5 March 2010
I watched the film Law Abiding Citizen today and was immediately reminded of The Count of Monte Cristo. Of course, the settings of the two films couldn’t be more diverse, but what they have in common is being elaborately constructed revenge fantasies. As A child I loved the many film adaptations of The Count of Monte Cristo, and the abiding interest of the story suggests that revenge fantasy is a human universal and a perennial genre. But is it?
Based purely on a survey of my admittedly imperfect memory, I can’t think of a revenge fantasy in the literature of classical antiquity or the Middle Ages. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t any, only that I am ignorant of them. But once I started thinking about it, I realized that, apart from any knowledge of examples, the very idea of a revenge fantasy is quite foreign to the Weltanschauung of antiquity or medievalism. Certainly revenge is a central theme of Western literature. Revenge is central to Hamlet and Macbeth, but I would not call these revenge fantasies.
The culture of antiquity and medievalism was resolutely elite culture. The few who were literate wrote for the few who were literate, and the literate were over-represented in elite society and virtually absent in any other division of society. The elites were a military and aristocratic ruling class that identified with the strong and the brave, and would have thought it beneath them to contemplate, much less cultivate, fantasies of revenge. They would certainly plot revenge, and they would carry through their plot to action, but I see a difference between such royal intrigues and the revenge fantasies of the downtrodden, however difficult it is to explicate that difference.
What kind of person cultivates a revenge fantasy? Someone who believes themselves to have been wronged but who has no power to see that justice is served: the powerless cog in a machine of industrialized society, the bewildered resident of a Kafkaesque labyrinth that only becomes more absurd the further we plumb its depths, the humiliated and angry ordinary man-in-the-street who must endure abuse from employers and bureaucrats alike. Of course, the very first lines of the Iliad announce the anger of Achilles as one of the themes of that work, but one clearly gets the picture that this is “hasty and sudden anger” rather than “settled and deliberate anger.” Achilles does not brood; heroes do not nurse a grudge.
Is a revenge fantasy a unique modern genre, particularly suited to express (and to serve as a cathartic purgation) for the common frustrations of life in industrialized civilization? Perhaps so; perhaps not. There is no reason to make a sweeping proclamation on the subject. But if it were, it would not be the only uniquely modern genre. It strikes me that elaborate “scam” films like Nueve reinas or the more recent Duplicity — both of which are subtle and complex in terms of plot, while simplistic in terms of human nature — have no clear parallels in ancient or medieval literature.
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16 February 2010
Recently in Joseph Campbell and Kenneth Clark: Bifurcating Naturalisms I quoted both Joseph Campbell and and Kenneth Clark on their divergent views on rite, ritual, and ceremony, not withstanding the naturalistic view that each has of the religion that generates these rituals. A few days after that, when I returned to Joseph Campbell (in Joseph Campbell Again), this time to contrast his views with those of Walter Kaufmann, I emphasized the seemingly unbridgeable chasm between Campbell’s admiration for Jung and Kaufmann’s blunt disparagement of the same. (At that time I did not go into it, but I might have also developed the theme of Campbell’s disparagement — albeit gentle disparagement — of Freud and Kaufmann’s obvious admiration for Freud. Frued and Jung are polarizing figures, so much so that the admirers and detractors of each line up neatly on opposite sides of the lines they draw.)
Upon reflection, I realized that the apparently unbridgeable chasm between Jungian Campbell and Freudian Kaufmann can be bridged, and bridged in a way that suggests we reconsider the dialectical positions on ritual held by Campbell and Clark. Kaufmann, schooled by those “masters of suspicion” Nietzsche and Freud and perhaps in spite of them, has a more generous assessment of ritual than one might expect. In his relentlessly critical and skeptical book The Faith of a Heretic, Kaufmann is nowhere nearly as ferocious with religious ritual as he is with organized religion and other manifestations of popular piety (to crib a term from Norman F. Cantor).
