordance with their nobler cultures.

And the reason this damning truth about modern culture is not more widely known is simple enough to understand: virtually everyone is so infected with the disease of modern culture—the disease is so far advanced for us, collectively—that sickness has become normal. Our disease is like the stench of urine that goes unnoticed by persons who live in a park latrine that never gets cleaned. When this is all you smell, rancidity and acridity become odorless because they no longer stand out. Then one day you are miraculously released from this giant outhouse. You go for a lovely hike, high up in the nearby alpine forest. You breathe in crisp, clean, invigorating mountain air. When you are called back to the park latrine—say, because of your attachment to loved ones who cannot leave the toilet, or because collecting admission fees from visitors to the urinal is your only source of income—the full reeking impact of the stench assails you with its revolting unpleasantness and unhealthiness. How have you managed to breathe this foul air for years—day in and day out—and never notice that something was terribly amiss?

Cases of natural resistance to this viral contagion (of modern ‘sickness’) are so rare—so anomalous—that we have few salutary models to measure our illness against. Our souls are dead long before our bodies expire—and most of us never suspect a thing.

On the Judicious Use of Terror (6/26/18)

Even if I have many deep resistances to a number of his diagnoses and proposals concerning modern man, Nietzsche can always be relied upon to poison the comfort zones and block access to the many escape routes in which so many of us continue to seek refuge. Those readers who follow him are often ushered into a vulnerable condition of existential exposure from which it can be difficult or impossible to exit after we have had as much as we can take of this “nihilism.”

Nietzsche’s subtly corrosive prose spoke seductively to that skeptical part of my soul that has always been inclined by nature to regard all human-cultural narratives, myths, religions, philosophies, and moral systems as arrant fictions. Moreover, the primary purpose behind these elaborate fabrications is not to communicate or reveal the natural truth – or stark reality – of our existential plight, but to insulate us from this terrible and potentially crushing truth. After suffering through this “unmasking” of myth and culture – and seeing through them so that their function as protective shields against the hard, cold, merciless truth was plainly exposed – the skeptical/cynical part of my soul initially exulted in what seemed like a vindication and confirmation of suspicions it had been harboring for years. This initial feeling of exultation was strengthened by the fact that these dark suspicions had been so persistently and forcefully repressed by the other side of my soul. This other side refused to believe that the actual universe – beyond the “cave walls” of my culture, of any culture – was utterly devoid of any metaphysical or teleological foundations that were capable of endowing our human existence with a higher moral meaning and purpose.

If Nietzsche was correct – if his violent and irreverent unmasking of religion and morality, meaning and “Being,” exposed the awful truth of our existential predicament as a species – I would be obliged by my intellectual conscience to systematically uproot and dismantle every last inherited myth and lie that has been planted in my mind since boyhood. Since virtually everyone I know, every song I sing, every book I read and every movie I watch is infested with these lies and cave-assumptions, I would also have to learn how to insulate my newly purged mind from this constant flood of delusions with the same ferocity previously devoted to insulating myself from these very truths that the skeptical part of my soul had sniffed out, early on.

Little wonder, then, that I felt so alone, so divided, and so alienated – for years – from everyone and everything that had hitherto been so comfortingly familiar, reassuring, and grounding. The skeptic in me had won out, at long last, over the innocent idealist, and my “world” had been turned upside-down. What had been discredited and destroyed in this upheaval had been so foundational to my former worldview and my sense of who I was that, for the first time, I began to wonder if there wasn’t something eerily inhuman about the new perspective that was emerging from out of the rubble of my former worldview and identity.

Eventually, after a few painful years of being aligned almost exclusively with the hardheaded, uncompromising skeptic in my soul, I began to balance out a little bit. Unlike Nietzsche, who seems to have remained steadfastly uncompromising till the bitter end of his thinking career, I found it necessary – let’s say for the sake of mental health, which trumped my concern for rational-logical consistency – to ambivalently oscillate back and forth between these two very different standpoints within myself: the myth-friendly part and the no-nonsense skeptic/nihilist. I would not go so far as to say that I “relativized” the skeptic simply out of fear and anxiety, but in large part because I recognized that I had primal doubts about the adequacy and ultimate accuracy of the radically skeptical perspective.

This accommodation to my softer “human, all too human” side helped to relax – but not to eliminate – the enormous tension that had built up since the collapse of my former bearings and beliefs. While I would remain divided within myself for years to come, this “healthy” compromise probably prevented me from going mad or from turning into a complete misanthrope, a very real danger at the time. This concession to the fragile, needy – or in Nietzsche’s terms, “herd-like” and “decadent” – human ego on the part of the hard-boiled, mythless skeptic/cynic could not, by itself, heal the rift in my psyche. But it could buy me some time to recharge after the depressive, disorienting upheaval—time to gather my wits and other resources for the difficult work that lay ahead. That work is now underway.

A large part of this inner work involves my attempt to answer the following questions: Do we, as a conscious, culture-dependent species, absolutely require the belief in divine or superhuman support and sponsorship in order to thrive, and does the “death of God” also mean the fall of man into savagery and brutal barbarism? Given what we have learned about ourselves as a species – from history, from mythology and literature, from science and modern psychology – is it likely that our better angels (if they indeed exist) will prevail in the ongoing showdown with the darker and more bestial parts of our natural inheritance? Are modern technology and the power it has unleashed more likely to bring enduring comfort and relief to our plight—or to hasten our self-extermination in a conflagration of feverish competition over limited resources?

