Swimming in the Ocean of History

13 August 2012


An Addendum on an Addendum

I have already written Taking Responsibility for Our Interpretations and Addendum on Taking Responsibility for Our Interpretations, and I still feel like I haven’t managed to say what I wanted to say. In other words, the definitive formulation has definitively eluded me… at least for the time being. This is frustrating. Obviously, this is something that I need to continue to think about until I can formulate my thoughts with Cartesian clarity and distinctness.

I suppose that I was trying to say something about the individual’s relationship to history — in the US, this is notoriously a tenuous matter — and now as I think about it the image that best fits the individual’s relationship to history is that of a swimmer in the ocean.

We appear in the midst of history, in medias res, as it were. We do not get to choose when we appear or where we appear. Our existence possesses that brute facticity that Sartre was concerned to elaborate in his famous novel Nausea. We have little more control over when and where we disappear. That is to say, we also leave history in medias res, so that we swim in history our entire lives — whether we know it or not, like the doctor in Moliere who was unaware he had been speaking prose his entire life.

Joseph Campbell employed the image of swimming to try to illustrate the function of mythology in human life. The psychotic, Campbell said, is thrashing about, and possibly also drowning, in a sea of mythological images and archetypes; what distinguishes the mystic is that the mystic is able to swim in this sea of mythic images — he masters the currents of the subconscious that buffet the psychotic and leave the latter at the mercy of forces he does not understand. I’ve always liked this image of Campbell’s of the mystic as swimming in waters in which the psychotic is struggling; I think it captures something important.

To return to my idiom of taking responsibility for our interpretations, one could say that the mystic (in Campbell’s sense) has taken responsibility for his interpretation of history. The mystic knowingly employs mythic images; he is the master of the story he weaves, the maker, rather than being mastered by his narrative. Note that the mystic’s taking of responsibility does not necessarily involve any denial or negation of the myth as myth, only its mastery. Plato’s conception of a noble lie as a foundation for civil society might be considered parallel to this, at least for the Guardians of the Republic, who know the lie is a lie, but tell it anyway, presumably for the good of their fellow man.

Mythology might be taken to be the most tendentious of interpretations of history — flagrantly if not unapologetically non-naturalistic — so that myth-making can be understood as the paradigmatic form of taking responsibility for history. But the myth-maker is no positivist out to deny the existence of Santa Claus. The mythic interpretation of history is essentialist and inherentist, and therefore regards the details of the ordinary business of life as of little account. Mythology is cosmological history, and the only thing that counts is if the big picture is paints coincides with the individual’s understanding of the greater world. The individual who is neither mystic nor psychotic also find themselves cast into this vast sea of archetypes and images; some flail around helplessly, some go under, some find a rock to stand on, and some learn to swim.

It is the same with history, and the individual’s experience of history is that of being cast into a tossing sea of meanings and values, attempting to make sense of these even as one attempts to keep one’s head above the waves. History is not abstract or distant; it is all around us, like the air we breathe — or like the last gasp of breath before we slip under the surface. One can understand, from this perspective, why the individual grasps at interpretations, sometimes with near desperation. We are all looking for a life preserver, and an interpretation that makes sense of history is that life preserver in the stormy seas of history.

The individual’s immersion in history has been well put in a passage from Marx that I have quoted repeatedly:

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, first paragraph

What does Marx mean by make history? What is it to make history? The question is more interesting than it may initially seem to be, because “history” is ambiguous — it means both the actual events of the past and the later account of these events. I am going to call these two senses of history, respectively, history1 and history2.