Kaufmann’s treatment of religious ritual is rooted in the Zeitgeist of his time, and the more we read between the lines the more obvious it is that he is writing in the midst of a progressive era that sees itself as progressive, and therefore comes from a time that predates the triumphal rise of fundamentalism around the world that so marked the last decades of the twentieth century. (I addressed this phenomenon to a limited extent in Inauguration Special Edition.) Kaufmann wrote of ritual:
“The religious liberal sees himself as a bold non-conformist who rejects traditional ritual; but usually he is a conformist who rejects the traditions it is fashionable to reject while retaining those it is fashionable to retain.” (section 68)
Kaufmann makes several remarks in this general vein, and eventually delivers himself of the view that:
“…precisely the absence of all ritual would entail nearly total blindness to the mysteries of this world, while ritual provides occasions when one regularly tries to listen for the voice that the rest of the time one is prone to forget.” (section 68)
Now, despite Kaufmann’s obvious skepticism and naturalism, schooled in the acerbic tradition of Nietzsche and Freud (so that we understand that this is not mere skepticism but skepticism with a hard, hostile edge to it), this formulation is astonishingly similar to a formulation from one of Campbell’s lectures, The Myths and Masks of God, that I previously quoted in Joseph Campbell and Kenneth Clark: Bifurcating Naturalisms:
“A ritual is an opportunity to participate in a myth. You are in one way or another putting your consciousness, even the action of your body, into play in relation to a mythological theme, and, as I hope I’ve made clear, mythological themes are projections of the order of the psyche… by participating in a ritual occasion you are in a magical field, a field that is putting you in touch with your own great depth.
The Myths and Masks of God, disk 5, track 9
We also notice here that, despite Campbell’s critical attitude to Freud, his formulation is the more indebted to the depth psychology pioneered by Freud, and thus, in a sense, profoundly Freudian — in this particular case, more profoundly Freudian that the formulation of ritual given by Kaufmann. However, the main lesson I would like the reader to take away from these quotes is the defense of ritual by intellectuals of widely divergent attitudes, even those who have harshly criticized each other.
Although intellectuals are usually presumed to have attained a more lofty rung on the ladder of the human condition and therefore have perhaps left ritual behind in favor of a more purified and elevated conception of the spiritual life of man, the defense of the aforementioned rituals by intellectuals is not a new phenomenon. Pascal offered a remarkably sententious defense of ritual that still compels in virtue of its simplicity: “Stupify yourself: take holy water.”
Throughout Pascal’s Pensées he recurs to the many ways in which ordinary men are impressed by the magnificent retinue of princes and social displays of prestige. Even Voltaire, who criticized the poignant intensity of Pascal, recurs to ritual on another level when he responded to Pascal’s observation that a man who has recently lost his son and is weighed down with lawsuits can distract himself by going hunting:
“This man is very sensible indeed. Distraction is a more certain cure for grief than quinine for a fever. Let us not blame nature for this, she is always ready to help us.”
Voltaire, Letters on England, Letter 25 (this last letter is more in the manner of an appendix and is not included in many editions)
The formulations of Pascal and Voltaire are both in terms of distraction, but the kind of hunting undertaken by the privileged classes throughout the late medieval and early modern periods was an elaborate ritual — a ritual perhaps as central to these societies as the public bath was to Roman and Hellenistic society. Servants in livery went forward before their lords, who followed on horseback with a large retinue and enormous numbers of dogs. The whole spectacle was a choreographed ritual not unlike a bullfight, and rather unlike what we think of hunting as being today.
This nearly uniform appreciation of ritual also appears in the distinct jargon employed by different disciplines in attempting to account for the power of ritual activities in human experience. The Marxist will call it praxis, a philosopher will call it empiricism or perhaps pragmatism, a sociologist will call it behaviorism, and a systems theorist would call it operationalism. These latter, more recent traditions of scholarship point to the role of ritual in industrialized society. While Pascal and Voltaire never saw industrial society and therefore had no opportunity to comment upon it, many of the perennial considerations they identified continue to be true under the drastically altered social conditions of industrialization.
We might suppose that advanced industrialized democracies, representing the most mature human societies that have yet evolved since the Industrial Revolution (and possibly the most advanced societies in the history of civilization), would have attained a more lofty rung on the ladder of social organization and therefore have left ritual behind in favor of a more purified and elevated conception of the spiritual life of man (as I said above of intellectuals, who represent advanced individuals, as opposed to advanced societies), but it is not so. Ritual plays a central role in advanced industrialized democracies, although ritual itself has evolved as rapidly as the societies that rely upon ritual to establish corporate identity.
What we quoted Campbell above as saying — “A ritual is an opportunity to participate in a myth.” — holds true, almost frighteningly true, in regard to industrial society, when reformulated mutatis mutandis: A political ritual is an opportunity to participate in a political myth.
One of Joseph Campbell’s abiding themes is that contemporary society was come to associate “myth” with falsehood, and that this is an impediment to understanding myth. In this, Campbell is indubitably right. It is also right when applied to the political myths of industrialized societies. As soon as we hear “political myth” we think of a lie maliciously promulgated for purposes of social control, like Plato’s “noble lie” in the Republic.