So, where do I stand (or swim!) on this question of belief? The simple but honest answer is that I stand in awe before the majesty and mystery of existence. I stand in wonder before the bottomless depths of the psyche. I stand in humble respect before the profound questions and the imaginative responses raised and offered by our great, long-suffering human ancestors – the shamans and the mystics, the poets and philosophers, the saints and the scientists, who have left us with so much to reflect upon and digest. I see myself as a modest servant and grateful participant in this always urgent, unresting quest for answers – followed by the search for balance after the answers we receive have disturbed and threatened to “undo” us. It’s only natural for human beings to go crazy or succumb to despair when they’ve remained terrified for a long, long time. Courage is perhaps our most precious commodity – when it is alloyed with wisdom – and those of us who find the courage needed to confront the terrors of existence must not hoard our courage in proud isolation, but share it with those who need it as much or more than we do.

On Nietzsche’s Monism (9/17/13)

Section 36 of BGE signals Nietzsche’s monism. What can we say about the psychology of the monist? How does the monist deal with those elements of experience that are not easily reducible to the arch principle at the heart of his monism? Well, typically he just ignores them or deemphasizes them to the point of near-invisibility within the all-devouring jaws of his (hungry) pet principle. Or, in his strained attempts to make these incompatible elements fit, he so deforms and distorts them that they no longer bear even the faintest resemblance to their former shape. Something of this sort happens to love and to all charitable or unselfish impulses as soon as Nietzsche attempts to translate them into disguised or indirect expressions of the will to power, his (ravenous and omnivorous) pet principle that is supposed to be the ultimate root of everything.

By taking a perfectly useful explanatory principle far beyond its broad but ultimately limited sphere of appropriate applicability, he makes the mistake all monists make. He undermines or subverts his own credibility. Are we close to uncovering one of the secret incentives behind Nietzsche’s astounding eloquence here? Did he eventually start to become unbelievable even to himself? And after so much effort, suffering, sacrifice, and lonely cheerleading for himself! No, admitting that he had taken a serious wrong turn somewhere along the steep uphill way was too much to bear. He would have to bluff his way into world-historical significance (in an era of declining literacy)—for nothing less than this could ever satisfy his boundless personal ambition. At some point it seems to have occurred to him that he was not merely a man. He was dynamite. And like a crafty suicide bomber of sacred idols, he cleverly recognized that within the marble and crystal corridors of Western philosophy and religion his tidy little supply of TNT could produce incalculable damage—damage and destruction from the top down, as it were.

Crucial to this wantonly destructive work would be Nietzsche’s mockery and vilification of the few remaining sacred cows that continued to graze upon the parched spiritual landscape of that arid-skeptical-hypocritical-reductive era in which he lived and worked. Darwin (prudently uncredited) came to his aid, as did Schopenhauer, Feuerbach, Mach, and Stirner (also uncredited for reasons of prudence). Apart from not wanting to appear unduly indebted to these other thinkers for the nuts and bolts of his reductive scheme, Nietzsche had additional reasons for trying to create the impression that his philosophy was born sui generis from his mind. Few thinkers before or since have been so desperate to set themselves apart from the governing assumptions, the complacent society, the prevalent values, and the persons of their own day and age as Nietzsche was. I certainly believe his loneliness and his sense of isolation were excruciatingly real to him. But this pain and loneliness—instead of weakening his resistances to human companionship and sincere relatedness—only painted him further and further into the remote corner from which he screamed out his ‘philosophy of individualism.’

Perhaps it goes without saying that ‘it takes one to know one’ here—but I will say it anyhow. If I had not walked in his shoes, suffered many of the same feelings of isolation, experienced many of the very same reactions that I credit him with having—I would scarcely be in a position to understand this psychological impediment to comprehensive philosophizing (and poetizing, or mythologizing) about man. Fortunately for me, I caught it before it caught me—for good! But I was already older than Nietzsche was when he went insane before I decisively turned things around. Paradoxically—again, for me—it was only by breaking out of the human, all-too-human that I was eventually enabled to break into the human, albeit with new, cleansed eyes that no longer looked solely to man for what can only be called redemption or spiritual solace. For all his Übermensch posturing, Nietzsche never seems to have fully and decisively let go of the human, all-too-human. Somehow, this merely makes me sad for him—makes my hybrid-heart almost break for him.

Nietzsche and the Naturalistic Fallacy (9/5/13)

It seems clear that both as a philosopher and as a psychologist Nietzsche falls prey to the naturalistic fallacy. Instead of acknowledging the independence and autonomy of the psyche—and conceding that, for example, a ‘blighted elm’ or a ‘hog-nosed snake’ in a dream does not refer to a natural tree or snake, but to ‘imaginal’ trees and snakes—Nietzsche, like Freud, tends to ground the psyche in the naturalistic realm. As a consequence, it follows that he comes perilously close to reducing philosophies, ideas, and ideals to instincts and drives that preserve a particular biological-physiological form of life. A corollary of this naturalism (which, as Hillman notes, ‘soon declines into materialism’)—when it underpins a philosophy—issues in a campaign to ‘change the world’ by means of its ‘transvaluation of values.’ In other words, it seeks to change culture as a mechanism for literally changing mankind’s nature. This is to be accomplished by pedagogically modifying the order of rank of man’s drives, or so it would seem. Nietzsche—as I understand him—seems to move back and forth between a kind of monism (where the mind, or psyche, of the human is essentially an offshoot and epiphenomenon of nature, biology, physiology) and a kind of Cartesian dualism (where man’s heroic-creative ego imposes its own will and vision upon nature—if he is strong and masterful).