Marx’s point is that the making of history is constrained. Given the two senses of history above, there are four permutations of constraint that hold between these two senses:

history1 constrains history1, i.e., past events constrain past events

history1 constrains history2, i.e., past events constrain the interpretation of the past

history2 constrains history2, the interpretation of the past constrains the interpretation of the past

history2 constrains history1, the interpretation of the past constrains past events

The simplest way to understand the relationship between these two meanings of history is assert that history2 is an interpretation of history1, but such simplicities cannot long endure in the complexity of human life. Some of these formulations seem too obvious to mention; some seem too counter-intuitive to possibly be true. There is a sense, however, in which each of these permutations can be interpreted sympathetically as being true (or, at least, partly true) and therefore a way in which all four of these conceptions of the relation of past events to their interpretation have been taken as the basis of history (and of the individual’s relationship to history).

How an individual swims in the ocean of history is constrained — events constrain events, interpretations constrain interpretations, events constrain interpretations, and interpretations constrain events. Each us may start out flailing around, but each of us eventually learns some stroke, usually from our parents, that allows us to keep our head above water.

Finding ourselves thrown into history (to invoke a Heideggerian term), we are thrown into the midst of stories not of our own making and not of our own telling. Indeed, one of the primary forms of acculturation is to be told stories as a child. This is the foundation and formation of our historical consciousness, as well as of our identity as a member of a community.

In especially rigid societies the transmission of stories is synonymous with the imposition of what has been called the “primary mask,” while beyond this cultural stasis typical of some hunter-gatherer peoples, a limited degree of social change initiated by each successive generation allows for the gradual evolution of the stories that tell the history of a people, which can then absorb and include later cultural innovations and accretions. As the shaman tells the story of the tribe to a new generation, he changes the wording ever so slightly in each re-telling, and over time this keeps the tribal myth centered on the contemporaneous experiences of the people for whom it is intended.

In a completely static society, in which stories are transmitted unchanged from one generation to the next, neither the society nor the individual takes responsibility for society as a whole or for individual roles within society. This is an ideal limit that has probably been approximated by some paleolithic hunter-gatherer societies, but as an ideal hypostasis it was probably rarely realized in unconditional form.

It has often been the function of art in society to introduce revolutionary change through the presentation of a new idea in a mythological garb that can be understood as continuous in a certain sense with the mythological character of the dominant social narrative up to the present. The artist takes personal responsibility for the public narrative by changing a traditional narrative or creating a new narrative. This effort to intervene in history comes with risks.

Personal intervention in history must often be masked in the interest of self-preservation, since the individual who challenges the “sacred canopy” that covers society may become a target for defenders of the status quo. Thus the artist develops systematic methods of ambiguity — something that we have seen even up through the twentieth century. During the heavy-handed repression of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, artists throughout the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe sought to conceal their agendas through systematically ambiguous interpretations, as in Hays Code Hollywood filmmakers sought creative ways to express their ideas without explicitly violating the standards laid down by the code. It could be argued that both of these aesthetic movements contributed to change in their respective societies.

In so far as change in predominantly static societies comes with existential risk, even the most purposefully deceptive interpretation of history has a role to play. The fundamental distinction to be made, then, is that between those who know that they are making an interpretation and those who do not know, those who accept an interpretation without thinking. Implicit in my above remarks is that most people are not suited to innovate; the most that they can do is to keep their head above water. This is a profoundly elitist sentiment, entirely in line with Plato’s conception of a noble lie. I am uncomfortable with this, because, frankly, I know that in any Platonic division of society my position would be at least as marginal, if not more marginal, as it is at present. As I don’t like being marginal, and would not want to be even more marginal than I am, I would resist any Platonic transformation of society (not that this is going to happen, anyway).

No less than a politician telling his constituents a noble lie, the mystic teaching the psychotic to swim in the seas of mythology is not about to reveal everything at first, or even ultimately. relationships of these kinds emerge seamlessly from human nature — one could say that they are naturally occurring social contracts — and one sees pretty clearly how they would function in small societies based on an agricultural model, but when transplanted into the masses of industrial-technological civilization, the distance between the parties to the social contact opens so wide that it needs to be formalized in a formal social contract like a political constitution. What is to be done? I have no answer at present, but I can promise that I will continue to ponder this difficult impasse.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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