Contemporary political rituals are not all on one side, are not the exclusive prerogative of the elite, the wealthy, or the privileged. Political rituals and the political myths that they reenact for the benefit of the people are to be found among all classes and and political persuasions in society. There is perhaps no more common or familiar political ritual today than the protest march. In The Map of South America Changes I attempted to briefly sketch the crowd psychology of the protest march. Few marchers are ideologically committed; most are present as a kind of miniature adventure or as an opportunity to hang out with friends. But, following Pascal’s formula, if we participate in the ritual, eventually we will come to believe as generations through time out of mind have believed before us.
This is Pascal’s formulation:
“You would like to attain faith, and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief, and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness.”
And so it remains true today, although instead of masses and holy water, it is engaging in call-and-response chants and carrying a sign in a demonstration. I have no doubt the the simplicity of the us-them dichotomy generated by such political rituals are effective means to deaden the acuteness of most.
In the political culture of the US, protest marches are undertaken by every conceivable ideological movement. One suspects that the participants, surrounded by hundreds if not thousands of sympathetic fellows, will experience a special kind of fellowship and their commitment to whatever cause is the pretext of the protest will be magnified. If the protest march has to face down a line of riot police, they will also experience the special fraternity of those who have undergone hardship together, and they may even become traumatically bonded. These are powerful experiences in the context of democratic societies. Such solidarity forged and strengthened in contrived adversity can be a powerful motive for further supporting one’s chosen ideological allies throughout the political process.
Political rituals are not confined to politics exclusively but also are pervasive throughout economic activity: the myths and rituals of industrialized nation-states are inculcated in political economy. In my Political Economy of Globalization I quoted Creighton Gable’s Analysis of Prehistoric Economic Patterns, in which the author noted the following:
“…even the simplest economies do not exist solely to take care of biological needs, such as food, shelter, and clothing, but also to contribute to the satisfaction of social needs as determined by such considerations as kinship obligations, hospitality rules, or prestige requirements.”
Is there a human need to engage in ritual? Does it help us either to understand or to reconcile ourselves to the myths upon which our societies are erected to participate in these myths through ritualized observances? Must myth and ritual be accounted a constituent of human nature? The full implications of the role of myths and rituals in industrialized society is only suggested by these observations; a thorough-going treatment of rituals that have emerged within industrial society to evoke myths that we did not even know that we believed would be a project of substantial dimensions.
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22 December 2009
Last night I went to see the film Visual Acoustics, which chronicles the life and work of the photographer Julius Shulman. The film lasted about two hours and twenty minutes, which was rather longer than I expected for an arthouse flick like this, but I enjoyed the whole thing from beginning to end and never got bored.
Julius Shulman was responsible for some of the most iconic images of modernist American architecture, and most especially the domestic architecture of Los Angeles. The image on the advertisement, reproduced above, is no doubt his most famous photograph, summing up, as it does, both a modernist aesthetic and the way of life implied by the aesthetic, as well as capturing the Zeitgeist of Los Angeles in the middle of the twentieth century. This is no small task for one photograph, but with the emergence of photography and film in the twentieth century as primary forms of aesthetic expression it was inevitable that our experience (as well as our memories) of the twentieth century should be shaped by the art forms of the twentieth century.
One of the most remarkable developments of the twentieth century was the European intellectual diaspora in America, and this diaspora was very much on show in the film. I had a friend (out of contact for the past few years) who was intensely interested in the European composers who ended up in southern California as a result of this diaspora. Anyone who knows the history of twentieth century philosophy can name off the major European philosophers who ended up at American universities; even Husserl was offered a position at the University of California, but turned it down and died in Germany in 1938, stripped of all his rights by the Nazis because of his Jewish background. The film I saw last night shows us many of the architects who fled Europe with the rise of the Nazis, ending up in southern California.
There is something astonishing about these figures of European modernism — whether in architecture, music, or philosophy — leaving a Europe that had descended into darkness and fascism and arriving in the land of perpetual sun, sea, sand, and surf — like the idyll attached by European writers to life in the south, whether in the Greek islands, the Costa Brava, or the sunny shores of Sicily (preferably around Taormina), only now in the New World rather than the Old World. Some flourished in their newly adopted land, and some never quite found their footing.