But all of this is very different from the Jungian/Hillmanian and the Sufi/mundus imaginalis standpoints which seem to be in agreement concerning the independent, autonomous reality of the psyche, or archetypal imagination. Because this independent realm operates according to its own very different set of laws than the natural world, there is no attempt to translate the terms and conditions of the imaginal realm into those of the realm of nature and vice versa. To attempt to do so is, in its mildest form, delusory, and in its most extreme form, murderously insane or depraved. For this reason, there is a continual effort to maintain a clear distinction between the natural and the imaginal (or psychic) realms—or the dayworld and the underworld, to put it mythologically. Nietzsche—with every bit as much ambition as Marx or Hitler—wants to see his dream actualized. His dream, of course, is his vision of the Overman, of a carefully modified return to the Homeric-Sophoclean, tragic poet-creator who enthusiastically says ‘yes’ to existence in all its horror and sublimity. He wants for ‘conditions on the ground’ to change in accordance with his subtly worked out vision. He wants culture to model itself in accordance with a blueprint that he provides. He wants to be a ‘commander and legislator’ over the world of actual culture, in its formative power over the furniture of posterity’s heart and mind. He wants to remake man and redirect the species’ trajectory.

Why do the Sufis knowingly laugh at such ambitions and campaigns? What do they understand that Nietzsche appears to be blind to? What makes Nietzsche blind? What, really, is the will to power for Nietzsche and how does this idea taint his thinking about the psyche? If Nietzsche is primarily committed to an aggressive, ego-driven competition for world-historical-cultural supremacy, then how capable was his feverishly active mind of understanding and justly appraising the stillness and serenity that can only appear after all such driving, competitive, heroic ambitions have been silenced?

Nature, for Nietzsche, is not, for instance, the nature of the Great Goddess of corn and crops, but the nature of the “hero, a world of outer things or inner impulses to be conquered and harnessed. And these ‘natures’ differ again from the virginal pristine nature of Artemis, the nature of Pan, the nature of Dionysus, or the mechanistic rational nature of Saturn.” (James Hillman, Revisioning Psychology, p. 85)

Julian Young writes:

As indicated, Nietzsche’s positive metaphysics is above all naturalistic. Nothing exists outside nature, outside space and time. The starting point for his metaphysics is, it seems to me, Darwin’s theory of evolution. (Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, p. 414)

And later…

Since life in general is will to power, when it comes to human life in particular, ‘psychology,’ a branch of physiology, should be grasped as ‘the morphology and the doctrine of the development of the will to power which is what I have done.’ (ibid., p. 415)

Young likens Nietzsche’s outlook, epistemologically, to that of American pragmatists (whose ‘roots’ are to be found in Schopenhauer’s and Nietzsche’s philosophies). Thus, a theory (such as the will to power hypothesis) is likely to be true—though not guaranteed to be so with absolute certainty—if it works. Further evidence of his fundamental, inescapable naturalism. Young, on p. 417, writes:

Nietzsche calls modernity a ‘half-barbarism’: ‘half’ because we have civilization—plumbing and the police—‘barbarism’ because we lack culture. ‘Culture,’ recall, is defined as ‘a unity of artistic style in all the expressions of the life of a people.’

I realize that very close to the core of my chronic suspicions about Nietzsche’s philosophical project is my uncomfortableness with his naturalistic metaphysic, which stubbornly refuses to recognize the ‘truth value’ of anything that transcends of space, time, causality, physiology. While he took himself to be the ‘first’ genuine psychologist, I take him—in a certain, restricted sense—to be a kind of anti-psychologist, at least to the extent that he insists upon reducing the psyche to a more or less compliant servant or instrument of man’s physiology. As with Freud—who owes more to Nietzsche than he ever admitted to—the contents of the psyche all ultimately point back to instinctual drives, erotic wishes, and other physiological urges, which they represent by means of dream images, fantasy material, and other subconscious material. Neuroses occur when the physiological-instinctual needs are being thwarted or repressed by social or religious constraints, guilt, etc. There is just enough truth in this limited set of claims to have worked as a satisfactory and comprehensive account of the psyche for the millions of persons who cannot (or will not) see any further than this. But for a psychologist of Jung’s caliber, this theory of the unconscious did not go far enough or deep enough to account for the full range of psychic phenomena and numinous experiences that he was personally and intimately acquainted with.

