miércoles, 9 de septiembre de 2015

In Quadrant, John Carroll argues that the attack on Western culture by intellectuals is rooted in religious unbelief

Why the West Wants to Lose

By John Carroll


Much of the intelligentsia has turned against the West's high-cultural tradition that has sought the true, the beautiful and the good. Rather, it has set to assailing our customs, traditions and institutions, with issues -- refugees are the latest -- taken up as cudgels to assault the civic order

George Orwell wrote in England in 1944, in an essay for Partisan Review, that he had come to judge the entire Left intelligentsia as hating their country, to the extreme of being dismayed whenever Britain won a victory in the war against Hitler. Orwell still identified himself as a socialist when he wrote this. Orwell was, without doubt, exaggerating, in his blanket condemnation of the entire Left intelligentsia. And his observation needs the further qualification: he was writing at the close of a period in which the extreme Right in Europe—via messianic fascist nationalism—had been cataclysmically destructive.

I have been puzzled myself since postgraduate days by the phenomenon Orwell observed—very common in Humanities faculties within the universities where I have worked. It might be termed cultural masochism, and has manifested in many forms, some of which I shall elaborate on in the essay to follow. Whenever before in human history have significant groups within a nation—and often privileged, elite groups—whenever have they wanted their own to fail or to be defeated!

I had a go at various explanations in my early to middle work, but I was never entirely satisfied. This essay revisits similar territory, here extending the range. It moves into a wider reflection on the discontents of secular modernity. The argument will be developed in two stages. First, the modern context will be outlined, the broad cultural condition of unbelief that established the preconditions. Then, second, I shall turn to some universal proclivities in the human psyche and how they reacted to the new context.

The ordeal of unbelief

The problem of modern culture has arisen in the wake of the death of God: the near total collapse of institutional religion, and, in generalised accompaniment, confident belief in a higher power that directs the human world. In relation to the possibility of a metaphysical beyond, most people today, at best, believe that there is “something there”, to quote the words of a British survey conducted in 2000. That something is vague, no more than a blurred and formless possibility.

The prototype of the paralysing anxiety aroused in someone sensitive to the fact that he believes in nothing was Dostoevsky’s character Stavrogin, from The Possessed (1872). Stavrogin is a handsome, brilliant and confident young aristocrat whom almost everyone of his generation—male and female—falls in love with. He has studied widely, travelled, visited the holy sites, fought duels, and engaged in many love affairs. He fears no one. A few years earlier he was the charismatic teacher to a circle of young men—engaging them in questions of ultimate meaning, flirting with Christianity. He was known for the saying that if it could be mathematically proven that Christ didn’t exist he would still choose Christ. His name itself derives from the Greek word for “cross”—Dostoevsky is experimenting with him as the messiah for a secular age.

Stavrogin has taken on life, and lived it to the full. If anyone has discovered the answer of how to live in a secular time, and make sense of one’s own life, it is he. When we meet him, however, he is listless and nihilistic, indifferent to the offer to lead a revolutionary group (“What for!” he retorts). His leading disciple slaps his face in disgust. Stavrogin’s passions are so flat that the most he can manage is a few adolescent pranks, like biting the Governor’s ear, and spending an evening with the local beauty, but impotently whiling away the night in talk. His face looks like a beautiful mask—a death mask. He admits to past times of wild debauchery—not for pleasure, but in order to try to find a limit, something to believe in that would stop him. He finds no limits—for him, everything is permitted. It is possible that he has even seduced a twelve-year-old girl, then sat idly by as she hung herself. Nothing Stavrogin does causes him shame, apart from embarrassment at his own stone-cold leadenness, which, in the end, drives him to suicide.