Julius Shulman documented many of the works of these disciples of Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, and the Bauhaus school who made a new life for themselves both around the hills of Los Angeles and in the desert of Palm Springs. It is a wonderful experience to be able to follow these developments vicariously because of the work of Julius Shulman, and now to follow the career of Shulman vicariously through this film about his life. This is a film that is definitely worth your time. Don’t miss it.
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8 June 2009
There is nothing more modern than the rejection of modernity.
In what other age has man sought so insistently to alienate himself from himself, from his essence in the present, as man does today? Many people speak of spontaneity and of living in the moment, but the moment shorn from its context in history is nothing, it is nihilism.
Modernity is the age of reflexivity, and we can be assured in an age of reflexivity that there will be nothing that escapes the net of reflexivity, nothing that does not come back to haunt us, nothing that is not thrown back in our face.
Whether in the form of irony, sarcasm, cynicism, or satire, we can be assured that we will be continually reminded of the other side of the coin, of the point of view of the Other, and moreover that this point of view is manifestly not our own and probably not even a perspective with which we can feel any sympathy. To be lampooned, derided, and humiliated is to be reminded of the claims of the Other, and of the validity of Otherness. This is a fundamentally moral point of view, so that hidden beneath the rancor and harshness of modernity there lurks always the unattainable ideal to which we aspire in spite of ourselves.
In modernity, everything that goes around, comes around. As Marx wrote, all things solid melt into air. Everything is inevitably brought around to its opposite number. The rejection of modernity becomes the acceptance of modernity, and the acceptance of modernity becomes its ultimate rejection. And we cannot, for that reason, ever be fully moral or fully cynical but will always embody the kind of compromise that is despised by the totalizing consciousness that aspires to absolute morality even while luxuriating in the cheap pleasures of unrelieved cynicism.
Humanity today is not comfortable in its own skin, trying on one cloak after another in the attempt to find one that fits, never being satisfied.
It was said in antiquity of the philosopher Plotinus that he was embarrassed to have a body. His disciple and biographer Porphyry encountered his resistance in attempting to learn any facts of his life, as Plotinus did not even want to divulge when or where he was born. Our discomfort in our own skin today is not quite that of this philosopher of late antiquity, though it might be understood as a species of the genus, of which Plotinus represents another, distinct species. It is as though today we are not at ease with the lives we have made for ourselves, which is in a sense even a more radical rejection and self-abnegation than the mere contempt of bodily existence that was also a feature of Gnostic belief. So we try out one life after another, a serial churning of lifestyles, a meta-lifestyle if you will, not realizing that the very act of eclectically sampling distinct modes of existence is itself a mode of existence, and that we have in fact chosen a mode of existence without knowing that we have done so — perhaps even concealing from ourselves that we have made an irrevocable existential choice.
We share, with late antiquity, the desire to define ourselves apart from our age and to show ourselves as being neither in or of the moment.
Harry S. Truman is often quoted as saying, “The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.” Time and again I have found this to be true. Buried within the interstices of time are oddities and grotesqueries of every imaginable kind, and many of an unimaginable kind. Among the strangest of the eras of world history is late antiquity, a buffer of several hundred years between the authentic civilization of antiquity, i.e., classical Greece and Rome, and the rise of authentic medieval history, i.e., as embodied in the great castles and cathedrals of the age. The transition from the one paradigm to the other was gradual, incremental, and far too slow to be observed in the life of any one man who lived in the period.
The age of late antiquity also saw the rise of two great empires that were to last a thousand years each — the Byzantine and the Islamic, with the first emerging near the beginning of the period and the second emerging near the end of the period. Late antiquity is also filled with bizarre and eccentric characters like ascetic saints living in the desert, pillar saints and the emperors who consulted them, philosophers ill at ease in their own bodies (as with Plotinus, described above), peoples who still called themselves “Roman” though the Roman Empire had vanished in the west and been replaced by the Byzantine Empire in the east, and barbarians building a civilization of their own in the far north of Europe. Sartre said that man is the creature who is what he is not and is not what he is; this contradictory condition is perfectly illustrated both by late antiquity and by our own age.
Those who immerse themselves in the moment, vying to be the most fashion forward of the age, are the most likely to eventually react against this and against all that the age represents.
The symbol of our age ought to be the omnipresent and omnipotent clock — or, better yet, the second hand that sweeps the dial of the clock. The worship of the moment is one of the weaknesses of our age, and leads us into our most typical failings and fallacies even as it describes our condition most poignantly.
The fascination with being au courant is a form of systematic self-alienation and an invitation to burnout.