Jung ultimately found Freud’s psychology reductive, just as I find Nietzsche’s psychology reductive. It tries to cram far too much into the Procrustean bed of ‘nature’…of physiology. Moreover, his insistence upon interpreting all moral thought and action as ultimately rooted in the ‘will to power, and nothing besides’ is one-sided and counter-intuitive. This is not to say that it is of no value in helping us understand ourselves and moral phenomena. Nietzsche’s brilliant insights have added greatly to our arsenal of weapons for combating ignorance about ourselves. I am simply making the unremarkable claim that his brilliant approach and his explanatory scheme are far from being sufficient—let alone, exhaustive—just as with Freud’s and Adler’s (who adapted Nietzsche’s will to power concept to depth psychology).

It suits my (still mysterious) purposes to radicalize the distinction between nature and culture (or ‘anti-nature’?), whereas for Nietzsche, it is usually quite the opposite: he is almost always maneuvering to ‘translate’ man back into nature. Why? Because he believes (Western) man has become sick (‘diseased,’ ‘decadent’) from buying into 2,000 years of anti-nature—namely, ‘Christianity.’ This powerful, coordinated assault upon the ‘manly’ (‘master morality’) instincts—this ‘effeminization’—has cut us off from our actual, natural-instinctual roots and propped up an illusory, unnatural, non-existent ‘ideal world’ in its stead. Nietzsche is sincerely and justifiably concerned about the damage that this colossally effective fraud has inflicted upon Western culture. My question is: has he thrown out the baby with the bathwater?

If I may be permitted a joke: you can drive out anti-nature with a pitchfork, but she always returns. My little jest with Horace points to something very basic about human beings—something any genuine philosopher must acknowledge: as creatures, as a species, we are a marriage of nature and culture—and culture exists in a fundamental state of tension, perhaps even a kind of antagonism, with mere nature. Without language and culture we simply cannot become fully human. That’s how crucial—how utterly indispensable and ineradicable—our cultural induction is. Now, I am certainly not accusing Nietzsche of being unaware of this basic fact about humans (as such, anywhere, anytime). Nor do I wish to discredit his very astute criticisms of Christianity’s unhealthy impact on many persons—and not merely upon ‘master’ types who are encouraged to feel guilty or ashamed of their strength, their heroic ‘ambitions,’ their contempt for weakness, their pride in themselves, their very happiness, etc. I simply want to argue that he went too far in blaming a cultural/pedagogical institution—an ideology—for all the negative effects that he saddles it with. It is a gross simplification unworthy of so fine a mind as Nietzsche’s. I believe that as individuals and as a species we are always engaged in a kind of balancing act between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ within ourselves. When either side of this pair of opposites tyrannizes over the other, we are certain to run afoul. As Jung said, ‘too much culture makes for a sick animal, while too much nature leads to barbarism.’

A Note on Ambition: Moral Heroes and Moral Zeroes (6/22-23/12)

These past few weeks I have not been as focused or as disciplined as I was prior to this passive patch I seem to have entered. This dearth of productivity (especially with respect to meaty journal entries) weighs noticeably upon my conscience, I must confess. I suppose I would be lying if I were to deny that ambition, of a sort, plays a part in my personal psychology—and when I am not being productive or creative I soon feel as if I’m just taking up space on an already overcrowded planet. Being human would be an unendurably ‘stale and unprofitable’ affair, indeed, if it were not for those precious phases of focused, creative writing that I am fortunate to experience.

Of course, when I am ‘graced’ with these creative phases, they are their own sufficient reward. Because the intense awakening of my ‘higher’ faculties and my creative potentials bring such substantial satisfaction, I care not about ambition while the ‘juices are flowing.’ It is only after the source-springs of inspiration appear to have mysteriously dried up—only then do I fall prey to such ‘pedestrian’ thoughts and concerns. It would appear, then, that these slightly awkward and uncomfortable musings about the value and importance of my writings for others kick into gear only when I find myself stuck with nothing of vital importance to express. Perhaps this is as it should be. The very idea of writing about spiritual and psychological matters so that my personal ambitions may be advanced is morally objectionable to me—on a par with quack therapists who profit materially by exploiting confused and ailing patients without ever really being able to resolve their psychological problems or to enlighten them about their true sources.

I want to be careful here. I want to try to avoid hiding under the skirts of my moral indignation, for this is always an easy way to bring a quick and tidy end to a deeper investigation of the (usually) complex matters at hand. If I am to be quite honest, I must admit that my own moral indignation, when it valiantly sallies forth, almost always functions in this way—namely, as a (psychologically suspect) stratagem for shutting down an otherwise promising investigation into gnarled, twisted, and murky psychological factors. Either I become uncomfortable with the unflattering secrets I am likely to unearth there, or the following of such poorly marked trails simply requires more energy and effort than I am willing, at that moment, to expend. At any event, I have come to believe that perhaps most moral judgments and reactions—my own and those of others—boil down to this laziness and fear (of discovering uncomfortable truths) that I notice in myself. Of course, I am not recommending (for myself or for others) the jettisoning of moral judgment altogether. I’m only saying that—from a more rigorous standard of ethical values—it is not advisable to stop there. We might profitably think of our moral judgments and reactions as the frontier or boundary line beyond which we are not easily able to extend our thinking, our feeling, our limited light. Looked at differently, these boundary lines become the proper starting point for genuine psychological, as distinct from merely moral, understanding.