A hundred and forty years on, with the intervening decades having coughed up many derivatives of the Stavrogin condition, most notably Joseph Conrad’s Marlow and Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, the American television series The Sopranos explored, with fresh and canny insight, the ordeal of unbelief. To choose one example from the series: A.J. Soprano swings from being an indolent, surly and charmless teenager who cares about nothing to one with breathless enthusiasm for half-baked political causes. The enthusiasm lasts for a moment; thereafter, he slumps into suicidal despair. Disenchantment converts into idealism, then sinks into depression—in a kind of parallel to manic-depressive mood swings. The defence against zero crumbles.

A feature of the cultural turbulence of the early twentieth century was the number of commanding philosophical and literary figures who were driven by despair at cultural decadence. The conclusion they had reached—that my culture has no authority, and provides me with no convincing explanations to justify my existence—left them in an intolerable position. They found it impossible to live with a frank, clear-eyed recognition of unbelief. To choose two of the exemplars: Georg Lukacs and T.S. Eliot both took a deliberate leap of faith out of their respective wastelands. When Lukacs joined the Communist Party in 1918, arguably the most sophisticated and well-read intellectual of his generation had turned into an apologist for Stalin. From soon after Eliot became a “little England” Anglican Christian in 1927, the pungency of his earlier poetry evaporated into fey abstraction.

Today, the youth which takes with idealistic enthusiasm to the Green political movement may be located in this same mental domain, although without either the self-consciousness or the intensity of anguish. The content seems almost arbitrary, with the attachment rather to the enthusiasm itself—Stavrogin was as desperate to find a passion in himself, irrespective of its end, as to find a limit. Naive Green idealism is only possible in an affluent world under no threat of war; and little threat of hardship, for the young Greens, by and large, live in the prosperous inner cities.

Freud’s pregnant concept of negation is useful. What appears in surface behaviour is the opposite of its unconscious motivation, the act deliberately inverting its true nature. In Freud’s own examples, negation is provoked by feelings of guilt—as with the mother who worries she does not love a child enough and compensates by spoiling it; or the forced smile in someone whose ideal of themselves is that they are a nice person, who smiles on the surface to cover up unconscious aggression, “to smile and smile and be a villain”.

More interestingly in the context of this essay, negation may also be triggered by a longing for authority. First, let us consider the longing itself. Marlow, the narrator in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, reaches the conclusion, at the end of his adventures, that humans need something outside themselves to bow down before. Otherwise they go mad. Kafka developed a similar theme, one which recurs through his stories and parables. He posits a need for figures of authority, to anchor a higher Law, which is in itself necessary both for the relief of pervasive anxiety and guilt, and to open the way to the light of redemption. One of Kafka’s parables imagines a society in which the people are given the choice of becoming couriers or kings. The people are like children, so everyone chooses to be a courier. The society ends up with its people rushing around carrying meaningless messages. The sequential equation runs: no king, therefore no authority, therefore no meaning, and the result—chaotic restlessness and unbelief.

A few years after Kafka’s main writings, Freud published his anti-religious tract, The Future of an Illusion (1927). At the centre of Freud’s argument is the proposition that the monotheistic God is a projection of the father, and he functions psychologically to provide the same security that the authority of the father provides for a little child. Religion is a form of infantile regression, pivoting on the longing for authority.

In the narrow political sphere, power, if it is to gain legitimacy, needs the authority of an established order: say, the ensemble of a hereditary monarch, age-old institutions, a venerable legal tradition, and a people’s cherished customs. Every dynamic community—from the nuclear family, to the sporting club, school, trade union, or church—lives off a powerful collective conscience, giving it authority over the actions of its members. Today, nostalgia for cosy, close-knit community, which it is feared is disappearing, pervades television soap opera. It reflects a longing for one type of lost authority. The sociologist Emile Durkheim argued that once communities start to lose their authority, their members are left in an increasingly directionless and normless condition. For him, here is the modern predicament.

An alternative way of expressing the longing for authority, and a less controversial one, comes in the form of a driving need for meaning. Humans are meaning-seeking, meaning-creating creatures. In particular, they need a timeless and universal framework for making sense of the world they are born into.


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