The fashion industry is only the most obvious form of being fashionable, of being au courant, in the style, a creature marked by the moment. Every institution in contemporary society conspires to force us into a condition of obsessive timeliness. Some seek to achieve this ideal of being up-to-date through the twenty-four hour news cycle, others through worldwide investments, yet others by way of sports, entertainment, or gossip. Even charity is not immune from the demands of the moment: everyone has heard of “compassion fatigue” and this is simply the burnout that comes from au courant charity.
In becoming burned out, in over-expenditure, in exhaustion, and in eventual rejection of the regime that brought us to this point, we prove our modernity, and prove it twice over by reacting against it.
Just as there are some who have believed that the full experience of the Christian gospel could only be understood through a traumatic and total experience of sin, redemption, atonement, and forgiveness, so the full spectrum of modernity can only be understood by an equally traumatic and total experience of self-indulgence to the point of nausea followed by a turn toward renunciation and self-abnegation that grows toward the point of asceticism. Modernity is not one stage in a dialectic, but the dialectic itself, and not merely the passage from one extreme to another, but the experience of inhabiting one extreme pole of the dialectic only to feel a change within oneself that drives one to then just as fully inhabit the opposite pole of the dialectic. And as Socrates is said to have scolded Antisthenes by saying to him, “I can see your vanity through the holes in your cloak,” just so with the indulgences of modernity: the renunciation that follows over-indulgence is itself another form of indulgence.
Our very rigor in attempting to live up to a certain ideal of modernity is the tragic flaw that inevitably results in our fall.
Rigor is a feature of our age, and temporal rigor is one manifestation of this consciousness of precision. The clock and the schedule, the calendar and the timetable, embody this rigor, but the same unforgiving regime is also exemplified in our pathological pursuit of ideals, a pursuit that dooms us to certain failure. Our ideals are more elevated than ever, and the openness and relative honesty of contemporary society is conducive to ideals being taken seriously as a guide to life. But we have taken “seriously” too seriously, and now we take ourselves too seriously and are in danger of losing the ability to laugh at ourselves.
When we fall, we fall out of modernity, marginalized as being unmodern, as the Other, as the outsider — and what could be more modern than that?
Nothing garners more attention in the arts community today than so-called “Outsider Art.” But the very fact that “Outsider Art” is widely recognized by the art establishment proves that “Outsider Art” is not outside the tradition nor the market. Outsider art has become a commodity, both commercial and critical. But the effort that is made today to recognize works of art by outsiders is not merely, perhaps not even especially, a function of the widespread commodification of art. The outsiders that critics and gallery owners seek in order to praise and to appraise are not so much to be defined as outsiders from the aesthetic establishment, as outsiders from the social establishment. A member of any social group once considered marginal is immediately favored as the possessor of a special insight into the society that once marginalized the social group in question. An emphasis is laid upon the suffering and the victimization of the outsider artist.
The more things change, the more things stay the same: the phenomenon of the undiscovered and unrecognized outsider, whether literary or aesthetic, is not new to our time. Contemporary culture meditates upon the wounds of the victimized as medieval Christians once meditated upon the wounds of Christ and imagined receiving the stigmata as the highest expression of their identification with Christ and His suffering. The critical acclaim of outsider art is an attempt to identify with the sufferings of the victimized, a vicarious receiving of the stigmata of victimhood. Despite our modernity, it seems, we have never ceased to be Christians; despite Nietzsche, we have not yet heard the words of the madman. Rather, the words of the madman were treated like the words of any madman: the authorities were called in, the madman was taken away in a straight-jacket and institutionalized, and everyone was greatly relieved to have him removed from the public sphere. The ascetic priest lives on in the person of the acid-penned critic who uses the virtuous productions of the victimized artist as a point of departure for a ferocious critique of the failings of contemporary society.
Suffice it to say that our modernity consists in our post-modernity, with which it is convertible, and vice versa.
The conceit of the advent of a post-modern age is another strategy in the rejection of modernity and therefore eminently if not paradigmatically modern. And even if we are today living in a post-modern age, even if the end of the Modern Age is upon us, we have not yet ceased to be modern. Just as the men of late antiquity who were already becoming medieval did not cease to be men of classical antiquity, and just as men of the Middle Ages who were already becoming modern did not cease to be medieval on that account, so today as we become post-modern we yet remain irremediably modern.
Sufficient unto the day is the modernity thereof.
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The above remarks on modernity were extemporaneous reflections taken from my twitter posts of earlier today and subsequently elaborated.
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