When I pause here to reflect, I have to say that it is precisely because of this commonly encountered abuse of moral judgments and posturing (as a means of warding off any further exploration of the countless possible ‘trails’ that open up before us every day) that I become suspicious the moment I am confronted by strong moral pronouncements and proud moral convictions—whether from others or within myself. From the standpoint of depth psychology, such decisive, ‘cauterizing’ moral judgments amount to ‘closing the case’ and refusing to consider any more evidence.

All this simply confirms our old suspicion that morality and psychology are often quite antagonistic rivals when it comes to interpreting human behavior, motivation, and so forth. The moralist—apparently—clings to the reassuring belief that his moral judgments and interpretations are not merely adequate responses to psychological phenomena—but inherently preferable to a psychological reading. And why does the moralist need to believe such a thing? Isn’t it because—dimly sensing his own limitations of will, patience, understanding, compassion, and self-control—he fears that without raising the rampart of moral defiance, ‘chaos will come again’ and swallow him up? So, why can’t the moralist simply admit this? Why can’t he admit that he resorts to moral judgment as a means of protection against certain drives, against disquieting bits of knowledge, against efforts, against uncertainties, etc., that he is simply not up to dealing with? The simple answer, of course, is ‘his pride stands in the way.’ To be fair, few persons relish the experience of being out of their depth, so it shouldn’t strain the imagination for us to grasp why the moralist leans so habitually upon his moral judgments, always striving to strengthen them and patch them up as soon as they start to become porous—allowing ‘psychology’ to leak through.

The intrepid psychologist who imaginatively presses past these moral prohibitions and boundaries within himself in order to probe more deeply into the complex and unlit roots of his own psychic life will not begrudge the more numerous ‘moral’ men and women these protective walls that shield them from ‘knowledge of (their own) good and evil—or good versus evil.’ Nor will he deride their pride in what frankly amounts to their limitations, as distinct from their (more dangerous) potentials. He will let sleeping dogs lie, as the old saying goes.

A conventionally moral life—at least where exceptionally ‘spirited’ human beings are under consideration—necessarily involves significant self-sacrifice, effective mastery over unruly drives and riotous inclinations, as well as a considerable amount of cognitive dissonance, due to the strained and occasionally preposterous interpretations of his experience that he is limited to when denied the benefits conferred by true psychological understanding, which is always subtler, more complex and more comprehensive in nature. On these grounds, alone, the life of our little moral hero can scarcely be regarded as an enviably untroubled life. He is up against real dynamisms, conundrums, and conflicting currents within himself each day as he struggles to sail a straight course through turbulent waters and maelstroms. Such efforts are not to be scoffed at. Even if these moral ‘heroes’ enjoy the support of an admiring public (the encouraging and vitalizing effects of which should never be underestimated, where the heroic ego is under consideration!), their valiant efforts to keep their ‘white hats’ unshakably fastened upon their proud heads are worthy of our respect. At least—like an ambitious or competitive athlete—he really tries his level best to be ‘good’ and to avoid being ‘bad.’ He knows first-hand the torments of a troubled conscience when he detects baseness or mediocrity, villainy or slavishness, within himself. His efforts to vanquish or to eradicate these dark, shadowy, shameful elements of his human, all-too-human nature may be doomed from the start—but the mere fact that he struggles probably sets him apart from those, probably a majority, who struggle no more than they absolutely have to.

Thus, our moral hero is situated, let us say, somewhere between the many, on the one side, and the genuine (and I don’t mean professional) psychologists, on the other. The genuine psychologists have managed, through their very different (and by no means popularly supported!) efforts, to move somewhat beyond the arena of moral heroics into the less dramatic, less ‘humanistic’ arena of psychological enquiry. Moral heroics have no recognized place in this very different realm of experience and investigation. To enter this realm one must have first loosened one’s mental ties and attachments to the other one. ‘Can’t serve two masters,’ and all that. Game change. Heroics of a sort may be involved in the new realm but they are heroics of a radically different stripe—since they have, as it were, no witnessing audience, no leaping cheerleaders, and little public fanfare.

So, to return to the point from which I started this essay: ambition makes no sense where there are no witnesses to behold and to envy one’s success. To the extent that the focus of my own work has moved beyond the exclusively human (and therefore predominantly moral-political) realm of concerns, I have begun to opt out of that game. My ‘ambition’ is simply a vestige from that earlier phase—the pre-psychological phase—of my unfoldment. Perhaps, like the little spurs at the tail end of certain snakes, where legs used to be in the evolutionary past, such vestiges are never completely ‘transcended’ or dispensed with—however fond we may be of ‘pure’ and ‘unalloyed’ fidelity to our new fields of experience. It is nevertheless worth repeating: I seem to be susceptible to such concerns only during these interim phases when the ‘muse’ is mum. When she sings in me I am sufficiently fulfilled so that I crave no beholding witnesses or approving supporters. Such solitariness appears to be the price one must pay in order to glimpse—and only fleetingly—secrets that are denied even to the most muscular of moralists. And why are they denied to them? Precisely because the moralist—as such, and due to the very nature of his divisive-dualistic campaign wherein he plants himself firmly at one end of a vast polarity—refuses to embrace and to integrate all that ‘shadow’ at the far end of his ‘pole’ of Goodness. He turns his back—and, in some cases, the tip of his righteous sword—upon those very contents, states, and perspectives that are prima materia for the psychologist.

No wonder, then, that I have long had ‘ticklish’ relations with fervently ‘good’ (or ‘good-identified’) persons. Persons who live in a state of moral oblivion or obtuseness fail to grasp what I’m ‘up to.’ Typically, they sense nothing amiss (or threatening) about me. But this is precisely because they know or choose to know little of me behind my genial ‘mask.’ Morally heroic persons, on the other hand, have every reason to be unnerved by me when, as an occasional psychologist writing from beyond their ‘good and evil,’ I no doubt come across like the lapping waves of the sea against their carefully sculpted sand castles on the shore.

There is a type of ambition that is rather more innocuous and forgivable than the cutthroat, vaunting variety that usually leads to trouble of some sort or another. We observe this benign form of ambition in children who seek the praise of their parents by making high marks at school and in adults who strive in a polite, inoffensive manner to win the respect of their peers through charitable deeds. In such striving the line between personal egotism and the social/familial instincts become blurred. As long as his striving for excellence and for success is not directly in conflict with the well-being of the community or social order, a man’s ambition is not only excused—it is praised and encouraged, since his virtues and contributions become part of the community treasure chest, as it were. As long as the benignly ambitious man continues to make valuable contributions that can be put to good use by his society, the expansion of his personal power and importance will be tolerated. But as soon as he behaves in such a way—or introduces ideas—that his society regards with disapproval or with cold indifference, the mutually satisfying and mutually beneficial love affair hits a speed bump, if not a brick wall.

As long as a person is content, therefore, to remain a faithful servant to the collective will and interest, he will be warmly embraced and handsomely rewarded by his society. The moment, however, that he bends his chief efforts to genuinely individual[1] problems and concerns, he is more likely to come under suspicion by the very society that honored and celebrated him while his best energies and virtues were earmarked for that society—or at least by those within that society whose consciousness is wholly collective and lacking in any consciously differentiated individuality. If the will or fundamental attitude of the collective—any collective—could be reduced to a simple statement, it would be ‘Either you are with us or you are of no use to us.’

Lip service is paid in this country to the idea or theory of the sanctity of the individual, but in practice, it is almost always the will of some group or another that carries the day. This de facto ‘tyranny’ of the group over the individual springs not so much from a cruelly imposed will-to power (although mob-power and group-arrogance are certainly real forces which must be taken into account) as from the inertia of the group and its extremely limited ability of its leaders to cope with the actual subtleties and complexities of human life, the hallmark of individual consciousness.

Groups vary in size and strength—and the greater their size and strength, the greater the leveling and simplifying power of the group will. It is far more difficult to stop or to change the direction of a moving herd than it is for a single individual to stop and/or redirect his own steps. In order for a single individual to change the powerful but blind will of a mob, he must not only be extraordinarily persuasive, but there must also be a latent willingness within the soul of the mob to listen to the exceptional orator. An example was provided by the great willingness on the part of Soviet society to listen to Gorbachev when the time came for dramatic reforms. If the individual orator is insufficiently persuasive, he will be unable to rouse that hidden seed of willingness and the status quo will prevail. Or, if that potential for redirection is not present, the blandishments and cajoleries of even the most impressive orators will fail to elicit any notable response from the intractable crowd. Only when these two come together—extraordinary persuasiveness on the part of the inspired leader or spokesman and a fundamental, if latent, readiness for change, on the part of the group—for a new direction, a new myth, a new vision—only then will the ground shift. The group may be as small as a board of directors for corporation or as large as the amassed members of a culture or a shared language.

 

[1] Jung is careful to make a noteworthy distinction between individuation and mere individual-ism:

Individuation is always to some extent opposed to collective norms, since it means separation and differentiation from the general and a building up of the particular—not a particularity that is sought out, but one that is already ingrained in the psychic constitution. The opposition to the collective norm, however, is only apparent, since closer examination shows that the individual standpoint is not antagonistic to it, but only differently oriented. The individual way can never be directly opposed to the collective norm, because the opposite of the collective norm could only be another, but contrary, norm. But the individual way can, by definition, never be a norm. A norm is the product of the totality of individual ways, and its justification and beneficial effect are contingent upon the existence of individual ways that need from time to time to orient to a norm. A norm serves no purpose when it possesses absolute validity. A real conflict with the collective norm arises only when an individual way is raised to a norm, which is the actual aim of extreme individualism. Naturally, this aim is pathological and inimical to life. It has, accordingly, nothing to do with individuation, which, though it may strike out on an individual bypath, precisely on that account needs the norm for its orientation to society and for the vitally necessary relationship of the individual to society. Individuation, therefore, leads to a natural esteem for the collective norm, but if the orientation is exclusively collective the norm becomes increasingly superfluous and morality goes to pieces. The more a man’s life is shaped by the collective norm, the greater is his individual immorality. (C.G. Jung; CW, vol. 6, par. 761)

The Great Reversal (7/13/11)

These days, the animating psychic energy required for propping up and sustaining established cultural norms, conventional morality and religion, along with the precarious sense of community and public trust, is being undercut by a far more powerful force. This ongoing process erodes and undermines the credibility of the former collective values and beliefs. It is not so much a matter of the values and beliefs being worthless, per se. The problem is that more and more persons are responding, either consciously or instinctively, to collective psychic changes that are occurring below the surface of our everyday lives. The general will and the springs of belief are drying up from within as this mysterious new specter approaches, sucking the blood, as it were, from out of the mortally wounded, inherited culture. This ‘leeching’ makes the inherited values and beliefs impotent in the face of our mounting crisis. And although a growing number of persons sense this widespread, frightening transformation that is underway, few of us really understand it within a meaningful context. We hear people talking about ‘the end times,’ the ‘apocalypse,’ and the paralyzing spread of nihilism—of the decline of Western civilization after its long and impressive run. It is true that we see undeniable signs of demoralization, decay, cynicism, spiritual despair and exhaustion all around and within us. But, given the cyclical nature of life and the compensatory character of the unconscious, we would be wise to remember that where one thing is ending, another is always beginning; where one thing dies, another is being born.

There are, of course, many ways to describe or to account for the world-historical transformation we are enmeshed in. The account I propose is simply one more way of trying to ‘come to terms’ with the process of momentous, sweeping change that is underway. Many of us see only the destructive and grim aspects of this far-reaching transformation, but there are just as many creative and salutary possibilities packed into this process as destructive ones, I would contend.

I would propose that the major symptoms of these dramatic changes and this apparent destruction can be profitably diagnosed in terms of a ‘turning of the tide’ of psychic energy deep beneath the surface of the ordinary waking consciousness of each and every individual. If the powerful current of that stream of collective psychic energy has generally been directed outwards for the last seven or eight hundred years of Western cultural life and experience, what we may be seeing now is a great reversal of that current undergoing, so that more and more of that energy is being redirected inwards. We might imagine a giant pendulum that, having reached its outermost verge, stops momentarily, and begins to swing back in the opposite direction.

Such ‘world-historical,’ sweeping reversals of the tide of collective psychic energy and attention appear to have occurred before now, so ours is by no means an isolated case. The historical record vividly documents the disturbances, the general sense of disorientation, the mysterious withering up and submergence of formerly vital cultural forms and institutions—all the symptoms that precede and accompany these peculiar reversals of the direction of psychic energy and attention. Of course, such reversals do not occur overnight, but often require a century or two before the full and undeniable evidence of the ‘turnaround’ is plain for all to see—in retrospect. Moreover, the changes can (and often do) begin in one region or culture group sooner than in another, but eventually all interrelated cultural groups are swept into the general transformation. Thus, following the collapse of the Greek polis (as a political/cultural institution), the exhaustion produced by the 30-year Peloponnesian war, the humiliating conquest by the Macedonian Philip, the spread of corrosive philosophical skepticism and religious disbelief—the formerly vital, expansive, and outer-directed Greek civilization began to show unmistakable signs of such a reversal. We see the spirited conquest of Egypt, Persia, Babylon, and other Eastern realms by the post-Hellenic, proto-Hellenistic Alexander. Forthwith, we have the exportation of the largely vacated ‘shell’ of classical Greek civilization like a franchise (rather as the models for ‘American democracy’ and ‘American consumerism’ are exported—and forcibly imposed—today). The philosophical schools that emerged during this late, transitional phase—the Stoics, the Cynics, and the Epicureans—were, at bottom, ‘coping philosophies’—a rather different animal than the creative, transformative philosophical activities of the Pre-Socratics—Thales, Anaximander, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, and the Eleatics, Parmenides and Zeno—from three centuries earlier.

At any event, during the Hellenistic era—after the conquests of Alexander—we begin to note discernible evidence of this turning inwards, not merely for solace in a world that seems to be unraveling or decaying before one’s very eyes, but because persons appear to be called inside by the collective psyche itself. The collective psyche’s long periods of expansiveness—of turning outward towards the world, towards physis, and towards the city and man—has crested and this is followed by a general withering and withdrawal of interest, attention, and energy from those objects and pursuits. We could note here the mystery cults (of Attis, Adonis, Isis, Mithras, Dionysus, and others) that spoke to the spiritual and emotional needs of the less ‘philosophical,’ ordinary men and women of the Hellenistic era. Groups of devotees underwent initiatory rites in exclusive cults that promised personal salvation for the believers and which had nothing to do with political life or the recognized gods of the state. These people were turning inwards and making souls for themselves in a way that would have been unimaginable during the classical period, when the life of the polis and obedience to the state gods meant everything.

The Roman world would also undergo an analogous process of expansion followed by a gradual drying up from within—only to be succeeded by an ‘other-worldly’ Christian Church that oversaw the ‘interiorized’ and (greatly reduced) cultural lives of a very different sort of creature—the men and women of the so-called ‘Dark Age’ or Medieval era.

But what can all this mean for confused, anxious, disoriented persons living today? Are we heading directly and irreversibly into a new ‘Dark Age’ where the lights of civilization begin to dimly flicker and possibly even be blown out by the cold wind that is noticeably gaining strength and speed on the ominous horizon? There are not a few today who dread such a dismal, worst-case scenario being played out. Many of us living in ‘developed’ nations recognize how inescapably dependent we are upon external, non-local factors over which we have little or no real control. There’s oil. There’s water. There are the bafflingly complex economic and political factors that even our revered and handsomely paid ‘experts’ are evidently stumped by, despite all their proud posturing and pontificating. There is the deplorably flawed and short-sighted public educational system that seems to warp, cripple, and deform more minds than it nourishes, strengthens, and ripens to maturity. The list could go on to depressive lengths, but my point is simple: the external props and supports for our familiar way of life are shaky—though few of us know how to live ‘off the grid.’ Moreover, an increasingly large number of intelligent and thoughtful persons are raising serious questions about the true value of this whole way of life that we have become dependent upon and embedded in—the only way of life most of us living today have ever known. And although the majority of U.S. citizens lack direct and intimate exposure to other cultures (especially those that are less technologically developed/dependent, and more ‘traditional’)—either through travel or through historical education—it is beginning to dawn on some of us that we cannot simply take our good fortune for granted. In spite of our circumstantial insulation and educational isolation, some of us are actually beginning to realize that we are not simply entitled to a much bigger share of the world’s limited goods and resources simply because we happen to be Americans. Some of us are beginning to acknowledge just how imbalanced and unfair the distribution of the world’s goods and services is—and we cannot help but suspect that as a nation of ‘haves,’ we are both envied and resented by the ‘have nots’—both within and beyond our borders.

The inner discomfort provoked by such disturbing reflections has prompted a number of us to examine more deeply the complex array of practical and psychological dilemmas bound up with our consumerist way of life—a privileged way of life that is certainly not unique to us or wholly unprecedented in earlier phases of Western history—but never on such a massive scale. And now, as we all know, China and India are rapidly mobilizing their teeming populations to follow in our consumerist footsteps. There is a rather desperate—and blind—urgency or compulsiveness to our consumerism that is not all that difficult to perceive. The ‘pathological’ excessiveness of our national obsession with consumption, with buying far more than we really need and spending more than we earn (both at the individual and federal levels), is a mass psychological symptom, I would argue, of the ‘great reversal’ that is now underway.

I recall something from my own past that might shed some light here. I was a smoker ‘back in the day’ but, by and by, I felt a strong need to quit. I was acutely aware of the negative impact that the smoking was having on my health—and of how deeply the talons of this habit had penetrated into my mind and body. So, I would set a date to quit. And as the date approached, knowing that after April 1st I would never be able to smoke again, I would naturally smoke more and more cigarettes—overdoing it because I was not going to be able to have them anymore after the cut-off date.

Then April 1st would roll around and I would manage to tough it out for the whole day without indulging. Then the next day. And then the next day. But then, around the fourth or fifth of April, I would be drinking a Dewar’s and soda with some buddies, engaged in a riveting bull session about Nietzsche or Noam Chomsky and I would tell myself ‘OK, you’ve been a good boy. You’ve managed to go four days without lighting up. You’ve demonstrated that you can lick this thing. You deserve to have a smoke—now that you have proven that you can control yourself.’

But then, after I smoked that one cigarette, I would soon find myself right back in the clutches of my old habit—and the whole escalating spiral would resume. Perhaps all of us have some particular weakness or vice where we simply cannot walk sure-footedly around the rim without tumbling down the hole. Skirt-chasing, alcohol, TV-watching, gourmandizing, online shopping, and dozens of other potential addictions and compulsions I have been able to moderate or control. For reasons I did not quite understand, cigarette smoking was that one vice for me that allowed for no halfway measures. If I quit, it had to be decisive and final because it was bigger than me. I can see now, after having quit for over a decade, that smoking, for me, was far more than a physical addiction or craving.

Although I cannot claim to fully understand what the smoking temporarily put to sleep—or held at bay—in me, I can see that some deep and potent source of anxiety was momentarily quieted or muffled when I would smoke. Paradoxically, the anxiety was intimately implicated with death and my mortality. In some strange, inexplicable way, when I smoked I had the vague sense that I had my hands on the dimmer switch of my own life, if that makes any sense—or, that I had my hands on the wheel and my foot on the accelerator of the vehicle (of my life) that would eventually either run out of gas or crash. The anxiety that I was obliged to face after I finally quit the cigarettes stemmed from the troubling but apparent truth that, aside from committing suicide, such matters were quite beyond my control, out of my reach. As perverse as it no doubt sounds, in actively participating in bringing about my own death through the slow and gradual suicide of heavy smoking, I had the sense that I was robbing chance and impersonal, uncaring fate of that office or privilege. This is merely one aspect of what cigarette smoking came to signify for me during a long marriage that ended in an amicable divorce.

Eventually I became strong enough, I suppose, to grudgingly acknowledge my actual helplessness vis-à-vis the larger forces of fate, of irrational compulsions, and of those weaknesses (like smoking was for me) that are rationalized into ‘coping mechanisms.’ But the strength had to be won through a sustained exertion of the will. Understanding my dilemma was certainly helpful, but it was never enough to actually do the work for me. For that, it was necessary not merely to wean myself from my numbing and ‘grounding’ vice of cigarette smoking, but to withstand the protracted confrontation with those mysterious anxieties that had been kept precariously ‘below deck’ by my little addiction and the associated ‘mind game,’ which was for the most part unconsciously played. All this by way of a personal, biographical illustration of what I believe to be an analogous problem in collective consumerism.